Tabletop RGP: How DMs can use Dreams as a Tool

Broken Age gameplay || Broken Age is a point-and-click adventure game developed and published by Double Fine.

Dreams are over-used in fiction, but reconsidered, they present Game Masters (GM) with a powerful narrative tool for tabletop roleplaying game sessions. Whether it’s about adding flavour to combat by ditching your usual fully-awake scenario, or trying to find an organic way to provide your party with that crucial piece of information you forgot to mention last time, dreams are where it’s at 👾

Dreams as (self-)discovery

Just like flashbacks and jumps in time, dreams are another means through which players can discover themselves, and each other. Here they have the opportunity to roleplay and explore game mechanics uninterrupted by their travelling companions, not to mention the whole world around them.

On the flipside, onlookers can delve into each others’ backstories with a bit of meta-game spying, changing the nature of a dream to that of an overheard conversation. Instead of always relying on the awkward “so what’s your quest, adventurer”, others snoop on your subconscious during your back-and-forth with the GM, which also makes for an interesting challenge later on. What do I do with the meta-game information I have gained as a player, and can it shape my roleplaying without completely informing my character’s choices?

Backstories and meta-gaming

  • Exploration of emotional and psychological elements of character backstories
  • Creative approach to self-discovery and discovery of the other
  • DM-sanctioned space for meta-gaming and breaking the third wall
  • Uninterrupted and sincere roleplay
  • Tool to shape and enhance Player Character (PC) roleplaying

Communicating with the powers above

Dreams are also a medium through which players may communicate with higher powers, much like a séance. Perhaps it’s the first time a player meets their character’s God, or maybe they aren’t religious at all but looking for an excuse to be put on a path of devotion. In some cases, it can work as a space for higher powers to offer second chances; an extra piece of lore with a successful History or Religion check.

Whatever the reason for the apparition, it can often be awkward for a player to directly interact with a being of a much higher status, such as a God or Deity. This was especially the case when I played a low level Cleric of Light with the Acolyte Background, clueless as to how I would casually chit-chat with Apollo. Likewise, many Dungeon Masters (DM), first-time and advanced, feel the pressure of bringing such an awesome event and figure to life. Roleplaying the dynamics of this scenario is difficult as it’s not an interaction humans can simulate and practice in real life. Instead, DMs can use imagery, whispers, and symbology in dreams to represent that which is beyond the material plane.

Religion & Spirituality

  • Ethereal portal facilitating bilateral communication for Paladins, Clerics, Warlocks, and the devout
  • Tool for DMs who prefer to describe and not embody the religious and spiritual
  • Free Commune and Augury for DMs who like to spoil their players
  • Discovery of and introduction to faith for the (soon-to-be) devout
  • Divine foreshadowing and foresight
  • Second chances at succeeding important checks

Combat re-imagined

Combat is so riddled with epic music and big sword swings; we sometimes forget the finer narrative happenings that turn into an initiative roll. Re-imagining combat as something that slowly creeps up on players in their most vulnerable state often makes for a kickass game. Just remember to include such a scenario in your consent form to make sure your party is comfortable with being psychologically invaded. It’s not a given!

  • Dream-realm combat is a good alternative to ambush or surprise rounds
  • The immaterial, unknown, and óneiros redefines horror and fear
  • Control or manipulate player agency as an in-combat scare tactic
  • Conversely, provide a safe training ground to test combat on low-level PCs

Fiddling with RAW

When you’re asleep or fighting half-asleep, some Rules As Written or expectations can be ignored or outright countered. Dreams are a good place to, once in a blue moon, disregard the official rulebooks (the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual). Though many DMs invent their own homebrew rules, you’ll typically want to be consistent so you can offer your players some sort of base to hold onto. Every now and then, you can throw that out of the window.

  • Armour or no armour? Do your players sleep with their spellcasting focus? Does it matter? You can make the call
  • All spellcasting is currently impossible, and only cantrips and unarmed strikes will do in this ethereal realm
  • Invent monsters that can bypass certain mechanics, or thrive in the dream realm
  • Tweak monsters to fit your scenario; for example, a variant of an awakened shrub can now call prey from their beds to its location on a failed Wisdom Saving Throw, and force them to be assimilated

Breaking away from your usual setting

You could be located anywhere in your fictional world, homebrew or not, during any season, and swap settings at a whim. This can be done by way of magic regardless of dreams, but it’s useful for the party to hold on to some sense of cohesiveness, and space and time are major contributing factors to sense of direction and understanding. Dreams temporarily suppress this cohesiveness, and make for a fun one-night-only setting.

  • The party is no longer constrained to your desert city as they wonder your fictitious astral planes
  • Dreams are a fun way for players to explore different landscapes earlier on in the game, as travel takes time and teleporting is reserved for later levels
  • If you don’t have time to plan a separate one-shot, but you’re looking to spice up your setting, try a dream
  • You can playtest settings on PCs and determine whether or not they gravitate towards them in-game; perhaps your next campaign should be set in space?

No strings attached narration

Too often do good DMs have to prepare the consequences of the fun things they plan. Maybe all you had intended was for a nice looking vase with flowers to be part of the scenery, a narrative detail and nothing more, something to add colour to the story. But you forgot about the Druid who was raised in an antiques warehouse, or the elf with the book detailing every flower in this universe. Now your porcelain needs a backstory. But not always! The subconscious is at your service, because a dream vase doesn’t need context.

  • Descriptions don’t require on-the-spot backstories for a fluke Natural 20 roll
  • If someone breaks a really important royal vase in a dream, you don’t have to start a war between two nations
  • Storytelling no longer calls for (complete) accountability
  • Odd happenings do not have to be clarified later on, and not everything is fatalistic
  • Go completely off script, because anything goes

Creep out your players 😙 (sorry!)

We are at our most vulnerable when we are asleep. Of course, seasoned players know by now to bunker down with an Alarm spell on, or in a Hut or Tower with weapons nearby, but sometimes it’s not enough. That’s not to say that you should freak your players out to the point of no return, where their characters are afraid to go to bed and will always have an uncomfortable night in their 16 base AC chainmail. But, perhaps it forces them to be prudent, and rethink their strategies when assessing their environment.

Who should they trust, and how should they set up camp, when even the dreamspace is compromised. Because who knows what is lurking beyond the conscious mind…

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