Dungeons & Dragons was thought by concerned parents in the 1980s to be able to unravel the world of reality and fantasy, causing their kids to commit heinous acts all for the game. Writer Kieron Gillen and artist Stephanie Hans explore the act of actually going into a fantasy realm, but with a more “realistic” approach in Die from Image Comics.
Coming out December 5, Gillen and Hans (with Die being her first ongoing series) tell the story of a group of kids who get tricked and end up transported to magical land, but barely survive the experience. Now in their 40’s, they must travel there once more, but the greatest challenge isn't some beholden creature - it’s from within themselves.
Newsarama chatted up the creative duo about working together finally on an ongoing series, the games they played, and of course the mechanics of the game played in Die. And yes, Gillen said there is a Die game coming once the trade hits.
Newsarama: Kieron, Stephanie, you guys been trying to work together for a while and even did a The Wicked + The Divine ssue a while back so how long did it take for Die to come together?
Kieron Gillen: Stephanie and I first met on Journey Into Mystery at Marvel, when she did the covers and drew the final issue – which is one of the best single comics I've ever been involved in with my life. We've always been talking about doing something together since then, and did bits and pieces – as you say, a couple of issues of WicDiv, parts of the Angela books for Marvel, but we had to find the time, the place, the right idea.
We were actually playing with some ideas before Die occurred to be at 2016's Comic Con International: San Diego, but it immediately jumped to the head of the queue. Since then, it was a case of Stephanie clearing space to do the work and for me to do a lot of research. It's a game about fantasy, but there's stuff I didn't want to make up.
Stephanie Hans: I think I thought it would be nice to work with Kieron ever since our first collaboration on Journey into Mystery. After two years of covers, we could test that for the first time with the ultimate issue of the Kid Loki arc. This is the moment when I started thinking I would love to do more and if I ever would going to go for monthly interiors, a collaboration with Kieron would certainly do the trick.
You see I worked with not a lot, but enough writers to know what I like in a collaboration. And what I like is to be trusted. Kieron gives me that.
Nrama: Kieron, you joke about calling this "Goth Jumanji" but it's so much more than that, obviously with the kids having to confront their trauma again, how did you want to approach this?
Gillen: That's a strand of the book – as adults, returning to face things they thought defeated. But it's more than that – it also hopes they've forgotten. It's a story about the gap between teenage fantasies and where your life ended up. I almost wrote "teenage fantasies and adult realities" but that actually simplifies it too much. It's a book that compares six people's teenage fantasies and realities and their adult fantasies and realities and sees what has changed, and what hasn't.
Nrama: What are the game mechanics of the game they play like? It almost seems like old school Shadowrun at least with the classes that are decided for them.
Gillen: This is stuff we dive into in the supplementary material, but working out what game Sol would definitely be was definitely in there. What was the 1991-era obsessions would a precocious role-player bring to the game? I was very aware that he'd be using a dice-pool system rather than d20, for example. On the other hand, the game we see in the first issue has really unusual edges – players say what they want to be, and then the gamesmaster assigns classes. That's not something I've seen in a game in the period.
Nrama: So we're introduced to the party pretty much at page three and all at once, how did you want to design them to make sure they are diverse from one another?
Gillen: It's definitely one of the challenges of the first issue. We have to introduce the cast of six individuals as teenagers in 1991. Then we have to reintroduce them all as 40-something-year-oldsin 2018. We have to show how they were, and how they are now – to show how they've changed and how they haven't. That's a hard challenge, but a fun one.
As you say, at least part of that is making sure they're all diverse. It's a smaller cast than WicDiv, which means that I layer on the complexity. I'm aware each one is about exploring different dilemmas or temptations. If two characters are hitting the same beat, one of them loses that aspect. I just kept on working until it felt like a credible social group.
Nrama: Kieron, I've seen you tweet about gaming in the past, but Stephanie do you play any or have you ever?
Hans: I was first introduced to RPGs (besides video RPGs like Final Fantasy) quite late in my life. I was 22, and I met a group of players. We were playing Warhammer actually, the imperial campaign, with the rules of AD&D.
I had this character,that I really loved, who was a sorceress with a huge amount of power. She was mostly good but the power was going to her head, unfortunately,and before dying, she was starting to court a dark side. I am ashamed to say that I forgot her name, it was such a long time ago, but you know, I still have vivid memories of her and moments we shared.
For me, RPGs have always been about thinning the walls between worlds. It is not only telling a story with different voices, but it is living a story that you can rememberas vividly as reality, sometimes more even.
Nrama: Tell us about the classes and the abilities that they'll have when they're back in the gaming realm and the designs you wanted to have for them.
Gillen: In terms of actually telling abilities and classes, that would make it less fun, I suspect. At least part of the joy is diving into it, and getting the "they can do what?!?" moment.
In terms of the thinking behind it, we're trying to balance the dual elements of Die – on one hand, talking about everything that has swirled around in role-playing games, and on the other, making those ideas resplendent. Our urge is simultaneously deconstructionary (as in, each class is a commentary on the classic class) and reconstructionary (as in, this is a really neat alternate way to think about this particular classical D&D class.)
I mean, put it like this – in our world, Bards are the class everyone is petrified of. Bards! Not that they're called Bards, but you get what I mean. If you look for a theme in the abilities, it's not just to be able to do cool things (which they do) but something which brings a character's psychology to the fore. Some classes are crutches. Some classes are temptations. Some are both.
Hans: I think the best way to achieve that was to give them as much personality as possible. It is not only a question of design but also of body language. The shy one, the overconfident one, the obnoxious, the joker, the tragic, the narrator, those parts of the character has to be in the picture, it is a way for me to think about them. I have other words for them, some less flattering. I mostly designed characters I know from the past.
There are a lot of influences in the creation of the aesthetic of Die. First of all, it is a tribute to the illustrators from the 70s’and the 80s’ who were workingfor the French comic market where fantasy was huge at that moment. It is very ambitious for a monthly but my model would certainly be gravitating around La Quete de l’oiseau du Temps that I read when I was 23 and which literally made me cry. I absolutely loved seeing the drawings of the artist, Regis Loisel, changing from that typical way of heavily inking from the 70s’to something very pure and clean, graceful.
There is also the work of Angus McBride who was a fantastic technical illustrator, mostly for Osprey, military books. Those books are an absolute reference for anyone who wants a bit of serious in designing uniforms, armors, warriors, from all ages and origins. For the covers, I am sure I have to thank Marko Djurdjevic whose early work was a heavy mix of illustration and graphism. It was so inspiring. I certainlycan also pick some works from Yoshitaka Amano, designer or the first Final Fantasy games.
And yes, John Howe, art director of the Lord of the Rings and official illustrator of J.R.R. Tolkien. Whose work is always grand and dramatic. That’s a lot of people to name, but there are certainly even more that I forget. What you draw is always only the continuation of whatever made you an artist. It’s a life plus this drawing.
Nrama: Who are they up against when they go back to the realm?
Gillen: I tend to talk a lot in interviews. Let's keep this one tight: their pasts and themselves.
Nrama: Would you eventually like to write a module for this book as a tie-in sort of thing? Similar to what David Petersen eventually did with Mouse Guard?
Gillen: It already exists.
I've written the RPG, from scratch, alongside developing the comic. I was going to release it circa the first issue, but it's got spoilers for issue five in it. As such, I decided to release it as a PDF circa the first trade being released. People will be able to buy the trade, download the PDF and have their own Die experience. Assuming nothing goes terribly wrong, of course. It's still in playtesting, but it's going well. The last game I ran was for a group including Jody Houser and Critical Role's Taliesin Jaffe. That was a little intimidating. Thankfully, they liked it.
What that release will be will basically let you have an experience with a similar narrative shape to the first trade of Die but in a couple of sessions. I'm sure people will hack it to run longer, as that's what RPG folks do. If people like it, I hope to include more material in the back of the issue from then on, and if all goes really well, do some manner of fancy edition when we reach the end of Die.
I may be emotionally overcommitted to this book.