GMing Dreams

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About a month ago, someone on Reddit asked for tips on using dream logic in games. He or she planned on introducing a trickster villain whose presence twisted reality into a dream-like state. I posted some suggestions and thought “that would make a good blog subject,” then promptly forgot about it. Now I’ve remembered that dreams would make a good blog topic, so you’re going to get an expanded version of the post I just linked.

Full Disclosure: I’m not sure if I’ve ever tried the “subtly let the players figure out it’s a dream” route. When I’ve used dreams in games, they’ve usually either been obvious “your character is dreaming, probably so I can re-iterate some clues you missed the first time” dreams; “Holy shit! That session went south fast, let’s just ret-con it” cop-outs; or cases when the players end up in a surreal alternate dimension where dream-like stuff goes on, so when I give suggestions about the pacing of the dream elements, keep in mind that I’m mostly guessing.

One of the major difficulties of using the kind of dream sequences we see on TV shows in RPGs is the fact that television can focus on a single character more easily. The actors who aren’t involved in the scene can go back to their trailers and those that are in the scene will do exactly what the writers and director want them to do. In RPGs, the other major players need to be kept interested and might not act in ways that make the dream go where and do what the GM wants it to. Unless you’ve got some kind of Dream Warriors set-up where the players are sharing a dream, you’ll either want to keep the dream sequence short or let the non-dreamer players know what’s going on ahead of time and give them an idea of how you need them to interact with the dreamer.

If there’s a core characteristic of dreams, it’s fluidity. Time, space, and pretty much everything within them are unstable in a dream. One minute your best friend from high school is driving the truck, the next minute it’s your next-door neighbor behind the wheel of the van. If you don’t want the character(s) to realize what’s going on too soon, start making small changes that the player isn’t likely to question or even consciously notice (change the color of an NPC’s shirt or make a minor change to some landmark or set piece that was only described once several sessions ago), then make bigger and bigger changes as the game goes on. A good mid-level change might be replacing a generic NPC with a similar NPC that the character knows in the middle a scene. For example, if the player is talking to a city guard, start out by treating him as a generic city guard not even worth describing, then halfway through the conversation refer to him by the name of a city guard who the player knows. If the player asks about any of these changes, try to avoid acknowledging the change or admitting error. Say things like “Right now you’re looking at a guy in a purple shirt” or “No, it’s not just some generic guard. It’s Jimmy the City Guard.”  Keep things in the present. Don’t acknowledge or clarify the past.

Another common aspect of dreams is the feeling of being rushed. You’re late for your math text, which is probably why you forgot to put on pants. If the player has things he needs to do in the waking world, use one of them as the the thing he needs to do in the dream. If not, just make something up, or treat some previously-completed goal as unfinished, or just have NPCs (and other characters, if you’ve got them working for you) urgently prod the PC towards some person, place, or thing without telling him what’s going on. And of course, since dreams are fluid, you can change the “mission” periodically so the dreamer isn’t quite sure what he’s doing. In addition to making the dreamer anxious and confused, rushing the dream can keep him from spending too much time analyzing minor details that might give the dream away too early.

Dreams can be symbolic, and the most common use for dreams in fiction, from A Christmas Carol to My Name Is Earl is to reveal something important to the dreamer. How subtle or overt you need to be depends on the player, but it’s probably a good idea to plan for possible dream interpretation attempts (internet or library research, visiting a fortune teller, etc.) after the dreamer wakes up, just in case the player misses the symbolism. Since there plenty of books and web sites dedicated to dream symbolism, I’m going to leave the details of this one to the reader and Google.

The final major characteristic of dreams is that they’re weird. A lot of the weirdness comes from fluidity or symbolism, but some elements of a dream are just weird for weird’s sake. Out of place or incorrectly used objects (like the guy carrying a fish I mentioned in the Reddit thread is a little of both), anachronistic or impractical costumes, talking animals, strange characters, and anything else weird you can think up. If you’re trying to reveal the dream slowly, confine the weirdness to previously-unknown characters and places at first, then slowly introduce weirdness to familiar people and places as the dream progresses.

In fiction, especially when characters have multiple dreams during the story,  recurring motifs are sometimes used to let the reader or viewer know that the character has entered the dream world. For example, if you’ve ever seen the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, you know that an object with a striped pattern that matches Freddy’s shirt means the character is dreaming. Even when they’re not used as such a signal, recurring motifs can add to the surreal quality of the scene. If you’re running a game where dream imagery will be common (like the one the Reddit poster asked about), you might want to come up with some recurring motifs. For best results, make it something out-of-the-ordinary enough to be noteworthy but not so obvious that the players will pick up on it immediately. They should probably notice the pattern after two or three dream sequences.

Below is a list of slightly more specific variations on the themes described above.

  • Include places, people (including people who are dead), objects, and situations from the character’s past. If your group regularly uses flashbacks, you might be able to disguise the early parts of the “late for the exam (even though I graduated 20 years ago)” type of dream as a flashback until it starts getting weird or anachronistic elements (like characters the dreamer didn’t know in school) are introduced.
  • Use time skips. If “film breaks,” in media res starts, and other chronological disordering is something your group does often, make subtle changes to how you do them (for example, when you do a break or how much you reveal about what happened before an in media res start) if you want the players to figure out something’s not right.
  • Make the character re-do things he’s already done. If possible, try to make it appear that the task was “reset” naturally (“looks like somebody locked the chest back up”) or the character didn’t do as thorough a job as he initially thought (“there are still 3 TPS reports on your desk that you haven’t turned in”).
  • Give the dreamer objectives that are completely unrelated to the thing he’s trying to accomplish, but treat them as if they’re absolutely essential to the task.
  • Shift geography around and/or be overly vague about travel times and methods. Dream locations aren’t arranged like locations in the real world. Start out with believable connections, like a previously-unnoticed door in one location that leads to a location that’s nearby in the real world. If the dreamer exits the subway and finds himself on Mars, he’s probably going to figure out something’s not right.
  • Repeat locations. For example, the players keep passing the same landmark or the same room shows up in multiple buildings.
  • Have people and things show up in the wrong locations or situations: the character’s bedroom is in the police station, his high school science teacher is at Thanksgiving Dinner, and for some reason his childhood cat Mr. Whiskers is hanging out at the bar smoking cigars.
  • Put NPCs into the wrong roles. This may be the result of them being in the wrong location and/or acting strangely (“your boss comes in to read you a bedtime story”) or a revelation (“Luke, I am your father”). Introduce connections between characters that don’t exist in real life.
  • Have multiple characters repeat the same line of dialog, carry the same object, or wear similar clothing or symbols. 
  • When describing things, use different words, phrases, and grammatical constructs than what you normally use. Also make sure some of the things you’re describing are unusual–weird colors, strange or impractical materials or constructions, etc.

You probably don’t want to use all of these tricks in a single dream sequence, or even a series of dream sequences. If multiple characters will be dreaming, one way to distinguish between them is to use specific types of dream imagery for each characters’ dream world. The biggest challenge of running dreams is introducing the dream elements in a way that they don’t reveal the dream too soon but fall into place as dream imagery when the time is right. The best way to get a feel for how to do that is probably to read and watch fiction that uses dreams and surreal imagery: Grant Morrison, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Naked Lunch, Elm Street. There are also tons of TV shows with dream or alternate reality episodes (or even entire dream seasons), and nearly every sit-com has at least one. Find some stuff you like and steal from it without remorse. 

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