Two years ago, Kieron Gillen asked his friends the question that has plagued many of us for decades: what happened to the kids from the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon? In the 1983 adventure, six kids got onto a fair ride and ended up in the realm of D&D. Their journey continued for three seasons, but was abruptly cancelled before they could return home in the 28th episode, “Requiem.”
Jaime McKelvie was able to answer the question—”They all got home,” explains Gillen in an interview with WWAC, “and in the final episode it was revealed that the big bad Venger was actually the Dungeon Master’s son. […] I presume all the kids are all living happily now, apart from being terrified about going on fairground rides.” The answer was satisfactory, but the question still ate away at Gillen’s ever-churning brain. “And as Stephanie and I were planning to do something together,” says Gillen, “a fantasy world visualised by Stephanie Hans seemed too good to resist.”
The seed that began as a joking question soon blossomed into: DIE.
Dubbed as “Goth Jumanji,” by Gillen, DIE follows six young role playing game elitists who are pulled into a dark fantasy RPG, unable to speak of the occurrence when they reappear two years after. Years later, in their 40s, they are forced to go back into their dark world and face the nightmares that have haunted them all this time.
Though Hans has only been playing RPGs since she was 22 and introduced to Warhammer (although she loved video game RPGs like Final Fantasy long before that), Gillen has been playing RPGs for some time. “As anyone who’s read Phonogram would know, I wasn’t just an arrogant RPG elitist. I was an arrogant elitist about a whole bunch of things.” Actually, Gillen admits, he wasn’t really a good elitist. He just loved sharing things that he loved. “I was more evangelical about weird stuff, than elitist.”
At the beginning of the story, which takes place in 1991, Gillen explains that the characters in DIE are at a stage in their lives when they are defining themselves as individuals and learning how to be grown ups by stepping away from kids games and trying something much darker. Originally, Gillen had wanted the storyline to begin in 1983, the same time frame as the D&D cartoon. But as fate would have it, Stranger Things, swooped in on the very weekend he’d started working on the project. Switching gears, he decided on the ’90s instead. I was 16 in 1991, and it’s an unusual, liminal year in culture–the real birth of the 1990s.”
“As anyone who’s read Phonogram would know, I wasn’t just an arrogant RPG elitist. I was an arrogant elitist about a whole bunch of things.”
Although the DIE Six start the story as youths, that wasn’t who Gillen wanted to write about, after writing younger characters for so long. “I wanted to write about people at least as old as I am. That I somehow wandered into writing primarily about young people is this really odd quirk of my career–Journey into Mystery, (where I inherited Loki as a kid–my original plan was a Elric-styled Loki), Young Avengers, (which was a book I was talked into doing) and WicDiv, (Okay, that one’s on me, but the choice grew from the success of the previous two.)
So the story quickly moves on from 1991 to 2018, opening up “a whole world of autobiographical aspects to explore. I know being 16 in 1991 and 43 in 2018 intimately,” says Gillen.
Hans and Gillen have both described this book as a midlife crisis. I just turned 42 this year and, personally speaking, am riding the high of being the meaning of life. I’m sure my own midlife crisis is looming and sincerely hope it involves jumping into a fantasy world, too. “That I have the career I do often makes me suspect I’m already in a fantasy world,” says Gillen when asked what realm he’d love to hop into. “One day I’ll wake up, and I’ll be an orc, being hunted by the Riders of Rohan.” After a moment’s thought, Gillen adds, “Hmm. I’ll stick with the midlife crisis.”
Hans’ fantasy world of choice is something much more calming. “It is not traditional fantasy, but is you’ve seen Spirited Away from Studio Ghibli, this is the world I would choose to stay forever, or at least as long as They would let me.” Hans explains. “I love Japanese folklore, it makes sense for me and soothes me deeply. I think I would do whatever I do whenever I travel, taste the local food, find a place to live, pretend it will be forever and talk to everyone I can. And of course head to the baths.”
For the DIE Six, their midlife crisis is a fantasy realm deliciously illustrated by Hans, flavoured with Gillen’s unique creativity that has even expanded into a complete RPG that Gillen will release when the DIE trade comes out to avoid the game giving away spoilers for the story. Given the seemingly bleak and ominous nature of the first issue, which left me with more than a few chills and thrills, I expressed my concern about how well I would sleep if I played Gillen’s upcoming RPG myself.
Eager to discuss his game, Gillen has lots to say, but paused first to offer a bit of a disclaimer to non-RPG folks. “[T]his is an emotionally accessible fantasy comic. You can read this as easily as you could read a book about Narnia or any other secondary world. I haven’t lost it entirely. Yet. I think.”
With that caveat in place, “let’s engage nerd engines.”
“Would I scare you to sleeplessness? Wendy! I am a kind GM. I would not do that to you.” [Writer’s note: phew!] “Er … but maybe your GM will. Depends on the group, I suspect. I’ve designed it to be adaptable, and to play adaptably. I’ve ran games where it’s ended up as something akin to an atmospheric dungeon crawl. I’ve had games where the climax was helping their brother coming out to their parents. It’s a lot of things. People seem to like it.”
“In its initial release, it’s designed to be played across a couple of sessions, and basically gives you a chance to do your own version of the first arc of DIE.” This doesn’t mean that players will experience exactly what the DIE Six experiences, but players will be able to shape something similar to what they go through in the comic, “but entirely in your own way and be entirely unique and magical.”
Gillen cites Paranoia as a key influence, along with many Apocalypse Word-derived games, such as Monster Hearts, Dungeon World, and Legacy. There are Nordic LARP influences, Fiasco, 4th Edition Warhammer’s dice pool system, D&D (obviously), and so much more. “It’s really a conversation with all of these games. I hope people find the design interesting. There’s a lot about the fetishism for the form that’s been turned into mechanics. For example, each player takes sole custody of one die …”
Speaking of die … I confess to missing the obvious double entendre of the series title, but apparently, I am not alone. Gillen’s Google searches revealed that no one else had named an RPG-horror story DIE. Encouraged by this and his love of puns, Gillen happily plucked this low hanging fruit and ran with it, though he hit a small bump when Robert Kirkman and Chris Burnham released their DIE!DIE!DIE! By then the word had permeated itself into Gillen and Hans’ story so deeply that they were not about to change it. Gillen jokes, “Let’s hope that no DIE!DIE!DIE! Fans just get given three copies of DIE instead of what they’re after, eh?”
Not that that would be a bad thing …
Like many aspects of geeky interests these days, RPGs have become more popular in the mainstream media and aren’t suffering as much from the “Satanic Panic” of the ’80s and ’90s. From a marketing standpoint, that obviously means DIE has an opportunity to reach a broader audience. Overcoming his creator paranoia over DIE’s potential success, Gillen agrees that much has changed, leaving room for an RPG horror story like this, while other RPG stories like Critical Role continue to grow their game.
“DIE, despite its trappings, is a secondary-world story, where a hidden realm of existence is found by people. Nobody said Narnia was inaccessible because not everyone cares about Wardrobe construction, right?”
Gillen muses, “One of the things I find interesting about the 1980s D&D cartoon where they go on a fairground ride to enter the fantasy world … well, that’s clearly a dodge, and it should be that a D&D game transported them. Was it because, with the Satanic Panic happening, TSR didn’t want their game connected to magical transportation or because the cartoon makers didn’t want their cartoon to turn off kids who thought D&D was too geeky? I say this here, as a reminder to go and research this. Not that it’s relevant to DIE, but because it does sound a good thing to know.”*
Presumably, Gillen will kindly return with the results of his research in the comments below….
In the meantime, he considers DIE’s pending reception from another angle. “DIE, despite its trappings, is a secondary-world story, where a hidden realm of existence is found by people. Nobody said Narnia was inaccessible because not everyone cares about wardrobe construction, right? Okay, I don’t buy that argument either, but it was fun to make.”
DIE will be available from Image Comics in December and you can pre-order your copy today. Seriously, pre-order your copy; it’s so good!!