Improvisational Safety Limits

I’ll be the first to admit I probably don’t plan enough when I need to run an adventure. I usually wait until one or two nights before game day, and try to come up with something that sounds cool. The problem I keep experiencing is that I start going down a nice sensible path with maps and plots and adversaries and then I’ll get a flash of inspiration that derails me completely.

In this particular case, since my group is currently wandering around on a demiplane that is quite literally where nightmares come from, I thought it would be interesting to simulate the nonsensical yet completely serious nature of dreams. You know, a situation in a dream where you know something is the case but you don’t know why. A frequent example of this in my dreams is  “I’m on a mission to save the world”, but I’ve had it manifest in a thousand other ways. One I really dislike is when a bad guy shows up and I immediately know he’s after me because of Reason X. There’s no way to prevent having done whatever you did, no chance to plan ahead, just a half-second before he starts chasing you and your legs move too slowly to escape.

Paved With Good Intentions

What I decided to do was to have a certain kind of enemy attack change the PCs somehow in a nonsensical-dream way. This might mean their bodies would mutate or their role in the party would change, or even their backstory. I decided that, despite being more accurate to my dream experiences, the latter two would be much too disruptive to play. Therefore, the PCs would change in weird ways and have to learn to cope (and hopefully, find new ways to use these changes to their advantage). This was the concept that eventually derailed me. It sounded cool enough that I decided to play the whole thing by ear. Even I wouldn’t know what they’d be facing until the moment it happened. I thought I might be able to come up with ideas that fast, but I figured it would be a gameplay nightmare so I decided to make up a generic encounter with reskinned monsters in the roles I wanted my random baddies to play.

In the previous session, the PCs were approaching the tower of the Boogeyman, ready to go save the Raven Queen’s daughter from his evil clutches so they could hopefully get enough brownie points to get out of this godforsaken realm. I knew I wanted there to be some opposition, so I rolled for my brain to generate a random bad guy and got…. a giant loaf of pitch-black bread with bat wings. When I told the players, they all rolled their eyes and said “a BAT LOAF?” Even I didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t mean to do that. Regardless, I had the evil bread cut itself into a dozen or so 5’x5′ slices which it scattered about the battlefield. Then I had appropriately-sized pieces of dark, evil cheese fall from the sky onto the bread. Nothing too terrifying had happened yet, so I had evil lettuce (with menacing eye and mouth holes cut out of it) flap around the board to threaten the players.

I think it was about now that someone wondered if we were playing Burgertime. Ridiculous. There were no chefs.


I had decided at this point that I wanted the bread slices to be a hazard rather than an enemy, and touching it would cause the mutations I mentioned above. I also decided the lettuce should get a special attack in which it enveloped a PC, with the intention of dropping it onto the bread the next round. None of my players knew any of this, of course, and to them the bread seemed the greatest threat. Once the bread started getting attacked, I decided to have the evil cheese bubble up and ooze dark yellow and eventually take the form of a dire boar (mostly because that was the template I’d chosen, and a cheese-boar sounded utterly ridiculous and therefore perfect). These did most of the direct combat of the encounter, and did a reasonably good job of distracting everyone from the lettuce scooping them up to get all mutated and stuff.

All this was going far better than I’d thought, and by that I mean nobody had hit me with anything heavy yet. When the first PC failed to break free of the lettuce and wound up mutating on a piece of evil toast, I realized I had far exceeded my ability to improvise. The first victim suddenly found himself with the hindquarters of a wooden wasp. I had been thinking about that one awhile, and I wanted him to have a cool ranged weapon. Then he attacked the bread with it, which I decided made it clamp shut like a beartrap (giving him another mutation). Now he had the body of a birdhouse, and I was struggling to figure out how that even worked much less how to use it. Another poor fellow found himself turned into a 6′ tall caltrop that smelled overwhelmingly of strawberries. I still let everyone use their equipment as normal, which yielded some rather interesting concept-drawings from the other players. The caltrop-PC did manage to improvise a means to use his new form to his advantage and immediately went to attack some lettuce – which promptly ruptured and died when it tried to envelop his now-pointy everything. Then our little gnome-assassin PC got changed, and I made him 7′ tall, swapped his arms and legs, and gave him mutton chop whiskers made out of fully functional ears. Yup, I don’t know where I was going with that one either.

The party’s mage is played by one of those players, bless his insane little heart, that just has to follow through on a crazy idea once he gets one. He decided to grab a big hunk of the dark-bread and eat it. I had his PC feel funny for a couple of rounds, and then he, shall we say, produced 4 tiny owlbears dressed as the Fruit of the Loom guys that followed them around for the rest of the night. Made sense at the time.

After all the sandwich-combat, the PCs found themselves in a wide open field separated from the object of their rescue-affections by only a large chasm. I changed everybody back to their original form and told everybody they knew they were a color but didn’t know why. I wanted them to all join hands and make a rainbow to get the girl across the chasm, which they all figured out somehow. The final encounter of the night was to be against the Boogeyman himself, and he showed up to confront the PCs, but several of our players needed to leave early so they made the session end on a cliffhanger instead of me for a change.

Reflections Upon The Aftermath

I’m definitely not going to file this adventure in the “success” basket. My players are usually pretty forgiving and can make a good time out of whatever I throw at them, but most of the night just plain didn’t make sense. I’m never leaving this much to be dynamically compiled by my brain at the last second ever again. I am not a Just-In-Time compiler.

I do, however, think that I could make this pretty cool if I had it all to do over. I think I was on the right track by making monster templates to apply a random skin to. I would even keep the randomness of the monsters and mutations I chose. I would simply do that part well in advance. This lets me come up with powers and abilities for both and gives me time to evaluate if they’re a good idea before I have 7 people giving me the deer-in-headlights look waiting to see what else is about to come out of my mouth. It’s not a new concept. Gamma World‘s alpha mutations do it all the time, the players still have no idea what to expect, and gameplay is at least somewhat sane. (It also makes me want to run a GW game just to see what happens!) I don’t know that I’d have to change everything as deeply as GW, but having a specific change and accompanying power (and card to give the player with the stats) ready for the player when it happens would have turned something weird and possibly stupid into something interesting they’d enjoy.

I really have to wonder what my poor players think of this campaign. I think everyone’s having fun, but I never played anything like what I’m putting these guys through (and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing!). I love thinking of different ways to handle things and testing my own limits, but I think perhaps I’ve gone a few shades too self-indulgent with this last session. It’s probably time to turn the crazy dial back down to a 3 or 4 for a little while.

Nah, they fight the Boogeyman himself next session. It’s time to bring out the big guns. But you can bet I’ll be loading them with planning-tipped ammunition.


Photo Credit


  1. Shilling says:

    Since you bring it up, why not just use the mutations from Gamma World (if you own it)? It’s compatible with 4E after all.

    If they’re not dream-like enough, then write a table. Everything is better with tables. And players love rolling on them.

    I have to say, I don’t really like the totally random dream events that you came up with. It sounds too goofy for my tastes; I’d probably buy out pretty quickly. But I love the core premise.

    I’d probably go with something a bit more word-association like, to keep a theme running. Or read up on a few “dream interpretation” books and a bit of Freud and Jung so that the encounters actually had some deeper meaning – even if the players don’t know what it is, it tends to really creep them out since you are playing with psychological archetypes.

    I know that goes against your attempt at winging it. But if you manage to internalise some research about dreams, then you can use that to improvise better. Preparation does not rule out improv. – it’s just that a different kind of prep is needed. Want to know a secret? Improv actors DO actually prepare – they practice certain patterns and get into a particular mindset, as well as getting to know each others’ range of responses. So that when the show comes they can invent stuff on the spot that falls within a known framework and has a greater chance of being satisfying to the audience.

  2. I was going to suggest just using the Gamma World Alpha Mutation cards too; they’re premade and prebalanced for your convenience. You could set the deck to just the mutations you want. I like it, I may just steal this idea for my game!

  3. @Brian & @Shilling: Yeah, I’m not satisfied at all with it being totally random. I’m definitely going to look into how improv actors prepare, that concept is utterly mesmerizing to me. 🙂

    And DEFINITELY going to look into using the GW mutations. It was sitting right there in front of me the whole time! Thanks for the tips, guys!

  4. I’m a fan of the dreamworld encounter, I’ve done it often. I don’t think I’ve ever had a food fight though, or fought food for that matter.

    Two and three weeks ago I ran an adventure in which the players were stuck in something elses dream and needed to escape. I also decided random made sense within a dreamscape, so the players learned to escape, they had to escape. The “how” of the escape was unneccessary, merely the act of doing and succeeding was needed. Then I let the players build their own terrain and skill challenge. I had planned the monsters out, but left everything else to them. Turned out great.

    Just curious, how do you tally up party resources after a dream? Did they use up their daily powers and surges or what-not, or did they recharge upon waking up?

  5. Dixon Trimline says:

    I had this dream where Vanir was telling me about an adventure he ran, with killer sandwiches and birdcage PCs and pooping out tiny owlbears… Man, it was terrifying.

    If I were predisposed to a weird and wacky game (for example, if I were currently playing inside your campaign), I could get behind a dreamscape game, but my reaction while reading was a series of, “Wait, what?” It’s an unfortunate character failing on my part, but when I start to sense there are no structure or rules, I become very… nervous. It’s like my rulebook security blanket was taken away. With the proper motivation (DM tells me to shut up and have fun), I could buy in, but it doesn’t come naturally.

    PS: Congrats on the new job. The long dark nightmare is finally over.

  6. I too like the concept of the dreamscape, and actually plan on using it later in my current campaign. One thing that I thought of though that might actually help with the randomness aspect of your mutations is to allow the players to mess with the physics of the world as well. After all, when we are in a dream, all manner of things are possible. Perhaps allow some sort of a check (Int or Will comes to mind) to allow the players to do something that ordinarily they could not. Perhaps with a succesful athletics (or Int or whatever) check a player can gain flying for a round, with another check as a free action to sustain the ability in the following rounds, etc. This can also be done with terrain and what not. In other words, encourage the players to get creative and reward them for their creativity. This will go a long way toward making your “randomness” more forgivable.

  7. I think the dreamscape foodfight you described was awesome! I can see your point about needing to think about mechanical aspects of the dream mutations well ahead of time, but i would call this session a success based solely on the oddness of it all. As a player, i would have enjoyed this.

  8. Sounds like a job for some randomization tables? Maybe put together a few tables, each with different kinds of traits, when randomly combined by dice roll, result in epic ridiculousness?

  9. “I also decided the lettuce should get a special attack”

    When you find yourself saying that sentence, something has gone terribly awry.

    But cool idea anyway.

  10. Why would you not put this in the “success” basket? It seems like a brilliantly surreal experience for the PCs. Was it odd? Most definitely, but wasn’t that what you were going for?


  1. […] Therefore, it stands to reason that the players led by a Dungeon Master who has The Best Gaming Materials In The World are still going to have an awful time if that DM sucks at delivering game information to them in a way they can process. The game can have been perfectly balanced by robot hyper-brains from the 34th century who are never wrong and if the DM presents things in a confusing way, it’s still going to be terrible. Good communication means planning and having a framework in place to know what’s coming or at least what to do if something unexpected shows up. (This fact was permanently etched into my brain after last week’s…. experiment.) […]

  2. […] Hits posted a funny exploration of a dream-based adventure gone horribly wrong. Here’s my favorite bit: “When the first PC failed to break free of the lettuce and […]

  3. […] had did have a few grains of method behind their madness. For instance, one side effect of having done a “zero-prep” session is that I know I can make something happen even if I don’t have anything to go on. […]