I’ve written about the first volume of DIE (the comic book) here.
After five years of D&D, experimenting with Kieron Gillen’s DIE RPG ruleset this past summer was a revelation.
Dungeons and Dragons is largely reactive, in the sense that the Dungeon Master(DM) offers a playground, more or less directed, within which the player characters(PCs) interact with one another and the world. The DM reacts to these in turn, and the PCs play off the complications, perfectly of their own making. A feedback loop, narratively and mechanically both.
DIE: The RPG engages with the players at this level, as all tabletop RPGs do, but at its foundation is a call to collaboration. This begins with an hour and half’s worth of character generation (or longer!) through a series of questions whose aim is to produce meaningful connections between the personas that the players will embody. What’s at the heart of such a connection? Love, friendship, and drama. Asking your real-life friends the most cutting questions, seeing their brains click as they come up with increasingly three-dimensional personas shaped by friendship and pain is like little else I’ve experienced in my years as a DM. (Sidenote: We’ll still play D&D, there’s something addictive to the homebrew world I’ve cooked up for my players over the last six years but we’ve all agreed to adapt at least part of the persona-generating method Kieron Gillen has cooked up. This is a perfect recipe for the set-up of a tension-fuelled party!)
It’s also an impossibly good time, and it invites your players to get invested to a greater degree than they ever could, making a character on their own. The game fosters an open creative space which pays dividends throughout. We came up with such an amazing cast of main characters, each of them a misfit in a different way, each broken by yet loving the others.
Let’s quickly run through the key points of a DIE game: You and your players generate personas, connected to one another, people who have played ttRPGs together years ago, before their group fell apart for some reason (up to you lot to pick that one). These people then reunite, a number of years later, at the behest of their old DM (hey, that’s me!) and are unwittingly drawn into the central conceit at the core of DIE, a Jumanji-esque transportation to a dark fantasy world alike and yet different from the one the PCs might know from their old-school game.
That’s when the game proper kicks in. This conceit could’ve put a stop to the collaborative elements at the heart of Gillen’s Beta. But it does not, because at every step, the Dungeon Master is encouraged to draw his players into conversation by asking questions in the vein of the ones asked in the process of the persona generation. These might be about moments of tension between the players, monsters that haunted them in the teenage game or even zones they might’ve visited and are now revisiting–straight out of memory or distorted in horrific ways.
As the DM, I adore this. It allows me to tap into my players’ imaginations, to twist up everything they give me in ways that thrill them whlle making them feel, rightfully, that the world sprouts as much from them as it does from me. The RPG played by the personas becomes a tangible thing, grows from our collective imagination and enhances the game proper. So do moments of drama the personas might’ve experienced in their own life–the beta ruleset encourages the DM to make use of flashbacks. I forgot all about that option during our first DIE adventure, but have made repeated use during my present one.
Mechanically, there’s more than enough meat on the bone, but in such a way that the narrative always takes precedence. There’s no serious number-crunching, no massive stats blocks (at least thus far)–the attributes will be familiar to anyone who has picked up D&D or Pathfinder, though they obviously work in very different ways. Each class represents a different kind of power fantasy–the Dictator is described as a bard gone horror, the Neo is a cyberpunk Rogue with a very serious drug problem, the Godbinder is a cleric with an attitude problem and so on. Each one has a special die (except for the Fool, who uses a boring ol’ D6–you’ll be using plenty of those, it’s a D6 system, and an elegant one at that).
Certain story beats are baked into each class, and can be developed to add both hilarious and disturbing elements to your game. The Fool is a ridiculous class with an edge, the idiot loved by fate; at any time, they can give their special D6 to the DM in order to make a problem go away; the DM can then introduce an equally severe problem at any point, by returning the D6 . My Fool exchanged his die in order for a jilted lover NPC, a Naga Queen to forgive him whilst a terrific conflict was waged between his side and hers. This happened, tue enough; I returned the die half a minute later, when I announced that a xenomorph split the Naga’s belly open and burst forth. It sounds random, but it’s not: one of the Fool’s favourite movies was none other than the Alien. A glance was enough for me to make the connection, and the Fool’s player went absolutely crazy for it.
I wrote a short story based on the adventure as a whole, so let me illustrate the abovementioned example by using it:
Ross watches in wonderment as meteor rain falls from the skies, killing every single naga and human soldier across the square, leaving alive only Paulie-o and the enemy’s leader. His wonderment increases ten-fold when the Fool takes a knee at the bast of the bridge at whose height stands the enchanting naga queen and pulls out a bit of meteor-stone from the ground. When the naga leader tears up and begins to nod her head, something in the farmer’s heart swells up at the bizarre beauty of this act amidst all the destruction.
So of course the naga coughs blood just as she begins to say, “I do,” a xenomorph bursting from her scaly belly a moment later. Paulie-o saunters away, falling over the side of the bridge and in the river even as he splits the air with his sword, the weapon travelling towards the alien with perfect accuracy. Just before the blade connects and Paulie falls over the railing, he pulls out his gun and pulls the trigger—shooting not the alien but the hilt of his sword. Rather than shatter or fly off-course, the sword swells in its flight and when it at last connects with the xenomorph, its velocity carries it high into the air. The alien connects with a sprawling stone building, which crumbles over it, burying the xenomorph below tons of rubble.
“SO COOL,” gurgles Paulie-o.*
The Neo watches all this from beneath his invisibility system, mouth hanging open. When the xenomorph pulls itself out from below the building in a rain of debris. “This world is fucking weird,” Ross says, drawing a sharp breath, cocking his gun up and taking aim at the Alien.
*Side note: My player literally screech-gurgled that, it was as funny as it was weird.
Ross is, of course, our Neo. I’ll tell you more about him, and the absolute madness that are the other characters in my next installment of Dungeon Master’s Diaries: DIE Edition. The art is, of course, by the immutable Stephanie Hans.