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dream sequences: the least narrativist thing I did

Started by Paul Czege, May 06, 2002, 07:00:29 PM

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Paul Czege


When I ran The Pool last summer, I used a dream sequence on Scott Knipe's character Grazel. And I wasn't happy with it as a Narrativist device. It was railroady. I've been thinking about it lately. I used the dream sequence as a way of delivering information to the players about an NPC who was significant to Grazel. But in retrospect, that instance of plunging a player into a controlled situation designed to expose a specific detail, a situation where they have a chance to participate and follow events to their conclusion, or to reject participation and wake from the dream, was the least Narrativist thing I did.

Should I have just told or hinted him the detail about the NPC somehow, rather than pretending to interactivity, perhaps by just quickly describing a dream he had to the group? Or would it have been preferable to tell him the detail and let him invent and narrate his own dream? It seems like a fairly lame conflict-poor storytime sequence whichever way you go. Should Narrativist-inclined GM's just avoid dream sequences for this particular purpose?

On the flip side, have you ever experienced a truly Narrativist handling of a dream sequence? What was it like? And why might a Narrativist GM use one on a player?

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If I was going to feature dream sequences in a Narrativist game, this is what I would do.

I would have each PC write a set number of dreams their PC has had (five, perhaps) and a big list of elements that tend to pop up in the PC's dreams. This gives you a good idea of what the players think is going on in the PC's subconcious.

Then I would be sure while imparting whatever I thought was important, that elements from the prep work was in the dream sequences. This way, the dreams seem to "belong" to the PCs, but there are still surprises, like a real dream.

Or do "normal" dreams every session, then suddenly the PC has the "important" dream, that totally doesn't jibe with what they normally have. That has more of a story feel to it... It's almost like a bang, or a kicker. "My dreams have changed. Now what do I do?"
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Ron Edwards

Hi Paul,

Just a quick theory-quibble before we get into the questions ...

There may be forms of Narrativist play in which a panoply of "clues" is a valid element of the process. They wouldn't be the kind of "go here and do this" clues that you're referring to, I think, but neither would they be automatically railroady just because they were basically raw information dumped at the players. Such raw information might be part of the mix.

Anyway, that said, I agree with your perception that the "Dream clue" method of GMing is usually a cop-out from the perspective of Narrativist play. I'm referring specifically to the techniques that are common in published Call of Cthulhu scenarios - basically, they amount to the GM giving the player information that permits the scenario to go as planned, under the guise of the "mystic forces of the universe" communicating with the character via dreams.

The solution is entirely dependent on the local details of what sort of Narrativism we're talking about. What's the priority?

If it's shared authorship in terms of Director Stance, then your suggestion about letting the player create the dream might be the way to go.

However, if it's more about Setting-driven Premise, then that technique becomes a gimmick and has nothing to do with the basic railroading; the solution in that case would probably be better handled via straightforward character interactions, or the details within a GM-presented conflict.

And finally, if the priority is highly weighted toward Fortune-in-the-middle, then the solution would be to inject the information following an appropriate failed/succeeded roll, situationally.



I don't know if this is quite what you mean, but the most interactive "dream sequence" I ever had was a GM who went around the room and basically had players (who didn't know what they were doing) pick adjectives and verbs and nouns and such which he then plugged into his Mad Lib style dream.  It was a little corny, but made the dream strange and bizarre like dreams usually are.

I don't know if there is a good interactive way to deliver dreams.  Most of us don't have control over our dreams anyway (actually I have some limited ability to rewind, fast forward and edit some of my dreams).

I guess the big question is what are dreams used for in the type of story you're telling.  I can think of a few.

1) deliver some forshadowing vision
2) deliver some cryptic clue
3) as a flashback sequence
4) to set the mood of the story
5) to display the degree of a characters perversion or insanity.

probably a few others, but it strikes me that the first two perhaps should be railroady.  They are a means to deliver information, so deliver it.  One could deliver the information to the player and let them craft their own dream out of it, this can have the advantage of getting the info from the person who is "inside the characters head", but in the end its still basically just exposition.

The last 3 however I think could be run just as you'd run any other scene in the game.  Running a flashback as an actual game sequence has been around for a good while, embedding the flashback inside a dream just lets you blur the reality factor.

Setting the mood and reflecting a personality trait would be great run exactly as for any other scene (dialing down the reality factor).  Since there is no specific information to be imparted by such a dream players are free to indulge in all manners of flavor without needing to worry about causal relationships.

Lance D. Allen

Valamir makes my primary point, but I'd like to expand upon it a little. If you want to deliver information to a character, there is honestly no way to be un-railroady about it. You can have it come in a letter in the mail, a note taped to their door, whatever.. In any case, the only option they have is to not read the information. With a dream, they have basically the same option.. They can choose not to get the message.
It's not totally railroady because after getting the information, whether it be in a letter or a dream, they get to choose how to respond to it. It's even less so for dreams.. Because the number of people who react directly on odd dreams are fairly few.

As for whether it was a valid narrativist tool, I think you'll have to rely on your own judgements, and the opinions of more experienced narrativists than I. I just think that you shouldn't worry about railroading when delivering information to the characters, so long as they are free to act upon it as they choose upon receiving the information.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls


Hey there,

Being the aforementioned player, I feel inclined to jump into this conversation, even if I have very little to add.

Something that Paul hasn't mentioned is that dreams were a big part of Grazel's story.  One of my most powerful Traits was my "Half-remembered dreams", which I think I allocated two dice to.  On more than occasion I used that Trait as pure Authorial and/or Directorial power, to create "premonitions" or moments of deja vu for Grazel that helped rationalize some otherwise very unusual behavior (most notably, when I decided that he dreamt about the demise of his mercenary company, his fellow soldiers having been delivered into the hands of the enemy through inept leadership, and to prevent this outcome, he slew one of the up-and-coming leaders who until that time had been one of his biggest allies).

I used dreams to deliver a fair amount of content in the game, and it seemed appropriate for Paul to deliver information to Grazel in that same way.  Was it particularly narrativist?  Well no, but did it have to be?  Does every moment in a narrativist game have to be?  I don't think so, so long as the players' opportunity to comment on the premise isn't infringed upon.  

Furthermore, the dream was pretty cool.  It was moody and evocative, giving Paul an opportunity to break from the darker-than-dark waking world our characters occupied, and it placed the spotlight squarely on Grazel for a few moments.  It was fun, and served a purpose.

- Scott

Lance D. Allen

With that response from Scott, I think you should be happy, even if it continues to feel wrong to you. The best qualifier of a game or GM is that that all involved enjoy themselves, and it seems to me that is exactly the case.

G'mornin' to y'all.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Mike Holmes

How is this dream not a Bang? If it's a bang, then it's a Narrativist tool. If it's not a Bang, then it's probably not particularly Narrativist, but who cares? What was it that bugged you about the scene? Did you "deprotagonize" anyone? Did you reduce anyone's ability to impact the premise? What wa the specific probelm? Not playing Narrativist is not a problem.

I think that it's probably was a ligitamate Bang. The Narrativist GMs job cannot be to leave the characters in a vaccuum. The GM must at some point say, "Your character wakes up." or whatever. Scene Framing is merely an unprepared Bang that says that a player's character is now at some place at some time, and in a certain circumstances. Perhaps the dream sequence was an extended bit of Bang exposition, but in the end I'm guessing that Scott's character emerged from the dream into his own scene, and he was allowed to address the Bang in a Narrativist fashion. What's the problem, then, hogging the spotlight?

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Ron Edwards


Mike's point also relates to Lance's post. I think that Lance is over-stating to say that any GM-proffered information is railroading to some extent. Extensive discussions here at the Forge have distinguished between "railroading" and "GM input," convincingly to me, at any rate.

See Is railroading a useful term? for some of that discussion. Also:
Using Kickers and Bangs
There are a few others, too, if anyone can remember them.



I participated in just such a game recently and it was my character that experienced the dream sequence.

I don't think any particular GNS orientation was responsible for my frustration with the scene. My character was, as Mike puts it "deprotagonized". For an hour-an-a-half of game play relentless hordes gave my character a good beating - the resolution was always going to be Raellan's pseudo-death with the obligatory "you wake up".

The GM's intent was, admirably, to explore some darker fears my character had. The game has broadly simulationist goals but I think that is, by and large, irrelevant.

On the face of it, it could be argued that Gamist goals were thwarted as no victories on any level are possible. Simulationist play was also thwarted as the scene was significantly removed from the "reality" of the game world. Though, I guess if the GM had gone to some effort to induce a more dreamlike quality to the scene I might have had a bearing. Narrativist goals were stiffled because the dream sequence bore no relation to recognised story themes.

No, I don't think GNS had a bearing - my dissatisfaction was more fundemental. I lacked the ability to interact with the game on any meaningful level.

One narrativist orientated solution that would allow a dream sequence to add to story themes might be to provide some building blocks for the player(s) concerned to work with (exploring issues of friendship in the face of opposing cultural norms) and asking them to narrate a nightmarish dream.

Hey guess you touched a nerve there!


Seth L. Blumberg

Okay, so I still don't really get Narrativist play, but....

It seems to me that the "really Narrativist" way of handling a dream sequence would be to go into it with, at most, a vague notion of what story development you want to get out of it, hand the dreamer's player more authorial/directorial power than usual, and roll with the punches. If the dream winds up conveying a different piece of information than you had in mind, that's the way the plot turns.

Running a dream sequence with the intent of conveying a specific piece of information looks like another form of "Me GM, me control plot, you player, you absorb plot passively" to me.
the gamer formerly known as Metal Fatigue

Walt Freitag

I went through a similar thought process for the dream game I've been working on. The problem is that little appears to be added by exploring Premise within a dream, when the system already is focused on exploring Premise throughout play.

Like others here, I concluded that the main purpose of a dream sequence is to convey information to the character. This is certainly how dream sequences are used in literature. And I didn't see much point in having that information be information that the character's player already knows, or is making up on the fly; that appears to turn into a solo dream storytelling exercise for the player. (And if the player does want to narrate a dream that the character had, a system would only get in the way.)

So I went with the sort of GM-driven "railroady" approach that Valamir and Lance have discussed. The result is a gamist game (though using mechanics derived from narrativist styles) intended to be played as a subgame within other games. If the parent game is narrativist or simulationist, a dream sequence temporarily invokes a different mode of play, just as real dreams are a different mode of consciousness from waking life.

I could see doing the reverse, introducing a truly narrativist dream sequence within an otherwise e.g. purely simulationist game. Just about any of the more abstract narrativist systems could be used. The Questing Beast would be a good choice, I think. I imagine that re-creating the characters as animals and playing out a single short TQB quest would feel very dreamlike, within the context of the parent game.

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere