Tag Archives: Dungeons and Dragons

Die – a review

An impressive meta-narrative fantasy in which a group of friends become trapped in the secondary world of their role-playing gameone that draws knowingly upon the legendarium of classic writers of the genre.

Die is an ongoing comic book series from British writer, Kieron Gillen, and French artist Stephanie Hans (along with lettering from Clayton Cowles; and design from Rian Hughes). It follows the (mis)adventures of a group of friends who, in 1991 had played a Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy table-top role-playing game invented by one of their group, Solomon. They get sucked into the Secondary World it depicts, in the form of their avatar-characters, each one assigned a symbolic die (d4: Dictator; d6: Fool; d8: Grief Knight; d10: Neo; d12: Godbinder; d20: Master). Two years later, they re-emerged traumatised, wounded, and missing a group member. The story picks up a generation later, when, as dysfunctional adults, the unexpected arrival of the magical d20, an icosahedronic call-to-adventure, catalyses them to return to the Fantasy world to free themselves of the various wounds that haunt them. Here they encounter a world ravaged by a seemingly endless war between humanoid races (humans; elves; hobbits) and a mechanoid Prussian army. Here the metanarrative layering (‘real’ people playing characters in a Fantasy world) takes on a literary level, as Gillen draws upon the legendarium of the Brontës juvenilia, (Angria; Gondal; Glass Town); and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. But all is perverted by the virus of its deranged demi-urge. Here, in an act of ironic instauration hobbits are cast as Tommies in a version of the First World War presided over by Tolkien himself (whose first-hand experience of the Somme and loss of two of his dearest fellowship influenced the creation of his epic). In the second volume, a gothed-up Charlotte Brontë makes an appearance as another demiurge haunting her own creation (and in one of the better sequences, the ‘backstory’ of the Brontës is related by her). In later issues other literary luminaries make appearances, such as H.G. Wells. This layering could easily become a post-modernist hall of mirrors. Endless intertextuality does not in itself make something work – indeed it can seem pretentious, overly showy (a magician drawing attention to his own tricks: ‘Look at me! Aren’t I clever!’) and can belie a lack of confidence in one’s own ideas. Fortunately, the main characters are well written – each with their exceptional skills and demons to face – and the dynamic between them convincing. This is a great ensemble piece. The dialogue is snappy. The artwork is stunning. I must admit I am less engaged with the plot. Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker brilliantly sets everything up – slickly introducing the characters, the backstory, and the inciting incident. It quickly plunges us into the glorious technicolour of the Fantasy world, where there are dragons, sexy elf queens (based on a sixth form crush of one of the characters), and a lot of action. The second volume ‘splits the party’, and the narrative traction is impaired, I felt, by a somewhat atomised plot. Characters go off and ‘do stuff’, but it is harder to relate or care. It still looks impressive, and if you are hooked by this stage, no doubt you will want more ‘fixes’ – and there are 3 collected volumes, and 14 issues to date to feed your habit. To take the metanarrative to the extreme, Gillen has created a RPG based on Die, so you can now play a person, playing a character… This is perhaps a bit mind-bending for some, but it shows Gillen’s creative verve. It certainly takes what could easily be a formulaic ‘hack-and-slay’ to a whole new level. Die is well-written and beautifully illustrated (and designed). The collected volumes come with some interesting essays and variant covers, adding to the value-for-money. This is a fine example of creative collaboration from a talented team.

Checkout Die at: https://diecomic.com/

Kevan Manwaring 2021

Gods Playing Dice

Writing and RPGs

1024px-Traveller_books

The classic edition of Traveller, Game Designer’s Workshop, 1977

As a young man back in the spiked, crimped velveteen 80s I spent many an happy hour enjoying sessions of role-playing games (now suddenly fashionable). These undoubtedly nurtured my writerly imagination for it is through them I caught the bug for storytelling and creating detailed scenarios. The three systems that enthralled me the most were the classic version of Dungeon & Dragons, Call of Cthulu (based upon the works of HP Lovecraft) and Traveller – through them I experienced the immersive delights of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. It is the latter that is particularly on my radar at the moment, for my SF novel, Black Box, is ready for launch (being published through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound). Although the novel has been consciously informed by a lifetime of reading and watching SF, by Climate Change, and by research into space exploration and artificial intelligence at the University of Leicester where I’m currently completing my PhD, looking back I realise that those lively sessions with fellow schoolmates (in particular Garrie Fletcher, who has gone onto to become a wordsmith too) really nurtured the ‘SF brain’ part of me. With its stylish series of black manuals, and hard edge, Traveller was always the coolest of the RPGs, the Fonz of the whole Happy Days bunch. Each session, usually held around ‘Budgie’s house’, another schoolmate from Mereway, felt like being inside an episode of one of our favourite TV shows – Blake’s 7, Dr Who, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (this was pre-Firefly days and that show in particular captures the maverick freebooting attitude of the game – a motley crew taking on some dodgy mission for a fistful of credits, normally running the gauntlet of the Imperium, space pirates and hostiles). The main benefit of these games was, of course, the social angle – lifesaving for a bunch of awkward nerds (speaking personally): the sessions were some of the most enjoyable spent as a teenager – hearty laughter, shared creativity, and heart-pumping excitement. But in hindsight, as someone who has made writing the heart of their career, I see other spinoffs that have a direct benefit to novelists: immersiveness (far more visceral than any virtual reality); multilinearity (complex branching narratives effected by one’s choices); storytelling (how to engage and sustain an audience, create narrative traction, suspense and tension); characterisation (designing vivid characters, improvising dialogue); the importance of setting (almost a character in its own right – certainly spaceships can be); and fictionality (the giddy freedom of making stuff up, spinning a yarn, and weaving worlds out of thin air). These have all become of primary importance in my novel-writing. Of course novels seem, on the surface, less multi-cursory and multi-player – they are a direct interface between author and reader (although they can be shared by millions) – but in the composition of them, the malleability of the plot, the behaviour of the characters, and the volatility of the structure, makes it feel like being in a ‘session’ as DM,  player-characters, and non-player characters – a schizophrenic’s paradise. Aspects of your personality talk back at you: shock, astound and devastate – and you risk coming across as a complete loon, bursting out laughing or crying out in frustration at a screen. Anything can happen in the white void of the blank page. The lonely long-haul of writing a novel may lack the sociability of a RPG (except in the camaraderie with fellow writers and, if you’re lucky, readers), but in compensation one has complete creative control (eventually, if the wild beast of the book can be tamed sufficiently). It can bring out the emperor-god-being in you, the tyrannical deity that plucky characters loved to frustrate. As with the best DMs, who run a game ‘dice-light’, biasing the flow of storytelling over a punctilious compliance with the rules, the best writers always allow their characters to have a lucky break now and then, and to steal the show over a mechanical fulfilment of plot. And writers weaned on RPGs will always remember who the narrative is ultimately for – not the ‘god behind the screen’ but the reader-participant.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 30 April

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/