Designing My Dream

Designer Diary by Sandy Petersen: Terror Paths & Invasion of the Brood

By Sandy Petersen

I have a lot of nightmares. This is no doubt at least in part because I watch a lot of horror movies, and read H. P. Lovecraft. Makes sense, no?

Now, when I’m actually experiencing a nightmare, it’s not fun. But when I wake up the next morning – or sometimes in the middle of the night because it was too scary. Or because my wife shook me awake because I was crying out. Well anyway, when I wake up the next morning, I frequently remember the nightmares. And sometimes they are useful to me. Many of the levels I created for Doom and Quake were inspired by an event in a nightmare.

But on rare occasions, an entire creation is based on one of my dreams of nightmares. Let me give you two examples of this.

I have been working on the game Call of Cthulhu: Terror Paths for the last two years. One of the maps in that game is of the Starry Wisdom Chapel, and I’d created three adventures taking place there. I felt I was done with the Chapel for the moment.

But then, a few nights ago, I had a dream in which I and my wife were visiting an old church, and she was kidnapped. In the dream, I had to search the church to find her, and over the course of the dream it morphed from an ordinary nightmare into an overlap with my ongoing work on Terror Paths scenarios. So in the dream, I was not only seeking my wife, but I was also designing the scenario, even remodeling the church to make the search more interesting as a game. For those who are worried, I did eventually find and rescue her in the dream. She was tied up in a secret compartment in the basement.

But when I woke up, I realized that my dream self had created a solitaire adventure for Terror Paths. So that day I started implementing an adventure in which a lone hero seeks a kidnapped wife in the Starry Wisdom chapel. The adventure is not identical to the dream. For one thing, my map of the Starry Wisdom church doesn’t have a basement for her to be imprisoned inside – the map emphasizes the church spire. The dream is a launching point, not a blueprint. When I get stuck I do review the dream to see if there is something else to draw from to stimulate my decision.
But there you have it. I have a whole Terror Paths scenario, and lo and behold it came from a dream.

In the spring of 2019, I had a dream in which I was designing a two player game about an alien invasion of Earth. This was not like any other game I’d designed. In the dream, the alien was one of my oldest creations – the Broodmaster – an alien I invented when I was only 13 years old. In this game,
the Broodmaster life-cycle is represented, as well as
diplomacy between human nations,
various human military units
and of course a map of earth.
All of these features were in the final game, and they all came from my dream. Obviously, lots of small bits of the game were skipped over in the dream, and I had to create these in my waking hours. Plus playtest the game, write a rulebook, and so forth. But still, this was an almost unique experience for me. I have no idea how such a complete game outline came to me over the course of a single dream, which probably only lasted 30-40 minutes tops. When I’m trying to figure out a new game the normal way it takes days or weeks or even months to get it worked out in anywhere near this kind of detail. I guess I’m way smarter when I’m asleep.
So … I guess I’ll go take a nap now.