For an idea which is only tangentially connected to Lovecraft’s best-known stories, the Dreamlands have a substantial presence in the Lovecraftian RPG canon, with numerous supplements and scenarios available across multiple rule systems. Most of these stick to the notion of the Dreamlands as Lovecraft himself conceived them – a high-fantasy, almost fairy-tale world, influenced by the Arabian Nights and the fantasy stories of Lord Dunsany.
The one time I’ve used the Dreamlands in a campaign, this was essentially how I handled them, too: in order to get the information they needed to defeat the conspiracy they’d uncovered, the player-characters had to track down someone who had taken refuge in the Dreamlands. This made for a nice change of pace and almost felt like a side-quest even though it turned out to be vital to the storyline of the campaign.
But, as with everything else, there are alternatives available. Just before Christmas I finally got around to listening to the BBC’s Lovecraft Investigations series (if you’re a fan of Lovecraft, the Mythos, or are looking for inspiration for a present-day Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green game, you really should check this show out), and Julian Simpson (the writer and director) came up with a new take on the idea.
Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, or at least the version of them that’s referenced in the Mythos stories, is basically a fantasy world people go to in their dreams, which is overseen by Nyarlathotep. The Lovecraft Investigations version of the Dreamlands is quite different, and riffs off the idea that the universe as we know and understand it is something literally dreamed up by Azazoth (blind idiot god and ruler of Lovecraft’s fictional universe). When the characters on the show refer to the Dreamlands, they’re talking about a place outside our universe entirely, where Azazoth resides.
Of course, you could certainly argue that this concept of the Dreamlands bears no relation to the ‘canon’ one and is an in-name-only version of the idea. It’s certainly a little challenging to reconcile the two, or think of ideas as to how the Investigations version could be incorporated into a ‘normal’ scenario. Nevertheless, in the same kind of spirit, I thought I would offer a few more ideas for alternate takes on the Dreamlands and how you could use them in a game.
The Dreamlands as collective unconscious. This sticks with the idea of the Dreamlands as they are traditionally presented, but rather than another dimension per se, the Dreamlands exist in the collective unconscious of the human race – maybe the Dreamlands are the collective unconscious, with almost all of the various gods and other entities there representing Jungian archetypes and subconscious structures, with no objective existence elsewhere. (Nyarlathotep, if he’s still running the place, is an obvious exception, as potentially are any cats who choose to visit – if you want to honour the ailurophiliac tendencies of the original stories, anyway.) This needn’t necessarily affect the way you handle the Dreamlands in play very much, but it would be worth considering the symbolism involved in any scenario which you run there. This naturally leads towards…
The Inception-style Dreamlands. Some people go to the Dreamlands when they’re asleep. What about all the dreams that people have which aren’t about visiting a fantasy world? Where are they going? And what about the people in the Dreamlands? (The place seems to have a stable population not entirely composed of visiting dreamers: just who and what these people are is another question worth considering.) When someone in the Dreamlands sleeps, do they have dreams? If so, where do they go?
I played with this idea a bit in my own game, with characters sleeping in the Dreamlands being more susceptible to the influence and machinations of Nyarlathotep. The way to really go with this idea, of course, would be to make the waking world and the ‘classic’ Dreamlands the first two layers in a series of different realities (the onion-skin approach to metaphysics), with things getting increasingly surreal and fluid the further one descends through them. The Dreamlands themselves aren’t really very dream-like, but in deeper levels you can throw weird juxtapositions and surreal imagery at the characters, as well as challenging their grip on reality (you can go with the ‘are we really awake now…?’ bit, but probably best not to overdo this).
The Dreamlands Redux. If we accept the idea that the Dreamlands are somehow linked to the waking world and influenced by it, then what kind of form does this influence take? More specifically, how might a century of (mostly) conflict and increasing social tension have affected the Dreamlands? The Dreamlands of the 1920s might have been as they’re presented in the stories, a place of fantasy and high adventure, but what about now?
Consider a Dreamlands where the skies are dark with clouds, where zeppelins rather than flying ships cast their shadows across the land. A steampunk-influenced take on the idea, where the ‘old’ Dreamlands are vanishing as dehumanising factories spring up across the land, the forests and jungles are razed, and terrible things set themselves up as overlords, with the old gods of the Dreamlands imprisoned or in retreat.
That seems to me to be much more the kind of world Nyarlathotep would shape in his image for the 21st century. The foregoing presupposes a campaign with a modern or near-modern setting, but it would be equally easy to imagine the changes wrought in the Dreamlands by the psychic shock brought on by the Second World War or the social upheaval of the 1960s, if your campaign has a different backdrop.
Anyway, I hope you find these ideas interesting and useful. As ever, let me know what happens if you end up using any of them, and if you have your own ideas for different ways of using the Dreamlands, please share! Thanks.