There’s a problem when talking about DIE RPG. If you just say the facts, it can sound a little arch. In reality, around the table, it thrills the lizard brain and gets everyone’s hearts firmly on their sleeves. It embodies why role-playing games are enchantment.
Which does make sense. DIE is about an enchanted role-playing game.
Stephanie Hans and I created a Image comic series called DIE. In it, back in 1991, some teenagers sat down to play a homebrew game, and find themselves dragged into a fantasy world, before escaping. 25 years later, they’re dragged back in. Due to the world echoing their personalities and memories, it let us compare their teenage dreams with their adult realities. To get home is easy: everyone just has to decide together. The problem is the vote must be unanimous. Dead people get no vote. It gets tense. By which I mean, stabby. We jokily describe it as Goth Jumanji.
The comic is complete now, and available in a fine single volume. Alongside it, we developed a whole role-playing game that allows you to make your own bespoke version of our story with your friends and a few dice. In DIE RPG, you generate a group of flawed real-world people. Then these people you’ve made-up get together, decide to play this spooky RPG and roll-up characters. They’re then transported a fantasy world consisting of their externalised regrets and hopes, and then decide whether to go home or not. As said, it gets tense (and/or stabby), as the GM who’s gathered you together very much wants to stay.
So, yes, when you play DIE, you’re people playing a role-playing game about people playing a role-playing game.
You can see what I mean about it seeming arch, right? At the least it sounds hard to get your head around.
It isn’t. It turns out this structure is really accessible. Playing normal people given strange powers and dropped into a weird situation is something we all understand. In fact, it’s more easily done than most genre conventions. I have no idea how a 1000-year-old elf would really respond to an Orc coming at them with an axe. I can understand how a tired parent would. Or an angry student. Or a widow of thirty years. I can, as I’ve either been them or met them. Turns out, people are the easiest people to role-play.
On the GM side, we do a lot to create a low-preparation game the mine how to mine these characters (or “persona”) for details to work into the fantasy world, and how to generate encounters which tempt them. A monster leering at you in one thing, but if it is speaking you in those hurtful words that Ex said to the persona once, it’s something else.
While the high concept does a lot, the game (and comic) is also about the specifics world we’ve cooked up. It’s interested interrogating a whole bunch of fantasy RPG tropes, but also creating a unique fantasy with real appeal. Take the character classes (“Paragons”), each of whom is a riff on a classic RPG class. This intent is part deconstruction, part reconstruction. If you’ve been around the block, you can see the point the game is making… but at the same time they’re twists on classic thrills. Clerics become Godbinders, bartering with gods for any miracle they can think of. Rogues become Neo, forced to hunt down magical fair-gold to power up their cybernetic gifts. Paladins become Emotion Knights, who use their sacred emotion to defeat whole armies. And Bards become Dictators, able to pluck the strings of everyone’s emotions… or make them snap. Even the GM gets a character. – the Master, who gets to break and bend rules until they’re caught.
The game’s powered by a simple dice pool system, but each of the classes get sole ownership of one of the classic D&D dice. Only the Godbinder gets to touch the D12, the Neo the D10 and so on. The exception is the Fool, a class who gets to use a D6, just like the dice which powers the rest of the system… but they also gets to doodle on theirs. If they roll that scribble, they get to create flukes of luck or misfortune.
The game was released in a beta alongside the first collection of the comic, and has been playtested by its community ever since. I kept on writing the rules, until I realised I didn’t just have a game, I had about three. Thankfully, Rowan, Rook & Decard joined me, took the gleefully amateur enthusiasm of the endless original document and honed into a beautiful and direct book that we can put into anyone’s hands, knowing that it’ll do exactly what we wanted: let you do your own Die.
One of the reasons I love games is that they’re so democratic; fiercely, humanely democratic. Companies and artists all too often seem to distance us from the power inside our heads. But the truth? Creativity isn’t hard. Creativity is infinite. You can sit down around a table with friends and make whole worlds together. With DIE RPG, I wanted to make mechanics and rituals which show exactly how I did DIE, and if you follow them, allow you duplicate and build upon those effects.
It’s a conversation, the game asks you questions, and you answer. Sometimes it’s discovering what you say when you finally talk to your sister about how she hurt your feelings when you were a kid. Sometimes it’s discovering exactly how deep you can push your arcane weapon into the headmaster-lich of your nightmares. Either way, that’s DIE, and now it’s everyone’s.
Kieron Gillen is best known as a comic writer, but apparently does RPGs now too. His adventuring party consists of a poet-editor dual-classed wife, a child who’s yet to pick a speciality and 2 rogue cats.