Uses of the Dream Quest

The world is a single building, a series of places connected by montages, a place out of an Impressionist painting. Useful objects come readily to hand, and sometimes for the strong-minded even the world itself is malleable. There’s something to be found, and everyone has a pretty good idea what direction to go but less idea how exactly to get there. Looks like we’ve got a dream quest!

Dream quests generally have one of three in-character purposes. One is understanding—the quester has an question, and somewhere on the dream quest they’re going to find an answer. Another is to acquire something—usually that something is a new power or an item, though sometimes it might be more esoteric. The third is to fix a problem that can’t be solved in the literal world but might be attackable in the symbolic—most often, this is in response to bizarre illness or otherwise untreatable psychological influences, but it’s also popular when dealing with supernatural creatures of a more ethereal (or more all-around-invincible) sort, or ones that exist in multiple places at once.

For the writer or GM, the dream quest is often used to do something that the primary narrative wouldn’t allow for. In less fantastic stories, where the quests are often dreams meant to illuminate the character’s deeper psychology, the dream quest doubles as a way to step outside of genre for a bit, as dreams allow for laws of physics and metaphysics that otherwise would never work in the worlds in question. This lets even the most mundane of stories involve a fight scene or two, some spectacular scenery, or similarly implausible features. In ones that already involve magic, it’s likelier to be used as a way of invoking an even more obscure realm (for instance, the journey to Hell in Barry Hughart’s Story of the Stone), getting around constraints to the characters’ mobility (allowing a quest for a character whose movements are limited to one or two locations), or just doing the impossible through rampant symbolism (my game included two, both of which involved releasing or removing characters from their or other people’s heads). And in all cases, there’s the chance to play with unusual metaphysics, as dreams just plain work differently from waking life in most cases.

In some games, the dream quest can allow a player to do a level of world-shaping—and of getting across to her GM aspects of her character—that she wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do in the main game. I once had an opportunity like this: I’d convinced my GM to allow my character to learn lucid dreaming, and needed to come up with a training montage, so I wrote a long sequence that involved a few bits of symbolism, some amusing toying with metaphysics, a lot of pretty scenery, and several fragments of her personality.

In short, the dream quest is an interesting and variable tool. Keep it in mind!

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