Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Running Dreamland Adventures in D&D

After a month of conferences, illness and Halloween craziness, my regular game group finally managed get back to the table this past Monday. We ran through a session that accomplished something I had been wanting to run for a long time. The adventure we began on Monday took place in the dreams of one of the PCs.

I came up with a few custom mechanics for creating a dream-like feel to the adventure, and I will get to those in just a bit, but first a little back story to set the stage.

Back Story

My players are currently investigating a way to cure their half-orc monk PC of a demon, which has possessed him since childhood. However, his possession comes with a hitch. His body is only possessed by half a demon. His full-blood orc father has the other half. The demon's soul split when the half-orc was conceived, trapping it in the two bodies, unable to escape back to the abyss. This has a couple effects: 
  1. It drives the half-orc, Santiago to join a monastery in order to gain mastery over the demon-induced chaos inside him.
  2. It links Santiago with his father. They can each sense the presence of the other when within a couple hundred miles of each other.
  3. The demon's spirit will only be made whole if and when either the father or the son kills the other, at which time the demon will be restored to full power and likely do nasty, nasty things.
So, the players are trying to figure out how to fix that. Their quest is made more urgent by the fact that the nature of the possession changed recently. Santiago stopped being able to sense his father, but started having horrible dreams, which feature a new and controlling voice other than the demon.

That brings us to Monday. 

The Setup

The party had gathered at the realm's most prestigious magic academy to consult a conjurer who was an expert on extraplanar creatures (e.g. demons) and as such, might be able to help figure out why things changed and how to fix them.

The conjurer prescribes a diagnostic treatment that involves her entering into Santiago's mind while he is dreaming to have a look around. However, in order to do this, he must down a sleeping potion that has the side effect of lowering his mental defenses, both the the helpful conjurer, but also to other, less benevolent forces.

Needless to say, things go south, the conjurer is ejected from the dream after having spent all her powers. She reports that Santiago's mind has been sent into a state of chaos, and that the party must repair it to rescue their friend.

Begin adventure.

How The Dream Adventure Works

I created the dreamscape as a location-based adventure set in a dream-version of the monastery where Santiago grew up. Now, I don't normally use random tables in my game, but this time I made a deliberate exception. To establish the shifting, chaotic feel of a troubled dream, I drafted several tables of random effects:
  • One for the locations around the monastery
  • One for odd environmental effects that could be applied to these locations
  • One for odd effects that could be applied to the characters
  • A random monster table for creatures that might manifest without warning
  • Finally, I made a master table, which could be used to determine which of the other four tables should be rolled on, and who/what it would effect.

Randomizing Locations
After sketching out a map of the monastery, I assigned each room or group of rooms a number from, 1-10. Whenever a player opened a door, I had them roll 1d10 to determine which room the doorway opened into. This way, all of the locations in this familiar structure were represented, but they were laid out all higgledy-piggledy, just as might happen in a dream. In order to keep things from getting too weird on the battle mat, I drew each room where it should appear in the non-dream monastery, but with a little arrow pointing through each door with the number code of the room it pointed to. As the players moved about the board, they would often hop from place to place. The nearest analogy I can think of is going through the "secret passages" when playing Clue, which take you clear across the board. Only EVERY door is a secret passage.

Alright, who brought the sand!?

The random layout was further enhanced by the environmental effects table, which listed unusual things that might be happening in a room the players entered. Every time someone opened a door, I had them roll on this table as well, to decide if they got a normal version of the next room, or something a little more dreamy. Here is the list of environmental effects. I used a 2d6 curve to tweak the likelihood of certain effects vs. others.
Environmental Effects
Under water
Reverse gravity

On fire
1d6 + DC15 reflex save or catch fire
Pitch black

Room shift


Filled with sand




Upside down

Control the Dream or Forget Your Clothes
I also set up a table based on unusal things people often experience in their dreams, such as being able to fly, showing up naked, or being unable to run quickly. Players would roll on this table whenever they rolled a critical fail, were reduced to half hit points, or occasional other circumstances.

Creature Effects

Mundane item
Reduce creature
Mage hand
Bull's strength
Lose item
Restore to normal
Detect thoughts
Item is useless
Enlarge creature
Falling 1d6/10 feet fallen (20d6 max)
Shape shift
Magic item
I issued blank note cards to each of the players so they could jot down the effects currently on their character. Their character could have a maximum of three effects in place at any given time. If after acquiring three, they gained another, the top effect on their list would disappear.

Not all of this stuff was left up to the dice, either. The PCs also had the option of attempting to control the dream directly. They could take a full round action and roll to intentionally alter themselves, the environment around them, or another character. To succeed, they had to make a wisdom check with difficulties based off of the Lucid Dreaming rules found on page 203 of the D&D 3.5 Manual of the Planes. If they succeeded, they got to declare the trait they were imposing.

The other tables were pretty self explanatory. The random monsters might manifest whenever someone entered a room, or some other event triggered a need for a little added chaos, and I used the master table if I knew I wanted something, but wasn't sure just what.

Overall, the use of the random tables really made the adventure flow like something out of a dream. My players completely bought into the system, and were regularly attempting to morph themselves or bend the dreamworld to their will.

Rescuing Santiago, a.k.a. Orcception

Before the session, I had the monk's player send me a list of three items from his character's past, one representative of his body, one of his mind and one of his spirit. The list the player gave me was WAY better than anything I was expecting, and I tweaked a bunch of my plans to fit the items after receiving it. 

I then wove the story of the items into the setup for the adventure. The conjurer had the monk meditate on them before going under for his "procedure". These items would act as constants, anchors which could be used to pull him back should something go wrong.

So, when the rest of the PCs jumped into the dream, they did so with instructions to find the anchors within the dreamscape and to use them on their chaotically disconnected friend in order to restore his mind, body and spirit.

Oh, by the way, when they players showed up, they found their friend, the monk, being dominated by some hostile intelligence (matching the one from his earlier dreams). After finding the first item and using it on him, the monk got a saving throw and briefly shook off the domination. Unfortunately, because the PCs had also been using various debuffs on him in lieu of direct damage, Santiago's will saves were not what they normally would be... hence, the evil intelligence soon gained control again.

Oh, and pro-tip, when attempting to navigate and stabilize the dream state of a troubled friend, it is probably not wise to use spells to degrade that person's mental capacity... it might have unintended side effects.

The evening left off after the PCs had explored several rooms of the monastery, battled their friend, and a randomly manifested dread wraith, and recovered one of the three items. Things moved pretty quickly, and I am sure that now that people have mechanics well in hand, we will finish the adventure next session.


After playing through the first part of this adventure on Monday, I was really pleased with how things were flowing. The random tables added a real sense of shifting, troubled dreams to the setting. the use of a dominated PC as the main antagonist took a lot of pressure off of me as the DM. And focusing the adventure around retrieving the anchor objects gave the session a clear goal not directly focused on the usual combat. Plus, having the monk's player generate the list really added a personal tie to everything.

If you've ever considered running a roleplaying adventure set in a dream, this system works really well, and hopefully the stuff I've written here gives you some good ideas to run with.

Yeah, it's kind of like that.


  1. That was awesome! It's given me adventure ideas with notes on how to handle certain situations. Thanks!

    Did you have anything playing in the background? I suggest dark ambient music like Lull.


    1. Since they were in active combat most of the time, I had my D&D battle playlist going (mostly Two Steps from Hell) I also have a D&D spooky playlist with a lot of Nox Arcana that would also fit the bill.

  2. Great stuff!
    nice touch with the mind, body and spirit items.

    I also did some dreamscape sessions once, I had a mini dungeon which i did some cliffhangers in. For a time they did not know what World they would wake up in when they went to sleep. :D its funny how "controlling the dream" seems like a universal option the moment you talk about doing dream scenarios. I had some will checks to control the dream as well, basic stuff like having clothes and weapons.

    Players will be reluctant to jump into a fight with some demonesque monster with their bare hands and no armor :D

    1. Yeah, we have a funny situation going on right now where the rogue recovered the "mind" item, which is the hilt of a clay training sword, but the dominated monk attacked her, and the rogue's dream state shifted so she was suddenly naked holding the one constant item the group currently has identified as being able to give the monk a chance to save vs. domination. Unfortunately, I don't think the rogue's wisdom is particularly high, so attempting a lucid dream check to get her gear back only has about 25% chance of success.


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