Indie Game Spotlight: Dreamchaser

My fellow fanatics, it is time again for another spotlight on an interesting game that you should really check out. As always with projects brought into the spotlight, I will not guarantee it will be the brand new thing to knock Call of Duty or Dungeons and Dragons off their fancy golden thrones, just that it is a passionate alternative to look into if those mentioned franchises have become too stale and boring.

So without further ado, let’s dig into the RPG system, Dreamchaser by Imagining Games.

But first, a bit of background on recent trends in tabletop gaming. Ever since its popularity in the 1980s, Dungeons and Dragons has become what people think about when it comes to games involving paper, pencils, dice, and imagination. And in many ways, its influence has spread out, spawning other types of RPGs like World of Darkness, and even inspiring acclaimed authors like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels.

But despite the pastime having a large, passionate player base, there has been an active push against one crucial bar to entry: complexity. For a new generation of players trying to get into tabletop gaming, a lot of the old classics can feel overwhelming to get started, let alone sustain interest. Your stats, your feats, two dozen different classes to pick, twice as many playable races, magic items to buy, alignment, what God they worship, their Role in the party, etc.. To a total noobie, that level of mental load is terrifying. While there will always be an audience for that level of number crunch (my personal poison of choice is Paizo’s own Pathfinder for fantasy shenanigans) it has lead to an outpouring of simplified but more creatively open experiences.

Game systems like FATE and Apocalypse World helped change the appearance of what it meant to play and run RPGs thanks to their focus on the players making exactly what they want. Bringing what they want to the table without it having to fit the restrictive molds set up by Wizards of the Coast’s iconic franchise.

Dreamchaser feels like a natural continuation of this stats-lite story centric system. In fact, everything from the setting, the world, and even the goals players will be aiming to accomplish is collaborative and malleable.

Before character creation starts on a new session, each player (GM included) write down a simple goal that they want to do during the session. Anything as broad as “Rescue the Princess” or “Defeat The Evil Overlord” or as out there as “Eliminate The Idea of Hatred” or “Create A World Ruled By Grasshoppers” are encouraged. Then the ideas are put up to a vote by the group, with the winning idea becoming the central goal of the campaign or session. The process is then repeated with everyone writing a smaller personal goal for them to strive for like “Avenging My Wife’s Death” or “Becoming The Most Powerful Wizard.” It is from these very ideas thrown around the table that a setting or world can be created thanks to input by all players. A sort of remix of what everyone wants to get out of the play session. The Game Master gets to speak briefly with players on how to present the various ideas, confirmed and rejected, and mix it into something utterly unique, and the players get a clear set of goals to work towards with their characters.

Artwork courtesy of Steve Stark

The beginning seems too open-ended at first, but it might just be Dreamchaser’s greatest draw. Back when I was first introduced to the game near the end of my time at SAFe last year, it was during a time where I was continuously running various RPG sessions for my group of friends. Memorizing rules, balancing character motivations, and of course setting up conflict and challenges for them. Yet somehow, while I was making a setting for my campaign’s PCs, I unfortunately forgot to include conflict and easily understandable goals, the lifeblood of good collaborative tabletop gameplay. Turning what was supposed to be a shonen-anime style action setting about psychic teenagers into a plodding meandering slice-of-life drama where nothing happened. It ended pretty quickly after that.

With Dreamchaser’s approach, a lot of the stress and expectations of a Game Master is lessened. The fundamental building blocks of a shared world is no longer a labor of love by a single person, but a more collaborative effort shared among everyone.

In fact, speaking as an RPG veteran playing Dreamchaser for the first time, it was an approach that I found utterly liberating. Thanks to the online wizardry of Discord and Roll20, I was able to have a small demo session of the game with the lead designer, Pete Petrusha. Pete was an utter delight to talk with, not just as a highly supportive and informative Game Master but also as an exuberant lover of games and game design. So, naturally between me stress testing what Dreamchaser was capable of in terms of group dynamics and interactivity, I asked him some questions about the game, how it came to be, and certain challenges that he faced during playtesting.

For instance, the game’s inception was thanks in no small part to the works of Jim Butcher and a certain fictional practicing wizard from modern-day Chicago….

TC: So how exactly did you come up with the idea of Dreamchaser? It seems like the kind of experience that’s tailormade for spontaneous creative gaming adventures. Was it done as a response to the more stat-driven complexity of the likes of DnD or Pathfinder?

PP: I was largely influenced by the Dresden Files. When I was working on my first game, there were a lot of game ideas that flowed in and out, and until you have that spark, they’re just words on paper. With RPGs, you know there’s going to be a mechanical system, a theme, and until you come across the right idea it will just click. I had an idea to create a system to help people come up with that theme. It was originally a system called GAPS and it was about modern day magic users, since the Dresden Files was about magic bringing things into existence through willpower. What do they want to achieve? Working out these ideas eventually developed this runaway concept. How do we as players find a way to get what they want in this game? Not just as players but as G Ms.

Artwork by Sarayu Ruangvesh

And what I wanted out of our session was quite specific. Going right into character creation, Dreamchaser eschews classes and races and simply asks you to develop some core traits for your character and their central Role in the adventure. These traits can be specific like Diplomacy or Parkour, and the Role is the core of what your character is. This creative style even extends to relationships and items you can equip your character with.

If this sounds utterly freeing to you as a player, that’s because it is. With a simple overarching goal of “Hunt The Nightmare Beasts” my session turned into a surreal urban fantasy adventure. My character was a young Oneiromancer (or dream wizard) who was tasked by the god Orpheus to protect the plane of dreams from an outbreak of monsters that were killing people in their sleep a la A Nightmare on Elm Street. His class wasn’t Wizard or Seer or Magus or whatever, he was able to be a powerful magic-user with a shapeshifting liquid metal staff that also made his cash as a hack fortuneteller.

But what made the session memorable wasn’t just how Pete and I’s collaboration lead to a world that felt like a DC Vertigo Comic, it was the humanistic and comedic element that a third player brought to the session. His role was of a simple husband who lost his wife in the nightmare beast attacks with a bad case of narcolepsy. He had no magic, no super strength or uncanny wit. In any other RPG system he would be a regular NPC with a distinct quirk. But through the magic of Dreamchaser, he became a crucial human element that kept the session from just turning into chaotic half-formed ideas and concepts. In fact, he wound up becoming an unconventional savior during the session’s climax where he saved my character by getting a power boost from his emotional support chihuahua, causing him to manifest as a yapping dogman in the dream plane.

I wish I could say there were other times in my years of pen and paper gaming where “saved by a Werehuahua” happened, but I can’t.

What also stuck out to me was how inherently flexible these rules were. Encounters and challenges are resolved by D10 rolls, with target numbers determined by the strength of the trait your are using and whether or not you’re using it reasonably or imaginatively. Paired with a success/failure system that has a bit more going on than at first glance, and it leads to encounters that feel intense and engaging that can be made on the fly without the GM having to pull out three different Monster Manuals.

Artwork by Chris Cold

Of course, the game didn’t get like that over night, and initial reactions from those players helped refine Pete’s approach.

TC:How exactly did you playtest these rules early on? Any interesting situations happen when veteran players tried it? What about newcomers?

PP: With my Kickstarter video, there was a lot of talk, a lot of conventions I went through with prototypes of the book. Summer of 2016 to September of 2016. I was just this guy at these big places. It did all kinds of things. The game was radically different. There was a sort of class system we had called Souls that got dropped. They were general essences of what people could be, various ideas and steps. But it wasn’t exactly refined, and it was a darling I had to pull the trigger on.

A lot of the responses from players was really positive! Female players even brought up that it felt so refreshing. Just not hearing “no” as much as other systems. There was a bit of a pushback when I went to New Jersey where I met a bunch of story-focused players, the kind I was expecting to really love the game. And they said they felt like they were on a leash. That there was no tension, and that the players just want to run wild.

And that answer really does encapsulate the core appeal of Dreamchaser. Being able to make what you want and work with others to make it something that the group wants without worrying about lore or setting rules. Making a character that you want to control without having to bend a bunch of complex rules and numbers into pretzels to get it to fit. The very primal glee in being told “you can do that” with almost no restrictions. As long as everyone agrees to work towards the central dream, anything is free game.

If there is a small but crucial flaw I can find in Dreamchaser, it is that it can rely too much on every player wanting to invest creative energy to a session. There are players out there who just want to stat out a character sheet, make something that breaks the game’s rules, then just utterly destroy a dungeon’s challenges and get out with all of the loot like godkilling murder hobos. Even if the session inevitably became a loot-focused dungeon crawl, those exact same players might find the mechanical simplicity too boring or too easy to break. There can also be player groups whose ideas and approaches can lead to tension or even disagreement in how those ideas can be implemented. Or worse, that certain ideas might be incompatible.

Artwork by ArtsyBee

But those issues will differ from group to group, and it doesn’t overwhelm the utter joy of experiencing a setting slowly come to life and help create evocative adventures for all players involved. For a single evening or over the span of months. And the glue keeping the whole thing together is that united drive towards a singular goal. Something that Pete himself believes sets the system apart.

PP: This vision of the game at is core is asking players what they want. If you look at FATE, it focuses on characters, settings are secondary. Dreamchaser says the most important thing is goal, and at the core of a group game, goal is important. But instead of the goal being something just put there, the game asks what the players want the goal to be. Anything from saving the world, climbing Mt. Everest, a kid becoming a rock star etc.. Subtlely or through the visage of gameplay, it says we can accomplish anything if we can take the steps to get there.

Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t have some goofy one-off situations happen as well.

TC: What is the most ridiculous, outlandish, or outright exotic scenario that happened during one of these sessions? Something you rarely see in other pen and paper RPGs?

PP: We have a lot! (laughs). One of them was the dream was “To Make The Perfect Sandwich,” and it lead to a world of food related magic. One of the characters was on his deathbed, lived a long life, and wanted to re-experience a perfect sandwich he had once as a kid. It ended in this really hilarious cooking competition, ending in this evil wizard/good wizard magic duel! There were funny spells with people throwing kale and mayo projectiles at each other. It was amazing!

Dreamchaser is a system that reminds me of the unbridled potential of tabletop gaming and just how beautiful it can be when it’s allowed to cut loose. While the big players are like elaborate orchestras with large ensembles and complex symphonies, Dreamchaser is the freeform jazz group. It knows what everyone is here for, it knows what it has to do, and just goes with the flow. There may be some sour notes and stuff that kind of fizzles out, but with the right crowd it won’t really matter and the show simply goes on.

Dreamchaser is currently available in pdf format at both DriveThruRPG and Imagining Games’ website. If you want to actually see a session being played you can also subscribe to the official Dreamchaser Twitch channel as well as their own YouTube Channel. Also, if you decide to order the book physically from your brick and mortar store, if only to fully drink in the gorgeous artwork that has been peppered throughout this piece, Imagining Games is a supporter of the Bits and Mortar system where they will provide a pdf with your physical book at no additional cost.

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