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Don't Rest Your Head: Player-side Review

As part of Samhaine's ongoing tests of all kinds of indie-gaming systems, we recently played a very enjoyable evening of Don't Rest Your Head. I played Corwin van der Hoyt, a crosstown courier who worked for some kind of shady people; he was a Mirror's-Edge style thrillseeker. Ever since the mysterious car crash that killed his wife and the two people in the other car, though, Corwin has taken military-grade stimulants to avoid sleep, even as he wants to figure out, or remember, what caused the car crash.

These statements almost complete Corwin's character creation, even though none of them are "stats," as such. The way Don't Rest Your Head works, a starting PC only has four things you could call "crunchy" stats, and two of those are determined in a single decision. These are, in order: the Fight or Flight Responses, which determine what your character does when he goes mad. Essentially, out of six boxes, you choose three that are responses you'll use. Will you always Fight, always Flee, or some mix of the two? So you mark off enough boxes to leave open squares for your available responses, and as you go mad and choose that response, you mark off its box. Eventually you don't have a choice anymore, and you might be screwed. My other two stats are my Exhaustion Talent (Speed/Parkour/Reaction Time) and my Madness Talent (Perfect Insight - everything seems dreamlike, so that I almost know what's going to happen before it happens).

To make life easier for one of the other players, I also created his character: Andre St. John, a washed-up rock star (concept art) with an incredible ability to destroy stuff (Exhaustion Talent: use almost anything as a weapon of destruction) and an even more incredible resistance to harm (Madness Talent: Stoneskin). Living the lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock & roll left him too fucked-up to sleep, and now he's got to find his girlfriend, who vanished one day.

A decent amount of the early game was taken up with getting the group together, but the GM handled that part with skill: a package that I was supposed to deliver was stolen from me (with a few unkind words as to my character on the side). A conversation with the guy I was supposed to deliver it to revealed that it was a "black box" - an early-90's hacking device that accomplished various things by "phreaking" a pay phone. (In hindsight, this was the first Big Clue as to where the whole plot was going.) Kainenchen's character, a thief who could summon demons, had just had her latest job go horrifically awry, and was now on the run from the cops. The fourth player was an office drone whose girlfriend had, strangely, not been killed when hit at full speed by a car; instead, she turned into a horrible monster. When he saw her at the office the next day, she was back to herself and didn't mention anything of the incident. So that was weird. Also, she started pressuring him to accept his life as an office drone forever...

(After the break: setting spoilers for DRYH.)

We run into each other as we're each running from various threats, mostly robots with plastic, featureless faces. We start traveling all over the city looking for clues as to what's going on, eventually wandering through an inexplicable door in Andre's kitchen, into the Mad City. This is where the weirdness really goes off the deep end, with Pinheads (who murdered the hell out of the waitress we had just finished talking to) and the windup agents of Officer Tock and other doorways that took us to Dubai and references to the Bazaar that opens at 13 o'clock. It's all very strange and atmospheric, with whimsy and Gaiman-like fantastic imagery overlaid with more outright menace than one usually sees in Gaiman's work or similar fiction. The general tenor has a lot in common with Ink, which makes me quite happy. It's all very dreamlike, of course, with rapid shifts and scene-cuts; much as the (typically ignored) uncertainties of the medium of film were used to incredible effect in Inception, so insomnia and unstable reality fit perfectly with the intended presentation of DRYH and the general flow of tabletop games. This is cemented for us when we finally reach the Bazaar, which is a straight-up goblin market.

Digression: Goblin Market
So, most of my experiences with goblin markets in games have caused games to grind to a halt, as both players and GM face a difficult negotiation. On the players' side, they're looking for things to offer up as currency, in a place where the whole point is that the goblins only want the things the buyer cares about. Obviously the players don't want to over-pay, because players hate feeling cheated. At the same time, it's hard to even figure out what you do care about if the game hasn't forced you to define that thing numerically. Can I feasibly judge what the GM will do to screw me over when I offer the goblins a particular dream or memory, which is of course always what they love best? Because it's not (typically) a game stat, these transactions also require a lot of improvisation from the player. Thus they're the essence of good roleplay, but can also bring a scene grinding to a halt.

On the GM's side, there's a lot of pressure to make suggestions (just to keep the scene moving), knowing that the player will eventually pick whichever of your suggestions matters least to them. At the same time, they're internally struggling for the answer to the question that troubles the players: what am I going to do to screw them over that logically follows from the loss of one happy or important memory? What you have is both sides trying to game the system, which does at least adequately model the negotiation with the goblin merchants. I've always wanted to try a goblin market in which players aren't completely at a loss for what to offer, and go in with at least a limited amount of market-appropriate "currency" in hand rather than wandering from stall to stall knowing that they're screwing themselves over if they try to buy anything. (This seems an opportune moment to link back to my own related post.)

The other thing I'd like to do with a goblin market in some game is to make visiting one more than a one-time deal. I'd like to see PCs start with very little, but gradually accumulate a network of favors owed, odd but valuable tchotchkes, and the like as they go on adventures and build relationships with NPCs.

In this particular case, we sold memories to the merchants of the Bazaar, not knowing what they might cost us, and the GM parsed that as muting rather than erasing their significance. In return, we bought a series of answers from the merchants. Of course, we failed to interpret "the Book of Faces" as something mundane and from our own world rather than something more esoteric, but we eventually stumbled our way toward the answer. Of course, over the course of our wandering, we're having to roll dice, and in order to succeed we're having to add Exhaustion dice occasionally (though we're steering well clear on Madness).

Eventually, though, we piece enough together to know where to go to find Andre's girlfriend Bonnie, which proves to be the office where the office drone works. We've gotten the names of the two factions of Nightmares who are chasing us, each of which wants us to serve them. On the one side, the Phreak, who wants to modernize the Mad City, and is using the Black Ice system to transform people into monsters; on the other side, Acidburn, who is more or less Friend Computer, and opposes modernization by attacking the Mad City's infrastructure. We're there to ask questions, but they decide to get a little rough with us. We flee to the elevator, forcing us to break bad with powers again - things are starting to get really bad for us now.

The elevator doesn't take us back to the ground floor; instead, it takes us up and up and up, to the top floor, an office done in black marble, glass, and chrome - the works, really. Though I think we entered this building through the waking world, the floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the Mad City. We banter with the villain for a good long while, and he demands that we join him. Samhaine succeeded for just a moment in presenting siding with the Phreak and Acidburn as the only two options, relying on us to realize that we could fight them both. That said, we weren't exactly planning to fight the Phreak in his office. Kainenchen's character went all-in on Madness to summon demons large enough to carry all of us out of there, and once she'd done that I don't think she had any option other than fleeing. I use both Exhaustion and Madness to reach one of the demons so that I too can catch a ride out of there. The office drone's player had left, so he fate-of-the-party'ed his way into a demon's clutches.

Andre... didn't make it. Madness dominated for our boy Andre, and Andre only had Fight responses. Ain't no way Andre St. John is running away from this thing that stole his girlfriend and threatened him. As the rest of us break through the windows of the office and are borne away (to safety, one hopes) by demons, Andre uses his Stoneskin to beat the bejeezus out of the Phreak, tearing his arm off. It's some ten stories to the street, but Andre throws himself out the window and uses Stoneskin to survive the landing, clutching the robotic arm overhead, in what we universally agreed was about the most fucking metal thing we'd ever seen in a tabletop game.

Don't Rest Your Head is another of the indie games we've played as a one-shot that I would eagerly play as a long-term campaign. I played Corwin as if I would get to continue playing him, and no small amount of table-talk was generally directed toward people hoping we would make plans to play a second time. Its rules got the hell out of the way so that we could play in a rich setting, while at the same time modeling of the slow slide into exhaustion and madness to get the game's themes across. The Pain mechanic is the only place where things feel just a little bit off; when Pain dominates, the GM can screw with our rolls so that Exhaustion or Madness dominate (which is really very bad for us), but whenever he does this, we get a point that we can use to reduce Exhaustion. The net effect is that Exhaustion is redistributed among players, since players with very low Exhaustion won't spend the points the group has received. This is sort of the problem with the game not having a true damage or health mechanic on the PC side.

I recommend this game very strongly, however, in the same breath with Over the Edge, as a good system for rules-light Modern Weirdness/Pseudo-Horror gaming. That's a pretty popular sub-genre of gaming around these parts. Its native setting is excellent, but it could easily be substituted for OtE's Al-Amarja setting; I can even imagine a campaign casually flipping back and forth between the two rules systems, to an interesting overall story effect.

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