Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams
Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams Capsule Review by Sergio Mascarenhas on 17/01/03
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
While far from perfect, Dreamwalker deserves your attention.
Product: Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams
Author: Peter C. Spahn
Page count: 150
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Sergio Mascarenhas on 17/01/03
Genre tags: Science Fiction Modern day Horror Conspiracy Generic
BEFORE THE REVIEW
Months ago I was contacted by Peter C. Spahn requesting me to review his game, Dreamwalker, Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams (DRitLoD from now on. My first question was, why me? He answered that he liked my column (The Travels of Mendes Pinto at http://www.rpg.net/news reviews/collists/ruleslaw.html ) and some of my past reviews. Fair enough so I accepted to review his game. Peter sent me the files meaning I did not pay for it. The game itself is all I got for this review.
The game deals with genres that I have only a passing interest. In other words, I would not buy the game on my own. This is not to say that I have some grudge against its genre or type of setting, I just have other priorities. After all, some men prefer brunettes. This also means that I donít have a background reading or screening fiction that relates to the game. Neither do I know other roleplaying games that may compare to DRitLoD.
And you can get more info on DRitLoD at http://DreamwalkerRPG.home.att.net .
CUTTING IT SHORT
This is an extensive review of the game so, if you are not into that much reading, here goes the kick and dirty executive summary:
A clear and simple layout coupled with mostly average art, few typos, strong reference materials and an exemplary conciseness of expression mean that DRitLoD makes for a good read. It more than deserves a 4 for style. Notice that Iím reviewing the low-resolution PDF (thereís also a printed version and a high-resolution PDF).
On what concerns content I have mixed feelings about DRitLoD: The setting starts from two interesting premises with a lot of potential (multi-genring in dreams to one side; mixing Aliens-like action with X-files stile conspiracies and sci-fi, and with Dr. Jung to the other Ė notice that these are the inspirations that came to my mind when I read the game book; the authors point in other directions) but these donít mix well. The end result is that the game doesnít provide enough materials for each. The system is based on a simple and straightforward percentile task resolution but the details ask for too many question marks. On the overall, despite the inconsistencies thereís enough good data and ideas in DRitLoD for me to give it 4 for substance. But be warned: I could as well give it a 3 because of the lack of cohesion within the content of the book. Which is ironic: Some games fail because they donít have enough content, in a sense this game fails because it has too much. I hope the game designers are able to make up their minds and present us with a more balanced and well thought out second edition. I am sure they will be able to give us a great game for our collections.
There are three versions of DRitLoD: PDF high resolution; PDF low resolution; printed. The differences are: While PDF versions can only be acquired in the internet in digital format (you will have to print it yourself or to read it in your computer), the printed version may be acquired in places you will have to ask the publishers and you donít need to print it (neither can you read it in your computer, unless you place the book on the keyboard). High resolution means that your PDF files take more time to download but also that the graphics look nicer. I asked for the low res PDF since my internet connection is ratter lousy. I can live with the inherent lack of definition in the larger graphics. I printed the thing and got 75 pages (printed both sides) that Iíll bind one of these days. I decided not to print one-page art since it is low res and would serve no purpose other than wasting ink.
The layout (by Mark Arsenault) is very good meaning that it is simple and does not try to be gratuitously artsy: Text in two columns, consistent usage of a single font (Roman 10, I guess). A simple graphic along the external margin with the name of the section. Boxed text in simple boxes with round corners. I like simplicity since it is reader friendly. DRitLoD did not deceive me in this front.
There are two types of art: Line drawings in black & white and what I suppose to be computed generated coloured drawings. I say ďI supposeĒ since, as I said, I got the low res PDF version. That means I cannot comment on these graphics other than to point that there are several one page art pieces that are concentrated at the start of the book instead of being evenly distributed. Odd. The line drawings were not affected in their resolution. They are not very good, most being average.
There are several reference aids for browsing the book. I already mentioned the marginal reference to the section in each page. Thereís also a 1 page table of contents in three columns (in other words, fairly detailed), a 3 pages index and 7 pages of handy charts. All of this in a book with only 150 pages. Thatís more than I would request for books twice its size.
The book includes a 4 pages character sheet. The first page is straightforward, and includes the usual data about your character. The next 3 pages allow the player to record information that is relevant given the nature of the game (more on this latter). Unfortunately there are scant explanations on how to use those sheets.
I mentioned before, the book is 150 pages long. If one deducts the TOC, index, tables, character sheet, one-page art, etc., one is mercifully left with close to 130 pages of game content (less if we take out all the small graphics). I say this because Iím a strong defender of game books that stick to the essential simple, clear and concise in text. Iím up to here with boring 300 or 400 pages books that could be reduced into a third since most of it is just fluff.
The book is divided into three parts: Introduction, playersí section, game master section. If you read my column you may know that I am a strong defender of the separation between players and game master data. Needless to say, one more point in favour of DRitLoD (and one advantage of the PDF over the printed version: I may bind these two sections in separate if I want). There are some sub-sections that could get a different and more clear organization. For instance, the first two sections of Book One (Character Creation and Dreamwalkers) could be combined into a single section effortlessly.
The book is not typos-free but these are too few to be annoying. We may say that the editing work has been done at a reasonable level.
All in all, DRitLoD deserves high marks for its formal aspects. I will give it a more than deserved 4.
CONTENT PART I Ė SETTING
There are two ways of looking at DRitLoDís setting: The first is to just quote from the game. The second is to try to figure which are its main inspirations. Letís see.
Take #1 ďYou are a Dreamwalker Ö you are able to leave your own dreams and travel into the Dreamwords of others. Once there you can manipulate the dreamís spiritual energy, or mana, to produce wondrous effects. ďYou have been recruited by Project Dreamwalker Ö in order to rid the spirit world of the Taeniid plague. Ē DRitLoD, p. 3. Thatís it. The central theme of DRitLoD is that you have the ability to penetrate the dreams of other people (their respective Dreamworlds) while you yourself are dreaming. The reason why you do this is to fight an infestation by the Taeniid Ė a parasite of dreams Ė of the Empyrean (the world of dreams composed of the different Dreamworlds of people that are dreaming and the passages to cross from Dreamworld to Dreamworld). You participate in the fight against the Taeniid by becoming member of a private organization called Project Dreamwalker. Of course, there are other organizations that seem to be targeting the same objective but that may be less choosy about the means they employ. Now, in doing this DRitLoD relies on a set of different inspirations that it attempts to unify into a coherent game world. As far as I can tell, there are strong influences from Aliens (the Taeniid), X-Files (the handling of the super-natural and the conspirational overtones) and The Thing Ė or similar fiction. Plus thereís the influence of the psychoanalysis of dreams (the authors specifically point to Dr. Jung). This means that you, as GM, can take your game in any of these directions and remain consistent to the setting.
Take #2 ďAt its heart, Dreamwalker is a cross-genre roleplaying game that (hopefully) provides players with a believable reason as to why they can play the same characters night after night, in completely different settings.Ē DRitLoD, p. 17. In other words, the dreamwalking stuff is there just to allow the players to jump from genre to genre: Fantasy today, sci-fi tomorrow, Wuxia the weekend after that. As you will see, DRitLoD attempts to be a generic game where instead of playing separate campaigns in separate genres you can play any genre in the same campaign. And still have a consistent explanation to it. I must say that DRitLoD has a limited success in this field. You will be able to understand why latter when I discuss the system. In any case, it really delivers in providing a reasonable and consistent explanation for how and why the characters can jump from genre to genre in almost a daily basis.
Thereís a catch, though. The problem with DRitLoD is that Take #1 and Take #2 donít match well. Take #1 places you in a well defined and interesting setting where you have two levels: Awaken with X-Files overtones including conflicting organizations with hidden agendas, a mix of sci-fi and super-natural, the personal fight between reason and the irrational; the Dreamworld where you are part of a fight to the death with a species that has characteristics that relate both to the creatures in the Alien(s) series and The Thing. Take #2 is just your normal action packed roleplaying game with the twist that you can change genre from scenario to scenario. The game happens in the Dreamworld and the pseudo-scientific data is there just to provide a believable explanation for the constant change in setting. The issue is that the authors seem to be undecided about which Take should take precedence. The end result is that there are some things that lack consistence. Letís look at some examples: Is there a difference between the character as awaken when compared to his persona in the Dreamworld? Take #2 points in the sense that there should be no difference (the character should remain the same across the different genres). On the other hand, Take #1 would most probably require the ability to change the attributes of the character from dream to dream (I guess that we do just this to ourselves in our dreams). The game seems not to consider this question or, to be more precise, it seems to lean into Take #2. The conspiracy hinted at taking place in the real world is consistent with Take #1 but itís useless if we follow Take #2. The detailed and ďrealisticĒ rules are useful if we are to follow Take #2 but are less useful if we focus on Take #1. On the other hand, the rules and the setting materials provided are missing if we are to take seriously the Dreamworld as a world of dreams or if we are to play more extensively in the real world. There are limitations in character creation and development that make sense from the point of view of Take #1 but that are detrimental if we are to play solely in the spirit of Take #2 (see bellow more on this).
In any case, there is some excellent stuff in DRitLoD. Take, for instance, the sections on the land of dreams (called the Empyrean in DRitLoD), on dreamwalking or on Taenia (the dreams parasite). All these brief sections Ė and calling it brief is not a form of depreciation Ė present ideas and data that can fuel may hours of lively roleplaying.
All in all, DRitLoD is a game that attempted to be too many things at the same time. What is there is good, it just suffers from the fact that the designers didnít make up their minds on where they wanted to take their game. Of course, you may consider that this is a strong point since it allows you to have maximum freedom in your game. (In any case, I think that this point cannot be fully addressed until we have seen the system and how it sustains the setting.) Still, there are strong ideas and material in DRitLoD that can be explored on its own or imported into other games. Iíll give it a 4 for this.
CONTENT PART II Ė SYSTEM
Iíll say it upfront: the system is the weakest part of DRitLoD. Letís see why (roughly following the pace of the rules).
The basics are fairly simple: You have a % resolution mechanic where you roll a combination of attribute plus skill plus modifiers against 1d100. If you roll lower (or equal? The rules donít specify) that your target number you succeed. Nothing groundbreaking or disastrous. The problems are in the details.
1. Character creation The game presents as three different systems what are basically three different ways to determine the values of the attributes and the skills. The first allows the players to get attributes and skills in multiples of five; the second keeps attributes in multiples of five but has skills in multiples of 1; the third has both attributes and skills in multiples of 1. It does this since it considers that it would be too hard for novice players to do the arithmetic required in the third ďsystemĒ. Now, these are not three systems, as I said above. Second, the difference between the different methods in terms of complexity is so small that it is laughable why someone would consider the need for those alternatives. This is just a tempest in a glass of water. If I may present a suggestion to the designers, they should drop ďsystemĒ 2, keep ďsystem 3Ē as stated in the rules and change ďsystemĒ 1 into d20 based values. Now, this is something that may have clear interest for the players: They may either opt for playing in a range of 1 to 20 using 1d20, or for a range of 1 to 100 using 1d100. In the first case they get simplicity at the cost of increased granularity.
Some things just donít have a clear function in terms of character creation: There is a step for the definition of the concept of the character (that actually means his profession or field of activity) but there are no rules nor suggestions on how to relate this to the definition of the values of attributes and skills.
Attributes can be either primary or secondary (derived from a combination of primary attributes). Primary include Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Acumen (dexterity of the mind), Appearance, Reason and Perception. All start at 50 and the player has 100 points do distribute amongst the 7 up to a limit of 85. That means that their average value is 64. The secondary attributes are Health, Defence, Reflex, Charisma, Persuasion and Wisdom and are based on a combination of two primary attributes (except for Persuasion that is based in a primary and a secondary attribute). While the value of the last four is (attribute attribute)/2 and varies within the same range of 50 to 85, the first two have values between 25 and 50 since they are defined as (attribute attribute)/4. Why this difference? Thereís no explanation at sight (more on this latter). I personally would prefer to have a smaller list of attributes since I figure that some could be bundled without too much effort. But thatís just me. Besides attributes the characters also have traits: Creativity, Courage and Sanity. These are calculated in the same way that attributes and their average value is similar. Why keep them apart in a separate category? I could not find an explanation. Finally, thereís Mana Points. These are determined by rolling a certain number of d6s depending on the type of Dreamwalker the character is. Now, I would rather have just two categories: Fixed attributes including a selection of the existing attributes plus traits; Variable attributes including Health and Mana points.
Speaking of Dreamwalker types, there are four of these: Analyst that requires a judicious usage of a special drug called Black25 to dreamwalk; Naturals that have the innate ability to do it; Mystics that resort to meditation and prayer; and Users that use hallucinogenic drugs. Each type is assigned a variable number of mana points at character creation and has some specifics to the way it lives its dreamwalking experience. All fair and good, I just donít see why there should be no characters that can experience two types of dreamwalking, for instance by trying to leverage on the different alternatives like a mystic that resorts to drugs (and maybe incurring a cost for too much inputs but hey, itís their choice). The game provides no rational for this limitation.
Skills are modifiers to attributes when in play. They are modifiers graded from 1 to 5, each rank meaning roughly 5% (as per the ďsystemĒ used). The skills are separated into primary that everybody knows and can use, even at rank 0 (in that case with a penalty of 50%); secondary that have to be learned; and specializations of either primary or secondary skills that can only be learned when the root skill has been developed at least up to rank 2. There is a lot of skills but the list is problematic here and there. For instance, I guess it is too much to consider the usage of handguns and rifles as something that will come naturally to everybody (both are considered primary) while dodge is presented as secondary. In any case, skills play too much of a minor role in the system to deserve the lengthy list included in the game.
Finally, the game makes no clear distinction between the characteristics of the character while awaken as compared to its characteristics while dreamwalking. As I mentioned before, this is odd. Why should a character not dream himself as vastly different from what he is in real life, at least in term of skills and physical attributes? This is unfortunate since it would open very interesting possibilities in role playing terms.
I was able to create a character in less than 10 minutes. I got the impression that the system allows for a lot of flexibility and that it will not be hard to create the character you want. Whether it will perform according to your wishes is another matter. It calls for a look at the mechanics of the game.
2. Task resolution I mentioned it above, task resolution is simply a roll of attribute skill (= the Base Chance or BC from now on) modifiers against 1d100. Opposed actions require a resisted skill roll. In this case both players roll for their characters. If both succeed, they deduct the value rolled from their respective BCs and the highest value gets it. Nothing fancy but nothing to complain about either. (There are some optional rules that are mostly useless or poorly designed. Iíll not delve into it.)
If you roll less than your BC less 50, you get an outstanding success. If your roll more than your BC 50, you have a blunder in your hands. In other words, if your BC is equal or below 50, you never get an outstanding success; if it is above 50, you never blunder. I donít like this at all. Any character should be able to have an outstanding success or to blunder. The way the rules work they unbalance things too much between less able characters and more able characters. Besides, given the fact that most characters have attributes above 50 skill, it will be uncommon to find someone with a BC bellow 50. On the other hand, I like the way the rule for outstanding successes combines with the rule for resisted skill rolls. If we combine both, we see that most outstanding successes will bear fruit if the opponent fails in his skill roll. It makes sense.
Add to this an interesting rule for cramming (a crash course on a skill just before its usage gives you a modifier but youíll loose it after some time).
The section is rounded up with a detailed presentation on how to handle several common tasks that actually takes most of the space. Thatís good. It means that the game has simple but fast and customizable task resolution rules.
The major problem with the system lies in the balance between attributes and skills. Since attributes are usually 50% and skills are modifiers that add something between 0 and 25%, attributes take the lionís share in task resolution. Too much, maybe? Well, since thereís no explanation to this feature, I can only rely in my intuition. First, the low weight of skills is compounded to a certain extent by the facts that if you lack a skill you suffer a 50% penalty, and that you cannot use a secondary or specialized skill if you donít have it. Second, since the game attempts to be a cross-genre game, placing too much weight in skills could penalize characters with low values in skills required in some genres. By placing the focus in attributes the system ensures that characters will be able to handle most situations irrespective of the genre of the current scenario. From this point of view, I think it makes sense to distribute the balance between attributes and skills the way it has been done in DRitLoD. But this is only a guess.
3. Combat, vehicles and injury Well, combat is where things start to unravel. It starts when the game breaks up combat into 3 second turns. When will game designers realize that 3í is completely unrealistic? Yes, unrealistic Ė this is the word Ė, no one acts that fast (keep in mind that a combat action is NOT simply the movement; it requires assessment of the situation, formation of intent, mental attempts that donít materialize, etc.). Worst than that, the initiative rules Ė requiring a roll that even me, a defender of the mighty dice, usually consider irrelevant Ė break up turns into segments. Now, since the game is %-based, this means that in theory there can be up to 98 segments to a turn. Iíll cut short the explanation, but a character may end attempting up to six actions in a turn. Yes, in a 3í turn. Iím speaking here about your average Joe, not about Superman. This is outrageously unrealistic, even if in most situations the characters will not be able to do it. And yes, realism is an acceptable measure of the quality of a game system. Go get it.
So, you start by rolling initiative to know when you act (and if you are able to do multiple actions within a round). Next you roll you appropriate skill combined with Dex less the defenderís Defence attribute. Thereís no explanation to what happens if the calculation gives us a negative number (meaning that Defence is lower than Dex skill). By the way, creatures of the Dreamworld (the Unreal) only get half their Defence rating while in combat with Dreamwalkers. The explanation is flimsy, so I take it that this is just to award the players an advantage when fighting them. Furthermore the character may dodge or parry. If he succeeds in the corresponding roll the value of his dodge or parry skill is deducted from the attack. If the attack was successful the player rolls for damage which is subtracted from the enemyís health attribute. Armour is rolled just as weaponís damage. Finally there are rules for several specific cases and special weapons.
Handling vehicles requires a roll with or without modifiers according to the circumstances. The system relies heavily on measuring distances, something I find distracting. Despite of this it is simple enough to be usable.
Damage affects the health stat. At 0 the character is unconscious and at Ė10 he is dead. I personally donít like negative stats, but thatís just me. Injury suffered in the Dreamworld does not actually kill the character. What happens is that at Ė10 he is expelled from the Dreamworld, awakening and eventually suffering some collateral damage. There are rules for many types of injury, both physical and mental, in the latter case consisting in different types of mental illnesses.
How does the combat system fare? I didnít play it but the statistics are fairly easy to figure. Look at what follows as a laboratorial experiment. You average fighter will have a Dex of 65 and combat skills of rank 3, meaning a modifier of plus 15%. So his Base Chance will be around 80%. We may consider that 70% to 90% will be normal. Most likely the opponent will have a Defence attribute of 30% to 40%. Letís consider he has 35%. That means the attack will be at 80-35=45%. This percentage may be lowered if the defender parries or dodges but this is only interesting if he has an high rank in parry or dodge. Now, we start to understand why the secondary attribute Defence is calculated in a different way from most other attributes: The idea seems to be that characters have high attack Base Chances but the Defence modifier reduces those stats to values around the 50% range. If the character does damage he will roll a certain number of d6s according to the weapon he is using. A normal sword does 2d6 (average 7, maximum 12), the same as a medium riffle. Since the health attribute also averages at 33, you will need some four to five hits to kill an opponent. That explains two things: Why Health is calculated differently from most other secondary attributes; and why Unreal have only half the Health stat of real characters. Iíll stop at here. The point is that the system provides characters with high statistics but next attempts to introduce mechanisms to create more variety in results and avoid either endless or too short combats where high stats always means success (it also explains why the system doesnít handle combat through opposed actions which would seem the more natural way to go). Yes, the combat system has its own rationality and is certainly consistent butÖ it could be simpler. And I still ask myself why the need to all those options that try to simulate realistic combat, vehicles and injury while there is not a single word on how dreams may defy reality Ė and how this can influence the game (except for the fact that characters donít really die in the Dreamworld).
4. Using mana Mana is the DRitLoDís equivalent of magic. Let me state upfront that itís not very clear whether mana manipulation and effects work only in the Dreamworld or whether they may also be used in the real world. This ambiguity may be very interesting to explore if you are to play an X-Files type of campaign.
Characters expend mana points to produce mana effects and talents (keep in mind that different types of Dreamwalkers get a variable number of MPs at character creation). Mana effects are the DRitLoDís equivalent of magic spells. Talents are more akin to skills. They are broken up into minor and major talents. The game includes a small but interesting set of effects and minor and major talents that correspond to the most common magical abilities that can be found in other games and settings.
Concluding remarks on the system I think that the game system in DRitLoD is neither outstanding nor too bad. It could be better, though. Some things could be more detailed, like the usage of traits. Some things could be simpler. But the greatest problem steams from the fact that the game designers didnít make up their minds on their two takes on the setting, so they didnít decide on a strong line of system development. You see, the biggest problem comes from the fact that the Dreamworld basically works according to the same rules than the real world: Dreamed tools (including weapons and vehicles) are similar to real tools and operate according to the same principles. Attributes and skills provide the same range of ability. And so on. I think this is a pity. It strips the Dreamworld of the sense of wonder, strangeness and menace it should have. From my point of view, while dreamwalking a character should be free of the technical constrains he faces in the real world. At the same time, he should have to face constrains and norms specific to the Dreamworld. Of course, this means that a lot more effort should be put into developing the Dreamworld as a setting on itself. All in all, I think this is happens because Take #2 took precedence on Take #1 in terms of inspiration and driver for rules development. Which, from my point of view, is unfortunate.
All in all I give it a 3 for rules.
CONTENT PART III Ė GAME MASTERíS STUFF
The game masterís book, the second part of the DRitLoD tome, includes more data on the setting Ė I mentioned before a section on dreamwalking and another on the Taenia but thereís more. Thereís a section on some organizations like religious groups and governments plus sample characters. It is short and provides the basest data. Further to this, there are guidelines to design dreamworlds and scenarios set in those. This is also good stuff. And there are some GM tips that are solid but far from groundbreaking.
The rest of the book provides setting-related gaming materials. These include the Pinebrook Chapter, a cell of Project Dreamwalker designed to work as the entrance for the PCs to their Dreamwalking activities and scenarios. I liked the Pinebrook Chapter. It is placed in an isolated location so that the players may get into Dreamwalking without needing to care about events in the real world (they can leave these to when they got used to the rules and how the things happen in the Empyrean). It presents a nice set of supporting NPCs that can enliven the game or be played by occasional players.
Of course, all of the scenarios concern attempts to cure the Dreamworlds of people infested with Taeniid creatures. Iíll not enter into details but the scenarios are good and give an excellent idea of where DRitLoD attempts to go. They are also very different among each other in the sense that they are placed in very different contexts and provide a varied set of gaming experiments. Furthermore they are very well organized and presented. Very good stuff, indeed.
The Game Masterís Book also deserves a good and solid 4 rating for substance.