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 subconcious 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.