The Trail into Dreams

By Gareth Hanrahan

Lovecraft’s Dreamlands offer a strange avenue of investigation for Trail of Cthulhu characters. Down the Seven Hundred Steps of Deeper Slumber, the characters may find clues, new mysteries, and new horror. They may wake up screaming – if they wake up at all.

According to Lovecraft, the Dreamlands is an alternate dimension of sorts. Most mortals dream only lightly, descending on the Seventy Steps of Lesser Slumber, but a few brave souls can pass the gatekeepers Nasht and Kaman-Tha and enter the Dreamlands, where galleys ply their trade on diamond-spangled seas between Celephais and Hlanith, where cats gambol in the cobbled alleyway of Ulthar, and where Nyarlathotep waits in Kadath in the Cold Waste. Experienced dreamers can even press on beyond Earth’s dreamlands into higher dimensions, or warp the stuff of dreams to create their own fancies. King Kuranes wrought the city of Celephais from his boyhood memories of Cornwall, and the ghoul Pickman somehow made his way from the waking world to the dreaming.

  • The Dreamlands isn’t an alternate dimension – it’s a shared dream, caused by the bleed from Cthulhu’s psychic emanations. As the stars come closer to rightness, then Cthulhu’s influence in the Dreamlands will grow until he consumes all the dreamers.
  • The Dreamlands is the original of the human conception of Heaven; God is nothing but a weak and fleeting fancy of the human consciousness, a psychic soap bubble.
  • The Dreamlands is the inside of the hollow earth. Unlucky people sleepwalk into the Dreamlands by descending physical stairs (and there are a lot more than seven hundred steps). How do you think ghouls got into the Dreamlands so easily – their tunnels go everywhere!
  • The faeries of legend come from the Dreamlands. Linger here too long, and things will follow you back to the waking world.
  • Nyarlathotep, soul and mighty messenger of the Outer Gods, created the Dreamlands. It’s a psychic test, designed to identify the humans who have the potential to join the Great Old Ones. When the stars are right, and humans become like Cthulhu, the dreamers are the ones who survive and evolve…

Pulp Dreaming: Pulp characters can venture off on their own epic dream-quests, branding Elder Signs in one hand and scimitars in the other. The Dreamlands – sometimes lurid, sometimes poetic, sometimes terrifying – are a great way to bring pulp elements like foreign travel, lost cities, alien jungles and sword-and-sorcery adventure into the life of any investigator. A pulp detective might not be the sort to fly off to Darkest Africa to uncover an ancient tomb, but move the tomb to the Dreamlands and any sort of investigator can join in the quest.

The Dreamlands can be used unchanged in a Pulp game – The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath is exactly the tone to aim for.

Purist Dreaming: The fragile dreams of mankind are fleeting and inconsequential compared to the ultimate reality of the Great Old Ones, who exist in all dimensions. Purists might visit the Dreamlands, but it should be an eerie, surreal experience. Play up the idea that the Dreamlands is partially inspired by places on Earth (Celephais was a pale shadow of Cornwall, and Randolph Carter’s golden sunset city was just his boyhood memories of Boston). Purist dreamers should find themselves walking through their own memories and fears, with added weirdness and monsters.

Often, a Purist dreamer is unsure whether or not he’s even asleep. Look at poor Walter Gilman’s dreams in the witch house.

Dreaming Rules: The standard Trail of Cthulhu rules apply in the Dreamlands, with a few modifications.

Firstly, it’s harder to die in the Dreamlands. A character who suffers damage and fails a Consciousness roll just wakes up suddenly, largely unharmed. Dying in the Dreamlands is still traumatic, though, and requires a 5-point Stability test.

Secondly, all characters who enter the Dreamlands gain the Dreaming general ability. This ability starts at 1d6, plus the Investigator’s Art score. The Dreaming ability is a powerful one, but usable only inside the Dreamlands.

  • A character can use his Dreaming pool to pay for Athletics,Conceal, Disguise, Fleeing, Preparedness, Riding, Scuffling, Sense Trouble, Stealth and Weapons checks.
  • Dreaming may be used to spot clues in the Dreamlands, like an investigative ability.
  • A character may make Dreaming checks to warp the dream, creating entities within the dream world. Such conjured creatures or places do not appear in front of the dreamer – he must seek them out. A dreamer who needs to cross a wide ocean can’t just whistle up a boat on the spot, but he can dream of a boat and walk along the jewelled beach until he finds one.
Desired Effect Difficulty
Conjure a common item 4
Alter the dreamscape slightly 5
Conjure a specific person 6
Conjure the city of your dreams 8
Escape into the Dreamlands instead of dying 12

Investigations in the Waking World: Instead of having the adventure take place wholly in the fantastical Dreamlands, an investigation can happen partially in dream and partly in the waking world. The characters might dream a visit to a cryptic old hermit on the slopes of Mount Ngranek, who holds the vital clue needed to decrypt a manuscript recovered from a cult in the waking world. A fiendish sorcerer might strike at the characters through their dreams, assailing them with hideous monsters every time they slumber. Dreams can even be the initial hook that bring the characters into a mystery – an experienced dreamer might meet a seer in Dylath-Leen who tells him a strange prophecy that makes no sense to anyone in the Dreamlands, but is horribly clear to anyone from the waking world (‘O traveller from afar, perchance have you encountered on your wanderings a land called America? I dreamed of it, once, and I saw it devoured by worms’).

  • The characters do not know each other in the waking world, but have met in dreams many times. Then, one of their number is murdered, and the Sign of Koth drawn in blood across the corpse’s forehead. Who is killing the dreamers, and why?
  • A friend of the investigators begs them for aid. His son is deeply troubled, and taken to raving about strange gods and sacrifices and a coming conjunction when ‘the gates will shatter and they will come through’. Unless something can be done soon, the boy will have to be committed to a sanatorium. Interviewing the boy, the characters learn that he learned of his new gods in a dream – but the cult of these gods also exists in the waking world. The investigators must use the boy as their guide to the cult without driving him deeper into madness.
  • After months of investigation and a final, desperate battle, the investigators defeat the evil sorcerer behind the cult. Their foe is dead – or so they think. The sorcerer managed to escape into the Dreamlands, and from this eerie sanctum he continues to plot revenge. The investigators must master the art of Dreaming and put a final end to their enemy.
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