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RPG Evolution: The First Nightmare

Dreams are not an uncommon trope in fantasy settings, but the first recorded nightmare haunts us to this day.

Dreams are not an uncommon trope in fantasy settings, but the first recorded nightmare haunts us to this day.

Giseh_Traumstele_(Lepsius)_01.jpg
Picture by Carl Richard Lepsius - Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Band V, Neues Reich, S. 69, Public Domain, File:Giseh Traumstele (Lepsius) 01.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The Ancient Dreamers

Ancient Egyptian's viewed dreams differently than how we view them today. The most common word for dream, "resut," means "awakening" -- a noun, not a verb. There was no verb for dreaming; it was considered something to be actively observed, a dreamer "awakening" in another world. From the Ancient Egyptian perspective, dreams were omens about the future.

The first reference to dreams appear in non-royal Letters to the Dead around 2100 BC. These mssives were written on pottery, left in tombs of dead relatives, asking for favors for the living. Of those, two letters mention dreams. The first is on behalf of a widower, appealing to his dead wife to visit him in a dream in the hopes that she will cure his illness. But the second one is far more sinister, and it's nothing less than the origin of nightmares.

Seni, Father of Nightmares

Meet Heni, a priest in Ancient Egypt. Heni beat his father's servant, Seni, but he justified that abuse because he wasn't the first to do so. Despite Heni's arguments of innocence, it's clear the treatment haunted him, because Seni came back to remind him.

Heni addressed his letter not to Seni, but to his dead father. He asked his father to stop Seni from tormenting him in nightmares, in which the servant was always "looking at" him. "Do not allow him to do me harm," wrote Heni.

Did Seni stop visiting? Did Heni's father intervene? Was Heni haunted until the end of his days? We may never know. But we do know that Seni is the first recorded reference to a nightmare, and in that gray space of guilt, fear, and accusation is a setting rife with possibilities for nightmares and dreamscapes.

Dreamscapes in RPGs

There are many ways to incorporate dreaming into tabletop role-playing game settings, although they tend to be more of an abstraction since role-playing an imaginary character having their own imaginary adventures may be too meta for some players.

H.P. Lovecraft merged his Cthulhu mythos with that of the Dreamlands, a fantasy world overlapping the modern one. Lovecraft's work, exemplified by the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, set the standard for rules of how dreaming worked (dreamers were functionally immortal in their dreams) and blurred genres, with ghouls becoming friendly allies, cats who speak their own magical language, and weird creatures like zoogs, gugs, ghasts, and moon-beasts.

The Plane of Dreams, introduced in 3.5 Edition of Dungeons & Dragons' Manual of the Planes, was coterminous with the Prime Material Plane, and it was here that the dream travel spell allowed dreamers to traverse massive distances.

Originally inroduced in the Basic version of Dungeons & Dragons, the Demiplane of Nightmares featured creatures of twisted horrors borne out of the Region of Dreams and the Ethereal Plane. It was later connected to the Far Realm and the Forgotten realms. It was the home plane of several creatures that are more common in D&D today: neh-thalggu, diaboli, feyrs, nagpas, and maelephants.

The Fifth Edition of D&D largely ignores what's gone before, with oblique references via the dream spell and the night hag's Nightmare Haunting ability.

Pleasant Dreams!

In the above examples, each setting positions dreams not as a gateway to an inner psyche, but rather "awakening" to another life, just as the Ancients believed. Dreams and visions are an important part of any fantasy campaign, and with them come nightmares. Thanks to the Egyptians, we can now name the very first nightmare, along with the guilt and shame that brought him about. If you need an overarching villain (or an antihero throwing off the shackles of oppressors in the waking world), Seni is always available ... and always watching.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Dire Bare

Legend
In my 5E games . . . not that I've actually needed it yet . . . I've basically merged the Plane of Dreams and the Feywild.

In addition to the 3E version of the Plane of Dreams, I really like the dreamscapes in 2E Ravenloft, although it's been forever since I've read that sourcebook.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Aurora, the realm of dreams.

This has played a big part in my homebrew campaign of Amberos. Aurora was a playground for the gods, where they could sleep and experiment without it affecting the waking world. However, when the Dark One came to the court of the gods, he invaded their thoughts and dreams, and Aurora's edges drew back, revealing the unnamed Realm of Nightmares.

More creation story (or at least, one version...) for the interested
Harp, the creator god, who had been on a sojourn to discover what had been threatening creation returned to his children, he found the being he had been looking for - the Dark One, and the Dark One had used his influence to create paranoia and suspicion among the gods - most especially against Harp. Harp put his children to sleep to keep them from harm, but the Dark One escaped. Unable to wake his children, Harp left the gods asleep and ventured out once again to hunt down the Dark One.

In the god's slumber, they created the elvin race from their daydreams, dragons from their desires and the goblins from their dark thoughts. The gods themselves, in their dreams, begat children - the first humans.

Time passed. Eventually, a human and an elf discovered a way to pass back into the real world, arriving on water-shrouded Amberos and its lone mountain - where at its peaks slept the gods themselves. Within the mountain was all of the gods creations that had not been released before their slumber. The two dream children delved into the forbidden mountain and recovered from within objects of great power. In the depths of the mountain they learned the only way to utilize the great power that they found was to bind themselves to mortal world. Without hesitation, the human did so. The elf, wary of the power they found and homesick, did not. They did, however, agree to return to the surface to bid each other farewell on their future travels.

However, their dream children's departure from Aurora was eventually discovered, and dragons were sent to recover the wayward children. In the real world, a great battle ensued at the top of the mountain between elf, human and dragon. The home of the sleeping gods was laid waste, the gods themselves still cast sleeping to other realities. The mountain was sundered - releasing the unready creations of the gods into the real world. A rend in the fabric of reality tore open a permanent gate to Aurora, allowing other dream-selves to pass into the real world - including nightmares. The dragons sent to recover the dream children failed to bring back their charges and instead took to hoarding the powerful treasures the dream children had unearthed.

Time passed again. Once more the Dark One returned, this time to the real world, to work his evils on its inhabitants and back into the dreamlands. But, as he neared victory, the elves uncovered his plot and sundered the open connection to the dream lands (though cracks and secret passages known only to the elves remain). The Dark One and his allies plans were thrarted, and again he vanished into the gloom.

Now, each night mortals sleep and dream, passing through the smallest cracks back into the dreamlands of Aurora or abducted into the Realm of Nightmares. Upon awakening, they are forced to return to the real world they are bound to.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I like having the Dreamlands contiguous with the Ethereal and thus home to Shadows, Fey and other ghost and similar ethereal creatures. Sleepers usually just touch the edges, but can be dragged deeper losing touch with reality.
Both the Shadowfell and Fey realms and their inhabitants are made of Ephemera "dream stuff'" which is why Fey need mortals - Changlings, enscorcelled Clods and Mules - to dream for them.

The last dark Fey adventure I did involved Lord Autumn attempting to capture the dreams of a towns children (plunging them into a catotonic state) in order to invade the mortal plane
 
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talien

Community Supporter
You used a facsimile of the Dream Stele but never mentioned it or explained its significance? tsk tsk! lol
The intersection of Egypt and dreams is pretty much the Dream Stele, so when I was looking for a graphic it made the most sense. Your link describes it well, but here's an overview with more details: The Dream Stele: How a Dream Changed the Course of Egyptian History
The story goes that Menkheperure fell asleep in the shadow of the Great Sphinx of Giza. The young man had a dream that the Sphinx, in the form of the god Harmachis-Re-Atum, promised him he would become king if he removed the sand that covered his body. And not just any king either. He would unite upper and lower Egypt to become king of all Egypt. “The sand of the desert, now It covers me completely. I have been waiting for you to do what is in my heart, because I know very well that you are my son and protector.” Menkheperure agreed to remove the sand and did so promptly. In return, the Sphinx kept its promise and Menkheperure went on to become king of both upper and lower Egypt, taking the name Pharaoh Thutmose IV.
 

talien

Community Supporter
In my 5E games . . . not that I've actually needed it yet . . . I've basically merged the Plane of Dreams and the Feywild.

In addition to the 3E version of the Plane of Dreams, I really like the dreamscapes in 2E Ravenloft, although it's been forever since I've read that sourcebook.
It's weird how D&D really struggles with dreaming. I suspect it's because the sleep rules have been fuzzy and undefined (and the strange decision to have one species, elves, not actually sleep, and thus make it difficult to ensure a party all dreams together). Dreamscapes, active dreaming, prophecies via dream, etc. are a huge part of mythology, and H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands is practically its own D&D campaign. You'd think there would be way more emphasis on it, but like the struggles with the ethereal/astral/spelljammer space I think there's a feeling a "dream realm" complicates traditional planar travel because theoretically anyone can visit.
 

GudrunHelga

Villager
Dreamscapes in RPGs offer a fascinating realm for storytelling and exploration, often blurring the lines between reality and imagination. From Lovecraft's Dreamlands to Dungeons & Dragons' Plane of Dreams and Demiplane of Nightmares, these settings introduce unique challenges and possibilities for players to delve into. While interpretations may vary across editions, the allure of dream-based adventures remains a captivating aspect of tabletop RPGs.
 
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Voadam

Legend
I played in a 1e long term campaign that used Dream from Moorcock's Elric series, in Dream all things are possible and dreamcrafting can shape the reality there.

The DM partially incorporated Ravenloft as the Realm of Nightmares, which would work fairly well with the 5e version.
 

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