Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Retrospective: H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands

Though H.P. Lovecraft is remembered today for the tales of cosmic horror to which the name "the Cthulhu Mythos" (or simply "the Mythos") has become attached, he began his literary career under the influence of the Anglo-Irish writer Edward Plunkett, better known to the world by his title, Lord Dunsany. In the first two decades of the 20th century, Dunsany wrote a large number of fantasy short stories, most of which were collected into larger volumes. These stories are often described as having a "dream-like" quality, evoking strange foreign lands inhabited by bizarre beings and ruled over by a pantheon of exotic deities. Both Dunsany's invented world and the style with which he presented it were highly regarded and not just by Lovecraft, who once heard him speak in Boston in 1919.

From 1918 till 1922, Lovecraft himself penned nearly three dozen short stories where the influence of Dunsany is clearly in evidence. These "Dream Cycle" stories are not generally held to be HPL's best works, but there's no question that, despite their flaws, many possess a certain vibrancy and immediacy that makes them attractive. After 1922, Lovecraft largely abandoned his Dunsanian tales, believing himself not temperamentally well-suited to its idiom. Nevertheless, he did occasionally return to some of the characters, locations, and themes of his Dream Cycle in later stories, starting with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in 1926. For this reason, the Dream Cycle is sometimes considered a sub-set of his Cthulhu Mythos tales, even though the connections between them are tenuous at best.

Of course, tenuous connections are the stuff of which pastiche is made and so it is with H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, a 1986 boxed supplement to Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, written by Sandy Petersen, Kerie L. Robson, Keith Herber, and others. Subtitled, "Roleplaying Beyond the Wall of Sleep," Dreamlands is intended to open up a new realm for Call of Cthulhu adventures, one reached by leaving one's physical body behind and allowing one's consciousness to travel elsewhere. It's an intriguing basis for a fantasy roleplaying campaign, I can't deny, which is why I readily snapped up the supplement when it was first released. It's worth noting, too, that, though presented as an adjunct to Call of Cthulhu, its origins are in fact far older than that venerable game, having been conceived by Sandy Petersen before he wrote Call of Cthulhu (or so I believe -- someone with more certain knowledge can correct my misapprehension if indeed that's what it is).

Unfortunately, Dreamlands suffers a bit from the same problem that nearly every Mythos-related project suffers from: the need to codify. Now, as someone who is regularly guilty of the same vice, I say this not to point fingers at Sandy Petersen and friends. I mention it because I think the great difficulty in producing a roleplaying game (or supplement) that takes place in the land of dreams is that dreams are regularly whimsical to the point of incoherency. By their nature, they defy codification, even when there's a seeming connection between them. I often have dreams that take place in the "same" locale and yet, each time, details -- sometimes very large ones -- change or are omitted entirely and my dream self rarely takes notice.

So, while there's clearly a basis for a single dream realm in Lovecraft's stories, I'm not sure that realm is consistent enough to serve as the basis for, say, a canonical map. But that's exactly what Dreamlands does. It gives readers a map and a gazetteer of the Dreamlands, along with stats for many of its inhabitants, including its deities and other supernatural beings. It's all very well-done in a literal-minded way, but it certainly doesn't feel very much Lovecraft's Dream Cycle stories, even the worst of which possesses that queer, malleable feeling that so many of my dreams do. Furthermore, the connection between the Dream Cycle and the Cthulhu Mythos feels very forced at times. Simply because, for example, ghouls appear in both doesn't mean that Lovecraft saw his stories as all taking place within the same "universe," at least no more than the fact that I dreamed about "M.A.R. Barker" means that he and I actually met.

If that all sounds nitpicky and pedantic, that's probably because it is. H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands is a supplement I enjoy and I regularly think about finding some way to incorporate it into my Call of Cthulhu campaigns, but I've never done so successfully. Every time I've tried to do so, it's felt a bit silly and cheap, more akin to revealing that Hastur is Cthulhu's half-brother than something mystical and phantasmagoric. Maybe the failing is in me rather than in Dreamlands itself, but I'm not yet fully convinced of that.

29 comments:

  1. Chaosium had commissioned a horror game called Dark Worlds, which never went anywhere. Sandy Petersen contacted them with a pitch for a Dreamlands supplement for Runequest, and they handed him the DW assignment. Petersen then added the Lovecraftian touches, and Call of Cthulhu was born.

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  2. I'd be curious to learn how Dreamlands campaigns have worked for CoC groups in practice. Amongst CoC aficionados there seems to be relatively little discussion of the Dreamlands (at least that is my impression; I'm hardly an aficionado myself). I own this book, and very much like it, but my impression is that a Dreamlands campaign would be closer to a 'weird fantasy' campaign, rather than a 'standard' CoC campaign.

    I do think that the CoC rules + Dreamlands + some house rules would serve quite well for a CAS 'Zothique' game.

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  3. my impression is that a Dreamlands campaign would be closer to a 'weird fantasy' campaign, rather than a 'standard' CoC campaign.

    I think that's right, which is fine, but it's very jarring both when compared to baseline CoC and the source material on which it's based. I've often thought of just running a "straight" Dreamlands game, where the PCs are all natives to this place and without any connection either to Earth or the Mythos, except the superficial ones present in HPL's Dream Cycle. I've never done it, though.

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  4. "I mention it because I think the great difficulty in producing a roleplaying game (or supplement) that takes place in the land of dreams is that dreams are regularly whimsical to the point of incoherency."

    Two words: random tables!

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  5. I do not care for Lovecraft's Dunsanian tales, but I love Lord Dunsany's early stories.

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  6. I love the Dreamlands, both the novels about it and the supplement (the only CoC supplement I ever bought).
    I've thought about running a "native" dreamlands campaign more than once, as both James and Akrasia said it would make for a perfect CASian weird fantasy.

    BTW a board member on dragonsfoot (Turanil, I think) has been working on a cthulhu themed fantasy setting for quite some time: Swords & Cthulhu, the World of Zhultoom
    http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=42&t=35113
    The map is very nice and some ideas are wonderful, I hope he will publish it one day.

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  7. Geoffrey: I like both, though I agree Dunsany's are better. But if you think the Dreamlands are difficult to capture in an RPG, imagine trying it with The Gods of Pegana.

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  8. Wow, you and I had very opposite reactions to the dream stories. I saw them as closely interlocked with the larger universe of the stories, and felt that, in that universe, the realms of dreams were as real as the real world, but that most people papered fancies over them in order to shield their minds from the shattering and dangerous revelations that could be found there. In nearly every story they appear, dreams, whether lucid or half-remembered, hold the truth to the protagonists situation which the rational mind rejects until the very end.

    I'm still not sure if the ending of "Dream Quest..." supports or refutes that interpretation, though.

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  9. It's fair to say that it's difficult to integrate the Dreamlands into an ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign; I've been running and playing the game for almost twenty years and have never seen the Dreamlands in play.

    That's more an issue of tone than anything else though. It's pretty clear that the two sides of Lovecraft's stories are connected, at least by the time Randolph Carter turns up. There is a good argument that the original short stories were never supposed to be part of a cohesive Dreamlands, but the Carter stories pull everything together into a more coherent canon. Or at least that's my reading of it anyway.

    Even so, the shift in tone is too much for me to be able to bring the Dreamlands into play. It's difficult to go from blobby eldritch horror to magical cats and fairy dragons without undermining one or the other.

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  10. The Dreamlands are difficult to tack onto a baseline CoC game because of the incongruous mood shift that Kelvin mentions above. Additionally, player expectations and learned CoC habits get disrupted by the setting shift.

    However, if you start your campaign planning to get into the Dreamlands, then the campaign needs to be structured towards experiencing the "weird" rather than towards horror. Then the shift in mental gears isn't so disruptive for the players. I've played in such a campaign and it was really fun, a refreshing change from the Cthulhu standard.

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  11. I've never played a full-on Dreamlands campaign but I do have Herber's Spawn of Azathoth supplement which includes some Dreamlands material. The result is not all that successful. The Dreamlands stuff seems oddly crow barred into the more mechanistic horror of CoC and doesn't quite fit.

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  12. I love the concept of the Dreamlands in Lovecraft/Lord Dun terms, and got even more fascinated when I got the Mythos card game supplement for it with amazing art of the locations.

    In my 90's Cthulhu campaigns, I eventually had characters interact with the Dreamlands. By that point my games were a little more on the Gonzo Derleth side of things, with more action and adventure than a typical Cthulhu game. PC's used a technique that made the real world fade out slowly into nightmare before casting them into Dreamland, so I was able to slip in some Nightmare on Elmstreet type visions. Sky was the limit. When they later encountered horrors in the real world, they would wonder if they were just falling asleep.

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  13. Actually, I've wanted to run a "native" DL campaign as suggested in the most current edition from Chaosium.

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  14. I'm with trollsmyth on this: I feel the Dreamlands, for all their malleability and strangeness, do have a somewhat solid foundation, and they do feel appropriate even in the dark Cthulhu mythos for the reasons he suggests.

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  15. In the only Cthulhu game I played with a strong Dreamlands component the gamemaster purposefully separated the games by having our standard Call of Cthulhu characters play characters in the Dreamlands. In other words the dream avatars of our characters were different.

    An interesting aspect was that you could pay magic points to draw on a skill or knowledge from your other character sheet, although many dream skills were of limited use in the real world and vice versa. For example, once my real world investigator suddenly needed the ability to fight with a sword.

    Worked quite well. Although it also relied on a related plot happening in each world.

    ***

    Whilst The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath is one of my favourite stories, I admit I do prefer the much more hopeful and less Mythos-ridden Dreamlands stories of Brian Lumley. It's the escapist element, I'm afraid, where dreams aren't as scary because at the deepest level you know they aren't real, and characters (and places) can be larger than life. If I were to run it that would be the tone I would take.

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  16. 'Roleplaying in H.P. Lovecraft's Narnia.'

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  17. Wow, what a fanciful cover that boxed set has! I own the later, book form editions, one with the ship on the cover and the last reprint with the ominous, almost petrified sleeping faces (from 1987 and 1991, I presume).

    I don't think that the Dreamlands Cycle is any way inferior to the rest of the Mythos, on the contrary, I feel the childlike wonder and the longing for unattainable beauty quite moving, like HPL allowed a leave for himself from his usual bleak, inhuman rigor, and let his lyrical half frolick free.

    A long-time pet project of mine is to run a game set entirely in the Dreamlands, with characters native to the place and little to no connection with Earth. Capturing the elusive, melancholy and poetic feel of the land will be quite a feat as opposed to the opportunistic, roguish mindset of the average bunch of D&D characters, but with any luck, soon I will know how it's going to turn out.

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  18. Two words: random tables!

    Alas, Dreamlands doesn't include any of those that I can recall.

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  19. The map is very nice and some ideas are wonderful, I hope he will publish it one day.

    You're right; that's a very interesting setting. Thanks for pointing it out to us.

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  20. I am currently running a campaign in the Dreamlands. I'm using it in a fantasy context rather than a Call of Cthulhu game. I treat it as an alternate reality accessible to all worlds via dream; from the 'H.P. Lovecraft's Narnia' point of view it is like 'The Wood Between the Worlds' from 'The Magician's Nephew'. So, two of my characters are shamans from different parts of the world of Nehwon, and a third is a psychic space navigator from a starship in a (barely defined) science fiction setting. All of the characters possess some level of 'Dreaming' skill (mentioned in the supplement) which allows them to modify the environment. That's probably the key difference between the Dreamlands and a 'normal' fantasy setting.

    http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/nehwon/wikis/three-lands-first-session if anyone is interested.

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  21. Questbird-- I have run a short campaign exactly like yours; it was quite successful. BTW-- nice write-up.

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  22. I haven't read the Dreamlands book, but I remember being interested in it and leafing through it in a shop.

    Nowadays I'd recommend Don't Rest Your Head for dreamland-type games. It's not an old-school game, but it has simple mechanics and an example world. The example world is too defined to my tastes for a dreamy game, but it's easy to modify it.

    The game is about people who can't sleep and acquire mystical powers via their insomnia. I've run two one-shots using it and it has been fun.

    The game has some advice on giving more than the traditional amount of narrative power to the players, as opposed to the GM and even though I haven't used it, it might be a good thing to try out in a dreamlands game as other people might have different interpretations of things and describe more dream-like things happening.

    It's a small book, so it might be worth checking out if you're looking for a game to run a Dreamlands campaign.

    (for some reason I can only use Google Account to comment this - I've been mikkop through the Livejournal here this far.)

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  23. When we ran a CoC campaign set in 1969 San Francisco the Dreamlands became an important element... they could be accessed by using certain drugs and there was a house that seemed to exist in both the real world and the DL (as well as other places... other Dreamlands?). The DL could be a pretty scary place as well...

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  24. Here is something I've been kicking around for a while: combining two of my favorite mythoi, Cthulhu and Barsoom. What would Barsoom be if it existed in CoC? The Dreamlands of Mars!

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  25. I have run CoC many, many times, including extended campaigns. I have used Dreamlands several times, and my players and I found those adventures to be quite satisfying. A pleasant diversion from the more standard pulp-noir-Cthulhu gaming.

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  26. I've also long had a desire to run a native Dreamlands campaign, even though the COC game does pretty much nothing for me. I also personally feel the HPL's Dreamlands stories are among his compelling (and also that they're clearly tied to the mythos via Randolph Carter).

    I also agree that random-tablature seems ideal for conjuring the flavor of the setting (but I might argue that random mechanics were very out-of-favor at the time of this supplement being printed).

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  27. Dreamlands was hard to incorporate into CoC games because you needed a Sanity score of 75 or more to make it past the Cavern Of Flame and down the 700 Steps of Deeper Slumber. Most CoC characters Don't have the SAN scores higher than 75 for very long, if they have them that high at all.

    I always wanted to run a game completely in the Dreamlands. I even created a Dreamlands Module for online play using Neverwinter Nights. I never got to use it though. A Dreamlands-D&D campaign is on my list if things to do however.

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  28. I simply assumed that the Dreamlands were an aggregate, the sediment of myriad mercurial dreams intermixed. They were the dreams that "sunk to the bottom" and took on a level of coherency. On the other hand, I always made it clear in my CoC campaigns that the Dreamlands were also a sort of Internet...they existed so long as human dreamers did. But if all the "computers" were destroyed the Web would vanish with it. As a final note, I viewed them the way HP often did...as the only escape from a relentlessly materialistic cosmos, the only refuge.

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  29. Captain Jack: "Here is something I've been kicking around for a while: combining two of my favorite mythoi, Cthulhu and Barsoom. What would Barsoom be if it existed in CoC? The Dreamlands of Mars!"

    At the risk of being lambasted, this sounds close to Carcosa. ;)

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