Don’t Rest Your Head [Review]

Published by Evil Hat Productions, the same minds behind the Fate System, Don’t Rest Your Head is a horror-themed roleplaying game about insomniacs having oddly personal adventures in the Mad City. The Mad City is filled with Nightmares, horrible creatures which plague the city, and danger galore; nevertheless, it is also the only place your character can find peace from the worries which have kept him awake. There are answers in the Mad City, hidden beneath the twisting alleyways or atop the crowded skyscraper roofs.

Don’t Rest Your Head is a fun, albeit different roleplaying game. It purports to be an “expert” roleplaying game, which is a fairly accurate statement. The game makes little attempt to teach players how to frame scenes or control the pacing of a narrative, which, in this game even more than others, is very important.  If your gaming group already knows a little bit about sharing narrative control, and framing scenes, or if you don’t mind a few dull sessions while you get the hang of it, this game is worth the investment.

One of the first things you decide when making your character is what has been keeping him up at night and what is in the Mad City which will alleviate (or make sense) of that. Why is your character struggling to overcome the difficulties of the Mad City? Did his daughter get stolen from underneath the bed by the Boogey Man? Did you see your dead wife wandering the City streets? Perhaps a little white rabbit told you that you’d find out what happened to your sister oh so long ago. This personal quest part of the game can make it seem like Don’t Rest Your Head lends itself to be played by one player and one game master, and the limited usefulness of working together with other players on an action certainly enhances that sentiment. However, the game paces much better with multiple players bound together with a common purpose, enemy, or backstory. When running with only one character there is more focus on that one storyline, which, evolving freeform as it does in this game, can lead to moments of lost gameplay as the player and game master decide where to take the story from there.

With multiple players this becomes less of a factor as the game master can shine the light on another player’s story while he and the previous player take time to think up scenes for the previous character. This helps to keep the game running smoothly when it would otherwise slow to a crawl, an important change in a game whose main pacing mechanic is tension from exhaustion and going insane.

This is not a game which lends itself well to continued play over many sessions. There are rules for that sort of gameplay, but the goal oriented structure of play and the high level of danger for characters means that, more than likely, one to three sessions is the most you can expect to get out of any one character.

The mechanics of the game are solid, helping a game master by providing a framework for pacing and ratcheting up tension. Each player (save the game master) has three pools of dice which they can roll when confronted with a challenge: Discipline, Exhaustion, and Madness. On the other hand, the game master has only one pool of dice to roll: Pain. Players succeed in an action by getting more successes than the game master; however, gamers have to be aware of the Dominance of a dice pool as well. If Discipline dominates, things go smoothly. If Exhaustion dominates the player’s character is worn out from the exertion, getting closer to falling asleep. If Madness dominates then the character has a mental break and begins his path to becoming a Nightmare himself. Finally, if Pain dominates the player pays a coin into a Bowl of Despair which the game master can use to modify the strength of future die rolls. After that the coin is moved to the Bowl of Hope where it can be spent during character downtime to remove stress or exhaustion from their character.

The book itself is well constructed. There is a plethora of information on the places and characters in the Mad City, as well as a list of sources in the back which can help inspire games for several sessions.The art in the book is photography put through some dark, edgy filters to get the feel of horror and madness the game entails. The descriptions of mechanics, the play examples, and especially the quick rules summary sheet all lend to ease of play; hence, it is a real shame the game doesn’t take more time to explain how to properly pace gameplay or give more examples of setting up scenes for the story. With so much material to cover it is an understandable omission, but the game would have been so much more accessible if a little more time had been spent on advice for players who want to enjoy it.

In the end, Don’t Rest Your Head succeeds at what it has set out to do: be a game for experienced roleplayers which deals with the themes of sleep deprivation and madness. Even so, this game leaves me wanting more, and the supplements currently out for it don’t ease that ache. There is something to the Mad City, but the occasional group of gamers may get lost in the shifting terrain.

I want more!

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