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…

Why Into the Mother Lands should be in your Top 10 RPG Shows

If you’ve been looking to add another tabletop series to your list of weekly binges, Twitch-funded Into the Mother Lands premiered Sunday October 4, and it’s all a sci-fi nerd could wish for.

Into the Mother Lands airs 4pm PT/6pm CT/7pm ET/12am BT/1am CET on Twitch @cypheroftyr

Our adventure begins on Musalia in the far future, where our heroes must quickly learn how to put aside their differences in order to accomplish a vital, life-saving mission.

Created by Non-Profit I Need Diverse Games founder and activist Tanya DePass, this actual play stars DePass herself as Invicta (Hyaenole Blade Keeper), professional role-player and singer Krystina Arielle as Cyla-9-1-9 (Mansegene Bio Priest), Space and Sci-fi wiz DeejayKnight as Ikemba (Musalian Bio Priest), full-time professional role-player and Magic: The Gathering streamer Michael Sinclair II as Ilay (Misajai Light Bringer), and long-time actor, music director, and narrative designer Eugenio Vargas as the party’s Game Master/Storyteller.

1. Into the Mother Lands is a crucial all-BIPOC addition to our core list of RPG shows

Into the Mother Lands is a sci-fi odyssey spearheaded and developed by a remarkable team of veteran POC designers and professional role-players, with a cast and crew line up that is hard to top. Made up of activists who are all equal parts vocal educators and TTRPG enthusiasts, every cast and crew member stands out as deeply passionate about inclusive RPG and extremely experienced in the field.

RPG shows with an all-POC production and cast are absolutely necessary to highlight and support in TTRPG, with the majority of existing positive media focus tending towards predominantly white, male-dominated gameplay, despite the long list of fantastic non-white professional role-players that have made a name for themselves in the games community.

The sheer fact that BIPOC are lumped together under one acronym, and that the choice of an all-POC cast and crew at times generates confusion or animosity amongst fans of other RPG shows, only further strengthens the profound need to normalise and uplift such a production.

2. A crew that rivals the ages

The list of hard-working, creative, and dedicated professionals involved in this actual play speaks for itself. Lead developer B. Dave Walters is a critically acclaimed role-player and writer, and creator of WotC streaming show Darkened Wish. To many, he is also Baron Victor Temple on Vampire the Masquerade: LA by Night, and more recently, Marcid the Typhoon on Dimension 20’s Pirates of Leviathan.

Walters’ team consists of award-winning developer, game designer, artist, and university professor Sharang Biswas, independent digital and tabletop game designer, voice actor, cosplayer, streamer, and writer Gabe Hicks, actress, livestreamer, content creator, and experienced Game Master Jasmine “ThatBronzeGirl” Bhullar, and Rivals of Waterdeep cast member, artist, and D&D 5e content writer and community manager LaTia Jacquise.

Into the Mother Lands’ lead artist Vanessa “PleasantlyTwstd” B is a Charity Success Manager at Tiltify, part-time charity streamer on Twitch, freelancer, and Black and LGBTQIAP2+ activist with a passion for character creation. The show’s cover artist Will “Black Oni” Wiggins III is a Twitch partner, content creator, and artist focused on action RPG who has had his designs presented to US Congress. Stream producer Leoni, whose own TTRPG is one of Twitch’s fastest-growing streaming channels, has over a decade’s worth of experience in marketing, both in- and outside the gaming industry.

With such a long list of accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine a crew that would be better suited to the project of creating a top tier sci-fi RPG show.

Read more about the cast and crew: https://cypheroftyr.com/into-the-mother-lands-a-new-sci-fi-odyssey/

3. Female leads and intersectionality are essential to women in RPG

Not only is the cast and crew talented and experienced in equal measure, but the story set up in this actual play allows viewers to experience what it’s like to have two non-white powerful female leads absolutely ace the Bechdel test; an occurrence that is sadly still too rare in TTRPG, let alone in web series and film in general.

To name only a few examples, the show features DePass’ Invicta setting the boundaries for in how far a stranger is allowed to set foot in her quarters on day one, and has Arielle’s Cyla 9-1-9 weaponise her braids, a testament to the power of hair and what it can mean to and for women. Let’s not forget “It’s captain, Cyla 9-1-9″, an affirmation too many women are familiar with.

4. A new role-playing system coupled with a community-conscious Game Master

Storyteller and Game Master Eugenio Vargas ‘DM JazzyHands’ explains the rules of the game, based on Cortex Prime’s role-playing system | Twitch

After years of my being primarily focused on Dungeons and Dragons, the show’s choice to build their game off the Cortex role-playing system’s framework came as a nice surprise, as the option for the show to be yet “Another D&D Show” was very much there.

Though the system will surely take some time to get used to for those who aren’t already nose deep in research, the rules seem relatively simple, and far less complex than those followed in Dungeons and Dragons.

The cast and crew have made a point to be helpful when it comes to Cortex, putting themselves in educator positions; GM Vargas takes his time as he shows the viewers on-screen how the system works, with lead developer Walters by his side to raid the Twitch chat with some much-needed insight on game mechanics – especially useful to community members who rely on imperfect auto-captions.

5. Rich world-building and lore

One of the most exciting aspects of Into the Mother Lands is the prospect of a whole new level of sci-fi world-building, set to rival any RPG show that relies on Lord of the Rings level lore.

Players can choose from a range of cultures that occupy Musalia; from direct descendants of Emperor Musa himself, to descendants of one of Musalia’s original alien cultures. They can also choose to be a mix, and play as a blend of human and alien technologies.

Our sci-fi odyssey comes complete with a pronunciation manual and world guide, published by Hicks, further intensifying the hype around Mother Lands lore. Language-lovers can only hope that a fully fledged dictionary will one day be on the cards.

6. A slower pace with higher antagonism

Those used to the fast pace of pre-recorded and edited D&D shows such as Dimension 20 might be surprised to experience an RPG with an environment that seems to rely on a slower pace, and greater levels of adversary. Although high in fantasy, role-play in Mother Lands is in many ways closer to real-life interaction and behaviour than many RPG shows. For who in their right mind would ever hop on board an aircraft with an overly excited elephant man and a bunch of antagonistic strangers without a shadow of a doubt?

With multiple pauses generated by characters who might seem lower in positive energy than your typical RPG party, the noticeable change in pace and mood can feel eerie or awkward at first; but, if you take a second to think about it, this feel perfectly befits the setting and situation the Player Characters find themselves in. Needless to say, the mood and pace of a newly launched show with only a few episodes released are also subject to change.

7. More interactivity in a tight-knit Discord & Twitch RPG community

Hopes are high when it comes to Mother Lands making an even bigger name for itself in the RPG world, and it’s clear that the community wishes for the success of this venture. In the meantime, the 900 or so regular viewers are having a hell of a time interacting with each other, and the cast and crew, on both Discord and Twitch – an experience not usually possible to this degree once a show reaches unfathomable numbers.

If you’re keen to shout out your favourite role-player in a livestream, or post some silly gifs in the Discord for fellow Motherfans (we’re still working on a name) to enjoy, I can guarantee laughter and appreciation coming for you in all directions.

8. As privy to comedy and community jokes as any other RPG

Into the Mother Land’s is a live show where cast and crew can interact directly with fans | Twitch

Yes there is antagonism, yes we probably have to save the entire galaxy, but we are having fun, we are enjoying positive reinforcement. The stream is already riddled with inside jokes, ranging from discussions on how precious NPC Bertrand is, to vocalising our approval of Cyla’s #BBE Big Braid Energy. Luckily, we’re early into the series and there’s time to catch up to be in-the-know. Soon, you too will be asking yourself: Is It Sunday Yet?

The next episode of Into the Mother Lands drops this Sunday on twitch.tv/cypheroftyr at 4pm PT/6pm CT/7pm ET/12am BT/1am CET.

Update 21/10/2020: An unverifiable paragraph was removed from this article in consultation with the crew.