Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sleep is for the dead

Last night, we played Don't Rest Your Head, an indie game I picked up after reading a number of glowing reviews.

While the game isn't perfect, we had a lot of fun. Don't Rest Your Head is like a cross between Neverwhere and Dark City... or if The Phantom Tollbooth had been made with the sensibilities of Jacob's Ladder. Characters are bizarrely powerful insomniacs. The setting is dark, surreal, and full of symbolism. The mechanics, in which you get your strength from a combination of acquiring exhaustion and courting madness, reinforce the atmosphere well.

The game was centered around finals week. My character was Timothy "Moth" Parker. His father and his grandfather had been watchmakers, and he had a bit of an obsessive need to be on time to things. With late nights studying and early morning exams that he was terrified of sleeping through, he hadn't actually slept in a week. Heading into his last exam, he didn't recognize anyone from his class. He checked the schedule and found that it was for the next year's finals. He checked the school paper and the date matched the finals schedule. He'd somehow skipped ahead a year in time. Eventually, after travelling into the surrealistic Mad City with some other insomniacs, he discovered that he had that year saved up... and could parcel it out in small increments, effectively stopping time for everyone but himself.

Anyway, we had a lot of fun. The mechanics flowed fairly smoothly, despite us needing to pass dice around. We had a few too many (5) players, though. I think the game would work better with a small group and might function really well for a one-on-one session/campaign.

The mechanics, now that I think about it, are similar in idea to something I'd thought of a couple of years ago. In DRYH, you have three die pools: Discipline, Exhaustion, and Madness. These are rolled against the GM's Pain pool. Discipline is usually three dice. Exhaustion and Madness range from 0 to 6 dice each. The Pain can get up to 15 dice, but is typically 4-7 or so. The player and the GM each roll their pool and compare total successes (1-3 on a 6-sided die). Whoever wins is successful in the conflict. Then the four pools (Discipline, Exhaustion, Madness, and Pain) are looked at and whichever has the highest number showing Dominates the conflict. Dominating a conflict generally colors how it turns out. Some effects of this: if you want to succeed in a conflict, you can add more Exhaustion and/or Madness to your pool. You'll probably win the conflict if you do, but you run the risk of having Exhaustion or Madness dominate - and those are pretty much as bad as they sound.

Once upon a time, I was considering a game mechanic (for a heroic fantasy-type game) that used Self-Determination and Fate in similar sorts of ways - the idea was that you were likely to succeed, but the important question was how you succeeded - whether you were a slave of fate or whether you forged your own destiny.

In any case, some pros and cons of the game:

Pros:
  • Great atmosphere supported by the mechanics.
  • Really fast character creation
  • Fast-flowing gameplay
  • Potentially really good for one-on-one play (which is kind of rare)
Cons:
  • A bit clumsy with large groups. Mechanics for multiple protagonists in a conflict don't seem to work too well (though that might have been due to our misunderstanding of them).
  • I worry about how it would stand up to an extended campaign - it seems better suited to short story arcs insofar as characters really can't go to sleep (well... they can... but it is a bad idea).

2 comments:

Fred Hicks said...

I just found this post; thanks for your comments on my game! You're absolutely right that it doesn't always work well with large crowds, though I've gotten varying opinions as to whether or not it supports sustained campaign-style play.

szilard said...

Well, thanks for writing the game. As I said, we had a lot of fun playing it and, I'm sure, we will again.