There are lots of things that the GM can do with dreams in an RPG. Trivially, he can use his own dreams as inspiration, but that’s not what I’m talking about in this article. No, this time I’m going to discuss all the things that a GM can do with a Character’s dreams.
Probably the most important things to note about dreams is that they derive directly from the characters, and that they don’t have to make sense. Compress time, Distort space, Exaggerate dimensions, Use metaphors like they had been bought in bulk. Turn molehills into mountains and mountains in Mount Olympus. Character abilities can be totally unrealistic one minute and completely forgotten the next. Check the lyrics of “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” – it’s a roadmap of what’s possible in dreams.
Tales Of Reality
I’ve divided the functions that dreams can provide to a GM into two categories. The first is all about the GM shedding light on things that have really happened within the campaign.
Players can easily add two and two together and get five. The PCs have their pet theory about why and how something has happened, and are about to commit to action based on that theory. Rather than the GM coming out and telling them “there’s something you’ve overlooked”, he can let them go about their business and slip the alternative explanation into a dream that one of the characters has. Or even divide it into parts and give a number of PCs the different parts.
When the players can afford to lose a day or three chasing down the wrong avenue without the villains gaining total victory, this is often preferable. It lets the PCs discover their error at something approaching the eleventh hour (assuming they heed the GMs warnings), raising the drama and tension of the plotline. Only if the action the PCs were about to commit themselves to would be irrevocable would I resort to INT checks with the winner being told outright, “there’s a possibility that you may have overlooked…”. This, of course, constitutes their first and last warning; if they choose not to listen to it, the shape of the campaign changes, and I start looking for an adventure idea that shows the consequences of their mistake, then another on how they can start to undo it.
Things that have been overlooked
In a busy campaign, sometimes plot threads can be forgotten. There are times when that’s desirable, and when I go out of my way to try and pose a series of distractions to the players, making the assumption that if the player doesn’t remember it, neither does the character. But there are times when I don’t want a plot thread to be forgotten because it is going to tie back into the current situation at some future point. Dreams are a great way of reminding players of things they may be overlooking in their current analysis of events.
Things (that should be) on their minds
There’s no rule that I know of that says a GM should not help a player to play his character. When players choose expediency over a priority that I feel should be important to the character, a dream sequence can be a great way to warn the player that his character has, or should have, something else on their mind. Use symbolism and metaphor and rephrase aspects of the situation as often as you can. Incorporating some of the preceding day’s events is a useful technique for implying that the issue is nagging at the PC’s subconscious, and not simply repeating the same bottled message over and over again.
This technique also works well when the player simply ignores some plot development that the character, as described by the campaign background, his personal history, and the player, should be paying attention to.
The way it might have happened
A dream can be a great way to slip information into the players hands when there is no other way they could possibly get it. When I do this, I often like to present a second, false, explanation in another character’s dream, or mix and match parts of the two stories. This represents the characters’ minds struggling to put together an explanation for the way things might have happened.
In some campaigns, and where the events are especially significant, I might assume a limited form of psychometry – the event was so terrible or so important that the land itself remembers what happened and whispers the story to the PCs in their dreams. If this is happening, I will usually signal it to the players by having several of them share the same dream (though they will have to figure out for themselves that it was the same dream) – I will describe the dream sequence in notes simultaneously delivered to each of the players, or give part of the dream to one player and the next part to another (and not necessarily in chronological order). This takes what would otherwise be narration by the GM and renders it interactive, and a source of roleplay the next morning.
h5>The Way Things Used To Be
It can be useful at times to use a dream to highlight and contrast the current situation or location encountered by the PCs with the way things used to be. Coming across a ruined castle in a desolate wasteland? Fine, a great setting for a small adventure! This is a way of slipping background information to the players that avoids large chunks of dry exposition by presenting a more dynamic vision. It should be long on tone and mood and general imagery and pageantry and short on significant events and dialogue; the point is to show what things used to be like, not how they became the way they are. This immediately sets up the mystery of how things went from A to B, which can unify otherwise disconnected and disjointed encounters. Nor is it necessary to be all that accurate – this is the character’s imagination conjuring up scenes.
Where there is a risk of players assuming that this is the way things actually were, I will slip a few obvious discrepancies into the dream sequence. Putting towns on the wrong side of a moat (or having the moat surround the town rather than the castle), making all the trees semi-tropical instead of what should have been in the climate presented, and so on.
This danger is especially high when one character dreams of the way things were, while another’s imagination conjures up scenes of the destruction. Make the two dreams deliberately incompatible, or overtly impossible, to stress that they should not be taken literally. And remember, dreams don’t have to make sense!
Tap-dancing in a minefield
Another way that I employ dreams in my campaigns is to warn players of the (possibly unnecessary) dangers that their current course of action entails. I simply pick one of the ways in which their plans could go horribly wrong (if possible, one that’s different from the one that I have in mind) and present it in glorious 3D to the character’s mind’s eye.
I will frequently go heavy on the metaphor and symbolism in part of the dream sequence and prosaic in another, when this is the message that is to be conveyed. “You are all dancing a complicated waltz with (the enemy and his minions). The villains disperse into wifts of smoke, but the dance continues, and you find yourself in a circle with the other PCs facing each other’s backs. The dance steps are very difficult to remember and you keep getting them just a little bit wrong; they seem to be having the same difficulty. Your hands, as required by the dance, alternatively stretch out to the sides, reach forward to touch the back of the person in front of you, raise up high into the air as your hand swivels about its wrist, or drops to your side to clutch the hilt of your weapon. As the music reaches a crescendo, your hand drops and grasps the hilt, but this time you draw it from its sheath and in the final move of the dance, you plunge it into the back of the comrade directly in front of you, as they do the same. You look down at the blade projecting from your chest, and observe the spurt of blood before you all collapse, the dance at an end. As the world begins to darken and your life ebbs away in pools of radiant red, you notice the orchestra who have led this dance – it is you and the other PCs, and they too have collapsed over their instruments above swelling pools of blood.” At which point you awaken from the nightmare with a half-strangled gasp, sweating profusely. – so the enemies the PCs are pursuing or plotting against are will-o-the-wisps and the PCs are responsible for each other’s demise, their own worst enemies. The next night, it might be combat with the enemies, who – as the final thrust is made – fade away to be revealed as another party member. And as many other variations as I can think of, on subsequent nights, until the players get the message.
The Nagging Conscience
Players will sometimes have their characters do something or permit something that – according to the background and makeup of the character – they should not. Even though the character may get away with this at the time, I will often revisit the event through dream metaphors until the character does something to assuage their conscience. This is actually the first application of dreams that I employed, and used to be a warning to a character that they were treading dangerously close to an alignment shift.
Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
The subconscious can often put clues together that have not even been consciously noticed by the individual. When I adjudge that the characters may have seen enough activity on the part of an enemy for this effect to be a factor, I will sometimes drop some additional hints as to his nature and activities in the form of dreams/nightmares. Not necessarily accurate, almost certainly distorted and incomplete, but these clues can nevertheless provide a structural skeleton for the assembly of a more robust profile of the enemy. This can be a great way to shortcut the discovery process, the ‘getting-to-know-you’ phase of the conflict and accelerate the plotline.
Nightmare scenarios are a great way to explicitly describe the stakes that are on the table in an adventure, especially if the characters don’t seem to recognize the seriousness of the dominoes that the GM has lined up. These take the worst-case outcome, inflate it to melodramatic proportions, personalizes it to the character, then feeds it to him. Done properly, it can make the players utterly paranoid about failure, almost paralyzed with uncertainty and yet driven by the immediate need to take dramatic action.
Urgency and dramatic action always make for an exciting game session, don’t you agree?
But there is a warning to be sounded: more than any other type of dream application, this can turn around and bite the GM, hard. If the prospective outcome of failure turns out to be radically less than the nightmares would have it, players can downgrade the importance of not only this application of dreams but all applications. Once they stop trusting the information being presented to them, the whole campaign can be adversely affected, because it will then begin to spill out into other areas of the GM-players relationship. Radical action on the part of the GM can salvage the situation by inflating the actual consequences beyond what even the antagonists were expecting, and making sure that the players learn of these additional consequences, but sometimes these are too obviously tacked-on afterthoughts, or don’t come to light in time.
The surest sign of this problem manifesting is when the players begin to express the dream sequences in terms of the GM attempting to railroad the campaign or the plotline. So watch for that! You want to guide, shape, manipulate, and inform – not dictate. At least, not most of the time – there are a couple of limited exceptions to that general rule that I will address in due course.
The inner struggles
Finally, when the character has, or should have, something on their minds – an impending decision of some seriousness – having nightmares about indecision or wrong choices can and should reflect the gravity of the stress the character is supposed to be under. Once you have established this principle a few times, this can then also be used to inform characters that an impending decision that seemed trivial might have deeper ramifications that they aren’t appreciating – in other words, using the dream sequence as a vehicle for GM hints.
The other way of using dreams is to give the characters information that they could not possibly obtain (in time) by their own devices.
Beyond their ken
For example, the characters might experience events from far beyond, either contemporary with them or from the past. If you need some sort of flimsy logic on which to hang such dreams, the concept of psychometry provides it – the events being experienced all occurred in the same multiverse/cosmic structure as the one the characters reside in, and so the characters were able to pick up the ’emotional resonances’ of the events.
Alternatively, some witness may have found a way to ‘broadcast’ the events as a warning to whoever was capable of receiving it.
Cries for help
Which brings us to an application of dream messaging that is an obvious progression from the previous one – someone dropping a dime on the PCs in the middle of their dreams. I normally like to start this sort of dream sequence with something more normal and prosaic in nature – a normal dream with no particularly significant content – and have the “invasive” dream sequence “infuse” this normality bit-by-bit.
Message in a bottle
A variation on the cry for help is the “message in a bottle”. Because the implication is that this dream content is packaged and bundled as a unit, it normally comes on all at once, radically reshaping every element of an existing dream at the same time. I also find it useful to include some metaphor for entering a different world – being pulled beneath the surface of the water, passing through a curtain, entering a tent, or something along those lines. Alternatively, something that metaphorically (or literally) depicts the opening of a bottle or container and the new dream surging out – or even the bottle/container opening itself no matter what the character attempts to try and keep it in place, signifying that the character is helpless to avoid the message. What they then do about it is another question.
And that’s an important consideration for both this and the preceding dream communication – there should (eventually) be something clear that the character can do, or is supposed to do, about the situation. This may or may not be stated explicitly – my general preference is to leave the characters with more decision room, but there are times when the action required is just the first step with many to follow offering the character the chance to change direction, so it becomes more important to actually put their feet on the path to the adventure than it does to give them the choice to step off it just yet.
Instructions from Beyond
Gods are busy people, and would have all manner of workarounds for the problem of “Cant Be Everywhere”. One of those workarounds is almost certainly going to be speaking to their followers (or other people of significance) in their dreams. When this type of dream is underway, it is important to demonstrate that the deity/being responsible has total control over the dreamscape. Within the dream, the character should be a rag doll – the implication that the being responsible is conveying as a subtext is that he, she, or it would have no trouble doing the same in real life. That subtext might be accurate, or nothing more than intensive P.R. – that’s up to the GM and his world/campaign design. Whoever’s giving the orders not only wants to be obeyed but expects to be obeyed, and without hesitation.
In the cold light of morning, of course, the players may have entirely different ideas. I use this as often to have the villains threaten the PCs as I do to have their nominal superiors issue instruction and advice, in the full expectation that the players will turn around after the dream and tell each other “He’s nervous about us.”
There’s a lot more that needs to be said on the subject of obedience to dreams, and the implications of this type of dream. Firstly, whoever is doing this is smart enough to realize that the players may choose to disobey, and would plan accordingly (unless this level of arrogance was a deliberately-placed blind spot in the NPCs personality). Secondly, anonymity may be a thing of the past – or the dream may have been targeted without knowing who was going to be at the receiving end. Thirdly, there is the implication that if the Gods (or whoever) really is this powerful, the problems and enemies that they face must be equally dangerous – which might just be the only message that the GM is trying to convey with the dream. Finally, by softening the notion of “giving orders”, this permits these celestial beings to interact on a social level with the PCs in a way that could never really happen during “awake time”.
During the first Fumanor campaign, all sorts of beings were vying for the position of the Last Deity. Hastor, one of the more subtle contenders, strove to persuade the characters by being sociable during their dreams – and systematically pointing out, one after another, why his fellows could not be trusted with the position. These chats, in Hastor’s great Banquet Hall of dreams, proved vitally informative to the PCs, giving them information that could not be obtained any other way about the prospective contenders. In fact, Hastor was their leading candidate for a very long time as a result – only when the PCs discovered that they had a means of altering one aspect of the other contenders to make them “suitable” did Arioch come forward. Before that discovery, he was in last place amongst those who had declared their interest. In effect, Hastor’s attempted manipulations told them exactly what needed to be changed about each of the contenders, producing a whole different card game at the climax of that campaign.
Temptations from the Other Team
I’ve preempted discussion of this possible application in the previous section, I’m afraid. Dreams offer an ideal way for really powerful enemies, who are so inclined, to try to buy the PCs off. This should take the form of one of those dreams in which each PC seems to have everything he could possibly want – wealth, comfort, luxury, pleasant company, companionship, knowledge, power, respect, authority, fame. And, at the peak of the dream, the voiceover announces, “and all this can be yours, All you have to do is…”
The smaller and less apparently-significant that required deed is, the more tempting the offer is. “I don’t want your soul; I’m overcrowded here as it is. Just do me one small favor…”
Having established the great many things that dreams can be useful in conveying to the characters and hence the players, a few words on how you go about reaping these potential benefits are clearly in order. I have more than ten points to address under this heading, so let’s get started:
The Realm of Dreams
The place to start is the realm of dreams itself. Does it have some objective reality? What are the ground rules? Can anyone access it? Or is it a place that it uniquely private, a virtual world conjured by the activities within our minds? What are the value of dreams, anyway? Are they necessary for human psychological balance? Are there different classifications into which dream intensities can be categorized?
Most people have many dreams in a single night’s sleep, but rarely remember them. Of those who do remember their dreams, we rarely remember more than one in a single sleep period, presumably the last one to be experienced.
There are many unexplained and unproven phenomena associated with dreams – everything from Prophetic Visions to Levitation to remote communication. In terms of the game, I don’t care about the restrictions and parameters of the real-world dreamscape, if any can even be said to exist. The GM is creating a game world, and any resemblance to reality is either a happy coincidence or a convenient shortcut – a bit like mathematics, really. The GM therefore sets the ground rules for the dream reality within his game, what can happen there, and what can’t. It’s also within his purview to change those ground rules any time he sees fit – even in the middle of a character’s dream, if desirable.
Such decisions should always be an informed choice, and that requires the GM to at least have thought about the question in the first place.
What’s The Message?
It’s very easy to get carried away with dream symbology and creating the sense of unreality necessary for the player to distinguish between dream-sequence and actual events. The GM should always keep in mind the message that he is trying to convey to the player through the dream sequence, and make sure that it is not obscured. In fact, it should be the first thing that gets decided.
Matching personality to dreams
When I employ dream sequences within my games, I work very hard at matching the dream content to the personality, interests, and concerns of the character supposedly having the dream. Whatever the content may be, the character’s personality will dictate what elements of the dream are detailed and which are mutable or vague. I want the player to be convinced that this is something that the character might dream under the circumstances. This ensures that there is a noticeably different quality to those dreams that are “injected” from another source. It’s a subtle point, but one that can make a big difference to how the dream is perceived and acted upon by the player.
But I don’t sleep!
In many versions of D&D, Elves don’t sleep. There may be other races with the same trait. The first time you lay a dream sequence on such a character, nine times out of ten, you will get the response “But [Race X] don’t sleep!”
Every species has some form of sleep-substitute, usually meditation of some sort. This state of altered consciousness is exactly the same as sleep for our purposes, and is just as capable of carrying visions, dreams, and nightmares. But you can expect to have to explain this to the player.
Some dreams are presented as blocks of text, with the character’s actions and reactions within the dream specified by the GM. On other occasions, the GM may permit the character to interact with events inside the dream and make decisions about the dream-character’s actions. When you decide to permit an interactive dream, it’s important to remember that the results and effects will usually bear no relationship with any objective reality. In never – well, very rarely – permit the rolling of dice within a dream, it completely breaks the mood and blurs the lines between game reality and dream sequence.
It is when you permit interactions that it becomes especially important to have worked out the “rules and parameters” of the dream environment. I always envisage the dream sequences as occupying a Warner-Brothers-Cartoon reality. Gravity works except when its inconvenient to the GM. Common Sense gets left in the parking lot. Characters can parade around with swords sticking out of them without noticing, or without being bothered. Colors of things that don’t matter are muted, while the colors of the things that matter are unusually bright. Logic takes a back seat to plot, symbolism and metaphor. Landscapes rearrange themselves at will. Clouds can be made of eggs that crack open when they are struck hard enough. Things can and should get outright strange – think Twin Peaks at it’s most bizarre.
And that’s all the way it should be. There are some dreams where you feel in control of yourself, and others in which you are a helpless puppet – and that’s before we even get into ‘introduced’ dreams from an external source.
Laying it on too thick
I’ve said this before, but it’s so important that I’m going to come at the same message from a different angle: If you obscure your message to the point of impenetrability through too many layers of symbolism, metaphor, and weirdness, it will not be understood by its intended audience – and you may as well not have the dream sequence.
It’s almost as though that message should be the one thing that remains in crystal-clear focus throughout the experience, the rock of consistency that provides the backbone to the rest of events.
The Weirdness file
Some GMs might have trouble coming up with surreal imagery to drop into their dream sequences; I do, sometimes (other times it seems to come easily). As a crutch to lean on when creativity is a little thin on the ground, I maintain a file of surreal imagery – actually, a folder and a file, with both verbal and visual descriptions. Anything weird that I come across that seems to have something about it gets parked in that file. It might be something abstract, a particularly interesting way of subtitling a graphic, an unusual juxtapisitioning of different visual or narrative elements, whatever.
Before I started building up The Weirdness File, I used another technique that I still resort to occasionally. Pick three books at random, and open each of them to a random page, laying them beside each other. Reading one printed line from each book in succession as though the text ran across all six opened pages produces a nigh-on-infinite number of strange juxtapositions of visuals and ideas. Most of these will be nonsense, to be thrown away immediately, but a few will contain little gems.
Once you have two or three ideas, you will find yourself in the right frame of mind to carry the dream sequence to its conclusion without further stimulus. It’s getting into that mindset in the first place that’s the tricky part – and, once you’ve finished, getting back out of it!
A couple of other tips: I have the primary message that I want the dream sequence to convey written before I start; I do that at the same time as writing the rest of the adventure. I do the dream sequences completely separately whenever possible, to ease the problems of slipping in and out of metaphysical frame of mind. If I find that I need to do the dream sequence in sequence or am so inspired that I simply can’t resist doing so, I make sure that I take a break of a few minutes and read or watch something to reset my headspace.
There are a lot of books out there on both historical superstition and modern theory regarding the interpretation of dreams. Don’t use any of it.
It’s all esoteric mumbo-jumbo so far as your audience – the players – are concerned. If you rely on these sources to translate your message into “dreamspeak” they will always miss the point.
The whole foundation of using dreams in any of the ways discussed in this article is that sometimes dreams represent an objective reality that follows the same basic ground rules as the rest of the character’s existence – but that is being perceived through a mind-bending hallucinogenic haze. So ditch the books on dreams and dream-meanings; craft your message as straightforward narrative, then cloak it in symbology and metaphors that the players will recognize – eventually. Then powder-coat with weirdness.
Dream Interpretation II
What do you do if, after all your efforts, the players dismiss the significance of the dream or are unable to interpret what you have presented to them?
The first is a much easier problem to solve, so I’ll deal with it in this section and leave the second problem for the next.
- Before the important dream sequence, I make sure that I have already established the significance of dreams, by using a dream sequence in a preceding adventure.
- At the start of that preceding adventure, I’ll make sure that the PCs hear someone talking about “The meaning and significance of dreams” – it could be a snippet of a talk show, or someone they meet on the street, or something said in casual conversation, or whatever. The key point is to make sure that the players have been told that sometimes, dreams are important.
- Next comes the dream sequence in the preceding adventure. I will sometimes put this into the ‘hands’ of an NPC so that I can be sure that the character will talk about the dream and its content to the PCs, and sometimes not.
- This is followed by the events of the adventure to which this initial dream sequence relates. Throughout this series of events, I will keep referring back to the content of the dream, as described to the players. In-game events get explained by clues in the dream, or explain something that was obscure within the dream. By the end of the adventure, I will have established two things: The significance that dreams will sometimes play; and a code-phrase that I will consistently use to signal the difference between important dreams and any others that might come along. The phrase that I use is normally “unusually vivid”, though sometimes “unusual” may be enough.
Repeat this process a time or two and you will quickly inform the players that dreams are important channels of information.
I have also tried the approach of supplying the key clue to a mystery confronting the PCs within a dream, and found that while this hints at the importance of dreams, it doesn’t emphasize the point enough.
A more successful technique has proven to be the shared dream – if five PCs have exactly the same dream, or each get part of a connected narrative, or dream of the same events from different perspectives, they will soon come to realize that it holds some significance, and hence, so potentially do ALL dreams described by the GM.
I rarely have to resort to such overt techniques any more. I have established these principles in several campaigns with players in common to each, so they know that part of my GMing style is to occasionally use the dream sequence when that is the tool that will best serve the needs of the plot.
Dream Interpretation III
Sometimes, especially if you’ve laid the distortions and metaphors on too thickly, the players simply can’t figure out what the dream was trying to tell them, or they will make an incorrect assumption about the meaning and hammer the dream narrative to fit. This is where the whole dream sequence tends to come unstuck.
If their misinterpreted version is not toxic to the plotline, I’ll let them run with it – but keep dropping hints such as “it doesn’t feel right” or “It feels like you’re making a mistake” or “It feels like you’ve missed something important”.
If their misinterpretation IS toxic to the plotline, that’s a sign of bad writing/plotting on my part, because it means the dream sequence was there to railroad the PCs into the adventure. It’s happened a time or two, you can’t learn this stuff from first principles without making a few mistakes along the way. When this happens, the ONLY answer that works is to come clean and get the pain over with. Give the players the “plain text” version of the dream and what it is supposed to mean, and give them some sort of benefit in compensation for your failure – then make sure that you wring every last drop of learning from your mistake that you can squeeze out of it.
Avoid explaining “Why” unless it’s important
Unless the dream sequence is an attempt at direct communication from a third-party within the game, dream sequences work better when the process behind them is unexplained. It’s all too easy for the players to become so distracted with the “how” that they miss the “why”, and the content that is being delivered. Let the players come up with theories to their heart’s content, but never confirm or deny it; leave that to the context of the content and of subsequent in-game events.
Make a point of the after-dream
Characters who experience a significant dream should usually be visibly affected by that dream. The other PCs should notice something a little different about the character’s demeanor or appearance the next morning. This is a cue to the player who experienced the dream to say something about the content. If they don’t take that cue, there’s nothing more that you can do about it, for now; that player is taking the responsibility for interpreting the significance all upon their own shoulders. But if they then use the clues dropped by the GM into the dream sequence to gain an advantage through an otherwise unlikely choice of action, or derive some other benefit from them, a perceptive NPC (or even a perceptive PC) might start to wonder if there was more to the dream than the character was letting on. This should be especially true when the primary goal is to establish the significance of dream sequences within the campaign because keeping the dream private at such times is directly contrary to the purpose for which the GM has inserted it into the adventure.
Like any plot or literary device, it’s easy to overuse the dream sequence, especially when you can do so many wonderful things with one. It can be very hard to recognize when you’ve gone too far. There are only two solutions to this particular problem other than waiting for someone to tell you that they think you’ve gone to that particular well too often.
The first is to make the dream sequence an integral part of the adventure structure. Every GM I know, at the end of an adventure, has an informal bull session talking about what worked and what didn’t, what was planned and what was serendipity. You can build such narrative into the adventure itself through a dream sequence. Alternatively, you can use a dream sequence at the start of every adventure to put the adventure and subsequent plot developments into context – sometimes the players will understand the dream sequence and sometimes it won’t be apparent until the end, if at all. This is the GM dropping hints about what the next adventure is going to be about, or was about (if done at the end of the adventure). This can work very well if done reliably, but it can also be very hard to do without becoming repetitive in your dream “style”. It also more-or-less mandates that you have plenty of playing time up your sleeve.
If you’re more pressed for playing time, or if there are large intervals between game sessions (more than a week), this approach just won’t cut it, and you’re left with the only alternative: once you’ve established that dreams can be important, only use them when they ARE essential. A lot of the time, you can put the key message of a dream sequence into the hands of a perceptive NPC; let them make the key observation that you want to deliver, and do it where everyone at the table can hear it.
The dream sequence can be a powerful weapon for the GM. It permits the presentation of information that the players could never get any other way, illuminate subtleties of personality, and be an in-game way for the GM to communicate directly with the PCs. But it blunts with overuse, and is very difficult to resharpen. Use it sparingly to bring the metaphysical into your campaign, and the world will feel a little more vibrant, complex, and interesting.