Spells and Realism: Dream

You may think your walls are invulnerable, that we will never break through. But every day you resist my lord’s armies is another restless night for your monarch, drawing him ever nearer to insanity. Soon, you must make the choice between following an insane lord or removing him and turning your back on a hostile army. Every day, you draw nearer to that decision. We may not be able to break through your walls, but one way or another, your city will fall from righteousness. Will that day be peaceful, or come with the blood of your men?

-Some evil henchman commenting on his lord’s attempt to demoralize an enemy king through use of the dream spell

Here we come to another installment of spells and realism where we analyze the effects that D&D spells would have on a fantasy world to help make your worldbuilding immersive, consistent, and believable. Today, we’ll be looking at Dream.

Dream is a 5th level spell in D&D 5e that allows a messenger to enter a trance in order to appear in a sleeping creatures’ dreams. According to the 5e Player’s Handbook, the messenger can determine the dream’s setting, creating “landscapes, objects, and other images” at will. The dream can last up to eight hours, and the target of the spell remembers it perfectly when they wake up, making Dream a reliable way to convey large amounts of information.

When I first started thinking about the effects of this spell, I thought it would mainly be useful for long distance diplomacy between monarchs: Dream might be the D&D equivalent to video chat in the same way that Sending is the D&D equivalent to the telegraph.

Like Sending, use of Dream would be much more limited than real world communications technology; it would only really be an option to large governments and other extremely powerful organizations. Most magic users who can cast this spell would be at the high end of Tier 2 in the tiers of play listed on page 15 of the Players Handbook. Adventurers of this level face dangers to “cities and kingdoms” and are on the verge of becoming powerful enough to be “special even among adventurers” and confront “threats to whole regions and continents.”

From this we can infer that many small kingdoms wouldn’t have access to Dream; it’s a tool for the leaders of extremely wealthy nations to communicate with each other. Even the most influential powers would likely prefer to use Sending whenever long conversations aren’t extremely necessary, because Dream as a higher level spell expends a significantly more valuable resource.

However, simple communication is just the beginning of Dream’s potential.

Dream’s description in the Player Handbook states that the caster can choose to make the messenger can look “monstrous and terrifying.” This method of casting the spell spawns nightmares that prevent the target creature from “gaining any benefit” from their sleep, and dealing a small amount of psychic damage when the target wakes up (all of which is dependent on the target failing a Wisdom saving throw)

There are a variety of ways that the “terrifying messenger” method of casting Dream could be used. It could be cast on enemy generals the night before a major battle, (hopefully) leading them to make a tactical blunder. It could be used repetitively on an autocratic monarch, making it harder and harder for them to make good political moves as they become more and more exhausted. On political targets with very few hitpoints (like those using the Noble statblock on page 348 of the Monster Manual) it could even be used as a method of low risk assassination.¹

Whether you use Dream to facilitate an 8 hour conversation or make a restless night for your enemy, it has much greater power than simply relaying information to a vassal or causing a tactical blunder. Dream’s most significant trait is its use as a psychological tool to manipulate how others perceive you.

For as long as humans organized in civilization, we’ve had myths and legends about where dreams come from: the Sumerians, Ancient Egyptians, and Chinese all had gods related to dreams. Skipping forward to medieval times, the church warned against reading too much into dreams, though many people, and even some priests used dream interpretation books. (Kruger, Steven F. Dreaming in the Middle Ages, pp. 7–9, 19) Greek bishop Synesius wrote that dreams came from a “divine realm.” (Dreaming in the Middle Ages p. 19)

If you believed that dreams had divine origin, how would you view a real person appearing in your dreams to give a political message? Would you be inclined to believe them, thinking they were chosen by a god? Or, would you distrust them, believing they subverted a god’s will? Either way, they wouldn’t be someone you’d want to mess with

A spellcaster who can cast Dream is likely powerful enough to beat the crap out of any other magic user in the immediate area and turn whatever country they serve into a significant regional power. But how do you let everyone know to respect you? Which would be more impactful to distant lords: vague reports of your wizard using magic on a far off battlefield or a personal visit from a monstrous version of yourself compelling them to “Surrender or be plagued with nightmares.”

Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to threats. The messenger in Dream can manipulate the environment, adding objects and images at will to create the best setting to advance their diplomatic goals. Want to show a small kingdom on your border the benefits of an alliance? Show him the might of your military, the quality of your silk, and everything else he’ll get from joining with you. Want to remind an upstart underling why rebellion is a bad idea? Fill his dreams with images of his dead family, an occupied castle, the sheer size of your army. Want to provide a young officer some practice commanding? Plop him in a realistic battle simulation so he can get a feel for what your troops and the enemy are capable of. (That last one may be a bit beyond the limits of the spell, but come on, it would be awesome)

And if, despite all your diplomatic efforts, a leader refuses to succumb to your will, you could always plague them with nightly nightmares until they become so exhausted, so close to insanity that when you finally use the ordinary version of the spell to present them with a paradise, they’ll believe everything you say. If the king is just a figurehead and you need to talk to an adviser to get anything done, you can interrogate him in a dream to find out who exactly you should focus your efforts on.

Dream can make the threat you pose or the benefits you offer more personal to another monarch. It might be so effective that manipulating other leader’s Dreams becomes the mark of a regional power in some cultures.

Dream can’t flatten villages like Meteor Swarm, it can’t even obliterate squads of soldiers like Fireball, but it could be a much more potent tool than either of those in achieving your political goals. It is a very versatile spell, and could have great effects on any D&D world.

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