Don’t Rest Your Head is a role-playing game designed by Fred Hicks and published by the imprint Hicks shares with Rob Donaghue and Leonard Balsera, Evil Hat Productions. The subtitle, A Game of Insomnia in the Mad City, is about as good a one sentence summary of the game as I can imagine.
Fred held a one-day sale on the pdf version of the game, making it available for US$5 on Halloween. For reasons I will explain shortly, I had been interested in the DRYH since shortly after it came out. Really, it was only a matter of time before I bought it, but the sale was too good to pass up, so I grabbed it. I didn’t get a chance to sit down and read it for a couple of weeks, and this is the first time I’ve had to write up my initial impressions.
The player’s assume the role of people who, for whatever reason, have been driven to extreme insomnia. After a a few days without any sleep, something “clicks” in their minds, and they become Awake. Heretofore unseen doors, windows and other portals come into view of the newly Awakened soul. They also develop the ability to tap into their lack of sleep as a source of power (how, exactly, is never explained — it is taken as a given). Insomnia grants the characters a pair of abilities that they did not have when they slept regularly. Their exhaustion talent is a skill brought to the limits of human ability by the superhuman focus exhaustion provides the character. Their madness talent is an outright superhuman ability that the character gains access to as insomnia begins to addle his mind.
Unfortunately, insomnia is not all exceptional abilities and original insights. On the other side of the new doors and windows is Mad City.
What’s known is this: the Mad City is the extra place, the lost place where missing socks and broken toys come to live a second life. It’s where the thirteenth hour on the clock went, and forgotten constellations fled when their gods died. That door you thought you saw out of the corner of your eye opens into the Mad City, and every now and then, when the City Slumbering seems to swallow someone whole, it’s because they stumbled through such a door.
— Don’t Rest Your Head, pg. 45
Among Mad City’s many inhabitants are Nightmares — people who have been engulfed by Mad City and their own insanity, a fate that awaits the player characters if they are not careful. Nightmares are obsessed with the Awake, pursuing them for their own varied, vaguely unknowable, reasons. They are the primary source of trouble for the players in the game.
A sample Nightmare:
The Pin Heads play as toadies and yes-men to the Tacks Man. In body, they are wiry, slender guys who have a forward-pointing straight-pin in place of their heads. Hovering some six inches above this pin is usually a hat of some kind, often a fedora; as a uniform, they’re perpetually locked into the look of a rumpled 1940’s reporter, all cheap grey suits, sweat-stained shirts, and threadbare suspenders.
This look is no accident, as the Pin Heads are all about nailing the story and reporting what they find back to the Tacks Man. Theirs is a 24-hour news organization, and they’re tireless in their task … Of course, as the Tacks Man’s yes-men, they’re also very strongly motivated to report back to the Man only what the Man wants to hear – but the Man has a very keen ear for lies, so rather than go that route, they do what they can to make the story be what it should be…
Unfortunately for the players, exhaustion and madness dog their existence now, and it is almost inevitable that one or the other will overwhelm them. If their exhaustion becomes too much to handle, the character crashes — falls asleep. Aside from the normal vulnerability of being asleep in an unsafe place (assuming it happens in Mad City), sleep drains the character of his special talents, and it takes several days of sleeplessness to reconnect with them. The rules suggest that crashing should be an automatic death sentence except under extraordinary circumstances.
If, on the other hand, madness overtakes them, it becomes externalized, and the character becomes yet another Nightmare haunting Mad City, and is taken over by the GM.
Obviously, any player that is interested in keeping her character alive will do her best to avoid engaging with Mad City for as long as possible. That is why character creation includes a step where the player comes up with an event to begin play with that will propel her character into action, and makes contact with Mad City and its denizens inescapable. Typically, this event poses a problem that the character, for personal reasons, must solve or a question that he must answer. The GM is not left fumbling for a way of getting the characters into the action, or using that hackneyed cliche of “so you are all in a bar together when….”
If all of this seems rather strange, even by geek standards, and slightly surreal to you, well, it’s supposed to. Among the major inspirations Fred cites in the rules are Grant Morrison‘s run on the superhero team comic Doom Patrol, Neil Gaiman‘s novel Neverwhere, and the movie Dark City. All classics, and all more than a tad skewed.
For anyone whose primary point of reference for role-playing games is the current version of Dungeons & Dragons or GURPS, Don’t Rest Your Head is going to be a splash of cold water. Maybe even a slap in the face. While it is a bit heftier than Shadows or Snowball, it is, nevertheless, pretty minimalist, especially for a commercial product.
The core resolution system is a basic dice pool system using six-sided dice. Ones, twos and threes are successes, fours, fives and sixes are not. Whoever rolls most successes gets their way. Player characters start out with a pool of three Discipline dice, while the GM, when playing opposition, will roll Pain dice, with the exact number depending on the severity of the challenge — mostly equivalent to the power of the Nightmare the character is dealing with. Note that Nightmares are defined, system-wise, entirely by their Pain rating. Everything else is colour determined by the GM.
Since Nightmares have Pain ratings that range up over 10 (meaning that the GM rolls ten or more dice for their side of any conflict), it should be obvious that players cannot rely strictly on their Discipline dice if they want to survive in Mad City. Unfortunately for them, the only way to gain more dice to roll is to tap into their Exhaustion or their Madness, which can fuel them to the superhuman heights needed to battle Nightmares.
A player can add one to their Exhaustion once per scene, bumping their Exhaustion score (semi-)permanently by one. When a player rolls for a conflict, she always rolls a number of Exhaustion dice equal to her character’s current Exhaustion score in addition to rolling the base of three Discipline dice. Thus, a character whose Exhaustion has risen to three would always roll at least six dice.
A player also has the option of rolling one or more Madness dice. Madness dice are a one time only effect, and the player decides for each roll how many Madness dice to roll, between zero and six.
As you may expect, using dice labelled Exhaustion and Madness are not without consequences.
Whenever a conflict is rolled successes are determined as described above but, in addition, a check is made to see which type of die — Discipline, Exhaustion and Madness rolled by the player and Pain rolled by the GM — dominates. This is checked by comparing the highest single die of each type rolled, with ties broken using a count-back. Which type of die dominates the conflict determines which of four side effects will also occur.
- If Discipline dominates, rejoice The player gets to reduce his character’s Exhaustion score by one, or reduce the effects of madness by one tick
- If Exhaustion dominates, the character’s Exhaustion score must be increased by one, even if it was raised earlier in the scene
- If Madness dominates, the results of the conflict must be narrated such that the character engages in an irrational fight response or flight response. The character moves one step closer to Madness, and repeated Madness results will eventually result in gaining a permanent Madness die in place of one of the character’s Discipline dice
- If the GM’s Pain dice dominate, a Coin of Despair is generated, which the GM may use later to inflict various forms of nastiness on any player she sees fit later, although this, in turn, generates a Coin of Hope, which one of the player’s can use for useful effects
All of this means that, succeed or fail, players are quite likely to suffer some sort of negative consequences to their actions. That is why it is important for player’s to create a situation for their characters that engages them as players enough to overcome their desire to “win” by dodging conflict. It also means that characters are likely on a road to tragedy. The question becomes whether they can achieve their goals before the reach it.
In addition, a player may also invoke their Exhaustion and/or Madness talents in appropriate circumstances. A minor use of the character’s Exhaustion talent guarantees that the roll will at least generate a number of successes equal to the character’s current Exhaustion score. A Major use actually adds a number of successes equal to the character’s current Exhaustion score, but also raises the character’s Exhaustion by one. Obviously, the higher the character’s current exhaustion, the more powerful these effects are. You have to love temptation
Using the character’s Madness talent allows the character to attempt outright impossible acts (in line with the Madness talent’s description). The price is that the character must roll a GM-determined minimum number of Madness dice during the conflict.
The dangers lie in letting their related scores rise too high. If a character’s Exhaustion score ever rises above six it becomes too much for the character to handle, and he immediately Crashes, falling into a coma-like sleep for several days. The character is extremely vulnerable during this, and for several days afterwards, since he no longer has Exhaustion to draw upon in conflicts. Normally, the character will die after Crashing, although this is left up to GM discretion.
If a character’s Discipline falls to zero due to accumulated permanent Madness dice, he losses all contact with reality, and Mad City uses his insanity to warp him into one of its own, birthing a new Nightmare.
There are a few other minor wrinkles, but that is the bulk of the system of DRYH in a nutshell.
When positive buzz accumulated around DRYH after its release, I was intrigued. It seemed refreshingly different, and I have a soft spot for the slightly surreal and supernatural. The first time that I read that Morrison’s Doom Patrol was one of the major influences on DRYH, I knew I had to buy it.
On the whole, I am not disappointed, although I have a couple of concerns. The system does a nice job of tempting, even driving, players to embrace madness and exhaustion. A smart GM will start off slow, tossing minor threats at the characters to get their feet wet, and then turning the screws, quickly or slowly based on how long the group wants to play, by drawing the characters towards thier goals while facing mounting threats form more powerful Nightmares, until the players buckle to the temptation of Exhaustion and Madness dice. From there it seems like the game should be a breathless race between achieving objectives and spiraling into madness or destruction.
Sounds fun to me.
That said, the game is blatantly designed for short-term play. There is a couple of throwaway paragraphs about longer term play, but the wheelhouse for DRYH is obviously 1-2 sessions of 4-8 hours. This isn’t a weakness, per se, since palette cleansers and changes of pace are wonderful things. Nevertheless, the source material often contains complex plots and baroque conspiracies, and I think it would take a longer campaign, at least a couple of months worth of play, to really evoke that. If Fred does a second edition, it would be nice to see some real thought go into supporting at least short campaigns.
Also, I’m a little worried about replayability. The system doesn’t offer much in the way of different avenues to explore, so the onus is placed squarely on the creativity of the players (including, but not limited to, the GM). This is not something that is unique to DRYH, of course — as mentioned, even simpler viable systems than this exist — but it is also extremely focused on one type of story. By comparison, Dogs in the Vineyard feels like it contains huge prairies of options to explore. One hasty descent into madness after another may begin to grind after a while. Obviously I cannot back this up with actual experience, so I would be glad to hear contrary opinions from those who have played DRYH a lot.
It also must be pointed out that this genre of slightly weird symbolic horror is not everyone’s cup of tea, nor does it play to everyone’s creative strengths. In many ways, DRYH occupies a niche within a niche within a niche, etc. If you are a fan of Grant Morrison, Dark City, or possibly Robert Anton Wilson (of Illuminatus! trilogy fame), there will be stuff for you to chew on. If you’re not, it is still worth checking out, but proceed with caution.
Finally, the game suffers a little by comparison to its sources as well. I’m sure that Fred would be the first to admit that he is not Grant Morrison or Neil Gaiman. That means that, although perfectly adequate, the Nightmares and locations described in the setting section do not quite measure up to the inspired weirdness or Wynken, Blinken and Nod, the Men From N.O.W.H.E.R.E., or Orqwith (don’t feel bad if those references mean nothing to you). The symbolism is a bit obvious, and the names lean heavily on puns. Also, they do not display as much variety of theme as I would like, leaning heavily on twisted authourity figures and their lackeys. There are a couple of exceptions, but Fred may need to talk to someone about his authourity issues😉 While I didn’t actually expect them to measure up to the cited inspirations, comparison is inevitable for a fan, and they just pale a bit in comparison.
Reservations notwithstanding, I am eager to give Don’t Rest Your Head a go. I may even try to sell my group on a one-shot sometime over the holidays. I love this sub-genre, and I have been looking for a game that does a good job of addressing it for a very long time. If DRYH even comes close to doing as well as I think it does, I will be very pleased to own it.