Trapped in a Dream

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I’ll soon be starting a new arc in a campaign that’s been going off and on for two years. Dreams have been a common element so far, and I’d like to try something new with them this time around. About 2/3 through the arc, the PCs will find an unexpected NPC in a strange place, who will tell them to “wake up”. They open their eyes to find themselves back where the arc began, implying that everything they’ve done was a dream. In reality, they’ve just now been put to sleep and must recognize that they are dreaming and escape from it.


 


The questions I have are:


 



  1. What kind of challenge should the PCs face within the dream? I’m thinking a puzzle or skill challenge to become lucid would be appropriate.

  2. Up until this point, I’d like to drop subtle hints that they might be dreaming, so that they aren't completely blindsided by this scenario, but I’m not sure how to do this effectively.


Any input or ideas would be much appreciated.

Here's a link to something I did a while back that might have some useful elements for you:

community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/758...

I may have taken the map out of Dropbox though. If you think the basics could work and want to see the map, let me know.

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What kind of challenge should the PCs face within the dream? I’m thinking a puzzle or skill challenge to become lucid would be appropriate.

What does failure look like in that case? Is it interesting, or a dead end? Unless failure is interesting, I don't recommend bothering with a puzzle or challenge.

Up until this point, I’d like to drop subtle hints that they might be dreaming, so that they aren't completely blindsided by this scenario, but I’m not sure how to do this effectively.

No one really is. It's a fine line to walk and a big risk. The players might not pick up on the hints at all, and not only feel blindsided, but also patronized when all the hints they missed are explained to them. Or they might guess what's going on outright, which "spoils" the surprise. Of the two, the latter is a better outcome, and really works well if the challenge doesn't depend on them not knowing the secret.

Overall, I recommend against keeping secrets from the players. You turn the into adversaries, instead of collaborators who could otherwise be giving you better and more targeted advice and suggestions than you could ever possibly get from us. If they're half-way decent roleplayers, they can still play their characters as if they're in the dark, and if they're even slightly better than that, the players can use what they know to get their characters into all kinds of ironic trouble.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Yeah, the entire "it's all a dream / alternate reality / time travel" thing can REALLY rub people the wrong way. It can make people feel like everything they (thought they) accomplished was meaningless. It can make people be deliberately silly because they know none of it is "real".

I would discuss this idea with the players, out of game, before you do it. If they're not on board, then back off.
While many plots can be ruined and undermined by having it revealed to be "all just a dream" not all are. The whole point of The Matrix (or The Truman Show, in a sense) is that reality itself is a dream. There's ways to pull this off properly without your players feeling screwed.

Make what happens in Dream matter in the Waking World to an extent. Perhaps they will learn something to defeat the real world Big Bad that can ONLY be learned in Dream. Perhaps, after waking up from Dream, they realize they must actually RETURN to it to learn a powerful ritual or bring an artifact back to the Waking World

I may not have been clear in my OP. The idea behind this is that it is NOT all a dream. Everything the PCs do is very much real, but upon being told to “wake up”, they actually fall asleep. While asleep, they essentially dream that everything else was a dream. The challenge for the PCs is to recognize this fact, and wake up so that they can continue the quest.


As for failure, I’m not set on any one idea yet, but I’m thinking the real threat will be physical enemies finding them while they’re unconscious. They have a couple NPCs who occasionally travel with them, and it would be easy enough to have them show up and try to hold off enemies while the PCs solve the challenge. Rather than a strict success vs. failure situation, I’m thinking the consequences will vary based on how long they take. The longer they take, the more enemies arrive, and the NPCs take a worse beating. If they take too long, the NPCs are killed, and if they take way too long they could be killed as well or captured (leaning towards capture, but I doubt it’ll come to that anyway).

I may not have been clear in my OP. The idea behind this is that it is NOT all a dream. Everything the PCs do is very much real, but upon being told to “wake up”, they actually fall asleep. While asleep, they essentially dream that everything else was a dream. The challenge for the PCs is to recognize this fact, and wake up so that they can continue the quest.

Sure, ok, but what several of us are saying is bring the players on-board with this idea. Don't rely on it, or the solution to it being a secret from the players, even if it needs to be a secret from the characters for some reason.

As for failure, I’m not set on any one idea yet, but I’m thinking the real threat will be physical enemies finding them while they’re unconscious. They have a couple NPCs who occasionally travel with them, and it would be easy enough to have them show up and try to hold off enemies while the PCs solve the challenge. Rather than a strict success vs. failure situation, I’m thinking the consequences will vary based on how long they take. The longer they take, the more enemies arrive, and the NPCs take a worse beating. If they take too long, the NPCs are killed, and if they take way too long they could be killed as well or captured (leaning towards capture, but I doubt it’ll come to that anyway).

Ok, this is workable. It creates a time pressure. Inception-wise, of course, they can spend some time in the dream while not much time passes for those who are awake, but time pressure is almost always a good idea.

I can't recommend death or capture of the PCs as a failure. Both can be made interesting and heroic, but tend not to be and tend not to be viewed that way by players even if they are. Threats to a third party are always good, though.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Good points, I still have a few weeks to fiddle with this idea, so I'll weigh my options as I refine it. Thanks for all the input!

Here's a link to something I did a while back that might have some useful elements for you:

community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/758...

I may have taken the map out of Dropbox though. If you think the basics could work and want to see the map, let me know.



I think I can adapt some of these skill checks to work for me, thanks!

why make it a "challenge" at all to realize they're in a dream.

Make the person who told them to "wake up" be an antagonist.  He has an agenda.  His agenda will advance while the PCs are asleep.  The amount that his agenda advances depends on the players.

Simply have parts of the story continue to happen with more and more unrealistic details.  Perhaps the first NPC they talk to can be described with one feature from each of the CHARACTERS....not obviously (he has regdar's hair), but subtly (he has short dark hair with a white streak through it, wears a holy symbol of [insert cleric's god here], his ears are slightly upswept, hinting at an elven heritage, but he's stout, short, and well built for a human).  Later they might find an NPC who is underwater and doesn't realize it, and when they come out of the water, they're dry.  Later still they exit a house to find the sky is blood red.

you'll either get the characters seriously wierded out that something terrible is happening, or slowly (or quickly) tune them in to the fact that it was a dream. 

Now, here's the great part.  you don't need any skill checks....after all, other than continual perception and insight checks, what really pertains to "is this a dream?"  When the PLAYERS figure it out and try to "wake up" for real, then they do.  At which point they get to proceed after the new antagonist who made them look stupid and did mean nasty stuff in the real world in the mean time.  "Total failure" would still have them wake up eventually, but with several "bad" side effects as far as what the antagonist has accomplished.

I think the absolute KEY here is to make the man who really put them to sleep be the bad guy.  HE'S the one they should be against, not some random enemies who stumble across them while they slept (after all, the man putting them to sleep is a CRITICAL part of the plot....the DM did it, unilaterally, and it needs to have a reason....a big, important reason...you don't just "DO" something to the players for no reason).  If they wake up early, they can be hot on his trail, perhaps he wouldn't even realize they're after him yet, giving them an advantage.  "Normal" success can have the game proceed in a way that makes sense given the party's abilities and that of their enemies.  "Failure" would see them several steps behind the antagonist and struggling to clean up the aftermath of the messes he's caused/left behind.         


I think the absolute KEY here is to make the man who really put them to sleep be the bad guy.



What he said. Then the whole challenge has a purpose (beyond just being cool and giving the players a trippy experience). The purpose of the challenge becomes setting up antagonism with a key enemy, whom the players will now hate because he deceived them all.

  1. Up until this point, I’d like to drop subtle hints that they might be dreaming, so that they aren't completely blindsided by this scenario, but I’m not sure how to do this effectively.


Any input or ideas would be much appreciated.





Hints are my forte. ;)

What you could do for hints is have "glitches": Something that seems slightly unrealistic or just plain wrong. I used a "trapped in a dream" stlye quest where a party was at a fair last night. They sleep and wake up to no fair the next day. That's strange that they clear out in under a night ("slightly unrealistic"), but some players will just dismiss it as a "speedy getaway" to the next quest. They got to the next town, and finally figured it out when an excited townie mentioned the fair coming tonight in the next city over ("just plain wrong"). They still don't know it's a dream, but they know they left reality somewhere along the way.
Isn't there a Supernatural show where one of the main PCs gets a "wish" by a genie that ends up with him being in the perfect world. There are then various subtle clues that make it odd. His girlfriend is from an advertisement campaign. All the good he and his brother did have never happened and he finds all kinds of references to it and eventually he realizes what is going on. In reality the genie never actually grants the wish for real. The genie merely puts the people to sleep so that it can drain its victims of their life energy. Another good movie to watch is probably Inception. I know my players adviced me to watch it while I am designing the dream quest they are on (they are invading a NPC's dream to learn what happened in the past and to try and reconcile the ghost with that past).

Regardless, what exactly do you want to achieve? Do you want your PCs to at first think it really was a dream and what they are experiencing now is real? Or do you want the PCs actually immediately act on whether something weird is going on. If you want the PCs to be immediately suspicious, you really do not need to tell much to your players. Unless you are a jerk DM, your players will know you would not just pull that "it was all a dream"-trick and hence they would immediately know something was off. They will be looking for clues and the fact that they are a bit obvious will not matter. It simply confirms what they already suspected. If you want them to behave as if it all makes sense, you will need full disclosure with the players though. Otherwise there is big chance they will metagame the weirdness of the situation and be rather frustrated about it. Also watch for signs of frustration, it gets them distracted and focus on the wrong things. I have had players express frustration about something odd, and all I had to say was "that is a good question, yes, it is odd" to get them back on track.