Friday, 1 November 2019

Nicobobinise Your Game: Interpreting Dreams and Omens

One of my favourite techniques for giving players a little bit of narrative control and a stake in setting creation without getting all storygamerish about it is giving them opportunities to describe their PCs' dreams and hallucinations. 

If the PCs get the opportunity to take a hallucinogen or are put in that state magically, go on a spirit journey, or the like, I will often ask them: what does your character see? Or, alternatively, I will sketch out a scene ("You see yourself on the back of a flying whale" or whatever) and ask them to add some details ("Where does the whale go?"). 

They will without fail come up with something that you:
a) Would never have thought of yourself;
b) Can incorporate into the game somehow, turning the hallucination into a "premonition" of some kind.

You have to do this sparingly, and in a subtle, non-obvious way. It's no good being literal about things - you need to get dream-logical. The best approach is opportunistic: you might never use the "whale flying to the stars" motif even metaphorically, but you never know when something star or deep-sea related will come up, and when it does...

I have been reading Arrian's Anabasis lately. It is fascinating how much ancient people relied on what they thought were the correct interpretations of goings-on in the natural world. For example:

[W]hen Alexander was still besieging Halicarnassus and was taking a midday rest, a swallow had flitted about over his head chirping loudly and settled here and there on his bed giving voice in a more than usually insistent way. Alexander was too exhausted to wake up, but the sound bothered him in his sleep and he brushed the swallow away with a light sweep of his hand. Far from flying off at his touch, the bird perched right on Alexander's head and kept going until he was completely awake. Alexander took this business of the swallow seriously and recounted it to Aristander of Telmissus, a seer. Aristander told him that it signified a plot by one of his friends, and meant also that the plot would come to light, as the swallow is a domestic bird, friendly to man, and the most talkative of all birds.

I love this kind of thing, because it is so immersive in a strange and beautiful and foreign way of conceiving of the world. How to use it in a game is difficult, but I wonder whether one method might be something like:

-There is a table of random natural events that the DM consults very occasionally
-When he does so, an event like the sparrow/nap incident takes place
-The player gives an interpretation of what has happened and what it means
-The DM writes down an interpretation of what has happened and what it means (keeping it secret from the players)
-A coin is tossed to determine which is the correct interpretation BUT the DM does not reveal the result
-Play continues: it could be that the player's interpretation of the swallow/nap incident is correct, or it could be the DM's; the players might act on the assumption that they are right, or wrong...and sooner or later they'll find out

You could. of course, do something similar with the interpretation of dreams: every so often you could roll on a Random Dream Table and ask for the players' interpretations accordingly, following a similar pattern to the above.


  1. I've been thinking about this a lot lately too! watched Only Lovers Left Alive the other night and the way Ava creates a premonition of her own arrival struck me as immediately gameable and OSR-ish... Go create a dream table full of cool shit, have players roll on it nightly, restock it regularly... Most of the time it's probably just cool dreams, but if PCs have significant overlap in their dreams it's probably signifying something!

    1. Yeah, you can just let it happen almost organically that way - I like it!

  2. I don't think there is evidence that the Greeks believed more in Omens and Signs than people today. Agamemnon responds with contempt to Kalchas "best of the bird interpreters". I suppose the way it has always worked with divination, and works to this day, is this:

    i) Priests identify dupes.
    ii) Priests decipher or recognise the longings and desires of our dupes.
    iii) Priests wait for random natural process ambiguous enough to be interpreted as a visual concordance of the dupes wishes.

    So, I as DM would keep a note of the players' grand ambitions, provide their characters with suitably confusing but suggestive dreams, neither confirm nor deny to the players the potency or reality of dreams in the fantasy world and finally mock the players if they appear disappointed that the dreams I fed them amounted to nothing by the end of the campaign.

  3. At Utrecht train station in the Netherlands, there is a piece of art consisting of a train message board except that it shows 'push messages' from nature, like 'today in nature: young owls already squeak before having fully hatched'. The message changes per day and are based on a 'nature's calend ar'.
    I think such a calendar could serve as a nominal nature events table which could spice up wilderness trekking descriptions. Now, for omens all you have to do is taking an entry corresponding to a different day, month, season or whatever. You could couple this to a nature check if you like with a DC increasing the closer the date of the omen's date is to today.

    Link to the calendar (in Dutch, sorry):–-Poster.jpg

    Something in English that could possibly the same purpose, the phenology poster download on: