Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Dreamlands and I

Sidney Sime
I'm currently running a campaign where the players have discovered a door that leads into the sewers and catacombs of Zyan, a flying city in the dreamlands. My desire to run a game in the dreamlands is longstanding, tracing back all the way to my very first game of D&D. This is the story of the dreamlands and me.

The first roleplaying game I ever played was in 5th grade in 1986. I knew what D&D was, since earlier that year I had traveled to the Compleat Strategist with my mother, who had, bless her heart, looked up that wonderful store in the phone book and taken me there to buy the Mentzer red box. Although it had thoroughly captured my imagination (damn you Bargle!), I hadn't done anything more than draw hexmaps with a friend for an imagined future game.

But that spring, a new kid named Sebastian ran a very strange game for four of us on the playground. He was the child of an itinerant punk scam artist. Although educationally disadvantaged by his sometimes homeless wanderings, he was a wonderful artist, and had an entirely unchained imagination.

The game kicked off this way: each PC was visited in his dreams by a shadowy figure of immense power, the lord of the dreamlands, who offered us each a challenge. We would compete with other champions: whoever defeated him would receive that which he most desired. The rest would be lost to the dream world forever. He ran the game dicelessly and competitively, playing with each of us one on one in serial fashion. I don't remember much except that it was utterly mysterious, with symbolist elements, and was incredibly difficult. The only concrete memory, besides the dark wonder of the whole thing, was of being beaten by one of the other players in solving some puzzle. His PC was, as a reward, granted a wish, which he promptly redeemed for a magical sword with which to fight the lord of dreams in a duel. The rest of us witnessed the battle, fought on a thin bridge high above us. As it turned out, the character had over-reached, challenging the lord of the dreamlands too soon and in too direct a manner. He was slain. The player wept and we tried to console him. It was badass.

Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

I next encountered the dreamlands when, in middle school, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, the only one of the three great Weird Tales authors (Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith being the others) that I stumbled across in my youth. I devoured all of his works. Contrary to the elevated opinions of the weird intelligentsia, I liked his dreamlands tales the best, and most of all The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath.

I reread the book just last week, and I can happily report that wonder still drips from every page: from Randolph Carter's longing to return to the fabulous city he glimpsed three times contrary to the will of the gods, to the frightening traders who come to Dylath-leen in black galleons, the rowers of which are never seen, and who trade always in rubies. The abundance of Lovecraft's fertile imagination allows him to be a generous dispenser of bits of marvel, for example, the fact, casually mentioned, that only three "fully human" dreamers had ever crossed the perilous gulfs between the dreamland of the earth and those which surrounds Arcturus or Fomalhaut, or that the tree from which the Zoogs make wine grows from a seed thrown down from the moon.

The idea that there are a few travelers who know the hidden ways to the dreamlands, and lead secret lives as explorers of that perilous and fantastical realm, made quite an impression on my teenage mind. I suppose that I originally felt about Lovecraft's dreamlands something like the way Randolph Carter felt about his thrice-glimpsed city. I would defy the will of the gods if it would get me there.

Lucy Johnson

In adulthood, thanks to +Scott Driver, I discovered Lord Dunsany, whose work served as the inspiration for Lovecraft's dream tales. Most relevant here are the superb stories in A Dreamer's Tales, the best of which is "Idle Days on the Yann". This story follows a veteran traveler of the land of dreams on his trip down the Yann River aboard the strange vessel Bird of the River. The sequel to this story, "The Shop in Go-by Street" was a direct influence on the conceit of my dreamlands campaign. Ask the owner of a certain shop in London for an impossible thing he cannot provide, and he will grudgingly conduct you to a back room full of idols, where a glowing cerulean door stands. This door leads to the cottages whose windows look out both on "the fields we know" and "the fields we do not know".

These Dunsanian motifs of secret doorways hidden in plain sight were of special interest to me, because for a period as an adult I actually did manage to lead a kind of second life in my dreams. Starting in college, I suffered from regular insomnia. By the time I was in grad school, it had settled into a macabre rhythm. There was at least one night a week where I fell asleep only at dawn for exactly an hour. But what an hour! During that brief sojourn beyond the veil, I would dream intense lucid dreams. It always started the same way. I would realize I was falling asleep and try to get out of bed, while my body remained in place. When I had separated myself from my corporeal form, I would walk to my bedroom door.

This simple wooden door, painted a plain white, so unremarkable in itself, was in that hour of dawn a portal to an unknown land. What lay beyond the door was always different. Sometimes it would open into the rest of my apartment, located now in a warren of buildings and hallways, with seemingly unending lines of strange painted doors. Other times, I would simply find a flight of stairs leading down, through mysterious tunnels, into the streets, alleys, and courtyards of some unknown city, dark and empty. Or perhaps it would lead to a narrow hallway with a single window, opening upon a world of interconnected rooftops and walkways. These experiences were remarkable and delicious, and some recompense for my perpetually exhausted waking life.

Winsor McCay

These dreams ended in a dramatic way. The figures I met in these lucid dreams were clearly figments of my imagination, without life or will, soulless mannequins I projected onto the dark worlds I was traversing. But on my last trip through the door, I found myself backstage in a theater after a show. I followed a narrow staircase up to a dressing room. Inside was sitting an beautiful actress in a silk kimono. When her eyes met mine, I could tell there was real intelligence and consciousness behind them. I felt myself, for the first time in these lucid dreams, to be in the presence of someone who was not a mere projection. She told me that she was a changeling, which I understood to mean, in the strange understanding characteristic of dreams, that she had played the role of all those shadowy figures I had met in these lucid dreams. She told me gently, with some sadness in her voice, that she was going away for awhile and wouldn't be seeing me anymore. And I have never had a lucid dream since. That was 10 years ago.

So what am I doing running this game in the dreamlands? Am I trying to get back through that door? To create a grown up version of what that crazy 10 year old genius Sebastian subjected us all to? To reproduce my original experience of wonder when I first read Lovecraft's dream tales?

I answer with this. When the protagonist of "Idle Days on the Yann" converses with the sailors of the Bird of the River, he first tells them of his waking life in Ireland. The life he describes seems to them absurdly quotidian, and they mock him, saying, "There are no such places in the land of dreams." However, the protagonist continues, "When they had ceased to mock me, I explained that my fancy mostly dwelt in the desert of Cuppar-Nombo, about a beautiful city called Golthoth the Damned, which was sentineled all around by wolves and their shadows, and had been utterly desolate for years and years, because of a curse which the gods once spoke in anger and could never since recall. And sometimes my dreams took me as far as Pungar Vees, the red walled city where the fountains are, which trades with the Isles and Thul. When I said this they complimented me on the abode of my fancy, saying that, although they had never seen these cities, such places might well be imagined."

Philippe Druillet

If I find myself on a vessel in the land of dreams, and am mocked by seamen for my life grading papers and constructing meticulous arguments in the too solid City of Chicago, I will be able to defend myself thusly. "My fancy dwells mostly with Zyan, the flying pearl of the land of dreams. Its once gleaming towers rise to the heavens, and its opulent sunken courtyards, and narrow streets shield its residents from the bitter winds that blow across the endless Azure Sea that surrounds it. The Zyanese suffer from a great hopelessness, hiding always behind their gilded masks, for owing to a peculiar curse, their monarch is thwarted by a hidden double, as was his father and his father too. My fancy also dwells sometimes in the lush bowers of the inverted jungle that springs from the bottom of Zyan, an immense riot of fungal blooms, teeming with unseemly life. There hangs the ruins of the great Summer Palace of the Incandescent Kings, forgotten and crumbling." Perhaps then the sailors will compliment me on the abode of my fancy, saying that, although they have never been to Zyan, such a place might well be imagined in the land of dreams.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dreams and Reality

The Temple of PEGANA includes many peculiar faiths: worship of ever blooming Kib the giver of life, adoration of Mung the destroyer of the same, propitiation of Sish eater of hours, and evocation of Yoharneth-Lohai, god of small fancies. But most peculiar of all is the worship of the creator god MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI. In the Temple of Pegana, his priests maintain the ever burning censor, accompanying its soporific incense with soothing chants, a sacred, never-ending lullaby. For it is MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI's dreams that sustain reality.

Among the devotees of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, three metaphysical doctrines contend concerning the relation of the dreams of man to the great dream of the slumbering god.

The severe orthodox position is that the waking world is the original dream of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI. Human dreams are only a reminder, a dim echo, of the great divine dream that sustains reality. It is thus hubris to attribute any creative potency or metaphysical significance to mortal dreams. In support of this doctrine, its adherents point to the incoherent and fragmentary nature of human dreams, with their sudden and absurd transitions and meaningless incongruities. These inconstant illusions come unbidden into our fancy as we sleep, only to slip through again into forgetfulness like water through a sieve. For this doctrine, the existence of Wishery has always proved a sticking point, for it is generally assumed that the dreamlands in some way grow from dreams of the inhabitants of the waking world. The orthodox have been led to either deny that Wishery exists, or, more subtly, to claim that is it merely another dimension, one of many worlds, all existing equally in the original dream of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI.

A less common view, formerly considered a heresy, is that all dreams produce reality. On this view the so-called waking world is merely a rung on a metaphysical ladder of dreamworlds that begins at MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI and trails into nothingness at the perhaps infinite lower limit. Adherents of this view agree with the orthodox that human dreams are a pale shadow of the original dream. But they charge the orthodox with hubris for conflating the thin material of the so-called "waking world" of our experience with the unimaginably potent originary dream of the Slumbering God. There are two versions of this strange doctrine, rationalistic ascensionism and mystical descentionism.

The First Dreamers

The ascenionists hold that each level of reality contains conscious beings that dream in turn. The dreams of the slumberers at each level coalesce, flowing down to create the reality of the next level below, including its dreamers. The "waking world" is thus itself the dream of higher beings, as Wishery is the creation of the dreamers of our world. The potency of the dreamers becomes weaker and more diluted as the rungs descends away from the original dream of the Slumbering God. Conversely, as one ascends, the dreamers of each higher waking world are more subtle and potent and the worlds they inhabit more tremendous. The dreamers dreamt in MANA YOOD SUSHAI's original dream are alien beings of unimaginable powers; their fancies the creation and destruction of worlds of unfathomable splendor. The ascensionists liken these first dreamers to the gods of the gods of the "waking world".

The descenionists hold that reality travels in the opposite direction. The dream flow ever downwards, each level more concentrated than the dreams of the previous level, acquiring more hidden and condensed meanings and potent symbols as the levels are descended. The stuff of dreams accumulates until it flows into the great original dream of MANA YOOD SUSHAI, a dream of unspeakable and searing reality that contains the potent distillation of all that has come before. Here it is said that a single grain of sand contains within itself heavens that would shatter the human intellect to behold. This version of the creed is attractive to mystics, great dreamers, and persons of strong fancy, who hold that the waking world is a pale shadow of their dreams, and that their fanciful dalliances are holy expeditions, bringing them one step closer to the Godhead.

There are those among each of these strange creeds with the longing for unknown experiences, who hold that the pilgrimage to the original dream is a sacred and inescapable duty. The ascensionists believe that a way must be found to travel backwards through the successive waking worlds toward the waking world of the first dreamers dreamt by MANA YOOD SUSHAI. The descensionists hold that a way must be found to penetrate ever deeper, forward, through the levels of dreams until one arrives at last at the opal gates of the great dream. As both factions admit, such doctrines are perilous, since man was not meant to experience the higher realities, which must in their potency be inimical to the weaker stuff of which we are made. Yet these would-be pilgrims continue to try, the ascensionists cultivating through meditation ever more vigilant hyperconscious waking states, while the descensionists induce through the use of hashish and lotus powder ever more febrile and lurid hallucinations. Thus far, to no effect.

The orthodox frown on all these efforts equally as idle depravity, and perhaps foul heresy. But the spread of the faith and the increasing popularity among new converts of the heterodox positions has stayed the hand of priests who, in any case, are not given over to much action, bent as they always are, on supporting the soothing reverberations of the great drummer Skarl, lest all reality be destroyed in a moment by the awakening of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI's terrible consciousness.