The system only dreams in total darkness
Why are you hiding from me?
We’re in a different kind of thing now
All night you’re talking to God
— The National
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
dark

Introduction

Dreams is a play-by-mail game for a facilitator (the Conduit) and three to six other players (the Ancients). It’s a secrets-filled role-playing game about the end of a world.

To play, you need a good way to communicate and a shuffled Tarot deck for seeding the world with chaos. You don’t need to be sitting in the same room, or even in the same side of the planet — as long as you can communicate somehow, you can play. You’ll also need pencils and paper, and a way to share the map after you’ve drawn it.

The Social Contract

To keep everything going it’s helpful to set expectations: how often will you be contacting players, how long is acceptable for their response, and what will you do when someone drops or needs time off? Answering these questions at the start can help reduce hurt feelings and missed expectations later on. When the deck runs out, this tale ends but you may continue with another — or even a direct sequel. Make sure you revisit the social contract.

The pathology of the poet says that "the undevout astronomer is mad"; the pathology of the very plain man says that genius is mad; and between these extremes, which stand for ten thousand analogous excesses, the sovereign reason takes the part of a moderator and does what it can.
— A.E. Waite
The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910)

The Map

Grab a copy of a voronoi diagram with 22 sites, and shuffle up the major arcana. For each site on the map: draw a card, look up its point of interest, and write it down in the site. Perhaps draw a little picture.

Give everyone a copy of the map — having shared place names is essential for coordination. (North is up, too, or you’ll just get confused.)

The Fool

The White Cliffs: chalk cliffs, overlooking a body of water.

The Magician

The Valley of Flowers: a quiet valley of wildflowers.

The High Priestess

The Temple of Solomon: an ancient temple, mostly abandoned by now.

The Empress

The Wheat Fields: no longer actively farmed, still useful to some.

The Emperor

The Lonely Mountain: a dormant volcano, dominating the landscape.

The Hierophant

Great Hall Telesterion: an enormous structure for holding mysterious ceremonies.

The Lovers

The Black River: wide and slow-moving, dark and quiet.

The Chariot

The Broken Wall: once a symbol of a powerful empire, now only pieces remain.

Strength

The Stone Forest: petrified before living memory.

The Hermit

The Wasteland: a dangerous place to be for anyone.

Wheel of Fortune

Loch Frithir: a deep lake in the forest.

Justice

The Lögberg: the stone of law, standing on a low hill.

The Hanged Man

The Ceiba Tree: ropes still hang from its branches.

Death

The Two Towers: some say the two mages still fight to this day.

Temperance

The Fens: many get lost in this misty swamp searching for the old library.

The Devil

The Broken Table: sacrifices were made, once.

The Tower

The Ruins of Ugarit: the first to burn when the war came.

The Star

Llyn Llydaw: this lake holds many secrets, some even tossed in willingly.

The Moon

The Ring of Brodgar: these standing stones are still used to track the stars.

The Sun

Tournesol Hills: sunflowers grow atop these hills.

Judgement

The Lost Crypts: the entrance must be there somewhere.

The World

The City of Gold: the center of culture, even now.

My father behold, the enemy’s ships came; my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka? …​ Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.
— Ammurapi.
woods

Ancients

Players are immortal elder beings whose power is restrained somehow. Their only connection to the world is through people who seek them out. The only way they can communicate to the world is through visions.

At the start of the game, the Conduit will shuffle up the major arcana, and secretly deal out three cards to each player: each gives a secret prophecy, attuned artifact, and character trait. Mortals have four stats (one for each suit), each starting at 0. Traits will increase these starting stats. The GM should name and determine stats for mortals as they first contact the ancients.

Note
It might be better to write down a list of the players, deal two to each, and then deal one more between each pair (including the first and last). This means four cards per player, two shared.

Communication

The bloody membrane between worlds is thin between the ancients; you may contact them directly whenever you like. The mortal realm is further removed. You will receive messages only when a mortal makes an effort to contact you, and send them only to mortals attuned to you who are asleep and dreaming.

The only way for you to interact with the world is through the mortals attuned to you, so be careful with them.

The Prophecies

Each prophecy is attuned to a powerful artifact, lost for ages. If they emerge in play, the Conduit will ask you what they look like and how their power might be accessed, but you won’t know who ends up holding them.

Table 1. The major arcana, prophecies, and traits.
Major Arcana Prophecy Trait

0 The Fool

The wine jug must be emptied

Naïve (double stats in all conflicts)

I The Magician

The proper words must be spoken

Quick (double trait bonuses)

II The High Priestess

The seal must be broken

Subtle (+1 swords)

III The Empress

The child must be born

Persuasive (+1 wands)

IV The Emperor

The leader must be overthrown

Political (+1 cups)

V The Hierophant

The criminal must be shown mercy

Organized (+1 pentacles)

VI The Lovers

The secret society must be eliminated

Paired (+1 cups)

VII The Chariot

The war must begin

Soldier (+1 pentacles)

VIII Strength

The game must be won

Courageous (+1 wands)

IX The Hermit

The child must be abandoned

Wanderer (+1 swords)

X Wheel of Fortune

The coin must be tossed

Lucky (+1 wands)

XI Justice

Justice must be done

Just (+1 pentacles)

XII The Hanged Man

The trials must be overcome

Enlightened (+1 cups)

XIII Death

The hero must die

Nihilist (+1 swords)

XIV Temperance

The path must be followed

Controlled (+1 pentacles)

XV The Devil

The sacrifice must be made

Bloodthirsty (+1 wands)

XVI The Tower

The tower must fall

Immune to illusion (+1 swords)

XVII The Star

The stars must align

Peaceful (+1 cups)

XVIII The Moon

The terror must emerge

Secretive (+1 pentacles)

XIX The Sun

The empire must rise

Powerful (+1 wands)

XX Judgement

The dead must be judged

Faithful (+1 cups)

XXI The World

The lost must be found

Scholar (+1 swords)

She laid the three stones below the altar,
words of power chanted through her.
The moment arrived, his eyes opened,
and she brought down the dagger.
— The Lost Book of Gideon.
dusk

Visions

Play is a thread of messages.

The Conduit will contact you — awakening your ancient — when a mortal figures out the proper ritual. They have no idea what they’ve uncovered, but your infinite power is overwhelming to any mortal will. In their trance, they’ll tell you something interesting and useful about the world above.

Whenever you like, you can message the Conduit with a reply. Always state the vision you send, and the intention. Sometimes you’ll have difficulty knowing where to start: the Conduit is bound to tell you the truth (as far as they know it), and might suggest a course of action.

Your visions will arrive when next the mortals sleep.

Explicit orders they will follow exactly, to the best of their ability. You may be sure of what they will do, but will not take advantage of their instincts in the moment.

Vague orders they will attempt to interpret, but not in the evil genie sort of way. They will always act in your best interest as they see it and will adapt to the situation they are in, but you cannot be sure exactly what they will do.

Don’t bother with contingency plans — dreamers can’t remember that much, nor can visions make them understood.

It all began, old Ammi said, with the meteorite.
— H.P. Lovecraft
The Colour out of Space.
flame

The Conduit

You set the pace and describe the world. You do this by finding conflicts, figuring out the possible results, drawing to inject some chaos, and reporting back to the players.

Before you draw, you should have a critical moment in mind: the knife coming down, eyes searching the forgotten library, the bargaining table. Use the map — keep a pawn or a die for each character on it, and move them around as the visions take them. A meeting tends to be a critical moment: use their traits to determine what that meeting looks like. When a plan comes to a head is another — figure out what could go wrong and draw for it.

Anytime the outcome is uncertain is a possible critical moment. This could be someone attempting something interesting and risky, or two people wanting different things in the same place.

Divide participants into at most three groups: the attackers, the defenders, and the bystanders. The first two groups are in opposition, and you’ll be drawing for the attackers. If you don’t have anybody for the defender group, create somebody: perhaps a monstrous force, perhaps still human, perhaps traps or just difficult terrain.

Decide on what kind of conflict this is and add up stats on either side that match (and also subtract stats that don’t match — they count against the group in that conflict):

Table 2. Spheres of conflict.

The Sun

A conflict of raw power or strength

Cups and Pentacles

Breaking down a wall or brawling.

Mercury

A conflict of speed or skill

Wands and Swords

Sprinting for the exit or dueling.

Venus

A conflict of persuasion

Cups and Swords

Convincing a guard to leave their post or recruiting new cultists.

The Moon

A conflict of wisdom, secrets, or magic

Wands and Cups

Casting a minor spell or seeking out forbidden lore.

Mars

A conflict of courage or constitution

Wands and Pentacles

Resisting poison or standing up to an invading army.

Saturn

A conflict of patience or solitude

Swords and Pentacles

Waiting for the critical moment to act or reaching a destination alone.

Jupiter

A conflict of pure luck.

After you draw the card, flip a coin to determine the victor — or use the card’s orientation. No stats will change.

Draw a card and determine its value in the conflict, often +1 or -1. Add that to the attacker’s points to determine a winner (attacker wins ties), and then add it to both sides' stats for that suit.

Note
You can have negative stats. In a conflict that doesn’t match that stat, it’ll be a help. In a matching conflict, it’ll be a hindrance.

No matter what you draw, reflect on the image and what it might mean before describing the outcome. Record both the card and the outcome you chose in a campaign log.

Contact the player with the situation from the dreamer’s perspective, and pick another conflict to resolve. Responses come only when they’re dreaming — and might take a while. Life goes on above.

When you message a player:

  • Tell them the truth about what happened.

  • Speak from the mouth of the dreamer.

  • Push them into the way of another player.

  • Encourage secrets, don’t reveal them lightly.

  • Use the names you’ve created. Make new ones, as needed.

  • Add subtle horrors to the message.

  • Sometimes, ask one player to help detail what happens to another.

Major Arcana

When you draw major arcana, a relic is also unearthed during the conflict. Contact the ancient attuned to it and ask what it looks like and how to unlock its power. The winning side gains the relic.

0 The Fool

Relic: Sows confusion until the next sunrise.

I The Magician

Relic: Transmutes elemental objects and forces.

II The High Priestess

Relic: Gives you a mysterious vision of the world.

III The Empress

Relic: Births something terrible.

IV The Emperor

Relic: Controls another mortal for a critical moment.

V The Hierophant

Relic: Gives you specific advice on a subject you choose.

VI The Lovers

Relic: Gives you a moment alone with someone you know.

VII The Chariot

Relic: Enables you to travel quickly until the next sunset.

VIII Strength

Relic: Gives you supernatural power until the next sunset.

IX The Hermit

Relic: Gives you vision of a distant location.

X Wheel of Fortune

Relic: Calls fate to give you a boon.

XI Justice

Relic: Weighs yourself and another on the scales.

XII The Hanged Man

Relic: Clears your sight until the new moon.

XIII Death

Relic: Ends something.

XIV Temperance

Relic: Takes something you have in excess to give something you lack.

XV The Devil

Relic: Calls for aid from powers you do not understand nor control.

XVI The Tower

Relic: Destroys something utterly.

XVII The Star

Relic: Restores something mortal at a cost.

XVIII The Moon

Relic: Veils you from mortal vision until the next sunrise, or until you draw blood.

XIX The Sun

Relic: Gives you the loyalty of all who see you.

XX Judgement

Relic: Raises the dead to do your bidding.

XXI The World

Relic: Transports you leagues in an instant.

Wands

When you draw wands, consider how the adventurous but potentially irresponsible nature of these mortals can be good or bad for them.

  • +1 to Mercury, Venus, and Mars

  • -1 to the Sun, the Moon, and Saturn.

Ace of Wands

2 of Wands

3 of Wands

4 of Wands

5 of Wands

6 of Wands

7 of Wands

8 of Wands

9 of Wands

10 of Wands

Page of Wands

Knight of Wands

Queen of Wands

King of Wands

Cups

When you draw cups, consider how the diplomatic but potentially passive nature of these mortals can be good or bad for them.

  • +1 to Venus, the Moon, and Saturn.

  • -1 to the Sun, Mercury, and Mars.

Ace of Cups

2 of Cups

3 of Cups

4 of Cups

5 of Cups

6 of Cups

7 of Cups

8 of Cups

9 of Cups

10 of Cups

Page of Cups

Knight of Cups

Queen of Cups

King of Cups

Swords

When you draw swords, consider how the rational but potentially unfeeling nature of these mortals can be good or bad for them.

  • +1 to the Sun, Mercury, and the Moon.

  • -1 to the Venus, Mars, and Saturn.

Ace of Swords

2 of Swords

3 of Swords

4 of Swords

5 of Swords

6 of Swords

7 of Swords

8 of Swords

9 of Swords

10 of Swords

Page of Swords

Knight of Swords

Queen of Swords

King of Swords

Pentacles

When you draw pentacles, consider how the dependable but potentially stubborn nature of these mortals can be good or bad for them.

  • +1 to the Sun, Mars, and Saturn.

  • -1 to Mercury, Venus, and the Moon.

Ace of Pentacles

2 of Pentacles

3 of Pentacles

4 of Pentacles

5 of Pentacles

6 of Pentacles

7 of Pentacles

8 of Pentacles

9 of Pentacles

10 of Pentacles

Page of Pentacles

Knight of Pentacles

Queen of Pentacles

King of Pentacles