GM Technique: Dream Scenes

GM Technique: Dream Mode
Prophetic dreams (and, really, what other kind would be relevant in an rpg?) serve the same purpose as libraries, NPC conversations, and streetwise rolls.  Namely, they’re information-gathering scenes that provide the PCs with in-game info that leads them to the next plot point.

But a prophetic dream has some advantages.  First, it’s relatively unexpected compared to those techniques.  Second, it gives players an additional way to experience your gameworld – this is always good, and could even be called the GM’s primary job.  Third, it can make your gameworld feel like a truly different place, where life is experienced quite differently than it is here. 

Narrating a dream can be intimidating.  Instead of dealing with events, characters, and conversations, you now have to work with images and feelings.  But it’s also freeing because there’s no pressure to be realistic – a dream can be as trippy as you want.  As long as it’s clear how the dream events relate to the story (and as long as it’s telling them something new about that story) your players will probably enjoy it as a change of pace.

If you’ve never used one, and feel it would fit in your gameworld, here are some of my tips for running dream scenes as information-gathering scenes.

Timing is Everything
If you just give a PC a dream out of nowhere, it’s going to seem like you couldn’t figure out any other way to tell them something.  Unless you’re running a word where people’s dreams are always meaningful (and that would be a very unique style of roleplay) meaningful dreams should be unusual.

Some good times to use one…

  • When something BIG happens elsewhere in your campaign (like thousands of voices crying out in terror and being suddenly silenced).
  • When the PC is near death.
  • When the PC has experienced some major plot marker, like weathering the death of an ally, defeating a lesser enemy,
  • When a PC purposely enters a mystical state in order to seek answers (perhaps after journeying to a legendary “Chamber of Dreams,” or after getting a dream potion from a helpful-but-difficult-to-find guru NPC).
  • When it’s time for an important (and probably psychic) NPC to send them a message from far away
Josephine Wall,
Use Symbols
A dream-NPC showing up and telling the players some information is an ok dream. Using symbols and images to show the player what’s going on in the story is a great dream. 

Translating plot material into symbols can be hard.  You’re used to describing “real” stuff in your game world.  So when you’re doing a dream scene, ask yourself questions like:

  • If you’re giving them back story, what are some metaphors you could use to sum it all up?  Make those metaphors physically present along with the actual events of the backstory.
  • If you’re giving them current story: what are the PCs supposed to realize in order to succeed here?  And what’s a riddle you could tell about that?
  • What are the Big Ideas of this campaign?  Mass deception by an enlightened minority?  Choosing right from wrong in a world of gray?  The risk of being infected by the very evil you’re fighting?  Make pictures of those themes and present them visually.
  • If you’re giving them foreshadowing: what’s a riddle you could use to describe the next important plot element?  Instead of telling that riddle on a scroll or a dungeon wall, show that riddle in physical terms.
  •  What metaphor would the bad guy use to describe his evil plan?  Show them that metaphor in physical terms.
Lucid Dreams
Straight up describing a dream can be fine, if you simply want the player to know something about the story.

But just like you should usually let players influence over your scenes, you should usually let them interact, question, and explore the dream scenes you create.  And don’t worry – since dream physics are fluid, it’s super easy to keep players “on script” in a dream.  Just make sure any barriers you put up are symbolic of the story, not just arbitrary. 

Group Dreams
Having one player get to do something while the others sit by is usually lame. 

If your dream is revealing plot info that affects the whole group, consider letting the whole party have the dream together.  Dream scenes work like other information-gathering scenes, after all – so why not let the whole group interact with them?

You could accomplish this by giving them a “shared” dream, where they are literally in the same dream together (good way to clue them in that this is no “ordinary” dream, too), or they could individually have the same dream and interact with it different ways as play goes around the room.

Stay tuned Monday to see how we used Dream Mode in this week’s session!

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