Roll vs Boredom: Dream Worlds

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Roll vs Boredom article, my little experiment with  a new mechanic per adventure hasn’t gone as well as I’d hoped initially.  In truth, I think the requirement of coming up with a new mechanic and the subsequent implementation has been distracting rather than enhancing my game play.  As a result I’ve slowed down on the idea, but I am still working on new mechanics, many more subtle than what I think warrants a full article (I might do a compilation article some time in the future).  This article focuses on a mechanic I’ve been working on for a very different purpose but made good marriage with my current Savage Worlds fantasy campaign set in a rough translation of the D&D 3.5  Eberron Campaign Setting.  The mechanic is actually a subsystem, one I can’t reveal in full because I’ve designed it under contract with Gun Metal Games as an alternate rule set for the Interface Zero virtual reality world.  All that said, this isn’t about virtual reality, not in a fantasy game, this is about what my group’s barbarian calls the “spirit world,” a place where dreams are reality.

The Rules for Dreaming

Perhaps it was because I had just watched INCEPTION or just wanted to do something different, but my plans for introducing an alternate plane of existence based on dreams actually precedes my work on the virtual reality system.  I decided at the start of my campaign that my “big bad” would be Eberron’s Quori, supernaturally evil creatures that cannot materialize in the world of the living, but can infiltrate dreams to manipulate or terrify victims.  It was about the same time that I read about an interesting mechanic on Reddit, one which presented a rolling system that would favor extremes, highs or lows, but rarely middle ground results, it actually played a large part in inspiring this series of articles.  Read all about it here. While I loved this idea, when time came to bring it into my game it just didn’t work well with Savage Worlds, not just yet anyhow.  Savage Worlds just doesn’t have the highs and lows on the dice that other systems have, and a medium roll (since a 4 is typically a success) is just about as good as a high roll, raises not withstanding.  So I packed that idea away as something I might try to make use of later, perhaps in a d20 game where it can really shine, and instead started toying with other thoughts.

This is typically the part where I tell you what the new mechanic is and detail it out for use in your own games.  However, since I stole from myself for this one I can’t say much that would take away from the full version product coming out this Fall for the cyberpunk Interface Zero setting.  Instead, I’ll use this space to give you a little info about why I made what decisions I can tell you about.  A bit of insight into how I go about creating something like this.  Certainly I didn’t have to come up with a mechanic at all, and I wouldn’t often recommend creating one for the sake of just having a new rule (though, as a creative exercise that can be fun).  I could have just run this as another plane of existence, let the characters keep their standard stats in the new and alien world and face off with extra-planar monsters, but this dream world was to be a big part of my campaign and needed something to really set it apart from normal play, something to make it feel strange and fantastical.

The Dreaming Dark

Taking a break from my campaign planning, seeing as how any play in the dream lands was still far off, I ran and reviewed the Interface Zero setting using the system for Hacking as it was in the book.  After my review, I had a good discussion with Gun Metal Games’ president David Jarvis, and he offered me a chance to write up an alternative play system for The Deep, the name of the virtual reality network in his game.  My ideas for the new system blended together perfectly with my needs for dimensions which exist only in the mind.  I developed an alternate world based not on just die rolls, but that could play to a character’s mental advantages (and weaknesses).  Much like that digital world, the physical body in a dream becomes almost meaningless.  Though it has its effects, running on the acuity of the mind and strength of a person’s soul were instantly more important.

Dream world adventures take place entirely in the collective consciousness of sleepers, but these aren’t just patterns of random thought.  The players in these stories are manifesting in this realm with full control, the ultimate lucid dream.  As such, I wanted to give them something more than they might have with their base character, a level of manipulation that exceeded their character norms.  The solution was once again to steal from myself.  In Interface Zero, the Hacking trait is arguably the most important game skill when dealing with virtual reality, in addition to that, players can take powers (in my system) which allow them to modify code into damaging, corrupt data or to open doors from one part of The Deep to another, among many other examples.  In the plane of dreams I gave my players the same opportunities.  Every character, even the illiterate barbarian archetype, had some level of power while traversing the shared sleeping consciousness, a fun way to break character from his normal slashing and killing if he so chose, as well as each character being granted 1 point in a new skill called Dreamshaping.  Players could then level their Dreamshaping skill as normal after this, using the Dreamshaping skill as the analog to Interface Zero’s Hacking skill, a versatile mental strength which can be used to control the subjective reality around a character.  Having a skill like this allows for a potential of adventures that are completely non-linear, players can constantly change up the game world if they are feeling creative.

The nightmare given shape, the QuoriNightmare Stories

For my adventures using this mechanic, the party is facing the psionic powers of the Quori, creatures which thrive on fear and terror.  While any mind can serve the purpose to feed a hungry Quori’s nightmare lust, I decided to take this to a place of depravity where weak minds could be easily manipulated for these alien entities.  But first, I wanted to lay some expectations out and give the group a more or less “fun” introduction to my rules, so I had them manifest inside the dream of an ally on a power trip…

One of the party members has attracted a strange follower, after beating the alpha male in a pack of Glide Monkeys (Fantasy Companion for Savage Worlds) one of the winged baboons began to follow him around, thinking of him as the alpha male.  It’s been a fun and mostly loyal companion, but once the group entered the plane of dreams through a magical device, the flying monkey perceived itself in it’s dream form, a powerful, giant alpha male of its species, with protectors of equal size.  The players found themselves inside the building they had just left, but overrun with jungle plants as if they were flung far into the future and the demi-human races had fallen.  It was only after they defeated their flying monkey companion could they leave his dreamscape jungle and advance to face their true enemy in a place where the Quori had gathered up a great deal of their fear based energy.  My players proceeded to an insane asylum infested by the monsters.

Using the magically subdued patient’s dreaming nightmares as inspiration, I had the Quori manifest things such as looming giant spiderwebs and piranha men from the nightmares of non-player characters who suffered arachnophobia and phagophobia (the fear of being eaten, among other interpretations), I also had a crushing and evil black cloud to represent a fear of darkness in a sinister and “physically” aggressive way.  It made for a fun gallery of horrors and an action packed version of something almost Lovecraftian.  The players moved past these threats and eventually made it to some Quori themselves (which they dispatched almost too easily) resisting all of the monster’s fear effects and squashing them outright, a proud victory for my group.

I did get to drop someone in a dream combat, and this was fun because I got to see how that mechanic would play out.  In Interface Zero, when someone falls in combat they are either ejected from virtual reality or if a biofeedback program was used it might actually damage and kill their real body.  I thought of emulating that in the dream world, but I wanted a way to make my players a bit more fearful than just when they know a particularly aggressive psychic attack was targeting them.  I decided that lethality would be determined by whether or not their damaged and broken spirit could navigate the dream lands back to their unconscious body.  During game play, I made the mistake of using the standard Savage Worlds Vigor rolls to stabilize, but I think in future play I’m going to modify this to a Spirit roll.  I’m also going to be writing a separate chart of mental traumas or loss of the “soul”, resulting in permanent comatose, this would replace the injury and death chart for normal combat.  A critical failure would make the player character a shade of the dream world, doomed to haunt the nightmares of others forever trying to find their way home.  It’s something I need to detail more, and may end up in a future Roll vs Boredom article as a sequel to this one, since those are rules that do not feature in Interface Zero.

Waking Up

Overall I’d say the mechanic turned out to be a success, though I did learn that using these rules for fantasy as opposed to science fiction does yield very different results.  My Eberron players don’t seem to think of obstacles the same way, in my Interface Zero games The Deep is a potential solution to any problem, but so far (and it is certainly still early enough for this to change) my players see each trip to the dreamworld as a challenge to overcome.  They seem to enjoy it but want to get out, as if they are afraid that could get trapped and die there.  These dangers certainly are possibilities, but the heightened fear may just be good role playing since I’m running a party of mostly superstitious and primitive characters, they may just not want to anger the spirits they put so much stock in.

Once more, I’d like to thank my play testers for taking this bumpy road with me:  Thanks Beth, Chris, Jeff, Laura, and Rachael!

A Quori haunts an old man

[tags]GMing, RPG, role playing, games, game mechanics, Savage Worlds[/tags]

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