Hallo, fright-fans and scream-thusiasts and spooky-time party people! It’s almost Halloween and I’m going off to a haunted house in a few, but I’m not about to overlook a Game Mechanic of the Week!
This week, let’s consider horror, with one of the world’s finest horror-style RPGs, from the fine folks at Evil Hat: Don’t Rest Your Head. In this game, the players are insomniacs wandering through the Mad City, an impossible place of living nightmares that only the Awake can see. The Mad City is a bad place, populated as it is by horrors which want to render all sorts of harm unto the nice people who wander in: implacable clockwork officers and prophetic newsboys and wax soldiers and all that rot. Scary stuff, to be sure, but that’s what the scary is really about. Oh no.
The Scary in DRYH is internal and very much tied into the mechanics of the game; you want to accomplish things, you roll a pool of dice. Discipline is your base, then exhaustion, then madness. The more you roll, the greater your odds of victory, but the more problematic that victory might be: when exhaustion dominates, you get more exhausted, until such a point as you crash and sleep for days, unable to defend yourself. When madness dominates you flip out or freak out, and eventually snap, a process that costs you one of your baseline discipline dice.
And, if you do that enough, you become a nightmare.
Don’t Rest Your Head works as a horror game because there is an ever-present threat, tied directly into the mechanics of the game: even when you succeed, you risk pushing yourself closer to a major failure. That’s great! What’s better is that this is a tension pulling in multiple directions… on the short term, straight up failing in an objective. On the middling term, passing out and probably dying. But on the long term, oh man: becoming the monster. It sells the particular nature of this Mad City more so than a threat of death might be; anyone can be fatigued until they croak, but only those in a living nightmare risk turning into a Nightmare. Moreover, it makes Madness as a game resource, and the use of Madness Talents and the risk of Fight or Fight responses much more vibrant: if all I had to worry about when rolling Madness was getting crazy and wanting to punch dudes, I’ll roll madness all the time. But no, there’s a long term worry, longer term than even getting killed by passing out (you might crash after as few as four unfortunate rolls, but it takes about a dozen to devolve into a Nightmare, not that you should ever hit either one of these points quite so quickly).
Plus, it’s a classic. There are a lot of ways to die in the horror genre, but there’s nothing quite so classic and pervasive as the “you are turned into the monster” which permeates all kinds of classic spooksters: vampires, zombies, werewolves, certain kinds of alien, possessing demons and ghosts, lots of magic-users, and, here, nightmares made flesh. It speaks to something deep inside us, the fear of losing our sense of self which is somehow worse than merely losing our life, and it is a threat which always hangs over the heads of the folks running pell-mell through the Mad City, thinking that they can go a little crazy to get what they need but aware that it pushes them a hair closer to being that which they are running from.