Monday, August 19, 2019

Pipedream Review

In my last post, I mentioned that I wanted to review Pipedream, an investigative roleplaying game written by Kai Poh for the Dream Jam on The game is a hack of Cthulhu Dark and inspired by my own investigative ttrpg, Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave. Right now, Pipedream is still in beta but I find that's often the most helpful time to get critical feedback. Let's get into the reviewing.

Pipedream is about a party of Wisefellows, Halfling community problem solvers who smoke copious amounts of the mind altering Elder Weed. Sometimes the Wisefellows just get up to mischief and other times they actually have to stop dark forces from causing trouble or settle disputes within their community. No matter what, they always get high. The world the Wisefellows inhabit is a cross between Tolkien's Middle Earth and the ancient Near East. Irisfields, the setting's take on Hobbiton, is essentially the marshier parts of Mesopotamia. Half of Pipedream is rules for playing as the Wisefellows while the other half is setting information and other tools for generating mysteries to solve and challenges to face.

Mechanically, Pipedream is mostly Cthulhu Dark with extra systems, such as rules for magic, attached. Like in Cthulhu Dark, players try to accumulate advantages and risk their minds to add more d6s to their rolls. Dark's sanity stat is replaced by dream, a measure of how much a Wisefellow's mind has been expanded by their smoking and exposure to the wider world. Dream is cleverly woven nicely into the game's other systems. As your dream increases you get closer to losing your character but you gain benefits from the blend of Elder Weed you smoke and can scupper the investigation to try and reduce your dream as well.

The game is also adamant that Wisefellows cannot fight the larger people and creatures who they encounter without being killed. I think this is a fine choice that puts the emphasis of the game in the right place: on hiding, running, outsmarting. Still, I think this strong mechanical choice can be leveraged better. Knowing that the outcome of an action is death is a lot more powerful if you have a reason to do it anyway. I can imagine that if fighting, though deadly, could provide a brief distraction or something similar you could generate a lot of dramatic moments. Selfless sacrifices, in the vein of 'You shall not pass', do go together with Pipedream's Tolkienian inspiration.

I like Pipedream's character creation too. Players choose character flaws, background information, items, and special abilities all at once. Building an inventory and a character are tied together, as personality details are as likely as equipment to be helpful in getting more dice for action rolls. It's an elegant little system that gives players a lot of freedom and room to express their characters.

My last note on the mechanics is that I find the rules for blending elder weed to be a little too fiddly for such a usually rules light game. I'd be inclined leave rulings about blending the weeds up to a referee instead of writing it into the game, though planting the idea that the weeds can be mixed in the players' heads is a good move.

Irisfields is fascinating in the ways it tries to emulate and undermine Tolkien's own secondary world. Irisfields is more morally gray, light and dark alignments are not guarantees of good or bad behavior. The community the small folk live in is far from an innocent and idyllic Hobbition. Instead, Irisfields is full of greedy landlords, untrustworthy sheriffs, and unreliable Wisefellows. All this, of course, makes the setting a much more interesting place to solve a mystery in. This social dysfunction is probably what is borrowed most from Beyond the Fence. Though both games feature communities beset by dangerous outside forces, those communities were already full of their own problems in the first place.

Though I like a lot of the referee facing tools, I feel like some things are missing. The bestiary is great, all the entries feel mundane and fantastic at once, like they're all part of an ecology but still tinged with magic. The adventure seeds for each region of Irisfields are simple and effective little mysteries or dilemmas, I'd just like to see more of them. There's lots of information on the kinds of big folk in the world but there's no suggestions for why any of them would be in Irisfields, beyond the few big folk mentioned in the adventure seeds.

 What seems to be really missing is a table to cover the non-investigative half of Pipedream: causing mischief. Here's a good suggestion from earlier in the document: "Let’s say you actually want to solve a case instead of, say, trying to squeeze as many goats as possible into the Mayor’s bedchambers before he awakens." I would love to see a table of similar gambits, pranks, wagers for Wisefellows to busy themselves with.

Lastly, my art gripe. The public domain art in Pipedream is nice but a lot of the images look like they're drawn on paper.

This lovely drawing of a pipe shows up several times in the document and it is always surrounded by this papery shadow which is just sightly different from the background. Here is a tutorial for fixing this issue using photoshop, and here's one for inkarnate.

Overall, Pipedream is a game with a simple, smart set of mechanics, great character creation, and a fascinating setting to explore. I'd say it's main strength is how the carefree whimsy of the Wisefellows and their adventurers can turn so quickly grim in the face of malevolent outsiders and internal conflict. The game is narrow in the sense that it is about a few very specific people in a very specific place, but the range of tones it wants to convey is excitingly broad. It could still use a bit more development, but I'm sure that development will come. You can buy Pipedream on

This post is dedicated to the Niflungs

1 comment:

  1. Whoa, thank you, thank you for the review! You hit it spot on with the "certain death" mechanics; the expanded Kickstarter version of Cthulhu Dark is more clear on how players can attempt alternative goals while selling their lives against an impossible enemy. I should incorporate some examples and ideas for that.

    You're right about the art - in a lot of cases the scanned images have not been cleaned up. Have to get working in those next.

    Appreciate the review so much - and I notice it's a review of the version I just put up! Quick work!