I ran my first game set in the Dreaming Awake setting at university in 2005. Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons, the game only reached its fifth session.
The first Dreaming Awake game used a system created from scratch specifically for it. Although it was briefly play-tested for balance issues beforehand, it suffered from a few issues that only became apparent once it was properly in play:
- Shiny dwarfed everything. The first character to be awarded a Shiny point — for something entirely social, as it happens — suddenly became a combat munchkin against anything non-Shiny, and the rest of the party couldn’t keep up.
- Powers weren’t obvious enough. The “can I do this?” question was asked too often, and players’ lack of confidence in their characters’ power level made them make poor decisions. Players (and thus characters) couldn’t properly gauge how much of a threat their enemies were, leading to slow and cautious combat.
- The combat system was too slow. Although I began creating it with simplicity in mind, the never-ending quest to make it more elegant also made it more complex. It was not immediately obvious to players what stats they should be combining at each point.
Information regarding the system we used is documented here for archaeological purposes:
The fact that I am deeply in love with Dreaming Awake as a setting should come as no surprise. I wanted the game to feel like an open-ended sandbox that gradually drags the characters into the plot, giving them chance to have fun with the setting, rather than running a railroaded campaign. I probably allowed too much freedom here, and I learnt the following lessons (the hard way):
- Players need to see the results of their actions. A lot of the mechanics of fame in Dreaming Awake involved tales of the players’ actions spreading by word of mouth — but when that’s invisible to the players, the results seem arbitrary.
- …but not when the result is that they’ve made their task more difficult. By their actions and word of mouth, the players managed to effectively start the evacuation of a whole country in the face of an oncoming army. Regardless of whether it was a good or a bad decision, it was one that increased the players’ fame, which Dreaming Awake prizes greatly. As a “look how powerful your words are” scene, the characters stumbled upon one of many refugee camps that had formed — but rather than impressing on the players the importance of the characters’ actions, it instead demoralised them.
- Plot happening in the background is confusing. At one point, the characters caught a glimpse of something big happening in a far-off land. This was intended as a minor hook to suggest that other things are going on that the characters are not involved with, and that perhaps they might want to be involved. But because it came across as “look, stuff happens without you!”, the players did not feel much desire to investigate.