I’m back with the second half of my Dune RPG review. This is going to be a long review but I didn’t want to keep you waiting. With that in mind, I’m launching headfirst into the review!
Player characters in Dune are both important to the story but they are often also the most important people in the universe. They are part of Houses that literally control the world (often “the worlds”) so it’s important that they are larger than life. They also have lots of assistance in these cosmic arcs and this comes in the form of supporting characters, a category you are used to if you’ve checked out Star Trek Adventures already (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?). In a nutshell, supporting characters are like toned-down PCs that can be played temporarily by other players so that you can have a cast of thousands with a play group of just a few.
Like other 2d20 games, character creation in Dune are pretty flexibly created and there aren’t too many choke points when you are forced to fit into specific slots. A few sketched out concepts that they provide are scion of the House (part of the central family), Mentat advisor (the human computer supporting the House leadership), Bene Gesserit Agent (one of the Sisterhood of diplomat-ninjas), swordmaster (all fighting all the time), physician (healer of the House), smuggler (criminal type), Fremen warrior (experts of the Dune wastes), and House officer (one of the many officials that a House uses to keep itself together). These are big picture ideas but there are a number of different archetypes that the game cites to give you a headstart in creating a character, four for each skill (which we’ll talk about below). These are great if you’re unsure or just want some guidance in this process but you can just invent one if you want.
As I said last time, characters start off with two or three traits: one for their position, one for their personal reputation, and sometimes one for another affiliation they might have. For example, Paul Atreides (star of the film and book Dune) has Noble Scion, Wise Beyond His Years, and (because he’s special) Destined for Greatness. As another example, Paul’s mother Lady Jessica has the three traits of Consort, Dedicated and Devoted, and Bene Gesserit. In both cases, even with no other information, you’ve got some pretty clear direction in how to portray these different characters.
Next we move into the crunchy stuff with the different skills that characters in Dune utilize: Battle (big and small), Communicate (socializing generally), Discipline (self-control and willpower), Move (any sort of movement), and Understand (learning stuff). These skills tend to run from 4 (very lacking) and 8 (master of the skill). Like other 2d20 games, characters also have focuses that express their particular strengths and these can be anything really. You get four focuses, they have to be attached to specific skills, and the skill has to be at least a 6. If you have a decent Battle, for example, you might pick Assassination or Short Blades or Strategy depending on what your character concept is. Some focuses are specific so you can take them multiple times like Music with different instruments or Pilot with different vehicles.
Characters also get talents which are special abilities like talents in Star Trek Adventures or feats in D&D.
Lastly there are Drives which are somewhat like traits and somewhat like skills (and also a dash of Value from STA or truth/scar from the upcoming Achtung! Cthulhu game). The different drives are Duty, Faith, Justice, Power, and Truth. During character creation you pick your primary one which tes an 8, then your second-most important at a 7, and then 6, 5, and 4 for the least important. When you make a skill test in Dune you’re going to add the relevant skill and the relevant drive (focuses help you get critical successes more easily) so this encourages playing to your character’s nature. You can’t easily change whether a task involves Battle or Understanding, for example, but depending on how you do it you can absolutely influence whether it is related to Duty or Power depending on which of those is better rated for you. As a last part, any drive which is at least 6 (i.e. your three highest) will have a drive statement alongside it that gives context to what you think of that drive. Like Values in Star Trek Adventures, these drive statements are what allow you to spend the valuable game currency of Determination which lets you really enhance important rolls.
As one more roleplaying element, characters all have an ambition which is a statement of what they want to achieve and often tied to their highest drive. When in doubt, think of what the character’s ambition is and let that drive your decision-making. Between these ambitions, your drive statements, and your handful of Traits you have a powerful set of roleplaying tools even if you don’t have a word of backstory.
If you prefer, you can do the Creation in Play method and do all of these steps as the story begins but the choices aren’t any different so I’ll leave that for your reading pleasure. Also of note are the advancement rules whereby coming up against setbacks and defeats gives you advancement points to get new skill ratings, focuses, talents, or assets. Besides those, though, you now know everything you need to make a Dune character, and I’m about to prove it!
Examples of Character Creation
That was a whole lot so let’s consider two examples of character creation. I threw out the name House Lessana last time so let’s make some people to be the leadership of House Lessana. I’m going to try two different approaches to character creation here and have a Scion of the House, Raef Lessana who is the heir to the House ruler, and a hard-to-classify childhood friend of Raef’s, Hogan Maas, who is from a Minor House but serves as Raef’s personal attendant (and boyfriend? we’ll see). Raef will use the archetypes and Hogan will be pretty freeform.
I’ve got a solid concept for Raef Lessana so I can go straight in to picking his archetype: he’ll be a Commander like we saw with Paul Atreides. This means he gets the trait of Commander and also chooses Communicate as his primary skill (so it’s a 6) and Move as a secondary skill (so it’s a 5) and the other skills are at a 4. He then adds 5 more points among the skills (can’t exceed an 8) so he’ll bump up Battle a little and also increase Understand even more. He picks four Focuses and I’ll choose Inspiration for Communicate, Dueling for Battle, and bpth Ecology and Advanced Technology for Understanding. I want him to have an intellectual motivation so he’s going to have dreams of being a revolutionary terraforming engineer. Raef gets three talents and since he’s not part of a faction (like the Suk doctors or the Bene Gesserit) then I’ve got free rein. Arbitrarily I want to give him a noble one (Direct to boss around the supporting characters), an intellectual one (Intense Study to use Understand more), and a fun one (Subtle Words which makes him pretty snarky).
For drives I’ll give Raef Duty 8, Truth 7, Power 6, Faith 5, and Justice 4. He’ll need drive statements for Duty, Truth, and Power which I can use to clarify his feelings about his family and about the learning he’s so devoted to. Lastly he gets three assets but since we haven’t talked about those yet I’ll just leave it there. To finish it off Raef gets a trait for his personality (maybe Studied and Confident), an ambition (something about advancing humankind), and then personal details and backstory. There we have it, a fully realized House Scion. Now onto his friend!
For Hogan Maas I don’t have an especially strong archetype idea so I’m going to improvise one on the fly. We’ll call him Noble Companion and make that his first trait, then pick Discipline as a primary skill and Communicate as a secondary skill (others are all at 4). Spreading some points around he’ll also have good Understanding so that he and Raef can share that. I want to give him very different Focuses so I’ll give him Composure for Discipline, Listening for Communicate, and Danger Sense and House Politics for Understanding. Raef is the one with big, bright dreams and Hogan is the patient one who watches and learns.
As talents, I’m going to give Hogan Advisor (he’s there to support the heir), Passive Scrutiny (his ability to size up a situation), and Rigorous Control (he can use Discipline instead of another skill). Drives for Hogan are going to be Truth 8, Faith 7, Duty 6, Justice 5, and Power 4. He’ll have very different drive statements than Raef but because I want them to have a strong bond I can establish how they both value the Truth and also frame Hogan’s drives to be different from but in line with Raef’s. He’ll get three assets, an ambition, and personal details but that’s that! It was nice having the archetype the first character but as you can see freehanding it isn’t that much more difficult.
Types of Conflict
All conflicts in Dune follow the same format regardless of what sort of conflict we’re talking about. You pick a skill and a drive to make the roll (even if you’re not there, your agents use your stats) and try to beat the Difficulty which is usually 2 (but might be increased). Your drive statements can agree with the action and let you spend a Determination point or they can clash in which case you can go forward with it anyways (and take a complication) or challenge it (and cross it out, possibly changing it later). Or it can not really relate to any statement in which case it’s just a straightforward roll.
If you succeed and the target is just a minor character or problem then you’ve won the conflict. If it’s more complicated then this is an extended test meaning you have to rack up enough successes to equal their most relevant skill (Battle for a fight, Communicate for an argument, etc). Since you’re up against Difficulty 2 then succeeding gives you two successes toward that, though you also get a bonus equal to the Quality of an asset you use, and you can spend Momentum for extra points. This means most of the time your larger-than-life character will be knocking back minions left and right before coming up against the main enemy at the end, although there might be tougher assets (with non-zero Qualities) in between. There are zones of conflict to represent the space this takes place in (abstract or physical) and an action order with Initiative similar to other 2d20 games. Moving can be done subtly (cautious, control the Initiative) or boldly (big move, let your opponent react).
So what sort of conflicts are we talking about? Well this being Dune there is dueling which is one-on-one fights with close-quarters weaponry (no ranged weapons because of personal shields). This is the most idiosyncratic conflict type but it’s where the book starts so we’ll start here too. Assets in dueling are mostly weapons (melee and ranged but also tricky things like needles or concealed blades) and defenses (personal shields and armor). In the Dune franchise personal shields block quickly-moving objects but slow-moving ones can get through so you can use the bold and subtle movements to keep an opponent focused then slip a blade in the side. Zones are areas that a duelist needs to guard (right and left, high and low) and the target themselves so you can boldly move your sword to your opponent’s left guard, the respond with a blow to your high guard, then you subtly move your dagger to their right guard hoping to subtly move it into the middle again next turn… It’s straightforward but very thematic.
Bigger than duels are skirmishes which is the sort of fighting you might expect from an RPG with several combatants against several other combatants. These are probably going to be the most common physical conflict that you have in the game but we don’t need to spend much time on it here since it’s the most familiar: movement takes you between zones like “hallway” and “hangar,” assets are weapons and defense (though something like “high ground” might also be used), and you fight through the enemy. Even bigger than those are warfare conflicts which are the sort of mass battles with commanders and units that you might expect in a game of powerful Houses clashing. In some ways this just like skirmishes but with bigger assets (you can have a “tank” or “infantry unit” instead of a “sword” or “bodyguard”) but I think the bigger cognitive shift is to information. Gaining information can help you in any of the physical conflicts but spotting the enemy’s tactics or noticing a feint in troop deployment can be critical here.
When you aren’t just throwing down fighting you might be engaging in espionage conflicts, stealthy and deceptive conflicts for stealing information, planting listening devices, or assassinating targets. I absolutely love the rules shifts here and think they’re a very clever redesign of 2d20 conflict without getting too unfamiliar. Your assets in espionage conflicts are your spies, informants, surveillance devices, security measures, and so on. You move them between “zones” that are really layers in the organization or location that you’re trying to infiltrate. To use the book’s example, you might want to gain information on what’s happening in the deserts of the desert planet Arrakis. You first move your spy asset into the “Spice Smuggler” zone and defeat that spice smuggler in a conflict, representing you convincing them to work with you. Next you move the spy to the smuggler’s “Smuggling Operation” zone to convince the group (perhaps with your new informant asset), from there to the “Fremen” zone as you make inroads with the locals, and finally to the “Arrakis” zone which is the pulse of society you’re after. It’s tense and just as involved as physical combat, making this a very crunchy and fun part of the game. While other 2d20 games have this sort of conflict (notably the Infinity RPG) others, like Star Trek Adventures do not. I plan to use this awesome game element in a Star Trek game that involves Starfleet Intelligence, the Tal Shiar, or the Obsidian Order. I’m already thrilled by the possibilities of that.
Lastly, there are intrigue conflicts which are the sort of social clashing that you might engage in with a highly political scene. Like espionage conflicts, this type involves the same sort or rules but redone slightly to capture the feel of this sort of story. “Zones” are people in the arena you’re addressing: a party, a court, the boardroom of a corporation, etc. You move your assets (knowledge, rumors, lies, valuables, etc) from zone to zone as you focus your social skills on different people to turn them or neutralize them. Difficulty is modified based on their disposition (allied or friendly characters have lower Difficulty while unfriendly or opposed characters are higher) and each zone (person or group) has a desire which is a written statement like character ambitions. You can use the zone/person’s desire to win them over, undermine them, or just pocket it for later. Subtle and bold movement can tell whether you are circumspect or blunt in your conversation, but all of these things are pretty light and you can still focus on the roleplayed conversation. These framework additions are definitely something I want to do in future 2d20 games.
To finish, some people might bristle at the idea that roleplaying and talking should come down to dice rolls but I see it differently. First of all, nothing’s stopping you from having an hour-long in-character conversation as part of an espionage operation or intrigue negotiation. The few dice rolls involved are not intrusive and there’s far more room for nuance and design in this approach to conflict than if you’re imagining using D&D combat rules for social conflict. Secondly, not everyone wants to have hour-long in-character conversations. They might not enjoy being in character that long or they might feel (understandably) that portraying a noble-born, genius-level, Bene-Gesserit-trained spy is beyond their acting chops. In these cases you can say “I talk to them about their interest in the trade negotiations,” roll something to determine that you win them over, then play out the end of the conversation. Think of it like movies: sometimes you see a whole conversation on screen but often the characters start talking, there’s a cutaway to something else, then you come back to when they’re getting to the crux of the matter. This framework allows you to have those dramatic scenes without a full-on theater production and that’s awesome.
I’ve already talked about assets throughout this review so I want to focus here on the examples in the book. All assets have a name and Quality (which, again, can be 0 to 4) and that’s how they factor into the game mechanics. To help fit it into the narrative there are notes whether assets are tangible (equipment, people, vehicles, etc) or intangible (contacts, favors, reputation, etc) and they also have keywords which tells how they can be used. Main characters start with three assets as we saw above, notable supporting characters start with just one, and minor supporting characters (the mooks and guards) have nothing. NPCs get whatever the GM wants to give them. One thing I overlooked before is that you can use Determination to create an asset in play so if you want a Quality 1 or 2 asset all of a sudden that’s a good way to do it.
The first category of assets provided are personal assets which can be ranged weapons (lasguns and Fremen maula pistols), melee weapons (blades, crysknives, etc), armor and dress (personal or facility shields or stillsuist), communication and information assets (planetary comm systems, memocorders, etc), tools and personal equipment (cibus hoods to obscure features, dew collectors, fremkits, paracompasses, etc). Warfare assets are more military stuff including defensive shields, various types of soldiers (including elite troops), transport vehicles (including ornithopters!), artillery and anti-aircraft weapons, and other vehicles (like spice harvesters).
Espionage assets are for use in espionage conflicts (obviously) and can be weapons (hunter-seekers, poison teeth, etc), drugs (poisons and truthsayer drugs), communications (ways of coding information and methods like interrogation), and contacts and allies (assassins, spies, Mentats, etc). For the final conflict type there are intrigue assets which can be favors (debts, services, or old friendships), valuables (land rights, manufactured goods, raw materials, supply contracts, or valuable items), blackmail (a hostage, stolen files, or something else), contacts (black market traders, courtesans, former House agents), and courtiers (by role such as “ambitious newcomer” or “indebted landowner”).
Straightforward, interesting, and sure to be expanded in future books. These are a great initial list and creating your own should be a matter of minutes.
Gamemastering, Allies, and Adversaries
The gamemastering chapters of the book cover a lot of advice for how to GM and a lot of it is familiar ground. I do love that they specifically call out that GMs are not supposed to “beat” the players or make things too easy (good advice), they suggest some safety tools and a Session 0, and they provide an idea of scope for the story. You can tell Dune stories that are local (a specific city or sietch), world games (covering a whole planet, like the initial Dune novel), or a galaxy game (spanning many systems like later Dune novels). They also suggest various lengths (very important) and advice on utilizing story hooks, characters, and locations to make memorable stories. All in all a great twenty pages of information for GMs.
The next chapter describes NPCs for use in your campaign game. There are a number of canon characters from the books and movies including House Atreides leaders (Duke Leto, Lady Jessica, young Paul, the duelist Gurney Halleck, Mentat spymaster Thufir Hawat, the swordmaster Duncan Idaho, and Dr. Yueh) and House Harkonnen leaders (Baron Vladimir, twisted Mentat Piter de Vries, the knife-fighter Feyd-Rautha, and the savage Glossu Rabban). There are also members of the Imperial House Corrino (Emperor Shaddam IV, his heir Princess Irulan, the Reverend Mother truthsayer, and the emperor’s assassin Count Fenring) and Fremen NPCs (Stilgar, Chani, and Liet).
Following these is some advice for creating new characters (both making them memorable and diverse as well as mechanically). Various archetypes are provided and they cover a wide range of the Dune universe: an Arrakeen native from the city, an assassin, a Bene Gesserit agent, a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, a criminal, a courtier, an envoy of a noble House, a face dancer agent, a Fremen elder, a Fremen warrior, a Spacing Guild agent, a healer, a House solider/guard, a Mentat, a merchant, a young Noble heir, a Noble veteran politician, a Sardaukar soldier, a scientist, a House servant, a smuggler, a spy/infiltrator, a technician, a Tleilaxu master, and an Arrakeen water seller. Lastly, some rival Houses are described to quickly set up a military House, an espionage House, a technological/industrial House, an artistic/religious House, and an agricultural House at various levels. The book then ends with a sample adventure called “Harvesters of Dune,” a story involving investigating why the PC House’s spice harvesting has been horrible this year and the dramatic fallout of that.
So, that’s the Dune RPG. It’s a lot, but to be fair there’s a whole lot in the source material. I think the authors have done a fantastic job creating a game for this dramatic universe and I think the 2d20 system is a great fit. I’m a big proponent of reading games to see what they value with attention and page space. From that perspective, Dune values physical combat, spying and assassination, and social maneuvering fairly equally and that lines up exactly with how I see the stories in this universe.
On top of that, this is a great resource for anyone running a 2d20 game in any system. The assets approach, the different conflict types, and the use of drives and ambition are all really excellent parts of the game and you can easily transport them to 2d20 games that don’t already feature this sort of thing with very minimal effort. It really adds a lot to the value.Go read Dune if you haven’t already, watch the new movie as soon as you can, and if any of what you’ve read sounds fun then I wholeheartedly recommend the Dune RPG.