Wednesday 26 December 2018

Thoughts on Discovery and the Dreamscape Game

One of my favourite sequences in any film I've seen is in the american remake of The Ring, about halfway through where our protagonist starts investigating Samara Morgan, and the evidence begins coming together in a slow montage, and we begin to realise that things are far worse - and far stranger - than we initially realised.

One thing that I really love in RPGs, which I only see rarely but always makes the game amazing for me, is the sense of the world unfolding before me. The feeling that there's a big world that's not apparent to me immediately, a setting that exists beyond the scope of the PCs, mysteries and depth and all that stuff.
I want a game where the world has depth that's not explained right out of the gate. The feeling of unravelling the setting's secrets is important to me. I don't think I'm alone in this: the fun in picking the setting apart and learning how things really work is seen in a lot of settings. I see it a lot at larps. I suspect it was initially a big part of the appeal of games like Mage and Vampire, although these days everybody into those settings knows the deep mysteries inside out and the publishers make a concerted effort to tie everything together and present a coherent setting for the players.
I've found that when a player can just read the book to learn what's up, it robs the game of it's sense of discovery. When I first got into Vamp larps, each game I attended I'd learn more about how the oWoD setting fitted together and it was great. But once I started reading the books, that kind of robbed the discovery from the game, and most vamp STs expect you to read the books in depth and know the setting well. So... :/ 
Call of Cthulhu is (in theory) a brilliant game for this, it's structured well for this style of gameplay. The only problem is that the players are mostly Lovecraft nerds. I'm guilty of this, last time I played CoC, I predicted all the monsters ahead of time since I was familiar with the setting. This was, incidentally, still fun. Knowing OOC that you're up against (say) Shub Niggurath's young is really scary, since there's that suspense where you know the horrible thing that's going to happen. But you don't get the sense of uncovering the setting if you know you're dealing with the HPL mythos.

So implementing this sense of discovery.

You see this in a lot of OSR modules, where they implement the Weird as a way of introducing unfamiliar elements for the players to puzzle together, and it works OK. But it doesn't quite scratch the itch, since the stuff in a module doesn't tie into the greater setting. When each Wierd element is unique, you don't feel you're unpicking the setting by working it out. This is why I prefer a module like Death Frost Doom or The Monolith From Beyond Space And Time (which hint at a wider setting beyond what you encounter), over something like The God That Crawls or Tower of the Stargazer, which is self-contained.

One of the best things that I've seen in the original games is the tradition of dire warnings to players not to read the GM's book. Basic D&D did it, Paranoia did it. I think the original Call of Cthulhu did it too. This tradition has somewhat fallen by the wayside; these days players are customers like the GM is, so if you can sell them the GM's book. And there's a sense that good players understand the game, which means reading the GM's stuff. Fuck this idea. If you want the game to be fun do not read the GM's book, do not read the setting book. Just don't. Resist the temptation.
You're reading an OSR blog, so you're probably keen about game stuff and seeing the nuts and bolts of games working. I assume my readers are GMs rather than players. But that's 'mostly' rather than 'entirely'.

This brings me to the matter of the dreamscape project. 
If I was to sum up what I want the dreamscape project to be about, it's this little hypothetical snapshot: 

After a few sessions of exploring the layers of dreamscape, the PCs meet another agent like them, who says he's from something called the 'Theresan Order'. The Theresan Agent carries an icon of Saint Theresa, and is bleeding from the palms in a classic case of stigmata. They talk, and it turns out he's also projecting into the dreamworld from somewhere in the real world. Like them, he's capable of astounding - he would say 'miraculous' feats while projecting.
They return to the waking world. Their research turns up no signs of this Theresan order. Then one day, as they leave the office, they see a car-crash, and one of the victims is badly wounded, bleeding to death. An anonymous passerby steps out of the crowd and, offering a prayer to Saint Therea, causes the crash-victim's wounds to heal up miraculously before vanishing back into the crowd of onlookers. 
The players take a moment, clearly, they've just seen a Theresan Agent perform one of their miracles. But, Agents only get their powers while projecting into the dreamscape. One of the players asks "Guys. Could we be living in the dreamscape?"
The setting suddenly widens to reveal mysteries they didn't initially suspect were even there.
This example is hypothetical, and something like it will probably occur quite early into the campaign. I won't say if the player's guess is correct or not, or what the truth of the situation is, but it's moments like this that I want the game to facilitate.

How to achieve this?
Firstly, players do not read the setting book. No, really, not ever. There's nothing relevant to them in there, everything they need to know fits on their printouts and character sheets. There will come points as they level up when new areas of the game open up to them, and when that happens there'll be new briefing sheets the GM gives them, and indeed new character sheets that reflect different ways of engaging with the world. As a not-too-spoilery example, there's a whole seperate character sheet for when the agents aren't projecting in the dreamscape, and are instead running around doing adventures in the real world. That adventures in the waking world use a whole different set of stats should be a nice inception-horn moment.
A lot of mechanics are deliberately hidden from the players at first. What happens when you die in the dreamscape? What exactly happens to you when your heart-rate hits its max value? You don't know. Play the game to find out.

The GM's book has a bit on how to use different mechanics in the front few pages, as well as mechanics that the players don't need to know at first. The rest details the setting, the various factions and weird monsters and covert agencies in the world. I'm working on an 'instant conspiracy generator' where, whenever the players investigate what's really going on somewhere, you drop some dice and get a web of interested factions, as well as their hierarchy and the connections between them. There's probably going to be a rough timeline of events leading up to the point where the PCs start exploring the dreamscape, and what will likely happen if they don't get involved. Among monster stat-blocks, almost everything comes with a way to subvert, control, impersonate or monitor the monster's victims, rather than just going for brute violence.
I'm getting pictures for the project by Scrap Princess. The first images have a wonderful dreamlike film-noir feel to them. Strong black shadows, directional lighting, tight angled perspective. 

I've been looking into psychadelic and paranoid fiction lately. Paprika, Jacob's Ladder, Mulholland Drive, 12 Monkeys. There's a rich vein to explore here, I think.


  1. Salient points. I'm one of the writer-readers / player-referees that goes right to the setting and lore sections because I engage with the game in those twinned roles. So I'm both culpable for this trend and shamelessly support it, while acknowledging the shortcoming it causes.

    I think there's a lot to be said in favor the Dark Souls method, mixed in with unreliable or limited sources of information. The setting is communicated through the environment, item descriptions, little tidbits that can be pieced together into what could be that great secret...or might just be a bunch of nonsense.

    Environment + interpretation feels right to me. Far more right than lore dumps (despite my love for those) if one is to maintain a sense of mystery and discovery.

  2. Thank you for this post! I've been missing that mystery and depth so much, and didn't even know it. Now to give a proper think on how to give some of that feeling to my players.

  3. Love the ideas here. This is one of the reasons I love setting-neutral rules; I can take a setting everyone assumes they know and shoot it through with surprises. And then we can do it again, this time with new surprises.

  4. The other problem with "don't read the GM section" is it means people who might take either role have to, like, choose whether they ever read the rest of the book, and have a weird experience it they try to play in someone else's game later. You tend to make decently procedural stuff so this might not be as much of an issue in this instance.

    I'm very excited to see you work with Scrap.