11 September 2021

RPG Review - Dune: Adventures in the Imperium

 It has been over a year since I last posted anything. But I return to you today with a very important post: a review of a new TTRPG.

I was recently contacted by a representative of Modiphius Entertainment asking me if I'd like some advanced review copies of their forthcoming games. Obviously, I jumped at the chance. So they generously sent me a review copy, which I will now review for you.

A photo of the core rulebook, which features art depicting Paul Atreides, a Bene Gesserit, and a Mentat.

An Overview of Dune: Adventures in the Imperium

Modiphius returns to their 2d20 system for this outing into the world of Frank Herbert's sci-fi books. Although the rules can be used to play in any era of the saga, the core rulebook focuses primarily on the end of the Imperium era; that is, the rise of Paul Atreides. The game is clearly published as a tie-in with the Denis Villeneuve film, but can easily work for those who are more familiar with the books. Although there are plenty of rules for combat, the game is intended for a more narrative style of gaming that is in keeping with the epic 'galactic politics and intrigue' style of story that fits in with the books.

First Point: Production Value

The book is beautiful. It's published on high-quality paper with lavish illustrations and lovely stylish details (such as the subtle border at the top of most of the pages), but without sacrificing readability. It may not be the most ideal for accessibility; although the font is a good one for people with dyslexia and visual impairments, it is a little smaller than would be ideal. Not terrible, but there is room for improvement. Also, although the text is high-contrast, it's not pure-black-on-white; the background of the pages are a light cream colour. Again, not terrible, but there is room for improvement. Especially given that many of the sidebars have a darker background than the rest of the pages.

A page of text from the rulebook, with the border, background colour, and sidebars visible.
A sample page of text from the rulebook.

Nitpicky accessibility issues aside, the book is very nice. There is a lot of lovely artwork, and sumptuous splash pages at the beginning of each chapter.

A two-page spread, with text filling the top half of both pages, and a painting of a men riding sandworms spreading across the bottom half of both pages.

A chapter splash page, covering two facing pages. An illustration of a man standing on a balcony overlooking a city at night with two moons visible above the horizon. On the left page, some text introducing the chapter is overlaid on the illustration.

Overall, the production values are very high quality.

Second Point: Setting

Chapter 1: The Known Universe takes up 70 pages. It describes the universe of Frank Herbert's saga in fairly thorough detail. It includes an overview of the history up to the time of Paul Atreides, including a timeline that leads up to 10,191 AG (After Guild, the calendar used in the setting). Presumably, this section contains spoilers for any of the books set before the first book. Also likely is that there will be supplements that describe playing in subsequent eras which will include details of the history after 10,191.

This chapter also describes the imperium itself, including the Landsraad, the noble houses, technology, important planets, and the great schools (such as the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, the Mentats, and the Swordmasters of Ginaz). Although the information presented here is sparse, compared to what is included in the novels, it should be enough for players who are not familiar with the source material.

Third Point: System

As mentioned earlier, this game uses the 2d20 system that has formed the basis for many of Modiphius's other games, including Star Trek Adventures, Achtung! Cthulhu, Conan, and Mutant Chronicles. In short, a player rolls 2d20 and looks for any dice that result in a value equal to or less than the target number. The more dice achieve this feat, the better you perform at that test. It is possible to roll more than two dice, though; primarily through 'Momentum,' which is when you score more successes on the dice than you needed to accomplish the task. These points may be spent later for several effects, such as gaining extra information or rolling additional dice.

Furthermore, the GM has Threat, which is sort of the anti-Momentum. He gains it in a variety of ways, most notably when a player rolls a 20 on a die or when a player wants to spend Momentum but doesn't have any. Threat introduces new difficulties into the character's lives, such as giving an NPC extra dice or triggering a rival house action.

Unlike most TTRPGs, characters in Dune: Adventures in the Imperium do not have attributes. They have Drives, such as Duty, Power, and Truth. These are functionally identical to attributes; you add the values of the relevant Drive to the appropriate Skill to determine your target number for skill rolls. Drives are the main thing that makes this game much more character- and story-driven than many other RPGs; instead of looking at your character's innate characteristics to determine likelihood of success, you look at how the task relates to your character's personality and motivations.

For example, if you're trying to sneak into an enemy stronghold, you might choose to use the Duty Drive if you're doing this because you feel you have an obligation to your allies. On the other hand, if you're performing this action to find important information, you might roll the Truth Drive instead.

This is made slightly easier by the inclusion of 'drive statements.' During character creation, will need to create a Drive Statement for some of your Drives. These are short phrases that expand on the importance of that Drive. Some examples include 'I will have what is owed to me,' or 'Those who have true power need seldom wield it,' for Power, or 'I know my responsibilities,' for Duty. 

Drive Statements, along with Traits (words or short phrases that describe a person, object, or setting), are one of the things that make this system similar to Fate, which frequent readers of this blog will know I admire.

Challenge Dice

One thing I know that has some people upset is the removal of challenge dice. In previous games using the 2d20 system, damage rolls would use special dice called 'challenge dice' instead of d20s. These dice had special markings that allowed characters to achieve special effects (such as ignoring armour or affecting multiple targets) in addition to the amount of damage done. Dune: Adventures in the Imperium, however, does not use challenge dice.

A large part of the reason for this is because combat is more abstract in this game than in other 2d20 games. Although other games using this system have similar mechanics for combat and social contests (such as diplomacy, intimidation, and deception), Dune: Adventures in the Imperium is necessarily more focused on intrigue and espionage than most other TTRPGs. Additionally, the likelihood of combat being between opposing armies engaged in outright warfare is often higher than in other settings.

To accommodate these realities, conflict in Dune is abstracted so that it can use basically the same mechanic for any type of competition. These rules are collectively called 'Conflicts,' with minor details varying depending on the type of conflict being played out.

The rules describe five types of conflict, but mentions that other types may arise in the course of play, and will use essentially the same mechanic. The five types listed are:

  • Duels - physical combat between two people, often formal and ritualistic in nature
  • Skirmishes - physical combat between small groups of people
  • Warfare - large-scale combat between military forces
  • Intrigue - social and political machinations that cause non-physical harm
  • Espionage - attempts to defeat security measures and gain access to sensitive information

Instead of giving characters measures like Hit Points, Stress Tracks, or Injuries, the rules simply detail any conflict as resulting in defeat for one or more characters. The specific nature of the conflict determines what defeat means; for example, defeat in a duel might mean surrendering, minor injuries as a result of 'first blood,' or unconsciousness. On the other hand, defeat in intrigue may look more like the defeated character leaving the scene (perhaps involuntarily) or being subject to the will of his 'attacker.'

From this perspective, the challenge dice are certainly not appropriate in this setting. I know that some people dislike the lack of challenge dice in this setting, but I for one think it is thematically appropriate.

Final Thoughts on Dune: Adventures in the Imperium

There is obviously a lot more I could say about this game. But I don't want to take up too much time, so I'll go ahead and wrap up. 

Firstly, this is not a crunchy game. It is set in a world that focuses more on politics and intrigue than on action. As such, the rules emphasize characterisation and story over killing.

I know that may turn some people off. A lot of people who enjoy TTRPGs like it for vicarious violence. Even many people who are more interested in narrative or character-driven games still like some crunch in their rules sets. If you're not one of those people, you probably won't enjoy this game very much.

But if you're looking for the sort of political drama that is characteristic of the source material, I personally think that this game delivers.

The core rules are available now over at Modiphius's website, and the first sourcebook is nearly complete at the time of this writing. 

Finally, I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to Modiphius and their marketing team for giving me the opportunity to read and review their game.

Who knows how often I will post. I have two more TTRPGs I plan to review, but beyond that? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, remember to

Game on!

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