Half a dozen people, their relationships more strained than they used to be, gather around a pile of dice and prepare for a role-playing game. The GM assigns each of them a character class — “you are the Godbinder” — and hands over their signature die — “This is the only d12 in the game. It’s yours.” And then, as the players clutch those dice in their hands, everything goes wrong.
This is a scene that plays out, with small variations, in both the first issue of Die and in a recent playtest of the accompanying pen-and-paper RPG. Die is a new comic series from Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans, a dark story of midlife crises, adolescent trauma and tabletop RPGs. And Gillen is currently in the process of writing not only the comic, but also the rules for the game within it.
Die tells the story of six teenagers in a small English town who invent their own RPG and, on playing it for the first time, disappear into the game world. Two years later they emerge, unable to talk about what happened to them. Twenty-five years after that, they assemble again, as a group of adults variously broken by their experiences, when a bloodied d20 from the original game mysteriously reappears.
“Die is the logical collision between the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and Stephen King’s It,” Gillen explains in a conversation after the playtesting sessions. “Or a goth Jumanji, if I’m being shorter.”
He references The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland and, more improbable, Big and 13 Going on 30 — the movies starring, respectively, Tom Hanks and Jennifer Garner.
“Young people experimenting with being older people — that’s kind of what all those movies are about,” says Gillen. “Conversely, Die is a book about adults who are regretting their entire life and realizing it’s too late. It’s not 13 Going on 30, it’s ‘40 Going on Dead.’”
Getting the band together
In Die, the game, we begin by building our own social group of regret-filled adults. It’s character creation, but without a gridded sheet or DEX stat in sight, more influenced by modern narrative RPGs like Fiasco, Monsterhearts and the Powered by the Apocalypse game system.
It’s down to the players to collaboratively improvise a situation, prodded along by the odd question from the GM. It turns out that our group all used to be in a band named Skirmish. But traveling between the biggest gigs of our career, we got into a car crash and one of us — the drummer, naturally — died.
Now, the best part of a decade later, we’ve all gathered in memory of our dead bandmate, to play this one RPG she always used to talk about. Which is where we enter the second section of the game, informed by the ideas of Nordic Larp — an immersive form of role-playing where players avoid breaking character.
Sat around a table in the pub they used to go as teenagers, the personas we just invented squabble amongst themselves. One of the group broke away from our band, and found fame on his own under the stage name ‘Hunter’. Another, Amethyst, is still furious because Hunter succeeded with a song she helped write. Gemma, the persona I’ve created, is desperately trying to turn this into a band reunion.
The squabbling stops when Gillen — or rather, Gillen’s character, an affable guy who joined the band as our replacement drummer — slams a large cardboard box on the table. The word ‘DIE’ is scrawled on the side in marker pen.
“Remember the news story about the group of kids that disappeared in the ‘90s?” he says, dumping out the contents: game pieces, tarot cards, dice. “This is the game they were playing.”
Games within games
There are a couple of things worth noting at this point. First, that every new story you play in Die, the game, will officially be in continuity with the story Hans and Gillen are telling. “The comic and the RPG have their own sort of internal consistency,” he says.
Also, yes, we are now playing a game within a game. This makes for some mental gymnastics when the more traditional D&D-style character sheets come out. I make a lot of choices I normally wouldn’t — like filling in the ‘Species’ box with ‘elf’, the worst of all the fantasy races — because I think it’s what Gemma, my persona, would want.
“It absolutely becomes an RPG about why people play RPGs, why people go to fantasies,” says Gillen afterwards. “There is an implicit question of, you know, why are you sitting down to play this game? Is it an entertainment thing, or a catharsis thing?”
Our character classes have been assigned by Gillen’s GM persona. They’re all unique to Die. There’s the Dictator, who can control people’s emotions “like an earth musician would play a harp,” according to their character sheet. “They can pluck the strings. They can snap them.”
The Emotion Knight is, as the name suggests, a warrior powered by one of eight emotions: ecstasy, admiration, terror, amazement, grief, loathing, vigilance and rage. (Gillen borrowed this categorization from real-life psychologist Robert Plutchik, who developed the theory in the 1980s — meaning it would be contemporary to the characters of Die.)
This means a Grief Knight — like the one in the comic — has to feel terrible hurt in order to access their powers. But while a Joy Knight might sound like a much more palatable option, there’s still a dark side, as Gillen explains: “‘I’ve taken your feelings towards your wife, and I’ve used them to kill this bad guy. Unfortunately, those feelings are now gone. I’ve used your relationship to kill this Balrog.’ That’s the Knight of Joy.”
The Neo is a cyberpunk rogue. All of Die’s characters riff on classic D&D classes. The Dictator is the Bard, approached from a particularly sinister angle. The Emotion Knight is a Paladin, switching out the traditional grid of D&D alignments for Plutchik’s emotional wheel. The Neo is Gillen trying to puzzle out why the Rogue or Thief class is supposed to be distrusted by the rest of their party.
“All players are thieves. They mostly kill people and take their stuff,” he says. “So why the hell is there this weird prejudice against one class? It doesn’t make much sense. The Neo comes from me thinking, let’s give a reason why people are scared. There’s a special kind of gold they’re obsessed by, their powers don’t work without it, and it’s also heroin. There’s a reason why people don’t like Neos — they’re addicts. You can’t necessarily trust them.”
I’m a Fool, the simplest class in the game. My die is, appropriately, a d6. Except nothing’s that simple in the world of Die, and the Fool gets to scribble an extra six onto one face of the die.
Being handed these class-defined dice, and being told you’re the only one who may use it, is a strangely magical moment.
“We do a lot about the fetishism of RPGs, which I can’t think of many games that have done. We’re interested in dice and maps and other bits of detritus,” Gillen says later. “The icons of D&D, in those early days, were those weird set of six dice, and we’re making that the heart of the game.”
Back in the room, Gillen’s GM instructs us to clutch our dice tight, and close our eyes. And everything goes wrong.
What’s your fantasy?
This puts us in the third and final section of the game, which Gillen describes as “a much more traditional Gygax/Arneson-style RPG, with a lot of modern tweaks to it.” We wake up in a fantasy world, in the bodies of our assigned classes.
Hunter, now the Godbinder, is a woad-daubed fanatic who constantly squabbles with his pet deities, each named for a popstar. Amethyst, the Neo, is a Robyn-style fembot whose on-board AI speaks in aphorisms borrowed from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards.
We battle monsters who take the form of the costumes from Daft Punk’s “Around the World” video, and later our own obsessive fans, who are so consumed by love for Skirmish, our now-resurrected band, that they’ll tear off our fingernails for a souvenir. We meet a demonic David Bowie who wants to be our manager, and a version of the metal band Mastodon who summon a literal mastodon with their music.
This is, after all, a game being run by the creator of Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine, where pop music is magic and magic is pop music.
But Gillen wants to stress that this isn’t the only form Die can take. The fantasy world is generated based on the players’ — and their personas’ — particular obsessions. Other games have taken place in fantastical extrapolations of the convention halls where the players are actually sitting, or have revolved around a hyper-smart AI which is learning to make art better than any human could create.
What the players do within those worlds can also vary hugely, although each game will follow a structure based on Die’s first five issues.
Gillen tells me about one session that became a face-off between two authors, one of whom was jealous of the other’s success and, after trying to use the game to steal her career, ended up being set on fire in the game world, and back in reality, completely erased from history. In another, the created group had gathered the night before a wedding, with a groom who was scared of coming out to his parents.
“The game ended not in a big fight but with everybody sat down in a therapy session, where he ended up coming out and the wedding gets called off,” says Gillen. “The climax can be the horror beat of a guy burning alive in a room full of books he wanted to write, or genuine emotional connection between adults trying to work out where their lives went wrong — or anything in between.”
None of these settings or stories are the same as the one in Die, the comic, though you may be able to spot common threads — coming to terms with our past and present selves, and how the creation and consumption of art changes us — which also run through Gillen’s comics work, including Die.
Gillen has plans to release the Die rules to the public, but you’ll have to wait a bit. Although they don’t share characters or a world, the game rules do feature some spoilers for the story beats of the first arc of the comic, so they won’t be released until it concludes.
So is Die a comic with an RPG attached, or the other way ’round?
“There were definitely periods where I’ve wondered which is the tail, and which is the dog,” says Gillen. “In development, it kind of bounced back and forth depending on what I was interested in at any particular moment — but it has ended up sort of synthesizing.”
He describes Die as essentially two projects which feed into one another. The comic’s world-building is founded on what he calls “mechanizable ideas,” meaning they’re solid enough to be turned into rules for the game. There are moments in the comic where you can almost see the dice rolls — this being a Kieron Gillen comic, characters roll a lot of critical failures. He says that, occasionally, solving a design or narrative problem in one project would change his approach to the other.
The comic came first, but ultimately, Gillen admits the series will never really scratch the surface of what he’s created for the RPG.
“I’m very aware that the comic is going to be a slice through the concept of Die, the game,” he says. “It’s a novel, and the game is big enough that we could completely do a sequel to Die, the comic. It definitely has an ending, but the idea that it’s open for people to explore in their own way, through the game, does suggest that there’s some further continuity.”
Alex Spencer is a writer about comics, games, technology, pop music and his dog, based in London. You can find him wrestling Twitter’s character limit @AlexJaySpencer.