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A little background:

Eclipse Phase has a drug in the setting that creates a shared hallucinated experience among participants. These drugs, called Petals, are also designed to have some sort of narrative beyond them- think shared LSD trip with some overarching theme. Generally these trend towards something pretty dark.

While this is a fairly system specific question, the answers don't really need to be. I think a lot of GMs have probably had similar experiences running shared dreams or the like.

My Question:

I'm looking for specific advice and considerations about how to design something that will feel otherworldly and exotic to the players. How do you go about designing an encounter or series of encounters like that?

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Check out this question and this question for some ideas. –  dpatchery Jun 23 '11 at 17:59
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@dpatchery Thanks! I should clarify, I'm really looking for specific techniques on how to run something like this as part of a non-dream campaign- rather than systems and sourcebooks. That said, I'll dig up what I can in those books and see what recommendations they might have. –  Rain Jun 23 '11 at 18:11
    
Yep I didn't consider it a duplicate, just thought I'd point them out as they are semi-related. –  dpatchery Jun 23 '11 at 21:05
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Perhaps it would be good to elaborate that a 'petal' is actually a designer augmented/virtual reality experience enabled by a combination of nanotechnology, truely ubiquitous mesh access, and what amounts to intelligently adaptive online gaming? Sure, they're used like drugs in the setting, but the possibilities are somewhat broader than the present-day definition of 'drug' would imply. –  GMJoe Mar 9 '12 at 3:40
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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

A couple of ideas...

  • Draw upon myths and legends to create an otherworldly story. Native American, Aztec, Mayan, and aboriginal Australian myths are just a few examples of wild, exotic stories featuring creatures that can best be explained by hallucination.
  • Create a story driven by metaphor. In my Shadowrun game, I envisioned a clustered UV node on the matrix as a set of medieval villages; a rogue dissonance sprite became a rampaging dragon, and the PCs needed to pierce the firewall/mists of Avalon and locate the sword of knowledge in order to slay it. For a hallucination, you could wrap the story around a chosen theme and set of symbols in a way that was unique or significant to the characters.
  • Decide how to convert the PCs into your hallucinatory realm. For the virtual reality battle I mentioned above, the adventure was a short one; I let RP serve as the primary driver, and only threw in a couple of dice challenges. If you plan a longer story with more battles, you may want to have each PC determine an alternate form that fits the metaphor of the story. (Eclipse Phase is uniquely suited to this kind of thing, I believe.)
  • Use fluff associated with visions and dreams. For example, many people have dreams of being attacked or chased, or dreams of falling. Dreams can be repetetive. In a dream, sometimes you 'just know' things without experiencing them, or have an understanding of an event that isn't quite the same as seeing it actually happen. You could probably look for drug-related tropes that fit this mold.
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Get a sub set of the players apart from the ones who plays the ones in the petal dream and give them NPCs and directions as to how you want the events to unfold. Don't tell the ones PC at all what is happening and let them work it out. The rest of them should be able to play different roles for the duration and lead the story where you need it to go.

As for settings, I would recommend you look at Sucker Punch (even just the trailer), The Black Lodge from twin Peaks, and Fear and Loathing Las Vegas. Or just look at the last dream you had!

Finally, lights and music. Use just a red light for parts of the dream, then switch to blue or green or whatever. Make sure your colours reflect the theme of the petal scene. Music wise, I would use something from either Biohazard or Silent Hill sound tracks on repeat. If you have samples of screams or crying or whispering then so much the better. I assume that you have a computer that can play two tracks at once: mood music and sound effects.

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I would focus the "acid trip" into a goal in its own. For example, make the group have an objective in the "petal world" and when they complete that goal, they end their trip. Usually when your on a drug, you don't fall asleep, but rather you over-exhaggerate everything while being awake.

Because of this, you could make an encounter, say NPC1 using an awkward weapon, or better yet, make their arms and legs switch positions. A good example of this would to have a minotaur look like a cow carrying two twigs on the top of his head and he yells "Moooooo!" when he attacks.

As for the goal, have it to where the group must enter a certain building in this "petal world", but they cannot enter until they kill the "Five Clowns of Passion Island". However, the only way to get to the island is by eating 10 pounds of desert (depending on your game).

In the end, it's all about how weird you can use your iamgination, and how funny you can make events. My best advice if your not so good with that, would to take 2 or more creatures and combine them and give them an awkward weapon.

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(I'm going to focus on "dreams," but this works just as well for vision quests, acid trips, &c. It's just much easier to speak about experiences that are very common among real people rather than the more esoteric ones that most of us only know about second-hand through fiction and media accounts.)

Basic tenets

I don't think there's much value in trying to script dream-like sequences ahead of time. So I just focus on keeping a few basic things in my head, to keep me focused on "This is a dream and this is what it's about."

  • Dreams are ephemeral. Stuff changes all the time in dreams. Both small stuff and big stuff. Dreams don't have to be consistent.

    • Logical connections are easily broken. One way to think about it is like a game of "broken telephone:" scene 2 follows from scene 1, and scene 3 follows from scene 2, but scene 3 and scene 1 doesn't actually make any sense if you think about them together in full context.

    • Anything "out of focus" is automatically in flux. If you normally like to describe things with a lot of precision, try withholding ancillary details. What size is the room? Shrug, there isn't one at all until it matters. And if it stops mattering, then maybe the answer will be different next time it does matter again.

  • Dreams are symbolic (at least in fiction). So, dreams are an invented space, built on metaphor and emotion. As you're running the dream environment, keep in mind that everything is about something. That doesn't mean you should be trying to justify every element logically — I think it's ideal to let your subconscious do most of the creative work and just look for cool connections post-hoc as you notice them. Something that I've seen work really well in play is to come up with some key motifs or phrases to repeat during the dream; the growing sense of "Aha!" among the players is really satisfying.

Going hardcore with techniques

Mood lighting and evocative description can set the tone, but the strongest way to make a dream-like experience seem substantively different is to actually change the structure of play.

  • "Pull" aggressively. This is, like, my favorite trick ever for spooky stuff in general. So, typically the GM narrates "GM stuff" and players narrate "player stuff," right? Well, instead of telling players about things, ask them questions to make them fill in the details. "You see a big door. What does it look like?" "Someone you love is standing at the threshold. Who is it?" You'll get all kinds of crazy ideas and it'll feel like a mad trip through their subconsciousness in a way that just having the GM narrate normally can't match.

    • If you want to blur the normal lines even harder, the next-level version of the "pull" technique is to mix in "pushing" actions on the PCs. "You're choking him. You can see the fear in his eyes, but you're not going to stop until he's dead. Why are you murdering him?" This approach is purposefully transgressive. It emphasizes the fact that even our sense of self isn't entirely within our control in dreams. It's not right for every situation, but it packs a hell of a punch sometimes. (Just remember: your goal shouldn't be to railroad, but to set up fruitful triggers for collaboration.)
  • Become an unreliable narrator. Just straight-up say contradictory stuff, without pointing it out or commenting on it. Whatever bit of the description they latch onto is the thing that ends up being "true" (for the time being — dreams are ephemeral). It may take folks a while to notice this, and that's fine: the slow realization of just how malleable and contradictory their reality is just cements the dream-like feeling of the whole experience.

  • Twist the scene economy into a pretzel. This is another really big, transgressive one. Stop a scene and say, "Okay, start over, except now this is different." Play two scenes at the same time. Interject a random thing that one of the characters just suddenly knows, out of nowhere. Basically, all kinds of stuff about how we build the fiction and establish narrative truth is totally up for grabs. And definitely — definitely! — cut scenes together sharply.


Here's an actual play post about a session set entirely in a magical dream, from a one-on-one game between my wife (the GM) and me (playing the protagonist). The whole session came together as a result of the basic tenets above, with heavy use (sometimes unconsciously) of the "pull" technique.

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