Sunday, December 22, 2019

Secret Santicorn 2019: Psychonauts- Courageous Healers or Conniving Thieves?

This year for the Secret Santicorn I received a request from Nick Roman that goes something like this.

A dungeon/adventuring location set in a dreaming mind. Are you rescuing them from a curse? Stealing a memory in an Inception-style heist? Trying to undo their amnesia and find their hidden true self? You decide!"

So, here's the thing about dream trying to create fiction that evokes dreams, if hard because the waking mind does not think in dream logic. Lucky I think the texts produced by GPT-2 have the dreamlike quality of almost but not quite making sense, so I've come up with rules that use Talk to Transformer as a secondary GM in charge of dream sequences. I don't know how good of an idea this is but it could work. Now, what I have is less of an adventure, and more rules for creating adventures, as a large part of the content is generated by a computer. Also someone please stop me before I end up writing a whole setting.

The Lore:
In recent years a strange kind of artifact has been discovered in the ancient ruins under our fair city. Gates have been dug up that allow you to enter the dreams of others. Each Gate is this ring about two horses in diameter and as thick as mast tree. From the touch it's smooth and almost warm like horn, and each Gate is unique in color and the pattern of it's ridges. Which is good because each one has a corresponding Crown that looks like the Gate in miniature. By themselves the Gates and Crowns are just feel in explicable alive, but when a Crown is put upon a sleeping person's head, than something magical happens.

The space within the Gate unfolds, and you can step into the dream of the sleeper. The dream is not like the waking world, it does not follow rules, at least not ones that make sense to us. However the world of dreams is also the world of thought, so the presence of a waking mind disrupts the flow of the dream, causing the "lucidity" of the dream (which is separate from the lucidity of the dreamer) to ripple out and swing like a pendulum. The common parlance among Psychonauts has come to refer to the periods of greater dream logic as "High Tide" and periods of higher lucidity as "Low Tide". But who can make out what the Psychonauts babble, it would be easy to pass them off as lunatics, stringing together patterns from nonsense and spewing philosophic drivel if the things they brought from the dreams were not so real.

At the time of writing, less than thirty compete sets have been discovered, and despite there not being any real understanding of where they came from and why, the public has really gotten excited by these circles. Dream exploration has become a cottage industry, and one that aims to help with so many psychic ills. Feeling depressed? Do not worry, it can be taken out by our best men. Have your been dreaming of writing your own perfect play, or marrying the perfect wife or having the perfect suit? Well, if you can dream it, we can fish it right out of your skull. Wish you could learn the classics but don't have time or energy? Well, we can  just take the classics, and shove them directly into your subconscious, no problem. Trust in us and our expertly trained Psychonauts!

There have been rumors that there is a dark side to the dream exploration business. That, the Psychonauts might rearrange a personality for their own ends, that sometimes they go in so deep that they can no longer get out, that sometimes nightmares escape instead. All baseless rumors, I assure you.

The Procedure:
Tools: A computer of some sort with access to this site. Fore the sake of convenience I'm going to refer to it as Transformer.
Setup: The GM sets up the computer with the site and writes "Dream Gravity" somewhere visible.
  1. For the Gate to open, a Crown must be on a sleeping person's head.
  2. The party enters the Gate and must weather the High Tide.
    1. The players comes up with a paragraph of description, that the GM inputs it into Transformer.
    2. The GM reads out what the computer spits out, that's what happens. During High Tide, the players just watch the dream unfold.
  3. After it passes, in the Low Tide of the dream, the party can act upon the dreamscape.
    1. This segment is like normal play, but common sense takes a second seat to the sort of tone established by Transformer.
  4. As the Tide begins to pick up again, after an encounter's worth of play, (however you define what an encounter is, say 10 minutes of play if want a ballpark) the party has to choose between PUSHING FURTHER or PULLING OUT.
    1. PUSH FURTHER: If the party pushes further, than 1d4 is added to the Dream Gravity total, and repeats the process from step 2, except this time the prompt is based on the last thing that happened in the dream.
    2. PULLING OUT: If the party decides to exit the dream they can just do so, but they have to roll above the Dream Gravity score for each dream thing they want to take with them, otherwise the thing stays in the dream.
      1. A "dream thing" is any noun you could take with you. Objects, creatures can be taken but not locations.
      2. If Dream Gravity is higher than 10, than each player counts as a dream thing as well.
  5. When the party gets out of the dream, the sleeper usually jolts away. And now it's time to determine how they have been effected and how any dream things interact with the waking world.
    1. Each dream thing represents some part of the sleeper's soul/personality/memory, the GM decides how this effects their character, and it can have some weird magical properties based on how it worked in the dream.
      1. The dream thing can also be used as a one time teleport back into the sleeper's consciousness without the use of a Gate or Crown.
      2. In the astral plane there is a clearly visible thread from the dream thing to the sleeper.
    2. Each thing that was left inside the dream, gains some metaphorical significance and changes the personality of the sleeper in some way.
    3. Every person left inside the dream, sticks around as a new voice in the sleeper's head, and can hijack control of the body if they beat the sleeper in a will contest. Treat this as possession. They can be encountered in the sleeper's head if the party goes in later, but their shape might be different, and they will might remember themselves only sometimes during Low Tide.
The Notes:
The way I have this system setup is to enmesh the Talk to Transformer website with a live human GM, I know AI dungeons exists but I haven't been able to figure it out so I wrote rules around the tool I understand. The concept of High and Low Tide is introduced so that there is a diegetic explanation for the changing between paragraphs of almost coherent computer narration, and normal OSR play. If there's a tangible in-world difference between the two states, than rather than being a weird game abstraction, it's a way to support the fiction of exploring a surreal dreamscape.

I made the main consequence of dream exploration a push-your-luck mechanic because the normal consequences of death and bodily harm don't seem quite relevant in this context. I like being stuck in the dream as a consequence, it tickles the part of my brain that likes tropes like "don't eat the food in fairy land" and "spend to much time transformed into a bird and you might forget you were every human". I don't quite have the words to explain why this feels right, and that's no accident because this subsystem is all about the relation between the conscious and the subconscious.

Dream things are meant to be the treasure that draws players to engage with this subsystem. The fact that each dream things a part of someone's soul serves the purpose of preventing the Gates from being free magic item machines and creates meaningful impact for the game's characters and world. The teleport-into-sleeper's brain that dream things have is a fail-forward mechanic. In that it provides an escape route for when your in a tight spot, but one that generates it's problems. Like how do you get out of the brain once your in there, and how is the npc going to feel once you teleport into him and so forth.

The sleeper wakes up when the party pulls out to prevent players from just quickly going in and out of the dream to reset Dream Gravity. Meaning that players generally only have expedition per person per night, which has the additional benefit that players get to see how they are changing a character's personality over time. Players can use drugs and sleep spells and other methods to get their target back to sleep, but that's ok because there is some opportunity cost of money, spell slots and side effects in some way. 

The Hooks:
While most of the adventure is generated in the computer, there is room to come up with why the players are going into someone's dream.
  • The Court Magician is sure that the King's recent slump is caused by demons he's being possessed by. Get in there and kick those suckers out!
    • The truth is that much to the annoyance of the King's advisers he's being suing for peace with a nearby kingdom, and as they need another war around now it would be nice for a policy change.
  • A painter who has lost the steadiness of his hands to age dreams of the same masterpiece night after night. He wants it retrieved so that others can marvel at it.
  • A man recognizes that he has anger issues, but doesn't believe he's able to change maybe you could help him.
    • There is also the question of what to do with that anger once it's outside the man.
  • A wizard has a business proposition, what if we traumatize some orphans, than extract their nightmares and train the resulting monsters to be guard dogs.
    • I mean, if we take the trauma out of the kids, than the kids don't have trauma anymore which makes this whole operation ethical.
  • A cult believes that if they move their entire collective into their high priest's head, than they will ascend into a higher being.


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