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A Look Inside Dune 2d20

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Dune occupies a strange place in the pop culture pantheon. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel spawned a series of sequels and is beloved by many sci-fi fans. Though it’s been cited as an inspiration to everything from Star Wars to A Game of Thrones it has yet to have a direct adaptation that’s broken through to a bigger audience. The 1984 David Lynch film has become a cult classic but even its fans hope for a better adaptation someday. The 2000 miniseries was more faithful to the novels but has been mostly consigned to used DVD dustbins. A tabletop RPG released near the time of the miniseries, Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium suffered a tragic fate due to the sale of the company. Only a few were printed for an advance release at Gen Con and those have since become collector’s items.

The impending release of a new Dune movie looks to change that. The classic Avalon Hill game was recently republished by Gale Force 9. Dire Wolf created Dune: Imperium as a more modern board game design. Modiphius secured the rights to the RPG and recently released the PDF. They sent along a review copy which gave me strange, prophetic dreams of writing this review. Is it worth killing an Emperor for or does it make the gom jabbar look lovely by comparison?

Like most of the licensed games put out by the publisher, Dune: Adventures In the Imperium uses a variation of their house system, 2d20. Players add a trait plus a skill and roll 2 twenty sided dice to try and get under that number for successes. A metacurrency called Momentum for the players and Threat for the GM lets both sides of the screen manipulate the roll. Lead designer Nathan Dowdell stripped the system down to its core and built it back into something much more narratively focused. One of the big signs of this off the top is the lack of challenge dice in the game. Everything runs off the 2d20 rolls. Reading this book has helped me understand my other 2d20 games better because of the focus on the basic mechanics.

Another element of Dune’s narrative focus is how characters are built. There are five skills (Battle, Communicate, Discipline, Move and Understand) that can combine with five drives (Duty, Faith, Justice, Power and Drive). The most powerful drives are defined with Truths, small statements that can add or subtract difficulty from a roll if you use the truth. This Smallville style character construction offers some interesting insight into how and why a character might do something. Someone with a strong Justice drive but a connected truth like I believe in the Emperor’s right might have to pick a different drive if they end up hiding someone they love from Sardaukar troops.

Truths are also how the game handles specialized gear calling them assets. Assets have certain ratings from 0-4 that help to determine the difficulty it is to overcome something. On a small scale, if a character has a subtle knife of 2 against a personal shield of 3, that means whatever difficulty the GM sets for a successful attack (usually 2) will be at an additional +1 to difficulty. But if the shielded character knocks the knife away, the difficulty to be harmed would be a near impossible 5 successes.

These mechanics are also on display in the larger scale warfare Dune is known for. The book calls out Agent and Architect play, a play style reminiscent of Ars Magica Troupe play using the supporting characters element of Star Trek Adventures. It’s assumed players will be playing the major movers and shakers of their House but they can also play the poor unfortunate souls that have to hold the knives and follow the orders. I like the risk and reward element of this aspect of play. A main character doing the dirty work themselves is more likely to be successful because they’ll have better stats and be able to handle any consequences better, but a supporting character who fails can die in a dramatic fashion and be plausibly denied should their failure come to light.

Characters are also assumed to belong to the same house, be it one from the books or, more likely, one of the players' creations. I like the idea of an instant connection between characters of being bound as a house. Players decide on what their house is known for throughout the universe and decide on the size of their house. The bigger the house, however, the more enemies it has, an idea the players decide on too. These set ups are a great way for players to connect to a big setting like this whether they decide to be a minor house intriguing their way through the background of the main narrative or taking an opportunity to tell their own version of a later book they didn’t like.

The one area I wanted more information was support of a dynastic style of play. The book has some great advice on playing games in this universe, but it doesn’t have the random event charts dynastic games like Pendragon or Song of Ice And Fire have. It’s nice to be in full control of a house's destiny, but sometimes players key off of an unexpected event to bring a story into focus. Given how well done the lifepaths were done in Star Trek Adventures, I hope to see something like this in a future supplement.

Dune: Adventures In The Imperium is an excellent game of narrative intrigue and action that should please fans of the books and films alike. It is available in PDF now and pre-orders in hard copy from retailers worldwide. There are three limited edition books available from certain stores: Amazon gets House Harkonnen, local retailers get House Corrino and Modiphius gets House Atreides.

If you enjoyed this review, please consider using the links to purchase the game or share this review with your friends. Thank you for your support of your local game writers.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

What, making the most fundamental of mechanical game design decisions on factors that have absolutely nothing to do with the game you're trying to make?

Why, nothing at all.

I just don't see the need. There's no reason to beg the question like this anyway. Almost nobody buys games for the mechanics anyway, conventional wisdom tells us that this is one of the least important factors when deciding to buy a game. Like, who plays Starfinder because they wanted to play a game with mechanics that are half Pathfinder 1 and half Pathfinder 2 and not because of goblins in space and whatever those little mascot space critters that Paizo puts on everything are.

I'm not particularly interested in point by point critiquing the mechanics, but with the dice pools with positive and negative values within them and being driven by drives it sure sounds like Cortex Prime but with more steps. Like, wouldn't all this work better and more smoothly in a ground up narrative design than kind of kludging it into 2D20?
of my two groups for playtest, one group very much liked it as is, save for one flaw common to all the 2d20 games (the occasional runaway on the threatpile).
The other group? Love the setting, love the character building, and loved the adventures we playtested, but have a strong sense of reservation towards the game mechanics.

Note, however, that 2d20 for Star Trek, JCoM, and Dune is a narrativist-gamist hybrid, and Dune is the purest of these... not even differentiating weapon damages...

It's very smooth in play, but it's not a gear-details-matter game. Every tool is just another trait, either allowing something, disallowing something, adding 1 to effect, or reducing effect by 1.
On a nat 20, you get a complication and have failed the success on that die. And on a nat 1, or a roll under skill if working inside focus, 2 successes.

I prefer Cortex Plus/Prime, where the bad roll (a nat 1 in C+/C') does nothing for your success, but only adds a complication if the opposition gets a plot point. You get one when you accept the complication on your 1, and pay 1 when they accept it.

If one wants to swap the effects to be more cortex-like, just make the nat 20 complication cost the GM 2 threat, and taking that extra success cost 1 on low rolls.
 

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Corone

Adventurer
I'd actually agree with some of the concerns of both sides in this argument. But it is an old conundrum that, as Irulan says, must be begun by taking time to make sure the balances are correct.

Do you grab a system and crunch it into the setting because you like using it? Obviously no.
Do you create a whole new, completely untried system (and spend twice as long playtesting it) just to do something different? Also obviously no.

Yes, Modiphius does use the 2D20 system for all its games. Its a tried and tested one and it was originally designed to offer broad possibilities. But had it not been something that easily converted to the needs of Dune we'd have not used it.
What we have done is adapt something we were already experts on to make sure it allowed us to do everything we needed this game to do. As with any game, we started by asking ourselves what Dune needed, and were pleased to discover 2D20 could do all those things.

Whether we achieved that goal is up to each reader. Personally, I came to the game without a deep understanding of 2D20 and I've found Nathan's design did everything I wanted it to do for Dune, and a few things I hadn't thought of. I appreciate (like any system) you might not agree, but I do feel I should emphasise the design plan was not 'make it 2D20 and hammer anything that doesn't fit into place'. Our first loyalty is always to the setting and gameplay, rather than the house system.
 

I'd actually agree with some of the concerns of both sides in this argument. But it is an old conundrum that, as Irulan says, must be begun by taking time to make sure the balances are correct.

Do you grab a system and crunch it into the setting because you like using it? Obviously no.
Do you create a whole new, completely untried system (and spend twice as long playtesting it) just to do something different? Also obviously no.

Yes, Modiphius does use the 2D20 system for all its games. Its a tried and tested one and it was originally designed to offer broad possibilities. But had it not been something that easily converted to the needs of Dune we'd have not used it.
What we have done is adapt something we were already experts on to make sure it allowed us to do everything we needed this game to do. As with any game, we started by asking ourselves what Dune needed, and were pleased to discover 2D20 could do all those things.

Whether we achieved that goal is up to each reader. Personally, I came to the game without a deep understanding of 2D20 and I've found Nathan's design did everything I wanted it to do for Dune, and a few things I hadn't thought of. I appreciate (like any system) you might not agree, but I do feel I should emphasise the design plan was not 'make it 2D20 and hammer anything that doesn't fit into place'. Our first loyalty is always to the setting and gameplay, rather than the house system.
Great answer that. First thing is to look a a system you already know and possibly love, like 5e. Then see if it does everything you want to capture in your setting and genre. If the answer to both is yes, use the system you already know. If the answer is know, see how you can modify the system you already know to see if it will work, Hellboy RPG has modified the core 5e rules around that idea. So has the Carbon 2185 Kickstarter modified 5e even more, even changing one of the core attributes.

Finally, if modifying the system you already know fails, then look for a new system that already exists and try that.

If all the above fail, the obviously, consider writing a new system from scratch. A shoutout to Connor Alexander for taking this last option with Coyote and Crow and getting so much trust that he scored over a million Dollars. Now the question would be whether Coyote and Crow succeeds after the Kickstarter or does a John Wick on us all.
 


Grendel_Khan

Explorer
What, making the most fundamental of mechanical game design decisions on factors that have absolutely nothing to do with the game you're trying to make?

Why, nothing at all.

I just don't see the need. There's no reason to beg the question like this anyway. Almost nobody buys games for the mechanics anyway, conventional wisdom tells us that this is one of the least important factors when deciding to buy a game. Like, who plays Starfinder because they wanted to play a game with mechanics that are half Pathfinder 1 and half Pathfinder 2 and not because of goblins in space and whatever those little mascot space critters that Paizo puts on everything are.

I'm not particularly interested in point by point critiquing the mechanics, but with the dice pools with positive and negative values within them and being driven by drives it sure sounds like Cortex Prime but with more steps. Like, wouldn't all this work better and more smoothly in a ground up narrative design than kind of kludging it into 2D20?

I don't particularly care for narrative games, but if that's what the goal is you should make the best possible version of that without "brand identity" considerations that have little to no impact on the success of the game itself comprising the vision. I mean, is there a person alive who would be excited to play a Dune RPG but then not play it because it's not 2D20?
Seems like you have a lot of problems about a game that you haven't read. I've read it pretty thoroughly, and if anything I think the biggest mistake Modiphius made was pulling it as far from core 2d20 mechanics as they did. In other words, I think they actually customized or reimagined far too much, to the extent that almost everything is abstract, everyone is incentivized to constantly improvise every detail, which to me just sets up situations where the loudest, wackiest person is driving everything, and the GM is always in the position of yes-and-ing everything or shutting things down, with no real mechanics to help them out.

But, again, that's after reading it, and getting why they made the decisions to rework 2d20 rules so extensively, in order to make a game that fit with the tone of the books. It's extremely faithful, which, to me, is pretty unplayable. But maybe check it out before you jump into the trenches.
 

Grendel_Khan

Explorer
It's a beautifully presented game that I honestly can't imagine anyone will ever play. I hope I'm wrong, but I also hope they're forced to do a book or two down the line that gives you options for more narrative direction and more specific mechanics. Great games are filled with story hooks and character creation options that make you feel like you can't wait to jump into the setting and hit the ground running. Here, what are you doing exactly? You're vaguely pushing a House's agenda, but there's no sense of urgency or purpose, and so few mechanics to help you actually play. Just
"is this something your character really wants to do, like because of their Drives?"
"Yes!"
"Ok. Are you actually trained in doing it?"
"There's nothing on my sheet about it, but probably."
"OK roll, I guess."
 

Corone

Adventurer
"is this something your character really wants to do, like because of their Drives?"
"Yes!"
"Ok. Are you actually trained in doing it?"
"There's nothing on my sheet about it, but probably."
"OK roll, I guess."
Nothing on your sheet is somewhat unfair.
You have a range of abilities, skill specialisations (focuses) and talents, not to mention even your choice of equipment can be used in a test.

You don't need a long list of skills because you have some manner of skill with most things given you are an elite agent.
If you want to get past a guard the GM asks you how are you going to do that:
Use communicate to talk your way past, use Move to sneak past, use Battle to fight past etc, rather than the GM saying 'roll stealth' and you replying 'oh, that sucks I don't have that skill'.
So you can always make an attempt at an action, its a question of how you approach it and what you choose to use.
I do like the idea of players using their drives to push the narrative forward though.
 

Grendel_Khan

Explorer
I'm exaggerating, but not all that much. Dune has a grand total of 5 skills, and then Drives might seem like Attributes, but they're not really, because they're super open-ended and interchangeable. Duty, Faith and Justice could all apply to the same thing in a given situation, probably Truth, too. Would be like saying "Ok you can roll for this test using, um, Agility or Charisma or Willpower or who knows, Strength, whatever you're best at." And best-case scenario you're getting into lots of metagame debates about whether sneaking past a guard is informed by one's morality or code of honor or faith, just quasi-philosophical nattering over and over, instead of just having attributes and skills. Like that's a plus, if you're stopping the action to discuss whether your seduction roll is based on Duty or Truth.

I think that, in many ways, the rules are very faithful to the way the Dune books play out, where there are sort of no details, and few visuals--things just happen, often off-screen, so to speak, because a character wants them to. But as someone who loves other 2d20 games, and the Dune setting, I don't see how this specific combination works for an RPG. I'd have rather seen a more straightforward Conan or Infinity-style ruleset and a narrower scope of play, focused on a specific part of the setting. Give me something clear to do, and why I'm doing it, and clear rules to do it. But there's clearly so much effort put into this adaptation, and it's clearly ambitious, so I'd love for it to succeed on its own terms. I really do hope I'm wrong and the narrative/improv crowd eats it up, zones and all.
 
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Feepdake

Villager
I'm exaggerating, but not all that much. Dune has a grand total of 5 skills, and then Drives might seem like Attributes, but they're not really, because they're super open-ended and interchangeable. Duty, Faith and Justice could all apply to the same thing in a given situation, probably Truth, too. Would be like saying "Ok you can roll for this test using, um, Agility or Charisma or Willpower or who knows, Strength, whatever you're best at." And best-case scenario you're getting into lots of metagame debates about whether sneaking past a guard is informed by one's morality or code of honor or faith, just quasi-philosophical nattering over and over, instead of just having attributes and skills. Like that's a plus, if you're stopping the action to discuss whether your seduction roll is based on Duty or Truth.

I think that, in many ways, the rules are very faithful to the way the Dune books play out, where there are sort of no details, and few visuals--things just happen, often off-screen, so to speak, because a character wants them to. But as someone who loves other 2d20 games, and the Dune setting, I don't see how this specific combination works for an RPG. I'd have rather seen a more straightforward Conan or Infinity-style ruleset and a narrower scope of play, focused on a specific part of the setting. Give me something clear to do, and why I'm doing it, and clear rules to do it. But there's clearly so much effort put into this adaptation, and it's clearly ambitious, so I'd love for it to succeed on its own terms. I really do hope I'm wrong and the narrative/improv crowd eats it up, zones and all.
Why should there be metagame debates? If a player narrates their intention clearly, and that intent is backed up by narrative justification, that should be enough to dictate which Drive is most apt for a particular roll.

Of course, if a player is of the sort who wants to "win" at optimization of mechanics, then yes, perhaps this game isn't for them after all.
 
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Why should there be metagame debates? If a player narrates their intention clearly, and that intent is backed up by narrative justification, that should be enough to dictate which drive is most apt for a particular roll.

Of course, if a player is of the sort who wants to "win" at optimization of mechanics, then yes, perhaps this game isn't for them after all.
Are we suddenly back to "these games are not for everybody" because I always thought all game designs were built on the premise that games are for everybody?

In another thread I heard some people gripe that 7th Sea 2e was not for them. Again, that is confusing, since good clear game mechanics should be for all.

Sadly,, it seems game designers have an impossible task pleasing everybody equally if people are never satisfied.

With the above being said, if some groups of people still complain whatever rules get used, you might as well convert everything to 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules, since, at least the vast majority, as evidenced by multiple ENWorld stats, seem to play that.
 



Mine certainly aren't.
I only properly played W.O.I.N. and it is built with the common d6 dice pools, so very accessible, plus it relies on the traditional attributes for skill checks, so not as philosophical as Dune's Drives attribute.

Advanced 5e (LevelUp) is basically Dungeons and Dragons. Which of your games are not accessible? Maybe I should try those then.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I only properly played W.O.I.N. and it is built with the common d6 dice pools, so very accessible, plus it relies on the traditional attributes for skill checks, so not as philosophical as Dune's Drives attribute.

Advanced 5e (LevelUp) is basically Dungeons and Dragons. Which of your games are not accessible? Maybe I should try those then.
Both of those games are aimed at the 'crunchier' market. On the other hand, Simply6 and Awfully Cheerful Engine! are aimed at the opposite end of that scale. Not every game will appeal to every person.

Which of your games are not accessible?

They're accessible, but each game isn't designed for everybody. Each has its own audience, and tastes vary.
 

Corone

Adventurer
I'm exaggerating, but not all that much. Dune has a grand total of 5 skills, and then Drives might seem like Attributes, but they're not really, because they're super open-ended and interchangeable. Duty, Faith and Justice could all apply to the same thing in a given situation, probably Truth, too.
You are exaggerating a lot. Just because players can choose a Drive does not mean any of them will do, or are all the same. The skill determines what you do, the Drive determines how you do it. Trying to convince (Communicate) with someone using Justice is an appeal to what it right, use Power and it’s an intimidate. Both are very different and have very different narrative effects if things go right or wrong. Conan and Infinity are not that different at all, it’s still ‘add 2 attributes to make a target number and roll’ and zones are not new either. If you don’t like it, fair enough. But you’ve missed the point in terms of the system.
 

Kannik

Adventurer
You are exaggerating a lot. Just because players can choose a Drive does not mean any of them will do, or are all the same. The skill determines what you do, the Drive determines how you do it. Trying to convince (Communicate) with someone using Justice is an appeal to what it right, use Power and it’s an intimidate. Both are very different and have very different narrative effects if things go right or wrong. Conan and Infinity are not that different at all, it’s still ‘add 2 attributes to make a target number and roll’ and zones are not new either. If you don’t like it, fair enough. But you’ve missed the point in terms of the system.
In addition,* not every Drive or Skill will have the same ease of success. Want to Power your way through a situation? Might be more difficult than using a different approach or drive.

* I'm doing a bit of extrapolation here, as I haven't read the new Dune yet, but to me it appears akin to the approaches from FATE Accelerated, and the advice/concerns people have regarding either everything being the same, or that players will just forever use their strongest Approach and win everything.
 

It's a beautifully presented game that I honestly can't imagine anyone will ever play. I hope I'm wrong,
You are. My players in one group look forward to returning to the released version; the other is split about it.

I look forward to buying the dead tree, and running it again. It has the two flaws all 2d20 games have: the snowball effect and the punish-failure (and those are intimately linked); I had to avert a snowball only once during the Dune playtest, between two groups, and that was a firefight.

To be blunt, tho', this is also going to be the easiest flavor to reskin. It's very flexible, and the tools in the game are a good fit for dune, but also good for a number of other settings.
 

Grendel_Khan

Explorer
I look forward to buying the dead tree, and running it again. It has the two flaws all 2d20 games have: the snowball effect and the punish-failure (and those are intimately linked); I had to avert a snowball only once during the Dune playtest, between two groups, and that was a firefight.

To be blunt, tho', this is also going to be the easiest flavor to reskin. It's very flexible, and the tools in the game are a good fit for dune, but also good for a number of other settings.
Tell me more about these two flaws. Is the snowball effect when PCs hit max group momentum and just roll 5d20 for every action?
 

Tell me more about these two flaws. Is the snowball effect when PCs hit max group momentum and just roll 5d20 for every action?
Other way round. Momentum is capped for the players*. GM threat isn't.

If a roll early on gets a bunch of potential complications, the GM can wind up with a lot of threat to use, and the players need to generate more to survive/succeed at the scene goal... if the characters are weak, this can wind up with characters literally unable to do anything due to needing 3 extra successes over the difficulty (standard diff is 2) unless they get extra dice. Which, due to failure, means an empty momentum pool*, and the extra dice to even have a chance requires generating even more threat, likely fails, and more dice also means a much higher chance of complication (5d20 is 22%, vs just shy of 10% on 2d20).

The punish failure element: If you don't succeed early, you cannot generate a momentum pool. Which leads to the GM getting more threat and/or the players having more complications, making it harder still to pull out of.
If you succeed early with really good rolls, you can wind up with a "must spend" momentum making the next few tasks also easier... but due to the cap, and the scene end drain, early success isn't as beneficial as early failure is punishing.

If the GM is careless, inexperienced, or otherwise not paying attention, the threat pool can wind up so large that it's clear that the only reason the players are having success is that the GM isn't spending the threat.

So, the snowball is when early failures leads to massive complications and large threat piles, making success clearly a matter of the GM "letting" the players succeed by not playing the threat.

The worst complication possible is a threat range extension.
2d20 TR=20 is 9.75% of one or more complications.
3d20 TR=20 is 14.2725%
4d20 TR=20 is 18.549375%
2d20 TR=19 is 19%
3d20 TR=19 is 27.1%
4d20 TR=19 is 34.39%

Threat range can be dropped all the way down to 16+.
Certain adventures have a clear "increase the threat range" situation, and that is, in itself, a potential long term complication that is VERY much going to cause the threatpile to grow, possibly past the point of using it without killing the PCs.

The risk is much reduced in Dune vs in Star Trek Adventures, since the spends by the GM are actually much more limited, so the threat-pile growing isn't a sure sign the GM's going easy on you.

Neither is a fatal flaw. It is, however, a situation to keep an eye out for, and to not give in to it as a GM.
Also, expanding the threat range is something to not do carelessly, as it and steep difficulties early is when the snowball has happened.

Note that many traditional games also do the punish failure mode... Fumbles... but few do lasting impairments on fumbles. The storygame side generally pays you for accepting complications, but not 2d20.

I did have one session snowball in Dune during playtest. It resulted in Baron Harkonnen becoming a personal enemy of the players... because there really wasn't any softer complication, I already had 20 threat on the table, and the freakishly bad 5 complications was pretty close to "Abelard declares Kanly" level of bad. (Especially since they were on Geidi Prime.)

Don't get me wrong; I love the setting, and having bought the PDF, it's adding to my love of it. Just be aware that the snowball effect can happen, and spend threat in ways that allow players to dig out of the hole.

-=-=-=-=-=-
*some 2d20 games have individual pools; others have a single group pool.
 

Grendel_Khan

Explorer
Neither is a fatal flaw. It is, however, a situation to keep an eye out for, and to not give in to it as a GM.
Also, expanding the threat range is something to not do carelessly, as it and steep difficulties early is when the snowball has happened.

Note that many traditional games also do the punish failure mode... Fumbles... but few do lasting impairments on fumbles. The storygame side generally pays you for accepting complications, but not 2d20.

I did have one session snowball in Dune during playtest. It resulted in Baron Harkonnen becoming a personal enemy of the players... because there really wasn't any softer complication, I already had 20 threat on the table, and the freakishly bad 5 complications was pretty close to "Abelard declares Kanly" level of bad. (Especially since they were on Geidi Prime.)

Don't get me wrong; I love the setting, and having bought the PDF, it's adding to my love of it. Just be aware that the snowball effect can happen, and spend threat in ways that allow players to dig out of the hole.

-=-=-=-=-=-
*some 2d20 games have individual pools; others have a single group pool.
Thanks so much for all of this. I'm still pretty new to 2d20 so this kind of breakdown is incredibly useful.

One other question, though. 2d20 games seem to have a differing number of talents that let you reroll a d20 for a given skill, which seems to help keep runaway complications under control. Do you think what you're describing is more of a potential problem for the games with fewer talents like that? Before I started playing I felt like those rerolls might take the fun out of complications. But after rolling lots of dice and getting some wild, hard-to-interpret results, they start to look a lot more reasonable.
 

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