Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams
Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams Capsule Review by Frank Sronce on 22/01/03
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
physically unimpressive, but lots of good ideas
Product: Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams
Author: Peter C. Spahn
Company/Publisher: Golden Pillar Publishing
Page count: 150
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Frank Sronce on 22/01/03
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Historical Horror Far Future Space Anime Espionage Conspiracy Post-apocalyse Old West Vampire Gothic Asian/Far East Superhero
Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams
It's been a kind of Holy Grail for gamers for a long time: to devise a game which lets you use the same characters in any kind of adventure or setting you like. To be able to change that setting whenever you want. To run a fantasy dungeon-crawl one week, then a space adventure the next. In short, to be able to run a campaign which can incorporate pretty much anything you want it to.
A lot of games have been written to try and fulfill that niche. Generally they involve folks who hop from dimension to dimension having adventures. Heck, I've written a homebrew game of that sort myself, but Dreamwalker has a nifty new take on the idea.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Basically, Dreamwalker concentrates on the idea of a clinic where trained dreamwalkers will go into a patient's dreams and attempt to treat their psychological problems from the inside. It's not wholly original; the idea has been used in books and movies for a long time, but this is the first time that I've seen it in an RPG. The PCs are fairly ordinary folks in the real world, but in the course of their job they'll have amazing adventures that can occur in any time, any setting, or any place, because... it's all a dream.
The game is basically set in the modern world. Around 1945 or so, Dr. William Black (a researcher who was studying the effects of various drugs on people's dreams) discovered a chemical compound called Black25 which allowed him to not only control his dreams lucidly, but to actually enter the dreams of other people nearby. By modern times, his discovery has been parlayed into a series of clinics spread around the country that treat people's neuroses via dreamwalking.
And it's an important job. One of the first things that Dr. Black discovered was that most "bad dreams" aren't caused by the dreamer themselves. Left alone, almost every dream ends in a happy, satisfying manner that produces a burst of positive mental energy and helps reinvigorate the dreamer. But the minds of the human race are infested with a species of psychic parasite he named the Taenia (amusingly enough, that's a genus of medically important tapeworms in real life). These organisms can also travel from dream to dream and feed by draining that burst of positive energy for themselves. They enter into a person's subconscious and nest there, slowly growing in numbers. They deliberately interfere with the progress of their host's dreams, making sure that more and more of them end badly, so that the colony can grow and spread. As the infestation becomes more severe, the host's mind tries to fight it off and minimize the damage, but in extreme cases it can spiral out of control, ruining the host's mental health.
Dreamwalkers help their patients by working inside the dream to make sure that it is resolved properly. The "desirable" ending of each dream is refered to as its denouement and the basic plot of almost every Dreamwalker adventure is to go into the patient's dream and make sure that the denouement occurs properly while the Taenia try to stop you. Once the dream is complete, the Taenia will be vulnerable for a time. Then the goal changes to finding and destroying the central nest and its Queen. The Queen may be a formidable foe, but she must be destroyed or else the colony will simply repair itself and grow back to its original numbers.
Inside the dream, the dreamwalkers have a lot of power to call upon. As lucid dreamers, they can control and influence the course of the dream, even though it isn't theirs. Their ability to make changes in the dream-world is limited by the requirement that they spend Mana Points to do so; when they run out of mana, they're stuck with the dream as it is. Luckily, there are some ways to recharge your mana even during a dreamwalk. If you manage to complete the dream you'll be able to absorb some mana from the dreamer's mind as that burst of positive feeling washes over them. If you're really desperate, you can also descend deeper into their mind and search the underpsyche for raw mana, but that has its own risks.
The Taenia almost always have physical forms during a dream. The three types are the Queen herself (who spawns all of the others and is the true enemy that the dreamwalkers must root out), her Drones (mature larvae who are almost bereft of free will and exist only to defend the colony) and her Larvae. The last are, in many ways, the most interesting. While the Queen is the source of the infestation and the drones defend it, the larvae actually take control of various characters in the dream and use them to work against the dreamer. Larvae actually have a fair bit of free will and try to delay the end of the dream as long as possible. Every Larvae knows that when the dream ends every last one of them will either perish outright or mature into mindless Drones. They really don't want that to happen, so they work to hinder the dream and will only try to end it outright when their existence is at stake.
This makes the game more interesting. Since the Larvae don't want the dream to end, they never try to actually make the denouement impossible. If the denouement ever becomes completely unobtainable, the dreamer will sense it and the dream will end swiftly. Rather, they try to delay and hinder them, making it harder and harder to accomplish the denouement without disrupting the progress of the dream too much. This means that the dreamwalkers can always find a way to overcome the Taenia if they look hard enough.
There's another limit to the conflict, too. While a dreamwalker is quite capable of dreaming themselves up a rocket launcher and blowing away Larvae and Drones left and right, it's a very risky maneuver. The dreamer is subconsciously aware of everything that happens in the dream, whether their pseudo-physical avatar is actually present there or not. The more stuff that happens that disrupts the proper flow of the dream, the more likely the dreamer is to just... wake up. If that happens, every dreamwalker in their mind will be forcibly expelled, a very draining and actually quite dangerous event. It drains their personal mana and merits a Sanity + Intuition roll to avoid suffering permanent mental effects. Too many cases of "dump shock" can actually drive a dreamwalker insane, so it's not to be risked lightly.
There are three basic ways to figure out what the proper denouement of a dream is supposed to be. First, it may simply be obvious to the players from the nature of the dream itself. Second, as experienced dreamwalkers, they can attempt to "guestimate" it by studying the dream-world carefully and observing the actions of the dreamer and then making an appropriate skill check. Finally, they can attempt to join with the pseudo-physical form of the dreamer. This lets them merge their own dream-self with the dreamer's and automatically sense the purpose of the dream. Of course, it's also somewhat risky, as the dreamer's mind may reject them. This can be very bad, as the dreamworld itself may change in subtle ways to oppose the dreamwalker, inflicting skill penalties on anything else that they do for the duration of the dream.
That's the basic setting. Now let's look at the rules themselves and see how well they support it.
Building a Dreamwalker
The primary stats are Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Acumen (mental quickness), Appearance, Reason and Perception. A pretty standard set, though I dislike their decision to use PCP to abbreviate Perception. They all start at 50 and you get 100 additional points to add to them with a max of 85. While the actual value is used a lot, you'll also have to write down its "modifier", which would range from -5 (for an 01) to +5 (for a rating of 100). Since PC ratings all start at 50-85, your actual modifier for each stat will be from +0 to +3.
From the primary stats, we calculate the secondary attributes: Health (basically your hit points; it's calculated from your Strength and Stamina), Defense (how difficult you are to harm in battle; calculated from Stamina and Dexterity), Reflex (reaction time, a combo of Dexterity and Acumen), Charisma (interacting with others; based on Acumen and Appearance), Persuasion (convincing others; based on Charisma and Reason) and Wisdom (common sense and insight; based on Reason and Perception).
The last four secondary stats are all on the same 1-100 scale as the primary ones; they're just used whenever a task should really depend on two attributes instead of just one. Health and Defense set up your basic combat abilities. Again, I kind of dislike some of the abbreviations. Health is "HTH", Reflex is "RFX" and Persuasion is "PER", which I tend to associate with Perception, but this is a minor matter and I'm sure I'd quickly get used to it after a session or two.
Next you get some "Traits", which are basically just like primary attributes except that you get a separate pool of points to boost them. They are Creativity, Courage and Sanity and they all basically represent what you'd expect.
After that, you'll pick skills. You get 10 skill points plus your modifiers from Acumen, Reason, Appearance and Perception. I've no idea why Appearance helps you start with more skills, but there you go. There are Primary skills (which anyone can use, even if you have a rating of zero) and Secondary skills (which you have to have at least one rank in or you'll suffer a -50 penalty when attempting it). If you put at least two points into a skill, you can choose a specialization that gives you an extra +5 when appropriate.
In the basic system, every rank in a skill gives you +5 when using it. In fact, in the basic system, even your attributes all have to be multiples of 5 to make the math easier. In the most advanced system, other numbers are allowed and skills aren't always +5. For this version, each point that you put into a skill adds an open-ended d6 to its previous value. So putting one point into the Dodge skill could add just +1... or it could add +5, +9 or any value at all, really. Since the d6 roll is open-ended, one player could get an enormous boost from one point, and someone else could get next to nothing. I probably wouldn't use this option myself, but it's offered if you want it. Most of the examples in the game assume that everything will be in multiples of 5 (the simple system) rather than the more random ones.
The skill section has a good list of example skills with descriptions and possible specializations listed. Some of the divisions feel a little odd to me (there are separate skills for small and large boats, but only one skill for using computers) but all in all it looks like a nice assortment.
There's one last stat after all that: your Mana rating. This is determined primarily by the type of dreamwalker that you choose to play; more about that later.
The system is fairly simple. To perform a basic task, you'll figure out which attribute it uses, add the bonus for whatever skill it uses, apply any modifiers, and try to roll the resulting number or less with percentile dice. A result of 01 always succeeds and a result of 00 always fails. Pretty basic. In fact, it would be pretty simple to convert the simple system over to using a d20 instead, if you wanted.
For a resisted roll, both people involved roll their stat+skill and see who makes it by the most points. There are several optional methods of resolving resisted tests offered as well (such as everyone rolls and whoever rolled lowest and succeeded won), so you can pick the way of handling it that best fits your GMing style.
Succeeding in a task by more than 50 points gets you an "Outstanding Success" and means that you succeeded really well. Conversely, failing by 50 or more (usually only possible if you're being hit with penalties) indicates a "Blunder" and bad things happen.
The task section offers several pages of typical tasks, each with a paragraph explaining how to resolve it during play. They even list some potential modifiers, though not with exact values. So tracking someone is modified by the weather conditions and how long ago they passed that way, but it's up to the GM to decide exactly how big of a penalty is incurred.
Dreamwalker actually has a surprisingly detailed combat system for this sort of game. Probably a good thing, though, considering that almost every adventure is expected to end with a battle against a Taenid Queen. A resisted Reflex + Reaction roll is used to see who goes first. If you want to take multiple actions, you'll first act on whatever your initiative (how much you made your roll by) was, then get to act again every 10 segments later. So if you made your initiative roll by 40, you could (at most) act on 40, 30, 20, 10, and 0. But each successive action after the first would be at a cumulative -15 penalty, so unless you were really good at whatever you were doing, you probably wouldn't want to act too many times. If you failed your initiative roll, you only get to act on zero.
I can see where this might be troublingly random. I rolled well so I get 7 actions this turn; you only get 1, and it's after all of mine. Still, those cumulative penalties should prevent most folks from trying more than 2-3 actions per turn in a real combat.
To hit someone, you'll roll Dexterity + Weapon skill and try to succeed by more points than your opponent's Defense stat. If you succeed, you hit, otherwise you miss. Damage is generally done in multiple d6s, and they're all open-ended, so even the wimpiest weapon could theoretically kill someone outright. This open-ending mechanic is actually used to simulate particularly dangerous attacks. While most things only open-end on a roll of 6 (if you roll a 6 you get to add another d6 to the result and keep rolling), some special attacks increase the reroll range. For example, if I shoot someone with a single bullet from a TEC9 handgun, I'll inflict 2d6 damage and every time that I roll a 6 I'll get to add another d6. If I switch to burst-fire mode, I still do the same basic damage of 2d6, but now I get to add another d6 whenever I roll a 5 or a 6. Opening up on someone in full-auto makes it harder to hit them, but if I do hit I'll get to add another d6 every time that I roll a 4, 5 or 6. This means that full auto will usually do a lot more damage, but it's never certain.
Anyway, there are a lot of little details to the combat system, such as the fact that "Unreal" foes (meaning that they are just characters in the dream who aren't directly controlled by a Larvae) don't get to apply their Defense attribute against dreamwalkers (representing the fact that they're comparatively ephemeral). It's got rules for grappling, called shots, explosions, attempting to knock a foe unconscious, etc. All in all, it's surprisingly detailed.
Armor is a big problem for me, though. The armor system sounds... well... stupid. Let me summarize: All armor is assumed to provide 1d6 protection and reduce the wearer's DEX by 5 per "level". "Level" is an odd name for it, because the "levels" are shield, helmet, vest, arm and leg armor. So someone who is completely covered is at -25 to DEX rolls but gets to subtract 5d6 damage from all attacks. However, to simulate your armor being damaged, every time that any damage gets through, you lose one "level", randomly. So it sounds like wearing just one level of armor (e.g.- just an armored vest) is pretty iffy. 1d6 of protection will only stop the weakest of attacks, and as soon as any damage goes through, it'll be ruined. 5d6 of armor could easily stop anything short of high explosives. Still, I'd have to see how well it worked in play to be sure.
Dreamwalker uses the same combat system for both the real world and inside dreams, so unless a dream changes something specifically it can be assumed to work the same way as it does when the PCs are awake.
Dreamwalkers, Mana and Talents
The main thing that dreamwalkers have going for them is their ability to use Mana during the dream. The type of dreamwalker determines how much Mana you start with.
Mana doesn't require any particular skill to use. Instead, the limit is that you can't spend more than 10% of your mana per turn, and it's difficult to get a recharge during a dreamwalk. Mana can be used to do a lot of different things, such as blasting foes, taking extra actions, acquiring a skill temporarily, healing injury, possessing Unreal folks, turning objects into other objects and creating things out of thin air.
Talents are mana-based abilities that have become such second nature to you that they no longer cost you anything and work automatically. Most of them are special bonuses, like a bonus to your initiative roll, +25 to all Jumping checks, or the ability to automatically make any kind of balance check. A few add strange new powers, such as Chameleon Skin or Spider Climb.
Major Talents are more of the same, but they're harder to acquire and more powerful. They include things like Animal Form (shapechange into any creature), Form of the Earth (lets you turn into an inanimate object) and Raven's Wings (lets you fly in any dream). A particularly interesting one is "Crossing Over", which is only available to Naturals and Mystics. Crossing Over enables you to abandon your physical body and live permanently in the spirit world... as such, it's probably not suitable for a PC unless they're ready to be retired from play.
We also get rules for vehicles and chases, a rather detailed injury and healing section (that even covers oddities like acid burns, suffocation nerve gas, narcotics, hallucinogens and more). Then we get a section on mental injuries, which are basically derangements that a PC could end up with if they fail too many Sanity rolls. Some of these, like Catatonia, would probably take a PC right out of the campaign, while others (like Bulimia) would just make them a little odder.
Megagigaramroms and Stranger Things
About half of the book is devoted to running Dreamwalker. We get a description of a typical chapter house (a dreamwalker facility) and how they work. The fact that they actually enter folk's dreams is kept carefully secret. Most people just think that the clinic is a therapy retreat with a high success rate. Folks will stay at the chapter for weeks, being carefully interviewed and psychoanalyzed before actually undergoing a dreamwalk. We also get a writeup of the Pinebrook Chapter and its staff, making it the example setting for a Dreamwalker campaign.
It discusses the Periphery, the void in which all of the dreams in the world drift. It's not necessarily a safe area to hang around in. In particular, the dreams of the criminally insane are dangerously unstable and can actually suck in dreamwalkers who pass too close to them.
We get stats for typical Taenia and typical generic NPCs such as "Manual Laborer", "Speed Athlete", "Strength Athlete", and various law enforcement personnel as well as a single page giving stats for a handful of typical animals.
There are some very nice sections on creating Dreamwalker adventures. I particularly like the entry on "fluff", which are dreamlike elements inserted into the dreamworld just to remind folks that it's a dream. For example, while a dream might appear to be set in modern day New York, the GM can add fluff (things like "every person in the city is bald" or "the street signs are all gibberish") to add to the atmosphere. The more realistic the dreamworld is, the more mana it takes to manipulate it. A surreal dreamworld is easily changed by a dreamwalker.
We get suggestions for types of denouements, different sorts of locales for the dream to be set in, and advice on incorporating the denouement into it. There are also a lot of plot ideas involving events in the real world. A dreamwalker might end up learning important information from a patient's dreams, such as the identity of a criminal or some piece of forgotten information which even the patient doesn't remember anymore. Not all of the uses of dreamwalking are benign; there is as least one government project (known ominously as "The Clinic") dedicated to investigating the use of dreamwalking in espionage and brainwashing. We even get short mention of a couple of intriguing ideas, such as dreamstalkers (the nickname for dreamwalkers who use their powers to stalk and torment other people) and the mysterious "Sword of Gaia", a secret society of Naturals and Mystics who have been using their dreamwalking powers to protect humanity for centuries.
We even get a section on the mysterious and widely feared Broodkings, the rarest and most terrible kind of Taenia. Broodkings are notable for their ability to actually enter the physical world under certain circumstances, a process that turns the area around them into a kind of dreamlike realm under the Broodking's control. When one gets through to Earth, only dreamwalkers can oppose it. Their ability to use Mana to alter a dream will actually work in the real world so long as they are in the Broodking's dream. But because Broodkings are much more powerful than any other kind of Taenia (and may be a different sort of critter altogether), this is a job for a lot of dreamwalkers and it may well get most of them killed.
Do you hate gamebooks that don't have an example adventure? Or if they do, it's a crappy one that you wouldn't want to run? Well, Dreamwalker has a very impressive set of example adventures. Not only do we get a writeup of the Pinebrook Chapter and the folks who work there, we get no less than 4 example patients, each with their own dream adventure already written up. "Hard Rain" is probably the best, but I also really liked "The Dogshank Redemption", which showcases Dreamwalker's ability to support the absurd by having all of the PCs start as dogs trapped in a dog pound. "Winning is Everything" and "Snakes and Steel" are also good, although "Snakes and Steel" looks a bit combat-heavy for my taste. You'll want to run through these in order, since they start out with the basics and work up to more advanced adventures that will require creative use of Mana to solve them. The presence of four example adventures is nice and really shows you how to make your own.
At the back of the book, we get a few pages of handy charts that you could photocopy or cut out. These reproduce practically every table in the game, with enough additional info to make it unlikely that you'll have to refer back to the original chapter. Very useful.
Then we get an index (always a plus in my book) and blank character sheets. We also get a Psychological Evaluation Sheet, which represents the basic info that the dreamwalkers will get about the patient before they actually enter his or her dreams. This is nicely done and has a lot of details that you might not think to include, such as a description of their childhood and a list of whatever medications they might be on.
My copy of Dreamwalker is a softbound game book with a black and white interior. The art is so-so... even the best pieces aren't that impressive, but there weren't any pics that I actively disliked. The layout is unimpressive, but it does have one nice touch I liked: the left and right margins have the title of the current chapter in a huge font so that it's easy to flip through and find a particular section. There were surprisingly few typos; a lot of games that I've reviewed lately have had just horrible editing, so this was a refreshing change.
Overall, Dreamwalker is a visually unimpressive product that actually has a lot of good ideas in it. The system doesn't really do anything revolutionary, but it could easily be replaced with your favorite resolution system if you don't like it. The really juicy bits are in the GM section. If you've been looking for a game that is suitable for both a long campaign and a series of wildly different one-shots at the same time, Dreamwalker is a really good candidate.
The hardcopy version is priced at $24.95, but Amazon offers it for $17.47. And if you really want to scrimp on the cash, you can go to their site at DreamwalkerRPG.home.att.net and order a PDF copy for $6.25.
I give it a 3 for Style (unimpressive but functional) but a 5 for Substance (a lot of really good ideas and a setting carefully designed to support them).