Last week, I had a chance to run Don’t Rest Your Head, a game by Fred Hicks of FATE and Spirit of the Century fame. The game is a bit hard to explain, but I’ll give it a shot.
First, here’s some color text:
You can’t sleep.
It started like that for all of us, back when we were garden variety insomniacs.
Maybe you had nightmares, or maybe you just had problems that wouldn’t let you get a good night’s rest. Hell, maybe you were just over-caffeinated. It doesn’t matter. Three AM, wide-awake, eyeballs kind of loose in your sockets and jangly nerves. We have ALL been there.
Whatever it was, eventually you got to a point where sleep became a choice, rather than a mandate, and then it just… dropped off the list.
And then, and only then, something clicked. You started noticing the extras.
An extra door here or there. An extra window looking out onto a city packed with surplus buildings, hodgepodge towers standing shoulder to shoulder, roofs angling into one another. Clocks chiming the thirteenth hour and unfamiliar stars twinkling in the too-clear sky. Streets and alleys that weren’t there before, leading to late-night markets that will trade you your childhood memories for things like laughter, forgiveness, and indecision…
There’s more, but that’s the gist. The flavor is Dark City, Midnight Nation, Neverwhere, Mirrormask, and a even little Keys to the Kingdom and The Matrix thrown in. ((With that list of inspirations, I think it’s clear why *I* was interested in playing it.)) The player characters are insomniacs who have found, wandered, or been sucked into a city full of the things that the regular world has lost or left behind. More importantly, their insomnia allows them to tap into abilities that are flat out impossible, from the point of view of the well-rested.
Aside from deciding what those special abilities are, character generation mostly boils down to answering five questions:
- What’s Been Keeping You Awake? — the source of the character’s insomnia; sets up what the character’s immediate history has been like.
- What’s on the Surface? — determines the first impressions the character gives off.
- What Lies Beneath? — speaks to the protagonist’s secrets, the part that doesn’t show to the world if they can help it.
- What Just Happened to You? — what happens to the character in his very first scene of the game – basically, this is the thing that puts the character in motion.
- What’s Your Path? — this is a biggie: where does the character see things going, if everyone goes well? Put another way, what are they going to be working toward in any given scene, in the absence of any more immediate motivation?
I think it’s important to note that these questions are NOT some kind of fluff character questionnaire; this is the origin of the character’s insomnia (which provides them their abilities and access to the Mad City), the face they show the world, their dark secrets, their Instigating Event, and their primary motivation. They are IMPORTANT. I think I can illustrate how important later in this post.
So Tim, Chris, and Kate played, and here’s who they came up with.
- Tim created Bobby Trunks, a genius robotics/gizmo designer and lifetime comic book nerd. He’s been obsessing about this ‘widget’ he’s been working on for over a year, but the pressure to get the thing working has been building up over the last few months, until things finally come to a head at the start of the story. In theory, his Madness Talent was that he could manifest any character from any comic book, and chat with them or make them help him (in the game, we saw Forge, Tony Stark, and the Joker), but in practice, his power was more commonly The Widget that he’d invented, which I’d originally intended to be a macguffin. Either way, it worked out.
- Chris created Irwin, a contract killer who just woke up (in a cheap hotel room) from what appears to be some kind of surgery to repair damage done from a wound to his skull. The surgery seems to have activated his long-dormant conscience, and it’s playing merry hell with his normal calm. Irwin’s madness talent is that he can remove the ‘walls’ in people’s minds that keep their inner sociopaths caged.
- Kate came up with Georgia Havermeyer, a law school grad student and intern at the Knight & Smytheson Agency. Georgia has too many obligations, too many people and things she needs to protect, and too much going on, all the time. Her Madness Ability is that she can be Two (or more) Places at Once. (And as we found out, when things get really crazy, those different locations don’t even have to be in the same time stream. Wackiness ensues.)
As I mentioned previously, the players come up with their ‘what just happened’ answers, and I pretty much roll with that. In this case:
- Bobby Trunks just got his widget working in some kind of inexplicable and impossible way (you feed items into one end, and get different things out of the other end — such as a long-box of comics poured into one side to produce… a kryptonite bullet). He rushes off to tell his wife, and discovers that she’s been working a starring role in the (cheap) porn industry to keep the rent paid on his workshop. Then a uniformed man with a stopwatch for a face shows up and asks for The Widget.
- Irwin woke up in a hotel room with no clear memory of the last month or so, a bag full of money and weapons, and two men sneaking up on the outer door of the room. The two men inexplicable turn on and kill each other… and then the phone rings.
- Georgia, working late in a filing room, sees her boss step into the room from the back … out of an old oak-and-iron door that should not — and never has been — there. Torn between her desire to follow her boss and kiss up… and see what’s behind the mysterious door… she does both.
Reincorporation and Pulling people together
Tim’s main concern with the game is that, with no unifying theme behind the characters (we didn’t make the characters up as a group, but via a quick series of private emails), everyone’s scenes and stories would be pretty disparate and unconnected, leading to growing disinterest when other people were doing their scenes. I worked to avoid this somewhat by distributing the GMing duties during conflicts — depending on the outcome either the player, or the person to their left or right or opposite would be narrating, which kept everyone on their toes and interested.
Also, Tim introduced a taxi cab early on, which is just this guy who is apparently ‘always’ his cab driver. He mentioned it off the cuff — nothing supernatural or weird to it.
Later, when things were getting weird for Irwin, I had The Cab (featured in the supplement to Don’t Rest Your Head) show up and pick him up off the street. Tim immediately said “and it should totally be MY cab… the same guy.” And so it was. Very shortly thereafter, the cab also picked up Georgia (well, actually picked up two Georgias — one from the Mad City as she was fleeing the offices of “Night and Smith’s Son”, and also “undergrad Georgia”, from a flashback), as well as Bobby. (But again, not current-moment Bobby, but Bobby from a flashback to the day he first met his wife.) Though once everyone was in the cab, they all became the ‘current moment’ versions of themselves.
So that’s how we got people together. Bobby took a look at Irwin and handed him the Kryptonite Bullet, saying something like “I think you’re supposed to have this.” Georgia handed Irwin a file that her legal firm had on him that she had been filing just before being interrupted by The Boss, and in it were instructions for Irwin’s next “possible” target… which was apparently “B. Trunks” — either Bobby or Beth.
Surreal? Yeah… You don’t know the half of it.
The next thing that happened was actually about an hour-long extended flashback to the moment when Georgia first entered the Mad-City side of the Mysterious Door, but THIS time, due to stuff going on the Cab, Irwin and Bobby were with her. A big bloody fight ensued between the trio and a horde of Pin Heads (think thumbtacks-for-heads), and lots of research (and torture) resulted in some answers for the group.
Irwin found how who he had to kill to get out of his contract with — apparently — Mad City’s District 13 bureaucracy. (Bureaucrazy?) Namely, the Tacks Man (head of the pin heads and chief administrator of District 13.
Bobby found a ‘file’ that Night & Smith’s Son had acquired from his friend “The Cabby” — apparently, the poor man gambled the “Last Memory of My Daughter” for a clue as to her whereabouts, and lost. Bobby took the memory from the Files & Trophies Room with a grim smile on his face.
Georgia made a deal with Night’s Personal Assistant, the eight-legged Mr. Nancy — basically, she would recover The Widget for the Agency, or take All Required Legal Steps For Breach Of Contract on their behalf (read: Kill Beth Trunks).
A word about Georgia’s bit here. At this point in the story, Kate was floundering a bit. She’d been really rocking the story up to this point (and rocking the hell out of her Madness talent in the process) but when it came down to this point in the story — this was where she needed to find something to move her to a conclusion, and she just didn’t seem to KNOW what she was looking for.
So I said: “What is your Path? Look at your sheet; let that answer inform what you’re doing here.”
And she blinked, and looked down at the sheet, and then this evil little smile spread over her face and she said “I need to meet with with Mr. Nancy.” From floundering to utter clarity of action in two seconds.
Those questions you do at character creation are IMPORTANT.
Building Madness and Exhaustion
As I said, Kate was rocking her Madness talent, and as a result Madness was kind of building up in her. By the last big showdown, she was teetering on the brink of Snapping. (Were it not for a mechanic called “Hope” that she tapped into not once but twice, she actually WOULD have snapped. Appropos, that.)
The other kind of “Death Spiral of Awesome” mechanic in the game is called Exhaustion, which is a resource you choose to introduce but which, once introduced, builds up and up and up… giving you more and more dice with which to kick ass, but making it increasingly more likely that you’re going to Crash (fall asleep and become a screaming neon sign reading “Eat Me” for every nightmare in the Mad City). In this game, knowing it was a one-shot, I was pushing the players pretty hard to get those Madness and Exhaustion spirals going, and Tim jumped into the Exhaustion spiral head first.
The Big Confrontation
With the Memory of My Daughter given to the Cabby as payment, Bobby asked him to take them right to the Tacks Man (who, as it turned out, was in the Central Tent at the Bizarre Bazaar, which was currently in District 13 — a reveal that used a LOT of reincorporation from earlier scenes that had seemed to be inconsequential at the time). Once the cab let them out (inside the tent itself which, Tardis-like, contained an entire roman arena), the group headed in a couple different ways. Irwin and Georgia went after the Tacks Man (he to kill him, she to serve him with a subpoena), and Bobby went after his wife (being held in the arena box seats by Officer Tock (the clockwork man) and his minions.
Lots and lots of dice were rolled (when the Madness and Exhaustion are at their peak, very little can stand against one of the Awakened, let alone three of them — the question isn’t will they win, but how much damage they will do to themselves in the process). In the end, the Tacks Man was served his papers and carried off by the members of the arena audience (all too happy to help jail their oppressor), and Bobby rescued his wife… then promptly Crashed and collapsed from exhaustion in the middle of a giant arena crowd with more than a few nightmares lurking within. Not good. Not good at all.
Post-Game Analysis: Biggest Powers, Stumbling Blocks, and Satisfaction
Kate had, earlier, voiced some concern that her little “Two places at once” power would never have the oomph of Tim’s “every super hero in the world is helping me” Madness talent. In play, nothing could have been further from the truth, as Georgia’s ability to manifest multiple (sometimes hundreds) of herself, or manifest younger or older versions of herself to act in previous or pending time-streams turned out to be THE premiere talent of the game.
As a group, we had to work hard to get everyone’s ‘stuff’ intertwingled enough to resolve people’s stories within the one-shot, but it worked. In hindsight, we decided that group character creation (we did it over email) or more ‘public’ character creation via email (letting people know each other’s histories and background) would have really helped during the game, especially when it was one of the other players narrating another person’s scene. Useful information to have for the next time.
But was the game fun? I’d answer a resounding yes to this — the creativity and just playing weirdness that everyone brought to their narrations and play just entertained the hell out of me, and all in all I thought it was a wild, surreal, and sometimes even poignant trip. Would I like to play it again sometime? I repeat: hell yeah. Hell, I’d like to play the cabbie. 🙂 It wasn’t the ‘horror’ game I’d had in mind, but it was definitely full of disturbing and weird imagery and events. Like any good story, it didn’t give me quite the thing I’d expected, but what it chose to give me instead, I enjoyed.
And now, hands aching, I’m done with this recap.