Role-playing reviews

Reviews related to role-playing games, with a focus on Gods & Monsters, and a bit of superhero gaming.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands: Roleplaying Beyond the Wall of Sleep

Jerry Stratton, November 25, 2004

Dreamlands is written for Chaosium’s “Call of Cthulhu” horror role-playing game. It is, however, superbly adaptable to any role-playing game that allows for the fantastic. Chaosium’s Dreamlands are based on Lovecraft’s, and the stories of those who followed Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are inspired by Dunsany’s, as, almost certainly, are other contemporaries such as E.R. Eddison.

It is Dunsany’s works that inspired the name of the example “world concept” in the Gods & Monsters Adventure Guide:

The Dreamlands are inspired by the dream works of Lord Dunsany and H.P. Lovecraft, the works of Edgar Allan Poe and E.R. Eddison, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter and Wendy”, L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”, Stephen King’s “The Stand” and his “Gunslinger” series, and the Super Mario video games. The Dreamlands are a place of riddles, secrets, hidden treasures, strange creatures, and worlds within worlds. The depths of the deepest dungeon may lead to new lands. Holding the right key may open doors you never knew existed, to places you never believed possible. A castle of ice overlooking a grand waterfall, cities that float in the air. The Dreamlands encompass every form of high fantasy, intense horror, and Byzantine politics. The Dreamlands lack only moderation.

The concept of a Dreamlands is very useful for swords-and-sorcery fantasy gaming. It is perfect for those game worlds which, while not focussed on the strange evils lurking beneath the surface of reality, still countenances their existence:

The Lovecraftian style blends Dunsany with Burroughs. On the one hand, Randolph Carter is traveling to exotic locations and dealing with many strange people and creatures, while on the other he finds himself leading large armies into battle. Allies play an important role, and investigators may be able to call upon forces which they would otherwise not have access to in the Waking World. Leading an army of cats against a moonbeast outpost is quite possible in the Dreamlands.

In the example concept for Gods & Monsters, the player characters are assumed to be living in the Dreamlands. In “Roleplaying Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, the Dreamlands are assumed to be a separate set of worlds beyond the waking world. The ideas, however, are easily modified (if desired) for use in a world where the world and the Dreamlands are the same.

Lovecraft as background

Many of Lovecraft’s short stories make great backgrounds for fantasy adventures. This is especially true of his Dreamland stories. For example, the extremely short story “The Other Gods” could easily be worked up as the backstory of a fantasy adventure. The wizard Barzai certainly had some strange and magnificent spells, and caches of magical knowledge, hidden away. And some more prudent villain might hear the tales of Barzai’s demise and learn to harness the power of the gods’ mountain without the hubris that was part of Barzai’s undoing.

The description of the palaces and temples at Sarnath alone would make that story worth the inspiration it can give the astute Guide. E.R. Eddison’s Ouroboros dream-tales contain similarly useful imagery.

The wall of sleep

The Dreamlands in this book are places to be visited through sleep, through the “Gate of Deeper Slumber” beyond the “Seventy Steps of Lighter Slumber”. Only rarely are they visited physically. But this is because the Dreamlands were written, by Lovecraft, for the rational, non-fantastic world. They were a place for the rational, world-weary to visit without wholly upsetting their rational world—at least at first. For the Dreamlands were occasionally hinted at as more real than the waking world. And where the waking world could not intrude on the dream world, the dream world could and did follow uncareful dreamers into their waking lives.

This separation of the Dreamlands from the real world is not necessary, however. Many of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories take place entirely in the Dreamlands. These are his fantasy stories (usually), and are most useful as inspiration for games such as Gods & Monsters.

Ignoring the Call of Cthulhu-specific rules, the book starts with an overview of the Dreamlands using Randolph Carter’s “Dreamquest of Uknown Kadath” as guide.


The maps are beautifully drawn. There is a greyscale map inside the pages, and a pull-out color map in the center of the book, of “a portion of Earth’s dreamlands.” If you choose to use the Dreamlands themselves as a place for adventure, these maps will make it a marvelous place to visit.

There is so much in the Dreamlands that the Dreamlands could themselves be the base world for a campaign. They could also, however, be a nearby world that the characters can visit through strange portals (as in the upcoming “The Vale of the Azure Sun”).

Along with the map is over thirty pages of a dictionary-style gazeteer of places, ten pages of important characters (and their Call of Cthulhu statistics), and a Dreamlands bestiary with forty pages of creatures and races.

The large illustrations are marvelous. You’ll know if you want this book from the moment you see the brightly-colored golden ship sailing through misty seas towards tall domes and spires. (Although the sea-creature is extremely reminiscent of the old Sahuagin illustration in Dungeons & Dragons.)

The endpages illustration is similarly enticing. If the front cover leaves you uncertain, open the cover or backcover for the two-page spread of a great city on a high peak above the clouds.

A Dreamland campaign

Of the short adventures included, only “The Lemon Sails” would make sense as a fantasy adventure. It is designed for inhabitants of the Dreamlands, and takes place wholly within them.

However, in general this is a great fantasy sourcebook. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands were a well-realized place, full of the fantastic, odd, and mystical. The dream-like quality that he imbued into the Dreamlands is well-suited to fantasy adventure.

If you are running a world-spanning campaign, the Dreamlands would be a great place for an extended visit. I’d recommend reading some of Lovecraft’s dream works, and if you want to use that world in your fantasy game, pick up “Roleplaying Beyond the Wall of Sleep” to help you tie it all together.

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