The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day a superhero walks into my office — cape, underwear on the outside, the whole nine yards.
“Let me guess,” I says, “You want me to review a superhero game.”
“Huh?” he says. “Oh, this!” He looks down at himself. “This is just my Animus.”
“My Animus. My dream form.”
“Okaaay…” I says. I’d seen this type before. Best to humor’em. “So what’s the job?”
I’ll be damned if he doesn’t break out a pouch full of herbs and chalk and rat skulls. Before I can say a word, the guy does a Voodoo ritual right there on my desk. And when he’s done, there’s a rulebook sittin’ there. Of Dreams and Magic, it says.
“…Was that your superpower?” I says.
“Oh, no,” he says. “That’s just some magic I picked up along the way. Here, I’ll give you the PDF copy, too.”
He proceeds to pull a freakin’ datajack outta his skull and plug it into my trusty laptop.
“What in the Hell kinda game is this?” I says.
“Like the title says, it’s about dreams and magic,” he says.
If this is what this guy’s dreams are like, I think to myself, I know someone who’s been hittin’ the sauce before bedtime.
Anyway, here’s the review.
Boy, where to begin…
Okay, so Of Dreams and Magic (hereafter “ODAM“) is a modern-day setting with magic hiding in plain sight. “Magic” in this context covers a whole lot of ground, however — not just traditional fantasy magic, but basically everything “unreal”. The bartender at the pub you visit every Friday could be an ogre. Or a cyborg. Or even a superhero. But the average person just sees Joe the bartender.
So why can’t people see magic? The answer is the Doubt, a malevolent force that for reasons unknown seeks to repress the potential of humans by blinding them to the wonders that surround them. If a supernatural event takes place, the Doubt will either force people to rationalize it as best they can or else forget it entirely.
The Doubt isn’t perfect, however. Certain individuals have a special sort of dream called a Crux, featuring a struggle between the dreamer and the Doubt. Both the dreamer and the Doubt take forms appropriate to the dream’s setting — an “Animus” and a “Nemesis”, respectively. If the Animus defeats the Nemesis, the dreamer awakens as an “Anima”: an individual free of the Doubt who can not only perceive magic, but also perform it.
That magic comes in three forms.
First, the Anima gradually learns to channel his Animus, taking on its form and (increasingly) its powers in the Waking World. An inexperienced Anima with a superhero Animus might start out with super-strength while manifesting, eventually tapping into the Animus’s flight, invulnerability, and eyebeams, for example.
Second, an Anima can learn to recreate abilities from dreamworlds that are totally unrelated to the Animus. If the Anima frequently dreams about psionics, for example, he might learn to manifest specific psionic abilities in the Waking World.
And third, “normal” (for lack of a better term) spell-based magic exists in the form of Traditions like druidism, shamanism, voodoo, and witchcraft. (Hermetic magic is a noteworthy omission.)
So, a character might be able to assume the form of a superhero, cast voodoo rituals, and conjure a datajack from a cyberpunk dream. Lots of options there.
What’s the opposition? Well, the Doubt can turn the nightmares of the Anima into a frightening reality called a Reaver, a demonic beast of varying forms that will seek to torment the Anima, wreck his life, or simply destroy him. Worse still, when the Doubt gets really sick of an Anima’s shit, it can give life to the Nemesis the Animus once faced in the Crux — essentially a Reaver created with the particular Anima in mind. If the Anima can take the form of a superhero, the Nemesis might be a super-villain. If the Anima can take the form of a barbarian warrior, the Nemesis might be an evil sorcerer. And so on.
Reavers come in two varieties: Bound and Unbound. Bound Reavers are dedicated to defeating the Anima that spawned them. Unbound Reavers have already defeated “their” Anima and are now free to bedevil any Anima they choose.
Now, here we get to a bit of a sticking point.
Unbound Reavers killed in the Waking World are simply destroyed. Bound Reavers killed in the Waking World, on the other hand, will return in 24 hours. To kill a Bound Reaver, the Anima must defeat the Reaver in dreams. Anima possess the ability to Dreamwalk — a sort of astral travel while sleeping, during which the Anima appears as the Animus and can see the world free of the Doubt. While Dreamwalking, Anima can enter the dreams of other people. Thus, allies can join the dreaming Anima in his conflict with the Reaver.
This is a very cool premise. The problem lies in the fact that these dreams require an entire world to be created every time it happens. Furthermore, these dreams aren’t of the lucid variety. The PCs take on the roles of characters within the dream who are completely unaware that they’re dreaming. So, the GM must create a whole new world (cue Aladdin music), and the players or the GM must come up with whole new characters with their own personalities and motivations, and the GM must get the players up to speed on the setting because these new PCs would already know about the dreamworld.
That’s an awful lot of work.
Still, with a dedicated GM, the setting has enormous potential and near endless variety. I don’t know if I could pull it off myself, but I’d love to play in a game with a GM who could.
The setting doesn’t stop there, though. Some dreams persist independently of any one dreamer and are essentially other worlds called Dreamscapes. These include fantasy, modern day, and sci-fi settings. The book describes three of these for each type of setting, but with very little detail beyond the powers that an Anima can gain through repeated visits to them. The fact that one of these settings, Laruna, is a game of its own should tell you the amount of work involved.
The game lacks a proper bestiary, which isn’t entirely surprising, given the number of worlds it would have to cover. It does, however, include a few natural animals, as well as a handful of interesting NPCs: two magically-aware detectives, an ogre, a powerful psionic child, a minotaur, an angel, a fae healer, and an android. All are well-detailed across two pages. I’m not entirely sure how they’re meant to be used, though, so perhaps the space might better have been used to take a crack at a bestiary after all.
The game does provide a unifying organization for Anima in the form of the Doctor Connor Marlowe Agency (DCMA), which serves as a kind of governing and law enforcement body. The organization is always on the lookout for new Anima, providing a means to get new characters up to speed as well as giving them missions. The game also includes two opposition groups: MOX, an organization of Voids (Anima who’ve surrendered to the Doubt) dedicated to eradicating all Anima, and United Vision, an organization of Anima who believe themselves above sleeper (non-Anima) laws and some of whom see sleepers as Doubt-fueling enemies. PCs actually could be members of the latter organization, although taking the more strident anti-sleeper view could lead to an awfully dark campaign.
Like the setting, the system is a bit jargon-heavy. I’ll do my best to spell it out in plain English.
The core mechanic is (attribute + skill + 1d10 – 1d10 vs. target number), not unlike such games as Ars Magica or Feng Shui. The unmodified human attribute scale is 1-10. The dice do not open-end; instead, double 10s result in a +12 and double 1s result in a -12. As big a fan as I am of open-ended rolls, I find that keeping track of both open-ended positive and negative dice to be a bit much for my math-addled brain, so I’m good with this mechanic. I also like the fact that skills can be used with any attribute. (In fact, the character sheet helpfully has space to add each skill to each attribute.)
Having degree of success matter is a big plus for me, and ODAM really takes that concept to the next level. Higher levels of success aren’t just better — they produce a currency called CAP (Competitive Advantage Points) that can be spent to tweak the outcome of the success in the PC’s favor, improving strength, cost, speed, duration, damage, range, or weapon special effects. Once again, however, this requires a bit of preparation on the part of the GM, or else some quick on-the-fly thinking: the GM must determine the potential benefits and CAP costs before the attempt is made. A computer hacking attempt, for example, would have to have a base time it would take, a CAP cost for reducing that time by particular intervals, a CAP cost for finding certain extra bits of information, etc.
Combat adds some additional twists to the core rules, of course, covering everything from knockout strikes to dual wielding to shields to automatic fire. It’s admirably comprehensive without straying too far from the core mechanic. I will say, though, that humans seem awfully robust in this game. All normal humans have a health score of 100, and a handgun has a base damage of only 15.
The first step in character creation is creating the character’s Waking World identity.
Character statistics are broken down into four categories: Inherent (Attributes and Traits), Learned (skills and techniques), Magical, and Possessions and Artifacts. The player grades one category as excellent, two as good, and one as average, and these grades determine the point values the player has to assign to these categories.
The Attributes are fairly standard: Strength, Agility, Endurance, Intellect, Perception, and Charm. Traits are advantages and disadvantages.
Skills are broken down into Base Skills, Advanced Skills, and Techniques. There are only nine Base Skills: Academics, Athletics, Computers, Creative, Fighting, Firearms, Manual, Social, and Weaponry. Advanced Skills are really specializations added to Base Skills, such as Handguns under Firearms. Both Base and Advanced Skills are rated from 1-20, and an Advanced Skill can’t be higher than its Base Skill. I always like broad skills combined with specializations, so this works perfectly for me. Techniques are akin to d20 feats and include such things as Quick Draw, Good Listener, and Deep Web Searching.
The Magical category involves access to powers drawn from Dreamscapes as well as from Waking World magical traditions.
The Material category includes both Possessions (mundane items) and Artifacts (magic items pulled from dreams).
The second step involves creating the Animus. It’s at this point that the player creates the Crux from which the Animus sprang. Then, after deciding on the nature of the Animus (superhero, knight, cyberpunk, etc.), the player chooses the abilities of the Animus at each of 5 levels, not unlike the progressive abilities in, say, a World of Darkness game.
There are two kinds of these abilities: Passive Aspects and Magical Abilities. The former come as packages based on one of 25 archetypes, such as Apocalypse Survivor, Psionic Warrior, and Unholy Knight. The latter are individual powers selected “cafeteria style” from an extensive list that includes five power levels of many powers that transcend traditional magic, such as Reprogram and Dive Bomb (the cinematic superhero hard landing), although there are plenty of more magic-y magic powers as well. To speed this whole process along, the book offers 26 ready-to-go Animus with pre-selected thematic powers. That’s a great help.
Some of the archetypes seem a little too specific to me, but I appreciate the wide selection and the diversity of powers.
The last major step before finishing touches involves choosing the character’s Nemesis from among the dozen presented by the book. These beings grow in power through five stages, just like an Animus. The Nemeses come in some very cool varieties, including Cybernetic Abomination, Dragon Spawn, Undead Warlord, Killer Clown, and Supervillain.
Conviction, Nightmare, and Doubt
Characters start with a maxed-out pool of 100 “magic points” called Conviction that the Anima spends to perform all forms of magic feats, including channeling the Animus. (Note that even getting up in the morning free of the Doubt costs a point of Conviction.) Regaining a few points of Conviction is as easy as sleeping. Replenishing a large number of points is a lot harder, requiring the defeat or destruction of a Reaver, inspiring Sleepers to follow their dreams (in the figurative sense), and rolling two 10s on a task.
While the best way to refresh Conviction is to defeat a Reaver, the very act of spending Conviction increases the Nightmare score on a one-for-one basis, cleverly representing the Doubt’s growing anger at the Anima. This anger increases the likelihood that the Doubt will spawn a Reaver bound to the Anima. So, spending Conviction makes a bound Reaver’s appearance more likely, and destroying a Reaver is the best way to regain Conviction. It all fits together nicely. Once a Reaver is destroyed, Nightmare is reset to zero, and the process begins anew. And at a Nightmare of 500, the Nemesis automatically spawns.
Then there are Doubt Points, the “Dark Side” points of ODAM. By accepting a Doubt Point, an Anima can totally counter a single magical effect on himself, or, perhaps even more tempting, totally counter the effects of their bound Reaver’s attack on someone else. The downside? Earn five Doubt Points, and the Doubt wins — the PC is an Anima no longer and is out of the game for good. It’s absolutely insidious, and I love it.
While players spend conventional Experience Points to upgrade mundane abilities, that’s not the case for magical powers. Increasing Animus ranks requires the destruction of bound Reavers, and increasing Control (and hence earning new Remnants) requires repeated and extended visits to the Dreamscape in question.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about these mechanics. On the one hand, they make perfect sense in the context of the setting. On the other, it makes opportunities for Animus advancement both random and the source of a story unto themselves, and it puts opportunities for Control advancement totally at the discretion of the GM.
The included adventure takes the form of a murder mystery with seemingly magical circumstances that the Doubt has caused the mundane authorities to write off as a dog attack. The pregen PCs are fledgling DCMA agents on their first mission, to discover the truth. The characters will have a chance to use their interpersonal skills and Dreamwalking abilities to gather clues and flex their combat skills in battle with the bound Reaver responsible for the death, then will pursue the Reaver into the dreamworld of the Anima that spawned it to destroy it for good.
While it’s a nice, simple introductory adventure, it does highlight some of the difficulties of running the game — in particular, the dreaming portion. Modifiers for dream combat show up for the first time based upon Waking World character interactions, for example. How is that supposed to work? And again, the PCs have full-blown alternate characters, complete with their own backgrounds, to play in the dream. They’re provided here, of course, but a GM running his own adventure wouldn’t be so lucky. The fact that the dream-PCs are armed with magic items not previously described in the rules further exacerbates this issue.
The art is good to great, much of it in full color. It’s a gorgeous book, particularly as an independent company’s first effort.
The writing is rather jargon-heavy, and as a result, some of the rules took me several reads to understand. And while the game fiction is quite good, there’s much more of it than is really needed — I don’t think it was necessary to have a bit of game fiction before each skill description, for example.
The game has a decent index but could really use a glossary as well.
In the end, I think this game has an amazing concept that requires more information to make for ease of play than the book has room to present. That said, for the creative GM willing to expend a bit of time and effort, ODAM could be the source of fantastic adventures spanning multiple worlds and genres. If you’re a GM who loves genre mash-ups and has a bit of a do-it-yourself streak, this could be your ideal game.