Early comparison: “Don’t Rest Your Head” and “Urchin”

So after playing two unconnected episodes of Evil Hat ProductionsDon’t Rest Your Head (one run by Ogre, one by which will continue next Thursday) and one of KNRPG ProductionsUrchin, I will shoot my mouth off with comparisons. I know I should wait until I’ve played more of both, but the comparison has been itching in the back of my mind since last Thursday, and I just have to write something.

Background on the Two Games

Don’t Rest Your Head

Don’t Rest Your Head (2006) is a game by Fred Hicks where “players are all insomniac protagonists with superpowers, fighting — and using — exhaustion and madness to stay alive, and awake for just one more night, in a reality gone way wrong called the Mad City.” For one reason or another, your character hasn’t slept in several days and something just happened, at the beginning of the game, to shatter your understanding of the world. has already posted some (vague) initial impressions on last Thursday’s game.

Flavour: The Mad City is inspired by movies, books and games such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, Alex Proyas’ Dark City, Jared Sorenson’s Lacuna, and Chad Underkoffler’s Dead Inside (I named the ones I was familiar with and can vouch for; a few more are named in the book). I would throw in some Lewis Caroll at his darkest.

How it works: You have an exhaustion talent (an extreme, superlative version of a mundane ability), a madness talent (something otherwise impossible), and three responses to distribute between Fight and Flight (you can put it all in one if you want.) At the beginning, you have three Discipline dice which you roll for challenges; 1s, 2s and 3s are successes and you’re trying to beat the GM’s Pain roll, which involves 1 to 10 Pain dice depending on difficulty and risk.

As you go, you can add Exhaustion dice and/or Madness dice, which gives you more chances for success but also more chances for going over your own limits. In any given roll, the die showing the highest value (e.g., 6) indicates what flavour dominates: Discipline, Exhaustion, Madness, or Pain (in case of ties, check the next highest die, and so on). So independent of success or failure, other things colour the situation. You may have to use one of your Fight or Flight responses, or even Snap and gain a permanent Madness die which will replace one of your Discipline dice.

Urchin

Urchin (2007) is a small, sharp-toothed little game by Clint Krause where players take the roles of homeless people living in Scum City, the maze of subway tunnels under New York. The characters are trying to eke out another day and perhaps to reach fabled Agharta, rumoured to be hidden in an abandoned tunnel. I posted my impressions when we first played the game (at the very bottom of the post).

Flavour: Scum City is inspired by the independent film Urchin by director John Harlacher, and by the documentary Dark Days… as well as by the games HOL (Todd Shaughnessy, Daniel Thron and Chris Elliott), Don’t Rest Your Head, and Lacuna. Huh. 🙂

How it works: You have two stats, Meat and Mind, determined by rolling 2d6 and taking the highest value (do this for each). You also have three Talents and may acquire equipment. When doing something, roll a number of d6 equal to the appropriate stat plus the applicable equipment and skill scores. Anything rolling a 6 is a success; anything rolling a 1 is Rot and removes dice from your pool.

You can always push by re-rolling the dice left and risking more Rot. Sometimes you can gain a variety of forms of insanity, and someone always has to be able to pay to keep the Lights On (or bad things happen.) Players take turn setting (“kicking”) or reacting to (“grabbing”) a scene, going in order around the table. Characters face madness and rot with every roll of the dice. The game can be played longer, but is primarily designed as a rough-and-tumble one-off event.

Resemblances

  • Both are small, self-contained games (although a supplement just came out for DRYH, Don’t Lose Your Mind.)
  • Both depend on an internal economy: Despair and Hope coins for DRYH, Food and Cash tokens for Urchin.
  • Both explore horror, madness, and decay in weird nightmare cities.
  • Both are pretty far from the mechanics that are used in 90% or role-playing games, and require thinking in fresh terms.

Differences

  • Urchin‘s mechanics explicitly encourage players to set scenes, invent new material, and invite other player characters in their scenes. This produces a game where players create the story and the GM (or King) is there to ride them hard and provide challenge.
  • DRYH’s mechanics colour the reactions of the characters and their environment, but scene-setting is by default the province of the GM. This produces a more exploratory game: “Let’s find out what this world is about.” (Ending, of course, in discovering exactly that and then running away from it.)
  • DRYH’s mechanics are more complex than Urchin‘s, and characters feel somewhat more fleshed out.
  • Urchin provides somewhat better mechanics for cooperation between characters; indeed, that may be the only way for PCs to reach Agharta. DRYH does have such rules, but the mechanical incentive they provide is more limited.

Comparison

Naturally, since Urchin cites DRYH as an inspiration, it’s hardly surprising that I feel that there are parallels. What I’ve been musing on is how they differed in play on first approach. It was a lot easier to “get” Urchin quickly and start running with the game. After just 15 minutes of play or so, we were ready to start going nuts with the story. It was very empowering for the players, even though characters got the snot beaten out of them. The pace was fast and brutal.

DRYH feels like it can probably provide a richer texture and setting experience, but it doesn’t offer the same handholds that Urchin has. After a couple of games, I feel I’m just barely getting the hang of it, kinda. I’m certain I need to play at least a couple more. This is not necessarily a flaw; I needed a few sessions to get comfortable with other games I’ve greatly enjoyed, such as HeroQuest, octaNe, and Wushu. One thing that was difficult was thinking quickly what Madness, Pain or Exhaustion dominating in a roll might mean in story terms.

But DRYH also makes me feel like Arthur Dent or Richard Mayhew: like I’m waiting around waiting for the GM to show me where the story is, following Ariadne’s thread. I experimented a bit last Thursday with setting some micro-scenes to flesh out the Mad City, and I would like to do more of this in future games. In fact, I would like to borrow from Urchin and add some mechanic to allow players to decide whether to set or grab a scene, offering them ways to participate more in the direction of the story.

In the long run, my bet is that DRYH probably makes for better series, but Urchin probably kicks more ass for a single-shot.

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