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Employing Dreams and Other Nocturnal Visions

Written by Nicholas - Published on January 30, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.


Image by Steve Jurvetson

For the typical group of adventurers, nocturnal activities are limited to hunting werewolves, a random encounter during second watch and having some implied fun time with a seduced barmaid or stable boy. There is one more night time occurrence you can bring to a game, the common but enigmatic experience of dreaming. Allow me to guide you through just a few of the ways dreaming can spice up the old eight hour rest.

Plot Hook Delivery Service: This is the most commonly used aspect of dreams in RPG. You may say that it is a tired and cliché method of story telling but I would argue that it is a classic for a reason. A well placed vision dream can jump start a campaign that has lapsed into confusion and inaction. A more cryptic and symbolic dream can intrigue the players, leaving them to try to unravel any little clues they can get from it. Plus there is nothing more precious than the look on their faces when they discover the meaning of the dream exactly too late.

Enhanced Description: The dreams that come to a character in a location can drastically affect the feel of the place. A place of sanctuary can provide the characters with serene nights of rest, filled with happy dreams where wishes come true. Conversely, a dark and evil place can fill a character’s head with implanted fears and nightmare visions. These visions can even ramp up the difficulty of an area by denying the characters their much needed rest.

Dramatic Tension: It is very easy for players to lose sight of their character’s ultimate goal when they get distracted by killing monsters and taking their stuff. Persistent dreams about what great evil deeds the villain is doing or showing the dungeon which houses the ultimate artifact will keep it fresh in the minds of your players and promote some roleplaying opportunities from their characters. Additionally if every night brings fresh atrocities it can spur your players to act quickly, throwing away some of the over thinking caution groups can develop.

Backdrop: Dreams can do more than flavor your settings, they can be your setting. In the short term it is not hard to imagine a villain or evil force which can only be fought in a dreamland. Perhaps it only exists there but it threatening to spill out into the real world or it makes its home a place that can only be accessed during sleep. Perhaps it is a powerful and dangerous beast, only vulnerable in its own dream projected form. For a long term campaign, with a little imagination your entire game can take place in a dreamscape. Your characters can be ordinary people with ordinary lives and jobs but in their dreams they enter a strange, magical, fantasy realm. Dreams as a setting allow you to tinker with many of the standard assumptions. You get to determine what happens when the characters die in a dream, alter the flavor of magic and special abilities and distort travel and locale. Additionally it can open a world of roleplaying potential (literally) as you explore how these dreams might affect the character’s ordinary daytime lives.


Image by Julianne Hide

Character Development: This is one just for the players. If you really want to get into a character try to figure out what is they dream about, in the literal sleeping sense. Dreams can express deepest fears and deepest desires cloaked in symbolism, confusions and some simply pointless nonsense. Sometimes dreams represent nothing at all and are just pointless visions, but personal ones. If you can figure out what dreams your character has and what they mean to him it could make for some great roleplaying at night and around the breakfast fire in the morning.

Have you used dreaming in your games? What’s the best dream sequence you’ve played in?

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

12 Responses to “Employing Dreams and Other Nocturnal Visions”
  1. Yax says:

    I haven’t used that trick in years. I think it is time to dust it off! Next game for sure.

  2. Questing GM says:

    Final Fantasy X centered around the main character BEING the dream!

  3. Nicholas says:

    @Questing GM: I could never get past what I believe is the penultimate boss, that annoying lady Yunalesca who keeps turning into a zombie but you have to keep it. I couldn’t beat her so I never get any closure on that crazy, crazy story.

  4. Hermeticgamer says:

    One of the best RP experiences I ever had was a great example of this.

    The GM took a nap about an hour before our weekly Vampire game rather than prep and he claims that his plan came out of the dream that he had.

    In the game, a new vampire had come to town and we were suspicious of him and his retinue. At some point my character touched him and it triggered my characters ability to see his aura. The GM described this horrible scene of gruesome evil, darkness, and destruction. My character starts screaming “It’s the Prince of Darkness” while the villain smiles, knowing what I saw.

    The remainder of the session was spent with us trying to convince others elders of the city and the Prince of the City that I was not insane and that he was dangerous, while the paranoia built that he was quietly hunting us down. The tension was amazing and powerfully evoking fear.

    The session came to a climax when the baddie and his crew showed up at the city’s Prince’s gathering to address these rumors where the baddies showed up with drama and wiped out the Prince and his bodyguards. Then we realized they had already turned many of the others in the city to their cause and were slaughtering those that weren’t. We ran and narrowly escaped, retreating to our haven where we had to rest.

    The GM then smiled and said, “You find yourself standing there with your hand on the baddie back at the moment when you first touched him. He is smiling that same cruel and knowing smile. This whole session has been the vision you got when you touched him.” We were all stunned and thrilled at the same time.

    The rest of the campaign was about quietly working to show everyone that the baddie was bad and dangerous, prevent him from turning others and to keep ourselves alive because he knew that we weak younglings knew his truth.

    I literally left game jumpy and juiced up and paranoid for several hours. I was afraid of the dark for a few days but it was all in good fun.

  5. Nicholas says:

    @Hermeticgamer: Sounds very cool. I had a DM who used to plan primarily through dreams he had the night before the session.

  6. HeirToPendragon says:

    There is a Plane of Dreams (or something) in the Manual of the Planes. I plan to use that when possible.

    Also if you guys are looking for an evil Dreamlord of some sort to put into your campaign I suggest an episode of Danny Phantom called “Frightmare”.

    You may also find inspiration in Gaiman’s “The Sandman” books. Actually, anything by Gaiman tends to give me inspiration.

    @Hermeticgamer: I hope you don’t mind but that hook is just WAY to good to pass up and might use it.

  7. Georgiana says:

    I think I’m going to use dreams in my next campaign. Thanks for the ideas!

  8. Mitch says:

    The D&D 3.5 supplement “Heroes of Horror” had a good few pages devoted to the use of dreams in campaigns, too, for those wanting some more fodder for games.

    @Nicholas: The battle is shockingly simple if your characters happen to know the Holy spell. Moreso if you have something that decreases MP costs, like Three Stars. Just throwing that out there.

  9. PyroMancyr says:

    I’m right now designing an entire campaign using dreams as the main vehicle. I’m going to have my PCs create mirror opposite characters. At the beginning of each session I’m going to roll to see which characters the party will be playing. Each time they shift characters, they’ll find themselves waking up from a “disturbingly realistic dream” even if the session ended up in the middle of combat, or other cliffhanger moment

    With each accomplishment they achieve in the main story, reality unravels just a bit more. Eventually, I’ll roll separately for their characters (shifting realities having taken its toll, they’ll not know if they’re still in “the dream” or not)

    its a lot of work, but they wanted something original….

  10. Nicholas says:

    Whoops, messed up there. Anyway…

    @PyroMancyr: You have some lucky players.

  11. PyroMancyr says:

    @Nicholas: well……we’ll see if this experiment (because let’s face it, this is exactly what this is) works out…As of right now, all they know is that I’m asking for mirror characters. That’s all. They won’t know what I’m up to till the first time they shift realities

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