The premise of the game is this: Your character is an insomniac. You've snapped and awoken to the Mad City - a place full of Nightmares that can do horrible things to you. Every 13th hour the Mad City closes, and you cannot escape back to The City Slumbering. From there it's up to you to decide what happens: Do you sell away those traits that make you human in the bizarre bazaar, or attempt to win favor with the Wax King? You must avoid falling asleep - or the Nightmares will get you, and you must avoid going mad - or you will become a Nightmare yourself.
I'll start with some assumptions I had about role play games. I wasn't aware I thought these until DRYH bent or broke these assumptions:
1. Character sheets need a health bar of some kind.
2. A game should be (in theory) sustainable for many sessions or not go out of its way to try and kill a character off.
3. Game Masters decide the story and need to prepare this in advance.
4. A game needs a meta-goal that determines what the players are trying to accomplish.
On 1., DRYH has simultaneously one of the most bare bones but interesting character sheets I've run across. The game asks the player several questions, and these ought to be very relevant for the specific story-game that character goes through. An Example: What's Just Happened To You? and What's Your Path? are my favorite questions. The player has complete control to determine how the game begins, the level of tension they want the game to open with, and ultimately - if the Mad City doesn't fuck them over too much - where they're going. In a previous post I mentioned internal character motivation, and DRYH is the perfect example of the game that creates character driven stories that are intense and require little advance planning on the GM's part.
Specifically in 1. I mentioned the lack of health bar. I've never liked having x number of health points in a game. It's too mathematical - not in a I have to think about numbers!? way, but in a way that abstracts an element of being human that doesn't make sense to me: If my character is shot in the arm and a major vein was hit, then I don't need to be told this takes 4 health points away - I'm aware I'm a fucking dead man if I don't get away quick, or have a potion, et cetera.
Anyway, replacing health is the possibility of going mad or succumbing to exhaustion and being eaten by the Nightmares. This is inserted into the system in a way where characters can decide to add madness or exhaustion dice to each roll. Each can easily help the character gain more successes, however the accumulation of more exhaustion is likely to cause a character to crash or too much madness can cause a character to snap, and if this happens too many times till they become a Nightmare. This mechanic adds a high level of tension into dice rolls and deciding what a dice pool should be. It also forces GMs to make sure they're only having players make rolls when it's absolutely necessary - too many bad rolls in a row can easily mean the end of the game.
2. Technically, DRYH is sustainable for many sessions (and even has one of the best ways of handling experience that I've seen), but I've mostly been running it as a one session game with only one other player at a time. The game too easily allows death, exhaustion, madness, et cetera - though the game has ways to help the player ward these off. However, the game just doesn't feel like a long term single game to me - The Mad City is at its scariest when it's being encountered for the first time. For one shots, it has been perfect. Players have gone in knowing their character may die, or at least not meet a good end, and this has allowed them to have fun attitudes that don't force meta-level player decisions based on survivability to ruin the fun of dangerous situations.
The mechanic I casually mentioned for longer games: These are called scars. When something memorable (tragic, in many cases) happens to a character they can write these down as scars, and then they can associate new situations they're in that remind them of this scar to gain a bonus. I much prefer this to exp that allows players to buy or level up. Although both buying new shit and leveling up to get new shit is useful, it doesn't reflect the causal nature of the story as well as scars do. I've liked this mechanic so much I've thought about adding it into other games I run.
3. I'm a control freak with a God complex. Also, I like storytelling. That's part of what lead me into GMing. The first time I ran DRYH I didn't know what to do. I felt so powerless to decide what should happen, and I just wasn't sure how things were going to work out. But then I realized I improv a lot of story elements anyway, and all DRYH really does in addition to this is allow the player to have some control as well as give helpful hints on where the story should go by how the player answered the questions for their character. The fact that DRYH can be played, and played well, so spontaneously has lead me to run many sessions of it over a short period of time. So far all of them have been fun. They all have had many strange middle parts where lots of doors are opened that never lead to anything, but in hindsight we simply label those subplots and talk about the parts of the story that ended up being important and how much fun we had.
4. This was already talked about in my post on character motivation. Many games have external plot devices built into them, and this is the simplest way to rally a group of characters to work together. However, DRYH works great just as a one on one game with GM and Player, so an external goal isn't needed for these, but if you are running a DRYH game with multiple players the book offers several suggestions on what these goals might be (page 64) if you need them.
Don't Rest Your Head creates one of the best suspense/horror atmospheres in role playing games that I've experienced. The setting is scary, interesting, and unique enough to draw players in. Several of the game mechanics are innovative and add to this level of suspense. One player of mine did sum up some problems we were having in saying that DRYH's dice system is, "Simple but not intuitive." It took awhile for me to explain how dice pools worked for the game, but once we got passed this every time I've run the game the players and I have had an enjoyable experience. If you're looking for a different kind of gaming experience that is full of suspense and spontaneity, I highly recommend Don't Rest Your Head.
Post Script: I haven't looked at it yet, but Evil Hat Productions has just released a supplement for DRYH called Don't Lose Your Mind. I also recommend Spirit of the Century, which is also by Evil Hat Productions. I haven't run the game yet, but I've read it and gone through a character creation (which is a game in itself). It's a great pulp adventure game that's also innovative and fun. After I get a chance to run it I'll write a review.