A crabby blog complaining about ttrpg design, at least this time
I am supportive of the indie ttrpg industry—I make my home in this industry, and I like to encourage it, so I don't enjoy a negative rant as much as the Internet seems to in general. The indie ttrpg space is small, so a small designer can't poo-poo on the work of another without there being some blowback. But, there should also be room for at least some analysis in this space. This is a conflict. Today I'm disregarding my normal attitude of encouragement and giving myself permission to gripe. My hope is that this blog is not very well read and I can get away with criticism, because this DIE: The Roleplaying Game really burns my buttons.
DIE: The Roleplaying Game is a tabletop RPG based on the DIE comic, created by Kieron Gillen (of X-Men fame, at least that's how I know him) and Stephanie Hans, and produced by Rowan, Rook and Decard, the makers of the good-looking ttrpgs Spire and Heart. The production values of DIE are bonkers. If you are buying a ttrpg for the concept, and for the art, and layout, then this looks like one hot little number. That's not where the problem is.
I got my physical copy of DIE: The Roleplaying Game in the mail after backing the Kickstarter and I've been reading it and mulling it over for...three months now, of negative feeling. (Or has it been more? I've been sitting a while on this ill regard.)
For full transparency, I have not read the comic, and I have not even played the ttrpg, only read the rules. While I am often annoyed at ttrpg reviews that don't involve table play (it's like reading a cake recipe without tasting the cake) the rules in DIE: The Roleplaying Game seem to me to be generic and obvious enough that I doubt the play experience contains many surprises. And aye, there's the rub.
A Matter of System
A fact I bemoan to anyone who will listen is that system does not matter in a ttrpg—at least not at the buying stage of a book. People buy for the art, the buy for the idea, and they buy for the marketing push. They don't buy for system. System is what you discover afterwards that makes you actually want to play it, and keep playing it. However, it's hard to know what a system is really like before you buy, because that would require learning it in the first place. DIE: The Roleplaying Game is, by all of my impressions, banking on this, ignorantly or otherwise.
The gorgeous-looking DIE: The Roleplaying Game ultimately fails like a hunky Fabio who gets by on his looks but can't pass sophomore math. My central conflict with it is the disconnect between DIE's narrative promise and the lack of mechanics to execute those ideas, because there are great ideas, just, nobody thought through not to realise them properly. I put most of the blame on DIE's apparent inability to grow beyond the play expectations of Dungeons & Dragons and its limited scope of understanding the ttrpg landscape of play possibilities. DIE offers a rich setting, and to nail that setting to a D&D play loop represents what I'd characterise as a grievous failure of imagination.
What is it to DIE?
Nominally, the game DIE is about some regular folks from the real world who get sucked into a fantasy world where every monster, maze, and landscape they see is some reflection of their inner demons, insecurities, etc., and therefore every encounter or danger is an opportunity to learn something about the personality of the PC. Sounds fun, but, this is not mechanically reinforced. The best we get is a frequent but passing: "GMs should probably think of character backstory when presenting monsters"-type message, and some pre-game prompts that get the creative juices flowing, but have no necessary baring on play. The NPCs and monsters presented in the book are bog-standard fantasy creatures, and do not embrace their setting.
There is also no mechanical reinforcement for the duality of the "real" people versus their characters—no opposing Statistics for the different halves of the character, for instance. The fantasy character is statted up like an adventure hero, and the "real" character is hand-waved away to unimportant land.
The classes have abilities that are extensions of their setting, and most lend to mutually exclusive play behaviour. The setting would have you set them against each other, at least sometimes, in ideological opposition, but again—DIE: The Roleplaying Game is not prepared to have its PCs separated, let alone to handle PvP. I'm not casting judgement on PvP elements in ttrpgs—look at Mountain Witch or Shinobigami. It can work in a game, but, it's a disruptive element in a dungeon crawl structure, and that's what DIE is. By the rules of the fiction, if all the PCs want to go home to the real world, they can escape and go home together. But if even one of them does not want to, then they're all stuck there. (Given how the text of the role-playing game turns out I assume that in the DIE comic this leads to characters trying to kill each other so one can leave.) This is hinted at as a play strategy in the DIE game, but without a structure for PvP, it fails.
What is mechanically reinforced is the same play loop expectation pervasive to Dungeons & Dragons and its spawn—kill monsters, take their treasure, meet new people and kill them, too. DIE sees ttrpg play through the lens of: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, quite literally. Those are the Statistics in DIE. It pretends not to have Armour Class and Saves in quite the same way by obfuscating them behind other names, but they're there.
No matter how interesting the classes may be (and for the most part they are) they are still just bog-standard-fantasy-adjacent. Even the text admits that this is your not-rogue, and this is your not-cleric, and so on. The abilities they get are interesting enough, but what are you left to do with them? The play loop a character finds themselves in is still an adventuring party travelling town to town (however weird you want to make the setting's visual details) and thwarting whatever, killing whatevers, and collecting whatever before moving on to the next place. You'd run against invisible walls just trying to play your character in the setting they've presented.
There Are More Examples, But You Get the Picture
I'm going to say a mean thing. Are you ready? Here goes. It's like the makers of DIE have never made a ttrpg before, and they're unequipped for the implications of their rules because all they've played is D&D. This is perhaps a strange feeling to get from the game, because DIE has such a strong ludography at the back of the book. Even the Forge-darling Mountain Witch itself appears as an inspiration, although I can see no influence of it, or any of the other unique and interesting games listed there, in DIE.
Is this what people think the indie ttrpg space is—something slightly adjacent to D&D? The ludography at the back of the book says no, D&D is not part-and-parcel of and all that a ttrpg is, but the contents of the book are stuck in affirmation.
In DIE you play D&D, but with abstracted ranges, different die types, and some PbtA-like elements, but none of the them bold enough to be interesting, or (as charitably as I can put it) as interesting as the setting. I don't care that the dice are die pools, because other than an aesthetic consideration on the play-side that does not change anything within the game other than a minor shift in probability. It has a "fail forward" mantra, but so what? If you're prone to playing fail forward then you've been playing it for years. It's not like there was any superior conceptual seating offered in the DIE text to mechanically enforce the idea of fail forward. In the end, DIE's apparent innovations are all superficial.
You may read this and imagine I dislike Dungeons & Dragons. That's not the case. I just don't expect D&D to be something it's not any more than I expect Silence of the Lambs to be re-cut to act a Star Wars movie, without qualitative judgement on either. Where I do cast judgement is on wasted potential.
Maybe I'm Super Wrong
I'm looking around the Internet for other reviews of the game and I seem to be completely alone in my assessment of DIE: The RPG. Everything else I can find is positive, or at least Kickstarter hype. Am I super wrong? (Maybe, it does happen.)
Cynically, there's a few problems with ttrpg reviews, especially indie ones. Reviews tend to be encouraging as a whole, because otherwise people attack on you social media. All the DIE reviews I could find were in and around the Kickstarter—which, to be fair, is when a game is most in popular consciousness, but...also, reviewers can be charitable when getting a free pdf. Beyond that, I do notice that the majority of reviews that they all seem to compare DIE to D&D directly, as though that's a sole point of comparison within the hobby. Sure, it's the market-share elephant in the room, but if you're only bringing up one system as representative of the medium, that's telling. I could still be wrong, but with the structure of ttrpg reviews being so flaws, it's difficult to calibrate myself.
I tried to keep my heart open with this. I backed it because I thought it was super cool in the first place. Defenders of the system are quick to mention the great, heady sections of text about role-playing, but it's really just GMing advice, specifically tailored to each aspect of DIE's characters. But as far as I'm concerned if it were so grand and important to the playing of the game then it would be included in the rules structure, not proffered as advice. DIE's eyes are fixed irrevocably on a particular play style, and the content suffers for it.
If what you want out of ttrpgs is D&D + dash of PbtA sprinkles, and that's as far as you want to explore the medium, maybe DIE looks great to you, and that's fine. For myself, I'm sorry, no.
If there is a game based on the premises presented in DIE then DIE: The Roleplaying Game is not it. What you're told you're going to be doing in DIE: The Roleplaying Game and the mechanics that facilitate play have nothing to do with one another.
In the most charitable reading I can muster, perhaps the game the author plays at their table may be very different than what made it to print, as is sometimes the case. Even so, DIE sits on my shelf like an unfulfilled promise.
I can't help but consider how this seems to happen a lot with ttrpgs these days. Perhaps it was always the case. Who needs mechanics when you can sell your pretty art book with any ill-fitting D&D derivation? Fewer people seem to care about ttrpg mechanics than are publishing them. That a neat idea like DIE can go so wasted and folks will still review it saying: "Yeah it was pretty good"...it just leaves me sour.
Not as Radio James Games today, just as a grumpy GM