Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tommy's Take on Don't Rest Your Head

Another review from waaaaaaaay back. Originally published on RPG.net five years ago.

I responded to a few calls for reviews from RPG designers for Horror Week, and the first one was Fred Hicks and Don’t Rest Your Head, hereafter referred to as DRYH. I only had prior passing familiarity with Mr. Hicks and Evil Hat Productions, from the recent swell of support for Spirit of the Century, which I have on my list of “Things To Get”, but just haven’t yet. This review is based off of the PDF version, of which I received a comp copy, which is available at RPGNow for $5.

DRYH is a very focused horror game in which all the PCs are insomniacs who have been sleep deprived for so long as to be “Awoken” to the hidden world around them. Among other things, they find links to The Mad City, the place where all kinds of lost items, missing people, etc. have wound up. It is also a surrealistic industrial nightmare populated with single-minded citizens dedicated to doing their one task in life, bizarre minions influenced by their leaders and controlled by nightmarish beings with tacks for heads and melted faces.

This is a small document, clocking in around 82 pages (including character sheet and in-house ads for games like Spirit of the Century andDresden Files. Despite its size, it does include a useful table of contents, with listings for topic headings as well as chapters. There’s not a lot of fiction pieces or flavor text, but there is a nice introduction about insomniacs reaching that breaking point, when they truly awaken to the Mad City, and the realization that if the fall asleep NOW, they’ve written their own death sentence as the Nightmares will be on them in a flash. My (very) casual gamer wife thought that premise sounded really cool when I read it aloud to her…cool enough that I think she’s actually going to give the game a shot.

DRYH describes itself as an “expert roleplaying game” in that it assumes that you have already been playing something else before you came to this table, and so doesn’t go over the basic concepts of RPGs that most other games do.

The first major strike against the game is that Fred Hicks is a self-admitted dice freak, and so it not only requires buckets full of six-sided dice, but at least three different colors of them, as well as two colored bowls and a bit of pocket change. At this point the game could be considered bordering on gimmicky, but some of my favorite systems are Marvel SAGA (complete with its own prop deck) and Deadlands (which requires playing cards, colored paper clips and poker chips), so I’m withholding judgement at this point.

The game jumps right into an example of play, entitled “Running on Fumes”, which throws a bit of confusing game terminology around right out of the gate. I ultimately skipped this, then went back to it after reading the system…having done THAT, it’s a nice example of play…I just wouldn’t recommend reading it first.

Character Creations
As I mentioned above, all characters are insomniacs who are now “Awake”, which also grants them extraordinary powers, some of which are definitely superhuman. Five major questions are posed to the players: “What’s been keeping you awake?”, “What just happened?”, “What’s on the surface?”, “What lies beneath?” and “What’s your path?”. These five questions are not only important, but each heading includes a couple of paragraphs explaining why they are important: for instance, “What just happened?” can literally give the player the ability to dictate the opening scene of the game.

Every character begins with a Discipline score of 3, which is the base ability to do any action in DRYH. Every character has three responses to choose from, between Fight or Flight, depending on your character’s general propensity for running or fighting. Finally, every character gets an Exhaustion Talent, which is something they could normally accomplish but they are now incredibly gifted at (though it drains them) and a Madness Talent, which is something completely beyond human capability. The GM and the player should work together to define exactly how each talent works within the context of the game system.

The System
First off, dice are never rolled unless there is some manner of opposition. There is no such thing as an uncontested roll in DRYH. In general, your PC rolls his Discipline dice to attempt an action, with a 1, 2 or 3 equaling a success. The more successes, the better. Of course, sometimes you need to roll more than three successes…and that’s where you tempt fate. Once per roll, you can increase your Exhaustion by one, adding a single exhaustion die to your dice pool. However, whenever your exhaustion exceeds six, your character crashes, which is BAD.
You can also add anywhere from one to six Madness dice, which don’t stick around like Exhaustion does…but they do threaten mental strain on your character. Using your Exhaustion talent requires having at least one Exhaustion die in your pool, while using your Madness talent requires using whatever minimum number of Madness dice you and your GM agreed to.
In response, the GM rolls Pain dice, which represent the challenge of whatever action you are attempting. If the GM and the player tie on successes, the ties go to the player, but success alone isn’t enough. The highest die in each pool is used to determine the strength of that pool, and the highest strength is then named Dominant for each action. If Discipline is dominant, the player could well recover some exhaustion or sanity. If Exhaustion is dominant, the player’s Exhaustion increases again, edging them closer to crashing. If Madness is dominant, the situation grows more chaotic and the player checks off one of his Fight or Flight responses, reacts accordingly, and edges closer to Snapping. If Pain dominates, the action took something from him, whether victorious or not, and the GM gains a Coin of Despair (which I’ll explain in a bit).

If the player fails, because the GM outrolled him, then the player either gains one Exhaustion or gets a response of the GM’s choice checked, in addition to whatever penalty emerges from the Dominant pool. The system can be quite harsh as the characters hold onto their tenuous grasp on sanity. The one saving grace here is that the GM can’t hit the character with double-jeopardy – i.e., giving them an additional exhaustion die when exhaustion is already dominant for that action.

If Exhaustion reaches 6, the character Crashes, his exhaustion is cleared out, as are his response boxes, and he sleeps for at least a day. However, he awakens with a Discipline of 1 and no Madness or Exhaustion talents until he stays awake for as many days as he slept…if he wakes up. See, as soon as the character crashes, the Nightmares of the Mad City sniff him out like bloodhounds and try to destroy him. If he hasn’t allied with another capable Awake person, his chances of survival are nil.

If all three response boxes are checked, and the player is forced to check another one, he Snaps, which clears out the response boxes, but also drops Discipline by one die and adds a permanent Madness die. If Discipline reaches zero in this way, the character’s madness overwhelms him and he becomes a Nightmare.

If the GM has previously gained a Coin of Despair, they can use the Coin of Despair to add a 6 to any one pool (Discipline, Exhaustion, Madness or Pain), or take a 6 away from any one pool…likely deciding the Dominant pool for an action. There are a couple of restrictions: the GM can’t add a 6 to an empty pool, and if they add the 6 to make Pain dominant, they don’t gain an additional Coin of Despair.

At this point, the system sounds like a no-win scenario for the players, but that’s not completely true…though the game does evoke a sense of desperation. However, hope is a very real commodity for the players to use on their characters as the Coins of Despair, once played, are given to the players as Coins of Hope, and can be used to remove Exhaustion dice, uncheck Response boxes, remove Madness and restore Discipline (though this is costly), and add a single success per coin to the Discipline pool.

The book also includes sample Exhaustion and Madness talents, which are certainly not limited to what is listed here, just given as examples for the players and GM to work with.
Finally, before the book moves on from the system, it includes a one page summary of the game system which is the best selling point for the PDF: print this page out for everyone at your table to keep by their side as you play the game.

Running The Game
This section begins with a paragraph on narrative control: Whether your want to use the traditional “GM talks, player interrupts”, or passing the narration around the table, handing control over to whoever dominated, etc. However, the book takes no default stance on this issue, merely pointing out that it can be played any way, and you should decide going in how it will be played.

This is followed by short paragraphs telling the GM to give everyone their spotlight, to only roll when it matters and using The Five Questions in play so that your stories actually matter to the characters. It expands on this over the next couple of pages, such as using “What just happened to you?” and “What’s your path?” to dictate where the course of the campaign should go. Advice is included on using Flashbacks in the game, as well as Revelations. Resolution warns the GM against pushing his plot above and beyond the character’s goals and motivations.

The Mad City
This section is all about the world where the Awake wind up, the world where the clock strikes thirteen, where broken toys and missing socks live again. The Awake can find entryways into the Mad City everywhere, though the same entryway doesn’t always lead to the same location in the Mad City, and returning through the same portal is an even riskier proposition. The Mad City is populated by The Locals, people lost utterly into the roles they had in the Slumbering City…such as accountants crunching numbers all day and night, etc. The average local is all surface, no depth…they have their reason for existing and exist for that one reason.

The locations in The Mad City include the Bizarre Bazaar, where the PCs can barter for things like emotions, memories and the like. When the clock strikes thirteen in The Mad City, anyone still inside The Mad City is trapped, and the demented authorities attempt to hunt them down…the Bizarre Bazaar is arguably the only good hiding place at that point, due to crowd cover if nothing else. District Thirteen is where The Mad City is governed from, by The Tacks Man and Officer Tock, each twisted versions of a bureaucrat and a policeman, respectively. Their minions are also described in this section as well, as they will likely be the ones the characters encounter the most. The High School is ran by Mother When, described as the closest thing to Death The Mad City realizes, and in fact may BE Death incarnate. The Mad City is so claustrophobic that the buildings for the Rooftop Jungle, complete with a bizarre Air Fort where missing planes that disappeared from The Slumbering City have come to rest, odd chunks and sections of them sticking out from buildings. Finally, there are The Warrens, controlled by The Wax King, who is either a relatively benevolent Nightmare or an Awake who has become radically altered by The Mad City. The setting is suitably insane, but also has plenty of room for GM inspiration to add to, without removing much of what Mr. Hicks has put forth.
A section at the end of this chapter gives advice on putting all the elements together, but stresses again that the focus should always be on the PCs, their goals and exploits. Several methods of getting the PCs together are discussed, from Round Robin Lifepaths in which each person explains how they are connected to another, to linking all of the “What just happened?” answers, to more traditional approaches, such as having The Wax King hire all of them, individually, for the same mission. Finally, ways out of The Mad City and its nightmarish hold on reality are discussed, from crashing and death, to madness and transformation into a Nightmare, to giving up individuality and transforming into a Local, your existence revolving around a given task, to finally completing the path that you set out on, and what that entails. In that event, the GM is encouraged to give the player control over their ending: Do they learn to sleep again, without fear of the nightmares? Do they find a new calling in the Mad City and pursue it?

A section is also included on adding your own nightmares to the setting, from inspiration to the level of Pain a given nightmare should have…a mere minion shouldn’t more than 2 or 3 unless in a group, whereas a “Boss” Nightmare should clock in closer to 10 Pain dice.

Limited Series or Ongoing Game?
The unspoken default setting for DRYH is that it will be a finite story with a beginning, middle and an end, either a one shot or a short-term game. However, advice is included for a long-term game, including Scars of Experience, which can be used to help the PCs during an adventure, either by altering their talents to something new and different, or merely by using the things they have learned thus far in the Mad City to affect their actions now.

Fred Hicks was inspired by several sources, including J. Michael Straczynski’s Midnight Nation, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and the movie Dark City, which is actually the only thing listed in his inspirations that I’m actually familiar with. He also cites the influence of Sorcerer by Ron Edwards, Lacuna by Jared Sorenson and Dead Inside by Chad Underkoffler, which I especially want to pick up now after reading about how much it inspired this game.

Finally, impressively, the book includes a character sheet (which can also be found on the Evil Hat website) and a fully functional index.

In Closing
The book suffers from some bizarre organizational issues, not unlike someone who was working on little sleep suddenly remembering to discuss something a few pages after he had mentioned it. However, this is easily forgiven as the book includes oodles of page references, a functional table of contents and a very useful index. The art is, apparently, largely clipart and photoshopped, and very evocative of the setting, though its still a larger strain on my printer than I really wanted in the Printer Friendly version. Fred took great pains at various points to explain why things were important, how they impacted the game mechanically, and how they influenced other factors. This was some of the clearest RPG writing I have personally read in a while, and if this is the quality found in Spirit of the Century, then I’m sold.

On the downside, all the extra dice, two bowls, and a bunch of pocket change is kind of an inconvenience, but the gameplay seems like it could be well worth it. This is one of the best, if not THE best “taint” systems I have ever seen…tempting PCs to dip a little into the dark side, as it were, and then fighting like Hell to get out. I could see using this system to run a scenario not unlike the Suffering video game, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if more taint systems played out this way. That said, the system is designed to do one thing very well…if you’re not buying into the concept, there’s not much for you here. However, Fred Hicks and Evil Hat have, at no point, tried to claim otherwise, but I felt it worth mentioning.

If you like horror RPGs, unique systems and indy RPGs, its definitely worth picking up. It has a great hook and a unique system that feeds the flavor of the setting, making the sense of desperation a very real thing as you fight and explore the Mad City. Highly recommended.