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To Live and DIE at SDCC with Kieron Gillen, Jody Houser, Jim Zub & More

Kieron Gillen's comics have life beyond their pages -- they are participatory. Fans of The Wicked and the Divine, which released its penultimate issue earlier this month, took part in the world of Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson's doomed young gods not only through impeccably gorgeous cosplay, but also through comic-con dance parties that Gillen and McKelvie DJ.

As WicDiv nears its conclusion, though, DIE, Gillen's new Image Comics series co-created with artist Stephanie Hans, is just getting started. The first trade paperback collecting issues #1-5 is in stores now, with the sixth issue arriving August 7. And like The Wicked and the Divine, there's more to DIE than the comic -- and you don't even need to hit up a major comic-con to take part.

DIE follows the story of six friends who played a mysterious Dungeons and Dragons-esque game as teenagers and mysteriously vanished for several years. When they finally return home, they're changed -- and their game master did not return at all. The game had transported the friends into a fantasy world, formed and utterly under the control of their game master. And in the first arc, they have to go back.

To delve deeper into Gillen and Hans' new world, though, readers may want to play DIE for themselves, and Gillen is only too happy to oblige. The DIE Open Beta is available to download for free at http://diecomic.com/rpg/

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I had an opportunity to play the game with Gillen, Doctor Who and Stranger Things comics writer Jody Houser, Champions and Dungeons and Dragons writer Jim Zub, and Geek and Sundry's Amy Dallen and Sam de Leve after Comic-Con International in San Diego. Commandeering a conference room in the Hilton Bayfront after the con closed, we tested the game within a game using an unlikely scenario: That we were a group of people who worked in comics, in various roles, come together to play a role playing game. Skipping over the more specific mechanics, which are all available on the RPG's beta site, here is a recap of some of our game's larger strokes to give a feel for how it works and perhaps help folks run their own.

The first thing to know about DIE, the game, is that there are layers to the role playing. The first round of character generation is to create "personas," the "real world" group of people who are playing the game of DIE; this level is equivalent to the characters in DIE, the comic.

"The structure of the game is, you generate a social group. These are real world people, doing real world things, with real world issues," Gillen explained. "Where your life's gone wrong, where your life's gone right, and basically you all used to know each other. Then you step away from the table, come back as the persona you just created. Then we sit down and generate a role playing game character each, in character.

"So we play a role playing game as a role playing game. Then we get transported to a fantasy world at some point. Then we go home -- or not."

DIE is designed to run across multiple sessions, but for this go-round, Gillen ran an abbreviated version (the aim was to do it in an hour) with the scenario pre-defined; That is, Gillen decided before we met for the game that our personas would be comics industry folks at Comic-Con, and he also narrowed some of the available character abilities. Players with more time can decide how the group of friends knows each other and why they have reunited.

Unlike in D&D, one key mechanic is that the Dungeon Master -- or Game Master in DIE -- is also a player-character. While the players generate their own personas, the Game Master decides their character class based on information gleaned from the persona generation round.

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For the sake of as much clarity as possible, I will refer to the players by their real names and their persona names, except when they are speaking as themselves.

Amy Dallen's persona was Laney, the writer of a popular comic called The Chronicle, which will form the backbone of this game. She describes it as "a fantasy comic with a time travel element," with "little side characters people fall in love with."

Jim Zub, as publisher Max Tribune, controls the rights to The Chronicle, and sunk a movie deal because he would not give up the merchandising rights. Asked why he's in the comics industry in the first place, Zub/Max said, "What I tell comics is that comics are the perfect vehicle for a narrative and visual function with a tight-focused creative team that knows what they want."

Also, he fired The Chronicle's editor, his older brother Tony, also known as Kieron Gillen. "I couldn't blame the lateness of the creative team, so I blamed it on you."

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Sam de Leve was Kiri, the artist of The Chronicle who had left the series for a time, but has recently returned. They continue to struggle with a hand injury, and even The Chronicle's biggest fan does not think Kiri's work lives up to what it once was.

Jody Houser is Julie Mayfaire, a major figure in The Chronicle's fan community who started a Twitter profile for one of the series' popular side characters.

Ugh, and I'm Theo, the Journalist. I leaked news of Kiri's injury. I don't even like The Chronicle. But Laney respects me because I "got someone really bad out of the industry." More on this later.

"Oh my God, this con, I am basically made of sweat," Gillen said as Tony to kick off the game.

"Do you remember back in the '90s, there was this weird story about some kids were playing a knockoff D&D game, something like that, and they just disappeared for a few years?" Gillen said. "There's been kind of knockoff copies of the game going around, and I got hold of one."

"Did you buy that off ebay or what?" Zub said as Max Tribune. "Please tell me you did not pay a lot of money for this."

"I don't have a lot of money to pay for anything," Gillen/Tony said. "Bro."

Shortly, players began receiving their role playing classes, each with a unique die. (Gillen often uses the word "dice," despite it usually being the plural, specifically to distinguish the piece from the game itself; this is mentioned in the rules, so doesn't count as an error.)

"Max, this… is the only d10 in the entire game," Gillen/Tony said.

"They probably should have put more in there," Zub/Max replied, attaining the designation of Neo, a knight-like character essentially addicted to mystical gold coins.

Dallen's Laney received a d12 to become a Godbinder, a magic user who can perform miracles by making pacts with gods.

Kiri, de Leve's character, got the d8 for Emotion Knight, a hero whose powers increase with their chosen emotion -- in Kiri's case, Grief.

As Theo, I got the d4 to become a Dictator, with the power to manipulate emotions, often to catastrophic effect.

Houser's Julie got the d6. "There's nothing special about it," Gillen/Tony said. "Enjoy it, Fool."

Finally, Gillen's persona Tony gave himself the d20, the die of the Master.

"Wait, this is a game where you get to play and be in charge?" said Zub/Max.

Now, it's time for the personas to generate their characters. Before the game began, Gillen mentioned that the generation can often take an hour or more, and sometimes serves as the entire first session. But again, we were shooting to conduct a whole game in an hour.

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Zub/Max and Gillen/Tony bantered about their childhood playing D&D, and a Paladin Max had created called Silverstar. "He was really good," Zub/Max said. "He was so straight down the line. I was going to play a fighter, but a paladin was better, and you said you wouldn't let me play a paladin unless I was really, really good. You told me that I couldn't be, that I wasn't good enough. And I said, I'll show you. And I was. I played two years and I was the best, I was Lawful Good."

"I'm not sure if you're just doing it for reward it counts as Lawful Good, though," Gillen/Tony said.

The Godbinder had the opportunity to choose which god they favored, and Dallen/Laney's god is Thorn, god of the wild. Which (prompted by Gillen) is also the name of a character who died in The Chronicle #3.

"This is where it gets weird," Gillen/Tony said. "Everyone take your die, hold it out, shut your eyes .. and slowly lower the dice to the table, release the dice, breathe deeply … and open your eyes."

"Everything's changed."

Gillen describes the setting as still the room in the Bayfront, but with the color faded out. "Like we're in this bleached photograph universe."

And our dice are floating 6 inches above table in "Eldrich energy."

Gillen's Tony picks up his die first and transforms. "He's about 6'6" and covered in robes. You see these dark red eyes glowing in there," Gillen said. "He smiles and says, 'I'll see you in Hall H.'"

And then he disappears.

But there's a tap tap tap sound coming from down the corridor, like the sound of typewriter keys. So Zub/Max grabs his die, and transforms. Then, Houser/Julie transforms as well.

Our first encounter begins as an enemy appears, looking like "an obsidian statue" of the writer I destroyed. "His eyes are gone entirely, he has this long black ponytail that you realize turns into a snake about halfway down his back," Gillen said. "His legs are basically a series of typewriters tied together as he moves like a millipede across the floor."

Gillen asked what the writer was like; Dallen/Laney had described him as "really bad," and there are any number of real-world comics pros I might have based my answer on. But for some reason the first creator who popped into my head was someone I'd first met earlier at the con, who (so far as I know) is not accused of any wrongdoing. And since I'd already had in mind that Theo was a bit of a heel, I decided that Theo had lied.

And so our the monster, who would soon come to be known as Ink-Spewing Steve, began shouting, "Lies! Lies! Lies!"

Dallen's Laney transforms next, then de Leve as Kiri. de Leve describes their Grief Knight as "Bigger, swoler…" prompting Gillen to interject, "Swole Playing Game!"

Theo, at this point, does not transform. During persona generation, we were asked about our personas' heroes. I threw out, sort of as a joke, Mike Pence. This ended up defining my persona more than the journalist aspect, because as soon as we were transported to DIE's fantasy world I realized how someone who idolized Mike Pence would react: He would be paralyzed with fear at the sheer demonicness of it all.

De Leve/Kiri hears Theo muttering "I can't be a part of this," and says, "I want to slam your hand down onto the die -- you have to be a part of this." But while Kiri nearly breaks all the bones in Theo's hand, Gillen as Game Master says, "As long as he's not wanting to pick it, it's like a brick wall." Combat begins with Theo in human form.

As Dallen/Laney contemplates her attack, a voice (Gillen) behind her says, "Boy, I hope you get out of this better than I did." It's Thorn, her character who died in Issue #3. "If you need a favor, we'll sort it out. Bye!"

As the fighting begins, Gillen asks us how our characters are feeling.

"I'm really angry at you for taking off," Zub/Max said. "I'm mad at Tony because he clearly knew more about this than he was letting on."

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Villainous Steve begins spewing black ink everywhere, and "the black ink is sort of screaming," Gillen says.

And while the enemies swarm, Gillen tempts Zub/Max's Neo with a prize, the gold coins he needs to survive. "You can see the gold, I'll just put that out there."

Zub/Max decides to "slide around one of these creatures and grab the gold while shooting." Despite a disadvantage to his roll -- "we must have a bad die, otherwise the other dice can't be shamed" -- this move succeeds, and Max receives a coin that Gillen describes as reminding Max of love at first sight. Gillen tells Max to place the coin in a slot that's just opened at the back of his head. "You just feel like you want it there, like it's a good place to keep it."

With the arrival of minor enemies called the Fallen -- taking the form of "a load of wannabe writers … the people you try to give advice and they don't take it well? These people, but with blades for hands" -- Theo's self-preservation kicks in and I pick up my die. Theo wants the fallen to fear him, but Gillen warns, "The problem is not succeeding, it's not breaking them." I roll a 3 on my special die, with modifiers that I can take it down to 1 or up to 5. "Four would be enough to take [the Fallen] off the board." I take it to 5.

"One of the writers looks, and then it just sort of stares, and then it immediately rams its blades through its own head, and then just drops to the floor, it's that afraid," Gillen said. "How do you feel?"

"Theo feels pretty good."

Gillen laughed. "There's two responses to Dictator: 'Oh dear, what have I become?' and 'Cool!'"

Houser/Julie's Fool has a good roll and kills all of the Fallen, leaving only Ink-Spewing Steve, who "throws himself loomingly at Theo."

Zub/Max finishes off Steve with energy blade. "Sorry, pal." Which is just the same thing he said to a writer's face when he cancelled their book. He watched their expression "like I had taken away a part of their dignity." Max gets another gold coin for his effort.

Gillen again checks in with our personas.

"Julie knows she should be scared, but this is just so fucking cool," Houser said. "No other fan of Chronicle gets to do this shit! This is amazing!"

De Leve as Kiri lamented, "I couldn't even fucking kill this thing. Max did." Gillen tells them to "push up your sadness to 2," adding that 3 is about as bad as most people would get, and 4 is "really really bad, unlikely you'd get there naturally."

"I'm absolutely frozen because I just don't understand what's happening," Dallen said of Laney. "But also I just shot briars out of my hands and my own character is talking to me. So I've got this wild-eyed, gazing around me look as I'm trying to process all this. But I did notice that Max got all the coins."

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Zub's Max is running coins between his fingers, "doing David Bowie flips between the knuckles." "I know this isn't normal, I know this is all crazy, but whenever I'm under stress I'm an immediate task-driven person. This is what needs to get done, nobody else is getting it done, I'm going to get it done, and that's why I succeed. Or at least, that's what I convince myself."

"I was relieved that Max was able to get Steve off of me, because I don't want to deal with Steve at all," I said of Theo. "I'm thankful, but I'm struggling with the fact that I picked up the die and that I enjoyed using it."

Back in the game, the sky is shaking. The group decides to make a run for Hall H.

Houser's Julie exclaims, "I've never been to Hall H!"

"You can tell this is a fantasy game, because we're going to Hall H," Gillen joked.

Downtown San Diego has been remade in the image of a fantastically successful Chronicle movie starring Aubrey Plaza, and the streets are packed with people cosplaying Kiri and Laney's characters. "Did I say people? I don't think 'people' is the right word, actually," Gillen added. "It's more like the Walking Dead version of the Chronicle," with the dark cosplayers forming "a literal sea of people pressed shoulder to shoulder, all trying to get into Hall H."

Gillen once again took the role of Thorn to tempt Laney. "There has been a deal struck for this place to exist," he said. "If you all agree to go home, you can all go home. If you all agree to stay, you can actually stay here and make it whatever you want it to be."

"It's full of zombies!" Dallen's Laney said.

"Yeah. I don't think the person who created this place is very good at his job."

Laney strikes a deal to bring Thorn back in the comics, in exchange for a massive bridge of briars over the cosplayers.

Laney tells Kiri, "We're bringing Thorn back."

To which Theo sighs, "Whaaaat." This is a quite the exclusive -- can I tweet from here?

Gillen jokes, "It's your Rich Johnston moment."

Coming into Hall H through "the gates of Sentinalia" from Chronicle, the party finds Tony up on stage, fighting off the fans and "various of the actors have been killed already." Gillen says that Kiri recognizes some of the fans, but "they're all the same person," a bit like "a crowd scene done by a bad artist."

"Fucking crowd scenes, though!" de Leve's Kiri says.

"But you wouldn't have done that."

"Not at my peak."

With the enemies defeated, the endgame begins. Tony makes his pitch. "We just couldn't make the Chronicle like we wanted to," Gillen said as Tony. "I was promised that if I came here we could make a world where the Chronicle was real."

But after his attempt created the nightmare version of San Diego, Gillen/Tony said, he recognized that "I wasn't good enough."

"I realized I would have to bring you here with me."

"If we stay here, we can make the Chronicle real. We can build this world from scratch."

Gillen/Tony tells Zub/Max to "look beneath your robes." Max is wearing "the bright silver armor" of Silverstar. "You could be anything here."

While Houser's Julie is enticed by the idea of being part of the Chronicle team, Dallen/Laney catches something. "Who promised you, Tony?"

"It promised me. It said it could be like this, and it was," Gillen said as Tony. Then, Gillen as narrator continued. "He's running through the mansions of his mind, and he's found a backdoor, and that backdoor opens onto an infinitely black terrain that goes on forever. And then he's closed the door, and he's shrugged," Gillen said. "He really appears to clearly not know."

The party finds them once again imperiled as the world begins to quake, a "moment like a snow globe shaking."

Each member of the group contemplates their options. Max sees his reflection in armor "and I don't recognize myself."

As Theo, "I don't even know what I'd do if I went back." Knowing that such a place exists, being confronted by my mistakes, and that I took part in the magic -- and enjoyed it. Theo is inclined to stay.

Flexing their worldbuilding muscles, de Leve/Kiri attempts to create the Sapient Forest from their series. "The sky is really pure," Gillen narrates, like when Kiri's mom took them to camp as a kid, "and it's one of the last moments you can remember being purely happy. … But if you stay you'll never see your mum again."

The ritual begins, with each persona announcing their intention to stay or go -- all must be in agreement. After Gillen/Tony and Houser/Julie say they will stay, the riitual breaks when Kiri says they don't want to stay. "I heard what Laney said to Julie. I would be the selfish one who would break someone else's career."

Dallen as Laney commands Thorn to show himself.

"Thorn comes in from the side like a guest appearance, like a surprise comic con guest," Gillen says.

"Ugh, he's even worse in person than I could have imagined," says Zub/Max.

Gillen again: "He is the most fabulous god of the wild."

Thorn explains to the party that if they can't come to a decision on which everyone agrees -- whether that's to remain in the game or return home -- everyone dies. "If someone were to chhk," Gillen/Thorn said, making the universal symbol for "get killed," "their vote doesn't count anymore."

After some discussion, even Game Master Tony agrees to return home. "Those years, those early issues were the only good thing I've ever done. I don't want you all to die," Gillen/Tony said.

"Immediately, everyone is thrown back, and you're back in the hotel, in the room," Gillen says. "The security guard at the door is saying, what the hell are you all doing here?"

To wrap up, Gillen asks the group how this experience has changed what the personas are going to do.

"I'm quitting the website," I said as Theo. "I need to reevaluate everything in my life. The honest answer is, I don't know what I'm going to do next, but I know I can't do what I've been doing." Theo's story concludes with him receiving a note from Steve, admitting he was in a bad place already when Theo ruined his career, and hoping Theo can find his peace as well.

Zub/Max re-incorporates his publishing empire as a collective, Too Many Characters Ltd., with Tony, Kiri, Laney, and Julie as partners. Gillen resolves Max's story by telling him that when Max's business card arrives, it is black with a silver lining. "You didn't ask for this. It reflects, and you see your face in it, and it reminds you who you are."

De Leve's Kiri emphatically decides "I'm not pencilling and inking and coloring. ... But holy hell, do I give love to your covers." Gillen reveals that their covers get better, which de Leve notes may be in part because, under the co-op, they will have health insurance and can receive occupational therapy. Gillen continues that, after a time, Kiri finds themself on stage for a win for Best Covers at the Eisners, specializing in art with "no characters, just settings."

"And they beat Jen Bartel," Houser joked good naturedly, referring to Bartel's win the previous Friday.

"Laney gets a wild haircut for the first time in her life. Laney reads her contract, which she's never done before," Dallen said. But the previously straight-laced writer begins to "experiment a little bit" to recapture the sensation of her characters talking to her. Gillen tells her that everything works out for the best. "Thorn works really well as a character, and there's a twitchy darkness to your work now. And Thorn ends becoming kind of a puckish character. He almost seems out of control, but somehow not actually out of control."

Houser's Julie, though, diverges from the group. She begins writing in earnest and "asks Laney for advice, [but] realizes comics aren't her thing." Julie wants to create something people care about so much they will "break the world apart to make it real." Twenty years down the line, she is a successful literary writer, and her agent approaches her about adapting The Chronicle.

"Thank you for playing DIE," Gillen concluded, just over two hours since the game began.

"I think the answer to the question, 'Can I run it in an hour?' -- the answer is 'no!'"

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