Nightmares & Dreamscapes – An Adventure Hook

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 16, 2013

a-to-z-letters-n“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” – Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

In Marvel comics there is an actual entity called Nightmare. He is the supreme ruler of the Dream Dimension, a pocket universe made real by the collective psychic energies of everyone asleep on the planet. As long as a singe person is sleeping somewhere in the world, the Dream Dimension continues to exist. He has the power to trap a person’s soul in the Dream Dimension. The illusion is so real that the captive soul does not realize that it’s actually in a dream.

Building on this idea, a clever DM could have an encounter, an adventure or even a full out campaign take place entirely in the dream world. Even if the PCs realized that they were in the Dream Dimension they wouldn’t know how to escape.

Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. “N” is for Nightmare as we look at the idea of an adventure in the realm where dreams and nightmares are real.

The Setup

nightmareNightmare needs the PCs to complete a task while in the Dream Dimension. It turns out that Nightmare is himself trapped. Although he reigns supreme in his universe, he’s grown bored and now perceives the Dream Dimension as a prison from which he cannot escape. He generally traps sleeping souls in the Dream Dimension and torments them for his own amusement, but now he’s a man with a plan. With the help of some unwitting pawns, Nightmare may be able to escape the bonds of his prison, if only for a short time.

The Hook/Challenge

The PCs begin the day like any other. They have no idea that they are actually sleeping and inside the Dream Dimension. From this point on everything they do happens only while inside the dream. DMs may even want to ask the players to send him copies of their character builder files so he has them as backups. Although PCs should still earn XP while in the Dream Dimension, nothing is real so items acquired while dreaming do not actually become part of their permanent inventory. Likewise any consumables are not expended, nor are items sold actually gone.

The DM should put the PCs in a situation similar to what they’d expect. They should have no reason to disbelieve or suspect that anything is amiss. However, as they venture onwards a few things should strike them as odd. Perhaps they keep seeing an unfamiliar symbol or they see a similar person in different places. Maybe they hear a song hummed by different people in different towns. At first it should be something subtle enough to get some players curious but not tip the DMs hand outright.

Eventually the PCs should be convinced to take on a quest. This is the task the Nightmare needs them to do in order for him to escape. I’d suggest going with something simple like slaying a monster. The monster is a metaphor that represents the plot device keeping Nightmare here. Nightmare himself should always be nearby, likely acting as an ally that the PCs can rely on. His disguise should be good but not entirely impenetrable. The DM should provide some clues that this ally is not what he appears to be. He might have information that seems out of place or know a detail about the PCs that a stranger shouldn’t know. If Nightmare keeps switching his identity to remain close without drawing suspicion, he could constantly wear a similar colour, whistle a similar tune, or have a fondness for a particular sweet.

Once the PCs begin to see through the veil of Nightmare’s disguise he won’t spend energy disguising his world. The terrain should become more difficult and creatures the PCs face along the way more dangerous.

By this time the PCs will likely question the goal presented to them at the beginning of the dream. If they complete it as requested will it allow Nightmare to escape? Will it trap the PCs in the dream? If not all of them, then just the one who opened the gateway by landing the killing blow on the monster or the one who made the skill check to open the gateway.

Of course Nightmare is a tricky creature so it’s possible that killing the monster will actually let the PCs leave the Dream Dimension and killing the entity the PCs see as Nightmare will actually allow the real Nightmare to escape. It’s up to the Dm to determine how things will play out. Just have things decided at the beginning so the PCs have a fighting chance and can actually pick up clues along the way.

Regardless of how things play out, there should be some way for the PCs to escape eventually. I’d suggest trapping only one PC in the dream and allow Nightmare to control that PCs body until it falls asleep again. For one day the party must keep Nightmare in their ally’s body from doing anything too deadly. Have fun with it.

Controlling the Dream

Once the PCs realize they are in the Dream Dimension allow them to do extraordinary things. At the beginning of the PC’s turn allow them to make a save. If they succeed they can bend the rules of reality this round. If they make a skill check they should get +5 or +10 to the check as the DM deems suitable based on the role-playing and the rule of cool.

A saving throw to manipulate the dream that is 16 or higher allows a PC to regain the use of an expended encounter power. A roll of 20 or more allows them to recover a daily power in stead. Be equally creative when it comes to action points and possibly replenishing them while in the dream.

No Limits

Remember that whatever happens in the dream won’t, or at least shouldn’t, have any real or lasting consequences on the PCs once they awaken. It may seem like a lame cop out, but it’s for the best. With that in mind make sure that you give the players adequate time in the dream world to have fun with it. Allow them to learn that they will not suffer any consequences for going all out. Let them try all the things they never would in a real game because they don’t want their favourite character to be killed.

Have you ever had a game take place in a dream world? How did the PCs react once they woke up? Did you have their actual selves suffer the same trauma that their souls did while dreaming?

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1 Rogue #1 April 16, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I like this idea. However, with your “whatever happens in the dream won’t, or at least shouldn’t, have any real or lasting consequences on the PCs once they awaken.” it brings up the argument that if you die in your dream you die in real life.

Now, I don’t believe in that because I am fairly sure a majority of people have at some point in time dreamed that they died in their dreams and they are still very much alive. But, what if it is true and that if say the PCs fall from a long drop, would they then die?

2 thuhnc April 16, 2013 at 4:55 pm

This scenario brings to mind an episode of Red Dwarf in which the characters awake to find that the lives they think they’ve been leading have in fact been pre-programmed simulations on a futuristic virtual reality game. That kind of identity conflict could provide interesting character development in a D&D campaign– though, obviously, they probably wouldn’t wake up in the future. It could be mostly consequence-free, too, if you pull a “It was all a hallucination” like the show did.

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