5 Tips On Using Dreams In An Adventure

From Jonathan Hicks

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0154

A Brief Word From Johnn

Happy Holidays – Next Issue January 5th

I’m taking a bit of a break over the holidays and Issue #155 will hit your Inbox January 5th. Have a great holiday season and have more fun at every game!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

5 Tips On Using Dreams In An Adventure

There are many great stories that talk of the destinies or paths of the heroes, and these paths are sometimes described in a manner that every person can relate to in one way or another ? dreams and nightmares.

How many times have you woken from a dream so vivid that you felt as though you are still within it? How many times has a nightmare moved you to an emotional response?

It is said that dreams are an indication of the thoughts and feelings of the individual (there are plenty of books on how to interpret dreams in circulation) that are given form in the subconscious. There is also a supernatural quality to dreams and nightmares that has been addressed in many writings as views of possible futures – and this is what makes them great as a role-playing tool.

Although I will use the term ‘dream’ throughout the text, it also refers to nightmares, which are a stronger, more violent version of a vivid dream. The one you use will depend on the game you’re running, but basically they have the same effect.

Dreams As A Plot Device

What has been, what is, and what is yet to come. These are the three strongest indications of the past and possibility a dream might deliver to enhance the dreamer’s situation and possible future. By splitting the dreams into these three areas you can decide how they will fit into your story.

What Has Been

The character dreams of things that have happened to him/her in the past. These might be just situations and encounters the character has had and can be used as a reminder to the players of what has come before.

It can be more entertaining to remind players of past plots instead of simply sitting down and explaining the story up to that point, and it’s also handy for trying to inform the PCs of an important item or plot point they have missed or disregarded during play.

Dreams can also be useful when a character dreams of things that have happened to other people or places he/she might never have seen or visited. Wouldn’t it be spooky if you dreamt of a man you had never seen before who leans towards you and says ‘I love you, son’? This creates a mystery that might be unraveled as the plot unfolds.

Perhaps the PCs are chasing someone they believe to be a threat and yet the dreams are trying to tell one of the PCs that they are chasing the wrong person and that what they see in their sleep is what actually happened. Remember, we face the future by learning the lessons of the past.

What Is

This is the least used of the dreams as it is simply an indication of what the character is going through at the current time. What it might be used for though, is to indicate whom the PC can trust or to provide a hint as to the true nature of other personalities, PC or NPC.

This does not necessarily mean that the character who appears in the dream will change their ways immediately ? wait a few games down the line for when the dream has been pushed to the back of the mind and the character shows their true colours. Remember, we have the ability to change the now to improve the future.

What Is Yet To Come

This is the most widely used yet tricky type of dream to use in a game. You don’t want to show too much of what is to come and give the PCs lots of avenues of success, and you don’t want to ruin any surprises that are coming.

To combat this, keep the images cryptic and have dreams be more of a series of symbols. For example, a symbol of a threat to the PC’s face, perhaps a clawed hand reaching from darkness or the trademark great Flaming Eye, might be an indication that the enemy is closing in. A symbol of a tearful Elven maiden standing in the charred smoking ruins of a wood might be an indication that something terrible is about to happen to the Elven Kingdoms.

A great way to alarm dreaming players is by having a known major NPCs shown in great danger or laid out dead. Use this not to indicate what is going to happen to the NPC personally, but as a symbol of great peril to come.

For example, a dream of the PCs’ King might show him being crushed to death in the icy grip of a huge gauntlet ? this might not mean that the King himself is in danger, but the Kingdom as a whole. As the dreams continue the larger picture slowly start to emerge, so the players, having thought that just their friend’s life was at stake, start to realize there’s a greater peril.

Also, the dreams could show the PC’s future if they fail ? the enemy crushing their armies, enslaving their people, destroying their lands. This acts as a plot device as it makes sure the players see what it is they are fighting to stop and gives them impetus to stop it. Remember, the future is always in motion and is subject to change, for better or worse.

The question that will be asked at some point is this ? why are the dreams coming to the PCs? What is making them have these dreams which have such a diverse affect on their futures? This can be answered whichever way you choose, but the main plot points can be:

A powerful ally could be sending the dreams, not able to get directly involved but surreptitiously trying to influence the direction the PCs take.

  • A powerful enemy is trying to mislead the PCs by sending them information that is detrimental to their success.
  • One or all of the PCs have a destiny to fulfil and the dreams are fate’s way of guiding them.
  • A natural/racial gift is possessed by a PC that enables them to have these dreams.
  • An item one of the PC’s possesses enables the PC or the whole group to have the dreams.
  • The Gods are deciding to interfere in the fate of mortals.
  • (My personal favourite) The PC having the dreams is simply a bit of a nutter and it takes three games of running around for the group to realize his dreams don’t actually mean anything.
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Dreams As An Atmosphere Enhancer

The supernatural quality of dreams might help the plot by giving it that sense of otherworldliness, a vision of a reality that everyone sees because our dreams are of the same construction, a bundle of images and noises that do not wholly connect but have an impact on our thoughts and feelings.

All the players at the table might have their own idea of what the game world is like and how it is represented in visual terms, but the inconsistency of the content of dreams makes it palatable to everyone. It’s not necessary to go into minute detail as far as the dream is concerned. Just give enough to give the player the images they need.

Most images we see when sleeping flash by and only the more vivid ones leave a lasting impression, like a snapshot of a moment in time. This should be the way with the dreams you describe ? quickly say what they see and then move on. If they miss it, well, they can always dream about it the next game-time night. If you want to go into detail then by all means do so, but remember that you run the risk of giving away too much.

Unless the PC can go into a lucid dream or have control over their interaction with dreams, then it’s best to keep them as observers and nothing else. This not only works as far as trying to show the impact of a vivid dream, but also enhances the fantasy atmosphere these kinds of dreams help create.

Dreams As Road Signs

Dreams are a great way of getting the players on track, or even back on track. Let’s say that they’ve been hunting the Pearl of Wisdom for a couple of games but they have hit a dead end ? they’ve missed or forgotten about a vital piece of information. However, just reminding them GM-to-player or through an NPC seems a little contrived.Instead, a PC could dream of a great fiery mountain surrounded by water guarded by the hordes of darkness.

This image means very little at the time of the dream, but as the plot continues hints are dropped to the existence of such a place and the players realize that this is where they must go. It’s not a good idea to have a blatant dream where a gnome with a road map jumps out and says ‘go this way, the pearl is in a big volcano’ as this is just telling the players what to do next with no realization or deduction on their part.Dreams are handy as reminders of forgotten facts or items in a roundabout kind of way.

Don’t get me wrong ? thinking that the players are having a problem and having them dream their way out of it every time is not a good idea as this cheapens the effects of dreams and their meaning. See Tip 5 ? Dreams at the Gaming Table for more information on this.

Dream Team

The question is ? who has the dreams? It might be a character trait that one of your players has and this is the PC the dreams are channelled through, for better or for worse. This means singling out one player and giving them the information. This might take the form of notes or direct telling. Notes are a good idea as you can prepare them ahead of time and hand them to the player and let them read it.

If you want the dream to be more realistic you could take the note from the player after a certain time and they will have to remember what they can ? this reflects the fact that dreams fade with time. Other than that, you can take them from the room, sit them down and tell them what they dream. What they then choose to communicate to the other players (what they remember, that is) is up to them.Group dreams are a little more complicated but do add an extra dimension to the game.

If all the PCs have the same dream then there’s definitely something weird going on! Group dreams also help because each player will remember different things. You might even want each player to have a different dream which, when combined with the other dreams of the other PCs, makes more sense. This is hard work though, and might lead to misconceptions and then errors in judgment. It’s usually a lot simpler to give them all have the same dream and then let them decide on its meaning from there.

Group dreams can make for some long, interesting discussions as interpretations differ.

Dreams at the Gaming Table

Here are some hints on the actual use of dreams and nightmares in a game.

  1. Don’t make it a regular feature – a dream every night or even every game can be overkill and it reduces the importance of such dreams. It might get to the point where the PCs roll their eyes and mutter ‘oh, great, here we go again’. Make it a special moment that heightens the drama and creates another dimension for the players to deal with.
  2. When explaining a dream to a player, don’t just reel it off and then get on with the game. Get them to sit and relax, close their eyes and place their hands on their laps. Then explain in a soft calm voice what it is they are seeing. If it’s a nightmare, slowly raise your voice and keep it menacing.
  3. If you pass a note to a player that tells them what they are dreaming, make sure that the text is kept to a minimum. All you want is imagery and symbols. A long, flowing, descriptive narrative will distract the player from what it is you want them to remember.
  4. Make sure the players are comfortable with the genre you are playing in before introducing the concept of dreams. Dream interpretation is sometimes a serious subject and you don’t want to confuse anyone.
  5. Make notes on what it is you want to say, how it will affect the plot and then stick to it. You don’t want to give away too much information and hand the story to the players on a plate.
  6. Use dreams as a plot device and not an escape route. If there’s a problem with the forward momentum and the players are a little stuck, don’t just have one of them dream up the answer to their problems. This cheapens the effect of dreams and characters with some kind of skill in the area might use it to solve situations off-hand. Always remember that dreams are supposed to be special. Having them like they were going out of fashion with each one helping the PCs out of a mess will ruin the impact.


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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Using Poker Chips With Figs

From Jared Hunt

After being a D&D 3e DM for the last few years I have found that one of the more difficult parts of the system is tracking the various effects that can be operating on both PCs and NPCs during combat. This is especially true when you are dealing with models on a combat grid.DM: OK, you’ve confirmed the crit and *sob* down goes the evil wizard on the third round of combat.Players: <happy dance> Yaaaay!!! After 6 months of toil we’ve finally managed to defeat the Tyrant of the Wastes! Songs will be sung and tales told for eons…

DM: Stop! Wait! I forgot, he’s got a displacement spell cast, roll your miss chance.

Players: </happy dance> *rolls dice*

DM: OK, that’s a miss, he starts casting a spell.

Players: Grumble, grumble.

One cheap and easy way I’ve found to visibly track things like flying, invisibility, spell effects, etc. on the game board is to use poker chip colours to represent different states and place models on top of the chips as reminders. We use blue chips for flying characters, white chips for invisible, red for other spell effects, and so on.

I found a set of poker chips in four colours (52 pcs.) for $1 Canadian at my local dollar store. Many chips are around 1 inch in diameter so they don’t interfere with the grid at all. Cheap, simple, and it saves a lot of confusion.

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(PBeM) Use MS Excel To Draw Maps

From Calinda Lucas

To draw maps using Excel, set the column width and row height to the same number so that you have squares. Decide on your scale (i.e. each square is 5 feet for use as a battlemat). Use a different letter for each character (usually the first letter of their PC’s name) and letters for the enemies, placing them in the square you want them in. (For instance O1 and O2 for Ogres 1 and 2.)

Send the map to the player when it is their initiative and they indicate where they want to move by drawing an arrow from where their char is to where they want to be at the end of their move and placing their letter on the new spot.To draw terrain, color in green for trees, different colors for different elevations, etc.For spells, have the players fill in shading where they want their spell to go if it’s an area effect. If it targets a combatant, then they just say which one they are targeting…no need to draw that.

They send the map back to you as an attachment, indicating what they want to do on their initiative. You narrate what happens on the other people’s initiative, moving the letters around the map in accordance with that, then send it back to them as an attachment.It works via email. If you’re playing over Yahoo messenger, you also need to use email to send the maps. (Or accept attachment via Yahoo messenger, but that has it’s own set of problems, most of them dealing with firewalls.)

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Those Darn Players

From Neil Faulkner

You’ll need a Yahoo log-in to view the thread–sorry.

“Rule 0: The DM is ALWAYS right, even when he’s wrong. > ALWAYS.”When I’m the GM, this is the first rule I throw away. I don’t even pick it up. GMs are fallible. They don’t necessarily know every rule. They can forget a crucial detail about the game world, even if it’s one of their own devising. Players are totally within their right to point out inconsistencies, oversights and plain mistakes. They can and should bring it to the GM’s attention that he or she might have made a mistake.

Players often act on assumptions – about the rules, about the world, about their own characters – that are not necessarily justified. GMs likewise have their own assumptions, and since they are assumptions on both sides, they are not openly declared and when they start running counter to each other, you get a conflict between player and GM that is unnecessarily personal and prone to escalate without warning.The player might be depending on a rule that the GM might not be aware of, or that s/he might be well aware of but has opted not to use.

In the latter case, it’s really the GM’s responsibility to inform the player that Rule X is not in use, but in the former situation it is perfectly right for the player to argue his/er position.The player might be assuming that all orcs are automatically evil and hence legitimate sword-fodder, whilst the GM might be assuming that the player is aware that such convenient black-and-white divides don’t operate in the game world.

A player might assume that an NPC might not act in a particular way because he is of Good alignment, whilst the GM might consider such behaviour to be perfectly legitimate for a Good character.I once had a character who concocted a reconnaissance plan that entailed swimming across a river. All went well until I got to the river, at which point the GM said nay. “You’re a dwarf – and dwarves can’t swim.” My immediate response was “This one can” and it might have escalated into a nasty and pointless confrontation.

Pointless because neither he nor I were right or wrong as such, just working on different assumptions.(My favourite example is one where the player in a fantasy game, whose character was deep underground and reliant on torch light to see by, had to do something that required using both hands. “What do you do with the torch?” asked the GM. Player’s reply: “I put it in my mouth.” GM: “Okay… take 5 points of burning damage.” Player: “Burning? But I thought it ran on batteries…”)

GMs are no less fallible than players, and players can be delightfully fallible. Maybe I’ve been lucky in that I’ve rarely been in groups where real antagonism existed between the players and GM. Most of us spent some time behind the screen, and so were liable to sympathize with someone else’s cock-ups. There but for the grace etc. But I’ve seen players argue a point ad nauseum even when they’ve been proved wrong, and I’ve seen GMs do exactly the same.

The real problem in both cases is ego, and whilst players on an ego trip can be a confounded nuisance, a GM on an ego trip can be a veritable curse. “Rule 0” doesn’t just send the GM on an ego trip, it hands him the car and the keys to take him there.

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Watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer For Humanizing Villains

From LrdDaemonX

For some really good examples of likeable villains, your readers should check out the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for some of the most likeable bad guys ever put on film. The Mayor, from season 3, is the best of the bunch. This guy goes into the sewers under the city to sacrifice babies to a demon he owes tribute to, and while down there, whips out a Dictaphone and makes a note to himself to have a meeting about proper sewer maintenance. Classic stuff.

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Making Final Battles Climactic

From Jeff Wilder

ReRPT#146 – City Features And Flavors

Hi, Johnn.

Re: Making final battles climatic.

Stage By Combat

You already mentioned the single most important thing, IMO, in creating a good climactic battle: staged challenges. In addition to “staging by task,” of which you gave an example, one can also “stage by combat,” meaning that the PCs must push forward — both through enemies and geography — to force the Big Bad into a confrontation.

This is distinct from the simple matter of multiple battles, because in the “stage by combat” model, there’s no distinction between individual battles… it’s all one fluid ongoing encounter.

And, of course, one can stage both by combat AND task.

A Time Limit

Nothing creates a sense of urgency like Mother intoning, “You have three minutes…to reach minimum…safe… distance.” Give the PCs a real — and tight — time-limit, and I absolutely guarantee their pulses will increase.

This obviously requires fairly good judgment: on the one hand, you have to give the PCs a genuine chance to meet the time limit. On the other hand, if you give too much time, you lose the sense of urgency, which is the whole point.

Fortunately, as GM you have fickle fate on your side …

Time limit too easy? During an earlier battle, the PCs’ armor-piercing rounds must’ve punctured the fusion reactor… steam-venting indicates some unavoidable cataclysmic nastiness within hours.

Time limit too hard? At sea, the fleeing pirate’s ship is caught for a time in an area of little wind, or entangled in a huge patch of kelp, allowing the PCs to make up distance.

A Truly Hated Foe…Or Foes

If the PCs really, truly despise their enemy, it adds extra spice to any showdown in which he’s forced to make a stand. And if each PC has her OWN nemesis, the effect is even more pronounced.

Here’s an example, combining all three of the above techniques, from a climactic encounter in my current campaign. (Warning: SPOILERS for Green Ronin’s Freeport trilogy!)

After weeks of pursuit, persecution, and gnashing of teeth, the PCs finally knew they had until two hours after sundown, on the dot, to stop the evil cultist leader and his slimy henchmen from lighting a lighthouse lamp and projecting madness into the world.

First, they had to make it to the island upon which the lighthouse sat, which they accomplished with relative ease, but with only minutes remaining in which to fight their way up four different levels of the lighthouse — 300 feet — with me saying, every few rounds, “you’ve got about X minutes remaining.”

This was particularly effective, because as the Big Bad retreated up the lighthouse, he left behind minions — minions the PCs knew and hated — fairly well equipped not just to engage the PCs, but to actively delay them. For instance, at one point a sorcerer laid a wall of fire along the square-spiral stairway, lengthwise, effectively blocking that section of the stairway for the duration of the spell. My players, after some consternation, went for their grapples and bypassed that section of the stairway.

Eventually, of course, they reached the dome of the lighthouse and engaged the Big Bad in the battle to save the world.

As I said, this climax became an instant classic in my group. Tensions were high during the entire longish session, and after their hard-won victory the players celebrated with shouts and high-fives.

As always, thanks for the newsletter!