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Legendary Dune: A Look at the Roleplaying Game and the Film

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue.

The personal recollection

I’ve loved the Dune novel ever since I read it as a teenager. It was one of the first books where I recall feeling I’d really been there. Arrakis. Planet of sand and spice and worms. Dune. Another such location was Middle Earth. All too rarely encountered unfortunately and a sign of great writers that I can only dream of emulating. Note, however, the singular in that first sentence. Much though I’ve tried to love the sequels – not to mention the continuations by Brian Herbert & Anderson – I just don’t love them the same way. I’ve given them shelf space and a fair crack of the whip but Dune is still special and I’m very familiar with it. From a reduced-vocabulary version I stumbled across in Nigeria in the ’80s when any English books were hard to come by in the near-desert region I lived in; through to the Dune Encyclopedia giving as much universe setting material as you could wish for.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that when I finally noticed Modiphius had put out a Dune roleplaying game, I might take an interest. Even if it did use a 2d20 system I had no interest in learning. Traveller is (of course) my first love and it’s a rare, very rare, alternative that is given shelf space in my too small house. Blue Planet caught my imagination and I was able to buy all the books in one go second hand at an unmissable price. I’ve never played it but keep thinking I should use the material for a Traveller adventure on a waterworld. GURPS Discworld proved irresistible as I’ve loved the Pratchett novels for many years. It remains one of the few roleplaying rule books, perhaps the only rule book, I’ve read from cover to cover in a short space of time. It’s a riot and I’d have loved to have had the opportunity to play it more than the once which took a journey of three and half hours just to get an evening with likeminded players. More recently Fading Suns came my way when a Kickstarter purchaser had buyer’s remorse and sold me on the intriguing setting. Again, I may never get to play but have enjoyed reading the background.

The roleplaying book

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium. Nathan Dowdell*.
Modiphius Entertainment https://www.modiphius.net
336pp., hardbound or PDF

* With a project of this nature a single author seems rather limited. But Dowdell is listed as the Lead Designer.

** Modiphius is charging the same number of currency units in all currencies, from their website. Prices from other sources may vary. -ed.

I decided I could justify the Dune book if I resolutely resisted all the ‘extras’. Screen. Dice. ‘Collector’ editions and so on. As it was, I was getting a handsome hardback volume of 330 glossy colour pages. £45 sterling. Attractive graphic design (very rarely changing font size and spacing to fit additional text in which rather spoils the beauty) and in my opinion at least, stunning art work. Shimmery, monolithic, extremely evocative. A week or three and on I’ve not regretted buying the book. It’s a fabulous volume in terms of production values – although I would have liked a ribbon bookmark or two which seems almost standard these days – and it smells great too! It’s also, in just a fortnight, become the second rule book that I’ve read straight through, I’ve been so taken with it. Doing so, however, reveals the odd occasion that it repeats itself.

Partly this is because it’s well written; partly because I’m so rooted in only knowing the various Traveller rule sets that I’m finding a completely different ‘take’ really interesting (if somewhat confusing at first); and mostly because it’s the Dune setting I’ve known and loved for so long. The first 84 pages are all setting and sum up the vast Dune universe rather well. Another 20 pages are written for Gamemasters and generically useful as well as directed at the 2d20 ruleset. Other chapters, such as those on Assets and Allies/Adversaries, another 100 pages, are mostly setting with a sprinkling of rules-specific material so they’re interesting to read as well. There are page long descriptions of key characters from the novel from Emperor Shaddam IV and Princess Irulan, to Beast Rabban and Liet Kynes. Rules for creating NPCs follow and then 25 Archetypes from Face Dancers to Water Sellers to provide notable supporting characters. Fourteen pages are devoted to creating a House for PCs and just over forty pages to creating a player character – which can be done with planning or using the ‘Creation in Play’ system. Of course, the more I’ve got into the setting material, the more I’ve been sucked into reading the actual rules and I’m slowly getting my head around an entirely different approach to the ‘2d6 roll over a target number’ I’m so familiar with.

I should say at this point that I can only comment on Modiphius’ 2d20 rules in as much as I’ve been reading them on the page and thinking about them. I have very little idea of how they would work in practice around the table either with a group treating them as a guiding framework, or a group trying to ‘game’ them. I have a feeling that the latter type of player (or Referee herding such players) might find them difficult. But no doubt there are reviews by those who know better which can better inform you on this aspect. I have compared them to some extent with Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures (free quick start PDFs for both roleplaying games are available) and I know that Modiphius adjust their core rules between games to better suit the particular setting. (I believe this is true of their other RPGs as well, such as Conan). So, for example the Challenge dice of STA are not used here and the Attributes/Disciplines, for example, become Drives and Skills. This isn’t just a whim but keeps each game closer to the thematic concepts of each milieu. I quite like this and in the case of Dune sense that it works really well. The core mechanic remains the same for any task: choose the best Drive and Skill, add them together, and roll under the total. Various factors will influence how many dice are rolled but it could be as many as five; each die rolling under the total will be a success (or two if you roll a ‘1’) determining whether you succeed at a task whose difficulty will have been set by the Gamemaster. Rolling a ‘20’ adds complications. Extra successes can be used to add Momentum which players can draw on immediately to find out more about their success or later by any of the players to help with future tasks. Meanwhile the Gamemaster has similar Threat points which can be used to make tasks harder for the PCs. It’s more complicated than that, but if I’ve read it correctly, that’s the basics.

Part of my problem with the rules – bearing in mind I’m unlikely to ever play the game so I’m only really invested in understanding them as an intellectual exercise – is just that. It’s more complicated. I can get my head around the above recognizing that Drives – of which there are only five – are a kind of replacement for Traveller’s characteristics. Skills – of which there are only five – are, well, skills. Refinement of the latter is by having Focuses which make them more specific and interest and help with various rolls. And roles. It’s not too much of a stretch to also discover that Drives have similar looking Statements. But when you think you’ve got the hang of that, you then learn there’s also Determination, Momentum and Threat (all of which are points that have to be tracked), not to mention Traits and Assets which further describe things. Assets I should perhaps explain are the nearest equivalent of equipment lists but they’re much more broad. Yes, they can be a maula pistol or a crysknife or a poisoned tooth or a spice harvester, but they can also be an elite troop of Sardaukar or a piece of gossip or a ‘confidant of the emperor’ or an ‘old friend’. Traits are keyword descriptions of things or people or places that can help or hinder tasks. Clearly Traveller knows a thing or two about keeping it simple – although I’m aware that I’m very used to the classic and Mongoose style of play and this is one reason I’ve struggled with Traveller5.

Modiphius describe the rules as more ‘narrative’ than mechanic and I suspect I ought to like them as I tend, myself, towards rules-lite play, but I think the way that they’re expecting this to be played puts quite a high demand on players (as well as Gamemaster) to describe what they’re doing and why they’re driven to do it at all rather than simply roll the dice. A snag with this might be the lack of what I believe is called crunch for certain kinds of player. However, this really appeals to me in many ways and I’d certainly love to give it a go, but I can’t help feeling that less creative on-the-spur-of-the-moment players or less extrovert players might find this really challenging. Not just once or twice in a session, but throughout. Having said that, in terms of the universe of Dune at least, it really seems to be a good fit for the wealth of options that there are for when in a long timeline you might choose to play, what ‘scale’ you might choose to play at, and what type of adventure you might want to tackle.

That’s another thing that – at least on reading it – I really like. All conflict is handled in exactly the same way. Not just combat but interpersonal interactions or inter House skulduggery. It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-on-one duel or a massed meeting of armies; espionage or intrigue. It’s a question of arranging your Assets around the ‘Zones’ (whether it’s a duelling arena, a large battleground or a network of contacts for example) to make Tasks or Extended Tasks easier. The idea being that whether you’re playing at an ‘Agent’ level (PCs on the ground doing stuff) or ‘Architect’ level (players running things at a distance but on a grander scale), it should work so seamlessly that you could be working at both levels in the same adventure and you might switch between each without any pause. Again, I’ve no idea how this would actually play out, but conceptually I love the idea and think I could learn a lot for grander scale Traveller adventures from this. There have been a few attempts to give this kind of thing as an option in Traveller. Pocket Empires (Marc Miller’s Traveller), Supplement 12: Dynasty from Mongoose, and Balancing Act (or even Almighty Credit) by Independence Games for Cepheus Engine spring to mind but they’re bolt-ons or separate mini-games rather than the unified whole presented here.

Of course, the rather different core rules mean that at least for this bear of little brain, just adopting some of the mechanisms found here to Traveller isn’t straightforward, but I still feel as if I’ve had something of an awakening as to possibilities for running larger scale adventures that I hadn’t considered before. Or perhaps I’ve just consumed too much spice. The other snag with any conversion to Traveller is the differing nature of the settings. Most obviously Traveller’s week in Jump, communication-at-the-speed-of-travel, and anyone can Jump, versus Dune’s instantaneous FTL travel and all FTL travel monopolized by the Spacing Guild. But I don’t think this problem is insurmountable given that the rule book is quite explicit in saying that Houses using the Guild’s Heighliners may spend considerable time moving from one world to another as various ‘pick ups’ are made and indirect routes taken. FTL communications are more problematical and I’ve not really thought of a solution there. When you then factor in that the Imperium of Dune and the Third Imperium of Traveller (which looks rather like an upstart at only a 1000 years old vs Dune’s 10,000+ years!), the nobles, the anti-aging drugs, the ‘PCs can make a difference’ and it’s not unreasonable to think a Traveller version is a realistic possibility.

While I think about it, however, an inspired Referee might want to think about whether they want to do this. Given a straight choice about which Imperium I’d like to live in, I’m not sure it would be Dune’s universe. It’s a little too dark for my liking. Of course, you may be playing with a Third Imperium that’s considerably darker than that generally portrayed in published books. It’s also a fair argument that living there is not the same as adventuring there so that may not be a consideration. I’d certainly love to try playing it at least once but I’m not sure I’m prepared to put in the effort to learn the rules to run such a game. When I consider how hard I find it to run Traveller games adequately with rules I know reasonably well, you can see why above I’ve been wondering about converting it. (Though I wonder if I’m missing a trick here in that the 2d20 rules cover everything in the same way so I wouldn’t have the problem of, say, knowing character generation and tasks pretty well but not knowing personal combat in depth.) It’s not so much just learning the rules as knowing them well enough to be comfortable, to be able to head problems off at the pass and to be able to take a stab at the implications of what I’m doing.

Speaking of adventure, Dune: Adventures in the Imperium includes a ten page adventure to get you started. I was impressed by it in a first reading and inspired to do better with my own efforts. Called ‘Harvesters of Dune’ it sees the PCs investigating a poorly performing spice harvester and throws you straight into Arrakis and intrigue. Just what’s needed for the setting! As mentioned earlier, there is also a free 32 page PDF ‘quickstart’ online which as well as a cut down version of the rules includes the six page adventure ‘Wormsign’ in which the PCs investigate some spice smuggling. Both these adventures, good and proper as they are, strengthen my thought that however much I might like this RPG, it is quite niche and may take some work to go beyond sand and worms. On the other hand the setting is rich enough support quite a bit of adventure if the Gamemaster has the ideas and the players willing to play as Agents or Architects.

The book wraps up with blank forms for detailing a House and a PC, which are also available electronically, a four page summary of key reference points in the rules and a two page index.

The film

(Some slight spoiler material. But the book is more than half a century old and there’s been a film and a miniseries for decades, so there’s nothing really new here.)

Director: Denis Villeneuve. Running time: 2:35

OK, so I’m a bit slow. It was only a few days into reading the book when I was sufficiently drawn into wanting more that I decided to take it on my commute. I very rarely do this mainly because such books are rather heavy and I don’t need extra weight with three miles of walking, two bus rides and ferry in my journey. Although I do have plenty of time to devote to reading with 75 or 90 minutes each way being typical. Another reason is that it would be easy to damage an expensive purchase. Generally, light and cheap paperbacks are the order of the day. October 21st however I didn’t need my laptop, I could live without another device which got dumped, and I shed my novel. So Arrakis on the bus. Masked up against the sandstorms; sorry, virus. Precious water to hand. I really got lost in the setting and the travel flew past.

But for a moment the spell was broken when I came across a rather odd turn of phrasing. That had me check out the credits page and that led me to noticing the Legendary branding. Rather sluggishly I finally connected the dots between there being a new RPG on the scene and a new film coming out. I wondered if it was no accident and thought ‘I must remember to look out for that’ – assuming I got to the cinema to see the film. (Yes, I could have just looked it up but that would have been too easy.)

As it was, due the vagaries of having to work for three hours on my day off the day before, I suddenly had the afternoon off and was going to go straight home until I wondered just when the Dune film was being released. Today! Well that sorted out my afternoon. There were so many screenings, I could pitch up without booking as soon as I’d had a bit of lunch. I could even treat myself to a luxury seat as the place was hardly crowded. Social distancing was no problem. I wasn’t overly surprised when I immediately saw the Legendary branding again but more than that, the gorgeous artwork I’d been enjoying throughout the RPG book was now being brought to life on the big screen of the cinema. And it looked even more stunning! The hazy sand and spice-laden atmosphere‡ I’m no art connoisseur but there’s probably a technical term for the shimmery, hazy style that I’m trying to describe. It doesn’t seem quite enough to be impressionism although there is something of the Monet about it, it’s not dotty enough to be pointillism, it’s all over so it’s not bokeh. Shimmery, as I said. . The monolithic figures lost in a vast landscape of sand (Arrakis), water (Caladan), or buildings (either), really suited the vast universe and scope of Dune. The art direction was clearly from the same hand(s) and I was loving it. Katya Thomas is credited in the book. I caught myself grinning like a mad thing at some of the images on screen. Though I should perhaps note that two such images were particularly gruesome and have remained with me long after the viewing. Fortunately, they’re very brief and mostly implied.

As for the story itself, it must be noted that this is really only half a film. Despite its length. It covers just a fraction over the first half of the original novel. Apparently, they’ve not filmed part two back-to-back as seems to be common practice these days. So, we’re rather at the mercy of Hollywood liking the receipts of this production as regards getting a sequel or completion. I was burned rather badly when I was young by Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings film which was planned to be in two parts but ended up being only one – hence the very hurried ending. And the 1984 David Lynch film, which I also loved for its aesthetic – the wonderful baroque feel – also tried to cram too much in and rather suffered from it. Though it had other flaws as well which means I’m possibly alone in having something of a soft spot for it and the cast to die for. So don’t get me wrong, I like that they didn’t repeat this mistake with Villeneuve’s 2021 version. I’d missed any information about the film before seeing it. (Partly so as not to raise expectations). I’d noted the ‘Part One’ at the start of the film and dismissed it optimistically as their plans to do the other novels in the original trilogy. But about twenty minutes from the end I twigged that we wouldn’t finish. As I know the novel well, I won’t be too impatient waiting for part two. I just hope, based on what I’ve seen here that we get it at some point in the not too distant future. It also means that this film ends a little abruptly and on rather a downbeat note which may put newcomers to the story off. Which would be shame. It’s worth noting that newcomers do have a lot to absorb and there are some helpful explanations as we go, but they are nowhere near as prevalent as in the 1984 film. I have no idea how someone with no knowledge of the books or previous film would cope with the wealth of information required to fully appreciate what’s going on. Also gone, although not quite entirely, are the character thoughts which were still more of the explanation Lynch felt was required. Where we do get it here, it’s much more subtly done and, at least on the occasion I recall, in the Fremen language Chakobsa so that subtitles make it feel more necessary. I thought it worked. One element I particularly enjoyed were the ornithopters. Terrific designs. No, that’s not good enough. Beautiful designs. I adored them. I happened to be lecturing a class of engineering design students next day so it was a no-brainer to think of challenging them to be stirred to real life projects that might be functional yet attractive.

It felt pretty close to the novel as far as I can recall – although it’s been a while since I read it – but there were some variations. None of which I had a problem with. There was one very obvious ‘change’ that is very typical of films these days, but given the age of the source material and given how they did it, I thought it worked very well. Interestingly, the RPG book carefully describes the altered character so that you can read it for the original novel text or the film without problem. Clever.† Although they did foul up by not carrying this over into the character’s Talent descriptions. Shoddy. The Harkonnens were as nasty ever – although thus far at least the heart plugs seem to have gone. The Bene Gesserit (pronounced here with a soft ‘g’) are as terrifying as ever. Arrakis is as dry as ever, if not more so. (Though both the film and the RPG tend towards the idea that a planet will only have one type of terrain or descriptive phrase. It’s a bit unfair to criticize that however when the novel they’re following could be accused of similar.) One error I noted was a crysknife fight in stillsuits when any self-respecting Fremen would strip so as not to waste precious water. In fact, the RPG makes this point; I couldn’t decide whether it was an error of the filmmakers or a deliberate choice to keep the excellent costumes on. And the stillsuits are pretty fabulous (though lacking the hoods they should have as far as I could see)

While the cast isn’t quite as stellar as the old film, I thought they were all very well suited to their roles and felt ‘right’ – particularly Paul Atreides, Timothée Chalamet, who has a youth and vulnerability that really works for the part. I did chuckle when at one point a combination of stance and windblown hair made him look the spitting image of Kyle Machlachlan. I wonder if that was deliberate? I couldn’t see or hear Gurney Halleck without superimposing Patrick Stewart – but that’s my problem, not one of the film. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, is played by Rebecca Ferguson who also did a standout job. But it’s invidious to pick out names when all were convincing. Oh, and once again, three and half a decades on, I rather fell in love with Chani… <sigh>. If there’s a flaw in the film here, it’s that there are a lot of characters so many don’t get much screen time, Chani included; but perhaps that’s not too dissimilar to a convention game with six players. Perhaps the actors will get more of a shot next time. I’m not so good at observing things like soundtrack (Hans Zimmer) and cinematography (Greig Fraser) on a first outing, so I’ll leave that for others but together with the CGI there was nothing that I noticed which was not at least as good as ‘good’. As far as I’m concerned they were excellent. The sandworms of course have come a long way since 1984 and were a subtle presence so far, but I’m hoping to see more of them. Literally. There were some really great special effects connected with them as well. Oh, and did I mention the ornithopters? Marvellous! For a general audience the film might be tough going, for science fiction fans there’s lots to love and I’d recommend it, for Herbert aficionados, well, you’ll probably be watching it anyway but it’s well done and well worth seeing. It’s most definitely worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find.

The bus journey home was delayed by some very heavy traffic so I had another couple of hours of reading on my commute. Oh, for an ornithopter! However, with nearly four hours of reading and two and half hours of film, it was definitely a Dune day and I was really ‘there’.

I wasn’t quite finished with the film however, as the following day, I arrived early at work with two colleagues, one of whom happened to be Canadian and one from the USA. Enthusing about the film I was reminded of the Atlantic divide between us as I tried, and failed, to teach them to say ‘Dune’ not ‘Doone’. [I appreciate for north American readers that last phrase makes no sense!] I think they were winding me up in not being able to do it rather than it being an actual speech impediment. Then again, I did spend some time throughout the rest of the day in a Twitter conversation with an old friend of mine, as English as the hills, who was telling me he couldn’t hear the difference between ‘Dune’ and ‘June’.

Frank Herbert’s novel of 1965 – it’s as old I am – is certainly legendary. Epic in its scope, epic in its size, epic in its themes of ecology, prescience and messiahship. Whether these two Legendary productions, RPG and film, become so remains to be seen. The film I think could be providing they make at least the second half of the first book if not more afterwards. They’ve done a good job thus far and providing it all comes together as a whole, it may yet become a classic. The roleplaying game I’m not so sure about as it’s relatively niche and the system may not appeal to all, but I would certainly think a lot of fun might be had with it for those of a certain gaming style. Sign me up if you’re running a game in the south of England. I might even break my self-imposed ‘just the core book’ stricture when there’s a volume of adventures to buy. Not just to mine for spicy ideas in my all-consuming Traveller harvester, but because I want to walk the sands of Arrakis, smell the spice in the air, and perhaps even one day ride a sandworm.