22 November 2023
DIE RPG is a roleplaying game based on the comic series of the same name. Trapped in a fantasy world of your obsessions dreams, and nightmares, the 400 page RPG takes you on a journey that asks: what are you prepared to do to escape? And what are you prepared to do to stay? Fan of the comic, and RPG publisher Chris Lowry offers his verdict on the game that is a love letter to classic RPGs, and new exciting ideas all in one.
Do you need to read the comics to play DIE RPG?
A quick caveat: DIE RPG is based off the eponymous comic series. In fact, the game is more than simply “based on” the comics: at points it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins. As a result, there’s a few things you need to know about the series in order to get the most out of the RPG, so be warned that “spoilers” lie ahead. If you are planning on reading DIE one day, I would advise you stop here and read the comics first. You won’t regret it - they are worth the investment in time.
How do you play DIE RPG?
The basic concept of DIE RPG is you roleplay a group of teenagers (and later adults) disappearing into the world of their tabletop roleplaying game. Each player is given a single die and a specific character style or “Paragon.” These include concepts like The Dictator, who gets a D4 and can manipulate (or command) the emotions of other people with devastating effect, or The (D6 wielding) Fool, who survives on the wave-tips of innate luck, swashbuckling their way through the world and being punished if they ever take anything too seriously.
Without divulging too much, as you progress through the campaign and reach the boundaries of your starting world, you’ll uncover the heart of this setting: the nightmare realm. It is here you’ll find a means of connecting to every creative story ever told, including the one you are all currently playing. It’s here that you could be stopped by your GM, who in turn is Mastering as Mary Shelley, who may set Frankenstein’s Monster upon you, an NPC that might not actually be entirely under their control. The whole concept is intensely meta, filled with references to other games, systems and common story-fiction. Does this all sound horribly intimidating to you? Whilst I believe that the execution is top-notch, I can also think of others who would hate it. That’s fine; DIE RPG is not for everyone, but it’s excellent for those it’s aimed at.
I’d go as far as saying DIE RPG is perfect… for the right group. Certainly, those who loved the comics will relish the chance to sink deeply into the lore and mechanics explored across DIE’s 20 (because of course that’s exactly how many issues it has...) As an example, DIE’s visual impact is often intentionally trapped inside a polyhedral shape, a D20 exploded subdivided into 20 flat triangles. It’s the cover framework for each issue and used elsewhere too. In DIE RPG, that shape is used as the framework for Paragon character progression. Pick a reward triangle that’s adjacent to a triangle you’ve already earned. It allows thematic variety in character progression whilst also keeping each character to a familiar shape as they build.
Alongside the unique Paragons with their own dice and special actions, there’s a familiar six stat system with the likes of Strength and Dexterity, DIE RPG nods to D&D so often that using those names is true to its nature. However, the core mechanic underneath is not D&D by any means – it’s a D6 dice pool system where a 4+ is a success and difficulty dictated by how many successes you need. It’s similar to Free League’s Year Zero system, but with slightly added complexity and a little more nuance. I think it lands in a good middle ground, as someone who finds Year Zero a smidge too simplified, whilst D&D fans especially will appreciate a tad more crunch.
The core system still lands firmly in easy-to-run, light-weight territory for me, but with Paragon skills and everything else layered in too? You need a game group prepared for complex concepts. The Dictator has the ability to potentially overrule the emotions and actions of other players! There’s safety mechanics discussed for this, but still. The Fool’s player will be literally scribbling on their physical D6, adding flukes and crosses to future rolls, cheekily handing their dice back to the GM when they do something without preparing, being penalised if they ever dare to plan properly. A game system that relies on cheerful winks and sometimes intentionally irritating each other is certainly a novel one, but not for the faint of heart.
In multiple ways, DIE RPG is an advanced RPG, not particularly suitable for beginners. Again, that’s fine.
Is DIE RPG good?
Firstly, most of us who love RPGs play a LOT of them. We are ready for something built around loving the genre as much as us, with plenty of fellow non-beginners out there itching for something more. Secondly, it’s exciting to see something as revolutionary as DIE RPG existing. Kieron mentions in the introduction that early versions “ballooned to an enormous and unwieldy size,” an understandable consequence when a game becomes dedicated to exploring concepts of metanarrative and self-reflection, which in this final version feel enlightening. I think Rowan, Rook & Decard have pared this game down appropriately, without ever losing sight of a key point: that this hobby, this weird, relational thing we do here? It’s fundamentally magical. The first (of several) GM instruction sections acknowledges this, explaining the steps needed to make that magic work, in a chapter appropriately called “Rituals.”
Even there, DIE RPG gives GM’s an unusually significant role to play. The Games Master doesn’t just dictate the game environment and the odd non-player characters, but has their own role to play - one of the Paragon types being titled “The Master.” Their special dice is, naturally, the D20, and they are the in-world masters of each region on the world of DIE. The real-world GM is also the in-world GM of the fictional realm, who incarnates into the game and is allowed to break rules, both in-character and out-of-character. With this inclusion we’ve reached something so post-modern, I’m not sure who I am any more. The introductory scenario ‘Total Party Kill’ features the players having to roleplay their own fictional, pre-existing fraught relationship with the in-game GM. That’s the introductory adventure! Probably a reasonable way to ease in slowly to a game that includes hard mechanics for unwisely splitting the party and rules for how the GM’s role can gain experience and character advancements.
Visually, DIE RPG has an attractive, clean manual, with lots of vibrant art; whilst not always the clearest design, I’m not sure it would be possible to structure such a squirrelly baseline any better. If I had to point out problems, I did find ‘Specials’ a little underexplained - when rolling a success, getting a 6+ on the dice lets you fire off Special moves or actions. Some require a Double-Special, needing more than one 6+ result to be used, like doubling in Dreadball or raises in Savage Worlds. These are fun and important, yet took me a little too long to fully understand their importance.
This book contains more than just rules of play, including a full bestiary with writing from Adrian Tchaikovsky, Gareth Hanrahan and Tini Howard, amongst others, as well as five scenarios, with the tips and guidance you need to form your Magic Circle and build characters that are moulded with the game you inhabit together.
So, what makes this a Must Play? I found DIE RPG to be a mirror; reflecting back the breadth of a genre and my own experiences within it. It is a love letter to classic RPGs whilst containing some of the newest and most interesting ideas I’ve ever seen, ideas that are both an innovation in mechanics and deeply clothed in self-referential theme, which encourage GM-Player interactions on levels I’ve never experienced before. DIE RPG will feed on the energy that you put into it; just like the comic’s eponymous entity - this game is an amoral beast that exists purely to relish and partake of your play.
Should you play DIE RPG?
Is your game group ready to celebrate RPG in a way they never had before? To be held captive by play as much as conquer it? DIE RPG is confident, challenging and for better or worse, you owe it to yourself to experience this.
This game is a Must-play.
DIE RPG Credits:
Designer: Keiron Gillen & Stephanie Hans
Publisher: Rowan, Rook & Decard