She Leaves this Nightmare Far Behind
Back in my teens, going to gaming conventions was a bit of a hassle. We couldn’t afford to stay at the hotel, so we’d drive in every day even if it was an hour plus commute. Of course, the coolest things at the con happened late, but we didn’t want to miss any early event either, so sleep deprivation became the order of the day. The last night was always the most exciting, and we didn’t want to miss the last morning of dealer room “we don’t want to pack all this back up” sales, so we’d tend to push all the way though. At a certain point in the wee hours of the morning pushing toward 24 hours awake after three days of limited sleep in the first place, I remember always entering a state where I believed I had powers. In this state of deprivation, where my brain was probably trying its best to shove moments of REM into casual conversation, I would believe for a moment that reality was mine to control. I could use my powers to do things… terrible things… if only I weren’t too sleepy to bother.
Don’t Rest Your Head is a game pretty much specifically about this feeling. It supposes a setting where you eventually reach a sleep deprivation quota and flip a mental switch where, in fact, you do have powers, you can see the strange dreamlike reality that you ignore when well rested, and you’re in imminent danger of going mad. You can use these insomnia-derived powers to try to improve your lot in life, but just reaching this state means that there are nightmarish things that can come after you… and they won’t stop once you’ve had a chance to catch up on your sleep debt. The life of a protagonist in the game is a constant struggle to fight off the terrible things that are suddenly happening, fighting off the urge to rest your head and become vulnerable, and staving off the growing tendency toward madness the longer you remain awake.
But are you sure you aren’t just mad in the first place?
As far as gameplay goes, the core game is a small book about the same size as InSpectres, with a similar level of rules. That is, the system is minimalist and purpose-built specifically to play protagonists granted insomnia-fueled superpowers in a world that’s at least half dream or madness. It is pretty much there to get out of the way and let your players chew the scenery with their delirious antics. My players had a great time with it, but I’m not sure how much of that was just that the setting is really cool and that we could have done fine with rules-free narration. This review may focus more on how these rules support the setting than how they stand alone, because they’re clearly designed to only work with this setting (or one with tightly transposed concepts).
The dice system for the game is superficially a pretty simple d6 dice pool system: grab a bunch of dice based on various factors, roll them, and count the ones that read 1, 2, or 3 as a success. The more successes, the better.
Where you get that pile of dice is the actual core mechanic, however. At all times, players will be rolling dice of up to three different colors, and all of the GM’s dice (serving as an opponent) will be of a fourth color. While you consider all your dice for counting successes (and try to beat the GM’s), you also want to figure out which color of dice (between all four of the colors) rolled the highest. So you’re looking for low rolls to get successes, but high rolls to see which “dominates.” This generally means that your character succeeds at a task but something bad can happen during victory, or you can fail at a task but with a beneficial (or less terrible) outcome.
The other interesting thing about it is that all PCs pretty much have the same dice potentials; they’re only differentiated by a couple of special abilities and how you describe what’s going on. Effectively, every PC gets a core of 3 “Discipline” dice that represent actual skill and control, a growing number of “Fatigue” dice that indicate that you’re getting more powerful as you get more exhausted, and can also always draw on a variable number of “Madness” dice that have potentially the worst consequences. Meanwhile, everything the GM does is given a simple threat level in “Pain” dice (which can vary slightly with tactics and fiat; for example, one monster may normally roll 3 dice, but roll 5 dice when using its special ability).
Discipline dominating is good for you (it lets you lower your fatigue), Fatigue dominating isn’t good but isn’t terrible (it makes you more tired), Madness dominating is bad (it locks you into a fight or flight behavior for the rest of the scene, and drives you closer to true insanity), and Pain dominating means something goes wrong even if you win (and gives the GM more resources to make life even worse for you).
Both of these facts together mean that the game naturally follows an escalation curve: PCs start out with only their 3 Discipline dice and maybe risk a small amount of Madness dice, but as they start adding Fatigue their dice pools rise and rise, making it pretty easy to blow through minor opposition and incentivizing going after the bigger threats before Fatigue hits its limit and the PC falls unconscious. Games that start with a bit of difficulty escaping a police chase in the dark before dawn can end with fighting through a horde of horrors to smash out of a skyrise’s penthouse and escape on the wings of demons.
You know, just as an example.