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.
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