A game where people walk in dreams? Maybe it's a setting where the mythic crosses with the waking realm, like the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime or Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Or maybe it's like Lovecraft's creepy esoteric dreamscape.
In a nutshell, it's a game about psychoanalysis. Your characters are shrinks. But instead of getting your patients to tell you their dreams and then interpreting what that umbrella really meant, you go into their dreams and fuck with them directly. And kill the monsters that get in your way. And take their stuff. The monsters' stuff that is, not the patients. Although seeing how the patients are asleep at the time, you could probably take their stuff too if you were so inclined. You there, pass the Mountain Dew.
A couple of years ago, I saw a post in The Art of Game Design forum by a guy called Peter Spahn. Pete was looking for interesting ways of depicting dreams from the perspective of an interloper. I suggested that the dreams could all be like bubbles floating in a void, and that inside the dream only the stuff that the dreamer can actually see gets created properly, so trees and things are hollow on the far side from the dreamer.
The author didn't use my suggestions for this game. Can you guess what rating I'm going to give it?
I got my copy of Dreamwalker
as a PDF. It's also available in print. It's a 150 page document, quite a hefty size when printed out. I did wonder at how many copies I would be entitled to print, and whether I'm allowed to print parts of the book for each player. The copyright on the credit page of the PDF probably needs to give some clues here, or I may succumb to the temptation to paper my walls with charcoal drawings of vaguely sinister amorphous shadow creatures drawn with a rather average grasp of perspective.
Speaking of the artwork, the cover is basic, just text and a few jumbled symbols. Interior illustration varies greatly. Some are rather childish cartoons. A couple of these basic drawings have a cool concept (e.g. a picture of a bear answering a cell phone) but on the whole the book would be better without them. There is also a lot of dark atmospheric artwork that I found reminiscent of White Wolf interiors. This stuff is good, although the artist needs to work on drawing people and perspective. Layout is a simple two-column affair, basic but clear. Overall the appearance is better than average for a first-edition home-grown game, but below par compared to the big gun games. The naked lady on page 23 reminds me of my ex, and I found both the nudity and the reminder somewhat unnecessary. But I guess complaining about nudity in a game about dreams is a little na´ve.
You're government shrinks who go into peoples' dreams and clear out infestations of creepy psychic parasites. Some of you use a special drug to do it, others have more natural means.
Reality in the dream world is... flexible. It's like the Matrix. Your characters know it's not real, and that knowledge grants them various abilities. Like creating stuff, or possessing dream-people, or even flying about if they're skilled. Those abilities are pretty handy because not only do you have to kill oodles of shape-shifting bugs called Taeniid, but you've got to make little Timmy feel better about his dog getting run over, all the while knowing that little Timmy is actually a 59-year-old transvestite with a collar fetish, who only looks like a little boy in the dream because he wants to regain his lost innocence.
Don't get me wrong, I play-tested Dreamwalker with a scenario straight out of the book and my group had a blast. They even enjoyed the psycho-analysis angle, where you have to guide the dreamer to a kind of dream epiphany, all the while fighting back the monsters that are pretending to be the dreamer's friends and interfering with their "denouement". But I am left to wonder whether the gaming public at large will go for a game where the goal of nearly every session is to help someone achieve some kind of psychic orgasm and then hunt down the bugs that were giving them psychic impotence. The game could benefit from being more open to other styles of play.
You really can steal the monsters' stuff, too. They have hoards of "mana", which you use to fuel your dream abilities, hidden away in the deep recesses of the dream. I suppose if push came to shove, you could play a game of trashing monster's lairs, taking their mana, and using it to power your abilities so that you could kill even bigger monsters and getting more mana. If you were so inclined.
Dreamwalker goes into great detail on the setting. This includes details of the Dreamworld, the history of dreamwalking, the Taeniid, an example home-base for your character's investigators, and lashings of really great scenarios at the end. It's well written and enjoyable, even the short fiction in the introduction is great fun. Reading through the scenarios at the end suddenly made me realise how much I missed rulebooks with cool adventures in them. The scenarios presented give you a feel for the way the game is intended to be played far better than background can. Even if you want to play it differently, it's nice to see at least one way that can work.
The setting is pretty nifty. A game about dreams has potential to be incredibly vague, but Dreamwalker nails you down to definite objectives in a clear setting. For most players, I think that's a bonus. For fans of Over the Edge and Philip K Dick, you can shuck off the constraints and create a wacky dissociative gaming experience out of Dreamwalker. Apart from giving it a new system, that's the thing I'd most like to do with it.
I didn't like the system. It seems undercooked to me. You're rolling percentile dice, and taking away big number from other big numbers, and adding lots of modifiers, and figuring out the difference, and by the time you finish a combat round it's Christmas and time to eat turkey with the rellies.
The game is about dreams, so you might think a light, atmospheric system would provide ambiance. But the system plays like Rolemaster without the charts but with that same little man banging on your head with a slide ruler and saying you should have paid more attention in maths class.
I did a solo playtest before I launched it on my players. First I created a combat-oriented investigator. Character creation was not too bad, although it did present three slightly different ways of making my character's stats (huh?) and I found it overly restrictive. It's got a kind of class system based on how your character enters dreams, but that mostly just determines how much Mana you get (in a rather imbalanced way where a character type that can only be described as Malkavian-like gets orders of magnitude more power than anyone else because they're drug-addled... go figure). Starting characters all get about the same dream abilities, which seems like a lost opportunity to really differentiate characters in a party. The advanced dream abilities are prohibitively expensive to buy through advancement, compounding the issue.
Next I put it my newly minted character up against a Taeniid drone, basically the least challenging thing you're likely to encounter. I wrote the results of the solo playtest down as I went. The first round was over a thousand words. Below are some samples from that never-ending round. My test character was called "Halo", short for "Hee lu dun". He was Shaolin monk who enters dreams through meditation, pretty much par for the course for Dreamwalker.
Each combatant rolls for initiative, using a resisted roll of Reflex + Reaction. Halo's Reflex is 70, and he doesn't have any Reaction skill. He rolls a 47. 70 - 47 = 23, so he'll act in the 23rd Segment. The Drone's Reflex is 70 (same for all attributes), and it gets +15 for having three ranks in the Reaction skill. It rolls 4, and 85 - 4 = 81, so it will act in the 81st segment. The roll of 4 is also more than 50 less than its target of 85, which makes it an Outstanding Success. That means it can have a second attack with no penalty
Hmm... numbers. Would anyone like some more numbers with their turkey?
Segment 23: Halo attacks with a kick. He uses Dexterity (80) + Martial Arts (15) + Kicking (5). The other modifiers are the size difference (+5) and the Drone's Defence attribute (-35). Halo needs a 70 to hit. This is pretty good odds and it would be worth trying a Called Shot (at -25) for extra effect, but then I read the rules again and find that you can't do a Called Shot if you've been parrying in the same round. Halo rolls a 46. I look up the damage rating for a kick. 1d3 damage. This could be a long combat. I search the rules for damage modifiers, figuring that Strength must come into play here. I look for "Damage" in the index. Nope. "Combat, Damage"? Nope. Flicking through the rules again, I find the rule I want under "Resolving the skill roll" in the combat section. Apparently you add your skill rating to the damage. I've got a rating of 3 in Martial Arts. I figure my specialisation in Kicking must be good for another +1. So that gives me 1d3 + 4 damage for my kick. Even given the open-ended dice rules, that doesn't seem like a lot of damage.
It would have taken my all day to kick this damn drone to death. Anyway, sometime in the second round the drone got in a lucky hit in a put Halo out of my misery. That was maybe an hour after I started the combat. It took a lot of rules flicking. And I'd read the book twice first! Even now, I have a nagging feeling I probably missed something.
When I playtested the game with my group, I greatly simplified the round system, dumping the segments and replacing it with something like "if you crit your initiative you get 2 attacks in the round, if you fumble your initiative you don't get a go that round". It still ran like a dog, but more like a Jack Russel than a French Poodle this time. My players had fun though. We played a scenario from the book called "Hard Rain", where the dreamer is trying to save his suburban home from the rising tide of a flood. It had a great atmosphere, and I used my own abiding fear of things that dwell in deep murky water to freak the players out. They really enjoyed the freedom of the setting, the ability to create any item out of thin air (with their mana limit, of course), and fighting against the pervasive Taeniid without upsetting the dreamer (because that would wake him and end the dream). The combats dragged on, the night got too late, and in the end they got eaten by sharks. Along the way my players proved how wrong I was to question all the military hardware stats in a game about dreams. Without even having seen the rules, they knew that the "ability to make anything" was secret geek code talk for the "ability to make any gun".
System: EJECT! EJECT! This could be a great free-wheeling cinematic game of dreamworld superpowers, as depicted in the game fiction at the start. But the system attached totally cripples it for that objective. It needs something super fast and flexible, in which you can model practically any ability. Tri-Stat would do a nice job. A previous reviewer suggested D20, and that's fine in terms of speed of play but you'd have to make feats or spells or something to model every imaginable type of dream ability, and I think to do it well that means every ability under the sun. Why not use a system that lets players make up their own abilities, using a well balanced point cost system?
This is a nifty setting, and the game book supports the GM well. The in-dream psycho-analysis is practically a genre on its own (a bit like the police procedural, it can be tacked on to any setting), and while it provides straightforward objectives it can be decoupled from the setting if it's not your cup of tea. The setting could be improved in my opinion by being less prescriptive: allowing players to think up their own ways of dream walking and their own dream abilities, and opening up the dream adventure genre beyond the Freudian gig.
With decent mechanics and nicer production this could have rated 5/5. It's well worth a read and a play.
Oooh... stop press. This review is running rather late (like, about a year late), so I've been out of touch with what Dreamwalker is up to. I've just checked the website at http://DreamwalkerRPG.home.att.net to find out the current price and discovered that they've just published a diceless version, and a d20 version! Good luck with that Pete, and I hope you've proved me wrong! Give me another year, and I might manage a review of the d20 version. ;)