I’ve wanted to play Davide Pignedoli’s Maelstrom Dreamers for a long time. This underrated title features one-to-one play where the protagonist’s real life dreams are a key component in the game’s highest stakes moments.
As I mentioned last week, Maelstrom Dreamers riffs on some of the implied setting for Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World without relying on PbtA mechanics. MD is very much a story game wrapped around light, but intriguing, procedures.
One player takes the role of the Maelstrom, and has some typical GM world creation and management duties, while the Dreamer controls the one protagonist in the blasted and beleaguered hellscape. The rules encourage collaboration whenever possible, and with just two players, there’s a lot of space for riffing and jamming on ideas.
But this is not a freeform. Whenever you a hit a point in the story where the outcome is in doubt, then you turn to the game’s Resolution Table. This involves a roshambo-like mini-game where both players simultaneously cast a number of fingers from zero to five, and then compare the total to a chart. Results range from awful to excellent, with shades of gray in between.
Last week I dug into the creation of my buddy Brian’s Dreamer, Waylon. You can find his character sheet in that previous post, along with a discussion about the world we created for this run. This time around, let’s see what the game looks like for the Maelstrom player…
The Dreamer travels through the game world by going from settlement to settlement, attempting to do what good they can. The game focuses on the interactions in these town locations. The structure is reminiscent of Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. And as in Dogs, the GM gets a helpful sheet for town creation…
Community Sheet # 1 – Notor
THIS COMMUNITY’S MARK IS:
faith and devotion
THIS COMMUNITY NEEDS:
hope or faith
THE MAIN THREAT IS:
violence to each other, but especially to outsiders
someone with connections (The Walker)
another community (The Takers)
Let’s unpack this. Most of it I created by using the choices on the Maelstrom’s community creation checklist as random tables, and then I added and massaged where I needed or wanted to. Here’s how it plays out in my set-up…
Since “the fall” Notor has been afflicted by tremendously high gravity. There’s a machine that like looks like an upended shipping container that sticks out of the ground, called the Reliever. When it’s working properly it cuts what I’ll call the gravitic load from from 4Gs to 2Gs. 2Gs is a tough burden, but it’s not nearly as bad as 4.
But the Reliever is broken. Usually the fine folks in Notor sacrifice a stranger or outcast to it and it starts up again… sometimes. Years ago there used to be someone that knew how to work the damn thing, but they got caught in the works and never came out. Still, they Reliever did come back on… and this is where the mythology around the sacrifice got started.
The stage is set, time to bring on our hero…
Comes a Dreamer
One of the cool things about Maelstrom Dreamers is that while the Dreamer doesn’t frame the first scene in a new community, they do get to decide how they approach it. Do they get spotted by the biggest asshole in town? Do they slip in amongst the people unnoticed? It’s really up to them.
With the townsfolk beating their breasts and tearing their hair out over the Reliever, Waylon decides to play it cool until nightfall. (This is the choice: you enter at night, and can stay incognito for a little while.) As Waylon walks down into the gravel filled depression his footsteps get heavier and heavier. Eventually he realizes it’s not just his weary body, he’s entering a crushing gravitic anomaly.
By the time he shuffles to the Reliever, all but one of the townsfolk have collapsed into an exhausted sleep. Waylon climbs to the top of the device on a jury-rigged ladder, and startles Agul, the only person left awake.
Agul doesn’t believe the town lore, he’s seen the sacrifice fail too many times. He can tell right off that Waylon is a Dreamer thanks to his “sign,” the golden nimbus that floats around his head. (The existence of Dreamers is just a known thing in the game.)
Waylon always brings his trusty toolkit on his travels, so he’s willing to go down into the light-filled interior of the Reliever to try his hand at fixing it. It’s worth pointing out that at least in my understanding of the rules, the Dreamer can’t solve the town’s “problem” (in this case the need for hope or faith) with mundane effort. Those stakes require a Dream Scene, which I’ll talk about later. I talked this out with Brian and he thought Waylon would give the repair a try anyway, in the hope that fixing the Reliever would cement his rep as a helpful figure.
Before we turned to the Reaction Table and our little game of roshambo, I explained to Brian that the result would tell us how weird things got, in addition to giving us a sense of his relative success. At this point, I was ready to move the story almost anywhere based on the result. With a success Waylon would have been able to repair the Reliever, and earn the grudging appreciation of the townsfolk.
But in the tradition of all RPGs, ever, that didn’t happen.
Instead he ended up with the result bad, bad things happen. So, once Waylon descended into the Reliever, he was accosted by the psychic imprints of all the sacrificial victims from over the years… all crowding around him saying, “The Dreamer, the Dreamer has come to save us!”
Our hero was not interested in staying around for that party, so he tried to climb out. We went back to the Reaction Table to see if he could get away clean and we got utter catastrophe, the worst possible result for the Dreamer and others. Now, the bit about “others” really caught my eye, so I gave myself a little narrative control and went for it, like so…
Waylon, you manage to pull free, but everyone below you is awake now, and angry. Very angry. That mad religious zeal is back in their eyes. The Reliever is glowing from within, casting an unearthly light. Somehow the light is coming through the metal, and there’s a horrendous howling. People are pelting you with rocks and old pieces of pipe, but that’s not even the worst thing that’s happening.
These ghosts, or whatever they are, they’re forcing themselves back into reality, you hear the screams of the townsfolk down below as you pass out. And, as you slip into unconsciousness, you know you’re responsible for all of this…
The next morning Waylon wakes up on the ground with a mouthful of dirt. He can hear a terrible buzzing sound, and quickly realizes it’s coming from the fly-bloated bodies of some of the townsfolk.
Unaccountably, he hears giggling, too. He looks up, and the Reliever is matte black now, literally absorbing all the light that hits it. A couple of filthy townie kids are playing on top. He staggers up to meet them, and they are friendly enough. He looks down into the Reliever, and it appears to have returned to normal. (I think I described the guts as looking like an early Russian submarine.) Waylon sighs, and decides to give repairing it on more shot.
The Resolution results are much, much better this time, and he discovers that the Reliever is actually an engine connected to a series of interconnected cars that make up a sort of free-riding MagLev train. (This was fun… just popped into my head when Brian got a nice result.) Waylon gingerly lands the portion of this train he’s managed to reveal, and decides to leave well enough alone for now.
At this point, it’s the Dreamer’s turn to frame a scene. You could argue that it should have come after Waylon blacked out, but I wanted to show what failure looks like in this world.
Brian decides Waylon should meet whoever acts as the authority figure in Notor, so I get to bring in the person “with connections” from my prep. This is The Walker, an older woman that gets around by using the lower half of an old rusty exo-skeleton. She explains that she’s really just an advisor, that the people of Notor listen to her when they feel like it… and never when their religious zeal is on them.
She presses Waylon on what he’s going to do for the town, and he admits that he’s not sure.
We end the session on her saying, “Well Dreamer, you best get to dreamin’.”
A Dream Deferred
The rules suggest that you avoid using a Dream Scene in your first session. Ultimately it’s a good thing. There’s plenty to establish in the first session without needing to dig into every game system, even though the systems are light. There’s a pleasure in teasing out things gradually and feeling your way along. Also, as the author Davide points out, this is a slow game, something that can take weeks, or even months to explore.
It’s worth mentioning that the Dream Scene involves a lot of peril for the Dreamer and the town they’re in. Without getting into the procedures too much (I’ll save that for next time), an “unsuccessful” dream can be the end of the Dreamer and the town they are hoping to save… but as I mentioned earlier, the town can only truly be saved by a successful dream!
Notes from the Maelstrom
Brian and I had a great time.
We’ve written several scripts together over the years, so we have a collaborative rapport built up through hours of working together, but this felt different. The random elements were a blast, as was the sense that neither of us ever really knew where we were headed.
There was also the magic of playing together in person for the first time since mid-March. We played in the courtyard of my son’s school. It happens to be across the street, and has outdoor seating that allowed us to play outside while still observing proper social distancing. The whole thing had the feel of getting in a quick game before turning in at summer camp. (I didn’t time our session, but I think all of the above took about 90 minutes or less.)
So, now we wait for Brian to have a suitable dream to weave into this story, and then we’ll play another session to see if Notor will ever find any relief! I have no idea if it’ll be a week or a month, but that’s not the point. The point, now more than ever, is to have something fun to look forward to.
If you like what you’ve read, I can’t encourage you enough to pick up Maelstrom Dreamers from DriveThru RPG. I get no compensation of any kind for this, beyond seeing Davide’s game, a game that I helped put a few finishing touches on, find a wider audience.