You’d been up for five days working on your dissertation.
It got easier to stay awake after the second night, and the words seemed to flow from your fingertips. You couldn’t say why. Maybe it was those diet pills, but you’d never written faster or more fluidly.
You started seeing the men with needles for heads walking around outside your dorm window on the third night. You thought you were hallucinating then, but when you went into the hall to get a snack from the vending machines, one of them was waiting in the lobby and stabbed you in the cheek. Hallucinations don’t make you bleed.
Thirst dug its claws in during the fourth night. You were afraid of the needle-men, but you had to drink. Half-crazed, you barged into the bathroom and plunged your face under the taps, and drank. And drank. And drank. It took you a good five minutes to realize that you shouldn’t have been able to keep drinking that long. When you checked your mouth in the mirror, all you saw was a yawning black void.
On the fifth night, a door appeared embedded in your closet’s floor – an old wooden thing with a smoked-glass window in the middle and a handle shaped like a pair of scissors. You tried to ignore it at first, but the calliope music leaking through the crack was too loud and too maddening. You had to know what was inside.
Maybe you could finally rest then.
Today, we’ll be looking at one of my personal favorite games. Don’t Rest Your Head, published by Evil Hat Gaming, is an RPG of surreal horror set in a strange world just adjacent to our own. Players take on the role of the Awakened: insomniacs who can access bizarre talents, and who are being hunted by living nightmares from an otherworld known as the Mad City.
“Who in the World Am I? Ah, That’s the Great Puzzle”
Awakened are mostly human, save for two extraordinary abilities: an Exhaustion Talent and a Madness Talent.
An Awakened’s Exhaustion Talent is something that they can do in the normal, Sleeping world — but far beyond what would normally be possible. This can be something as mundane as Persuading Others, or as extreme as Shooting Pistols.
When an Awakened puts their mind to it, they could very well be the most skilled person on Earth in their particular field, but this comes at a price: performing these Talents risks gaining Exhaustion and drawing that much closer to Crashing from the strain.
A Madness Talent, on the other hand, lets the Awakened perform feats that are flatly impossible. One Awakened might spit fire and vomit lava, and another might spread lethal bad luck to anyone around herself. A third might be able to change reality through cursing — a “fuckin’ enormous” pistol would shoot bullets the size of bowling balls, and a “un-fuckin’-believably fast car” could break the sound barrier.
Naturally, meddling with reality so overtly poses its own risks. With every use of these powers, an Awakened becomes less and less sane, and starts to change into one of the Nightmares that roam the Mad City.
Doing Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Gameplay uses six-sided dice of several colors. Players have three colors of dice representing different attributes of their characters (Discipline, Madness, and Exhaustion), while the GM has only one color (Pain, representing any and all difficulties that the players may face.)
Whenever the GM decides that a conflict might have Painful consequences, they may decide to challenge the players in question. Both the player and GM state what will happen if their side succeeds, and then both sides roll a number of dice.
Players start with three Discipline dice, representing their normal abilities as a human, but can choose to add more from either their Exhaustion or Madness dice pools. Adding from the former means taking on a permanent point of Exhaustion, and adding from the latter runs the risk of losing Discipline and gaining Madness.
Victory goes to whichever side rolls the most dice under 3, but the actual outcome is decided by which color has the highest number showing (or, in the case of multiple high numbers, the largest number of high dice.) The effects of this depend on the die pool that dominates the roll — Madness causes a fight-or-flight response, Exhaustion takes a heavy toll on the Awakened’s stamina, Pain represents a Pyrrhic victory at best, and Discipline results in an unequivocally clear-headed success.
In addition to the dice, both the players and GM can use tokens (called “coins of hope and despair”) to change one die in a roll to a 6. Any coins spent this way get put in the other side’s coffer. This means that neither the GM nor players permanently have the upper hand.
Ultimately, though, the success of any DRYH game relies almost as heavily on the players as the GM. So long as everyone’s willing to contribute to the story, DRYH can be one of the coolest (and weirdest) RPGs that you’ve played in a long time.