The Independents: Dreampunk

Role-playing games can be a perfect venue for the surreal. Exploring a strange world that has its own incomprehensible rules is often better done in games, where players have the opportunity to poke, prod, and learn, rather than being stuck in an author’s or director’s interpretation. That said, most games that embrace surreality these days embrace a designer’s vision, and are still one possible experience in a world that could be a whole lot weirder. Enter Dreampunk, a game currently being funded on Kickstarter. Dreampunk is a game that borrows heavily from the mechanics of Belonging Outside Belonging and, by extension, Powered by the Apocalypse. What makes Dreampunk unique, though, is the use of card drawing mechanics not only to pace the game, but to develop the very reality of the setting.

The conceit of Dreampunk is that all the characters are Dreamers, coexisting in a dream world together. The waking lives of the Dreamers is largely unknown; the game specifically disclaims ever playing scenes in the waking world or answering any questions about it beyond what the players bring to the table. Each character is connected to their waking life through three Tethers, personally and emotionally important objects that serve as bridges between the dream world and the waking world. They also have needs; strong desires which they can only achieve in their dreams. As Dreampunk is, like Belonging Outside Belonging games, diceless, character creation is built around writing Tethers and Needs which are based on the conceit of each playbook. You may be a Haunted, whose fears manifest in their dreams. Or you could be a Dissembler, living a lie in the waking world and trapped by lies in the dream world. You could be Bound, getting through life with your rules that you must never break. Or you could be Overlooked, unable to get what you need in waking life, only in dreams.

What makes Dreampunk unique is not the premise or the rules, it’s how the game is played and how the dream world is built. Each player starts a session with a hand of five cards. Most Lucid Moves, moves which let the characters impact and alter the dream world, require either playing a card or chaining onto another player’s card (which requires discarding one of your own). When denizens of the dream aim to stop the characters from achieving their aims, the Guide (Dreampunk’s term for GM) will draw a card from the deck. And at this, I bet you’re confused. What cards? How do the cards work? Well. Well well well. Dreampunk is played with art cards. There is a deck of cards which comes with the game, but any art cards will work. Have a copy of Everway lying around? Those cards work. Like the board game Dixit? Those cards work. Have a really gnarly Tarot deck you’re willing to game with? Those cards work. All you need are images, preferably images with a lot going on, and you can make a deck of cards work for Dreampunk. What happens when a card is played is that the image on the card is used to explain how the desired action is resolved. The dream world is a constantly changing place that operates by its own rules, so if you’re going to make your escape in a literal submarine sandwich, that’s just dream physics at work.

The tension in the mechanics is not implemented with a token system as is seen in Belonging Outside Belonging games, rather the hand of cards provides the inherent limit on character actions. In essence, all Lucid Moves require card draws and the only way to counteract and defeat denizens is through Lucid Moves. While five cards isn’t many, players can draw more through using Twist Moves. Twist Moves are for the most part unique to each playbook, and they’re ways to introduce complications or generally make the characters’ lives more difficult in exchange for the opportunity to draw a card. If things get really dire or a character is backed into a corner, they can always use the Unleash move: Using the anchoring power of one of their Tethers to get them past the obstacle or out to safety. There is a catch, though: Unleashing a Tether will eventually turn it into an Entanglement. Turn all of your Tethers into Entanglements and your character is stuck in the dream forever.

As much as there is a tension and pacing mechanic in the form of the cards and a form of mechanical harm that can befall characters, Dreampunk isn’t really intended to be a heavily gamified race against Entanglement or anything else of that sort. Instead, Dreampunk is about exploring liminal space. It’s no accident that every single exchange is resolved through playing cards; the rapid pace of adding scene and setting elements is, as far as I can tell, supposed to resemble a dream. The Lucid moves often reflect dream logic quite wonderfully: The ‘Cut’ move allows the characters to show up in another place entirely, albeit usually in the same amount of trouble they were in before. The ‘Realize’ move literally lets you bring in a ‘realization’ that changes the assumed reality of the scene. The canvas set up by the moves is jarring, surreal, and frankly pretty neat.

I think the most obvious critical question that could be leveled towards Dreampunk is something along the lines of “what makes your character’s actions meaningful when they can do essentially anything?” And that’s where the setting makes for some very interesting implications. Lucid dreams are the theoretical environment where we as people in fact *can* do anything, as much as that state is both difficult to reach and then behaves in strange ways when you do reach it. I think one of the powerful things that Dreampunk does is take some of the impact away from how your actions manifest, mainly by putting those manifestations into the cards instead of either the players or the Guide. In theory, the Needs should provide a backdrop to why the characters are there, important when the *what* or *how* of the characters is dynamic.

As much as the game is written from the perspective of there being one Guide who is acting more like a GM, I feel like the GMless interpretation of the game, where players each take on one element of the Guide, is likely a more ideal way to play. There are plenty of offramps, mechanically, in the game; the relatively loose rules around the ‘Awaken’ move, as an example, serve to make it pretty easy to never bump up against any real constraints in terms of how many cards players have. If the Guide role is broken up into the four sub-roles (the Mirror, the Threat, the Might, and the Throng), then players are going to be working across purposes in two directions, and suddenly things become a lot more interesting. That all said, no matter what way you play, the constraints of the game are very much only as hard as your group chooses to make them.

There’s another thing that needs to be said about Dreampunk: With the cards, this is catnip for GMs and groups who like improv. The card mechanics codify ‘play to find out what happens’ like you couldn’t imagine. Whether you want to lean hard into card exhaustion and have a tough journey through the dream world or have a looser, more relaxed exploration, every single move is going to introduce something new. As long as you embrace the ‘dream logic’ put forth by the Lucid Moves, it’s going to be one hell of a trip. Personally I want to pull out my copy of Dixit and use those mindbending cards to run a session of this; that said, I’ve seen a solid handful of the artpieces for Dreampunk’s own card deck and they look fantastic. Whether you use the Dreampunk deck for your game or another one you can acquire, the experience should be memorable: Just make sure to find cards with a lot of details, to better encourage different interpretations and chains of moves.

Dreampunk is funding on Kickstarter now; at this writing it has already reached minimum funding so the game is definitely going forward. While a PDF copy is $10 (and there’s a hardship tier at $5), I encourage those of you with the means to look at higher tiers where a deck of cards is included, or at least consider adding on a digital version of the card deck. Dreampunk provides a different angle to approach ‘surreal roleplaying’, and puts forth a creative addition to the indie corpus in the orbit of Powered by the Apocalypse and Belonging Outside Belonging. If you, like me, are intrigued by dreams and lucid dreaming, then Dreampunk should capture your imagination. Even if lucid dreaming isn’t your thing, this is a game that helps get creative and improvisational juices flowing in a way I haven’t really seen before. You should definitely check it out.

Dreampunk is live on Kickstarter until August 14, 2021.

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