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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

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.
I've only run STA and Dune, tho' I've read JCoM, Conan, and one other. In STA and Dune, the rerolls don't mitigate the issue enough to prevent it.. Literally, in several publisihed adventures, if you generate complications on the opening couple tasks, you're not going to succeed on the later tasks unless the GM avoids entirely complications which could affect the outcome, or gives extra tasks to counteract the issue (which can still backfire). On that backfire, I had 5 D1 tasks at start, and they generated 6 threat to max it rolling 10d20 across the group - 5 from the player, 1 from the ship, 4 from assistance. The unfortunate group rolled 5 20's... rendering the lead pretty bad odd with 3 complications, and 2 other players with 1 complication each.

Also note that most rerolls are predicated upon spending momentum or generating threat; the rerolls are each one or the other, not both. The ones for Momentum are often useless once into the snowball, since the complications reduced margins... so the only way to get the momentum to spend is to generate threat.

Note also: it has occurred in 4 of 5 plays of one particular adventure, one of which was a repeat for the same players. (They wanted a retry. It was a playtest. Character advancement wasn't in use.) The issue is that the difficulty of the tasks ramps steeply in the adventure; the one group that didn't have an issue was larger (7p), and everyone helped on almost every roll... which is thematic, but also was meaning they were rolling massive piles of momentum and rolling them into advatages rather than momentum. Doomed to Repeat the Past is the adventure; for 2-3 player groups, a bad roll at start of scene can be a major problem. And was for 3 of those plays. Even with in-scene NPCs (each squad counts as a trait) it wasn't adequate.
the 7 player group breezed through it only generating 10 threat through the whole adventure, that only to trigger reroll options.
The 2-3 player plays, one failed completely (TPK) with over 30 unspent threat (I didn't have NPCs needing to spend it, and one's not supposed to push the difficulty past 5), and no increased threat range used; once I used it once, and the stack of chips for threat was more than 30; I estimate about 45... The other two succeeded but I still had at least 20 unspent threat at end.

It's an adventure design issue as much as a game mechanic issue. And it's one that a Modiphius staffer has claimed does not exist at all. I and a guy I generally disagree with both saw it as a very real issue on first read, and he had it happen in playing the Conan preview, while I've had it happen in 4 of the Living Campaign adventures for STA and once during the Dune playtest.

There's one other issue with 2d20, and it's pretty minor, but shows up with certain players a session after encountering a snowball: that 20's are always a complication and there is no benefit for it, certain players then start lying about die rolls. (in some cases, it's apparently pathological, they don't realize intellectually they're doing it. In others it's entirely cognizant. I've had to deal with both.)

One element of 2d20 that may be problematic, and is related, but which I'm fine with: Success strongly ties to metacurrency flows.

Overall, I don't dislike 2d20; just be aware it's more trad than Fate or Cortex is, but still in that hybrid space between the two spots, as are Fate, Savage Worlds, FFG Narrative Dice System games, and a few others.
 

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Kannik

Adventurer
Thank you Aramis for sharing those experiences. We haven't played that particular mission in STA, but in the half-dozen or so we have played, our GM tended not to spend too much threat against us. When we rolled 20s, unless there was an interesting* complication/tag we could come up to place on the scene or character, it just added to the threat pool that rarely got used. Which was fine for us -- we never felt like we were on the opposite side of things, swimming in so much Momentum that everything became easy (or maybe we were just too stingy to spend it wantonly :p), and the complications created many a good RP moment, as well as some recurring motifs (one of our character broke just about every tricorder they got their hands on :) ).

That said, it should be noted that even without spending it, the GM rarely seemed to have more than 12 or 15 or so threat by the end of the mission, so it wasn’t a runaway pool of threat either. I’ll have to read Doomed… to see what in the scenario design makes it such a slippery slope to threatsville.

I concur on your assessment of where STA lies on the traditional/narrative gradient. I’m keen on checking out the Dune RPG, and will do so soon, to see how they crafted something more narratively-focused, which sounds like a better fit for the nature of a Dune game.
 

Thank you Aramis for sharing those experiences. We haven't played that particular mission in STA, but in the half-dozen or so we have played, our GM tended not to spend too much threat against us. When we rolled 20s, unless there was an interesting* complication/tag we could come up to place on the scene or character, it just added to the threat pool that rarely got used. Which was fine for us -- we never felt like we were on the opposite side of things, swimming in so much Momentum that everything became easy (or maybe we were just too stingy to spend it wantonly :p), and the complications created many a good RP moment, as well as some recurring motifs (one of our character broke just about every tricorder they got their hands on :) ).

That said, it should be noted that even without spending it, the GM rarely seemed to have more than 12 or 15 or so threat by the end of the mission, so it wasn’t a runaway pool of threat either. I’ll have to read Doomed… to see what in the scenario design makes it such a slippery slope to threatsville.

You're welcome...
I'll note that, in STA, my general pattern was ending well under 10 or way over 15, seldom in the middle. (2 sessions, IIRC.)
doing the total of 5 months worth (across 2 groups, 2 and 3 months, respectively) of campaigns from to-be-published material. Great fun, really good, and generally ended between 0 and 6 threat. In one case, they ended with me at 6+ because their final roll both succeeded and generated 6 before roll and 6 from complications, and 4 more from getting the extra progress needed to trigger the end... they'd spent their momentum on other elements, but ended with 2.

Suffice it to say, if they continue that story, that group will be looking over their shoulders for assassins... and a certain twisted mentat... and said mentat's boss.
 




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