A Curious Glance at DIE, the RPG

Kieron Gillen is partially responsible for this (gestures broadly at the website). Two years ago, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, I was leaving my office job to go into games full time and I was scared and frustrated. Someone linked me to an article that could only be read in the Wayback Machine from some random person who just so happened to co-found Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a games website with an extensive pedigree. At its core it was an article about frustration, and at its apex of concentrated *frust* was another article written by Always Black. 

It’s one of the best pieces of games writing ever put to digital paper. I think about it nearly every day. When it comes to journalism and critique, even though it is fresh to my mind, Always Black’s article lies at the foundation of what I consider Good Writing. Along with the likes of Tim Rogers and Jamil Jan Kochai. Writing that is intrinsically connected to a nebulous soul. That must yalp emotionally from a dark corner, but detours briefly into the reality of Game to mention its kineticism and control.

This is not that. This is a preview of a game. It’s important I make the distinction between a preview and a review as I do not have the game sitting in front of me. It is not complete or released. Currently, it sits on Kickstarter with seven days left to close the gap between $474,408 and half a million dollars. It is more successful than the majority of total games that have ever existed, and in that way, the book arguably doesn’t even need to be good. It just needs to exist at some point in the future to fulfill its promise.

This entire article could be refuted or ignored on the basis of it being a preview. I’m writing it anyway because no one else seems capable. In tabletop land, especially when it comes to books, there appears to be a distinct lack of journalism. Reviews tend to come from small voices without much to say, while platformed websites regurgitate ad-copy verbatim, sent to them from the creators of the game. No one asks questions. No one expects anything.

The point of this preview is to look at the information provided and make some value judgment on whether the game will be good. How it might play. What you could do with it. And to that end, the information available is a kickstarter page, a video where Dicebreaker plays the game with its creators, the starter pages written and released for free by Gillen, and the source material, the DIE comic, again written by Gillen.

I’m not a fan of DIE as a comic. It’s self-proclaimed “Goth Jumanji” but lacks any of the heart and soul that makes Jumanji work as a film. It’s set up like King’s monster work “IT” but reads like a what-if scenario where King forgot what it was like to be a child. I read the first volume, “Fantasy Heartbreaker” and found myself wondering at each page turn, “Oh, so this must be where the story begins.” But I was wrong each and every time until the last few pages. 

Maybe this is some comic book trend that I’m not aware of. Perhaps it’s normal in the industry to read five issues or chapters and not know what the story is yet. First it feigned to be about the initial disappearance of the kids. Then it was possibly about a couple of forty-somethings being trapped in the game of their youth. Rather abruptly it was almost about the friend they left behind (a nod to Jumanji). But then, right at the end you learn that no, what it’s really about is the conflict between the people who want to stay in fantasy-world and those who want to return to reality.

During those last pages when that became clear, I was drawn in. I wanted to keep reading. I thought to myself, “this is it!” If that had been the first issue with the volume continuing from there, interspersed with nods to the character’s childhood tragedies, DIE would have answered the premise it promised. Instead, I got a beautifully drawn comic with an honest-to-god unique art style, and a story that lacked until the very end. This isn’t Homestuck. I’m not reading the first four books to get to the good stuff.

The ticker just hopped up to $474,848.

DIE presents itself as a deconstruction of the portal fantasy. Would you really want to live in a world that you create? The kickstarter page leans into this by opening with: “You and your friends are dragged into a treacherous fantasy world made from your own fears, doubts and desires.” Would you even want to escape? 

It also bombards you with the art of Stephanie Hans who worked on the comic. There’s a scene depicting an epic struggle. Characters wield their special powers to wow NPCs. Interspersed are short snippets detailing the classes you get to choose from, and it’s capped off by what I consider to be the game’s Gimmick. “Each of the six classes have ownership of one of the dice in the game.” Just like in the comic, there is only A Set of Dice, and each dice grants power.

This is my favorite idea from the comic and I wish it had been pushed harder in the game. Giving the divination bones true power Just Makes Sense. It’s a wonderful idea to put to paper and as a game mechanic, it bleeds into your mind a myriad of possibilities, each with their own distinct identity.

Instead, DIE is going the route of Shadowrun and many others, using dice pools to determine successes. The unique die attached to your class can be added to dice pools when you “tap into their unique powers.” As a gimmick it lacks. For a system book that claims to be “designed from the ground up,” it takes its most unique feature and relegates it to just another dice in the pool.

$485,155 now.

I’ve read the Beta rules and the things I have to say are damning, but it’s important to point out that Gillen is a surviving journalist and comics writer. Not a games writer. There’s a reason that he’s paired up with Grant Howitt and the crew at Rowan, Rook, & Decard to bring this game to life. The kickstarter page boasts a clean but effective layout. The budget is astronomical meaning it will be jam packed with illustrations and the crew will have the money to sit and work through any kinks the Beta package has. Grant has an impressive resume behind him with the continuing success of small, one-page games like Honey Heist, to the award-winning likes of Heart and Sin. 

I’m not here to review those though, and as much as I can speculate, I don’t know the exact work relationship that’s happening to make this game. Grant and co. might just be editing the text, funkifying the layout, and handling distro. There might not be a big rework happening behind the scenes and it’s silly for me to hinge my opinion on that being the case, especially when it’s financially smarter to not. The state of current TTRPGs doesn’t require a “good” game for success. That is merely a secondary benefit to owning a book.

The best part of the DIE Beta is in its playful avoidance of the annoying question, “What is a Role-Playing Game?” Gillen’s suggestion to google Critical Role is not only smart but makes me laugh. There’s lore. “Elves as designed by William Gibson” is a good line. The RPG has a definitive ending, which is an interesting choice. Character generation feels like a myspace questionnaire in that it’s vague and generic most of the time and oddly specific at others. You’re given an IN-EMERGENCY-BREAK-GLASS question in the form of, “Why does your persona hate their life?”

I spoke to someone who attempted to play the Beta but couldn’t make it further than these questions. “Being a teenager sucked,” they said, and refused to continue. It makes sense to me. The Beta is doing this half-cocked thing where it’s not prescribing a role for you to play, it’s making you craft one from tons of GM questions. But without that extra step of characterization behind the questions, what else can you draw on to answer them but your own lived experiences?

A few journaling games have leaned harder into this idea with the intent of drawing on real-life to craft an intimate game, filled to the brim with content warnings to deter those looking for a lighter time. While other group-based games lean the other way, crafting roles with pick lists as a form of specificity. Sleepaway, for example, crafts an intimate environment without expecting you to answer questions aimed at you, but instead has you explore the Belonging Outside Belonging system through the lens of a playbook. Troika! accomplishes the same specificity with its series of backgrounds. If I had cracked open Troika! only to find a vague questionnaire to build my background, I would have been sorely disappointed.

The rest of the character creation and first-session pages reads like a railroad adventure for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a section called “Ways Players May Be Shits At This Point” which reads like a reddit post from an angry DM complaining about their players ruining their story.

It’s sad because there are some great physical ideas presented here in laying out the dice in front of the players. Having them physically choose their class. Using the game room as the literal start point of the adventure. But I can’t help but feel like it’s a half-baked adventure more than it is a system for generating Game. 

$503,277.

Watching Gillen run the game for Dicebreaker gives me hope. It’s a good answer to the concerns I’ve raised. He reads off picklists for each of the personal questions and mentions that there is a pre-game ritual dedicated to safety. It provides a stark counter example to the person I spoke to and my own read-through of the Beta. There is an evolution present, even if it takes nearly an hour to complete the character-building process and get into the game.

Here’s to hoping the crew at Rowan, Rook, & Decard can continue to take this mess of a Beta document and make something with more punch and less flailing. In the end it won’t really matter though. DIE is already successful. It’s already been sold to its audience and more. And no matter the quality of its pages, it will go down in history as a game that made half a million dollars. 

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