As 2018 saw the release of not one, but two comics heavily influenced by role playing games, we thought the answer to the question of "Why?" might be best answered by pitting two of the creators involved against one another in a tabletop conversation. Hence this: a back and forth about role playing games, comics, and all the various parts of personal history that come along with those conversations between writer Kieron Gillen (who teamed up with Stephanie Hans to create Die, published by Image Comics) and Tim Sievert (the cartoonist responsible for The Clandestinauts, published by Uncivilized Books). Prepare yourselves for candor. - The Editors
Kieron Gillen: One of my friends – I tend to run the game for most people, but I was aware that one of my friends asked me, “what do you play?” And, like, half the characters I play are just complete idiots. That’s my psyche place in terms of – “let me just be a Labrador” and, like, ruin everything for everybody.
I was just about to ask you about Clandestinauts in terms of, like – I suppose in the most widest sense – do you want to tell me about how you end up coming to do that? And where you came from?
Tim Sievert: Sure. Yeah, I guess, I was gonna start– I think we should start like this. I want to ask you, what is your history and background with role-playing games in general? So we get a little backstory on both of us and then we can talk about–
That would be the sensible thing to do. I mean, we should go – want to do, like, the party game where we have to, like – okay, best RPG ever? Worst RPG ever? And then we fight. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] That wouldn’t be good. You’ll see why. You’ll learn why very quickly.
Oh, dear. Okay, The first role-playing game I ever had must’ve been my eleventh– I was eleven at Christmas so, ’85, I think. That’d be ten. I must be wrong. Anyway – and I got the Middle Earth role-playing game as in the games where shops did a box edition in the UK. That was, like, ludicrously complicated for this 10 or 11-year-old me. And I’ve sort of been playing on-and-off ever since. Got off-and-off because my previous life used to be a games critic, like, I did games journalism, I worked for places like PC Gamer. I founded Rock, Paper, Shotgun. So half my friends are still games journalists. There’ve been entire periods where I have not played tabletop games of various sorts and the gaming’s constant, but, like, what the game form it takes – uh, and in the last, like, five years it’s been tabletop and role-playing game stuff primarily. And I went in hard in these five years. I haven’t even played a triple-A video game, I think. Like, no more for like two hours. But, all the way from my teenage years I played – I started on MERPs [middle-earth role-playing], my longest campaign was Warhammer fantasy roleplay. I never played full-fat D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] until my twenties. I played very briefly. I played D&D Redbox, you know, the D&D basic for a little while before we jumped into Warhammer and just started being very grim in the old world. And then I segued into stuff like Cyberpunk and a load of GURPS games [Generic Universal Role-Playing – an multi-genre game, basically]. I kind of hated stuff like, what is it called, Rifts? That was never really my thing, but I basically ended up clearly doing my own [version of a similar sort of thinking] – what was eventually my own riffs in terms of all the mashup stuff [in GURPS]. And it dropped off when I went into university and I did some stuff at university, but only, like, casually. But I played stuff like Amber there and Feng Shui and that kind of thing. And when I went to– when I got into a real life in my twenties, I was going out too much. [Laughs.] So, that was basically a time when I did very little tabletop games and it came back more recently when I play all manner of indie stuff. I got a mate of mine, Quintin Smith, who runs a game site called Shut Up & Sit Down and both of us kind of wanted to dive back into RPGs so, we made this group where we basically play short games, like, one to four sessions and, like, tapas basically. [Laughter.] So, we just try to play a lot of different games to see what’s out there. And that was me. What about you, Tim?
[Laughter.] Well, that’s funny because I’m the exact, total opposite. Exact opposite. When I was a kid I never played any RPGs, I didn’t – it was, like – I was a big nerd, right. I read comics and I played video games and liked wrestling and every nerdy thing you could do, but my best friend and I prided ourselves on, “we’re nerds, we’re total nerds, but we don’t play these nerd games.”
Yeah, I avoided it forever, forever and ever and ever, and then I got – a couple of friends in college were playing it and I sort of watched them play and I was like, “this is weird, this is cool,” and then it wasn’t until, honestly, until after college, probably about 2007? ’06 or ’07? A friend of mine was, like, moving and he found all his old books and he was like, “you know what? We should get everybody together and play D&D.” And I was like, “I’ve never played D&D.” So, we started playing the fourth edition and, yeah, I started playing for the first time and we had a giant group of people playing and it was idiotic and insane [Gillen laughs] and chaotic. It was, you know, it was tons of fun. I’d never – “Oh, I didn’t know it was like this! This is awesome, I should’ve been doing this my whole life.” So, I started playing with them and we played a couple times and had a really good time and then we went to fifth edition and played that for a while and then everybody had babies and disappeared.
I haven’t really played in a while. So, I have, I mean, I have – The only other experience I had was when I was a kid, a friend of mine got a copy of HeroQuest. HeroQuest is sort of a board game-based D&D lite, you know, certain elements. And I remember, I went over to his house and he had it set up and I was like, “what is this game? What is this?” I wanted to play board games like this my whole life, I don’t want to play Monopoly, I don’t want to play any of these boring things. Swords and orcs and running around? I wanna do this. So, I was, like – I went home – we never played it, like, we didn’t play it. I was just, like, looked at his set up, I was like, “I need to get this game.” So, I went home and was like, “I gotta get this game, I gotta get this game, I gotta get this game,” and I got it for my birthday a couple months later and I remember my dad, my dad was a police officer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, right? And so, I remember opening this game and being like, “oh! This is so great, I’m so happy,” and he’s like, “is this anything like Dungeons and Dragons?” And I was like, “no, no, it’s not at all. It’s not anything like that.” And then, I, like, started – we started reading through the rulebook and it’s like – you look at that rulebook now and there’s not much to it. When I was, like, ten years old, I was like, “this is the most insane thing ever.” And I was like, “this isn’t like D&D at all,” and he’s like, “Okay, good. Because those D&D guys, they’re murdering each other. They’re going – the game’s making them crazy.” [Laughter]. So, then, I was like, “Oh, no, it’s not like that at all, dad. Don’t worry about it,” and so, yeah, and then I ended up never playing it and then, when I was an adult, after I played D&D, I was like, “I have to get my HeroQuest back. I have to go find a copy on eBay,” and, you know, relive that childhood glory.
What do you make of it now?
I love it. I love HeroQuest now mostly because it’s a fun way to be, like – I mean, I have people who I suggest play D&D all the time. I’m like, “you guys should play, you’ve never played, it’s tons of fun,” and they’re like, “I don’t – it’s too hard to grasp.” “Then come over and play HeroQuest with me and you can get a feel for it and understand this is kind of how it works and I’ll just take it to another level.”
We did this recently. One of my – like, last year – one of my friends and his wife and my wife, we actually did – sort of had a HeroQuest dinner party thing. There's a new edition of [Warhammer Quest], which is kind of inspired by HeroQuest – there’s a story–
And there’s a campaign of it. So, for like once a month for like about ten months we went over to their place, had food and drink, then we played an adventure quest, killed some orcs down in a dungeon and repeated it. So, it’s like, a very grownup thing, but at the same time, we were definitely pushing men around tables. It was a hell of a time.
Yeah? That sounds awesome.
You were talking about, you saying – I don’t know, the RPG curiousness, this interested thing. That’s kind of – Chrissy, my wife, she’s a poet – And the reason she ended up joining us in this group is because she’d been listening to a podcast, it was Harmontown. So, they did this comedy D&D game in the end. And by watching that, similar to you, is that kind of “this is interesting,” or like, “this isn’t just weird and inaccessible as I thought it would be,” and that’s why she wanted to try it. In fact, I mean, it’s a weird situation at the mo’, where I keep being offered up to take people’s virginity in this kind of way [laughs.] Chrissy was hanging out with some poet friends and they – “I’m curious in playing an RPG.” So, you’ve got these quite serious academic poets in London [laughs] and it’s like, “well my husband will do it for you.” [Laughs.] I just lure these people in. But it’s fun, it’s an interesting time in that way.
Yeah, it’s awesome.
I mean, you talk about looking down on RPG, there’re even nerdier things than RPGs. I remember, like, when I was at university, some of the people I played with briefly, we spoke about it in code. [Laughs.] We said it, it was, “I’m going to go ‘vole flaying.’” “Oh, yeah! Vole flaying!” [Laughter.] Like we’d rather admit mutilating rodents, so yeah, we only ever referred to it like that. But, yeah.
You are a RPG master [Gillen laughs] and I am a RPG whatever. I play whenever I can, but I haven’t played in a long time. It’s been a long time.
So, what was it that got to you?
It was just, like – well first up it was like, I get to hang out with this group friends – a few of the friends I hang out with, a couple are cartoonists, but more of us were sort of normal people. They get, usually, get really tired if we’re at a party, we’re sitting around, my friend Brett and I are just talking about comics the whole time or whatever, so it’s like, it was cool to have an activity we could all do where we’re all talking about stuff that, like, I could talk about. Like, you know, like, “oh, I’m really into this conversation and I can continue, I can engage in this a lot,” and then it was – people describe RPG gaming and playing games as like group storytelling, which – that sort of clicked with me, this is what was really interesting and sort of what led to the Clandestinauts. You know, I’m sitting with some of my favorite people in the world and we’re given this premise and now we get tell this story to ourselves about what is happening, you know, I know how I would tell this story, I know how I would wanna do it, but all of these other players are their own special kind of maniacs and they’re going to take this story in a place I never would. In a way that I would never take it, so, just like, you know, finding out or seeing where you end up four hours later is, like – I never – this is awesome, this is amazing, this is super – I come at it from a storytelling perspective and it’s just fun.
Clandestinauts – One of the things that struck me about it is the level of “you did what?” Like any RPG once you’ve been playing it and the moment you look over the table and someone has gone “Wait a sec, you’ve just did that? Really?” That’s awesome. Let’s see what happens next, you know, that incredibly freeing of it all? The last interview I did was Elana at Graphic Policy and we were talking about RPG stuff, and she’s like a really hardcore narrative type of person, like RPG-wise. Hardcore is overselling it. Hardcore is a weird word. But anyway, she ended up sort of describing the idea of RPG groups as “bands” you know what I mean? Like, it’s a group of people, its like bands for narrative, you get together and you jam out this story, and it's simultaneously all of you or none of you. And its definitely the wonderful synergy of it all, which I do dig. There’s this thing about games I find–there’s definitely games where you are just completely sitting around telling a story and its really just the story. But like, the thing I find fascinating is like the moments when the dice take it away from you. And that’s for me, the weird thrill of making it real. As in the idea of “oh, we’ve all decided this, and now we’re actually going to offer our self up to a higher power of like random numbers [laughs.] And that will push us one way or the other, and then we have to live with it. And that’s an amazing way to externalize –it’s not just us sitting here bullshitting, it’s this whole other thing that takes it away from us and makes it real, I guess. Who was it, I forget, the whole kind of idea that games of chance are kind of games of character? Somebody said that, I forget who it was, some old myth about the idea that kings have to play games of chance to understand that its not always just math. [Laughs.]
Sometimes, you’re just screwed. Um, yeah, I’m rambling. I suppose like, it makes a lot of sense that you’ve been new to RPGs. There’s always thing kind of, “well oh my god, I’ve spent a lot time”. I’m 43, and I’ve played RPGs for 33 years on and off. So, the idea of looking back, “Okay, what the fuck was all that about? Why the hell did this stuff get beneath your skin?” And Clandestinauts is very much like the pop-thrill of it all. You know, it feels like “oh no, I’m in a whole new world and anything can happen" and it’s got this phenomenal momentum to it. Which is really the main thing, well not the main thing, but one of the things I got from it certainly. I love your dog behind you, by the way. Is that a dog or a cat? Oh, the animal’s moving.
Oh, that’s a big fat cat.
Oh, is that? It’s a big cat!
He’s gone then.
Yeah, Herman, get out of here!
We’ve just got two cats about a month ago, so they are still quite shy.
Oh don’t worry, they will be putting their buttholes in your face while you’re on Skype calls all the time.
Yes, that’s the one. So like, Clandestinauts, where did it specifically come from then?
So we had been playing and we played a first group called The Intrepideers, I think we were playing that for a bit. And when we went to four, we made the Clandestinauts. Um, but yeah, we would get together every couple weeks and play and we were all having a really great time. And we were all at the perfect time in our lives to do it, not a lot of responsibilities, you know, whatever. I was having a lot of fun, I enjoyed doing this a lot. But it started getting busier, you know, when you can’t get together and dedicate, you know, its best to block out like twelve hours at a time to play, and as that became harder and harder, we couldn’t really play. And so I just told everybody, “Hey, we’re having a great time and I love doing this, I’m going to take your characters and make a comic out of them” and they were like “Okay!” And so, all of the player-characters are player-characters that we played. Those are all my friends’ weird characters and their personalities are mostly pretty much the same. I mean, one of the main subplots of the Clandestinauts is you have two bickering, feuding warlocks and that was fun because in our group, we had a warlock who was like an infernal pact, and one who had like a cosmic pact, and if you think about these characters, they’ve devoted themselves to these dark entities from beyond time and space, but why wouldn’t they be fighting each other all the time? Which one is the better warlock? Who has the better warlock pact? Whose cooler, you know?
It’s a little like parents in that way, because all the choices parents make have to be the right choice.
Which one was yours?
Mine was the wizard. The boring, old, stupid wizard.
I tell this all the time to people, that’s what I think is super fun. Like, when I look at my self-image, right? When I think about me, I like barbarians, I like swords, I like action. So, when I play D&D, I want to do those things. But for some reason when we were making characters, I was like “I’m going to try something else, I’m going to try something different, I’m going to be a magic-user, something totally foreign to me. And, you find yourself playing the game in a way that I think really tells you about who you really are, rather than what you think you are. Because I’m very much a gung-ho person, I’ll go into whatever. But like, we would enter a room and our fighters would run in, and I’d be like “Hey guys, hold up! Stay! Don’t go in there yet! Let’s look, let’s listen.” So then I had this wizard character, and I guess he was sort of the leader. He was the leader of the group because I was writing the story, I was like, “I guess I’ll be in charge.” So yeah, I was the wizard, and I think he’s the most boring character in the book. That’s why I love him so much, he’s just sort of a big dummy.
He’s so in over his head! [Laughs.] Like losing the treasure is the glorious moments, I think we’ve all done that. I love that it's about your friends essentially. That must be an amazing thing.
I don’t know that they know this, but it certainly was. Writing that story took like eight years, I worked on that book for eight years and our group of friends went through a lot of stuff in that time. We had a cancer diagnosis, we had a move-away, a move-back, and I felt like I needed to –I didn’t want to make it that someone in the group gets cancer—but like, when Rogon the Slugman sort of disappears, or is sick, or maybe not sick, or pregnant. That wasn’t directly like “Oh, my friend has cancer and we don’t know what’s going to happen to him right now.” And, it’s weird. And I’m getting emotional thinking about this goofy weird fantasy story, but there are snippets of reality in there were interesting.
My other books, I’ve got books where I have essentially been the more sort of obvious biographical stuff, and it’s like “I’m completely mining [a period]. This book called Phonogram I did, this is about an extended social group over a period of about ten years. And there’s a lot of genre adventure bullshit in there. But it’s really about how these people changed across a period of time, and how they loved art, and how that art changed them. But I can imagine for you that here is this structure that speaks to those people, and it keeps them alive and close to you in that way.
Oh my god, my brain’s gone blank. Actually, you taking the game and running with it, that’s actually a thing I did when I was teaching myself how to write comics. You said you never played RPGs as a kid? I didn’t really read comics as a kid. I was from a place called Stafford which is a small town in the Midlands. No comic shops. So, I was interested and curious, but there wasn’t really anything available. As a proper [pre-teen] kid, but not as a teenager, nothing I’d really be into. And so, I got into them as a twenty-something. I started learning to read and trying to write comics very quickly. And one of the things I did, I was in an RPG group at the time. And I had an exercise where I took the session we just ran and turned it into a twenty-page comic or something. So that was an exercise in “Okay, how can I take these other people’s characters and edit them down to something that’s fun? And getting to work in a small, weird narrative construct.” And you know, it was a useful exercise in terms of editing it. And you’ve just taken it a lot further than I ever did. [Laughs.]
Well, yeah. I did a book about ten years ago that was a lot quieter and simpler and more personal, and there wasn’t a lot of writing in it. There weren’t a lot of characters, and so, when I was doing the Clandestinauts, I was like, “I want to have to write dialogue.” Not that it’s amazing dialogue, but I want to have people talking to each other, I want to have to draw more than one person in a panel. Like, I think I went a little overboard—
Looks like you’ve made it hard for yourself. [Laughter.]
Oh, I made it very hard for myself. The next book I’m doing, it’s like, “there’s nobody in it! It’s a landscape only! Nobody, no people!” But yeah, its weird how you sort of take aspects of what you’re doing in your career and sort of shape your current experience around them. You know.
I know. I did a book called The Wicked + The Divine which I’m just finish off like, middle of next year. And it’s this big sort of like five year, how many issues? 51 issues by the time we finish it.
Yeah, I started reading it last week and it’s really awesome. And then I was like, “Oh, I’m going to read all of this before I talk to Kieron! And then I was like, how many volumes of this are there??”
There’s a lot of shit. I forgot to send you the latest issue of Die as well. You’ve only seen issue one, haven’t you?
I should have sent you the other ones, I’m sorry. We’ve got issue up to four done now. I suck. The Wicked + The Divine was my turning-forty book, essentially. Here is goodbye to all the youth culture, and that weird obsession with pop music I have. And not even goodbye, but I’ve written about it all the way I can. So, Die is explicitly, “okay, I want to write about something which is obviously still me, but like, ideally involving stuff I haven’t written about before.” It was quite interesting. And since I wasn't working with Jamie again, and Stephanie is much more about mood and emotion than second-to-second precision, it’s going to be slightly more text. You know, it can’t be as clean. I’ve got to challenge [my methods] a bit. And issue one is just as clean as we get. Issue one is pretty slick in terms of mainstream comics I think.
And it only gets weirder. [Laughs.]
I want to go more weird and more interesting, and less obvious. And that’s a response to a lot of me being in my forties I guess. A few years ago, did you see The World’s End? The third of the Cornetto Trilogy movies. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were the first two. But that was clearly like someone a few years older than I am questioning their weird obsessions with pop culture and where it got them.
And a bit like that was I wanted to do something responding to that and to some degree it’s like I’m also writing about people I haven’t before ‘cause it’s like – I’ve said like Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine are drawing from that period of my life, but Die is on some levels me thinking about the sort of people I knew as teenagers or even before and where are they now. None of the cast are people I know per se, but there’s definitely stuff I’ve experienced with people from that and that kind of – the fascinating knowledge you get from seeing somebody across a period time, it’s the only thing I really like about being older [laughs] is the idea that – oh, no. I remember when John Lennon died when I was a kid and can look across my entire life and see how people responded to John Lennon at different points and that gives me more perspectives on that one event and that’s the same of every single event in my life and that’s fascinating and bewildering and interesting. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Die, I guess. Just take these people and where their lives started and where their lives ended and the idea of D&D as this fantasy machine. I mean, Die is about – Die is about a lot more than the D&D stuff, but the idea – D&D, it seems a really interesting weaponization of fantasy [laughs] D&D, you know what I mean?
That approach of how we approach stories that’s so addictive in D&D and so interesting in D&D, that’s sort of infected society – infected sounds like a loaded word, but kind of that post-modern approach to story, which you see in D&D is something we see in a lot more places post-D&D. So, I kind of wanted to draw [from that so it's] hopefully a personal story on the other hand, you know, this big piece of wanky, pretentious bullshit, which is how I roll.
[Laughter.] So, are you – are any of the characters in Die you? [Gillen laughs] Or more you than not you?
The classic standard answer is that they’re all me, said every single shitty writer ever.
I say that, yeah.
But if I was being honest, yeah. Some of – which ones are mostly me? You sort of definitely separate the strands. The caricature of who is this utterly shallow monster who’s like – oh, [Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace], have you ever seen Garth Marenghi? It’s a British – oh, it’s great. Short version, it is pretending to be a 1980 sci-fi series, which was produced by this writer –
Oh! No, no, yeah, I know what that is.
But basically [Chuck] is very clear in my fear that I might just be Garth Marenghi. [Laughs.] And the idea that oh, no, you’re literally one bad day away from just being that guy. So, that was the kind of – so, there’s definitely that awful portrait of what I could be. It’s almost the Joe Matt sort of approach. Ash is very me, Sol – Ash and Sol are kind of like this push and pull, I guess. I mean, Sol especially, the reason I decided I wanted to do this book is that I kind of realized, okay, did part of me disappear into a fantasy world at the age of 16 and how has that emotionally stunted me? I fell in love with hard with fantasy and fiction and all this stuff not just games, but the whole wider idea of fantasy and how much has actually being into this stuff removed from my life. And Sol is me really going for it, the idea basically, it’s kind of Peter Pan a [serial killer] is kind of what Sol is – I suppose the characters are more questions than portraits, I guess. Ash is [lot about the sexuality and identity stuff.] The other characters are definitely me thinking more about friends, I guess.
That was depressing.
[Laughter.] No! No! I thought – I think it’s awesome. I was going to ask you – sorry, my dog is crying now.
How many pets do you have?
Three? Horrible animals. [Laughter.] So, I was reading in the notes page of Die, you describe it as – oh! I want to go back, I want to go back. You say about getting lost in fantasy, getting lost in RPG when you were 16. You say that and I was thinking, “yeah, I wonder if I’ve been lost in anything,” and then you wonder – if you think about it, then you realize you know people who have been and you go, “oh, my gosh. I know people who’ve been lost in their shit and they’re not” – they’ve chosen what their life is going to be and they’re going to go do their thing and, again, more power to them, do whatever you want. You have people in your life that are – I can come in and out, I feel like – maybe I can’t [laughter] but I feel like I can come in and out, but I feel like we know certain people who can’t and it’s like, what happened that makes it so that you can’t come back? And is that okay? Is that cool? Do they feel like they need to come back, do they want to come back? Or are they just cool being there? I get really jealous of those people because I want to not give a shit anymore [laughs.] I want to just go – so, I was reading the book last night or I was rereading the comic last night, I read the notes page and you describe Die as horror. So then, I wanted to bring up where – I feel like horror is not – I don’t see a lot of good examples of horror and fantasy working because you need reality for horror to truly work, but what are your ideas on Die in the horror aspect and how it relates to fantasy?
That’s interesting, it’s like – I just – this would definitely be easier if I just showed you issue two. As issue two gives some of it, but a lot of it is about – there’s a line when Chuck in issue two, I paraphrase Chuck because he says it slightly differently, but “this is basically Narnia meets SAW, right” [Laughs] is the way he puts it, and the idea they are trapped in this place with somebody who has absolute power here and they’ve got to jump through his hoops. [Laughs]. That is at least part of it, so you’re going to get the whole with visuals and the whole thing – it kind of hangs off the fact that these people, the reality of the actual people you’re putting through this, as in, the characters are all very, very, very grounded. They’re all based around the fears what they’ve left behind and what’s waiting for them and all this kind of stuff, so that’s where you try to keep it grounded. The other side of it is how the reality impinges on the fantasy. One of the first things that happens in the second issue is somebody who is clearly inspired by their teenage crush comes up to them, you know what I mean. The fantasy is made from their own stuff. That’s kind of the other side of it – okay, that’s not quite true, but there’s a lot of stuff in there and at least some of it is for them, this is all something that is being constructed [to mess with them]. I found myself actually talking to some LA people, and I'm still trying to work out how to talk about it. One of them said "it’s a bit Nightmare on Elm Street-y” if you think about it. And I kinda agree.
I was going to say the same thing. That’s what I was going to say. I went in – knowing what I knew about the comic before I went into it I had an expectation of what it was. After I read it, I was more creeped out than I thought I should be or would be and that’s – I guess, something that’s successful off the bat, but it’s like, this is a little creepier than I thought it was going to be. This is a little – this hit me a little harder than I thought it would. Again, I’m excited for it. I think it’s–
I’ll send you issue two. Issue one is the one I want to – slick’s a horrible word – I want to – there’s a lot I want to – this is the book I’m trying to explain to people and so–
Yeah, you got to get in there.
And literally, two is much more the kind of like, “here is what the sort of shit we do.” It’s like a tasting, in terms of short things, and each one is kind of like, “okay, this is this sort of scene, this is this sort of scene, this is this sort of scene. That’s what we’re up to.” I should’ve just – I’ll forward it you as soon as we’ve finished. I hope you like it.
One of the other inspirations for me was – I’m trying to think how does this work – I originally thought of it as 1980s D&D cartoon meets Stephen King’s It. Specifically, the idea – we’ve got adults, something horrible happened to them as kids and we don’t really see what happened to them as kids, but we kind of are predominantly dealing with adults dealing with the fallout and at least like – while what we do is very different, allow me to have a rough structure – this could work because I remember It is probably my favorite Stephen King book and there’s something really interesting about older people and that time difference and how that kind of stuff sticks with you and that someone else had made the idea work work made me realize that I wasn’t just wandering off into a field in the middle of nowhere. [Laughs.] The [there's] models of narrative is helpful – even if execution varies wildly, [it] gives me something to hang my random crap. I mean, the Brontes turn up in the second arc, this is kind of like – this is not just the D&D stuff, but – not that it would matter if it was, but that kind of knowledge, “oh, this could work,” is useful for me, I guess.
Yeah. I’m happy you brought up Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s like, yeah, I got a very Nightmare on Elm Street sort of vibe. And I think Nightmare on Elm Street does a good job. When I was a kid, I didn’t like those movies because they weren’t like – it was the theater of the mind, going – it was real enough for me. I watch those movies now as an adult and I’m like, “oh, yeah, these are the best.” I think you have to age into those a little bit, I think the way your book’s set up to be about older people, it’s like, “oh, yeah, older characters are going to” – it’s going to appeal to a little older – you’ve got to be a little older to get those things.
Hopefully – I’ve somehow found my life writing about teenage – I do a lot of work for hire stuff so you’re ending up writing a lot of books, all over the place. As opposed to [being a cartoonist] and having a few “these are the milestones and you see them.” If you’re a cartoonist, you get to do it and these are big solid things. Also, me, I do a lot of random stuff, but you get a weird reputation based upon which ones people [pick up on]. So, I’ve found myself – a lot of my books are about teenagers and that wasn’t deliberate. [Laughs.] I mean, one of them was deliberate. But like, I was aware that I did this book Phonogram and that was actually about 20-somethings and after that, that ended up with me asked to do Young Avengers and this book called Journey into Mystery which is about a teenager Loki – I didn’t make him a teenager. [Laughs.] All these kind of things and [The Wicked + The Divine] being about teenagers because it kind of – we did Young Avengers – it was like, “okay, let’s do something which is spiritually a sequel.” So, I was I found myself, “oh, no, I’m somehow a teen writer, which that was never the plan.” [Laughs.] You know, I’ve loved it, but it was definitely "I need to write about someone at least as old as I am or god knows what would happen". [Laughs.] But it’s fun, throwing them into horror is also fun as well, I think.
Yeah. This is such a weird thing. That, like, Clandestinauts – there’s this kind of thing that we used to say in games, “never split the party.” You know, that kind of like, the party sticks – the first thing that happens in the Clandestinauts, party gets split. And I’m like, “noooo! They’re in trouble now.”
[Laughter.] Oh, yeah. They’re in – I mean, yeah, I’ve always heard that, “never split the party.” It was mostly because I couldn’t care, I couldn’t worry about all those characters at the same time anymore. [Laughter.] I need to not draw seven people all the time so I split them into groups of two or one.
That’s a smart one. I made – Jamie never wants to draw a teen book again and it’s like – Young Avengers involved drawing seven people in the same thing constantly, it’s like, “fuck that shit.” [Laughs.] And [The Wicked + The Divine] is this bigger cast, but we try to keep them all apart as far as possible. I think they’ve been together like twice in the whole run. And half of them are dead at any point, so it cuts down the actual crowd scenes. I wish – I really like all the stuff involving hell – have you ever seen any of Jason Lutes’s RPG stuff?
I don’t own any of it. I know of it, but I don’t –
Berlin was one of the books I fell in love with coming into comics as an adult, but it’s finished. When I discovered he was doing Dungeon World stuff it was delightful. I think – Clandestinauts for me feels much closer to where I play Dungeon World which is – do you know Dungeon World?
Yeah, I know the book, yeah.
Yeah, the sheer kind of scale and chaos of it --this is one of the things I think Tucker wanted us to talk about—how do you get a RPG feel? The thing about Clandestinauts is like, most RPG fights are like, how many hit points does someone have? And they’re slowly going down, and they are basically just hitting each other back and forth for like a half hour. And Clandestinauts isn’t that, you know, you’ve embraced a much more –theatrical is not the word—exciting? Classic tearing-them-fucking-apart cartooning. How did you sort of choose what your D&D would feel like?
When I was creating the book, I tried to do as little of that stuff as possible. I wasn’t thinking about role-playing, I was more focused on fantasy stories than RPG element of it. When we started designing the book together, getting ready, I imaged it more as fantasy-fantasy, but based on some D&D stuff I did a couple years ago. But the published was like, no, we should push the RPG aspect of it, and I was like, “that’s probably a good idea” so, that’s sort of how we went to that. I really didn’t think too much about it on a micro-level when I was working on the book. For most of the book, though, I was sort of writing it and drawing it straight ahead. So much like a D&D campaign, the DM should know kind of what is going on, but the players don’t really know what is going on. I didn’t really know what was going to happen most of the time. It was pretty random or like “I’m bored with this part. I’m tired of them being here in this section. Time to end this. How can I do it as quickly as possible?.”
Yeah. So, I was just clicking because I was just sending you the PDF link. [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s interesting in the terms that you say, it’s a Fantasy World comic. It’s this gleefully demented cartoon that energy to it. The story arc kind of goes, and then carries on and does something else, and that’s the most sort of RPG aspect, I think, of it. And it has that level of freedom to it. And there are definitely different sorts of people who play different sorts of games. But that sort of sandbox RPG-ing, well, we’ve got this world, and it’s not pinball, but the players are these balls bouncing around. You’re not really sure what they will collide into next, which I do like.
That’s actually my saddest thing. Since I don’t get to play long campaigns now, or even medium length campaigns, I don’t really get that. The idea that you sort of stick with these fuckers.
I don’t think I’ve ran anything over than ten sessions for a while. That’s quite a lot, I guess. Yeah, I was just thinking. The first issue of Die wasn’t really RPG-y, you know what I mean? Like, you just see people sit down to do an RPG.
Yeah, other than sitting down and playing a game –yeah.
And then you [it's most of the issue until you can see a] big ol’ sword. [Laughs.] And my model is much more like a slow, painfully confessional comic, I guess. And it’s all about the delayed pleasure of it. Or the delayed dread. Because we spend the entire issue not talking about the problem, which is a sure way to make people worry about it. It’s definitely going to be issue two where this one is a bit more like, you kind of get what it’s going to be. I hope. It is a weird time to be doing comics that feel RPG-y, you know? Because I got the idea for Die in 2016, so the current wave hadn’t quite broke completely. But the longer its taken me to get it to come out, the more I thought, “Oh my god, I’m a bandwagon jumper! Noooo! I thought it was going to be uncool again! But no, I’m actually now timely, which is rubbish.” [Laughs.]
Do you get people that start talking to you about RPG stuff?
Oh yeah, all the time. It’s great. I did a book signing a couple weeks ago, and I did a couple shows a could weeks ago, and I did a couple shows last year, and it’s very much like people come up to me like “Do you know any open games? Do you know anybody that’s got an open game? I’m looking to join.” I’m like “I don’t know anybody, I don’t know.” Or like, “Do you want to play?” And I’m like “No, I don’t have time!”
RPG hookup culture is hilarious.
Oh, it’s hilarious! It’s awesome. It’s great. We have a store in St. Paul just a little ways away. A huge game store, like Saturdays there are people at every table playing every game possible. So I was just like “Go there. You’ll find someone there, they’ll figure it out.” And it’s weird because I get asked a lot about games in a way that I feel like an idiot and a joker and imposter, because I like D&D and I play whenever I can, but I haven’t played in a long time. Like, “I know less about this than you do, I promise. So please don’t ask me anything crazy because I’ll just go ‘uh huh, yeah.’”
The thing [having done] Phonogram, is everyone always comes in and says, “what are you listening to?”
[Laughter.] Uh huh.
And like, my brain A) immediately shuts down, and B) like I’m no longer music obsessed, in terms of being up to date with stuff, as I used to be. “Guys, I’ve just been listening to one track on repeat, Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” on repeat all week, you know, that kind of thing.” So yeah, I get used to that. Actually, with Die, I'm designing a game as well, along –
I was going to ask you about that, too – yeah, sorry, go ahead.
No, no, no, that’s the one thing that I’ve definitely ended up being sort of patient zero for my social group. As in, I’ve sort of prod and drag people in and now – I was in a pub on Friday with a load of games people – sorry, music … what was it called – comics people because it was Ram, Ram V, who’s a writer – and he just started a new group [laughs.] So, half the people in the room were, like, three new [Game Masters] who had never GM-ed before, I think. Mostly new players and I was very aware that, “oh, this has got weirdly infective in this social group.” But, I mean, with Die it’s a case, like – since I used to be a games critic, I – there’s this history of games journalists and games critics becoming game designers or going into the games development and a lot of them say like, “oh, it’s much harder than I thought it would be,” and I always thought, “what is fucking wrong with you people? You interview game developers and they all say it’s hard. They’re all obviously physically broken,” [Sivert laughs] “Why would you – did you think they were just lying?” So, I’ve always – I’ve come from a very different perspective, “no, no, it’s obviously hard, they're [having trouble doing it], so what’s your chance you’re going to do it.”
So, I’m aware – so, on one level, I kind of talk about it like a Sunday painter, I’m aware that I’m a complete amateur fuckwit. I’m trying quite hard and I am doing a lot of research and other stuff so, it’s not just like me pulling it out of my arse, but at the same time, I’m aware that its charm’s going to be parochial – a really small level of appeal to it. But, on the other hand, it’s going quite well, it’s – it ends up being this weird development where once I’m doing this game and once I’m doing the comic and kind of the influences go back and forth. [There's some] major plot twists have kind of [originated in] one and gone to the other and that kind of – I sort of realized I need a mechanic to what happens when something happens in the game, and I can use that in the book, too. What it does mean is it’s incredibly over-engineered, the world is, in other words, I know I’m not going to use half the shit I’ve got in the game because – you know like the grief knight class, the grief knights – there are actually 8 classes of emotion-based knights, and I’m basing them on this period of psychotherapists idea there were 8 emotions, so it’s like an alignment for using these emotions as a thing and all emotions are about these 8 emotions mixing. So, I’ve kind of got each one core mechanic, but each one of these knights plays differently just because of the way their relate to that emotion – you know, the curiosity knight is going to feel different than a rage knight. I mean, a rage knight is basically a berserker. And so, you stop – you follow through the logic of all this bullshit and you get into this enormous “okay, what would a joy knight be?” That k– you know what I mean? None of that’s going to be in the fucking comic, I mean, it’s unlikely to be a major theme, but it’s also in the game and it kind of means there’s just a lot more to explore there, I guess. It’s fun, you know. Doing play tests are fun, people seem to like it. It’s like – but it’s the sort of thing where the reason I’m doing it because it struck me as interesting. If this is about me wrestling with sort of fantasy and what it meant to me, the idea of actually going in deep and doing something really quite unusual with it struck me as the way to go. There’s a friend of mine, Leigh Alexander, she’s a games critic and we did an issue of [The Wicked + The Divine] which was a magazine issue and it was the, kind of like, – it was like – it was mainly done because the artist who was mainly just a sort of a pinup, he doesn’t do sequentials, and it – you know, we wanted to do a Kevin Wada issue, but with no way of doing sequentials – okay, what could we do? Oh, we’ll do it as a magazine. They’ll be, like, the article [illustrations], I’ll write the articles and people will put it up. Then, the idea, “well, we don’t need to do that. We could actually get our journalist friends to write the articles, then I’ll pretend to be the god in instant message [conversation]. And they could do pretend – we’ll do a role-play text interview of each other, then they’ll write up the interview as a real article and we kind of expanded from there. And [Leigh] noted, this is really interesting – because there’s not many people with the skillset required to do this, as in, you know, I’m somebody who’s played role-playing games in '90s, I’ve worked for magazines, I’ve – you know, all these different skillsets and that’s not quite common and she said, “your work is most interesting when it’s about fundamentally stuff that only you could really – the rarer the intersection, the better” And so, Die kind of comes from that going, “okay, let’s go deep into game theory, let’s go deep into this stuff, but also how this completely other, different sort of meta-critical game on the side. And it’s interesting, I guess. I’m set – it should release when the trade drops and it’ll be like a PDF, it’s not, like, the full thing, but here is something you could play for a short – it’s a one scenario thing. It plays repeatedly in completely different ways, but you could run it for a few sessions. I’ve ran it in like three hours, that’s really [cutting it short]. But you could do it as much bigger or maybe something down the line, but even now I’m not sure I’m releasing it. I probably will now. People seem to like it [laughs].
It’s a great idea, it’s awesome. I want to look at it, I want to see it. It was actually– We – when I was trying to finish the Clandestinauts I was always – a running joke, when people, you know, “what are you going to do? How’re you going to end?” I was, like – it was a joke for a while that I was like, “oh, I’m going to write a little thing where, like, you as the reader become the player and you have to kill them, like, you kill the Clandestinauts.” [Gillen laughs]. And I was telling that to one of the publishers and they were like, “oh, we gotta do that,” and I was like, “uh, we gotta get this book out. Like, it’s very late – we don’t have time to do that stuff.” Maybe if there’s ever any more Clandestinauts – maybe everyone will get the chance to kill them because that’s the way they should – [laughs] that’s the way they need to end, total party kill.
Yeah, just like, a lot of fumbles. That’s the thing. You need this kind of, like, cheating dice. That’s about to it.
Yeah, we were also talking about marketing and branding stuff and we were looking into either weighted – the book with come with weighted dice that will never [laughs] – only roll shitty numbers–
[Gillen laughs] I love it.
Or you just D20s where there’s no twenty, there’s just 2 ones. You know, there’s a one on – where the one is, and one where the twenty is so you can roll good. You’re never going to roll good.
Actually, one of the character classes in the Die game, they get to write on their dice.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s the fool character class, they get to basically add numbers to their dice and stuff and just cheat, which is fun. That’s the kind of – 'cause they get the boring dice, so they get to be basically a vandal, which is a giggle [laughs].
I’ve just seen the time, by the way, and I’ve just realized some food is about to be delivered, but this has been fun to talk.
Is there anything else we should have talked about?
Come on, Tucker, you’re not paying for this for us.
That is true. Hope you have nice day, boss. And a real pleasure meeting you.
Yeah, you too. Thank you for – thank you for a wonderful conversation.
You know what’s funny, it’s been – it’s been – it’s really interesting the number of really, like, interesting and good books drawing from this whole thing from different directions, so yeah, it’s been really nice to see. Anyway, and I hope you like issue two [laughs].
I’ll read it right now, it’s going to be great, thank you.
Catch you later, boss.