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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.

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


The other big one for D&D I think is the 2e Ravenloft Nightmare Lands setting and rules. It was one of the physical Ravenloft products I never got though, I used the original 2e Ravenloft setting for my campaign where the Nightmare Lands were different (more fantasy horror American Indian and Aboriginal) and I thought the GURPS Fantasy II horror setting fit that older version fantastically.

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Guide of Modos
What about Adam realizing there's only one woman on Earth?

Can someone recommend any RPGs that do dreams well, either as a subsystem or as the main focus of the system itself?
Modos 2 makes it easy to ignore a character's physical presence: just use the Mental and/or Metaphysical attributes instead. Each attribute has its own pool for hit points too, so a character can be tougher or more fragile in the dream world. The modular design makes it easy to add your own subsystem if needed. I'd start with a rewrite of the Sleep 1 spell!

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