This is How I Roll: Don’t Rest Your Head review

He listens to "Enter Sandman" on repeat

Don’t Rest Your Head
Designed by Fred Hicks
Published by Evil Hat Productions

Gaming accoutrement:

Don’t Rest Your Head, a psychological horror RPG published by Evil Hat Productions, seems 1 part WoD (World of Darknessfor those who aren’t acronym fans) 1 part art-house film. You are one of the “Awake” a person who underwent something so traumatic it has robbed you of your ability to sleep. Because of this, an alternate world, as bizarre as it is terrifying, unfolds before you. Your goal is to survive with a semblance of your sanity, careful not to fall prey to the Nightmares that chase you, or worse…to become them. This is the premise at least, which sounds pretty cool. The execution however is… not so great.

Let me start with the mechanics of the game. The rules system is easy to follow and essentially nonexistent in comparison to other games. Initial character creation is more a series of questions to make your character feel more than a scrap of paper , i.e. no rolling involved. In fact, you’ll notice anytime your hand reaches for dice, it is significant.

All your PC’s skills are bundled in 3 talents: Discipline, which measures your general competence and your ability not to totally lose your shit, Exhaustion, and Madness which enables you to transcend the sleeping world in your abilities. You start with a base of 3 dice in Discipline, and can add more dice for Madness and Exhaustion to win a role, but player beware! The variant colored d6 is attributed to a different talent, and whichever talent is dominant will affect the outcome of the situation. It can be a bittersweet victory since, for example, the PC can technically win a roll if their Exhaustion talent is dominant, but that also means they’re one step closer to falling asleep. Which, if you take note of the title, is pretty bad.

There is also the “Pain” dice, an appropriate name given to dice a GM in any game would roll. Whenever the GM wins a roll they say “pain dominates”, and when this happens, a “Coin of Despair” is placed in the dark bowl. This is basically currency the GM will spend at a later time to be a total dick to your character (read: making you fail at life). I noticed through play-testing, the despair coffer fills quickly. But don’t despair gentle reader, for these coins go to the lighter bowl and transform into hope coins for the PC to spend whenever he/she’s at risk for crashing, or going crazy.

But, enough about rules, there’s a bit more to it, but who wants to read a whole review of that? No one, that’s who. I am honestly ambivalent over the structure of the rules. Having every skill under the umbrella of Discipline is boring, it lacks a certain customization to your character that other games can bring. You do have character specific powers with Madness and Exhaustion talents, but they are given a flimsy outline by the book, leaving it up to GM patience and players to not pick something unreasonable. The game’s forte is unfortunately in storytelling and mood and this is where the review takes a downturn.

When I was reading through the world of Mad City, the colorful backdrop for your shattered, insomniac PC, one friend suggested it was like a Terry Gilliam film: imaginative but difficult to comprehend. Another took a darker route said it was like Silent Hill: a horrific world carved from your character’s damaged psyche. Perhaps they were both right, but my opinion is that Mad City is a Lady Gaga video, completely bewildering yet entertaining on some level. We’ll take it from the source though. The book describes Mad City as:

[T]he 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.

Well okay then, I’m glad that was cleared up.

Let me describe some of the denizens of Mad City. The most showcased antagonist is Officer Tock, a policeman with a watch for a face wielding a giant blood splattered minute hand as a billy club. There are also packs of dogs with sewing needles for heads and a length of string for a tail. Or who can forget Tacks Man, a man with a giant pushpin for a head–do you notice a theme here? Both Tock and Tacks seem to inhabit the evilly bureaucratic section known as District 13. There are other places and other names, but I feel I will have to spend an Exhaustion talent to list them all.

However, don’t feel limited by what they provide for you, the book openly encourages you to create your own Nightmares, giving them any head/body combination you want. In fact, I have made a chart for easy Nightmare generation:

D6 Roll Object Instead of
1 Camera Hands
2 Gun Head
3 Cookie Eyes
4 Bike Wheel Nose
5 Turkey Leg Legs
6 Used Condom Head (again)

2d6, designating one die for each column, and roll for endless possibilities! Or just 36 of them, whichever comes first.

Example: Okay, so if I rolled a 1 and a 2 on the Nightmare generator, my creation might look something like this:

I have dubbed him Bureaucam, a Nightmare used to surreptitiously spy on the Awake.

The description of the setting as well as the rules are vague. This is a double-edged sword. It gives those with roleplaying experience free license, but it could either make a player or a GM a tyrant because there are no real guidelines for reference. The book even mention players dictating their own results from a roll, taking much of the storytelling obligation from the GM and allocating it amongst the players. They are trusting gamers to play nice and be fair, which, in my experience being a GM, borders on the realm of fantasy.

What guidelines they do have for monsters and the outlying world of the Awake are weak and, lets be honest, kinda cheesy. So any kind of psychological horror is thrown out the window, unless you find the head/object dynamic for different Nightmares terrifying. The explanations of the “How”and “Why” of Mad City are explained with flowery, nonsensical prose and an advisement from the book to not “over think” it. Hmm.

Also as a side note, the book devotes an entire section about carefully constructing a storyline to tailor to player’s individual needs. This is a daunting task for any GM, and a near impossible task for a novice. This is obviously not meant for large or inexperienced groups. Although that’s not necessarily a point on the con side.

I wanted to like this. It had potential to be great. While I like a plot-driven game, this seems to be a session of storytelling interrupted by the occasional die rolls. The idea of the colored dice determining different outcomes was a good one, but that can be done in any game with GM ingenuity. So, while the basic concept is an interesting one, their seems to be too many flaws for me to enjoy it.

Posted on May 24, 2010 at 21:09 by Adrienne Ryan · Permalink
In: Reviews · Tagged with: , , , , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Fred Hicks
    on 2010-05-25 at 02:50

    Thanks for the review! Did you get a chance to play the game, or is this a “reading review”?

  2. Written by Trisha Lynn
    on 2010-05-25 at 04:52

    The concept behind the “This is How I Roll” column is that Adrienne and her friends get a new (to them) RPG and play-test it so yes, I'm fairly certain that she actually GM'd a game.

    Future versions of the column may feature a videocast element, but we're working out the kinks on that.

  3. Written by Fred Hicks
    on 2010-05-25 at 16:22

    Cool, thanks! I wasn't sure since the review didn't include details of the player's PCs, the storyline she ran, and so on.

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