Idle Dreaming


I’ve just finished yet another iteration of my favourite roleplaying game, Society of Dreamers. It’s a prepless, GMless game, which as someone with a one-and-a-half-year-old I can say is a godsend for my recovering gaming hobby.

Like many GMless games that emulate the traditional GMed roleplaying game framework, Society doesn’t as much eliminate the roll of GM as it does spread it out amongst the group. Specifically, the role of GM as scene-framer is instilled into the role of the “instructor”, which rotates between players. This is great, as almost all of the rules in the game provide the instructor with the relevant structure and prompts to do their job of framing their scene, working out who’s there, etc. In other words, the instructor’s job is less about coming up with the next scene whole cloth, and more about taking the constraints, prompts, and so on provided by the game, and working out what the next scene looks like.

This has been all fine for the majority of our scenes, but in our last session1 I came to the point, as the instructor, that I really wanted to land a good scene given where we were in the story. I didn’t want to just throw some spaghetti at the wall and see what stuck: I wanted to spend some time ensuring that my pot was 100% sticky spaghetti.

(That’s how spaghetti works, right?)

At the same time I’ve recently been listening to the Friends at the Table podcast, whose most recent game in their Bluff City series was Avery Alder’s Dream Askew2. One thing that stuck with me, listening to the game being played, was its idea of idle dreaming. From the manual:

As the map is being sketched and the community is being fleshed out, you enter into a mode of play called Idle Dreaming. This is a time for questions and curiosity, for tangents and musings. Talk about whatever is interesting, or unknown, or scary, or beautiful about this place that you’re building together. Make up details about the landscape, its history, and its residents. Setup becomes play, one flowing directly into the next.

Idle dreaming stokes curiosity and excitement, and that leads into scenes. If ever a scene concludes and there’s uncertainty about what might happen next, it’s always fine to return to idle dreaming until a compelling answer rears its head and demands attention. With that said, it’s common that once the first scene emerges, the session quickly builds momentum and never returns to that starting place of idle dreaming.

  • Dream Askew/Dream Apart, pp 24-25

I had a quick search through the rulebook to find this definition, and honest I’m surprised at how little attention is drawn to this technique. Don’t get me wrong, I think Dream Askew/Dream Apart do plenty of cool and novel stuff with GMless and diceless roleplaying which I’ve had lots of fun hacking into my own stuff over the years. But I think idle dreaming feels like the game’s sleeper hit.

So how does it work?

Deceptively simply. The two paragraphs above describe it pretty succinctly:

  1. Identify that you don’t have a strong lead for your next scene.
  2. Start throwing questions around the table. Encourage people to discuss what’s just happened, what’s up with their characters, what they’d like to see on screen, what questions remain to be answers, etc. etc.
    • Optionally: tell people what you’re interested in, your half-formed ideas. Say “I’d like to run a scene where our two characters have a fight, but I don’t know why they’d do that” and see how people respond. Show vulnerability.
  3. At some point, you’ll realise what the scene is that you want to play. And then you move to framing and playing it.

It’s not ground-breaking because of its complexity or mechanical depth. The thing that makes this magic - at least for me - is that it gives me a framework to break out of a common fallacy in gaming: that the GM (or whoever has the GM hat on right now) needs to have all the answers, or needs to come up with them all on their own.

The other wonderful thing about this is that you don’t even need to tell anyone at the table that you’re using the technique. I didn’t say to the other players at the table, “OK, I’m going to do a little thing called Idle Dreaming, this is how it goes.” I just started asking questions, and led the conversation until I reached the, uh, the sticky spaghetti, to continue the metaphor.

OK but isn’t this just common sense?

Here’s the thing: I have vivid memories of running old, pre-release Dream Askew and finding that process between world-building and scene setting to be excrutiating, especially with newer players. The reason is simple: no one knows where to begin.

Why was this process so difficult? Partly because while the bones of idle dreaming existed within that copy of the book, they weren’t fleshed out at their own technique. And partly because without this process I just didn’t have a framework to guide me, other than saying to everyone, “So who thinks their situation is interesting enough to frame a scene around?”, and then listening to crickets.

The mechanic gives you authority to say to the table: “I don’t know what our next scene is, who wants to help me work it out?” And it frames it in a way to get people talking, about what they’re interested in, what they want to see, to try to ensure everyone has a stake in the next scene that gets played. Like all good narrative mechanics, it’s light-touch enough to get in, cue up the next action, and get out to leave you all just having a conversation.

And to loop back to the initial example of how I integrated this into our last session of Society: until I thought about applying idle dreaming, I had a few half-baked ideas. After around ten minutes of idle dreaming with the rest of the group, we had something compelling, that involved a number of different threads, and ultimately became the climactic scene of our campaign. It didn’t feel like something I authored solely by myself: it was something that we built together, that we were fully invested in.

That’s somewhere I wouldn’t have gotten on my own.

  1. Both as in the most recent session we ran, and also as in the final session of the campaign. 

  2. Dream Askew is published alongside another game, Dream Apart, both using the same mechanics. I’ll be referring to both games together, and their combined mechanics, as Dream Askew/Dream Apart for the rest of this post.