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Sleep is Death player manual (and guide to better living)


With Sleep is Death, Jason Rohrer has facilitated a fascinating convergence of player, avatar, game world, and role-playing. Longtime gamers who know all about such things will feel right at home with SiD's retro 8-bit aesthetic, but may soon find themselves disabled by the game's lack of a clear directive. "What am I supposed to do?" is the common response among students and colleagues to whom I've shown the game.

SiD doesn't tell you what to do. Instead, it offers a toolset and a system for 2-player cooperative storycrafting. What you do with it is up to you.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I won't try to convince you there's a single best way to play Sleep is Death. If you've enjoyed a SiD session for whatever reason, then you're playing it right. 

But if you've struggled with SiD - maybe you've had trouble sustaining a story for more than a few turns; or maybe your stories quickly dissolve into strained banter - I'm here to help you generate a fun, sustainable, and maybe even meaningful game of SiD

This is a black box theatre type of set up...and you can play out a complete story just in this very basic mode of operation. --Jason Rohrer

It turns out that many of the tips and strategies we use in improvisational theatre work equally well playing SiD. No surprise, really. The game rewards collaboration, openness, imagination, a willingness to go where the scene wants to go - the very same essential characteristics shared by good improv actors.

With that in mind, I'll offer the following list of improv tips easily applicable to SiD (and many to life in general). Use them as you see fit. Don't think of them as rules. Think of them as road signs to guide your travels.

  1. The answer is YES. Saying no eliminates possibilities. (Player 1: "I saw your wife last night with another man." Bad Player 2: "I'm not married." Good Player 2: "Really? What was she wearing?")

  2. A Player needs 3 things: 1) A character who wants something. 2) A clearly defined situation, ideally with an inherent obstacle or conflict. 3) Strategies for getting what you want. The first must not change, the second may change, and the third must change.

  3. Accept and build. If your partner hands you a box, at some point in the scene that box must be opened.

  4. There are no wrong ideas. Even if an idea seems wrong, follow it until it leads to something better.

  5. Be honest. Don't try to be funny. Humor emerges from a truthful encounter with a situation. Jokes are usually a sign that the player has disengaged from the situation.

  6. Treat your partner as if every idea she offers is a gem.

  7. Listen for both the idea and the delivery. Sometimes how your partner says something will provoke you more than what he says. 

  8. Pay attention and stay in the now. The scene is always about this moment. Don't try to plan the next moment or steer the scene. The Controller, ironically, succeeds best by controlling least. Create an environment and a context, but avoid forcing an outcome.

  9. Hold all your planning ideas loosely in your hands. Be prepared to let go of them completely if the advancing scene urges you to do so. The 'storymind' will generate its own ideas, and you squelch them at the expense of the scene.

  10. Exposition is boring. Start in the middle of an unfolding situation. A: "Who are you?" B: "I'm the psychiatrist. Who are you?" = DEATH.

  11. Don't describe yourself. Let your choices and actions reveal you.

  12. Make the active choice. Talking is good, but doing is nearly always better. 

  13. Make the unusual choice. The road less traveled really can make all the difference.

If you'd like to learn more about improvisation, I recommend Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater and Halpern/Johnson's Truth in Comedy. Both are invaluable resources.

If you'd like to know more about Jason Rohrer and his thoughts on Sleep is Death, I recommend Chris Dahlen's terrific interview with Rohrer here.