Recently I sent my Invisible Sun characters to the Deeps of Sleep, a realm of nightmares and forgotten dreams. The reasons aren’t important but it did give me a chance to think of how to make a setting seem like a dream.
As one of my players pointed out, Invisible Sun is already a crazy riot of a setting. Normally you could let players know that they are in a dream by having a talking hippopotamus or forest of trees with clocks in them. In the Actuality, though, you could very easily have a talking hippo for a neighbor. As for the forest, that’s actually a canon location in the game. To go from that zaniness to something that seemed different and dreamlike meant that I had to drill down on what actually goes on in dreams.
Dreams are, of course, individual to each person and they can be as innocuous as taking a test or as weird as flying through clouds. One thing that does set them apart from other stories, though, is dream logic. It’s a weird and vague term that can mean any number of things but here is my list of go-to elements that have worked for making a scene or story seem like it’s taking place in a dream.
Living Out Wonders That Seem Normal
Dreams are pretty wonderful things and you can do anything you can imagine. Of course, that’s also true of vislae in general and many other fantasy settings. In dreams, though, you can do things like fly without wings and it just seems like something normal. Maybe flying is actual normal for your character in which case you might have someone else’s face or only speak by singing. The point is that all of these wonderful things happen and in the dream it seems totally normal.
That’s part of the understanding of dreams, you have that omnipotence just knowing that something is true even though all indications are the opposite. This is the same as when you run into that classic dream situation where something or somewhere is two things at once. Instead of having a cobblestone street in the middle of a forest (something that might happen in any fanciful setting) you can have a path through the woods that the characters know is also a cobblestone street. Why do they know it? Don’t worry, they just do. That’s dream logic.
Preoccupations With Something Else
Another classic occurrence in dreams is being preoccupied with something that feels important but also like there’s no rush. Maybe you’re missing or can’t find something and you keep forgetting that it’s missing. You need to find a recipe for a friend or your charge has run off and you go through unrelated scenes and situations only to suddenly think “wait, I was doing something.” When running a dream scenario you can work this in as background color while telling the main plot.
Another version of this is being late for something. In my dreams I’m usually trying to get to work or trying to pick up my kids from somewhere. This can work like the preoccupations above (every once in a while characters have the stray thought that they ought to get to the store before it closes) but because there’s movement involved it can also advance the plot nicely. Why are characters racing through the rooms of this mansion or along the road of this coast? Well they are trying to find whatever it is you need them to find but also there’s a fruit stand at the end and they have to meet their friend there… Or whatever you come up with.
Sudden Twists Turning Normal
Dreams are also filled with sudden upheavals that are disorienting for a moment and then you roll with them. These don’t have to be wonders like we started out talking and they can also be some of the most nightmarish parts of dreams. Maybe you start losing your teeth (classic stuff) or you start falling from a great height. Either way the characters get a minute of panic and then the plot continues on despite this craziness happening. Any fantasy setting might have a curse that leaves you naked in public, for example, but only in dreams will someone walk up to you the next moment and strike up a conversation as if you aren’t mortified and panicking.
Another classic dream event that I put in this category is being chased. This is a way to introduce some tension to a dream scenario (the players are walking through fields of fluff balls but there’s something just out of sight) but it’s also a way to keep them guessing. If player characters are experiencing dream scenes and feel like someone’s trailing them, having their enemy appear suddenly pays off those tensions in a great way but also a way that is normal plot-telling. What if instead the player characters sense something lurking in the shadows and they panic and run only to have the shadow loom up and… It’s a friendly pixie who can tell them the secret to get out. This double twist (introducing a sinister chase and then having that chase turn out to be not sinister) keeps players off balance and that’s halfway to making them feel like their dreaming.
Dream Versions of Other People
Another really classic dream situation (one my favorites, unless I’m the subject) is when other people cameo in your dreams acting differently or even the opposite of how they usually work. In my experience when someone has a dream where I do something mean and then they’re mad at me later. You can get that same effect by including versions of NPCs in the dream scenario, people that the player characters have met but who are acting very differently. Betrayal or someone cheating are common events in real life dreams and if you’ve got that level of connection in your campaign then it can be very effective. Just like in real life, the players are likely to be suspicious of the NPC after for no good reason but that can be fun too.
An easier inclusion is flipping the importance of an NPC in the dream scenario, making an unimportant person important or vice versa. Maybe there’s a bartender they’ve seen around and all of a sudden she’s the queen of the land. Maybe they’ve been talking to a self-important CEO and that’s who you pick to work the shoeshine stand in the dream scenario. You can also achieve a dreamlike effect by having the PCs meet someone famous which I did in my Invisible Sun game when Reese Witherspoon helped one of the people out of the water in the scene above. You can also have someone from the character’s past show up for no reason, and it’s actually extra good if it’s not someone important. They might have a mentor from their backstory who’s selling tickets now but it’s peak dream-spinning to say that the ticket seller is the character’s elementary school teacher or best friend from camp.
I hadn’t drilled down into what makes dreams feel like dreams before, I just chalked it up to weird. I really like having all of these things in one place, though, and hopefully it helps you too. My approach was to have a Post-It with these things written in a quick list, telling the story as the characters work through the plot and throwing these things in spontaneously to create a dreamlike vibe. If you use these in your game let me know how it goes!