A Lever to Move Planets: Dune RPG Review

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium

Author: Nathan Dowdell, et al.
Publisher: Modiphius
Page Count: 339
Available Formats: PDF, Print forthcoming
PDF – $19.99

Given the right lever, you can move a planet.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Some twenty years ago, Last Unicorn Games acquired the license to make a Dune RPG that, alas, was apparently lost in the shuffle of their acquisition by Wizards of the Coast (as was their main intellectual property, the Star Trek license). Wizards of the Coast did publish a very limited edition of Dune—and it was a great game—but it was nearly impossible to find.

Fast forward to 2021, with Modiphius at long last releasing their Dune RPG. It’s based on the series of novels by the late Frank Herbert and spin-off novels created by his son, Brian Herbert, working with Kevin J. Anderson. My personal bias here is I much prefer the original Frank Herbert novels—your mileage may vary. The Modiphius version blends material from both sources.

The Setting

A full discussion of the novels is beyond the scope of this review (though I’ll soon be posting a review of the original novel). However, if I were to summarize it, it is a feudal science fiction setting in the far, far future. Thousands of years ago, humanity very violently gave up the use of “thinking machines,” instead opting for a variety of schools and guilds to perfect humanity.

The Imperium is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. The planet Arrakis, known as Dune to its inhabitants, is the most important planet in the Imperium as it is the only known source of the spice melange. Melange is essential for various factions in the Imperium. It extends life and grants a form of prescience, used by the Spacing Guild to navigate their enormous ships through foldspace for near-instantaneous travel between star systems. An emperor rules the Imperium; various noble houses and powerful guilds counter their power. Without computers, houses make use of Mentats—humans who have gone through rigorous training, allowing them tremendous memory recall and calculating ability (which also makes them well-suited for espionage and assassination—many houses have a Mentat Master of Assassins).

The development of personal “shields” has made battle very intimate. The shields deflect high-speed weapons, and lasers used against them create a nuclear explosion, killing both the attacker and defender (and probably a lot of other people). However, knife fighting has become very popular as the shields do not stop slower-moving weapons. Although a machine gun’s bullets would be deflected, a knife, properly wielded, can penetrate one. Of course, on Arrakis, shields are a bit dangerous to use as they attract giant sandworms…

The Game

As of this writing, only the PDF of the game is available. It is a 339-page book with a color scheme dominated by a muted palette of pale yellow and brown colors. To the best of my knowledge, the art is original to this RPG, a combination of portraits, locations, symbols, and scenes. I found the palette and art choices appropriate for the setting. Dune is its own entity, with an aesthetic quite different from space operas, hard science fiction, or cyberpunk. It’s like The Godfather A Song of Ice and Fire, and King Arthur: Pendragon all got together with micro-clockwork super-technology for a science fiction RPG.

Characters and Houses

The game assumes the players are important members of a single noble house. Therefore, players will collectively create a house for all their characters to be a part of. This house can be a fairly minor one (ruling over a small part of a planet) or a great house (having a domain of an entire homeworld and even other worlds). More powerful houses tend to have much more powerful enemies. As part of house generation, you’ll determine what the house is renowned for, its areas of expertise, its homeworld, and its enemies.

Basing the game around houses both reflects the setting and has some desirable consequences from a gaming perspective. In the novels, the various houses are in many ways characters unto themselves. They have distinct “personalities.” The honorable Atreides. The ruthless Harkonnens. The mysterious Ixians, always pressing the boundaries of permissible technology. The first novel focuses on House Atreides and their great rival, House Harkonnen. We get to see characters assuming the same roles in the two houses with very different methodologies—and one character who winds up serving both houses at different times. This serves as a great illustration as to why there may be similar roles; they can be realized very differently.

Having the characters in a noble house also provides a framework for a campaign, whether brief in nature or covering generations. If a character dies, there is a ready source for a new character.

Initial characters are assumed to have roles of importance within their house, typically the lieutenants for the leaders of the house (i.e., playing the heir, an important operative for the Master of Assassins, etc.). Characters may well take on greater roles throughout the game, but nothing in the rules prevents characters from starting off in top roles. If the players choose to play a minor house—perhaps an up-and-coming house or a formerly great house clinging to power—they might find themselves assuming such leadership from the start.

Given the house-based nature of the game, players will run multiple characters. Of course, they will have their main character, but they will also have the opportunity to play supporting characters—classified as either notable or minor.

Characters have two main types of characteristics—skills and drives. Skills describe the things a character is good at, while drives describe a character’s motivations. These cover very broad categories—there are only five skills and five drives. The skills are Battle, Communicate, Discipline, Move, and Understand, and the drives are Duty, Faith, Justice, Power, and Truth. Characters have ratings in all ten of these characteristics, ranging from 4 to 8.

Beyond skills and drives, characters have non-numeric traits such as talents (various special abilities), focuses (indicating specializations within the broad skills), and assets (tangible and intangible assets such as a special knife or blackmail material). Assets default at having no rank—simply indicating you possess that asset—but as assets become more effective, they can potentially be ranked as well.

Tasks and Conflict

When performing checks, players use a combination of skill and drive and then roll 2d20. Various talents and other conditions may increase the number of dice you roll. You are attempting to roll below or equal to the sum of your skill and drive, with 1s being critical successes, each counting as two successes. Typically you’ll need a single success but more demanding tasks requiring more successes. Different focuses can make critical successes easier to achieve.

If you achieve more successes than you needed, you to add to your group’s Momentum pool, which can be spent immediately or banked. One use of banked Momentum is to buy additional d20s. In addition to this common use, Momentum can also be used for things like invoking house traits, bringing on secondary characters, fueling certain talents, etc. The Gamemaster has a similar pool called Threat. Finally, characters have Determination points which can be used to get automatic 1s, gain rerolls, make declarations, etc.

Conflicts are handled with a variety of related systems. The mechanism for handling a physical duel, for example, is similar to that of launching a campaign of espionage. Characters use assets and make decisions around how they position themselves to attack and defend. The various subsystems illustrate how to precisely apply this for tasks such as dueling, espionage, skirmishing, intrigue, and battles. During conflicts, you’ll often be trying to achieve successes equal to a foe’s rating in the most relevant skill. While narrative in nature, the game’s subsystems give the impression of a detailed duel as characters maneuver and attempt to gain the advantage. The same system is scaled up for espionage missions or full-scale warfare.

Given the importance of assets, an entire chapter is dedicated to exploring them.  Various sample assets are described, such as weapons, defenses, tools, strategic assets, drugs, blackmail materials, etc.

In addition to Gamemaster’s advice, a lot of space is devoted to the various major characters in the Dune universe. As someone used to more “traditional” RPGs, I am delighted to see this information and the space dedicated to assets.

Closing Thoughts

Dune encourages a more narrative form of gameplay than an OSR game or something like Call of Cthulhu but is slightly lower on the narrative axis than a game like Fate (for example). There is a certain economy generated by having Momentum, Threat, and Determination pools. One thing I find that helps older school players like me is there is only a single shared Determination pool and a single Threat pool—minimizing the bookkeeping. Players are encouraged the spend Momentum; the pool slowly diminishes from scene to scene. I’ve run into problems in Fate and Gumshoe games with knowing when is the “right” time to spend a point. I personally have had some issues with more narrative-heavy games—my efforts at running Fate didn’t have nearly “enough” use of Compels and Fate Points. My impression of the Dune RPG is that it has a few more guardrails to help groups use the tools at their disposal.

If you’re a fan of the Dune novels, I definitely recommend this game. It gives an excellent overview of the setting and provides rules to bring that setting to life. The Dune novels themselves span thousands of years. Dune, the game, can support games at any time during this span, but it generally assumes a period before the original Dune novel.

If you’re not familiar with Dune, is this game for you? It certainly can be. My first introduction to H.P. Lovecraft was through the Call of Cthulhu RPG. You might very well be reading this and finding similarities to settings like Traveller’s Imperium or the galaxy of Star Wars. Dune came first and was most definitely an inspiration for those settings. If you’re looking for a science fiction setting with lots of major players and an opportunity for characters to make their marks, you’ll find it offers a lot. If you’re looking for more of a simulation, I imagine you’ll find the game a little problematic. Otherwise, you might find yourself inspired to pick up the first Dune novel…

~ Daniel Stack

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason says:

    Excellent review. It helps get me over the hump; i can tell I will enjoy and I will actually pick up a copy. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. modoc31 says:

      Thanks for the feedback!

      Like

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