The Hall of Legends #009 – Home is in the Blue
Date: March 13th, 2015
Game: Society of Dreamers
Players: Jason Cordova Daniel Lewis Ferrell Riley and myself.
Society of Dreamers is Matthijs Holter’s gm-less atmospheric horror game about a group of people in 19th century Europe investigating mnemosites, which are creatures that dwell in dreams.
We played the game in a darkened room by candlelight, which contributes immeasurably to the game’s atmosphere. Furthermore, the game calls for a Ouija board style planchette, used to select the type of scene that comes next. We ended up using a poker chip, but still it does wonders for the mood.
Character creation is gorgeous. It’s a sort of player-seeded randomness. Everyone writes down on note cards two examples each from four categories: age, gender/sexual orientation, nationality, and occupation. Then the cards are gathered and each category is shuffled. In order to create the basics of a character, everyone randomly picks one of each. Players can choose to exchange a single card for another random one, and then they have their character. After this process, we end up with Ferrell’s female Moroccan scholar, Dan’s Norwegian watchmaker (also a woman), Jason’s Ethiopian candlemaker, and my bisexual German archaelogist (both men).*
After character creation, the game begins with ritual. First up, players get up and go around the room, clapping and otherwise making loud noises to ensure any lingering spirits are chased away. As I see it, this serves three purposes. First, it does what pretty much any ritual does: it unites the participants in shared action, investing that action with meaning and separating the newly-formed us from the them of everyone else. Second, it strikes me as something that spiritualists and the like might actually have done, and serves to help everyone get into the headspace of dream investigators. Third, it’s deeply silly. It provides everyone a chance to shake out the sillies and put levity behind them as they switch to the serious tone of the game. After this comes a second ritual. The players close their eyes, except for one who will recite instructions from the game text. The reader instructs the other players to envision above each of their heads a small glowing ball. Each ball is connected via a similarly glowing rod to a much larger mass above the center of the table. Everyone holds this image in their heads for a few seconds. This second ritual blatantly engages the players in a shared dreaming space, which is more or less what the characters in the game will soon be doing. It also sets a somber tone to contrast with the hand-clapping fun of the first ritual. We’re in different territory now.
The game’s basic conceit is the same every time: characters investigate the nature of the mnemosites. What that nature actually is, however, is determined during play. Each scene has a scene guide–something like a temporary gm–and after a scene has played out, players will talk about whether or not they learned anything about the mnemosites, with the scene guide getting final say. As we played out scenes–at first with hints of the supernatural, then getting gradually more surreal and weird–we learned more and more of our quarry. One scene finds Ferrell’s young girl pursuing a phantom playmate. Another features a mystical coming-of-age ceremony in which Jason’s character encounters his dead grandmother, who leads him to her grave. After a creepy scene in a museum with a whispering mummy, we establish that the mnemosites speak through the dead. After Dan’s character is shown a bizarre clue about her sister’s behavior, we get the first inklings that the mnemosites are trying to warn us of danger. We further establish that they come in at least two types (one of which is that danger), are accompanied by cold, have potentially severe effects on the passage of time, and rely on mother figures. We also establish the wonderfully cryptic “home is in the blue.” Blue, green, and yellow become common color motifs in our scenes.
Our session had lots of creepy highlights, but I’ll mention two of my favorites. The first is a feature of the game: a type of scene called a “Dream” or “Dreamer” scene (I forget which is which). One person is selected to go into the dreams of another character. In our game, my character is selected to delve deep into the dreams of Jason’s mystic candlemaker, Abebe. This means I won’t actually be the one declaring what I/Abebe am/is doing. I close my eyes for the duration of the scene, and describe the results of actions the other players tell me to perform within the dream. The result is very dreamlike: Someone tells me I follow a trail I come across, tracks left by a lion. I describe the scene of carnage that the trail leads me to. They tell me I investigate, and I describe the dead body I find. They tell me I pick up the near-decapitated head and see whose it is. I say that it’s clearly Abebe’s, whose dream-body I currently inhabit. They tell me I ask dead Abebe/me a question. I describe its attempt to answer, lips and tongue unable to pronounce any words without breath from its detached lungs. Brilliant marriage of mechanic and theme here, and it makes for a very fun scene.
My other favorite scene involves a gradual build-up of tension and weirdness. It features escalating time distortion, a hidden warning engraved inside a watch, and the arrival of a single guest, not once but twice–once upstairs, impossibly, and shortly thereafter downstairs as expected. Time proves not to be a reliable friend, and the scene ends with us fleeing our house to escape what may or may not be a mnemosite come to kill us.
The way the game works in play is great. With no GM acting as gatekeeper to the truth, we can go into a game where everyone knows nothing and surprise each other with emergent creepiness. The manner in which we played helped out with this. One player would set the scene, as per the rules, but allow room for lots of input from other players, very much to the point where the scene’s not-quite-GM could still be surprised and affected by details from others. Several times during the game, we used a technique whereby the scene guide sets the scene up for a reveal of some sort, and then asks one of the other players what precisely is revealed. “She leans in and whispers one word to you. What is it?” “Run.” Love it.
The unplanned nature of the game also means that, unlike most mystery/investigation rpgs, we could easily build the weirdness up around the characters. We see aspects of their lives as children, adolescents, and adults, and get to know them a bit. As the weirdness comes through dreams, or invades reality in dreamlike ways, it’s very effective at both being surreal, and also at conforming itself to the player characters.
Our game ends in vagary. Questions unanswered, fates undetermined. But we manage to make sense of much more than we had any expectation to, I think. It makes for one of the best game sessions of my life, and will, I’m sure, remain a high water mark for future surreal horror.
*Props to the Story Games Name Project for having Ethiopian, German, Moroccan, and Norwegian names for us.