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  • Writer's pictureJames Kerr

Modiphius’ Dune and the Lens of Play

An anecdotal review of the TTTPPG game-line and a dive into the Lens of Play design concept

Dune has a Superman Problem. The “Superman Problem” is when a story setting is dominated by a single element to the extent that it ultimately limits the stories you can tell in an otherwise rich setting. Metropolis is a varied and interesting city with dozens of explored characters in its nearly hundred year history, but for it to be a Superman story then Superman has to show up, and Superman has to save the day. Similarly, you can’t take He-Man out of a Masters of the Universe story, even if there are a million other characters and locations in that setting. Dune is named after the planet Arrakis, and any consideration of telling a story within or—as is most applicable here—roleplaying in that setting, has to get over that Superman Problem.

So it was with trepidation that I purchased Modiphius’ Dune: Adventures in the Imperium TTRPG, after having been so dismayed by the playtest of it, which had PCs follow around Paul Atredies family like second stringers. I love the universe of Dune but I am not particularly interested in Arrakis, just as I love Star Wars but I’d want to roleplay more than a ragtag band of rebels on Tatooine where one of us is Force sensitive. Arrakis is cool and all, and go, go Force powers—but there is more to the content of each to explore than just those narrow fields. Will Modiphius’ Dune overcome the Superman Problem of its source material? Can it get past Arrakis, Paul, the sandworms, and spice?

According to the core rulebook, no. At least it was a softer no—closer to a not really—than the playtest’s hell no. I didn't think it could work.

A British Man Convinced Me to Try Dune

What turned me around on Modiphius’ Dune: Adventures in the Imperium was visiting Gen Con 2023. I got a rare break from my time peddling copies of Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart from the IGDN booth and went straight for Modiphius' booth because my partner wanted the new 2d20 Fallout expansion. We’d played some Fallout, and I also played John Carter, but I found both slow and rigid and not very friendly to run.

“Have you seen Dune?” A nice British man at the Modiphius booth asked me.

I had no mercy upon him. I, politely, launched straight into the Superman Problem. I said I’m interested in space opera and in the Dune universe, sure, but I could choke on any more sandworms and spice.

“Ah,” he said, “Then you’ll want this book, too.”

He handed me the expansion, Dune: The Great Game: Houses of the Landsraad (what a title!) and explained that this is how to take the game truly and firmly off Arrakis and into your own space opera in the Dune universe. He told me a (maybe true, maybe just good salesmanship) story about the Dune: Adventures in the Imperium line that rang all too true in my publishing brain, that the core rulebook had to give prospective players, and Legendary Pictures, and the Frank Herbert Estate, and on and on, what they would expect from Dune—sandworms, spick, Arrakis, Paul. The expansion books are Modiphius' opportunity to make it into more of a whole system. Sure, that sounds likely.

What piqued my interest was a rule he described that at the beginning of every session each PC makes up a rumour about what’s going on in the Imperium, and the GM decides if one of those is true, and keeps that knowledge to themselves. Wow! What a clever way to lean into the content! Where was this design sensibility in the core book?

I was skeptical. The Dune: Adventures in the Imperium core book is too big, too long, and too heavy. The art is nice but I don’t really care about art. I already know the Dune universe and I come pre-inspired. What I care about is whether Modiphius’ Dune can actualise a play experience approximating the House vs. House drama, intrigue, and knife fights of Frank Herbert’s novels, or if it’s ultimately going to play out like Dungeons & Dragons in space, as so many other science fiction TTRPGs do. My history with Fallout and John Carter wasn’t helpful in that. Fallout plays like a video game that got lost and ended up in book form. John Carter plays like a miniatures game that got stuck on a bad hand wave and had to stick to that story. What would Dune play like?

In perhaps not my greatest moment for impulse control I bought everything, or at least most of the Dune line. Upon reading it all, yes, Dune: The Great Game: Houses of the Landsraad solves the Superman Problem. There is more than enough interesting stuff to do with managing Houses, rivalling other Houses, and it seemed to have the mechanics to support it. With it, I returned to the core book to really dig into how Dune: Adventures in the Imperium could resolve its rules in a way that would satisfy my Dune cravings.

I’ve now run eight sessions of the Dune TTRPG with my weekly gaming group, and I have come to some conclusions. Generally, I’m convinced it accomplishes some things not otherwise done in TTRPGs, and comes closer to a Frank Herbert novel TTRPG (in a good way) than I thought anything could. The narrative-driven mechanics Modiphius used compliment the setting, without dipping into a writer’s room structure. (No discredit to writer’s room games, but it’s not what I’m looking for chasing verisimilitude in the Dune setting.) The rules are clearly enough considered and the lore deftly translates into actionable mechanics. Perhaps there was a little too much love of the lore. But what really makes Dune: Adventures in the Imperium work, and what inspired me to write this blogpost—boy did I bury the lede on this one—is its ability to shift the lens of play from architecture play at the 10,000 view down to little crysknife-stabby minutia. Playing with those levels of interaction, sometimes at different elevations simultaneously around the table, makes the game flow unique and interesting. That’s a hard thing to do from a design perspective, and I’d like to spend a little time on it.

The Lens of Play

In most TTRPGs the lens of play is coldly fixed on a certain tempo. Some editions of Dungeons & Dragons even codify a Round as a certain number of seconds, or—in older editions—it balances two exact measurements, relative to in or out of combat. The lens of how we measure time, action, and behaviour, shift between two planes, so to speak. Most so-called traditional TTRPGs assume those two planes (one specifically acknowledged, and as D&D editions went on the other not overly acknowledged) are the only ways to interact with the assumed behaviour of a PC over a period of time, even if they don’t expressly say it.

Part of what has been wonderful about indie TTRPGs for the last 20 years is that they play with this lens, most of them focusing on a particular single place and sticking to it, and fading to black and handwaving junctures in-between. As in—codification for a single lens on the action, no mechanical reinforcement for the rest. That often works, but it requires a fair buy-in from players. You have to be on the same page with how much your character is allowed to do, with how that behaviour is segmented. Coming from Dungeons & Dragons I’ve seen players get downright ornery if the game does not have them both move and act on one turn.

In ludographic studies an "action economy" usually (usually) refers to how much a PC can accomplish in a given turn. The prevalence of post-2e Dungeons & Dragons has conditioned players to expect they should be able to have their character move, act, and do one other minor thing on their turn. I find it can be a struggle running D&D-conditioned players through a different action economy, like one-action-one-turn. Not that there's anything wrong with D&D's action economy, but it sets certain expectations of what a PC should be able to accomplish, and how in-game time is divided. There's no room in that structure to, for instance, send a network of thieves who are loyal to you into a mansion to steal a painting. The D&D structure necessitates that you, the party, are doing the breaking in and stealing, even if you're not well qualified to do so. The action economy is too rigid to accommodate action by proxy. The lens of play is stuck. Capturing relevant action by proxy, however, is an exceptionally relevant thing to do within the Dune setting.

My concern for Dune: Adventures in the Imperium is that, even if it solved the Superman Problem of its setting, it lens of play and, as part of that, its action economy, would dictate a play cycle that would not compliment its setting. But, it works. Dune: Adventures in the Imperium is surprisingly flexible with how it expands and contacts the lens of play, so a single roll might be a swing of a sword or represent a press of a button, or an entire large scale military engagement. More importantly, the rules allow you to track that well. It’s intuitive enough to be understood by your average player without a whole bunch of time-consuming, often annoying GM lectures. My players immediately got that they can knife-fight with certain zones on a person’s body to get around their shield, but also that zones as a measurement might be acres of battlefield for an army to cross, or whole star systems for a message to cross. It's close in a way to how areas are handled in the RSR Marvel Superheroes system, which you may know as "FASERIP", but it was handled better in Modiphius' Dune.

There are some other great games that fiddle with proxy behaviour and shift the lens of play well without making the PC dip into narrative control, they're rare. Blades in the Dark is one.

A Dune Imperfect

I do have some quibbles with Dune: Adventures in the Imperium. It’s not perfect. I don’t think enough work was done on the Asset mechanics. The Drives and Skills do not see equal use. (Unless you made Faith your best Drive, it’ll never come up, but if you did you’ll try to use it for everything, for instance.) And I don’t care what Modiphius says in their call-out box, there are too many meta currencies. But, Dune’s ability to capture a little something of the spirit of its source material and express it as well as it does is impressive.

I’m not sure Dune: Adventures in the Imperium is a good book. It had to satisfy too many marketing concerns. But, I do think it’s a great system, at least when complimented with Dune: The Great Game: Houses of the Landsraad and (I told you I went all in) Dune: Power And Pawns: The Emperors Court.

Been There Dune That

No one seems to care, though. Dune: Adventures in the Imperium came out only two years ago, and I notice the message boards have already dried up on the topic. There seems to be a general confusion about the rules. I don’t think they were poorly written; perhaps over-explained, but, they’re summed up pretty nicely on the back five pages of the core rulebook. The Dune: The Great Game: Houses of the Landsraad book’s expansions to the House management system should have been in the core rules. That should have been a guiding structure within the core game. My assumption is Modiphius thought it might be a little too radical for their audience and so moved it to an expansion book, focusing the core rulebook on the safest bets to the most number of people., both in terms of setting and mechanics The whole thing could have been a little indie digest size 200 pager instead of a massive tome, but, choices were made.

My group loves it. What made me realise it was really clicking was when we had a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother show up to apologise for the actions of a rogue Bene Gesserit and allay any shade that may fall on the order, and decide if the Bene Gesserit should curry favour with the player’s House or move against it. The players groked the stakes, and the whole thing was incredibly tense. The negotiations felt like fencing. The action remained mechanically relevant. I got to recite the Litany of Fear. It was glorious. This was Dune.

Thank you, Modiphius, even with all the inevitable publishing compromises. This is how you licence with love.

James Kerr

Radio James Games

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