I think this is the first time I've actually been able to do any face-to-face gaming this entire year; if not, it's certainly been a long time. Anyway, I finally did manage to get a session in last night, and we played a one-shot of the indie game Don't Rest Your Head. Rather like indie music, the term "indie game" seems to refer more to a specific style of game than anything actually to do with some kind of independence. (I've heard indie games defined as anything published by the original designer - but, arguably, that's true of GURPS, which clearly isn't what they mean).
In practice, indie games seem designed for short term play, generally have fairly simple rule mechanics, and, using the terminology of the Three True Wayists, are strongly Narrativist. Now, you might think, from my earlier post, that that would mean I wouldn't be keen on them. But that's not so; the problem with 3TWism isn't that it doesn't work, so far as it goes, it's just that it's so obviously incomplete. I have nothing against a good Narrativist game, so long as you don't try and tell me that there's something wrong with an "incoherent" one.
So, on to the game. The biggest failing of DRYH - in fact, so far as I can see, the only failing - is the "blank page" approach to character generation. The concept sounds simple; you jot down a few things about your character that are relevant to the game. In practice, though, that can be a lot harder than it sounds. There's a real danger that you'll sit there staring at a blank character sheet with no idea of what to write on it. In fact, that happened to me, to the point that I began to feel a little uncomfortable. I eventually jotted down something, but it didn't make a lot of sense. I get the impression that this is a common flaw in indie games, and one that they've never satisfactorily fixed. (I'll note, in passing, that HeroQuest can be similar, although, in a campaign, there's more of a tendency to spend time on character generation, which obviates the problem).
The two unusual features of character generation are connected with the fundamental theme of DRYH: that it's a supernatural horror game about insomnia. So, you have to explain why you aren't sleeping, and you also get a weird supernatural power. And that, fortunately, was what solved the problem of the character generation, because our GM handed out random pre-designed powers from the DRYH supplement Don't Lose Your Mind. I got a good one, and, to be honest, largely ignored most of the stuff I'd actually written on the sheet in favour of making the power the centre of the character. If I'd had to make something up on the spot, the result would have been much less fun. (And, on the converse, spending too long prepping for a one-shot game also seems a bit daft).
From there on in, though, it worked really well. The system is slick and simple, and the concept and imagery behind the setting are really cool. It probably helps if you're into the works of people like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, and I'm not at all surprised to discover that Morrison's stint on Doom Patrol was one of the inspirations behind the game. I dare say it's possible to run without the surrealism, but for me, that's a large part of fun.
So there much scenery-chewing as an insane insomniac hearing voices in his head, with the other characters being a conspiracy theorist cabbie, a psychotic policeman, and a woman with a talking teddy bear, an imaginary ray gun that really worked, and an obsession with being probed by aliens. We were pursued by men made of newspaper who only printed the stories that hadn't happened yet, men with thumb-tacks instead of heads, a spiv who bought memories, and a man who oozed wax (at this point, you may already be seeing the influence of Doom Patrol, and for that matter, The Sandman). Eventually, after many explosions, my character embraced his insanity, and spent the rest of his days gibbering in a padded cell. Which was, oddly enough, just as it should have been.
So, no question in my mind, this is a good one-off game. I don't think it would work as much more than that, but I doubt it's intended to. It's the sort of thing that's ideal as a con game, and for playing short runs of sessions at most. That's a very valuable and useful niche for a game to fill, and let's not forget that the setting, from what I saw of it, is stunning. Plus, blank-page syndrome aside, it uses a very clever and effective system, specifically tailored to its own concepts.
All in all, very enjoyable. But what about longer term games? HeroQuest 2 attempts to be a strongly narrativist system suited for just that sort of game. And, it's out on Wednesday, which means I'll finally be able to review it. And that review may be less positive than this one...