Intended to coincide with the Dune 2021 movie, the much-anticipated Dune RPG from Modiphius has now been released while the movie has been delayed. How does it relate to the movie and what is it like? Here’s an initial review.
Like previous 2d20 system releases from Modiphius, such as Star Trek Adventures, John Carter and Conan, Dune has the same basic game mechanic as those earlier systems: to attempt a task, the GM sets a difficulty level, the player rolls 2 or more d20 against the sum of two relevant attribute values, and the number of successes from that roll determines not only whether they succeed but how well.
As in those previous games, Modiphius also adapts that basic mechanic to suit the “feel” of the game and promote & support the kinds of actions & stories the subject matter evokes. In Star Trek Adventures, for example those attributes are a combination of one Attribute such as Control or Daring, and one Discipline such as Command or Engineering. In Dune they are Skills (Battle, Communicate, Discipline, Move, Understand) and Drives (Duty, Faith, Justice, Power, Truth). Whereas STA use more “mechanical” attributes suited to it’s particular sci-fi flavor, Dune’s are geared to broad skill areas and the motivations of player characters.
There are Focuses, areas of specialization which may relate to several skills. Anyone with Battle skill could take Strategy (large-scale warfare) as a focus, for example. Players gain extra benefits when their focus is relevant to the task they are attempting. Similarly, Drives have a Drive Statement, something in particular the character believes about that Drive. Truth might have a statement like “The truth must always come out”, meaning (perhaps) the character will always try to make sure that facts, plots, plans, etc will always be revealed and made public (regardless of whether that’s a good thing or not).
Characters also have Talents, specific abilities such as Voice, Prana Bindu Training, or the more generic Bold. These allow the character to do certain things or help them carry out actions that others may not be capable of.
Last but not least, there are Assets. Assets are a variety of tangible or intangible items which a player can use or manipulate. They might be a favorite knife given to them by a parent, their personal ornithopter, the fact they have a smuggler as a contact, or even that they have the ear of the Emperor. Assets are, in fact, the key to much of the game system. For the most part, players will manipulate assets in order to accomplish actions and achieve results. When you fight, you use that favorite knife. If you want to get off-planet without being seen, you tap your smuggler contact for a favor. If you want to expose the machinations of a rival house, you could try to get an audience with the Emperor, for example.
Dune uses Momentum, Threat and Determination as player & GM currencies to influence or alter game outcomes along the way. Players generate Momentum by rolling better than required when attempting a task then “banking” the extra successes; they can later “spend” those points to boost rolls or add to effects. The GM gains Threat from story circumstances and when players have no Momentum to spend but still want to spend it anyway. By “buying” Threat, the players get what they want but they also give the GM currency to spend against them later. Determination is a more powerful (but rarer) currency that players can gain by playing in-character and spend for story-critical effects.
The heart of the system as applied to Dune comes down to the Conflict mechanism and the manipulation of Assets. Using applicable Skills, Drives and Assets, a player carries out one or more tasks, including task rolls, that produce a desired effect.
A duel with a minor NPC can be resolved with a single Battle+Duty roll and your knife Asset if you’re defending a house member from an assassin, while the same fight against a major NPC Ixian Facedancer, or in shield & knife practice with another player character might need a series of rolls. Once you succeed in the task, you get to name the effect (in these examples, the defeat of the other character) and can even spend Momentum to produce a lasting effect (such as injury or death).
The same general process, with variations, is followed in all the major conflict areas: duelling, skirmishes, intrigue, espionage and warfare.
The individual nuances of conflict resolution and the different types of conflict will seem alien at first, particularly players from the D&D “roll to hit, roll to damage” school of role-playing, but they better fit the Dune background and evoke the feel of “Game of Thrones in space” that is Dune1. There are bigger stakes in this game than just exploring dungeons, and the game system supports and evokes that feel. The game system allows players and the GM to create the story with the elements they want rather than focusing on how many hit points the Orc has left.
Overall, the book itself is gorgeous - lots of tasty artwork (from what I can tell not drawn from the upcoming movie, but of the same style) and 339 pages of content. At only $25 CAD (in my case) for the PDF it’s a bargain when compared to much shorter but costlier games that would come in at around the $40-50 mark.
The chapters on history and background, and supporting characters such as the Atreides, Harkonnen and Fremen, are great for newcomers to Dune but don’t really go into much depth. If you’re a Dune fan you’ll know pretty much everything that’s in there anyway.
The game system boils down to house & character creation, core 2d20 mechanisms, conflict resolution and assets, all of which is explained reasonably well but the concepts may prove difficult to understand by anyone coming from more “wargame-like” tabletop-RPG’s. Those who’ve played the story-oriented or cinematic game systems such as Genesys or Fate will find them easier to understand. My one criticism in this area is that the examples are somewhat sparse leading the interpretation of some of the conflict rules open - I’d like to have seen a full duel & skirmish played out to understand how (in the case of dueling) the cut, thust & parry relates to the concepts of “subtly moving your knife asset into your opponents left guard zone”. Same goes for skirmishing and warfare in particular.
For me, every RPG has a “feel” to it. It’s mechanisms work well with some situations and not so well in others, and that leads to an understanding of the kinds of player/GM actions and stories the system works best with. Dune tries to use the same mechanisms with all levels & types of “conflict” and generally succeeds quite well, but it can take some imagination to figure out how the game mechanics relate to the way the story is told. Some player actions are, rightly, simple and inconsequential - the aforementioned minor NPC being taken out with a single roll, for example. The more complex and meaningful actions might take a lot of time and effort to create an effect, which is as it should be.
Overall, if you’re an RPG’er it’s a bargain to get the PDF and add it to your collection. If you’re a Dune fan there’s a lot to learn in here but you could finally find yourself playing out the books instead of just reading them, and again, the price is right.
OK, for the Dune fanatics out there and given that Dune predates GoT by some decades, I’ll concede that Game of Thrones is actually Dune in fantasy-land. ↩︎