Don’t Rest Your Head has three mechanical decisions for character creation:
- When Madness dominates, do you want to fight or flee? You have three boxes to distribute between these responses, and when you go mad you have to check one off and do that thing. If you put them all into Fight, you can’t ever flee from a conflict where Madness dominated, and, conversely, if you put them in Flight, you always have to run when you go crazy. Most players will opt to put two in one and one in the other.
- What mundane thing are you excellent at? Your Exhaustion Talent is basically your core skill specialty that gets pushed into superhuman levels as you rack up Exhaustion dice. It sets a minimum number of successes equal to your current Exhaustion for related rolls, and if you’re willing to take on more Exhaustion you can add that total to whatever successes you roll. A character on the brink of crashing can expect around 10 successes without any Madness dice if using the Exhaustion Talent. Notably, this can be anything from being an amazing martial artist to a skilled gambler, and the GM is expected to get you opportunities to make it work in the story. Since each player only has one such talent, adjusting the story to make them applicable is easier than games where players might each have several skills to showcase.
- What dreamlike or insane superpower do you have? Unlike the previous, the character’s Madness Talent isn’t just a mundane skill taken to ridiculous capacity, but a stunt that probably has a limited range of applications but a physics-defying potential. I like to think of them as the kind of things you take for granted in a dreamscape: complete immunity from harm, ability to fly or teleport, limited prescience, etc. The downside of using them is that you’re forced to roll Madness dice to activate them, often in sufficient number to risk an episode. Use your Madness Talent too much and you go crazy.
These three decisions comprise the core of what would be considered character creation in most systems. However, DRYH takes the additional step of actually moving the “answer a few questions about your character” section onto the character sheet proper. Effectively, you have to answer five questions to play the game:
- Why can’t you sleep?
- What image do you present to people?
- What are you really like?
- Where do you see your character going?
- What just happened to you?
The first four questions are really useful for a GM throwing together a long-term plot, as they let you get a bead on the character and force the player to explicitly tell you where the character’s arc started and where he or she would like to see it go. The last question is the important one for a one-shot or introductory session, however. It effectively asks the player to write the kicker for his or her introductory scene and make up something really weird and awful. This serves as immediate fuel for the GM to figure out the structure of the first session based on what crazy things the players asked for. When you’ve been handed a father being consumed by demons in a tech heist gone wrong, a gang of thugs stealing a courier’s mysterious package, a hot date suddenly transforming into a terrible monster, and a missing girlfriend, the game almost literally writes itself.
In the session I ran, the players actually barely used the mechanical elements on their sheets. They were terrified of risking Madness dice, so basically only used their Madness Talents at the climax (and only one character went crazy to suffer consequences described in more detail here). They used their Exhaustion Talents more often, but really didn’t want to take the guaranteed Exhaustion increase for the full version of the talent very often, so the passive (minimum success) benefit was the primary benefit.
But the five question defined the entire play experience from beginning to end.
A lot of games have a list of questions you’re supposed to answer about your character. In my experience, it’s very rare for anyone to actually answer them verbatim and write them down, slightly less rare for a player to think about them and maybe share those thoughts with the GM, and most common for them to get mostly ignored. We’re experienced roleplayers, obviously we know how to make a character more robust than just a list of stats.
But in those cases, even if the player has built up a robust character in his or her head, it might take the GM several sessions to get a handle on what the player actually wants out of the game. DRYH forces you to put the most significant answers on the sheet, and players hate an empty area on a character sheet that they can fill in. Then all those details are there for the GM to use in planning. Most importantly, it forces them to actually tell you exactly what kind of grief they want you to visit upon their characters. And that’s huge.
The character creation in DRYH is superficially lighter than a lot of the more freeform indie systems out there. But it forces each player to collaborate in generating the kind of game they want to play from the outset, and that’s something even the most mechanically complex systems rarely do.