My Thoughts on DIE: The RPG Beta by Kieron Gillen | The Dictator as an Architect of Dramatic Tension

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Last time, I spoke about the differences between D&D 5e and DIE – the greater degree of collaboration between DM and players, the “narrative first” approach rather than a mechanical stringency, and the accent on complex interpersonal relationships established during the first stage of the game, the persona generation. In DIE, there’s no one who can do as much to build up interpersonal relationships–or tear them apart–over the course of the game as the Dictator, the class described as “the bard as a horror character”. The RPG manual advises the DM to carefully pick the player to play this class – giving it to someone irresponsible might cause division around the table, not just in the game. The reason? What the Dictator says to another character, often goes.

One of the three most climactic moments in the game was owed entirely to the Dictator. But before presenting that situation, I should give you some background on both the player and the persona who got to play the class. Not everyone in the group of personas (or players, for that matter) was equipped to take the reins; I had hoped to give the Dictator to my friend Deah and the persona she made had the ideal beats in her personal history to embody the Dictator perfectly. As for Deah herself, her position in the group has always been a little out of the limelight and I thought that would give her the opportunity to shine whenever she took the initiative. And if she didn’t? There’s something threatening about a silent Dictator whose words can dominate your every thought–like a weapon in the open, her very presence is a threat, even if the PC (player characters) don’t understand that just yet.

Deah’s person, Marlowe, exhibited some anti-social behaviour, suffered from crippling anxiety and was forced into the afterschool club that would grow into this tightly knit group of avid D&D players; after the group broke apart, her life didn’t improve much — she got married, gave birth to two children, got divorced, in a span of five-six years. But the beat I, as DM, responded the strongest to, was the following delicious morsel: Before her marriage, Marlowe falls in love with a man, Joseph, who doesn’t love her back. They have a relationship, regardless, until Joseph unceremoniously breaks her heart. Mary, as she goes by at this point, wants to move on, wants closure–but is denied it when Joseph dies. In the marriage, even with the kids, she never manages to get over that wound. I smell opportunity, I think to myself, as I write down the details Dee provides, like a builder who follows an architect’s blueprints.

As a DM, I’ve got a lot to work with here – the kids are an obvious avenue, and I consider for a moment using them the way Kieron Gillen uses the child of one of the characters’ in the Die comic book; my players hadn’t yet caught the bug, hadn’t yet read the comic, so I could draw inspiration from it all I wanted. But this game invites originality – and given so much to work with, I concentrated my efforts on Joseph.

Marlowe had some history with my persona, Jane, the Master, who knew all about her life after high school; Jane knew about Joseph, had seen pictures of him, even. It was only logical that the Master would at once screw with her old friend, and give her the opportunity to gain a bit of closure (surprise, surprise, that’s what the game’s about!).

Off they go, our glorious heroes, dragged into a fantastic world at once reminiscent and different from their teenage D&D adventure. It starts off familiar enough, with the Master teleporting away to do Enigmatic Mischief™, appearing far away into the horizon to guide them in the right direction. Soon enough, they spy a column of refugees and some gorefugs chasing them (gorefugs: monsters we came up with on the spot, based on a series of questions, with a name that sounds more than cringe enough to have been made up by a group of teenagers). These creatures were, for all intents and purposes, the wargs and their riders from LotR: The Two Towers, fused into one. The encounter’s entire point was to give the players and their characters a chance to test their abilities, while also offering them a taste of the heroic saviour business that’s all the rage with adventurers. The point is to make them care for the world and its inhabitants, and that’s easy enough when there’s civilians to be saved from slaughter. Easier still, when old NPCs from the personas’ D&D game pop up and are in need of help. Even if the players on my table didn’t feel the emotional attachment of their personas to these characters, they did a fine job role-playing just such an attachment.

The Dictator’s first time using her voice was ordering one of the gorefugs to turn its weapon on its fellows, perpetrating an act of butchery that foreshadowed the muted reception and guardedness she would later be received with, among the citizens of the close-by Discount Minas Tirith™. What I decided to do was to have a person of authority, someone the party recognizes as a familiar NPC, look and sound like the Joseph of Marlowe’s backstory; further, to very nearly recognize her, to have this sense of deja vu whenever he looks her way. Two things are happening–Dee is laughing maniacally at this point, and the players are told the city will be invaded soon. They are reunited with the Master but only for a short while, enough so that the point is made: they need to hold the city.

It’s here that the party splits. What happened with the Fool, I’ve already discussed – the mechanics, the madness of that–yum! At the same time, Marlowe is tasked with making sure the generic city’s leader, Atreus, doesn’t attempt an evacuation but commits all his forces to the protection of the outer walls. (I, as DM, have a rather sinister plan for those outer walls, which I’ll break down in my next post.) You’ve figured it out by now, but Atreus is no one other than the Joseph look-alike. The party needed to figure out how to get into his offices: here, the Neo’s Invisibility Field saw brilliant use. A stealth check with advantage made for some hilarious sneaky action and one Dictator was safely deposited into Atreus’

What followed was perhaps the tensest, most bitter conversation Deah and I had, up to that point, ever roleplayed with one another. She attempted to convince Atreus to do as the party wished without using her voice, first once, then again–and with good arguments, too. But her Charisma rolls? Abysmal. He wouldn’t listen, became more and more agitated and unwilling to talk, until he is about ready to call his guards. I’ll once again share a little of the narrative Deah and I wrote after the game. I have to stress, again–we simply cleaned up the dialogue, but we didn’t add anything to it. Here goes:

***

Marlowe tenses.

“I’m going to give you one more chance to think about this,” her voice isn’t as firm as she’d like it to be, rather the faintest tremble is there. She doesn’t want to do this but she knows she must. “Please, Atreus.”

The realization is settling on his face, and Marlowe knows it is now or never. He begins to part his lips, to shout for guards perhaps.

I’m sorry, she thinks, but what she says is “Be mine, Atreus.”

But something is wrong, more wrong than usual. She feels that something has slipped, not fallen right into place. Something in the way she says the words, in the way the power moves from her to him, unrestrained.

The stench of rot and malt whiskey fills the room, slowly oozing from Marlowe’s mouth. She is disgusted and puts a hand over it but it does nothing to disperse the stink that now imbues every inch of Atreus’ grand chambers.

When she sees the look on Atreus’ face, cold dread creeps over her.

“My love,” he says, desperation in his voice, and moves closer to her. He wants to touch her but doesn’t dare. “I am yours. All yours.”

She cannot pull the voice back from him. She cannot turn him back into the Atreus he was. She spoke the words, and they were too raw, too close to what she might have actually wanted, and…

And like that, he is gone.

Marlowe isn’t sure what to say. She stares at him in mute disbelief.

“Is everything alright, my love?” he asks, growing panicked. Her silence feels like rejection to him.

“Y-yes,” she blurts out. “Yes, of course.” Marlowe reaches out her hands to him lightly and he takes them in his. He looks far calmer and she finds herself running her thumb over his, gently rubbing the calloused skin. Despite herself, she feels a certain warmth build up inside her from seeing Atreus soothed by it.

“Atreus,” she says “Go fortify the outer wall. Make sure everyone is holding it.”

“Of course, my love. I’ll mobilise them at once. And… then we will be together?”

“Yes. We’ll be together.” She swallows. “Wait… how will I get past the guards?”

He smiles that same reassuring smile she knows better than herself. “You have nothing to worry about, my love. I will tell them you are my utmost beloved and are to be treated as such. You may come and go as you please.”

***

So, what happened here? The second time Deah used her class die, the D4, she rolled a one. With the Dictator, that’s not a failure; it’s the robbing of someone’s will in such a way that, even if you want to undo it, you can’t. It’s a horrific violation of another. Marlowe does it as a last resort, forced by circumstance and Atreus’s obstinacy to her continued plight. It’s a perfect example of consequence you can’t take back; it immediately asks the players to consider if the ends they’re after justify the means they’ve made use of, when these means have turned a trusted ally into a slave without a will of his own.

It’s also some of the most focused my group has ever been, the quietest, none of them daring to look away, to miss a single beat. Dramatic tension, at its finest.

This is what the Dictator offers to the game.

The narrative section above was written almost entirely by Deah, I might’ve added and edited a few lines, but no more. Check her blog out here, she’s brilliant. All the art is by the inimitable Stephanie Hans, the illustrator and co-creator of DIE.

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