Dune: Adventures in the Imperium Review

Frank Herbert’s Dune is high in the science fiction pantheon. The novel combined originality and prescience in a way that has continued to inspire readers over the last 55 years; it has also defied adaptation. Both film versions of Dune (prior to the upcoming 2021 movie) were beautiful failures in their own right, and the version that never happened, plotted by psychedelic filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, was so ambitious that its lack of production still inspired a documentary. Dune’s RPG history is similarly troubled. Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium was designed by Last Unicorn Games and held up by licensing disputes. When Wizards of the Coast acquired Last Unicorn, they got permission to print any pending projects, and a 3000 copy print run of Chronicles of the Imperium was made. Apparently the entire run got scooped up on the con circuit and the game fell into obscurity after WotC scrapped further printing in favor of converting the whole thing to d20, which fortunately died on the vine in a new spate of licensing disputes. So, literally two decades later, Modiphius has the vaunted Dune license and has made good with Adventures in the Imperium, their latest 2d20 title.

I must admit, with my recent experience with Star Trek Adventures I wasn’t sure how I felt about 2d20’s alignment with the Dune setting. After reading through the core rulebook, though, I’ve changed my mind. Adventures in the Imperium casts all the player characters into the same Great House, and pushes on intrigue between Houses as the primary plot driver. It’s a calculated risk, leaning more towards something like Reign than a more traditional sci-fi RPG, but I think it pays off. At the same time, the hoary weight of the combined Dune canon is painfully clear in this book. Modiphius leans hard on simplification to make 2d20 as flexible as possible here, but at the end of the day this is still Dune. Whether ultimately for good or ill, Adventures in the Imperium feels like you’re trying to resolve 10,000 years of history with only one type of die.

Setting Materials

There’s about 90 pages of straight uncut setting material here. Not items, not playable character archetypes, just pure backstory. To be honest, distilling the Dune series into 90 pages is admirable abridgement, and I read through it and mostly understood what was going on, which stands in sharp contrast to when I watched David Lynch’s adaptation. There is one page within the setting section which I found immensely helpful, which was essentially an alignment of the Dune bibliography to eras of the Imperium’s history. Now, full disclosure, I’ve never read Dune…this does mean that from an accuracy or importance perspective, I’m not necessarily the best judge of this book’s setting section. But, I did come out of the section understanding the setting, understanding the events of Dune, and roughly understanding which books talked about what parts of this history.

If you, like me, are not incredibly familiar with Dune’s setting, this 90 page preface is essentially mandatory. The setting conceits and most of the character conceits are completely entangled within this setting, and while there is some repetition the book is very much structured with the assumption that you will read this section, absorb it, and go into play from there. For better or for worse, once you read this and understand it well enough to make a character, you shouldn’t need to return to it (you may want to, there is a reason Dune is such a successful book and a lot of that is captured in the setting). This does mean that absorbing the setting and absorbing the mechanics are going to be two separate efforts; fortunately the 2d20 system does a great job here of getting out of the way and letting you the player grapple with the fictional, rather than mechanical, choices needed to get the character you want to play.

Characters

Character creation in Adventures in the Imperium is, like other 2d20 titles, relatively straightforward and without much mechanical complexity. Characters are defined first by Skills and Drives. There are five each of Skills and Drives, and the core mechanic of the game is attempting to roll d20s under the sum of an applicable Skill and applicable Drive. Both Skills and Drives are rated from 4 to 8, which give them relatively even mechanical significance (in contrast to another game like Star Trek Adventures, where Attributes peak at 12 while Disciplines only go to 5). The five Skills are Battle, Communicate, Discipline, Move, and Understand. These very broad skills are bulked out by Focuses. Like in other 2d20 games, having an applicable Focus allows you to score a critical (two successes) if a die result is less than your Skill rating. For character creation each character must choose a Primary Skill which gets a rating of 6, and a Secondary Skill which gets a rating of 5. These decisions are aided by Archetypes, one word descriptions for each combination of Skills. As all 20 permutations of Primary/Secondary Skills are granted an archetype, they serve to guide decision making rather than further restrict skill choices. After choosing Primary and Secondary Skills, a player gets five points with which to raise their Skills, though no Skill can be higher than 8.

Drives are interesting. The five Drives, Duty, Faith, Justice, Power, and Truth, represent your character’s value system, and in character creation are assigned in priority order the scores 8, 7, 6, 5, and 4. Additionally, any Drive with a rating of at least 6 (so your three highest starting Drives at character creation) gets a statement which fleshes out how your character views the Drive more specifically. Your highest-rated Drive also defines your character’s Ambition, which is supposed to be a long-term overarching goal. Drives are definitely an unusual way of defining a character, though not a completely unique one; Cortex Prime has a Prime Set that works very much like Drives do here. Drives also end up working nicely for how Conflict is defined in the system, which I’ll discuss in a little bit.

There are a few more things that make up a character. Talents are specific abilities that a character can buy and they work pretty much exactly the same as Talents in other 2d20 games. Traits are situational descriptors, and the two Traits which characters take at character creation are meant to encompass the character’s titles and affiliations (‘Duke of House Atreides’) and their core reputation (‘Just and Wise’), respectively. Mechanically, Traits also apply to scenes as well as characters, much like Fate’s Aspects. More on that later.

The final element of note to characters is Assets. Assets represent things that the characters can call on…gear, vehicles, and money, yes, but also contacts, information, and favors. Assets can work like Traits (more on that in a bit) but also play a key role in how conflicts work in the system, arguably the most interesting part of the game’s mechanics.

Mechanics

As noted above, the core mechanic of the 2d20 system is rolling d20s, at least two but as many as five, and trying to roll ‘successes’ by rolling under the sum of the game’s two core attributes (in Dune, that’s Skills and Drives). There is Momentum, which players can spend to gain extra dice or other effects, and there is Threat, which the GM can spend to make things more complicated and which the players can give the GM to delay the effects of poor rolls. These all carry over across the 2d20 corpus, and as such Seamus’s discussion of Star Trek Adventures, which is grounded in actual play, is likely a better place to learn about the mechanical implications of these meta-currencies. Other than Skill Ratings being higher on average than disciplines (and therefore making foci more valuable), Dune and Star Trek have similar dice math. What they don’t share, though, is much more interesting.

Someone at Modiphius has read a lot of Fate. Traits have a lot of structural similarities to Aspects in Fate, and just like Aspects they apply primarily to characters and situations. Unlike Aspects, though, Traits are more passive. A Trait in a scene has one of four consequences: It makes actions easier, it makes them more difficult, it makes them possible, or it makes them impossible. All 2d20 games use Traits as the representation of situational elements which modify or permission tasks. What makes Adventures in the Imperium so different from, say, Star Trek Adventures is that the Traits have to pull a lot more weight when it comes to describing the character. My Star Trek character, Captain Salok, has one Trait: Vulcan. All the other situational elements of the character, like his rank and role on the ship, are defined outside of this system. In Adventures in the Imperium, there are none of these other identifiers, only the two (three if the character is in a Faction) Traits your character has.

Assets are more interesting still, being a unique element of the system for Adventures in the Imperium. Assets are technically a subset of Traits, and are either tangible, representing actual gear and goods, or intangible, representing information, contacts, or favors. All Assets, though, come into play in Conflicts. Conflicts in this game are also likely inspired by Fate. The GM establishes a number of zones over which the conflict is taking place. When a character has a turn, they can either move an Asset or use an Asset. That’s it. If you’re imagining a knife fight this system lacks subtlety, but it scales upward very elegantly which is what makes it interesting. There are five types of conflicts defined within the game that all use the same basic mechanics: Dueling, Skirmishes, Warfare, Espionage, and Intrigue. All of a sudden it makes perfect sense why a sword and information with blackmail potential are modeled the same way. In order to keep conflicts consistent, the d6-based damage mechanics of other 2d20 games are completely gone. Instead, attacks against major characters are modeled as extended tests, with the number of successes required to win based on the opponent’s relevant Drive. Defeat in these situations once again takes a page from the Fate playbook; the circumstances of the defeat depend on the circumstances of the conflict, but generally speaking defeat need not equal death. That said, you can always spend Momentum to ensure your foe gets a grievous, memorable injury. Each of the five conflict types has its own section within the rules; while they use the same basic mechanics, there are procedures laid out to ensure that a Duel feels different from Intrigue, and that you wouldn’t mistake a Skirmish for Warfare.


Overall, I think Adventures in the Imperium is executed well. I didn’t talk much about the House Creation that comes before Character Creation, but it serves both to get players aligned in the story they’re going to tell as well as shifting them as far away from House Atreides and House Harkonnen as they want to go. That’s always the tough thing about licensed settings; it’s tough to both capture the feel of the setting but also still leave players with a viable game that has enough flexibility to serve most groups.

If anything, Modiphius leaned to the latter side of the equation. There’s tons of material provided here; in addition to the aforementioned setting section, the Assets chapter provides even more grounding to Herbert’s setting through pages and pages of specific weapons, vehicles, and items, as well as character sheets for a number of the books’ key characters. But, even with all the setting material being provided, the game is not tied to anything particularly, uh, Dune-y. While I think the way the setting is presented will satisfy fans, I’m more able to say it also presents a game which will be interesting even if you aren’t coming just for the spice and sandworms. The flip side of this is that I’m not entirely sure what about this game makes it especially Dune. Dune might be the grand-daddy of science fantasy feudal intrigue, but this game is more built around that broader idea of science fantasy feudal intrigue than leaning hard into Arrakis in particular. I personally don’t think this is a bad thing, but I’m also unsure what a Dune fan would want coming into this game and even less sure if they’re going to find it.

As a non-fan, though, I’d say this is a recommend. Modiphius has spun the 2d20 System into domain conflicts and intrigue much more adeptly than I would have thought before reading. The game manages to be relatively light but still generate conflict where it’s needed, and then gives your group the tools to play out that conflict however you see fit. I’m not sure how well the game is bearing the weight of its license, but the fluff-focused summary approach will work better for most gamers and is less likely to draw the ire of any author’s estates as well. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the new Dune movie comes out, but until then, Modiphius is slowly but surely pushing 2d20 into the furthest corners of the Imperium.

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium is available on DriveThruRPG.

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