Last night was Fred Hicks’s Don’t Rest Your Head. Again, I won’t talk much about the structure of the game, but rather how we reacted to it and what we got out of it.

Four of us played: me, John, and our friends Eric and Avedan. I ran it. As the book warned, there was little motivation for the characters to meaningfully interact and overlap, so there ended up being, largely, three different stories. A guidance counselor, a shipping logistics manager and a writer all fell into the Mad City for one reason or another, and went in some interesting directions. The setting really shone with the guidance counselor in particular, as he decided to head right to the High School and do what he could to get a job there. For anyone familiar with the setting, that’s a chilling notion.

The setting, generally speaking, was great fun to play. While in Apocalypse World[1] Austin was the one who really got the setting and could just spew detail, I think that this setting is one that speaks to me. It’s in the grand tradition of through-the-looking-glass worlds, but dark, in a sort of Gaiman way. But the very same weird mystery of the setting demanded a pace that, I think, undercut some of the mechanics of the game.

So, this points right to the biggest problem we had: motivation. The setting was great, the crunch was great, but somewhere between them was a gap that the Questionnaire was supposed to fill, but, for us, didn’t. It wasn’t so much that it was hard to come up with what to do, but rather, that it was hard to come up with what to do that would drive the story forward, instead of rejecting it. I gradually revealed the weirdness of the world, and at first there were just small details that were wrong—sort of plastic people, absurd dates on bottles in a wine cellar—but that you could deny and ignore. Eventually, I introduced things that could not be ignored, like the Paper Boys. And at that point, characters had to decide whether to take the big juicy but misguided motivation of “get back home” or to go deeper down the rabbit hole.

The writer chose to go back home, and without some intersection between the characters, she was essentially free to do so. She could deny the world pretty effectively. The other two did not, but went deeper in. But the problem was that the choice was there in the first place.

In post-game discussion, we realized a possible “fix” to this. There are two Gaiman books that serve as some clearly relevant media for this game: Neverwhere and Mirrormask. But there’s an important difference between them. Mirrormask is a true through-the-looking-glass story, wherein the characters go to a different world. Neverwhere is not, quite. In Neverwhere, the characters see a new world that coexists with their old one, and getting back is not an option on the table, in a sense. You can’t un-see what you’ve seen. And that, I think, is what you need to do with this game, to provide the protagonists a strong reason to stay in the Mad City.

It was a little frustrating trying to figure this all out. There’s a big burden on indie RPGs that games like D&D, comparatively, don’t have. To play out a story, you need a lot of information about just what kind of story the game tells. For a game like D&D, there’s already a culture that exists throughout the nerd community that understands what that game does. An indie RPG has the burden of communicating almost in its entirety the cultural expectations it needs in the book. This book communicated the world, and the mechanics, and a lot of important things, but I was left a bit unsure of what, exactly, the kind of stories I might tell would look like.

Don’t get me wrong! It was fun, and it did a lot right. But there was a gap that I felt I had to learn through hard experience how to fill. The setting was compelling, and gave me a lot of raw materials for making nightmare fuel. The crunch was great, and had some nice tradeoffs to play with.[2] The gap was situation, really. How to know what to roll when and what kind of things should happen.

We’re not playing these games to review the games, or to rate them, but so far I’ve been very happy with what we’ve played, and would love to play both again. But Don’t Rest Your Head, comparatively, is a game you have to learn how to make work, and I’ve only just begun that process.

Oh, and I’ll end with some miscellaneous points:

The Talents were great; they definitely provided the characters a toolkit of interesting and dangerous tools. Madness Talents, in particular, were compelling. I think that, especially in games, names should be honest, and should evoke what they actually represent. The very name “Madness Talent” evoked things that drive you a bit crazy to see yourself do, and that fits the mechanics as well as the feel. Throughout this game, the names were superbly honest.

We didn’t see much use of Responses, and Exhaustion was kept pretty low, because I didn’t understand to push often and hard, so there’s definitely more of the game to get to see. That is, Snapping and Crashing were never real risks. That should be interesting to explore in future play.

So what did we learn from this? I think the clearest lessons were actually about how to communicate in a game book. There’s a lot in the designers’ heads that needs to make it to the page, and the traditional division of setting and system is insufficient. There are also these two pieces of situation and motivation that need inclusion, because those drive a story forward naturally and with Mamet-esque inevitability.

  1. Comparison between this week’s games will be inevitable. I am not sure that’s a bad thing. []
  2. Though I didn’t push things fast and hard enough to get Exhaustion and Madness up quickly, and therefore didn’t get the Despair and Hope economy pumping. This was a serious oversight! I feel like the book should give some advice on pace of dice-rolling, if it wanted to be more complete. []
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  •  You know, I’ve only played this game once and I actually did it when horribly sleep deprived. I lost by falling asleep OOC and cannot recall anything about the game. I don’t even remember what my character was.

    •  Phil, marry me.

      That is the best way to play this game ever.

  • The Writer

     The most rewarding part of playing this game was  getting a better idea of what I like and dislike about RPGs.  As much as it feels like a betrayal of my indie-gaming friends, it might be that I’m just a hack-and-slash, gimme a quest DnD player. (Oh, the HORROR!)

  • Eric Duncan

    The saddest thing about the experience was not quite being able to divorce my play experience from another game whose “fence-posts” are really similar. *Cough* KULT *Cough*. I am not sure if this is a weakness of me as a participant only; or if there is an issue to consider about overlapping boundaries between games who wish to explore similar themes / stories.

  • Adam

     Don’t rest your head has become out standard fill in game (works best with less then 3 players, so we play it when the group can’t get together).  We enjoy the Dice mechanic and once I learned to play hard, alway giving them reason to use their exhaustion and madness, the game just started kicking.  With the occasional reminder to check their path question, the game flows for us.   I do find that there is not enough motivation to use the dark tokens,  I find I use them just to give the players some hope tokens to think about. 

    •  Interesting; I felt that, if I had gotten the coin-economy pump primed early and could have used them, I would have loved using the Despair coins.

      But, yes, when I run this again, I’ll push harder and faster.