By Christian Hoffer
“Show, don’t tell.”
This simple rule is a critical tenet for all kinds of storytellers – for artists, scriptwriters, novelists, and comic writers. It’s also a valuable technique when acting as the Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons and other kinds of tabletop RPGs. Sure, you can tell your players that a dragon is coming to eat them and leave it at that, but it’s a lot more fun to describe the smell of burnt wood in the air as the dragon burns a path of destruction in its wake, or describe the faint rumble in the air as the dragon beats its mighty wings while moving closer and closer.
A variation of this technique is to drop clues about an incident that occurred instead of explaining it. In this case, the DM is neither showing nor telling – rather, they’re giving players a narrative puzzle to solve. It’s a lot more fun to have the players guess at what transpired in a dungeon than to explain it to them, letting their imaginations run wild while the truth is often much more mundane.
For example, say that players find two skeletons holding knives in a dungeon, and one of them has a valuable item stashed in the remnants of their clothes. Were the skeletons once friends? Rivals? Did they have a fight over the valuable item? Or did they find the item somewhere deeper in the dungeon and just never escape to sell it? Sometimes, the best way to tell a story is to not tell it at all.
DIE #1 chooses neither to show nor tell the traumatic events that occurred to a group of high schoolers when they were sucked into the fantasy world of a tabletop RPG. Instead, Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans use that lack of information to impart on the readers just how terrible the characters’ experiences in that fantasy world were. We see them as they disappear into the fantasy world and then two years later after their escape – haunted expressions on their face, missing one of their party, and another missing an arm.
Years later, all five of the characters remain unable to talk about the experience, although they don’t really need to. We can see how the characters were affected – one hates his birthday because it reminds him of when they were sucked into the world, another has systematically destroyed all her relationships. One character compensates by exploiting his experiences for wealth, while a fourth seems strangely humbled when forced to reunite with her old companions.
DIE #1 never reveals what happened during their two years in a fantasy world. We get some teases near the end, a mention of a failed plan, a confrontation with a mysterious Grandmaster, and the reveal of an ally turned enemy. But the rest of their experiences are left unsaid, forcing the reader to fill in the blanks.
The series is a critical examination of fantasy and escapism, of both its allure and its danger, a question hidden in plain sight waiting for the readers to discover it. By omitting those key details, Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans force the reader to wonder… what was so traumatic about living in a fantasy world that everyone seems haunted by the experiences decades later? What was so awful about escaping into another world? It’s a masterful move – a way to reveal the core of DIE without using a single panel or narrative caption.
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Stephanie Hans
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Images Comics
Christian Hoffer is one of the publishers and Editors in Chief of The MNT, which I’m told is the single best comics journalism site in existence. He writes extensively for Comic Book dot com, and Dungeon Masters frequently… I’m not sure if that should be a verb or not. You can find him on Twitter here.