Don’t Forget Your Aspects

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Pretty simple idea today, brought on by the cryonic heads episode of Fringe. This campaign premise is intended as something of a bait-and-switch, so you should inform your players that it’s a mystery and that they should hopefully trust you and roll with it.

What the players don’t know initially (but will piece together through the course of the scenario) is that they were cryogenically frozen after death. The initial scenario takes place in a computer simulation designed to repair the characters’ brains before releasing them into the high-tech future. That is, the entire game is an elaborate prologue for a “modern characters awake in a sci-fi setting” game. Nova Praxis is probably perfect for this, and the text below assumes a build of Fate, but really anything works. You can subtly adjust the questions to change up the scenario (e.g., maybe it’s a fantasy/horror setting and this is all a prelude to them getting resurrected after being long dead).

Why bother? Because it’s often easier to introduce a setting with vastly different and complex background details with fish-out-of-water modern characters that aren’t expected to know anything the audience doesn’t, and that’s generally hard to do with sci-fi settings. Further, it’s often hard for you to get certain players to give you deep insight into their character psychology without running them through a system that’s all about their psychology.

Also, every time we entertain in fiction that all those frozen rich geeks are getting resurrected in the future, it justifies it just a little bit for them 🙂 .

The System

This uses a standard build of Don’t Rest Your Head. Obviously, the circumstances of the City will be different. This isn’t a place that’s exactly out to get the characters, so much as trying to get them to remember. But they’re suffering major brain damage/freezer burn being slowly repaired, so a little horror may be a natural result of them trying to come to terms with their deaths and science-augmented rebirths.

Exhaustion represents the brain exerting itself to be repaired, having a harder and harder time staying cogent in this electrically-stimulated half-life. The Exhaustion Talent should ultimately map to the character’s top skill when built in Fate.

Madness represents the character rebelling against what is in many ways a cross between the Matrix and a lucid dream, making things happen not really intended by the scenario, and the Madness Talent represents an especially powerful glitch that the character can use. The talent may or may not map to a stunt when built in Fate.

Crashing or Snapping may be temporary setbacks, or may indicate that the character’s brain cannot be saved, depending on whether you’re really just running a prelude and you want them all to move on, or whether you want them to work for it.

Pain and all its attendant problems represents the characters’ own subconscious nihilism: the monsters are almost entirely their own reasons for thinking they don’t deserve to come back from the dead. It should probably be rather like Silent Hill, a lot of the time.

The Questions

  • How’d you make your money? (Even if they don’t remember it, all the characters were rich enough to pay to be cryogenically preserved. If someone chooses to answer this in a way that negates the question, then you get to invent the weird circumstances for why someone else decided to pay to put them on ice.)
  • Why do you want to live? (This should hopefully tease out why the characters paid to be preserved without giving the game totally away.)
  • Why are you afraid you deserve to die? (This gives you fuel for designing the Pain creatures the characters will face.)
  • What’s your biggest secret? (Another issue to be resolved by Pain.)
  • What’s the last thing you remember? (A twist on the standard What Just Happened question, this actually indicates a moment before the character died, but which will be built upon by the simulation. You should encourage the players to be somewhat stressful or sinister, but less weird and horrible than normal for DRYH.)

The Scenario

Depending on how they answered the questions, the easiest way to go is probably The Game through Silent Hill through The Matrix/Dark City.

That is, start to build up an initial wrong impression that they were kidnapped for something related to their money. The final memory in reality was a significant memory not too long before the character died, but probably didn’t actually mean anything sinister. But here, it suddenly is full of portent and gets spun out into a different logical path. Especially if you have the characters all start out together in a locked room, it probably won’t be long before they decide that they’re all rich and must have been kidnapped.

Before too long, they should start to see cracks showing in the belief that this is a simple kidnapping. Set the nightmare nob to the level you’re comfortable with, and all the dark entities they run into should gradually resolve into being elements from each of the characters’ fractured psyches. They should probably get the impression that they’re in a Purgatory of their own sins and psychodramas.

But they have superpowers, taxing though they are. As they deal with threats, the seams of the simulation should become more and more apparent. This is a scenario constructed of advanced but still limited technology: the AI isn’t as smart as they are and the playspace isn’t infinite; monsters can be tricked, NPCs are strangely lacking in complexity, and doors can’t be opened or loop back around. Towards the end, they have probably figured out they’re in a box and are just trying to figure out the key.

They key is defining their Aspects. Whichever build of Fate you’re using, figure out the number and categories of the Aspects that are needed (e.g., High Concept and Trouble plus others or the Aspect alphabet in Strands of Fate/Nova Praxis). Try to herd the players into situations where they might exemplify something about their natures. When someone does something dramatic and personal that might fit into an Aspect category, break the fourth wall and ask them a question (possibly including the simplified adjective that you think might make a good Aspect, e.g., “Are you always this Strong?”).

The goal is to get the player to respond with a full sentence that becomes an Aspect (rather than just a yes or no; e.g., “When I need to, I can move mountains!”). When that happens, very visibly write down what the player just said, while just nodding and moving on if you get a simple affirmation or negation. The players should pretty quickly pick up that they’re meant to be answering the questions with style.

Try to make sure the scenario targets players in a way that keeps the questions answered with Aspects even, so they can basically all get their total number of Aspects at the same time (possibly with one final set of questions before the walls come down). Once they all have their full allotment of Aspects, the simulation has successfully rebuilt their personalities, and they can be decanted into new bodies (or just a virtual lobby as the scientists explain what actually happened and give them a full range of output options) and make their characters in Fate.

Then, shortly afterwards, they can have an exciting scene of bitching at a bunch of resurrection techs for what they were just put through.

Don’t Admit Your Ignorance

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I’ve been enjoying The Wrong Mans, and this is a Don’t Rest Your Head hack to try to generate that kind of play: a handful of morally decent working schlubs stumble on a deadly conspiracy and decide to further involve themselves, somehow not dying due to hilarious luck and perceived lack of threat despite being way out of their depth.

The Questionnaire

  • Why aren’t you determined to stay out of this altogether? What’s the reason you’d even entertain getting involved in this? Recent breakup? Tense home life? Stuck in a dead-end job? Just bored?
  • Why are you hesitant to call the cops? Seriously, though, there has to be some reason you don’t just involve the police, yeah? Afraid of racial profiling? Known local pothead or crackpot with credibility issues? Nasty breakup with the police chief’s kid? Maybe you just live alone and spent last week playing video games every night, and are pretty sure you don’t have much of an alibi?
  • Who do you want to keep out of this? Everyone has somebody they care about, even if they’re basically losers, don’t they? Do you have an invalid parent? Ex that you’re still trying to get back together with? Younger sibling? Surely not a spouse and/or child to take care of, or you’d run screaming the other way, right? Right?
  • What’s your job like? You didn’t think you were just going to take a few days off to solve crimes, did you? What do you do for work? Who’s the rival who’s going to tattle on you if you keep skipping out? Why is this a risky time for you to start being absent?
  • What just happened? How’d you get involved, anyway? Case of mistaken identity? Murder right in front of you? A man staggered out of an alley with a dagger in his back and pressed a USB drive into your hands? Unlike normal for DRYH, it’s okay if two or more of you have the same event (you were friends and acquaintances beforehand, and you were either together at the event or heard about it shortly after from the guy it happened to). If you all have a different event and don’t know each other, though, it just means that the GM gets to create a conspiracy so insane that it accidentally rolled in multiple unrelated bystanders.

Rules Changes

Player Dice

  • Discipline remains unaltered, but is colored by the fact that you’re not at all skilled in violence or espionage and are mostly getting lucky mimicking things you’ve seen on TV. As usual, when Discipline dominates, you reduce Chaos by one as you actually get a chance to dial things down.
  • Exhaustion becomes Chaos; it represents the growing inability of the agents of the conspiracy to adapt to the spanner that you, personally, have thrown into the works (and a little bit that you’re becoming a little unhinged and willing to go all gonzo). Unlike normal, it goes up by one only when Luck dominates, but, like normal, you add it to all your rolls. When it gets to 4 or higher, the agents are starting to think of you as a real threat, and any losses in a violent confrontation may actually kill you. When it gets above 6, you die the next time you go up against the conspiracy, even if you win; best try to make Discipline dominate before then. When Chaos dominates, the conspiracy adds a layer of complexity that gets involved by the next scene: new opponents, new macguffins, and new investigations into you by the authorities.
  • Madness becomes Luck; you’re probably only going to get out of this by having lucky breaks, and somehow you keep having them. As usual, you can always add up to six Luck dice. Successes on them result in improbable coincidences, stupid ideas that actually work, and the like. When Luck dominates, the opposition starts to think maybe you’re not getting lucky after all; increase your Chaos by one.


  • Exhaustion talents become Professions, and represent the one thing you’re actually good at (and this is not allowed to be anything that should be directly useful in the world of murder and espionage). When you’re using your Profession, all failed Discipline dice count as 6s, increasing the chance that it will Dominate. That’s all it does; you’re not an action hero.
  • Madness talents, speaking of which, are not used in the normal implementation of this idea. If you’re in a fantasy, sci-fi, or supers setting, you may wind up with a Power of the GM’s choice at an applicable point in the story. Like normal for Madness Talents, you have to roll one or more Luck dice to activate it (it’s probably unreliable and hard to control).

GM Dice

  • Pain becomes Conspiracy, but is essentially unchanged. The GM does not roll any Conspiracy dice when you’re in trouble not related to the conspiracy (dealing with work, cops, or family); you still have to roll to see if you fail (and get stuck in some mundane problem) or if something else dominates; but if Discipline dominates, you still get to reduce Chaos. When the opposition is someone involved with the conspiracy, the GM should roll up to 12 dice, as normal for Pain, with higher dice pools representing digging deeper into the onion layers of the conspiracy. Rolling any dice at all, therefore, is a nice clue to the players that what they thought was mundane is actually involved in the conspiracy. When Conspiracy dominates, gain a Mistake coin: even if the character succeeded, he or she did something stupid that will haunt the group later (like leaving behind evidence).

Crashing and Snapping

  • You don’t crash or snap directly. As noted above, when Chaos is over 3, any failures in a violent situation can result in the character getting killed (or at least seriously injured), and when it goes over 6, the next violent confrontation is pretty much automatically deadly. Of course, by the time Chaos starts getting that high, you’ve probably got so many people coming after you that you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to.


  • Coins of Despair become Mistake Coins. They represent, well, mistakes the player characters made catching up to them. They work the same as despair, and generate coins of Hope when used.
  • Coins of Hope are unchanged.

Don’t Reveal Your Gifts

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This is a light DRYH hack inspired by this music video. Secondary inspirations are Rising Stars and Chronicle.

Something happened to your town to make this possible. Maybe there was a strange meteor a few years back, or a solar flare at high noon in Summer with you right underneath. Maybe it was a drug trial run on your parents before you were born, or just being downstream from that plant they said was totally safe.  Whatever is was, over the last few years a few of the kids around your age have been developing powers.

One of the know-it-all kids convinced everyone that the adults wouldn’t understand, that the government would come and take you away, and that was enough to keep a bunch of rebellious adolescents quiet. At least for a few months, until one of the oldest kids with powers freaked out a couple weeks ago, totally wrecked the school. Turns out the know-it-all was right: the government descended on your town and took him away. Now they’re constantly hanging around and asking questions and the rest of you are having a real hard time keeping cool.

It was only so long before the stress got so bad someone would blow. Nobody thought the day would be bad enough that you’d all flip out at once…

The Questionnaire

  • Why can’t you rely on your parents or another adult to help you? Think about what kind of troubled young teen with superpowers you want to be. This matters because it forces you to be self reliant.
  • Who do you just know is going to be on the news claiming they always thought you were trouble? Think about your petty small town rivalries and what you did to deserve them. This matters because it gives the GM hooks to personalize your opposition.
  • Where do you plan to run? Think about the plans a kid with no resources or real understanding of the world would make to try to get away. This matters because it allows the GM to structure the first session or two.
  • What is too important to leave behind? Think about a possession or loved one that you’ll risk your own safety to hang onto and take with you on the run. This matters because it gives you an early goal.
  • What just happened? Think about what kind of terrible day would cause you to reveal your powers in a way that will immediately out you as a threat. This matters because it allows the GM to structure the first scenes and get you all together.

Rules Changes

Player Dice

  • Discipline remains unaltered, though it’s colored by the kind of competencies available to adolescents rather than full adults. Since there are no responses, when discipline dominates you can decrease Stress by one or Scrutiny by one.
  • Exhaustion becomes Stress; picture becoming more effective but scared because of adrenaline. Like normal, you can raise it by one intentionally and it automatically increases by one when it dominates. When it exceeds six, you crash.
  • Madness becomes Recklessness; you can achieve a lot more if you’re willing to risk getting noticed. Like madness, you can vary the number of these dice you add to any roll. When recklessness dominates, increase Scrutiny by one.


  • Exhaustion talents become Aptitudes, and represent the thing you’re best at and get better at as the going gets tough. They work identically to exhaustion talents (minimum success equal to your Stress automatically, or take on another Stress die to add your Stress to the successes).
  • Madness talents become Powers. Pick something big and flashy; it needs to be versatile and capable of massive collateral damage. Energy projection, telekinesis, and super strength are great choices. Like madness talents, to use your power (voluntarily) you must add Recklessness dice to your roll equivalent to the level of the effect you want to create.

GM Dice

  • Pain becomes Danger, but is essentially unchanged. The GM always rolls at least one danger die, and can roll up to nine. When danger dominates, gain a coin of Catastrophe: even if the character succeeded, he or she made a mistake that will come back to haunt the group later.
  • Scrutiny starts at zero, and represents the intensity with which the authorities are looking for the player characters. It’s increased by crashing and Recklessness dominating. Add these dice to every roll: even when there aren’t police and FBI agents actively in the scene chasing the characters, the effects of the manhunt on the behavior of the rest of the world and the intensity of the scene are palpable. When scrutiny dominates, if the result was a failure, the acting character is captured and will have to be rescued by the others (but reduce Scrutiny by 2). If the result was a success, the group must immediately face a new Danger 3 (plus Scrutiny) challenge of a group of cops or agents; obviously, if Scrutiny is high enough to keep dominating, this could keep going until someone is captured.

Crashing and Snapping

  • Crashing causes you to erupt in a storm of powers, probably causing massive property damage and casualties, immediately raising Scrutiny by 3. You pass out afterwards (for hours rather than days), leaving your friends to figure out what to do with you (and probably resulting in a capture and reduction of Scrutiny by 2 if you were not in a position to be saved before the authorities got you), but you have your full Discipline and other capabilities when you wake up.
  • Snapping is mostly rolled into Crashing; instead, the secondary threat to characters is Scrutiny getting high enough that they’re faced with immediate capture.


  • Coins of Despair become Coins of Catastrophe. They represent mistakes the player characters made catching up to them. They work the same as despair, and generate coins of Hope when used.
  • Coins of Hope are unchanged.

Don’t Lower Your Auctoritas

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So of course, when Fred asks for DRYH hacks that don’t use existing IP, that’s all my game design muse wants to give me. Here’s one for Nobilis. Note that I don’t have the new edition yet, so it works off of 2nd edition’s assumptions.


It’s all over the news. There’s been another bizarre death. There’s been one every day. What the news doesn’t say is, with each one, the city gets a little weirder. Most people haven’t yet noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to get out, but they will. The roads are turning in on themselves. The ties to the rest of the world are slipping away. Somehow, you’re one of the few that have noticed. There’s something behind it all, something far more than human. And it’s watching you. It’s judging you. It’s changing you.

You’ve started to notice that you can do things. Things not human. Things not even superhuman. And with the powers of a god come the trials of one. You’re being challenged. Threats are seeking you out. But nobody will tell you the rules. Your powers grow the more you use them. What are you getting yourself into? What happens if you pass these tests? Even worse, what happens if you fail?

Growing Power

This system serves as a way to play out the Empowerment of Nobilis PCs. It postulates a situation where an Imperator is gradually determining which of the citizens of a new Chancel will be its Powers by slowly extending them capabilities during the 100 day ritual to make the Chancel. If they prove competent, they’ll be awarded soul shards… if they don’t, dementia animus is possibly the best case scenario for a mortal that tasted the powers of creation and then had them taken away.

Players have three types of dice: Competence, Passion, and Miracles.

  • Competence is similar to Discipline. Every PC starts with 3 dice in the Competence pool. It represents anything that a pure mortal could do, if only in movies with a very liberal view of physics and other sciences. When Competence dominates:
    • The success or failure plays out with the precision and order of the truly skilled.
    • The player should make a mark next to Aspect.
  • Passion is similar to Exhaustion, but represents the power of the character’s will and soul. It starts at 0 dice, but a player can take on one die of Passion before each roll. As the Passion pool increases, the character becomes increasingly “real” and noticeable, giving all the impression of a colored image against a desaturated background. When Passion dominates:
    • The success or failure is strongly influenced by the character’s overwhelming emotions or force of personality. If the result was a success, and any kind of supernatural effect was in play, onlookers will notice a “bubble” around the character, about the diameter of her own height, where her own reality is imposed on the world.
    • The player should make a mark next to Spirit and reduce the Passion pool by 2 dice (to a minimum of 0). Passion has no technical cap, but will become increasingly likely to dominate and reduce itself the higher it gets.
  • Miracles is similar to Madness, in that it is a fast surge pool where the player can add from 0 to 6 dice on any roll. Adding these dice represents warping local reality to produce a result, and the player should describe what is being attempted. When Miracles dominates:
    • The result of the miracle is very obvious, and may cause mortal onlookers to go mad.
    • The player should make a mark next to Realm (unless using her Affinity, as described below, in which case make a mark next to Domain).

Players also have a Skill and a Domain.

  • Skill represents an area of mortal concern that the character is particularly skilled at. It is mechanically about as broad as an Exhaustion Talent. Whenever using the Skill, the player may choose to turn any or all Competence dice into 6s after rolling (i.e., the player can all but ensure that Competence dominates).
  • Affinity is the miraculous concept with which the character is becoming increasingly associated. It is a single word that will eventually become the character’s Domain. Whenever Miracles dominates, if the result is within this affinity, it increases Domain instead of Realm.

GMs roll two types of dice:

  • Tribulation dice are rolled when the GM believes that the situation the players are dealing with was engineered by the Imperator to challenge the characters. This might be an overt manifestation of the Imperator’s domains and operatives or may be a situation that was socially engineered (e.g., clues that lead the PCs to a tight spot). Tribulation ranges from a minimum of 1 die (to some extent, everything the characters encounter is being monitored and allowed to happen by the Imperator) up to 10 or more, and should generally increase over the course of the 100 days as the Imperator tests the PCs more thoroughly. When Tribulation dominates:
    • The seams of the challenges become obvious: it is metaphorically like a trap suddenly springing shut.
    • Mark whether the PC succeeded or failed on such a roll, and record a mark next to Approval or Disappointment for that Imperator’s subsequent dealings with that PC.
  • Bane dice are rolled whenever the situation involves dangerous elements that aren’t directly under the Imperator’s control. That is, the PCs are in more danger than just failing their future master’s tests. This can be anything from conflict with citizens of the soon-to-be-Chancel, to environmental difficulties, to the involvement of supernatural elements beyond the Imperator (rival Powers, future Chancel Banes, or even Excrucians). Bane dice range from 0 to 6 based on the severity of the situation. When Bane dominates:
    • The PC is injured in some way; if the roll was a success for the player, this injury is superficial, but failure can bring actual life-threatening problems.
    • It is up to the GM and players whether death is on the table from too many failed Bane dominations.


In addition to choosing a Skill and an Affinity, each player should answer the following questions for her character:

  • What is your name?
  • Why is this happening to you?
  • Who do you love most and why?
  • Who do you hate most and why?
  • Why should you have power?
  • What just happened to you?


Once the group is ready to proceed to their characters becoming Powers (everyone agrees that they’ve been sufficiently challenged for the Imperator’s satisfaction or the 100 days run out), convert the characters to Nobilis rules via the following method:

  1. Total all marks made across the four scores for each player (e.g., 5 Aspect, 6 Domain, 2 Realm, 7 Spirit is 20 total).
  2. Divide the game’s character creation point total by this number to create a multiplier (e.g., in a 30 point game, 20 marks means a 1.5 multiplier).
  3. Apply the multiplier to each individual category so the marks turn into character points with as similar a ratio as possible to the original marks (e.g., in the above examples, the player would have 7-8 Aspect, 9 Domain, 3 Realm, and 10-11 Spirit).
  4. Spend each category to buy the related trait levels, bonus miracle points, or Gifts related to that category (e.g., 9 Domain points buys 3 levels of the Domain trait, 9 bonus Domain Miracle Points, 9 points worth of Domain-related Gifts, or some combination of the three).

Don’t Waste Your Tass


This is Mage: the Ascension converted to Don’t Rest Your Head, as inspired by Fred’s recent post about hacking DRYH. You could probably run Mage: the Awakening with it by changing a few trait names and groups. Familiarity with both DRYH and Mage will probably make this make more sense.


Player characters have three major traits:

  • Arete: The sum of a mage’s fully controlled magical potency, Arete is a fixed pool that rarely changes in the course of an adventure (though it might increase over time). It is also a good reference for the character’s skill at mundane activities, so will generally be rolled for everything. It is very similar to Discipline in standard DRYH. When Arete dominates, the player may reduce Resonance by one die or remove a Paradox check as her mage masters reality sufficiently to undo previous mistakes.
  • Resonance: As a mage bends reality, his or her changes tend to build up a mystical “tone” that makes further changes to reality both easier, and more dangerous. Reality, already bending, is easier to adjust, and this spills over even to mundane activities (just like Arete, Resonance is rolled for everything). It is very similar to Exhaustion. A mage can voluntarily take on one die of Resonance each roll. Additionally, if Resonance dominates, she must take on an extra die of Resonance as reality gets strange. If Resonance exceeds six dice, the mage experiences a Quiet. The higher a mage’s Resonance, the more likely other supernatural beings will be to notice and identify her.
  • Vulgarity: When casting magic, a mage often has a choice of how coincidental or vulgar to make the effect. The more vulgar the effect, the more power the mage can usually unleash. Thus, the more vulgar the effect, the more Vulgarity dice can be added (up to six). It is very similar to Madness. GMs should attempt to come up with a way for any effect to work as coincidental if the player wants it to; for example, a coincidental teleportation may somehow arrange for an available taxi cab and clear traffic (though going vulgar would obviously be faster). If Vulgarity dominates, the mage suffers Paradox as described below.

Each mage has a Tradition, with an associated Skill. The Skill works identically to the Exhaustion talent in DRYH, setting success to a minimum of Resonance and allowing the player to take on an additional die of Resonance to instead add total Resonance as bonus successes.

  • Akashic Brotherhood: Do (acrobatics, meditation, and combat involving martial arts or melee weapons)
  • Celestial Chorus: Song (any voice-based interaction, including intimidation, negotiation, commands, etc.)
  • Cult of Ecstasy: Cool (any interaction about knowing useful people, getting by via being interesting, or playing music)
  • Dreamspeakers: Wisdom (any interaction with spirits and surviving in and navigating in the wilderness or Umbra)
  • Euthanatos: Death (stealth, guns, and any combat where killing the opponent is a primary goal)
  • Order of Hermes: Knowledge (ritualized magic, book learning and research, and dealing with spiritual or supernatural politics)
  • Sons of Ether: Science! (making or understanding most things relevant to physics, chemistry, biology, etc.)
  • Verbena: Myth (any interaction with bygone beasts or physical supernatural beings like vampires, werewolves, and fae)
  • Virtual Adepts: Hacking (any interaction with, mediated by, or greatly assisted by a computer system)

Additionally, each mage has at least one Hobby which is a more limited Skill that is specific to the character’s background (effectively, any one skill off the normal Mage skill lists).

All mages have ratings in Spheres (Correspondence, Entropy, Forces, Life, Mind, Matter, Prime, Spirit, Time) which define what kind of effects they can produce. See the Mage rules for what is available at each Sphere level (Spheres are not simplified over regular Mage to make magical advancement a major element of long term play).

A mage that must take on more than six Resonance dice instead enters Quiet. The mage will typically snap, automatically solving whatever problem she was currently facing with some overwhelmingly vulgar magic (that somehow avoids Paradox), and then leave the scene to cause mad havoc across the city for a while until finally calming down (and dropping all non-permanent Resonance dice). Henceforth, one Arete die is permanently replaced with a Resonance die (which still counts against the limit of six). A mage that runs out of Arete in this way (or a master that gets a seventh permanent Resonance die) becomes a Marauder and is permanently insane and stuck in her own mad vision of reality.

Whenever Vulgarity dominates, the mage takes Paradox. A mage can suffer up to Arete in Paradox (check off a box). Whenever a Paradox box is checked, the player must decide on Feedback or Fallout. With Feedback, the mage suffers damage from the wracking Paradox and might come away with some kind of Paradox Flaw; she is incapacitated by the pain and unable to contribute meaningfully for the rest of the scene, but is not totally helpless. With Fallout, the Paradox instead has bizarre, unpredictable, and often horrific effects on the environment and bystanders (the GM is not expected to be kind), and the GM gains another Echoes die, but the mage is otherwise unharmed and able to keep contributing. If the mage suffers Paradox and has no remaining boxes to be checked, she is spirited away (either claimed by a literal Paradox Spirit or by a nearby Technocratic reality police squad). She may be returned later with lingering side effects determined by the GM.

All mages can use Tass to alleviate Paradox and Resonance (one spent Tass removes one die of Resonance or one check of Paradox). Tass comes from nodes or from other useful confluences of Quintessence. The GM is encouraged to give players Tass as a reward for accomplishments and to track it as tokens.

Making a Character

Answer these questions:

  • What is your name?
  • What happened to make you Awaken?
  • Why did you pick your Tradition?
  • How are you at odds with your Tradition?
  • What is your Avatar and your path to Ascension?
  • What just happened to you?

Fill out the following stats:

  • Take 3 Arete (and, consequently, 3 empty Paradox boxes)
  • Write your Tradition and its associated Skill
  • Pick one Hobby
  • Assign Spheres:
    • Take one rank in your Tradition Sphere:
      • Akashic Brotherhood: Mind
      • Celestial Chorus: Prime
      • Cult of Ecstasy: Time
      • Dreamspeakers: Spirit
      • Euthanatos: Entropy
      • Order of Hermes: Forces
      • Sons of Ether: Matter
      • Verbena: Life
      • Virtual Adepts: Correspondence
    • Assign five more ranks to Spheres (to a maximum of Arete in any Sphere)

The GM can award ranks of Arete, additional ranks of Spheres (to a maximum of Arete), and additional Hobbies as character advancement in long term play.

Here is a character sheet (Big Photoshop Editable Version or Small File Version).

GM Dice

Instead of one pool of Pain, the GM constructs challenges out of the following pools (any of which can independently Dominate):

  • As players use magic, Echoes begin to build. Echoes represent reality attempting to snap back and correct the deformations made by the mages. Add one Echoes die every time a player wins a challenge using magic and gets more successes than the current Echoes pool (e.g., if there are currently 2 Echoes dice being rolled, and the player wins with 5 successes, Echoes is now 3). Always roll Echoes against the players; things get consistently harder in general the more magic they use. When Echoes dominates, some mundane detail that they thought they’d accounted for or had taken for granted pops back up to cause a major complication. Reduce Echoes by one die whenever it dominates, and it also can slowly fade over time (one per hour or scene where no magic is used).
  • Whenever facing agents of the Technocracy or other challenges that represent the government, bureaucracy, or other mundane order of the world, roll Stasis dice (1 for a minor problem up to 6 for a major opposing Technocrat or large opposing force). When Stasis dominates, the local environs have become a little more influenced by the Technocratic paradigm: security gets harder, citizens phone 911 sooner, and issues require more forms and paperwork.
  • Whenever facing Nephandi, evil spirits and supernaturals, or mundane challenges inspired by moral decay, roll Corruption dice (same scale as Stasis). When Corruption dominates, the local environment is infected by apathy and malign supernatural forces: casual violence and crime gets worse, local denizens and wildlife are more likely to attack the characters, and progress is more likely to require bribery.
  • Whenever facing Marauders, natural or otherwise capricious spirits or supernaturals, or mundane challenges inspired by chaos or insanity, roll Madness dice (same scale as Stasis). When Madness dominates, things get a little crazy: bizarre and unfortunate coincidences happen with greater regularity, poltergeists and other capricious spirits have easier access to the world, and people are more likely to go mad.

The GM can mix and match the dice if it makes sense for the challenge. A corrupt politician might be Stasis and Corruption dice, an evil natural spirit might be Corruption and Madness dice, and an overly complicated and arbitrary bureaucracy might be Madness and Stasis dice.

System Review: Don’t Rest Your Head, Conclusion

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To Make that Blind Leap

Your typical RPG system is a determination engine: it gives structure (often, a chance-based structure) to the determination of how likely a character is to succeed or fail at a given task based on capabilities and hindrances. DRYH isn’t really typical in this sense. Sure, there are small elements of it with talents, but what it really is, instead, is an escalation engine. The game is less concerned with whether a character can do something than it is with keeping him or her doing something.

The natural consequence of making a roll is getting you into a situation where you’re compelled to make more rolls. The more you roll the bigger your Exhaustion pool is going to get, and the faster your own personal countdown to solving this scenario before you crash is going to tick. The session of the game I ran had the most beautiful adventure cadence of any one shot I’ve ever run: comfortable start in player directed activity, quick increase in pace after the Exhaustion started to build, and then a furious descent toward the climax. A huge portion of this was player directed: they didn’t want to crash before dealing with their biggest problem, and the closer they got to crashing the more dice they had to deal with that problem.

However, I do wonder if the system couldn’t be slimmed down even further. It’s still using a lot of the language of a deterministic system when it doesn’t necessarily need it. Moreover, there might be a way to streamline the mechanic so you can play the game without the requisite rainbow-colored pile of d6s that has become the hallmark of the indie gamer. Given the players’ ability to succeed at virtually any challenge by taking on more risk, and similarity of dice pools, it seems like a similar effect could be achieved with fewer dice. But there is something to be said for the tactile advantage of fistfuls of dice.

One area where I really would have liked to see a game system would have been making purchases at the goblin market that springs up every night at 13:00. As recounted by Harbinger, I was able to use the character backgrounds provided by the five questions to come up with a satisfying payment method in the moment, but given how central this market is to the setting, I would have liked some system or at least advice on how to present a meaningful and long-term financial system using the ephemeral goods usually traded at such places.

At the end of the day, though, DRYH does something very right. Much like Technoir, the players of my one shot have been very excited to potentially play again. The system may be almost unnecessary in the face of the natural draw of the setting and ability to be arbitrary and freeform, but what it does do it does well, and that’s define the structure of play. My normal caveat applies to GMs that are uncomfortable improvising: player characters in this game gain a lot of agency very fast and you’ll find yourself following the lead of what they want to do pretty early on. From my own point of view, as a GM that loves having just enough structure to assist improvising, it meets most of my needs. As mentioned, there are a few things I’d tweak, but I’d gladly run it again.

System Review: Don’t Rest Your Head, Part 3

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As discussed in part one, the game mechanics are pretty simple: highest number of successes wins the conflict, but the dominating die type has special effects.

The engine is pretty narrative. The GM has rough guidelines for how many Pain dice to roll for certain creature types, but the number of dice used is pretty arbitrary. The GM just determines where the PC’s opposition is on a scale between minor inconvenience and boss monster (i.e., 1 to 12 or so) and rolls accordingly. The GM also has lots of space to determine whether winning a challenge means total victory, a temporary reprieve, or just whittling away at the opponent’s resources prior to another roll. Similarly, failure might mean something terrible happening to the PC, but could just as easily mean that what the PC was trying to do is impossible without changing tactics but without further harm. In a lot of ways it relies on GM and PC either explicitly or implicitly agreeing on stakes before making a roll.

What’s interesting, however, is that any time it comes to a roll it’s generally not in the players’ best interests. Even if you’re rolling against 1 die of Pain, you could still see any dice you’re rolling dominate. Remember, only Discipline dominating is actually good, and that becomes increasingly less likely as the game goes on: even if you don’t personally have so many Exhaustion or Madness dice that they have an overwhelming chance to dominate over your 3 Discipline dice, the GM will be frequently rolling a similar number of Pain dice to your three colors. So if you’re rolling 3 Discipline, 2 Exhaustion, 2 Madness, the GM is likely to roll around 7 Pain dice for an actual challenge.

And that’s the behavior I saw in play. Once the players started to accumulate Exhaustion dice, they tended to be like a cancer, slowly growing against minimal difficulty rolls because the player has to roll them. Madness dominating didn’t happen very often at all: the player only has to roll it when using his or her Madness talent or when fighting a very powerful challenge (where Pain is more likely to dominate). This basically led to the cadence of the game being a slow build to increased Exhaustion, where at some point the players realize they’re close to crashing and begin throwing their now giant dice pools against the bigger problems facing them. At that point, they probably attract the biggest problems sufficient to require them to risk Madness dice (either because they need the bonus or because they need the superpower). This increases the probability that they’ll get led around by their fight or flight responses.

However, the biggest dice behavior I saw was Pain dominating. As soon as you’re up against difficulty 4 challenges, Pain dice will always outnumber any single color of player dice (except when you’re throwing in an overkill of Madness or it’s a lowball roll once Exhaustion has gotten really high). And this gets more and more pronounced the bigger the threats get: a maxed out character vs. a comparable challenge is 3 Discipline, 6 Exhaustion, and 6 Madness vs. 15 Pain… Pain is going to dominate in the vast majority of those rolls.

The special effect of Pain dominating, other than getting to describe even a success as a painful victory, is that the GM gets a Despair coin. Despair coins are spent to add more 6s (or remove them) from any pool on the table. Effectively, you get to pick which pool dominates (with only a coin or two spent, unless there are a lot of 6s showing). You can’t get another Despair coin if you spend in this way to ensure Pain dominates. So it’s often a means to ensure that Exhaustion or Madness dominates. And, by the time you’re racking up Despair coins, that tends to seem pretty arbitrary and mean spirited, because the players are getting close to crashing or snapping.

Ultimately, though, it’s zero-sum or worse: every time the GM spends a coin of Despair, the players get to keep it as a coin of Hope… which can be spent to reduce Exhausion dice or Madness checks. About all you can really do with a coin of Despair is force the players into a Madness response in the short term or maybe force one to crash if they’re rolling the full 6 Exhaustion (and that didn’t already dominate). And toward the end of the game, you’ll often have to spend multiple coins to ensure Exhaustion or Madness dominates (since you’re statistically likely to need to cancel out several 6s on your pile of Pain dice), so every time you exercise Despair you’re actually giving the players a bonus of several points of reduction. At the end of the session I ran, all spending Despair had done was allow players to help out one another by evening out the scores (e.g., a low-Exhaustion player gains a die and a high-Exhaustion one can buy down).

If I run the game again, I may experiment with adding different flavors of GM dice with their own effects that can be used to keep Pain from becoming so overwhelmingly likely to dominate toward the end of a session.

One last thing to mention about the game mechanics is that there is an advancement system in the form of Scars, which are similar to Lines of Experience from MURPG. Once per session, you can add a situation from that session as a personal memory (e.g., “Totally beat up a Horror in his place of power.”). In future sessions, once per session, if that memory is justifiably applicable to a roll, you can check it off for a reroll. You can also spend it permanently to change your talents or gain 5 Hope coins (to basically instantly buy off Madness or Exhaustion when you’re about to crash or snap). So while character power is really self-contained within the growth of Exhaustion in a single session, long-term play should result in PCs becoming subtly better if they stick to subjects relevant to their Scars.


System Review: Don’t Rest Your Head, Part 2


Character Creation

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.

Part 3

System Review: Don’t Rest Your Head, Part 1

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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).

Core Mechanics

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.

Part 2