Review: The Dreamhounds of Paris

“Trail of Cthulhu” is one of those rare game systems for which I’ve bought and read adventures even though I’ve never played it or read the core rules. I’ve enjoyed Graham Walmsley’s creepy and apocalyptic “Trail” adventures, and on Yog-Sothoth.com I first heard about “The Dreamhounds of Paris,” the fascinating Dreamlands-meets-Surrealism adventure by Robin Laws, Steve Dempsey and Kenneth Hite. I’ve loved Dada, the Surrealists and related art movements ever since I discovered them in college art classes, and I couldn’t resist.

“The Dreamhounds of Paris” (some spoilers to follow) is a mutant Dreamlands adventure whose real-world part is set in 1920s-1930s Paris; I say “mutant” because it’s based on the idea of tearing down the Dreamlands, preserving its scary aspects (gugs, ghasts, etc.) but slashing its Dunsanian fairy-tale exoticism. The agents of this change are the Surrealists, who, in Robin Laws’ universe, were accomplished Dreamers who transformed the Dreamlands from its “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” state into monstrous new forms reflecting (or influencing?) the horrors of the mid-20th-century. Instead of the Dreamlands being like an eternal block of stone against which even the greatest individual dreams and vanities eventually shatter and are assimilated, or like a slowglass mirror of the world’s dreams from 400-500 years in the past (as in the original Dreamlands Call of Cthulhu supplement), in “Dreamhounds of Paris” the Dreamlands are more like a bunch of wibbly-wobbly dreamy-weamy stuff -_-, constantly changing in response to the dreamers’ conscious or unconscious desires. To the Surrealists, who sought a “worldwide psychic revolution,” the dusty antiques and pompous kingdoms of the Dreamlands are at best a playpen to rampage through, and at worst an enemy to be destroyed. Either willfully or unwittingly (to what degree the individual players and GMs will decide) their presence changes everything, bringing Time to Celephais, bringing revolution to Teloth and Zais, bringing a poetically just Hell to the unattainable Heavens of Zar and Sona-Nyl. Since the GMing advice section recommends explaining the overall story arc to the players before you begin, it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that this is a story of hubris. Gradually, the dream-mutations go out of control, paralleling the rise of Fascism and Stalinism in the real world, and the artists of Paris who once had such ambition must face the consequences of their deeds…

The idea of the Surrealists being Randolph-Carter-level Dreamers (or even better than that Carter dude) is genius; I can’t imagine historical figures who fit the role more. In fact, playing historical Surrealists is the core of the game; approximately 1/3rd of the book consists of pregenerated characters based on 19 Surrealist art figures, from Antonin Artaud to Tristan Tzara, and a few of their rivals and contemporaries, such as Giorgio deChirico and Jean Cocteau (who, as admirers of Symbolism and other older artistic movements, serve as potential foils for the other characters’ radical plans). Robin Laws does an especially good job fleshing out female Surrealists whom histories usually placed in the shadow of the men, such as Valentine Hugo, Gala (Salvador Dali’s wife) and Kiki of Montparnasse. Andre Breton, the self-appointed head of the Surrealist movement, is an NPC with a strange, antagonistic role: he’s unable to enter the Dreamlands, and stews with frustration as the other artists in “his” movement surpass him with their mystical powers. (And there are more mystical powers than I expected; various Surrealists flirted with automatic writing, seances, opium, “unseen entities,” the “Great Invisibles,” and a variety of real occult organizations, and that’s all in the historical record.) Breton’s Surrealist club, meeting in cafés and frequently excommunicating members (if not physically beating them up; these are two-fisted artists), is chained to the PCs with the unavoidable logic of game mechanics; to have power in the Dreamlands, an artist must maintain their “Instability” points, and Surrealists (with a few exceptions) lose Instability if they (1) skip Surrealist meetings, (2) socialize with ex-Surrealists, (3) voice right-wing opinions, (4) choose commerce over art or a number of other artistic taboos. Altogether, it gives the GM a way to herd cats, i.e. forcing a sort of community and party order on Chaotic Neutral-ish PCs mostly motivated by antisocial, rebellious, or just plain insane drives. Players can create make-believe PCs if they want, but it’s sort of missing the point. (Also, rules-wise, they’ll probably have less build points than the Surrealist PCs.)

After the pregenerated PCs, things get a little murky. This is a very loose campaign (Laws prefers the phrase “player-driven” to “sandbox”) in which, more like Amber than Trail or Call of Cthulhu, the player-characters guide the action and are on par with the most powerful things around (at least in Dreamland, a nice contrast to their impoverished, alcoholic waking lives). A few possible opponents and rival conspiracies are described or statted out, but Laws doesn’t spell out a final confrontation, or even pick a definitive archenemy from several possibilities. The only fully-written-up adventure is a cool but brief introductory scenario which features the title character from Lautreamont’s 1868 pseudo-novel Maldoror. I discovered “Maldoror” in college from a series of art prints made by Harry O. Morris, founder of the 1970s-1980s Lovecraftian Surrealist fanzine “Nyctalops” (Nyctalops’ most famed alumni is Thomas Ligotti, whose early, florid stories, like “Flowers of the Abyss” and “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” exemplified the magazine’s horror/Surrealism mix). Morris described “Maldoror” as a horror novel, so I read it as a horror novel, and I wasn’t disappointed — here lurked antiheroic madness, weird and monstrous transformations, and all the glamor and allure (and transgressive sex and violence) of a real-life Forbidden Tome.

Beyond that, there’s much general GMing advice and a gazeteer of Dreamlands locations and monsters (new and old). The famous Dreamlands sites are each given Before and After descriptions, showing the often horrifically ironic fates which befall them under Surrealist influence. (There’s no map, however, as locations continually change and shift, and teleportation is easy in these Dreamlands.) Since the player-characters have immense dreaming power, Laws acknowledges the danger that the campaign could run off the rails and turn silly. To combat this, each PC has a number of “artistic motifs” which limit/steer the ways they may affect the Dreamlands; for instance, Andre Masson is obsessed with minotaurs and monsters, Salvador Dali with melting clocks and fragile stilt-legged creatures, etc. Presumably players who research the lives of the people they portray will be rewarded with greater leeway in warping reality (“I’ve always been fascinated with super-powerful magical weapons, as seen in my painting —-…”). A section on “Surrealism and Humor” reminds readers that early Surrealism was less like “Animaniacs” and more like Luis Bunuel filming a razor slicing a woman’s eye.

Whatever the players do, wherever they wander in Dreamland, a contagion effect follows them, gradually altering/destroying the Dreamlands even if they don’t consciously seek to (and most of the PCs’ personalities make them conscious iconoclasts anyway). Meanwhile, in the real world, the campaign could span weeks or years. The default assumption of the game is that dreamworld events are up for grabs but historical events are set in stone; the PCs are encouraged to work the waking-world narrative towards what is historically documented as happening (Dali gets married in year X, Artaud has a breakdown in year Y). This is a narrative contrivance but also leads to interesting questions about free will: do the Surrealists, and the rest of us, only truly have power over their actions when we’re asleep? Should players read their character biographies all the way to the end, to their deaths? Laws leaves open the option of running a full-on alternate history campaign, with Luis Bunuel getting eaten by ghouls in 1932 or real-world Paris overrun by dream-monsters, which is probably the option I’d go with for maximum flexibility…but there is also some appeal to the alternate idea that dead Surrealists are replaced by dream-doppelgangers, who emerge from the Dreamlands to live on a shadowy life in imitation of the person they’re based on, and the history books never know the wiser.

In short, this is a fascinating, challenging campaign that pays homage to Lovecraft’s ‘canon’ Dreamlands, but, since it simultaneously upends and mutates them, might be just as well suited to people who *hate* the Dreamlands (shame on you). If I had one wish, I could have used more of everything, specifically more useful maps of Paris (the antique ones included are rather blah), more sample scenarios and perhaps a play-by-play of Laws’ own Dreamhounds campaign to give more ideas of how things might turn out (perhaps I could find this in “The Book of Ants,” the companion found-notebook fiction volume, which I haven’t bought… there’s also a few campaign highlights here). But for a GM who’s willing to do some work and let the campaign go where it may (Laws: “the tangents ARE the story”), this is great stuff. The Surrealists and the Mythos belong together. Now when do the Absurdist playwrights discover the Dreamlands?