Dune as an Example of World-building

One of my first “grown-up” science fiction novels I read was Frank Herbert’s Dune, in my sophomore year of college. Over the next several months I found myself inhaling the rest of the classic Dune novels (this was long before the later prequels – which to be honest I did not particularly care for).

The science fiction book club where I work is reading Dune for our annual long book that spans December and January. I’m a little bummed that I’ll miss the discussion meeting at the end of January, having accepted a position in a new company. Knowing I was on my way out I was uncertain if I’d undertake a rereading but Dune is such a favorite of mine I couldn’t help myself.

This article is not a review of the novel (perhaps another day) but rather an examination of a fantastic example of world-building, constructing a setting perfectly tuned to produce certain plots and characters. There will be some minor spoilers but I’m mainly concerned with the setting, not the plot.

Dune takes place thousands of years after an event known as the Butlerian Jihad, where humans rebelled against thinking machines. It produced the commandment “thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”. While the prequel novels portrayed this as an actual war against such machines, I never really viewed it that way. I viewed it as a commentary on the dependence we’ve put on technology. I know I feel helpless if I go out without my smartphone.

As a result of this Jihad, humanity has taken conscious steps to advance itself, with various organizations taking on different roles. There’s the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood who are masters of political arts and who have developed quasi-mystical abilities that make them seem like “witches”. There’s the Spacing Guild, made up of beings who might not even be human anymore. The Guild navigators are able to peer into the future to make the necessary calculations for faster than light travel. The Mentats have become “human computers”, able to process large amounts of data and draw conclusions. They serve as advisors to various noble houses in the Imperium.

I mentioned Imperium. Dune takes place in a feudal universe, with power shared between the emperor, the major noble houses, and the Spacing Guild. These houses often go to war with one another – and the Guild will happily transport troops, frigates, etc., always staying neutral.

The Imperium is dependent upon the Spice known as Melange. It helps fight aging and is needed by the Guild Navigators for their prescience. There is one place in the universe to find the Spice – the planet Arrakis or, as it is colloquially called, Dune. He who controls the Spice controls the universe.

As part of the feudal nature of the setting, hand to hand combat is quite popular. Personal shields have been developed which block fast-moving weapons like bullets. But a slow knife, wielded properly, can make it through them. A side effect of shields is a laser fired at them will cause a nuclear explosion, greatly reducing the popularity of laser weapons.

To me, all of these individual aspects sound neat, but it’s when they are all tied together that the magic happens. You have a setting that is ripe for adventure – whether for novels (obviously!) or an RPG. The noble houses provide a perfect way to bring adventurers together. You might have characters like the house mentat, the heir to the house, a Bene Gesserit, etc. all going on adventures together. The technology and culture bring about a pseudo-fantasy feel to the game.

Surprisingly, there’s only been one attempt at a Dune RPG, Last Unicorn Games’ very limited Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium. Sadly, it was printed in a very small production run after they were acquired by Wizards of the Coast. There were plans for a later d20 version of the game but that never came to fruition.

However, one can see the influence of Dune in a variety of RPGs. Tatooine, found in the Star Wars universe (including its RPGs), was clearly inspired by Arrakis – as were spice smugglers like Han Solo. The Imperium of Traveller has echoes of the Dune Imperium, including the nobles of the Imperium often squabbling with one another. The Burning Sands RPG has clear inspiration from Dune.

Dune provides a good example of working backward in a setting – think about what you want in a setting and go backward, asking why things might be that way. In Dune, one might have decided that they want hand to hand combat to be a major part of the setting. Why not energy weapons? Hmm, because there are personal shields that react explosively to them, killing both the attacker and the defender. Gee, but what good are the shields then? They stop normal projectile weapons perfectly – and even fighting with melee weapons can be tricky, requiring a certain style of attack… And you know what, while I want it to be science fiction, I don’t want computers… So maybe there is a prohibition against that kind of machine… And that could lead to thinking about what might have taken their place – the mentats of the Imperium…

I’m not necessarily proposing one should simply take the Dune novels and turn them into a setting – though that would make for a great game. Rather, it’s my belief they provide a great example of a series of choices that built an incredibly engaging setting.

~ Dan Stack

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