DIE #5 is the conclusion of the first arc of Kieron Gillen’s latest series that deconstructs roleplaying games by way of a story about a roleplaying game. Although the arc is over, Image Comics is reprinting the first few issues, due to high demand. Therefore, if you haven’t read DIE #1 (but especially DIE #4), I do recommend finishing them before reading this review.

DIE #5
Image courtesy of Image Comics.

The “Engine of Drama” Comes to Light in the Plot of DIE #5

I recommended reading DIE #4 before DIE #5, because the latter contains the conclusion to the former. As a reminder, Sol, the Grandmaster, will only return his middle-aged friends back to the real world if they complete a multi-dungeon quest he laid out for them. Because life continues while they remain in the world of the game, the adults bemoan the length of the adventure. This is until Ash, the Dictator, figures out a way to short circuit Sol’s plans. If they destroy Glass Town (the pride of Sol’s world building), he will show up to challenge them. And then, if they can defeat him, they can all go home.

Therefore, in a series that sometimes meanders to explore itself, DIE #5 has a straightforward, procedural plot. This is the story of how the heroes lure their old friend to a fight. But baked into the story is something that Gillen refers to as the “engine of drama” in his back matter essay. That’s because in order to destroy Glass Town, the players (that is, the characters of the story), are forced to examine their desires — what they want out of the game. When characters have competing desires, inter-character drama results. DIE #5 is full of this — at least at the end.

Gillen weaves these two plot threads together seamlessly. Because this is a story about roleplaying games, the character’s desires drive the plot. As such, when the dramatic shoe needs to fall, it does, and it does well.

Die #5
Image courtesy of Image Comics.

The Characters Present the Real-Life Tension Between Player and Game Master Desires

It’s important to remember that DIE the series is a bit of a metaphysical tale. The characters in this story are aware that they’re playing characters in another story, and we, as readers, have to remember that. Where the other entries in the series have been revisionist takes on character classes or even the fantasy genre, DIE #5 stands unique in a respect I didn’t expect. DIE #5 starts as a quest that ends as a story about roleplaying game players.

There’s a saying in the roleplaying game community that no plan survives the player’s decisions. Unlike traditional storytelling, roleplaying games are a team effort; a good narrator (or game master) relinquishes agency to the players. Therefore, a player can always choose to have their character act in a way that is inconsistent with their history in the story.

All I will say about the characters in DIE #5 is that Gillen translates this phenomenon into a traditional story. We are aware that the characters are aware that they are playing a game. And when push comes to shove, the players aren’t afraid to break character to leave the game with utmost urgency.

On the flip-side of the players, however, is the game master. This is the role that Sol fulfills in DIE #5. There’s a brilliant bit of characterization in the beginning of the book that hints that the character’s plan of destroying Glass Town will work. Some game masters (like Sol) set up the story and world they want and won’t take suggestions from the players. It is said that the downfall of a villain is in a refusal to change one’s beliefs. That’s all I will say about Sol.

DIE #5
Image courtesy of Image Comics.

If Nothing Else, Read DIE #5 for the Art

Stephanie Hans’ art in DIE #5 has the same high quality as the other issues in this series. Her line art definitely falls to the more realistic side of things which automatically makes it stand out. But what I really think makes her art exceptional is the colors she uses. She doesn’t shy away from using shadows to underline a dramatic moment in the story or light a panel in red to show danger or violence.  This style does mean that certain details get washed out of the characters — facial expressions, wrinkles, etc. — but the colors more than make up for that typical emotional cue.

One thing I especially liked about DIE #5 is that we got to see Ash use her dictator powers. To indicate the use of magic, not only did Clayton Cowles (the letterer) change the font in the word bubbles, but the color of the bubble itself changes. This is a very small thing that isn’t necessarily uncommon, but it was fun to see here.

DIE #5
Image courtesy of Image Comics.

Final Thoughts on DIE #5

One thing DIE #5 got right that isn’t talked about much in popular roleplaying game culture is inter-player drama. When I was in college, my roommate was involved with a regular Pathfinder group. When he would come back to the apartment, it wouldn’t be stories of the adventure they had; it would be talking about how nitpicky and inconsiderate the other players were. Their real-life drama entered into the game, and vice versa.

There are various reasons for why groups fall apart, and this review is not an appropriate place to begin that discussion. But I think that it’s notable that a series about roleplaying game players actually isn’t afraid to address it. I admire Kieron Gillen for looking at this problem as a way to conclude the first arc. I look forward to seeing the series return later this year.

DIE #5 by Kieron Gillen (writer), Stephanie Hans (artist), and Clayton Cowles (letterer)
The only minor, negative thing about DIE #5 is that you can’t have it without DIE #4. As the follow-up to the aforementioned comic, the plot resolves the procedural question introduced before. But what makes DIE #5 especially good is that the plot introduces the character drama we’ve been primed to expect. Characterization is consistent and reflective of real roleplaying game issues. Even though Stephanie Hans loses some definition in the character’s faces, her art is still exceptional and works to bring the world of DIE to life. Read this comic after DIE #1-#4 — and enjoy it.
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