Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams
Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams Capsule Review by Conan McKegg on 19/11/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A great concept that is well written and realised. Setting is great and clearly explained, but let down by a strong but dull game system.
Product: Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams
Author: Peter C. Spahn
Company/Publisher: Self Published (?)
Cost: PDF - $6.95 US; BOOK - $24.95 US
Page count: 152
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Conan McKegg on 19/11/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Horror Espionage Conspiracy Gothic Superhero Other
Every once in a while I get asked to review a product that is just a little different from the rest. QAGS, The Collectors and now Dreamwalker. I remember checking out the Freelancers forum here on RPGnet a while back and spotting a discussion of how one would go about creating a roleplaying game based on dreams. There was a lot of comments about reality bending and the like. While I have done some study into the theories of lucid dreaming in my time, I certainly don't consider myself any true expert on dreams - but we all dream and as such have a degree of expectation about how an RPG about dreams would work.
Well, Peter Spahn, David Griffin and Michael Patton were not satisfied with just asking. They sat down and created something. While I am hesitant to agree with their approach to dreams, the game that they have come up with certainly is full of a lot of great ideas and is definitely an exciting and different product.
Firstly, Dreamwalker is attractively packaged. Unlike many self-published products which tend to use bad artwork and poorly formatted fonts on the cover, the wise decision was made to keep the cover simple. It is a black page with faint fonts in the background and a blue strip along the spine with the title "Dreamwalker" clearly marked.
The copy I was sent was the PDF version - which is really well presented. I usually hate PDFs that are over about 60 pages - I'm a big believer in having something that I can actually carry into a game to refer to without needing a power source. However the PDF version comes with a handy index that hyperlinks you directly to essential pages and tables - something that previous PDFs I have been sent could learn from.
The actual format of the book inside is professional and clean without looking cheap. Mark Arsenault deserves a good pat on the back and a free round at the pub for what he has managed to do. Predominently two column spread, the use of borders, inserts and white space really help make the book easy to read.
If there is only one layout gripe I have it would be the artwork. This is a rather mixed bag of images - some are evocative and good, but some are so simplistic even I could have drawn them! However, given the majority of the book's art, this is a minor gripe.
ContentsThis is one cool setting. Peter, David and Michael have managed to get a fairly complex concept and hammered out an easy to grasp, yet involved game.
The book opens with an introduction that essentially sets out the goals of the book and what the core inspirations behind writing Dreamwalker were. This is simply brilliant stuff - it makes my job as a reviewer so much easier when the authors take the time at the start to state clearly what they were aiming for when producing the game. Rather than judge it based solely on my own expectations, the introduction gives the writers a chance to argue what they wanted the game to do as well. Fantastic! This is followed by a nice piece of fiction that helps to introduce the setting - involving a group of Dreamwalkers entering someone's dream and the ensuing conflicts.
The book is split into two sections - Players and Game Masters. I'll briefly cover each before stating my final thoughts on the game.
Book One: Player's SectionThis section starts off with a nicely written "What is RPing" chapter with a well placed glossary of roleplaying terms. This is followed by a systemless example of play - to clearly show how a general session of roleplaying would run. I love seeing these things. Just like the game example in Nobilis this really helps new players get an idea of how a game ought to run like.
Next is a brief overview of dreams. While this is not exactly on hundered percent accurate, the chapter does clearly state that this chapter is solely for use in the game and is by no means meant to be used for anything else. So if you think that reading this book will make you a psychodynamic dream analyst - you will be disappointed. For everyone else, it'll help you understand the rest of the game when details about Dreamwalking start to be discussed.
Next we get...
Essentially Dreamwalker is about the founding of a secret organisation known as Project Dreamwalker. Founded by a group of scientists who broke away from a government funded group investigating the use of a drug called "Black 25", Dreamwalkers are capable of entering the realm of dreams via lucid dreaming.
During their sojourns through the Empyrean - the game's term for the spirit world - the Dreamwalkers have discovered that an alien race is invading the dreams of humanity. The Taenia are a form of spiritual parasite that feed off people's bad dreams, preventing the denoument of the dream - it's natural ending. When people's dream do not reach the desired denoument, then they begin to suffer physical effects and can even die.
Thus it is the PC's job to enter the dreams of people who have been attacked by the Taenia and help cleanse their dreams of the spiritual insects and reach their potential.
The character generation in Dreamwalker is presented at three levels. While they all use the same rules, the stats alter depending on the level of detail the group wishes to play with. Beginner provides a higher degree of success, but less detail to character - while Advanced becomes more grittier and detailed.
Attributes are measured from 1-00(100) although it is mentioned that in the dreamworld stats can go beyond this range. Characters buy their stats using a point-based system, however they cannot increase any stat above 85 at the beginning.
Skills are ranked 1-5 and essentially add to the appropriate trait to produce a percentage chance that is rolled on 1d100.
Following character generation there is a chapter on the four key types of Dreamwalker. These aren't so much splats as a form of definition that allows players to further personalise their PC. First there are Naturals - people who do not need to take any drugs or perform any particular rituals to dreamwalk. They just can. Naturals also have access to as many "Talents" or dream abilities as they can get. Most other dreamwalkers have limitations on how flexible they are in the dreamworld. However, Naturals start with less Mana - or Dream energy - as a trade off.
Next are Mystics - essentially the shamen, priests and wizard types who can dreamwalk after entering a sort of meditational state and performing an appropriate ritual. Analysts are dreamwalkers who can enter the Empyrean via use of the Black 25 drug and finally there are Users who are those who are reliant on chemicals such as LSD to be able to enter the realm of dreams.
The game proceeds to detail the Empyrean from the viewpoint of the players, naming the different areas that are accessible by Dreamwalkers and what they represent. This is a well written section, although I do feel that the order of some of the explanations is a bit confused - with certain areas being discussed but not described until much later in the chapter.
The system and combat rules are presented in detail - somewhat out of place - I would have recommended that all the background details came first and then have character generation and system in the same part of the book, one after the other. Still the system is very simple - it's almost identical to BRP. Roll 1d100 and get under your trait skill. There are some complications that cover special circumstances, but the entire system boils down to that one mechanic.
I don't know why, but I really have a bit of a thing about percentile systems - I'm not that hot on them. I guess given the setting I was hoping for something with a bit more character. The Combat rules are solid and reliable, but lack a certain zest. This even continues through to the use of mana and "dream magic." While the setting is great, and adventures are bound to be surreal and exciting - the system itself is rather banal. Mana points essentially act like "drama points" from Buffy or "Inspiration" from Adventure! but without all the fun extras.
Book Two: Gamemaster SectionThis section essentially details more about the operation of Project Dreamwalker and other dreamwalking organisations in the world. Then we are introduced to the Taenia. These are neat villains, they are alien and creepy - although most are simply large dream-bugs. Still, they are impressive antagonists and I can see many groups finding them a tough challenge.
The best segment here is the material on adventures and dream creation. Peter goes to great length to detail how a GM should start approaching dream construction for a game as well as how to keep the game running smoothly. I was genuinely impressed with the ease in which the Dream Design chapter leads the GM carefully through the minefield that is symbolic world design.
The book finishes up with a beginning chapterhouse of Project Dreamwalker and four starting adventures! Four! Fantastic!
There is a brief afteword where the creators give their last words on the book and how they felt about the game. Then there are some handy charts and a character sheet and some other fun sheets to use in play.
ConclusionSo did I like Dreamwalker? Yes. Despite a disappointing system, the actual game and setting is fantastic. I think that there was a real 5/5 game here dying to get out, but the system is too clunky for a game that should be a little more freeflowing. My recommendation is to check out the game, and if the system isn't quite what you are after, then replace it with either Over the Edge or Unknown Armies' game systems.
If you have no problems with game systems like Call of Cthulhu then you'll have no problems - and I'd say you most likely will enjoy this game. It certainly is different, and there is a lot of useful material for mining here. But best of all, the setting itself is great as it is. I like the idea behind the game and the system is most definitely playable.
Should I buy it? Hell yes. There is a lot on offer here, and at such a reasonable price, it's worth the purchase.