Magical Mondays: Go To Sleep!   Leave a comment

Powerpuff Girls In Bed


This week’s Magical Mondays wants you to get to sleep. Magical sleep is one of the most enduring staples of fantasy literature, and yet it’s often relegated to a very small part of the fantasy games we play. It’s hard to pin an exact reason on this, but my guess would be that it’s because magical sleep causes the sleeper to stop being a part of the action. The most famous tale about magical sleep is (arguably) Sleeping Beauty. Most of the story is told from the princess’ viewpoint (is her name always Aurora, or is that just in Disney’s version? I need to check on that (Note: after checking that, it seems that that isn’t always her name.  Talia, for instance, predates it)), but after she goes to sleep the story shifts focus to the prince who has to make sure that she wakes up again. It’s the same thing with Snow White’s “sleeping death”, a plot element that moves the focus from the princess to the seven dwarves (in some versions) and to the prince who finds her and uses true love to wake her up again (leading to marriage in some versions and law suits in others.) If we left the camera on the sleeping individuals, the story would be, well… boring.

So it is with roleplaying games. A character who falls asleep is out of the action. It’s akin to having a character die, but it’s not permanent. The character is out of the story until someone or something wakes them up again. If that’s all that magical slumber causes in your games, then it’s likely an area that you’ll avoid both as a player and as a GM, unless it comes up on your list of status effects that you’ve not used in a while that you should tie in for something that the players aren’t expecting. (It’s weird that the best reason I can think of in this approach to use magical sleep is the novelty of it.)

Dorothy In The Poppy Field
If your RPG of choice is D&D, your experience with sleep has probably been similar to what I’ve mentioned above. However, there are a few interesting high points to the history of sleep in that game. Someone once asked Gary Gygax why wizards were so underpowered compared to fighters at level 1, and he responded with a scenario wherein the sleep spell takes out an angry troll that the level 1 fighter missed with a sword. The third edition of D&D introduced the Eberron setting, and gave light to the mysterious Quori, a race of (mostly) evil outsiders who lived in the plane of dreams and wanted to manipulate the dreams of mortals for their own ends (and, curiously enough, also seemed to be the reason for the presence of psionics in the setting.) I didn’t play much fourth edition, but my favorite encounter that I ever saw from it involved a magical stone eye that activated and threatened to put the players to sleep every round unless someone could approach the eye and physically force the eyelids shut again (I think tiny construct minions attacked the sleeping players, but my memory’s foggy. It was in their Tomb of Horrors book, you can check it out if you’re interested.) It’s a little early to know exactly what role sleep will play in D&D Next, but the Sleep spell in the Basic Rules now seems to become more potent at higher spell levels, affecting between 5d8 and 21d8 hit points’ worth of creatures (at no saving throw either, it’s worth noting. A warrior with 168 hit points could conceptually just collapse to the ground when combat begins, though the odds of that particular roll would be slim.) In addition to the basic Sleep spell, D&D also has spells and effects that allow for communication through dreams (sometimes turning that dream into a nightmare at the cost of psychic damage or unease the next day.)

Whatever your RPG is, if you wish to make sleep interesting in your games, I think you need to come up with a focus for what happens to at least one of two things: what happens to the body, and what happens to the mind.

Sleepy Sokka
The body is the most general concern for players as it’s what lets their game continue, and being asleep makes it vulnerable. Outside of that effect, though, the concern for the body is generally minimal, and players will often do things to it that we’d never do to ourselves in real life (such as going to sleep in full plate armor as soon as they can get around the fatigue problem). Consider, though, an enemy with the power to turn any nearby sleeper into a sleepwalking minion. This somnambulizing slave taker might suddenly put the fear of enchantment into players and make them wish that they’d picked elf or something else with an immunity to sleep effects. (In fact, an alternate topic that I considered for today made use of a monster template that did this. I may do the monster template article next week, but no promises.) The other option for making the body interesting is to put it in danger. I know this seems like a no brainer, but what if the floor had some sort of danger that was easy to avoid for wide awake characters? A variety of mice might seem harmless, for instance, until they start picking up the bodies of sleeping players and carrying them off. If you manage to pull off a trick like this, you can make a player with a sleeping character interested in the action again by describing where their character is going. Even if they’re not awake to see it in character, you can use this for some out of character foreshadowing or worldbuilding. (It’s also fun to force players to struggle with not using player knowledge as a character, though I’m a cruel GM who enjoys taunting players with that kind of thing. If the player isn’t good at resisting that kind of temptation, it may be better not to bother.)

Mad as a Hatter
The mind is not as immediate a concern for a sleeping player, but it might even have more uses. Suddenly being on a dreamscape, a sleeping player might encounter the “dream self” of their enemy, or a nightmare creature. This can keep them busy and in the action, even if they’re unavailable for the main fight. The sleepwalking slaver example above might become even more terrifying if a sleep-self exists that can encounter the dreamself of the players, vampirically stealing things from the player’s dream to feed itself in the real world. It could steal spells, powers, hit points, skill with a unique weapon… just about anything, really. Alternatively, you could also throw them into a Nightmare In Elm Street style situation, where a demon or dream monster causes physical damage in the waking world.  Finally, if you have a powerful villain who might have an ability to speak through dreams or if the character might have some mystic connections, being forced into a sleeping state is, in a way, a more appropriate time for a warning, threat, or dream that contains a wild premonition.

My campaign world, Cantadel, has a cadre of mages who do things like this, though I’ve not used them yet for a really stupid reason: I can’t come up with a good name for them. I really don’t like it when fantasy stories jut name their unique casters X Mages or X Casters (where X is the name of the theme that they’re built around) but it’s a hard habit to shake. My Wrathwights managed to avoid this for their brand of anger-based magic, but I’ve not decided upon a good name for these sleepy wizards yet. Slumber Mages, Dream Casters (It’s Thinking…), or even Sleep Mages don’t work for me. “Slumber Men” or “Dream Folk” sounds nice, but makes it sound more like a race of people than a style of magician; the Wrathwight example above got around that for me because progression in that kind of magic gradually does turn its casters into different kinds of creatures. The same problem exists if I name them “Sandmen” after the classic Sandman who puts people to sleep with sand, but that might make people think that they’re some sort of fairy creature. “Somnambulizers” is my current favorite, but it puts the focus a little more on the sleepwalking side of things, when I think the focus would be better on the dreaming (plus the word sounds like it would be better for a steampunk adventure than a medieval high fantasy world.) The cheater’s method would be for me to come up with a very specific and world-centric name (“The Advocates of the Slumbering Sage of Hushabye Mountain” for instance.)

Oh, wait… Slumber Sages? I like the sound of that. I might use that.

Ultimately, this is my problem and not yours. If you create such a school of magicians, they’ll be in your world and can follow your aesthetic tastes, and if Sleep Caster or Dream Mage sounds like a good name to you, then by all means go for it.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays! Have a great week and, in particular, pleasant (but adventurous) dreams.


Posted July 29, 2014 by John Little in Magical Mondays

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