“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows.” —from the Manual of Muad’Dib by the Princess Irulan
How does one begin a project like the Dune RPG? What are the discussions like? What goes through everyone’s head as they narrow down how to best create a roleplaying experience of a property that has eluded a completely faithful cross-media adaptation? (though each attempt has its fans)
If you’re unfamiliar with Dune, it is a series of novels written by Frank Herbert (Dune being the first) about humanity in the far distant future. It is set in an Imperium full of scheming noble houses and religious factions, all focused around the planet Arrakis – an arid world that is the sole source of the “Spice Melange”. The Spice allows the empire to exist, as it is essential to safe travel across the vastness of the universe. In addition, it extends life and broadens consciousness, making it desirable for other reasons. The empire rose from a universe that had been dominated and controlled by its Artificial Intelligences, so any technology beyond basic mechanical automation (and some super hi-tech gear) is allowed – theoretically anything as long as it avoids the use of “Thinking Machines”. As a result, humanity has a number of prominent schools that train people to their maximum potential. For example, Mentats, who are humans with incredible stores of knowledge and computational capability, or the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, political savants and masters of the art of Prana Bindu – the control of one’s body.
The story of Dune follows Paul, heir to House Atreides (which has just been granted stewardship of Arrakis) and his journey to become the most pivotal being in the universe. The following books detail the universe in the aftermath of his presence and are an exploration of icons and “heroes” and how they become tyrants. It is about the manipulation of political and religious systems, about faith and predestination. If you read them, do not stop with the first book. It’s great, but you will miss out on so much more that helps contextualize it. A series of prequels was written long after by his son Brian and author Kevin J. Anderson, based off his notes.
This is not the first Dune rpg – Last Unicorn Games created a short-run, goes-for-$100s-on-eBay version using their Icon System that had been the mechanics behind their Star Trek games. As a side-note, I take no end of delight that Dune is being made by the same company that currently has the Star Trek license – there is in all things a pattern that is part of our universe.
My own history with Dune goes back to a Christmas morning when I was 11. I picked up a package from the tree, pulled off the paper, and was presented with a copy of Dune and the sequel Dune Messiah. My father said, “I think you’ll really like this. It’s science-fiction about a desert planet and people who ride these enormous worms that live under the sand.” I blinked and thought “ok, cool”. I actually can’t remember if it was before or after that Christmas when he’d initially mentioned the book, while seeing me shakily designing my first homebrew RPG and noting that he always thought it was an interesting setting and could be worth making a game in.
I dove into the density of the first two books, having never read anything so intricate and with such layers to it. Over the next few years, the remainder of the series was checked out from the library and blew my developing mind. Despite its differences, I adored the Lynch film adaptation, despite its “less-Lynchian” elements I adored the Sci-Fi channel miniseries (and “Children of Dune” sequel), and am looking forward to the upcoming Denis Villeneuve version. Whether or not any cinematic version ultimately succeeds in being a 100% perfect rendition, they have all been massively enjoyable.
“Arrakis could be an Eden if its rulers would look up from grubbing for spice!”
The history section of Dune: Adventures in the Imperium draws significantly (I assume) on the prequel books and provides a very thorough recounting of how we arrived in the present day. I learned a fair bit I didn’t already know and I imagine those eras will be expanded on in future sourcebooks. The default starting point is just before the events of Dune and the primer on the universe is really well done. It’s clear and succinct, repeating some information, but helps position you to know what kind of setting you’re playing in. More focus is given to Arrakis than other planets, but hey, it is called Dune right?
“No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”
Character creation actually begins with House creation. All PCs belong to a noble house either as agents or leaders (depending on its size). As a group you determine the general power of the House, what it’s best known for, important members, and areas of expertise. It’s primarily a narrative exercise, but Dune is a highly narrative game, so the House doesn’t require a pile of statistics.
You’re provided with some good sample Player Character concepts to work with, which helps if you’re less familiar with the setting. Overall though, character creation really helps establish your character in the empire and gives it purpose. I like that, of the two options for character creation, one is “during play.” You select a few key elements then add as you go. It’s a simple enough process as is that it’s great to suggest just diving in and making choices as you need to.
Characters are made up of two Traits (truths that describe their character, like “Heir to the House” or “Master of Assassins”), five Skills that include the domains of Battle, Communicate, Discipline, Move, and Understand; and five Drives – what pushes them to act. Their highest Drives also receive a “statement” which explains how they feel about the Drive and makes it more likely to be used during Skill tests.
They get Focuses (specialties in Skills) which provide advantages to relevant Skill tests, and Talents, which are circumstantial special abilities (roll extra dice in this situation, gain this item, etc.) Plenty of examples of Drive Statements are given, which is good since you’re defining a fundamental part of your character with them. To clarify: a Drive Statement for “Duty” could be “I serve at the pleasure of the House”, so if that statement is most applicable to your Skill test, you’ll use the drive “Duty” combined with the most relevant Skill.
You’ll pick an Archetype to build your character framework from, assign values to a Skills and Drives, pick a couple of Talents and Assets, then you’re done. It’s a very short process, but very thorough. You can play characters from Factions outside the House system too, like members of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood or the Spacing Guild, who are allied with the PC House.
There is also a short overview on creating Supporting Characters as PCs, since in all likelihood your main PCs may not always be together on stage at the same time.
“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”
I would argue that Dune is the most innovative and brilliant manifestation of the 2d20 system that I’ve seen yet. I love 2d20 in all its forms – crunchy and smooth – but this is something else. The narrative elements and structure to Conflict perfectly emulates the machinations and manipulations of the Dune saga.
Like the other 2d20 games, when attempting an action where the outcome is in doubt you roll a skill test. You add your character’s Skill value to an appropriate Drive value (likely determined by a Drive Statement) and roll 2d20, aiming for equal to or below the total.
Every die that falls equal to or below becomes a Success and you try to roll equal to, or more, Successes than the Difficulty rating. Rolling 1, or equal to or below just your Skill level (if you have a relevant Focus), gets you 2 Successes. A 20 becomes a Complication, a Trait that will work against you until it’s removed.
Successes in excess of the Difficulty become “Momentum”, a resource that can be spent in various beneficial ways, including buying extra d20s for a test. It gets stored in a group pool for everyone to use and depletes over time – so use your Momentum! The GM has Threat, a similar pool of points that can be used against the players and generated by them when they need a little extra help.
More complex gameplay itself revolves around the interplay of Traits, Assets, and Zones and how they apply to arenas of Conflict.
Traits are true statements about things. Your character has some (Bene Gesserit, House Swordmaster, Loyal to Death); your environment also has them (rickety bridge, shadowy alleyway, room on fire). They function by affecting actions within the narrative “Because I am a Bene Gesserit, reading his body language is easier”, “Because the room is on fire, crossing to the far door is impossible.” In the former example, it will affect die rolls, in the latter, possibility. While it does help to have a good sense of the setting to make use of the Dune specific ones, the utility of it all is very clear.
Assets are tangible and intangible things that can permit an action (shoot at range, fly in the air, blackmail a rival), or alter the difficulty of an action (sword vs bare hands, shield vs sword). You can create them mid-scene (which you can also do with Traits), to give you a current or future advantage. An intangible Asset could be a useful piece of knowledge or a new contact, a tangible one could be the knife you picked up off the assassin or a key you lifted. Assets can have a Quality rating that grants a bonus but typically they are rated 0 – simply having the Asset is what allows you to act within the narrative and Dune emphasizes the ability of the individual over their cool gear. I would be remiss if I didn’t communicate the full scope of Assets though – a fortress is an Asset, as is a unit of spies or soldiers, or a secret code, or a debtor or old friend. Each of the major fields of conflict have relevant Assets, with a good number of examples to choose from or build off.
Zones come into play during scenes of Conflict and represent abstracted states of distance, both physical and interpersonal. Conflict covers everything from the physical to the social, from the micro to macro, so Zones are likewise flexible. On the physical side, a back-alley ambush may have a Zone at both ends and to represent the alleyway itself. Actors move freely to interact inside each Zone, using actions to move between them if desired. More Zones could be added to represent piles of trash to climb or hide behind, a balcony or ladder, the rooftops of the buildings – it all depends on how detailed a scene is desired.
The alley-scene is an example of Zones used in a Skirmish Conflict, where multiple actors/combatants are engaging in shared space, but the other fields of Conflict show how Zones are even more diverse tools. Dueling applies them to both hands and body (3 Zones), Espionage makes them people and places, each step needed to get closer to the goal, Warfare includes terrain and fortifications, and Intrigue sets Zones as individuals, between whom an actor may “move” to interact with and manipulate.
The use of Zones as abstract areas of influence, and any advantage as an Asset, allows Dune to use the same mechanics to cover each of these arenas of Conflict without introducing any major new rules.
Conflict occurs when other characters act against your protagonists in a more complex way than a basic Skill test. I mentioned the five major arenas above – each of them helps bring aspects of the Dune series into play, as it is a story of war, faith, and politics. One of the unique things about how Conflict plays out involves movement between Zones, so I want to highlight it.
Taking a Move Action means the player can move an Asset between Zones, including themselves. Doing it Subtly helps keep the initiative on the player’s side, doing it Boldly is more forceful and draws attention, but also allows the player to move an opposing Asset… So in an Espionage Conflict, as per the book example, one character draws a patrol away while his compatriot infiltrates a compound, because he moved Boldly and moved the opposing “guard patrol” Asset. If Dueling, one could Boldly batter aside a defending blade, moving it to a different Zone and negating it’s defending abilities, or move in Subtly, reclaim the Initiative, and stab away. It really illustrates the machinations and manipulations inherent in the series.
What’s also great about how the Conflict system is set up is that you can play out Intrigues with minimal roleplay if you have a player wanting to play a social character but who isn’t as immediately comfortable with improv and witty repartee. It’s a game unto itself and Zones and Assets help codify success/failure.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Dune is pretty epic in scope and although most of the action of the series takes place on Arrakis, there’s a whole universe available for an RPG to play in and a whole pile of moving parts in the various factions. The Gamemaster’s section aims to help prepare one to run a game of Dune and does a very good job of it. It includes the necessities of making a game group and table management, including consent and group comfort and incompatibility. Scope, be it local, world, or galaxy-level gets an overview (including plot concepts for each level), as does adventure design, including a random story hook table. What’s nice is I don’t feel remotely restricted by the story of the books in thinking up potential plotlines for a game. Besides the wealth of ideas stated in the book, you’re also being given access to a great playground and the chosen in-universe start date means you can delay or ignore the events that start the first book all you like!
It also talks about utilizing specific Dune rules – handling the use of Drives, when is something a Simple Test or Conflict, managing each arena of Conflict, and how Momentum and Threat add to the Narrative. Dune-setting elements are also covered – handling Prescience and the Superhuman abilities of some of the characters. Overall a very worthwhile section to internalize.
There’s more of use to GMs in the Allies & Adversaries chapter. Besides the writeups of notable characters from the book, example Houses, and sample archetype NPCs (with Story Hooks galore) there’s a really deep examination of how to make vibrant NPCs and how to manage them. Dune is full of so many vivid personages that this is very helpful to have.
The core book wraps with the sample adventure “Harvesters of Dune”, which sets the players as agents of the House currently controlling Spice production on Arrakis. A three-part story it looks to give a good introduction to the setting and basic systems of the game – leaving more complicated Conflicts for another time.
The Appendix is really handy, with summaries, tables, and worksheets from throughout the book.
The art throughout is fantastic, exhibiting the diversity of humanity and is very evocative of the setting. The layout is also great, as it packs a lot of information into the game without overwhelming you in walls of text.
“Bless the Maker and all His Water. Bless the coming and going of Him, May His passing cleanse the world. May He keep the world for his people.”
I remember being really disappointed that the Last Unicorn Dune only had limited copies that were all snatched up at the next GenCon (legal reasons due to company buyout). In a superficial way, I love the far-future medievalism coupled with high-ish technology. I love the intrigue and interplay between scheming Houses and factions. In a deeper way I love the examination and deconstruction of the hero myth and the epic scope of the series.
When I heard Modiphius had acquired the license I was very excited and participated in the beta playtest as soon as it opened. The playtest documents promised something amazing but were nothing compared to the final game. As a compliment to the playtest design, when we were doing our postmortem one of our players said “I know that you, as a GM, have said the scenario is over. But that was so well-constructed that I don’t actually believe the threat is neutralized.”
Going back to the beginning of this review, if you sat me down at a table a year or two ago and asked “How would you design a Dune game?” I would hope my answer would be similar to what’s in Dune: Adventures in the Imperium, because I would be so damn proud to have made such a fucking good game. Honestly, the knowledge and design intent comes through so clearly that I have every faith this game is in good hands.
Dune: Adventures in the Imperium is a masterfully-executed roleplaying game that hits all the right notes in providing the tools for an authentically Dune roleplaying experience. It’s rules are comprehensive and flexible and the design allows both the personal and epic nature of the series to shine through.
You can get Dune: Adventures in the Imperium in PDF or Print at the Modiphius website. You can also get it from the below Affiliate links and help support this site!
This product was provided for purpose of review.