The book opens with a rambling foreword by the author, touching on how this is a complete rewrite - as the translation of the original I'm reading is of the 2nd edition of Rêve de Dragon - of the rules, suggesting the order and way in which it should be read and the like, before getting to the underlying philosophy of the game: that a dream exists only whilst the dreamer is dreaming... and that in similar vein, the alternate reality of a role-playing game only comes to life when someone is playing that game. The aim in creating the game is to provide a ruleset that facilitates the shared dream of the in-game reality.
The whole is divided into three books, the first of which is called Journeyers. For this game is about journeys: be they quests, searches for enlightenment or indeed actual travels. It begins with the rules for creating a character, or Journeyer. Each is described by a comprehensive list of 18 characteristics, assigned in the main by point-buy, as well as skills and other attributes. Interestingly, the details of actually acquiring skills and the like are left until later despite a fairly comprehensive outline of how a character is described mechanically, the discussion then moves on to the crux of this ruleset, the resolution table, which is brought into use whenever it is not clear whither an action will succeed or not. Although verbose in presentation, it's a ruleset honed down to the core essentials - a means of describing the character in a manner that facilitates task resolution. The rest is left to the role-playing and storytelling capabilities of the gaming group.
Task resolution revolves around a single Resolution Table, cross-referencing the character's relevant skills or characteristics against an assigned difficulty, and rolling a percentage against the target number thus found. It's a neat and elegant system, and there are plenty of ways in which to tweak it to precisely what you need on each occasion: partial successes and partial failures, fumbles, improvisation when you don't know the relevant skills and so on.
The next chapter looks at the actual process of creating a character. It seems quite daunting at first glance, but provided one is methodical it's quite straightforward (if you feel that the mathematics are too complex or time-consuming, there's an Excel spreadsheet generator available from the Malcontent Games website!). No dice are involved, the whole process is one of choice. It does repay taking time to create the character that you want, and depending on the needs of the game you intend to play, working with the rest of the group to create a balanced party. The first choice to make is whither you want to be a High Dreamer (mage) or True Dreamer (all other journeyers) - the number of points available are the same, but High Dreamers need to allocate some to magic skills and spells. The characteristics, skills, and ancillary 'peculiarities' such as age, handedness, and so on are entered on the Character Sheet, thus providing the core description of the character. Next you start on the Journey Sheet, which is the living record of important variables during the course of play, and this book-keeping is quite detailed over and above the sort of hit points and spells used that is about all you need to know in many games.
The character is now detailed, but the poor dear is quite naked, so the next section deals with money and equipment. Again the way in which gear is recorded is detailed almost to the point of nit-picking. Precise location and exact weights are needed, the latter to calculate how encumbered the character might be. Just remember not to say that you have a pint of oil in your backpack, you need to specify that it's in a skin... or everything else in there will be ruined! The passage of time, however, is much more loosely handled with fairly vague 120-minute 'hours' (the Draconic hour) and six-second 'rounds' when you want to get precise, each round being sufficient for one action (usually a combat one). Movement is handled in a similar manner, normally you need only concern yourself with how far you can go in a day, unless it becomes necessary to know just how fast you can run over the space of a single round! Other matters are also discussed, such as how to act unnoticed and meeting deadlines, each provided with clear examples to aid you in seeing how to use the Resolution Table to good effect. To continue with the detail-oriented nature of this game, eating and drinking is discussed, as you are expected to keep track of what your character has eaten and drunk to ensure that he gets enough each day.
The next chapter explores health, discussing how characters become fatigued, and recover from it, moving on through endurance to the all-important matter of life points. If you run out of these, you die. The process whereby life points are recovered is quite complex, but explained clearly - it is becoming apparent, even before reaching the chapter on combat, that engaging in a brawl is not something to be done lightly: in this game, injuries really hurt, can easily be deadly, and take a long time to heal! Wounds, aid and healing are detailed as well, followed by a section on healing herbs. Naturally, physical injury is not the only thing to threaten a character's health: there are also diseases to catch... and such is the nature of such problems, life points cannot be regained until wounds have been healed, and wounds cannot be healed until you are free of disease! And then the discussion moves on to poisons and venom, and miscellaneous ways of getting hurt such as falling and fire.
Chapter 6: Combat then looks at the whole process, beginning with a section on weapons themselves - how they are used and the damage that can be done with them. Next up, armour and the protection that it gives. This dealt with, we move on to the combat round itself. In each six-second round of combat action, firstly intentions must be declared. As the round progresses, an action may be aborted but no modification to that which has been declared is permitted. Next a fairly complicated initiative calculation is performed, based on attack type, weapon to be used and character skill with that weapon... and each individual's initiative is modified by that of his opponent. Magic use goes before any physical attack, and after the brawling is resolved, movement and any necessary assessment of character health is dealt with. Once understood, it can flow reasonably well but does rely on all participants knowing what to do - I'd recommend a few practice fights to get the hang of it before you start adventuring in earnest. Everything is well-described and the numerous examples are clear and easy to follow. Once the sequence is mastered, effects like particular successes, fumbles, and armour deterioration are covered, followed by the rules for unarmed combat. This is divided into two types: pugilism (which covers any style in which you strike your opponent, no matter which part of your body you use) and grappling (where the combatants grab on to each other with the objective of immobilising the opponent). An elegant abstraction is used for grappling, where each success gives you a 'grappling point' against your opponent - if at the end of a combat round you have two such points, your opponent is immobilised and the next round you can cause subdual damage by reducing his Endurance. This chapter is rounded off with a one-page summary of the combat process.
The next chapter of the first book is titled The Archetype. This is more philosophical than the nuts-and-bolts rule mechanics that have gone before, and looks at the 'reality' of dreams. If the world of Rêve is the dream of dragons, what happens when a dragon awakens? A dream does not die when the dreamer awakens, it is remembered. But even if you're a skilled lucid dreamer, when you go back to sleep the dream is never quite the same. Character death in one of these shared dreams wakes the dreamer, but when the dream is resumed, the character is there again, often changed - in circumstance, in age, in characteristics and skills - but the core, the 'archetype' that makes him an individual remains. It's a bit like those people who believe in reincarnation and past lives, something always remains... reflected here by a listing of ALL possible skills, as the individual may have had knowledge in past lives that he does not have now. The discussion moves on to how experience is gained in the game - based on successful skill use - but then reverts to the more esoteric, as under stress, some of the character's past memories may surface during his in-game dreams. Mechanically, this is reflected by allowing a chance to convert stress points gained during the course of events to additional experience points which the player may assign to any skill provided that the current character has a lower skill level than his Archetype sheet shows for that skill. When a character dies, he is indeed dead in THAT adventure - and the usual grieving, scavenging over his possessions and funerary rites take place - but can reappear again, the same person yet different, somewhere and somewhen else. You can even meet people you knew in a past life, and maybe even share some memories of that with them. The final few short chapters deal with optional rules covering luck and destiny points, astrology, morale and even in-character affairs of the heart!
We now move on to the second book, In The Dreantime. This opens in philosophical vein - dreaming creates whole worlds inhabited by the dreamer, and while he's there, they seem to be real worlds. Dragons are the Great Dreamers, and it is the worlds they dream which are inhabited by the characters in this game. This leads onto magic use - if magic is an alteration of the world, and the world is dreamed by the dragons, then magic involves whispering into a dragon's ear and so getting him to change his dream, hence the High Dreamers, those who can exert such influence, do so by learning to speak the dragon's own language. But Draconic is not a language you learn like Greek or Welsh, it is more akin to Ursula K. LeGuin's 'True Name' concept, in which if you know the true name of an item, you gain power over it. Draconic comes in four forms, the ones that a High Dreamer studies influences the sort of magic he can work. High Dreamers perceive more than one reality: there is the Dreaming (the normal reality inhabited by all characters) and the Dreamtime (where the dragons are and mere mortals cannot go), and an inbetween place called the Dreamlands. It is here that High Dreamers go - in the astral state - to cast spells, making a 'journey' around the Dreamlands dealing with encounters until they reach the right place in which to cast the desired spell. It's a complex yet elegant mechanic, that makes spellcasting far more than merely picking a spell from a list and (provided you've not used up all your daily allotment) having it happen. Things can go wrong, sometimes horribly so and sometimes just leaving the hapless High Dreamer with an overwhelming urge to kiss a pig on the snout! If you feel it sounds like all too much bother, this probably is not the right game for you, but if you find it mystical and exciting, you are in for a treat. And this is just the general material, following chapters look at the four different types of magic, exploring both the underlying philosophy and the actual spells you can cast using it.
Magic done, the third book is Worlds and describes the actual game setting, now that we have covered how it all works. It's basically a heroic or mediaeval fantasy, the sort of world in which legends, fairy tales and sagas happen. However, being a setting created of dreams, there are some differences. There are, of course, multiple dreams - one for each sleeping dragon - and characters can sometimes move between them. (Haven't you ever had a dream about someone, then found out the next morning that another person dreamed about that same someone?) Another fact is that there are no deities, and hence none of the 'divine magic' that many fantasy games make available... although those characters who wish to believe in a god or gods can do so, it just is unlikely to have an in-game effect. What gets messier is the effect of dragons awakening. If one does, that is the cause - or is it effect? - of a single character dying. Somehow, there is a collective meta-dream shared by all the dragons, hence one character can die and a single dragon awaken, without problems for anyone else. But should several dragons awaken at once, a cataclysm maight occur amongst those who exist within the dream. These upheavals provide some of the history of this alternate reality.
A recurrent theme in this game is journeys - indeed, player-characters are called Journeyers - so the next chapter explores the principles of travelling between dreams in much more detail. Rifts allowing inter-dream passage, a dangerous meshing of dreams called a blur... each has dangers and opportunities inherent in them, and a tendency to 'just happen' rather than be there when the characters themselves want to travel between dreams. As every good journey includes sea travel at some point, the next things to be considered are matters nautical, especially navigation and storms. Oh, and you can get rifts at sea as well!
Next comes a chapter on Sciences, being primarily a resource for the in-game use of relevant skills; so there are list of plants that a botanist might find, diseases for medics to scratch their heads over and so on. Delights such as the floom, a fruit of extremely low nutritional value (remember, you need to track that your character has eaten enough each day), but which is popular with a larva that eats its way happily through a floom... and whose droppings make very nutritious eating, provided you can get over the disgusting taste! Naturally, mushrooms come in both poisonous and edible varieties, worth knowing which is which. There's also a collection of books, the most common texts that the most educated and wealthy folk might have access to, and the benefits you can gain from studying them. This chapter ends with a wealth of information on alchemy, for those wishing to practice it within the game. This is followed by a chapter on Creatures, not so much for students of zoology but a bestiary for the game. It also allows for non-human characters - giants, gnomes, the dog-headed hounders and mockturtles amongst others - or of course they can feature as NPCs and monsters. The animals are well-described and make biological sense... mostly. One delight is the oracle bird, which does indeed speak the truth but only answers a single question - and gets annoyed if you do not have one when it flies up. While it is reputed to taste delicious and has four legs as well as wings so there is plenty to go round, it is said to be bad luck to kill one. Fortunately for the hungry, there are sections on game and fowl. For less welcome encounters there are undead and disembodied entities as well.
Finally comes An Invitation to the Journey, three scenarios to get your game going. The first serves to get a party together, with beautiful meshing of wierd dreams and travel through a rift to let the characters know from the outset that this is a fantasy like no other. The second involves helping a suicidal Journeyer to regain her composure with the aid of a High Dreamer whom the characters must find and persuade to help. The third adventure is more complex, but involves a sporting competition and various events around it. Each adventure is clear and straightforward to run, even if you are new to this game, and filled with charming little bits of local colour that serve to make it all come really alive. This section rounds off with a gazetteer of the area in which the three adventures are set, so as to give the referee a starting point for further campaigning.
On the face of it, just another swords and sorcery fantasy game... but one with a charming air that entrances, with an underlying philosophy that actually works, delightfully presented in a faithful translation that catches the author's style, not just his words. It will not be for everyone, but for those who find it compatible, entrancing dreams await.
Return to Rêve: the Dream Ouroboros Complete Rulebook page.
Reviewed: 3 September 2010