Game: Dreamwalker: Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams
Review Dated: 6th, July 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams. It already sounds interesting. I’ve Dreamwalked before, my introduction to this game was via the Active Exploits Diceless version published through Politically Incorrect Games. This is a review of the PDF original. There’s a paperback version too and talk of a d20 Modern edition in production. If it takes a d20 conversion of the game to ensure it gets the success it deserves – then so be it. I loved the diceless version but gaming without spinning plastic polyhedrals isn’t for everyone. This Dreamwalker is a 152 pages long, that’s significantly more pages than the 78 of the Active Exploit edition. The page count comparison is slightly misleading though; the original Dreamwalker comes complete with fully explained game mechanics. Active Exploits has them separate.
Depressed? Unfulfilled? The alien Taenia Spiritus might be to blame. They attack you when you’re at your most vulnerable – when you’re asleep. The Queen will lay her eggs in your dreams. The hatched larvae and adult drones will do their best to subvert that dream and every dream thereafter. Dreamwalker is one of those games that feels the need to remind us that it is only a game. There are no Taenia – as far as they know. Dreamwalker isn’t an essay on the nature of dreams either, although it certainly explains the biology of REM sleep and muses over popular dream theory and research.
Project Dreamwalker is the American organisation that battles against the Taenia. Project Dreamwalker has the Black25 drug that wakens the Dreamwalking talent in people and the GRE-13 drug that suppresses the talent in people who dreamwalk naturally. The Project is aware and has encountered organised dreamwalking by Japanese, British and Egyptian groups. As a GM you could easily take the game into the realms of shady Government agencies and powerful corporate backed groups.
The sheer scope of Dreamwalker is incredible. The RPG claims to be cross-genre and it is. At the start we read that it was created because the authors were fed up of playing the same setting each night or having to change rules if they wanted something different. Dreams are the perfect response to that. Dreams are completely malleable. In a campaign of only three scenarios the heroes could battle orcs, help capture the Nazi spy and defeat the AI of anti-hacker software on the cyberspace. These three different dreams are all tied together by what ever adventures there to be had in the waking world.
There are different types of dreamwalkers. This offers an easy handle on your character and that all important root to escapism. These (let’s not call them classes) are a good counter to claims that RPGs with only the “human race” and which down play careers lack definition. The Natural is someone who can dreamwalk, er, naturally, they can potentially master an unlimited amount of talents but have the lowest amount of mana. The Mystic is typically a religious dream walker who’s able to chant or mediate their way into the dream lands. If Dreamwalker was trying to balance talents against mana then the Mystic breaks the mould, they enjoy the second highest amount of mana and the second highest potential amount of talents. It seems unlikely that this is a typo because the Analyst, who has had their dreamwalking fuelled by Black25, suffers with the second lowest man and potential talents. The User, someone lost to hallucinogenic drugs, falls back onto the predicted scale of things and enjoys the most mana but suffers from being only able to master a few talents. I’m not too hung up on whether the game mechanics balance out. It’s easy to toss a whack of roleplaying restrictions at the Mystic if you’re concerned. I love the controversy of the User. The Dreamwalker Project is supposed to be the good guys; they’re fighting for humanity… but is it right of them to target hopeless addicts, supply them drugs and use them until they finally burn out. Would you want an addict with you when you’re on a dangerous mission against an alien insect queen?
What’s mana? Mana’s the magic like abilities that Dreamwalker can manifest in a dream. It’s a great way to deal with all that weird stuff that can go on in a dream. Actually, Dreamwalker does more than just “deal” with it, it captures it and makes it a quintessential part of the game. There no long spell list in the game, instead there’s a fairly long list of generic effects that mana use might achieve and the suggested game mechanics to deal with them.
Manipulating the dream is tricky. There are inherent setting limitations to just how much a dreamwalker can get away with magic like effects. It’s the same reason why running battles with the Taenia, guns blazing, swords clashing or have fireballs flying isn’t advisable either. If the dreamer wakes up then the mission is over. The risk that the dreamer might wake up is ever present; it’s there to keep the Taenia hunting missions from being more than just a hack’n’slash since players will have to think things through. It also doubles as a handy panic switch for the GM.
Missions in the Dreams Lands will almost inevitably involve hunting down the Taenia. There will be a Queen, she’ll be laying eggs and she needs to be defeated. The drones and the larvae infested “Unreal” will try and protect her. The risk in this set up is obvious; the dungeon crawl. It’ll be a disguised dungeon crawl but still the dread dungeon crawl. Thankfully there’s a bit more to the mission than just the show down. The dreamwalkers must help the dreamer achieve the goal – the fulfilment – of the dream. This will wash the dreamer with euphoria, a rosy glow of accomplishment that will provide some distraction to the battles between the dreamwalkers and Taenia. In fact, achieving the dream is the only way to have any real chance of successfully battling the Taenia Queen – and the Taenia know this. They’ll do everything they can to keep the dreamer unfulfilled. It’s this lack of success that creeps into the infected dreamer’s waking world and sends them on a spiral of depression. The resolution of the denouement, as it’s known, is the non-combat side of the mission. In the introductory story it has the dreamwalkers help the dreamer, dreaming of his childhood, purchase tickets for the Big Wheel ride and pluck up the courage to go on it. The denouement reduces the risk of the dungeon crawl but doesn’t eliminate it. I can see long Dreamwalker campaigns by gaming groups who’re not particularly inspired by combat evolving to a point where there’s very little focus on the dream walking missions and more on social play and intrigue of the waking world. It’s great that the game gives you that option and copes with it well.
There’s more to the Dream Lands than just random dreams. There’s a whole dreamscape geography that holds it together. The Periphery is the surreal spiritual sea that runs between the billions of dream worlds, although “between” isn’t quite the right word for a realm with no notion of distance. Between the Periphery and each dream is a Barrier that must be breached before any dream can be entered. Below a dreams world the dreamwalkers will find the Underpsyche. The Underpsyche is a dream waiting to be, it’s devoid of dream people (known as the Unreal) but rich in mana and it’s from here that dreamwalkers must replenish their own. The Underpsyche is also an easy target for the Taenia and is often rife with them.
There are three possible character generation systems. One’s easy. One’s a little more complex and one’s labelled as advanced. In truth, they’re all easy, but the first one is ideal for absolute newbies. Dreamwalker isn’t a character sheet heavy system. There’s a small set of core attributes, a set of spawned secondary attributes and then a skill list. Task resolution is easy. Players are looking to roll below their combined attribute and skill score on a d100. There’s plenty of support in the RPG for those situations, like combat, where the dice will be rolled. The combat system is quick and efficient; the target’s Defence Attribute is subtracted from the aggressors Base Chance. We’ve rules for fighting against the Unreal (those dream people) and even against inanimate objects. With additional rules for taking aim, dodging, napalm, and advanced melee techniques the game can be as tactical as you want it to be. Dreamwalker could quite easily get away with not providing any rules for vehicles but we have support for chases, crashes and vehicular combat too.
All sorts of genuinely useful tips for running a Dreamwalker scenario big at about page 90. The official “Game Master Tips” kick off about 10 pages later. This section is a mixture of basic advice, there to help newbies (and fairly important since someone could pick up the paperback Dreamwalker in a shop and discover rpgs for the first time) and more advanced techniques. These advanced techniques specifically relate to the challenges of running a serious of dream adventures and to benefits this unique setting can provide.
There’s still about a third of the product to go, though. Dreamwalker uses the rest of this space to provide a collection of pre-written missions. I tend to accept one pre-written adventure at the back of a set of core rules. It’s good for the newbies. It’s there is by some chance the GM is in a hurry and the players haven’t read it. I’m rarely engaged by such offers and could easily do with out them. I could easily do without the missions at the back of Dreamwalker but the fact that they’re there doesn’t detract from the game one whit. It’s not a waste of space. It’s extra space. The rpg has already provided everything I’d want from it and so if there’s room for pre-written missions, which might very please some readers, then there’s room for them.
Dreamwalker’s a solid roleplaying game. Although missions against the Taenia may start to become repetitive at times there’s more than enough scope in the game to offset that. Dreamwalker is successfully cross-genre and that’s a major attraction. Dreamwalker is one of those rare games that appeal to gamers of all levels of experience and does a great job at appealing to gamers with widely different tastes.