Lucid – An RPG Based on the Movie Inception
by Chad Wattler
A role playing game about entering someone’s dreams and stealing their thoughts.
In this game you play highly illegal con men who steal information from unsuspecting people while they, and you, sleep. Using a briefcase sized technological device and specially made chemicals you and your teammates will sedate, without his knowledge, The Mark. The Architect will create up to three layers of dreams that the team will have control over in every way except for the people who populate it. The Mark will believe that The Dream is his own unless he is convinced otherwise and will generally not understand that he is even dreaming. As The Dream becomes less and less stable The Mark might start to realize that this is not his dream and if he has had proper training he might be able to turn the tables on the team.
Not counting The Mark or the team there are two kinds of people who populate The Dream, Normal Projections and Agents. The Normal Projections are part of The Mark’s subconscious and may be interacted with to gain insights about him, his personality or his past. For example, if the team questions an ex-girlfriend projection they might find something out about The Marks past or sexuality but this information will be from The Mark’s point of view. The more specific the character of the Normal Projection is the more specific the information that might be gained. A waiter at a dinner in The Dream might bemoan his life choices and lack of education indicating The Mark thinks highly of his own education where as an encounter mean and bossy parent might point to deeper issues. These projections will become increasingly hostile as The Dream destabilizes to the point of hunting down and ‘killing’ the outsider in a subconscious effort to protect The Mark. The Agents on the other hand are projections of a ‘militarized’ subconscious indicating The Mark has had specialized training to combat the types of incursions that your team is conducting. The Agents start out unaware of the team and like any good body guards they will blend into the background until needed. The Mark is usually unaware of their purpose in the dream and they act independent of him. As The Mark feels threatened, suspects that this dream is not his own or becomes generally agitated these Agents begin to react to disrupt the plans of the team. Killing these projections and Agents in no way hurts The Mark nor does it erase anything from his mind.
Since the team defines the world of The Dream (via The Architect) they can do anything they want within the dream. They can create endless roads that lead nowhere, M.C. Escher like landscapes, impossible objects such as Penrose Stairs and The Devils Tuning Fork. Individual objects can be created by any team member from guns to air planes. The more out of character the objects are in relation to the reality of The Dream the more destabilized The Dream becomes when they are used. An example of this would be using a particle beam cannon on a tank in a dream that is set during World War II. Only The Architect can change the world of The Dream on the fly but anyone can dream objects. This means that the team must work with world The Architect defines for them. They cannot create the roads, only The Architect can, but they can create the cars to drive on them.
The information the team is looking for can be extracted in a variety of ways. Commonly the Architect creates a very secure space for The Mark to put the concepts the team is looking for in such as a safe. The information is not automatically put into the safe as The Mark must be convinced that is where it should be and that it is truly secure. The Mark’s belief in the security of whatever is containing the information makes it such that the team cannot open it without convincing The Mark to open it for them or by destabilizing The Dream in such a way as to risk waking The Mark. The team can create dreams within dreams to gain this trust with The Mark or to gather information in one layer and use that information to reach their goals in the second and third layers. This will buy them time as each layer is a newly stabilized dream.
The Mechanic in Lucid uses the diceless tension building of a Jenga tower. This tower represents the stability of The Dream. The players are asked to make pulls from the tower when they do something that upsets The Mark and his subconscious defenders or alters the reality of The Dream. The GM will ask the players to make pulls of between one and three blocks depending on the severity of what it is they are trying to do. As the players do more and more pulls The Dream becomes unstable and The Normal Projections will grow increasingly hostile going from rude to actively hunting down and ‘killing’ the team. The Normal Projections will tend to lash out at random whereas The Agents will be reacting to specific threats to The Mark and their level of hostility will increase as the stability of The Dream decreases. Agents tend to respond with like force, this means that if team isn’t hostile and pulling guns killing people the agents will not tend to do so either unless The Dream is getting very unstable or the team has been operating unchallenged for to long.
A pull is not necessarily a combat or skill check, it is a representation of player action having an impact on The Dream outside of what The Mark expects from The Dream. Examples of this would be killing the high school principle at a class reunion set up because he would not let the teammate preform a task. A pull was request not to hit or kill the projection of the principle but because he was killed, even though The Mark was not consciously aware of the act as all of this is taking place in his subconscious. Several pulls were requested during the same high school reunion set up when The Counterfeiter was trying to gain the trust of The Mark by being his date. During this date the other team members kept calling The Counterfeiter on her cell phone. Every time this happened after the 1st few calls a pull was requested. Pull requests are made by the GM and take place after the action is declared. Success or failure of the action is not determined by the pull, only the effect it has on The Dream. Whether an action secedes or fails is up to the both the GM and the player collaboratively with the general rule of whatever would make the story better from everyone being the best choice.
The Dream takes place in The Architects mind and he controls all of it. He can alter the weather, the physics, the landscape and the buildings. The GM does not describe the world of The Dream to the players, The Architect does. When one of the players asks if there is a back door out of the building they in the GM defers to The Architect. To take that example further, if it was established that there was no back door the non-Architect player cannot make one short of dreaming up some explosives but The Architect can make a pull to have a door be there. Any of the other players, including The Mark once he realises he is in a dream, can call into being any object they know of in real life. For example, The Architect creates the back door to the building anyone on the team can have a car waiting for them in the alley. They can set up an explosive trap on the newly created door for the unsuspecting agents that are chasing them. These things are just there when no one noticed them before, as if they have always been there.
The team may enter a second layer of dreaming. A dream within The Dream. They would dream up the machine and chemicals necessary to sedate and induce themselves and The Mark as they would in the real world. The Architect would rebuild the tower, The Dream, and describe the new Dream to everyone. This has the advantage of resetting an unstable layer one Dream or being able to gather information or trust from The Mark to use on him in layer two. Even if The Mark is convinced that he dreaming in layer one then he will not necessarily know layer two is a dream. It we be easier to convince him if that is the players goal because he will have vague recollections of the previous events that will fade over time. Concepts of trust, betrayal, love, loss and the like will stay with The Mark even if the specifics of the events are fuzzy. The layer two dream is not fully in the control of The Architect. If the team is wet for some reason in layer one then it might be raining in layer two. If they have gotten dirty by setting up in an old basement then everything might be old and covered in dust in the second layer despite The Architect’s best efforts. Most of the time there is something bleeding over from the layer one dream into the layer two dream no matter what The Architect does. If the team so chooses they can go down to a third layer of dreaming. At this layer the is a large amount of bleed over from the first two layers and the GM will start to add in things from the teams subconscious as The Architect will be having a hard time keeping the different aspects of the dream together. The GM should make up to five pulls from this third level tower to represent it’s inherent instability as well as he is now able to reinterpret the world that The Architect describes. Layer three dreams are very dangerous and should only be entered into in extreme cases.
As was described earlier the tower represent the stability of The Dream. As the tower becomes unstable so does the subconscious of The Mark. The subconscious projects become agitated and even hostile. The Agents being homing in on the team to disrupt their plans and even kill them. There are two kinds of tower collapse, full and partial. A full collapse in layer one kicks the team back out to reality. The Mark wakes up and sees himself hooked to a machine. The Team wakes up at the same time. If they can mange to sedate him and induce him back into The Dream he is going to know something is wrong and will be very hard if not impossible to deal with. Since most of these job require The Mark to not know what was done to him in the first place this usually means the team has failed at this job. If everyone is in the second layer of The Dream they are all kicked into the first layer. The Mark suspects something and it will become very difficult, but not impossible, for the team to overcome The Mark’s suspicions and achieve their goals. One way of doing this would be to convince The Mark that the team is really the militarized projections, The Agents, and that they are trying to help him. Framing the real Agents as the bad guys as they operate independent of the one they are trying to protect. If the tower collapses when the team is in the third layers it turns The Mark and possibly one or more members of the team into vegetables, trapping them within a never ending dream within their own minds. A partial collapse happens in those rare occasions when someone knocks a few blocks off of the tower but doesn’t actually cause a collapse. This is the only time when an action by a player is guaranteed to go wrong. If they are in a gun fight, they get shot. If they are trying to drive a car, they crash. Regardless, something bad happens to just them and if they are injured the injuries follow them up and down the levels. If a player is killed in The Dream they are kicked to previous level with no ill effects and may re-induce themselves back. Pain is very real and can be felt. If enough pain is administered to The Mark it will wake him up.
Game play usually goes as follows:
1. The Point Man is given a job and a small amount of information on The Mark.
2. The Point Man assembles the team.
3. The Team recons The Mark and gains a little bit more information
4. The Team formulates the plan to induce The Mark into The Dream and what to do with him once he is there.
5. Enact the plan
The team should be going into The Dream with only a small amount of information on The Mark. The majority of the play of the game should take place within The Dream. The team should use the clues it found in the real world to start asking the right questions in The Dream. The teams whole plan could take place in layer one but most of the time it goes layer two. The tendency is to gain information or trust in layer one. Generally, the team is trying to get The Mark to do something they want him to do that he would not do normally. They plant the ideas to do this in layer one and try and get him to to it in layer two and even in layer three. And example of this would be getting hired to get the password to a certain person’s computer. The team finds out that The Mark has a strict father and he is into 1001 Arabian Nights. In layer one they discover through questioning subconscious projections, direct interactions with The Mark, observations of different events that they and The Mark’s subconscious put in motion that the father beats The Mark’s mother. The team manufactures situations where The Mark can rebel against his father, tying in the concepts of protecting passwords and keeping secrets as something his father would do. Doing this in a world The Architect has created to mimic the real world. When the team is ready the induce The Mark to the second layer of The Dream. The Architect has created the world of 1001 Arabian Nights. The team masquerades as The Marks protectors and take him to a cave guarded by an evil version of his father who has trapped him mother behind a door that only he can open with a magic word.
The characters also have Totems. This is an object that they are so familiar with in the real world that if someone tries to trick them into thinking that The Dream is real that person would have insert an exact replica of that character’s totem into The Dream. When the character would check this fake Totem they would likely know that it is not their and thus they are in The Dream as the Totems have many hidden defects or details, they are weighted in certain ways or only roll a certain ways that only the owner would know of even if the Totem was stolen and copied in a Dream. There is no in game mechanical effect for the Totems other than it allows the players to confirm that they are not in The Dream. Highly trained Marks might also have a Totem and once they realise that they are in a Dream they would check their Totem to confirm. Should they do this they cannot escape The Dream but now they can actively work against the characters unless the characters can convince him that they are Agents working for him or some other clever action.
The majority of the game should be played in The Dream. Getting the job, assembly of the team, the recon and the planning should take substantially less time combined than the portion of the game spent in The Dream. Time, as perceived by the characters, within The Dream is almost impossible to track. Time accelerates as the team goes down in levels of The Dream. Time in the previous levels continues going on but much more slowly. Agents and Normal Projections will still be after the team but in a sort of slow motion. There is no need to leave anyone behind to guard the sleeping team when they go down in levels with proper preparations. Even if, in the first layer of The Dream, the team is in a crashing plane they have time work in layer two. In the real word a minder is left behind and awake to monitor the sleepers and to provide a kick at the prescribed time or if something is going wrong. A kick is when a sleeper is artificially awaken or kicked out of The Dream. The minder will place headphones on The Architect’s head in the real world to give him a five minute warning that the kick is about to occur. The Architect will become aware of music playing throughout the world coming from nowhere. The GM will then start a ten or fifteen minute timer telling the team that they have until the timer goes off to finish what they are doing. If the team is working together to make a last ditch effort achieve success the GM can have each player pull two or three in the last five to ten minutes and then describe what happens. This all or nothing, down to the wire event is a pretty good way of ending the session. Many times it is a good idea to have the game go for a set period of real world/player time that way there is a real world clock that is ticking down putting more pressure on the players. This can be explained by whatever is the situation is in game, the train the characters are doing their work in will pull into the station at 6PM real world/player time when we are ending the session, whether the characters have done their job or not. Or at 6PM when the game is over that is when the drugs being used to keep everyone asleep will wear off. Tying the real world time to the ending of the mission adds a lot of tension and introduces the possibility of failure to the story beyond the tower collapsing. Also, having the last ten of fifteen minutes of the session tie in with the last ditch effort of the whole team making pulls, as described above, tends to add a great climax to the story.
There is an optional combat system for Lucid. When a player wants to engage in a fight of some kind the GM should immediately tell the player to pull X number of blocks and then make a ten count of some kind. Either a verbal count down, a count up or sticking his fingers up one at a time until all ten are showing. If the player is wanting to ambush someone or the target is generally unaware then no count is really needed. The ten count shouldn’t be over used as the combat should be taken as a whole where there is one count down event for the fight in general rather than for each target. For instance, if a player is engaging in combat with three Agents you should not do a ten count for each Agent, you are going to collapse the tower that way and should the player succeed they might go from tense to stressed out or even burned out for making anymore pulls. If the player wins they should describe what happens be it success of failure is up to them. If they can’t make the pull in time then the GM can describe what happens, they become wounded or they get kicked up one level and have to reinsert themselves into the whatever level the rest of the players are on, this should take them out of the game for at least a few minutes due to the speed of time differences between the levels of The Dream. Also, if the tower collapses due to a combat count down the GM can choose to have the character kicked back one level, keep his injuries (only in The Dream) and delay his entry back into the level with the other players. Then make the players rebuild the tower and then make pulls to get it back roughly to the state it was in before the collapse. This tends to be a good way of dealing with games that have a high amount of combat and fighting.
In Lucid there are five classes that can be played as well as the ability for a player to run as The Mark in a GM-less game. Each player chooses one class and no class should be represented more than once. The players define their characters by filling out a form that GM gives them. The GM makes an effort to link each of the characters through the questions asked. The questions are designed to be open ended and assume certain predefined facts about the character. The player then defines, fleshes out and specifies these open ended facts by putting them into context with his answers. The game tends to work better when one person is chosen to be the leader and that person is tasked with assembling the team. The Point Man is designed to fill this roll. Assembling the team can take the form of a few minutes of RP between The Point Man and each player as he recruits them. This, of course, can be altered in any way to fit the needs of the story.
The Point Man – The leader of the group. He is the one that assembles the team and has final say over the plans that are made. As leader he sees a macro view of the situation that the other characters might be unaware of. This view of things allows him to use his Burden of Command ability. Any time a player is asked to make a pull of more than one block The Point Man can step in and reduce the number of pulls by one. If the pulls are at two then he may pull one himself for the other person. To use this ability he must say how he is altering the actions of the other person either physically or by communicating with them. When he uses this ability he is not changing the outcome of the action but suggesting a different way to go about it or helping the other person to do it differently.
The Architect – This is a person who creates the dream world and everything in it. This person defines to the GM and the rest of the team what the world looks like, its size, its physics and its rules. If The Dream is one filled with mountains and Norse Gods where people can fly around it is The Architect that defines that. The Architect is the one who builds the Jenga tower and he can use alternative tower constructions if he likes, with GM approval. The Architect is the only one who can alter the physical landscape of the Dream and change its rules.
The Counterfeiter – This teammate is the only one who can alter his appearance to be anything he wants. He is the only one that, when disguised, that the projects will ignore as a threat. His purpose is to take on the roles of people The Mark knows gain trust and influence over him. He has the ability of Short Term Risk, Long Term Gain. This allows him to, while disguised; bring stability back to the dream. If he can convince the projects that something that is out of the ordinary is normal or gets the projections away from something that is destabilizing the dream or any number of other methods he can take a block off of the top of the tower and insert it anywhere else within.
The Chemist – The chemist is the person who makes the sedative that puts everyone asleep. He is also the only who can create a sedative within the dream to put people asleep again thus creating a dream within a dream. He has the ability to Affect More than Consciousness allows him to, once per dream level, negate a pull. If the GM asks for a pull of any player The Chemist can say that his drug would prevent the pull but allow the action but he must give a reason why. He can do this once per level and it will negate all the blocks in that one pull.
The Tourist – This is the non professional of the team. Not every team has one as they tend to get in the way at worst or not know how to help out at best. Most of the time they can be the hanger on that begs their way into the job looking for that big break, the 10%er that wants to make sure the job goes well or the person who set up the job in the 1st place who’s presents keeps everyone honest. Their ability is that they have none. They are non professionals there for the ride.
The Mark – In a GM-less game one of the players should play The Mark. He is the target that team is trying to infiltrate. The players should agree on what they are trying to get out of The Mark before the games starts and the person playing The Mark should base his character on the answers given play the other players. This player does not fill out any questionnaire nor does he get to make any pulls from the tower. He isn’t allowed to dream up any objects within the dream until he is able to realize that he is dreaming.
The whole idea of using a Jenga tower as a mechanic in an RPG is from Dread by The Impossible Dream. Adding classes that effect the tower and the combat system were my inventions. You can find more information about Dread and The Impossible Dream at http://www.tiltingatwindmills.net/ This game is also based, with a few modifications, on the Christopher Nolan movie Inception. Check out some of his other works if you have not heard of him: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0634240/ Memento is pretty good as well.
Here is a sample questionnaire designed to create a picture of The Mark as well as build in tension between the characters.
The Point Man
1. Why did you leave your legitimate life behind?
2. Why do you have sympathy for the target?
3. Why did you betray The Counterfeiter on your last job?
4. Who or what is Melody?
5. Why did you just stand there and watch your father die?
6. Why do you always eat the same meal in every dream?
1. Why is this your last job?
2. Why is a sea shell your totem?
3. Why do you put the same clock tower in every dream you make?
4. How badly do you wish to embarrass The Chemist?
5. Why does your projection not look like you?
6. Why did you get a new totem?
1. Why are you working with The Agent after he betrayed you?
2. Where does The Mark know you from?
3. When you engage a target why are you, ever so slightly, out of character?
4. Why do you love your job?
5. Why do you use the same song as the warning for a kick?
6. Why did you reveal your totem to your wife after the divorce?
1. In what way did The Mark pay you to protect him?
2. How did you find out about The Agents totem?
3. Why does your Mentor support illegal activates?
4. Why is chemistry your 2nd job choice?
5. Why did you name your 1st child Jo Ann?
6. What made you stop drinking?