A Brief Exegesis on Why I Am Sad

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Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium or, A Brief Exegesis on Why I Am Sad

Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium is a roleplaying game set in the universe of Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking science-fiction novel Dune . It was published by Last Unicorn Games, a small company with a short list of properties that included some very well-known licenses and some very unique original works. LUG produced the Dune CCG and a uniquely weird CCG titled Heresy: Kingdom Come . On the roleplaying front, they were the publishers of Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth and a series of licensed Star Trek games. Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium would ultimately be the last gasp of Last Unicorn.

The game was designed primarily by Owen Seyler, with Christian Moore and Matthew Colville. (Seyler and Moore worked on Aria and Star Trek , and would later be involved in Decipher’s Lord of the Rings game.) They were still developing Dune when the company was bought out by Wizards of the Coast in 2000. Wizards allowed a “limited edition” of less than 2000 copies to be printed and sold at GenCon, and had big plans for a D20 version of the game. Matthew Colville discusses these plans in an amazing blog post which even has his outline for the game and the default campaign that would accompany it!

Matthew Colville posted:

WotC had this incredible mound of market data. They spent a lot of time and energy figuring out what people wanted to do in different universes. So they’d mention a property, like Dune and ask them to rate these statements:

“I would like to make an original character” rated 1 to 5.
“I would like to play one of the existing famous characters from this property.” 1 to 5.
“I would like to play through new adventures.”
“I would like to play through the classic storyline.”

They asked these questions about a wide range of potential gaming properties. Not only things you need a license for like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dune, but stuff anyone could do, like King Arthur or Robin Hood. Amazingly, the same people answered differently for different properties. In other words, the desire to create a completely original character didn’t vary so much from person to person, as it did from property to property! Some properties, people overwhelmingly wanted to make their own stories. Some, people wanted to tell new stories. It was a revelation for us.

Well the data said that people wanted to play new, original characters in Dune, in the Main Storyline with the Kwisatz Haderach and everything you read in the novel, but they didn’t want to play the heroes in this story. They wanted the story of Dune to unfold as written, with their characters as sort of Rosencrantz & Guildensterning around. I believe the data indicated they wanted to have *some* influence on events, but not affect major changes.

It came to me to figure out how to make that adventure. Initially I thought “man this is going to be a pain in the ass, that’s some pretty fucking specific direction.” But I quickly realized I was completely wrong. As it turned out, it was easy. It was super easy. There’s a ton of amazing content happening right off-screen, in the novel, which they reference. Thufir says “We’ve sent an advance team to Arrakeen to clean out the palace,” YOU ARE that advance team. The first member of House Atreides on Arrakis! “We’re having the devil’s own time clearing out these sabotage devices, but we’re almost done,” because of YOUR work! Duncan mentions sending a continent to meet with Stilgar and how well that went, you play those characters, the first members of House Atreides to meet the Fremen.
If all had gone well, the D20 system would have had a sci-fi equivalent to The Great Pendragon Campaign . It was not to be. WotC soon canceled both Dune D20 and a planned sourcebook, Voice from the Outer World , due to “resource constraints and contractual issues.”

According to Colville, one of principal reasons for the demise of Dune was an executive order for Hasbro not to make any licensed games. As for those “contractual issues,” I can only speculate, and speculate I will. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are not only listed as “creative consultants” on Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium , an interior title credits them as editors. I’m sure they would have prevented anything that conflicted with their own plans for the Dune universe.

Now, if you’re not a Dune fan, let me explain something quickly: Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels (the last ending on a bit of a cliffhanger) and had plans for a seventh when he died. His son, Brian Herbert, supposedly discovered these notes on two floppy disks and some printed pages in a safe deposit box. Stories about the notes vary wildly, from “a 3-page outline” to “hundreds of pages of notes for future stories.”

In any case, Brian partnered with noted space opera author Kevin J. Anderson to release “Dune 7” in two books, and have since gone on to release over a dozen prequels and sequels to the original series. They are, to say the least, not critically acclaimed. Here’s what I think of the “Dune 7” notes and all the sequels and prequels based on them: Kevin J. Anderson offloads all the ideas that the Bantam editors considered too dumb for Star Wars , Brian Herbert puts his name on them, and the floppy disks were copies of Dig Dug and Centipede all along.

The failure to capitalize on the Dune franchise is almost a tragedy. Hell, Dune’s failures are more interesting than many other artists’ successes .

You see...let me explain something else about Dune . There’s a whole lot in the history of the setting, or happening far away from the main characters, which is never exactly defined. It’s one of the things that kept fans coming back for more. For example, we know that a civilization-spanning jihad occurs between the first and second books, but because of the weird, baroque nature of technology in the Dune setting, we can only imagine how a full-scale war plays out. We also know that computers, robots, and AI are forbidden because of a long-ago “Butlerian Jihad” against “thinking machines,” but Herbert repeatedly declined to describe exactly what happened and how. When Anderson wrote Dune: The Butlerian Jihad , he made it about swashbucklers with “pulse-swords” fighting cyborgs called “cymeks.”

This, I think, is why the Dune property is so underused, with the last attempt at a movie dying in development hell and no games of any kind since 2001. Nobody wants to publish a Dune title that is really just a Star Wars novel that is really just a rip-off of Battlestar Galactica . I can only berate Brian Herbert and KJH so much, because I’ve only read synopses of their books. Perhaps this is still hypocritical, but that is preferable to being the kind of nerd who reads an entire series of novels just to feel justified in hating them. As an aside, the only Kevin J. Anderson I’ve ever read was Jedi Search , a book I picked up in middle school. It features a barren planet where giant underground creatures create a substance which is mined for its ability to give people psychic powers.

Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium is not legally available in digital form, and remains one of the rarest and most expensive roleplaying games. Used copies, when they become available, go for $200-300 depending on their condition. There are some fanmade Dune games out there, including Dune: A Dream of Rain , a d20 fan supplement, Houses of the Landsraad , which uses Greg Stolze’s One Roll Engine, and a French game called Imperium , which has several supplements. I don’t know anything about it except that the PDFs are a) quite professional looking and b) only available in French, a language in which I only know words for weapons and brands of liquor. Luke Crane wrote Burning Jihad, a supplement for his game Burning Wheel. In true Luke Crane fashion, Burning Jihad is set during Paul’s Great Jihad, and specifically set up as a war between a group of Fremen jihadi and a rebellious Noble House, with the PCs playing as one of the sides. The jihad wins.

Long story short, this is the only official Dune roleplaying game that ever was or will be. Is it any good? Let’s find out.

Next time, on Chronicles of the Imperium : Introductions and a history of the Imperium.


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The book itself opens with a foreword from Brian Herbert, a few paragraphs of him fondly recalling his father’s voracious need to write, his vivid descriptions of his ideas for the books, and his mother’s suggestions. He also takes the opportunity to plug his upcoming Dune sequels. Fuck him.

Moving on, the designer’s opening notes state outright that they expect you’re either a Dune fan looking forward to experiencing it as a roleplaying game, or a roleplaying fan looking forward to experiencing Dune. After the obligatory “what is a roleplaying game” section, it gets right to the business of telling you what kind of characters you’ll play, and what you will do. The PC party is called the “House Entourage,” and that’s not just pomposity a la Immortal or Everlasting . The expectation is that the PCs will be playing the members and advisors of a minor House, and grow in power and prestige. The book is also blunt about telling us that while playing Paul & the Gang and recreating scenes from the books is possible, we’ll have more fun telling our own stories. They must have finished this part before they did all that fancy market research! They even promise us that in addition to Bene Gesserit and other emblematic roles detailed in the corebook, future supplements will support playing characters like spice smugglers and water merchants. Hoo, boy.

Space hippies! Space pharaohs! Space cotton plantation owners! None of these books were ever published.

Dune uses the Icon system, the same rules as LUG’s Star Trek roleplaying game. It’s a d6-based system designed to be “simple, elegant, and easy-to-use” but “open-ended and flexible.” Colville thought it was “not very gamist” and “awful.” We’ll see. The bit of advice for the Narrator is good--rules provide structure, but you’re going to have to use your own judgment, because no one is playing a Dune game so they can spend all night looking up rules.

I guess it’s time to end this chapter but oh look, the Icon Link!

Innovative, and very late-90s. The chapter wraps up with a brief glossary of setting and game terms.

Next time on Dune : A shorter history than the one in the back of the novel.

History of the Imperium

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Chapter 1: History of the Imperium

Dune is divided into three “books,” the first being “Imperium Familia,” which contains all the setting, character generation, and rules info that the players will need. The first chapter is a history of the setting, the Imperium.

The Imperium is many thousands of years old, and the primary basis for the setting is a historical event called the Butlerian Jihad . The old Imperium was a peaceful community of over ten-thousand far-flung, technologically advanced planets. Unfortunately, relying on technology rendered them complacent, decadent, and stagnant, until it went a little something like this:

Discontent eventually broke out, and the elite responded by using more technology to isolate themselves from their disgruntled subjects. Within a generation, the Imperium went from its technological peak to being rife with widespread insurrections as rebel groups used artificial intelligences and “sentient weapons” to seize entire planets, and untold billions died as human civilization fell into anarchy and carnage. What followed was the Butlerian Jihad.

The Butlerian Jihad was a revolution that lasted a century and spanned the entire Imperium. It wasn’t just a rebellion against oppression by artificial intelligences and advanced weaponry, but an ideological crusade centered on the idea that men should not be controlled by machines, figuratively or literally. The Jihad purged human civilization of not only AI and robots, but automation and most computer technology. This laid the foundation for organizations like the Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit, who developed programs to breed, condition, and train humans to surpass the capabilities of machines.

The aftermath of the Jihad plunged the Imperium into a technological and cultural dark age, because faster-than-light travel was largely abandoned. When isolated planets began communicating with each other again, they did so with the shared philosophy that “Man may not be replaced.” The Orange Catholic Bible, a syncretic scripture created for the new Imperium, declares “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul.” What does that mean? No artificial intelligence, no robotics, no cybernetics, no genetic engineering; in short, no transhumanism and no reliance on automation. The Imperium has faster-than-light travel and gravity manipulation, but not Microsoft Excel.

(Although the Butlerian Jihad is a major part of the premise of the Dune universe, Herbert alludes to it many times without ever defining exactly what the conflict was or how it played out, not even in the appendix to Dune which lays out the background of the setting. We don’t even know who Butler was! Multiple allusions imply that it was both a literal war against Space Skynet and a neo-Luddite movement, but Herbert was a master of the “always leave them wanting more” principle. Dune: CotI takes a middle ground by saying that it was both. There’s some technology that seems like it couldn’t work without some computerization being involved, but as far as the Narrator and the players should be concerned, the Imperium is a sci-fi setting with no computers.)

We’re going to the bandolier store, and there better not be any smartphones in here when we get back!

Most of human history was lost during the Jihad, but as civilization rebuilt itself, planets forged new feudal alliances under the leadership of Great Houses, which mostly claimed legitimacy based on their ancient bloodlines. The Great Houses agreed that humankind should form another Imperium uniting human civilization, but disagreed on who should rule. They formed the Landsraad League, a loose confederation for mutual support and arbitration, but it lacked any real enforcement power of its own.

The fighting between the Great Houses came to a head at the Battle of Corrin , where House Sarda, its allied Houses, and its peerless Sardaukar troops defeated the remaining Landsraad supporters. The leader of House Sarda renamed his house Corrino, ascended the Golden Lion Throne, and declared himself the first Padishah Emperor of the Imperium. With the support of the Spacing Guild, who achieved a monopoly on interstellar travel, the new Imperium expanded throughout the Known Universe and reunited humanity under one government. Among the waves of refugees fleeing imperialism were the Zensunni Wanderers, who eventually settled on an obscure desert planet called Arrakis.

The New Imperium

On Arrakis the Fremen discovered a drug called melange , or simply the spice , and soon, so did the Spacing Guild. (How it happened is a mystery, and neither the Guild nor the Fremen are talking--but it’s thought that when the Zensunni refugees moved on, the Guild learned about melange from them, while the Zensunni who remained on Arrakis became the fearsome Fremen.) Melange improves human health and extends lifespan; the only problem is that it’s addictive, and regular consumers of spice will die if they stop taking it.

Spice can also awaken prescient psychic powers. The Spacing Guild experimented with the spice until they discovered that it could replace the sophisticated sensors and computers that had previously been necessary for faster-than-light travel. With training and massive doses of spice, a Guild Navigator’s mind can transcend space-time and navigate a faster-than-light ship better than any AI. Not only did this pave the way for a new age of space exploration, it cemented the Guild’s monopoly on space travel.

As the Imperium regrew, the “ Great Schools ” developed to answer the question of how to improve the human condition without relying on machines. All of them have means of conditioning humans to achieve “superhuman” abilities. They are the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, the Mentat order, the Suk School, and the Swordsmaster’s School of Ginaz.

Do you know of a place where Swordsmasters hang out?

( Dune admits outright that of the four schools, only the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild are major powers. But while Mentats are important to the plot of the Dune novels, the Ginaz swordsmen are only mentioned in a few passing references to give some background on why House Atreides has such great soldiers. But “swordsmaster” is going to be a character class in this game, so…)

The Bene Gesserit is an order dedicated to preserving and evolving the human race. In practice, that means they manipulate politics from behind the scenes. They nominally support the status quo, because the feudal caste system makes it easier for them to accomplish their goals. They literally control the breeding and training of royal bloodlines for superior genes, support their scions as political leaders to maintain “continuity in human affairs,” and they “seed” worlds with myths and cultural memes that their agents can exploit in times of need. (Arrakis is one such planet that was “seeded” and then forgotten centuries ago.) The Bene Gesserit is an almost entirely female order which recruits the young women of noble Houses, a tradition that’s been going on for centuries. (They do share limited degrees of their training with men, and in fact, one of their major projects is trying to breed the Kwisatz Haderach, a hypothetical enlightened male ruler with prescient powers their best members don’t have, who can lead the Imperium into a new age.) Everyone knows that the BG has a hierarchy and plans of its own, but frankly, their training is incredibly useful and nobody wants to be on their bad side.

You say “swordsmasters,” but you don’t just mean any swordsmaster, do you?

The Spacing Guild is an omnipresent but mysterious organization with an absolute monopoly on space travel. Although FTL technology was never lost during the Jihad, the Spacing Guild has perfected the art of training Navigators to pilot them better than any AI. Their Guild Heighliner transports are so massive that a Great House can pack all its assets (including people and buildings) into a corner of one and move its seat of power to a different solar system. Not only that, but the Guild enforces absolute neutrality, so a rival House can be doing the same thing in the same Heighliner without any fear of treachery.

The Guild also has a monopoly on banking through its Guild Bank, which serves the entire Imperium and uses spice as a unit of value. You can rely on the Guild to never stab you in the back, but any House that tries to screw over the Guild is going to be punished with a series of fees and penalties. Oh, and if you ever find yourself well and truly fucked, with the strength of your House broken and your rivals beating down your door, the Guild maintains the Tupile system as a place of safe exile. Paying the Guild your last bit of cash to live out your days on some faraway planet isn’t great, but it’s better than having your enemies hunt down each and every last one of your family.

The Mentat School trains people to be human computers. Mentats aren’t just people walking around with spreadsheets in their heads; they can actually bring human judgment and intuition to bear on massive amounts of data and predict, for example, that there’s a 79.4% chance that your Bene Gesserit advisor plans to murder you, with an 85.6% chance that she’ll do it by poisoning that Caladanian wine you love so much. The Mentat school isn’t a major political faction, but no House would enter tense negotations without a mentat advisor.

The Swordsmaster’s School of Ginaz was founded to train soldiers to heretofore unseen levels, and many other schools have tried to imitate their success. House Corrino founded the Imperial Suk School to train expert doctors whose “imperial conditioning” prevents them from ever harming their patients. These were just minor plot points in the books, and as such, don’t get a lot of detail here.

Swordsmasters? Well, I see them around in the evenings. What do you want with them?

The Great Houses

Dune: CotI lists over thirty Great Houses in the Landsraad council, but there are only a handful who are major players and get a lot of detail. Each of the Great Houses has a number of Houses Minor united under its banner, too. (Yep, just like Game of Thrones , but with lasers.)

Power accrues to power, and House Corrino still sits on the Golden Lion Throne and remains the most powerful House in the Imperium. The Corrinos are notorious for internal power struggles, but the House as a whole rules with a steady hand, even if its Emperors are not particularly long-lived. They’ve moved their seat of power to the planet Kaidan, after an assassination attempt on the royal family turned their homeworld, Salusa Secundus, into a radioactive wasteland. It now serves as a prison planet, but is secretly the training ground for the Emperor’s matchless Sardaukar troops. The Sardaukar are like nuclear weapons themselves: rarely employed, but their mere existence is sufficient to deter any disobedience.

While the Corrinos have spent thousands of years consolidating wealth and power, the Atreides have shored up their reputation for honor and justice. The Atreides first came to prominence at the Battle of Corrin, when a cowardly Harkonnen abandoned his post and an Atreides swept in to save the day. The Atreides aren’t particularly wealthy, but many of the lesser Houses count on them to take a principled stance in times of crisis, as they did in the Ginaz/Moritani war. Having the support of all these “backbenchers” makes them a threat to the Corrinos and a target for the more devious Houses, but their enemies are afraid to take action against them...openly.

House Harkonnen is a bag of cunts. They were exiled from the Landsraad for their ancestor’s cowardice, but since that time they earned their way back in through a series of shrewd business decisions that cornered the market on several luxury goods, making them too wealthy and powerful to ignore. They’ve even been awarded control of Arrakis, the richest fiefdom in the galaxy, and they’ve ruled it the way they rule every other world under their control: repulsive decadence and brutal exploitation. Their homeworld is an industrialized shithole, and most of their subjects are degraded slaves.

And now we get to the Houses that were just invented for this game! House Wallach was founded by a general loyal to the Corrinos, but while they’re still tight enough with the Emperor to train their heirs on Salusa Secundus, their primary focus is now diplomacy. They also have a strong alliance with the Bene Gesserit, who are headquartered on Wallach IX.

House Moritani is a bunch of devious bastards who are still best known for quickly wiping out House Ginaz in a brief and bloody war of assassins. They’ve spent generations trying to shake their dubious reputation, but retreating into relative obscurity while rumors of a military buildup continue to circulate hasn’t helped them much.

House Tseida developed on a planet which was ruled by a Butlerian Inquisition for thousands of years. Theocracy has waned, but they are, no kidding, a House of expert lawyers. They keep themselves strong (and indispensible) by representing other Houses in business ventures, and they’re strongly intertwined with the Spacing Guild.

Swordsmasters? I think they drink a lot of booze at the bars or someplace.

The Imperium

You’ve been told all sorts of things about all sorts of factions without understanding how they work, haven’t you? I’m sorry, I’m just trying to roughly follow the book here.

The document that guides the way the Imperium works is the Great Convention . It’s essentially the extension of a general truce, and is designed to protect the powerful and prevent open warfare. Basically, it goes lie this:

1. It defines the rights and obligations of Houses, how the Landsraad council works, and other boring stuff that isn’t meant to be spelled out in a space opera novel or a roleplaying game.
2. It defines the faufreluches, the universal caste system.
3. Houses are allowed to wage war on each other through formal duels, assassination, and political hostage-taking and ransom. This is called kanly. As long as you formally declare your vendetta, almost anything is permissible. What, even knifing babies in the crib? Absolutely. Can I interest you in a long vacation in the scenic Tupile system? By “scenic” I mean only the Spacing Guild knows where it is and you can never return.
4. One thing that’s not allowed? Atomic weapons. Ever. The penalty for this is that the Emperor executes your entire House and your home planet is destroyed.

The Landsraad is, uh, feudal space Congress. The Emperor is the leader of the council, and while he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to, he’ll usually follow their recommendations. The Landsraad passes laws, creates and funds Imperial projects, listens to its members whine about how they’re not getting enough stuff, and so on, just like Congress. The Landsraad forbids any action against the Guild, and authorizes the Guild to penalize misbehaving Houses with fines, punitive rates, embargoes, or outright confiscation. Basically, you can’t wage war unless the Landsraad sanctions it. The space knights of the Dune universe don’t fight each other with fleets of X-Wings and Birds of Prey and Flaz Gaz Heat Rays and such because the Guild is having none of that bullshit.

The CHOAM corporation was founded in the Great Convention as a financial reserve for the Imperium, and it’s now the center of the imperial economy. (It stands for Combine Honette Ober Advancer Mercantiles.) It’s deeply intertwined with the Guild Bank and with every commercial enterprise on every planet in the Imperium. Through CHOAM, the Landsraad regulates trade and establishes currency. (The sol, plural solaris, is the imperial unit of currency, and pegged to the value of spice. Ron Paul Muad’Dib, eat your heart out.)

Next time, on Dune : Everything about the Great Houses that you don’t know already.

Great Houses

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Chapter 2: Great Houses

This chapter gives an overview of the Landsraad and the most powerful Great Houses. It also contains the rules for creating Houses Minor for the player characters, even before we get rules for creating the PCs themselves! This is intentional. The Dune series is very much about interorganizational rivalry, how people are shaped by the backgrounds, and the historical consequences of individual actions, and so Dune is way serious about playing people with meaningful connections instead of a gang of murderous hobos.

Collectively, the Great Houses are the oldest institution in the Imperium, older than the empery, the Guild, and the Bene Gesserit. Each of the Great Houses holds a siridar -fief over a planet they claim as their homeworld, at least one seat in the Landsraad council, and shares in CHOAM, the corporation which controls the Imperial economy. In return, they’re responsible for paying tithes and conscripts, upholding the Great Convention, and good stewardship of any privileges they’ve received from the emperor or CHOAM--additional fiefs, exclusive contracts, board memberships, etc. These interests are often much more important to a House’s power than the resources on their home planet. Arrakis is, of course, the most valuable fiefdom in the known universe.

(You know how on C-SPAN, Congress spends days arguing about what company in what state will get a contract to build $400 million worth of tanks the Army doesn’t need? Multiply that by 100, and you get the Landsraad and CHOAM. But you don’t have to think about all those excruciating details, because this is a story about psychic kung fu masters having knife-fights in the space desert.)

It’s chilly on Caladan.

A Great House has to uphold the Great Convention on its planetary fiefs, but that’s basic stuff like the caste system, general law and order, and the ban on nuclear weapons. While there’s a courtly, cosmopolitan high society that brings the nobles together, that leaves room for vast differences in their philosophies, which are reflected by even vaster differences in the kind of civilization one encounters from planet to planet. A Great House has free rein to make their homeworld a shining meritocracy, a worldwide slave plantation, or a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Oh, and about that caste system, it’s called the faufreluches * and it governs Imperial society. At the top are the regis-familia , comprised of the Emperor, his court, and all the nobility of the Great and Minor Houses. Below them are na-familia , “named family,” which mostly includes the vassals and personal entourage of the Houses. Hey, wake up! These are your player characters: the swordmasters, mentats, assassins, and other experts who help a House succeed or fail. Characters from the books like Duncan Idaho and Piter de Vries are na-familia . Below them are merchants, artisans, peasants, slaves, and other people who probably won’t be important characters in a Dune game. Exactly what rights are assigned and denied to each caste is detailed in a later chapter.

*The etymology is beyond me; my best guess is a link to “mamluk.”

There are thousands of Great Houses in the Landsraad to represent the thousands of inhabited planets in the Imperium, but most of them are “backbenchers” who have few representatives and meager CHOAM holdings, and throw their vote behind one of the handful of Houses that are the real heavyweights. (This is not an interpretation I like, but I’ll whine more about that later.) The Emperor isn’t bound by Landsraad decisions, but it’s unwise for him to veto all their decisions with complete abandon. The power players of the Landsraad are listed here along with some of their Houses Minor, their ethos, notable members of their entourage, and their views on the other Houses.

A couple of notes: first, the art representing each house is notably bad. It’s well-executed, but it doesn’t illustrate its subjects with any meaning. Second, I thought I was a feminist, but after going through the House descriptions I realized I hadn’t said anything about sex and gender in Dune. The feudal system, even tens of thousands of years in the future, is patriarchal: only men can officially rule a House. However, the Bene Gesserit is an all-female order that literally controls the breeding of royal bloodlines, and more than one siridar -baron has had his own name fade from history because the BG decided he should only sire daughters to be absorbed by another bloodline with compatible genes.

Did you notice my just and honorable stubble?

The Atreides are the siridar -dukes of planet Caladan, an agricultural world known for really good wine. They’re supposedly descended from the mythical Atreus, but their reputation for leadership, courage, and morality is not in dispute. These guys are, like, the Gryffindor of Dune. They’re not a very rich House, but their insistence on just government gets a lot of other Houses to rally behind their political stance.

The Atreides are currently led by Duke Leto Atreides, and his entourage is an all-star team: Thufir Hawat (spymaster and mentat), Warmaster Gurney Halleck (best swordsman ever), swordsmaster Duncan Idaho (second-best swordsman ever), Dr. Yueh (Suk doctor), his concubine Lady Jessica (BG agent), and his son Paul, who was educated by all of these frighteningly competent people.

The Atreides respect the Corrinos while calling for reform, believe the Moritani are corrupt pawns, admire the Tseida and the Wallach, and would like to see all the Harkonnens put down like the venal beasts they are. Atreides Houses Minor include the Demios, Parthenope, and Spiridon.

You bought the Golden Lion Throne from Halloween Express?

The Padishah Emperors of House Corrino still rule the new Imperium they founded about 10,000 years ago. They rule by the maxim that “law is the ultimate science” meaning they’re the most Machiavellian motherfuckers around. You could also say they live by the policy “speak softly and carry a big stick,” because while they prefer to quell discontent with patient diplomacy, their benevolence always carries the implied threat of their unbeatable Sardakuar troops, which they employ only as a last resort. The responsibility of the Golden Lion Throne means that the emperor often has to put the interests of the Landsraad above taking as much as he can for himself, so the Corrinos have to deal with more grumbling from their Houses Minor than any other Great House. There’s a reason why House Corrino endures while its emperors aren’t particularly long-lived.

The current Padishah Emperor is Shaddam IV, whose father, by the way, died from poisoning. His closest advisors include Count Hasimir Fenring, a swordmaster and prodigy of the BG breeding program; Lady Margot, Fenring’s wife and a Bene Gesserit; Gaius Helen Mohiam, his Truthsayer and a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, and his five daughters.

The Corrinos admire the Atreides, but consider them enemies. They consider the Harkonnen useful if unreliable pawns, and the Moritani as more reliable pawns. They see the Wallachs as a House they can manipulate. Despite the Tseidas’ reputation for fairness, the Corrinos think of them...well, the way most people think of an organization of lawyers. Corrino Houses Minor include the Aingeru, Evangelos, and Schiavonna.

Baron Harkonnen: Fat.

House Harkonnen was exiled from the Landsraad at its inception, but earned its way back in through a series of business deals so shrewd, and so lucrative, that they eventually not only regained their siridar -barony but forced the other Great Houses to grudgingly award them the fiefdom of Arrakis. So this makes them the scrappy underdog who overcame the odds, right? No. Think more like if Joffrey Baratheon had Draco Malfoy’s baby. From their polluted homeworld of Giedi Prime, the Harkonnens rule a commercial empire based on ruthless exploitation, dehumanizing slavery, and sickening decadence. They’re feared and loathed for their hideous riches and hideous practices, and the Harkonnens, in turn, seem to enjoy being hated by those they consider their natural prey.

The Harkonnen are currently led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a brilliant and megalomaniacal tyrant. He has no heir, probably owing to the fact that he’s a morbidly obese pedophile. His closest advisor is a psychopathic mentat-assassin named Piter de Vries. He’s also supported by his possible heirs, Glossu Rabban, best known for murdering his own father with his bare hands, and Feyd-Rautha, best known for being portrayed by Sting in tiny shiny panties.

The Harkonnens want to kill all the Atreides. Painfully. They conspire with the Corrinos to remove the Atreides, but of course they plan to betray him. They consider the Moritani allies, believing that their vision is limited. They’re suspicious of the Tseida, and hate the Wallachs for supporting the Atreides. Harkonnen Houses Minor include the Ivilonette, Ruymandiaz, and Truscantos.

The Moritani got their fief by guarding Buckingham Palace, I suppose.

Now we get to the Houses that were created for this game! First on deck, the Moritani are descended from an ancient order of assassins. They reached a crisis point when House Ginaz unsuccessfully tried to indict their House for using a fake Suk doctor to assassinate the members of House D’artanna. The Emperor sanctioned a War of Assassins, and the Moritani soon elicited a response along the lines of “Holy fucking shit” for wiping out House Ginaz, known for producing the best swordmasters in the universe, in record time.

That said, the Moritani don’t seem so bad. Now that they have undisputed control over their home planet of Grumman, they’re mainly focused on putting their house in order, no pun intended. They’re trying to shake their reputation as an assassin cult, but their decision to withdraw from the public eye while they focus on internal development has worked against that effort. Their economic development is accompanied by military buildup, but it seems to be focused on internal security.

The leader of the Moritani is technically Count Ferdinand, but he’s succumbed to dementia and is essentially locked away while his son, na-Count Tycho di Moritani, rules as regent. He’s advised by Delbreth Umbrico, a Swordmaster-Mentat, and his mother Lady Redolyn, a Bene Gesserit trainee. Tycho has his own appointed advisor, a “tall, swarthy monolith” named Pradisek, who probably wears a turban and calls himself a vizier. Tycho also has two sisters who are all too aware that if anything happens to Tycho, one of them could birth the Moritani heir.

The Moritani regard the Atreides as “friends of our enemies.” They’re grateful to the Emperor for allowing their revenge, but that doesn’t mean they’re dumb enough to trust him. They look for ways to manipulate the Harkonnens and the Wallach, and they’re on friendly terms with the Tseida, whom they trust to represent them. Moritani Houses Minor include the Laurentii, Kazimierz, and Prinzporio, all of which are renowned for being difficult to type.

I’m Leonard J. Crabs, and I approve this box of flashing shapes and colors.

House Tseida is also called the House of the Phoenix, and they’re a weird bird. The House actually evolved out of a highly bureaucratic theocracy which enforced the Butlerian prohibitions with extreme prejudice, and emerged as a Great House with the help of the then-Emperor and the Spacing Guild. They are, to put it bluntly, a House comprised of lawyers, who transformed their ancient bureaucracy into a service-based economy centered on legal services. If you’re a badass Swordmaster Assassin but today you have to attend a CHOAM board meeting to argue over all that boring C-SPAN bullshit I warned you about, you want to hire a Tseida diplomat. Otherwise the Harkonnens will sue the space-pants off of you and you’ll have no place to hide your space-daggers. The Tseida have strong ties with the Spacing Guild, from whom they learned to develop a facade of political neutrality. Well, in fact they do seem to be politically neutral on issues besides “We should make shit-tons of spice-dollars.”

The Tseida are currently ruled by the Marquise Catriona Tseida, who acts as regent until her nephew Iorgu is of legal age. She is advised by her mother Ilema (who is a Bene Gesserit like all the other politically powerful moms), a Mentat-Suk named Dorian Mu, and Hiro Okusa, a crotchety Swordmaster who carries around a blunt kendo stick to beat people with. Iorgu is being trained by all these people as well as his aunt Catriona, who helps him spy on court affairs.

The Tseida are on friendly terms with the Atreides and Wallach. All their interactions with the Moritani come with a “don’t blame us, we’re just their lawyers” disclaimer. They’re on good terms with the Emperor but don’t like him meddling in their affairs, and dislike the Harkonnen propensity for slippery legal schemes. Tseida Houses Minor include the Ikeni, Sunnivas, and Wyrkiru.

The Moritani assassins are no match for our SCUBA LASERS!

House Wallach is relatively young at only 5,000 years old, but they were founded by an extraordinarily loyal and successful Imperial general. Their founder, Maximillian Banarc, was so grateful to receive the fiefdom of Wallach VII that he named his newfound House after it. The Wallachs have mellowed to become a House of even-tempered scholar-soldiers, but their military tradition (and their ties to the Emperor) remain strong enough that they send their scions to be trained on Salusa Secundus. They also benefit from a close, mysterious relationship with the Bene Gesserit, who accepted the offer to headquarter their order on Wallach IX.

The leader of the Wallachs is Baron Wolfram von Wallach, a contemplative old soldier who, when not practicing statecraft, spends his time writing his memoirs and beating up his soldiers three at a time. Gotta keep fit, you know. The old general has sired many children, but currently claims Christhaad von Silgaimar as his only heir. His entourage includes his concubine, Lady Gersha, who is the mother of his son and a very gifted architect. Ha ha, just kidding, she’s a Bene Gesserit. He also has Olifer Mangrove, a Mentat with a silly name.

The Wallachs are decent guys, all told. They’re friendly to the Atreides and the Corrino, cordial with the Tseida, and they despise the Harkonnen and the Moritani. Wallach Houses Minor include the Brugge, Ottovaar, and Roinesprit.

House Minor Creation

Houses Minor are lesser branches of a Great House who manage regions of the parent House’s homeworld and/or subsidiaries of their CHOAM interests. They answer to the planetary law of their homeworld, and form a planetary “Sysselraad” that answers to their parent House. And, of course, they squabble among themselves for a greater share of the power, wealth, and influence controlled by the Great House that spawned them.

The rules for House Minor creation are pretty simple, and really aren’t hampered by not having created characters or seen the rules for using the House traits yet. They are hampered by being haphazardly explained. A House Minor has 8 traits. First is Holdings, consisting of Fiefdom and Title, both rated 1-5. Then comes Renown and Assets, which are rated differently. Last are the four House Attributes, also rated 1-5, and each of which includes two sub-attributes, or edges.

Fiefdom determines the size of your fief, from a city district to a continental “subfief.”

Title is the rank of the head of your House, ranging from magistrate to Baron. What’s the value of being a Baron rather than a Magistrate? Unexplained!

Renown is your House’s fame and prestige. It affects your interactions with other Houses, including a roll just to see if anyone’s even heard of you. Renown starts at 1, and can’t be increased at creation.

Assets covers anything you can leverage to succeed in a venture, including not only cash, but things like favours from Guild bureaucrats and expendable sleeper agents. We’ll use these to initiate “House Ventures” during downtime between sessions. Assets starts at 10, and will fluctuate up and down depending on our success.

Status is your “privilege and favour” with your governing Great House, and determines your ability to undermine rival Houses Minor or get support for your ventures from your Great House. Status is divided between Aegis and Favour , which are not explained.

Wealth measures your overall financial resources, including cash, revenues, investments, infrastructure, contracts, everything. It’s divided between Holdings and Stockpiles , again unexplained.

Influence is your political sway among both fellow nobles and your subjects. It’s divided between Authority and Popularity which are unexplained but at least fairly self-explanatory.

Security is the power of your army and your intelligence network. It’s divided between Military and Intelligence , also unexplained, but also self-explanatory.

Creating a House is actually pretty easy. After choosing a Great House, a name, and a rough idea of your background, you pick from one of several archetypes, which gives you a package of Attributes. Then you get 15 development points to spend. Fief and Title are purchased up from 0 on a one-for-one basis. Increasing an Attribute costs five points, while increasing an Edge costs 3 points. (It appears your Edges can be +/-1 of the base Attribute.) Any leftovers go into your Assets.

House Defender : Champions the Great House philosophy and defends them at personal cost. Status 3, Wealth 2, Influence 2, Security 3 (Military +1)

House Favourite : Implements Great House policy with great enthusiasm, supporting the status quo and earning political favor. Status 3 (Favor +1), Wealth 2, Influence 3 (Popularity -1), Security 2.

House Pretender : Goes along with the current political trends, hoping to replace the ruling House if the line should fail. Status 2 (Favor -1), Wealth 3 (Holdings +1), Influence 3 (Popularity +1, Authority -1), Security 2.

House Pawn : Slavishly supports the Great House, hoping to earn favour through unwavering support. Status 4 (Aegis +1), Wealth 2, Influence 2 (Popularity -1), Security 1.

House Reformer : Supports reform out of a genuine belief in changing things for the better. Status 2 (Favor -1), Wealth 2 (Stockpiles -1), Influence 3 (Popularity +1, Authority +1), Security 3.

House Sleeper : Secretly supports another Great House, undermining its parent House from within. Status 2, Wealth 3 (Stockpiles +1), Influence 2 (Authority -1, Popularity -1), Security 3 (Intelligence +1).

So, uh, how is it possible to have both edges at +1 or -1? Can you take a -1 to get points to spend elsewhere? What’s the difference between Status 2 (Favor -1) and Status 1 (Aegis +1)? I have no fucking idea.

Setting the mechanics aside, I really don't like this interpretation of how Houses Minor work. It's canon that there are many inhabited worlds in the Imperium and each Great House has a homeworld, but not, if I recall, that almost every inhabitable planet has a Great House or that Houses Minor are bound to their patron's homeworld, especially when the degree of their nobility ranges down to being magistrates of city districts. So there are thousands of Great Houses, only a handful of whom really matter, but all of them and their extended families are part of the highest caste? If I can be a distant relative of the Emperor and just be a civil servant in Space Pittsburgh? What does that mean for the Houses Minor of one of a thousand insignificant Great Houses? The ostensible purpose of these assumptions is to allow the PCs leeway to adventure all over the Imperium--even in the book, Duke Leto spends a lot of time in meetings--but I think the purpose would have been served just as well by saying that the Houses Minor govern planets or companies of their own.

Houses Minor are the nadir of Imperial nobility, but they're still wealthy beyond the dreams of the common people, and they more-or-less conduct themselves like miniature versions of the Great Houses. They have to steward their resources shrewdly or come to ruin, and a lot of that responsibility falls upon the House Vassals, the royal entourage of experts who are situated below the regis-familia and above whole agencies of professionals, soldiers, and laborers. The nobles and the House Vassals are the PCs.

There are three basic divisions of a House’s administration. Honestly, they give you more detail than necessary, but it’s useful for players who want to know where they fit into the House and ignorable for those who don’t. First is House Affairs , which covers fief government, representation in the Sysselraad, and managing the royal household and their retainers. The first two are boring C-SPAN crap, but the last is about making sure your kitchen staff don’t poison your Caladanian wine and your valet doesn’t plant a killer drone in the nursery. (I really, really wish they’d just state this bluntly, but that’s why Houses are riddled with Bene Gesserit although it’s an open secret they have agendas of their own. The BG is a clan of lady space ninjas. You’re a noble in a Byzantine space empire where cold-blooded murder is legal and your enemies want to knife your heirs in their cribs. Solution? Marry a lady space ninja.)

Mercantile Enterprises is straightforward. Managing agriculture, mining, manufacturing, service-based industries, managing CHOAM holdings, paying tithes to your Great House, meeting production quotas, more C-SPAN crap.

Household Security , ooh, that’s the good stuff. This overlaps with House Affairs, since it covers both military and intelligence operations ranging from your Warmaster conducting full-scale land war all the way down to your Swordmaster training your personal bodyguard. Houses Minor only rarely declare war on each other, but they do sometimes have to quell rebellion. Intelligence networks, on the other hand, are needed by every House, managed by Spymasters and Masters of Assassins.

Next time, on Dune : Swordmaster 4/Mentat 3/Assassin 3/Arcane Archer 5

Character Creation

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 3: Character Creation

This has been too long in coming, so here's a link to the last chapter.

Dune’s character creation sets out with advice on fleshing out a character concept and seeing PCs as more than the sum of their stats. It also devotes a lot of space to telling the GM and the players to be cool with each other, and to buy in to the basic premise of the game and its setting. That is, the PCs are going to play a House entourage, so they have to be able to get along. For example, Suk doctors are conditioned to be nonviolent, but a Suk PC who constantly rails against his House’s military endeavours is inappropriate. That is a misinterpretation of the setting, but the real reason it’s a bad idea is that it will lead to the players getting on each other’s nerves. What? Gaming advice from adults, for adults? In the 90s, no less?

Players are encouraged to pursue unconventional character concepts; for example, there’s no reason you can’t play a Mentat who is also a passionate duelist, since the source novels are full of that kind of thing. However, there are also some firm limits. First, the Imperium is deeply patriarchal, so men can’t be Bene Gesserit agents, and women can’t inherit leadership of a House. The fact that you’re assumed to be playing a House entourage also discourages you from playing characters who are part of the setting but who aren’t tied to the feudal system, such as a Guild navigator or a spice smuggler. However, there are suggestions on how to include such characters as a “special guest appearance,” somebody’s secondary PC, or as a character on a long-term mission with a good reason to be palling around with a House entourage.

There’s no advice on how the players reach a consensus on what Great House lineage to play, which is a glaring omission. The House you play will not only have a great influence on the tone of the game, it determines your base stats! Granted, the differences are mostly minor: a +1 to an Attribute edge here, a skill there. But if you’re playing a Mentat, you probably wanted the Tseida’s +1 to Intellect (Logic) instead of the Harkonnen bonus to Physique (Strength). I’m guessing the Baron makes all his young relatives pump iron while he watches.

The default character creation method boils down to choosing a series of “packages,” starting with your House Allegiance, with a few free Development Points at the end for additional customization. At each stage of creation, all the packages are worth the same amount of points, so if none of them appeal to you, you can just take some free points. You can also do full point-buy with 130 Development Points.

I can’t explain the character creation process in full without going into some detail about the traits themselves. A Dune character sheet will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Storyteller, Unisystem, or D6 game, not to mention many others. Player characters have Attributes, Skills, and Traits.

Attributes are rated 1-6, with 6 representing the absolute peak of human potential. Each Attribute is also split into two Edges, just like the House Attributes from the previous chapter.

So it’s possible to have Physique 2 (Strength +1). I really don’t like this, because it seems to defeat the point of the laudable design decision to combine Strength and Constitution in the first place. Too many other games have a Strength attribute that falls by the wayside and is almost useless both in and out of combat. (I’m looking at you, White Wolf.) Second, you need to keep track of the Edge bonuses you get during character creation. If a bonus would give you +3 in an Edge, instead you “reset” and increase the base Attribute by 1. Oh, and what’s the difference between having Physique 2 (Strength +1, Constitution +1) and having Physique 3? I have no idea; I hope they’ll explain later.

Oh! How very simple!

Skills, on the other hand...I like what they did here. First, there’s a bounded number of skills, and they’re appropriately broad. “Armed Combat,” for example, covers all melee weapons. Many skills do require a specialization, but there’s a limited number of those, too, and your base rating still reflects general knowledge. A character with Science 2 (Biology 1) specializes in biology, but has an education in all the physical and life sciences, while a character with Transport 1 can operate everything from a car to a space shuttle. So Dune avoids the pitfalls of a game with extremely specific skills and a potentially infinite number of skills for things like academic disciplines, and prevents PCs from being so specialized that their skills are often irrelevant.

Traits are miscellaneous advantages and disadvantages that include mundane resources, social statuses, strengths and weaknesses of character, and “conditioning” that isn’t covered by skills, such as that of Bene Gesserit agents and Suk doctors.

Having dispensed with those details, these are the stages of character creation:

Stage 1, House Allegiance , is the Great House to which your character’s House Minor belongs. It determines your base attributes, plus some skills and low-level Traits. All the Houses get base Attributes of 2 with a bonus here and there, plus a point of Culture, History, and World Knowledge with a free specialization in your native House and homeworld.

Stage 2, Vocational Conditioning , basically means character class, like Bene Gesserit Adept, Strategist, Assassin, et cetera. These packages grant attribute bonuses, more skills, and Traits related to your character’s profession and conditioning. While Dune isn’t a class/level game, some of the “vocational” Traits are exclusive and integral from a setting point of view. Mentats, for instance, must be trained from early childhood. Vocation is also important because it determines your caste.

Stage 3, Background History , encompasses three background packages that represent your character’s upbringing, career, and goals.

Early Life is a good opportunity for a character to either become more specialized or get some “multiclass” training with backgrounds like Mentat Priming, Bene Gesserit Teaching, or Dueling Instruction. (Paul Atreides got all three.)

House Service goes beyond your profession to your actual job--what do you do for your House? Suk characters are likely to take House Physician, but a Swordmaster could potentially be a Security Commander, Weapons Master, or the Personal Confidante to the royal heir.

Personal Calling is essentially what marks you out as unique. The term is imprecise, because the packages encompass a mixture of career paths and unusual backgrounds. For example, you could be a Sleeper Agent or an Arena Fighter, by choice or otherwise, or maybe you received an Off-World Education, which is a circumstance of your upbringing. Or you might be a Breeder, which is exactly as creepy as it sounds--it means that because of some genetic quirk, the Bene Gesserit take a special interest in you as part of their grand scheme to control the bloodlines of the Houses.

Stage 4, Finishing Touches , gives you five “freebie” points to spend.

Development Points

At this point, your Vocational Conditioning will determine your social Caste and starting equipment. Each character also gets 3 Karama (“karma points” to spend on automatic successes), and Renown. Renown has 4 aspects: Valor, Learning, Justice, and Prayer, representing a character’s reputation for heroism, knowledge, diplomacy, and wisdom, respectively. You get 1 point to put in 1 aspect, plus any granted by the packages you chose.

That's it! The GM has veto on character concepts that make no sense, like a dueling Suk doctor. There is some more advice here that strikes me as too heavy-handed: case in point, the assertion that a Noble would never have the Assassination skill, despite the fact that the Emperor's best buddy is duelist, an assassin, and an all-around treacherous bastard.

”I can’t eat fifteen gallons of spice!”
“Oh, it’s not going in that end, Mr. Atreides.”

Next time, on Dune : I'll go over the sample characters, and create a couple myself.

Character Creation Part 2: How to Succeed in Kanly without really trying

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 3, Part 2: How to Succeed in Kanly without really trying

I don’t think you can really grasp how a game handles characters by just reading through its character creation chapter, so I am making a couple of Dune characters. However, I am creating these characters before going through the next chapter, which details all of the traits and what they do.

Herbert wanted to portray a far future in which cultures from our history had synthesized beyond our imagining, so the Atreides entourage features characters with names like Duncan Idaho, Thufir Hawat, and Wellington Yueh. True to form, my characters have randomly generated and mismatched names.

House Minor Creation

First, we will generate a House Minor! The Imperium is a huge Byzantine space empire of intrigue, treachery, and naked greed, so what better choice than the most Machiavellian and Shakespearean House, the Moritani ? The name of our House Minor is Mori, which is a coincidence. It came up as a randomly generated name for one of our characters, and true to Dune’s ethos, I like that it is ambiguously both Italian and Japanese.

House Mori is an ancient distaff line of the Moritani. Publicly, they’re very much onboard with the new Moritani way, leaving behind their history of treachery in order to focus on economic expansion. Privately, they’re well aware that the Count’s household is a mess, and not content to hope and pray that things will work out. They’re securing their holdings and long-term investments against misfortune, and cultivating their intelligence assets against infiltration by other Houses. Based on this backstory I just made up, I’ll pick the House Pretender archetype--a House that goes along with popular political trends, tries to expand its influence, and is poised to take over the Great House’s title if it collapses. That gives us these stats:


Status: 2
Wealth: 3 (Holdings +1)
Influence: 3 (Popularity +1, Authority -1)
Security: 2

Renown: 1
Assets: 10

We have 15 Development points with which to purchase a title, a fiefdom, and to improve these stats. (5 points per Attribute, 3 points per edge, Renown starts at 1 and can’t be raised, while leftovers go into Assets.) It doesn’t explain to us why it’s better, mechanically, to be a lord rather than a lowly magistrate, or to control an entire province instead of a city. It also still doesn’t explicitly define the Attribute edges, and skimming the later chapters hasn’t helped me. Oh, well. Spending my points, I get these final stats for my House Minor:


Name: Mori
Ancestry: Moritani
Homeworld: Grumman
Title: 4 (Lord Duke)
Fiefdom: 2 (The Free City of Ravanna)
Renown: 1
Assets: 10

Status: 2
Wealth: 3 (Holdings +2)
Influence: 3 (Popularity +1)
Security: 2 (Intelligence +1)

House Mori holds a grand title, but doesn’t control much physical territory--clearly we are all about the service-based economy. We’re rich as shit, politically influential, and we have a great intelligence network, which is good--our Great House betters aren’t especially fond of us. Now, on to creating actual characters.

Character Creation

Malik Richmond was born into a family that has spent generations serving as personal security to the Mori household. His forward-thinking parents had him trained as a Mentat, believing that a well-rounded advisor could accrue more influence with the nobility than his family had in the past. Malik, however, realized that he still needed credibility as a military man, and devoted himself to becoming a fearsome duelist. (Mentats are cool, and sword fights are cool. That’s as much thought as I put into this decision.) Malik has the following background packages:

Allegiance: Moritani
Conditioning Overlay: Mentat
Early Life: Dueling Instruction
House Service: Security Commander
Personal Calling: Arena Fighter

You can refer to my last update to see the charts of background packages and the stats they confer. Adding it all up, we get this:

Captain Malik Richmond posted:

Physique 2
Coordination 2 (Reaction +2)
Intellect 3 (Logic +1, Perception +2)
Charisma 2 (Willpower +1)
Prescience 0

Administration 1 (Intelligence 2)
Armed Combat 2 (Dueling Arms 2)
Computation 2 (Straight-Line 2)
Culture 1 (Moritani 2)
Dodge 2
Equipment 1
Espionage 1 (Counter-Intelligence 1)
History 1 (Moritani 1)
Hunting Language 1 (Bhotani Jib 1)
Interrogation 2 (Questioning 2)
Mentat Trance 2 (Memorize 2)
Observation 3 (Inspection 1)
Politics 1
Propaganda 1 ( Misinformation 2)
Projection 3 (Approximation Analysis 3)
Racketeering 1
Ranged Combat 1 (Stunner 1)
Security 1 (Surveillance 1)
Subterfuge 2 (Mind Games 1, Equivocation 1)
World Knowledge 1 (Grumman 1)

Alertness 1, Dueling 2, Commendation 1, Mentat Awareness 2, Machine Logic 2, Sapho Addiction -2, Shield Fighting 1

Renown: Valor 1
Caste: 3 (Bondsman)

Karama: 3

Equipment: House uniform, ComNet transmitter, Knife, Needlegun, Solido projector, Solido recorder, Shigaware reels

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff! And I still have 5 free points to spend, plus any I gain from taking Disadvantages. Attributes are expensive. Skills are almost as expensive, and therefore a sucker’s choice. Instead, I’ll plow it all into advantages. I take Information Network at 2 points and Compounded of Whispers for 3 points. I’ll also take a 2-point Adversary. This nets me 2 more points, which I’ll spend to add 1 point to my Commendation and Information Network advantages by one. We also get to put a point in one category of Renown, and our Conditioning determines our caste and our starting equipment.

Malik’s Commendation represents a captaincy in Mori military intelligence. His top-notch Information Network consists of both merchants connected to the Moris’ economic interests and old-school spooks who like the cut of his Bhotani Jib.

Now for a very different type of character, Sofia Mori . Although she is part of the noble household, Sofia was an orphaned cousin, and have been overlooked and ignored if the Bene Gesserit sisterhood hadn’t seen something special in her. When the family offered up its daughters to be trained in the BG Way, Sofia was the one they wanted. She’s returned to the service of her own House to protect and educate her young relatives, while also advocating for Mori political interests. Sofia has the following background packages:

Allegiance: Moritani
Conditioning Overlay: Bene Gesserit Adept
Early Life: Noble Household
House Service: Diplomatic Spokesman
Personal Calling: Advocate

As with Malik, I just chose the packages that made sense for the character. It results in a much more focused skillset:

Lady Sofia Mori posted:

Physique 2 (Constitution +1)
Coordination 3 (Reaction +1)
Intellect 3 (Perception +2)
Charisma 3 (Presence +1)
Prescience 0

Administration 1
Athletics 1
BG Way 3 (Petit Betrayals 3)
Charm 1 (Seduction 1)
Culture 2 (BG Sisterhood 1, Moritani 1)
Diplomacy 2
Dodge 1 (Evade 2)
History 1 (Moritani 1)
Hunting Language 1 (Bhotani Jib 1, Chakobsa 1)
Law 1
Observation 1 (Study 2)
Politics 5 (Imperial 1, Moritani 1)
Propaganda 1
Ritual 2 (any 3)
Subterfuge 2 (Perjury 1)
Unarmed Combat 1 (Martial Training 2)
Voice 2
World Knowledge 1 (Grumman 1)

Traits: Alertness 1, Ally 2, Dual Allegiance -2, Magnanimous Appeal 3, Patron 2, Prana-bindu Conditioning 3, Weirding Combat 2

Renown: Justice 1
Caste: 4 (na-Familia)

Karama: 3

Equipment: House uniform, ComNet transmitter, Knife, BG filmbooks, BG robes

Sofia gets so many Politics specializations that I was able to increase the base trait to 5, making her a political genius. She also has a powerful ally (a Guild banker, let’s say) and a powerful Patron (a wise old Bene Gesserit sister). Her free points are spent on being Highborn (3) and part of a Prized Bloodline (2).

You’ve probably noticed that, while Dune works on a pretty simple Attribute+Skill system, it has a ton of skills, buries your PC in specializations, and has a lot of skills and traits that seem esoteric or highly situational. You’re right! I will mill through them in the next chapter.

That’s how you create Dune characters from scratch.

It's settled. We'll run this shit in FATE next time.


If assigning points to Observation 2 (Head Games 2, Peculiar Odors 3) is too much for you, you can grab one of the pre-generated characters and add your five free points. Bang, done. Some of them have a much more focused skillset than if you picked packages on a makes-sense basis, while others are spread just as thin as the made-from-scratch characters, with heaps of Skill 1 (Specialization 1)

We're not bald. Seriously, read the goddamn book. First chapter, first page.

House Adept: The Bene Gesserit sister protects the family that she serves while inspiring a mixture of fear and respect among virtually everyone. Although the BG are famed for their secret knowledge, the Adept’s strength is a combination of social skills and hand-to-hand combat prowess. Adepts aren’t meant to be fighting duels, but they can kick you in the spine through your stomach.

Did they pay Dourif for his likeness? Because come on.

House Assassin: In a universe of devious killers, the Assassins specialty is not so much in killing but in getting away with it. Although he’s not to be taken lightly in face-to-face combat, the Assassin is much more likely to kill you with a drone, or a dose of poison, or a drone covered in poison. Mechanically, this archetype is focused on knowledge and technical skills, with a dash of combat. The best part is the gear: flip-dart, hunter-seeker, maula pistol, shigawire garrotte, slip-tip, French tickler, black mambo, and other silly-sounding ways to kill people.

Maybe I should buy some old tab collars (Welcome back to the Butlerian Jihad)

Master Strategist : Strategist is a fairly generic title that doesn’t have the wow-factor of a swordmaster or a Bene Gesserit agent. On the other hand, there’s no doubt about what this guy actually does: lots of social and political skills. Still, as a Dune fan, I’d never play this guy instead of a Mentat.

Baron, I calculate a 93.2% I am the smuggest motherfucker here.

House Mentat: This Archetype assumes that you want to play a spymaster like Thufir Hawat, as opposed to an academic or a guy who is a glorified tax lawyer. A mixture of knowledge and skulduggery, that’s the Mentat. As you saw in my character creation example, the Mentat has some specialized skills that only they can ever have, like “Mentat Trance” and “Computation” which we’ll get into later.

My house has fig-leafed in photographs for untold millennia.

House Noble: It’s good to be the king. The Noble is the only Conditioning that has Caste 5, the royal class of Imperial society. The Noble’s skillset is a combination of diplomatic and dueling skills, which says a lot about the setting.

Do you see this bullshit? This is worse than the prop from Lynch's film.

House Swordmaster: Although he has some military intelligence skills, the Swordmaster’s thing is that he is a straight-up badass. Plenty of points in hand-to-hand and ranged combat skills, plus the Traits necessary to be a great duelist. The Swordmaster allows his Noble boss to say “I can see your point, but on the other hand, what if my buddy just stabs you to death?”

House Suk: The Suk is a deceptively diverse character class. Yes, he heals people, and he even has a built-in Disadvantage that forces him to be a pacifist. But his medical skills also make him a skilled (if scrupulously ethical) psychologist and interrogator.

Next time, on Dune : Those many strange and wonderful Characteristics.

The Explaining of the Characteristics

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 4: The Explaining of the Characteristics

Grave this on your memory, lad: A world is supported by four things… ” She held up four big-knuckled fingers. “…the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave. But all of these are as nothing… ” She closed her fingers into a fist. “…without a ruler who knows the art of ruling. Make that the science of your tradition!”

This chapter explains the meaning and use of the Attributes, Skills, and Traits. As I’ve said before, Dune is a fairly simple Attribute+Skill system with advantages and disadvantages, but it complicates itself with sub-attributes, skill specializations, and traits that are very vague.

Skills and traits are also poetically divided into “Learning of the Wise,” “Justice of the Great,” “Prayers of the Righteous,” and “Valor of the Brave” categories.

If this doesn’t work out, can I be an Unhallowed Metropolis character instead? I have my own mask.


There are 5 Attributes, rated from 1-5. Each Attribute is also divided into two “edges,” and edges can be +1 or +2 above the base attribute. For example, an especially healthy, if not muscular Swordmaster might have Physique 2 (Constitution +1).

Physique (Strength, Constitution): Dune wisely rolls D&D’s Strength and Constitution into one Attribute. Physique is only used for 3 skills, but Strength is vital to attacking in melee combat while Constitution determines your resistance to injury, illness, poison, and the elements, which are all salient threats on worlds like Arrakis. As an aside, tying melee attacks to Strength is good for game balance, but seems specious in a setting where hand-to-hand combat is almost always fought with knives and relies on expert timing.

Coordination (Dexterity, Reaction): The physical finesse Attribute. Dexterity measures motor coordination while Reaction measures quick reaction times, but the difference between the two is a little blurry. The practical difference is that Dexterity is used for ranged attacks while Reaction is used for all kinds of dodging and parrying.

Intellect (Logic, Perception): Covering intelligence, reasoning, and attention to detail, Intellect is obviously the most important attribute if you want to be good at doing...almost everything that isn’t combat. Out of 60 skills, 39 are tied to Intellect. It’s divided into Logic, for problem-solving and deductive reasoning, and Perception, for general and situational awareness. Have fun arguing with the Narrator over which one applies to the situation at hand.

Charisma (Presence, Willpower): This measures overall force of personality. While Intellect can inform a course of action, you need Charisma to lead and negotiate. Presence measures the ability to influence and evoke emotions in others while Willpower measures not only the resistance to the same, but the ability to bluntly impose your will on others. In some cases there seems to be little rhyme or reason in which edge covers which skill.

Prescience (Sight, Vision) is a special Attribute because most characters will simply have a 0 rating. Simply put, it measures the ability to predict the future. It’s difficult to describe how Prescience works in Dune without getting deeply into the setting, and the books devote long passages to not just explaining how it works, but musing on the nature of time and the limitations of human foresight. Practically, prescients can foresee important events in many possible variations, often in the form of fragments, metaphors, and symbols. Sight measures the scope and depth of your foresight, and Vision measures the ability to interpret them.

Before we go any further, did everyone remember to put points in Assassination, Concealment, Espionage, Infiltration, Sabotage, Security, and Stealth?


I extend Dune some credit when it comes to its skill system because I’ve seen games do far worse. TORG and Cthulhutech are games that exemplify the two problems I see most often in RPG skill lists: first, the skill list is too long, too specific, and with too much overlap, so that players have to spend lots of points to be able to reliably fulfill a role in the party. Second, they handle academic expertise as a set of skill groups with potentially infinite subskills. Dune avoids the latter by having a bounded skill list, but it’s very guilty of the former.

Dune also has several Conditioning-related skills with very little guidance on how they fit into the game. In some cases, this is because Last Unicorn never got to release the supplements that would have elaborated upon those skills. In others, the skills in question are vague and esoteric in the first place.

Like Attributes, skills are normally rated at 1-5. Over half of the skills are “acquired” rather than “general,” meaning that you can’t try to use them without any training. A few skills and traits are Conditioning-specific--if you don’t get them from your Conditioning (or a related background package) at character creation, you can’t buy them. However, Dune encourages the Narrator to allow characters to substitute one skill for another, with a higher Difficulty depending on how closely the skills are related. For example, if you need to disarm a security shield but you don’t have Security, you could use Repair (shields) or Armament. Although this is good GMing advice, it also points to the overabundance of overlapping skills. The given example is fairly straightforward, but what about the overlap among skills like Economics, Law, and Politics?

One aspect of Dune’s skill system should be singled out for praise: every single skill gives example of routine, difficult, and “nearly impossible” uses of the skill. Many other games have difficulty charts with numbers for “simple,” “difficult,” “legendary,” et cetera, with no examples, no context, and therefore no use. Dune’s examples provide guidance in how to use the skill, which manages to give clues on implementing even the most esoteric skills.

Is it the swords, or the shoes? Gotta be the shoes.

The Valor of the Brave

Armament (Intellect, Swordmasters): This skill is for using and repairing advanced military weapons and defenses, including lasguns, vehicular ordnance, shield generators, and even atomic bombs. Difficult tests include making heavy repairs under fire, or building advanced systems from a junkyard of parts.

Armed Combat (Physique): Melee weapons, plain and simple. The specializations include concealed weapons (such as garottes and flip-darts) and dueling weapons, while exotic weapons like Rabban’s inkvine whip or the Bene Gesserit gom jabbar are specializations of their own.

Athletics (Physique): This gets an entire page devoted to measuring how well characters can move while tumbling, climbing, swimming, or pogo-sticking, not to mention lifting and carrying capacity. Examples of difficult Athletic tests including trying to move at full speed over icy or swampy terrain.

Dodge (Coordination): Self-explanatory. It defends against all kinds of attacks, and the specializations are melee and ranged.

Concealment (Coordination): This is for hiding objects, not yourself. Specializations include Camouflage, “Stashing,” and Sleight-of-hand. Concealing a small weapon on your person is a simple use of the skill; a difficult one is camouflaging a vehicle in a warzone.

Impersonation (Charisma, Assassins): This skill combines disguise, mimicry, and acting to impersonate someone else. A really difficult task would be to convince someone that you’re his best friend.

Infiltration (Intellect, Assassins): Actually sneaking into places is covered by other skills, but Infiltration is used to case the joint and plan the job, so to speak. Assassins use Infiltration to create a plan full of contingencies and useful information. It says that subsequent tests can be used to recall contingencies and data during a mission, but unfortunately, it doesn’t actually give us a metagame mechanism to provide bonuses or prevent failure.

I hope none of the Psi-Stalkers from those Rifts reviews snuck in here.

Military Operations (Intellect, Swordmasters): Like Infiltration, this is a very broad skill which lets us down when it comes to actually applying it. It covers “all tactical and strategic operations” from small unit tactics to a worldwide conflict, and you can specialize in infantry, armored divisions, air battles, or sea battles. However, the only immediate application is making a roll to give all the troops under your command a small bonus for a round. I’m imagining all the Allied troops at the Battle of the Bulge wearing earbuds, listening to George Patton yelling encouragement at them over the radio. Examples of tests include defending a well-armed fortress, or defeating an army that outnumbers you 10 to 1...but are you actually going to make a simple skill Test to determine who wins a major battle? The answer is maybe, because this game doesn’t have rules for battles.

Performance : Performance covers any performing arts, but the Attribute you use depends on the art form. Ha ha, just kidding! You’ll never use this skill, will you?

Ranged Weapons (Coordination): For using and repairing simple ranged weapons such as stunners, maula pistols, and throwing weapons.

Stealth (Coordination): This is the skill that actually covers hiding and sneaking your own self. The difficulty is based on how exposed you are--crossing open terrain in full daylight is very difficult.

Survival (Physique): The skill for finding provisions and shelter in harsh environments. Specialization is by environment. Notably, the deep desert of Arrakis is by default a nearly impossible environment for survival.

Transport (Coordination): This skill covers all kinds of vehicles, land, sea, air, and outer space.

Unarmed Combat (Coordination): It’s kind of weird that swashbuckling is covered by Physique and unarmed fighting is covered by Coordination, but nevermind. This skill has three specializations, wrestling, brawling, and martial training, and each has certain maneuvers associated with it.

Fly me to the Dune...

Learning of the Wise

Computation (Intellect, Mentats): Oh, here we go. Computation is a key example of an esoteric skill with vague and uncertain use. Computation “represents the ultimate science of cause and effect,” and a Mentat’s ability to apply mathematical analysis to messy, imprecise fields such as diplomacy and spycraft. It has three specializations: Probability Computation, Straight-line computation, and Comparative Induction, which are meaningless bits of flavour from the book.

Computation tests allow a Mentat to deduce another’s motives, predict their behavior, and predict the outcome of their actions. Unlike Infiltration and Military Operations (see above), the designers planned for Computation to have a specific, metagame use. The unpublished Narrator’s Guide was meant to teach the Narrator how to construct a chronology for the adventure, with “scene links” connecting different scenes. With a successful Computation test, the Narrator would reveal relevant links in the current scene, or reveal a fact or motivation that will be relevant in a future scene. As you will see, there are several skills that boil down to “Roll dice, get free clues from the Narrator.” Computation, at least, was supposed to have some kind of structure for it.

Culture (Intellect): This skill is more emphatic about what it doesn’t do than about what it does. It covers the culture and customs of a particular people or homeworld; what the Army is calling “human terrain” these days. It doesn’t cover deep, academic knowledge about their history or theology, though. However, the examples of easy and difficult tests are increasingly obscure historical facts about the Fremen, none of which would really help you fit in or get along among them. Specialization is by specific culture or world.

I don’t remember John C. Reilly in Barbarella .

Economics (Intellect): Economics is not so much economic theory as being able to examine a culture’s economic base and figure out its interests and driving forces. For example, you could figure out that a society is in a permanent war economy, or what kinds of goods are in demand. Examples of difficult tests include recalling several obscure facts and making an analysis based on them, e.g. “the Harkonnens have stockpiles of spice, so they could safely reduce production to drive up prices.”

History (Intellect): A broad history of the Imperium, with specializations handling specific worlds or cultures. Historical knowledge of specific cultures is useful since libraries and archives are far-flung and often secretive.

Language (Intellect): Okay, I was lying about that “bounded skill list” thing. Language is treated differently in that each language requires a specialization, and you only roll the specialization. Hey Dune, if you think I’m going to make players spend points on a dozen languages so they can talk to all the rice farmers on Caladan, you can kiss my ass.

Law (Intellect): Confers knowledge of various laws and how to exploit them. Specializations include CHOAM, the Guild, the Great Convention, or like every other goddamn skill in the goddamn game, by House and homeworld.

Medical Arts (Intellect, Suks): Finally, a skill that makes sense and isn’t fiddly and fucking irritating. This skill covers all medical knowledge, although you can specialize in medical fields like surgery or pathology. In a setting as technophobic as the Imperium, it makes sense that this skill is Suk-only.

Mentat Trance (Intellect, Mentats): Just when I thought I was out of the woods. In the books, the Mentat trance is a meditative state that Mentats can enter to compile and analyze data without outside distractions. This skill has a few uses. First, whenever a Mentat discovers a useful fact, they can store a detailed analysis of it in their memory--I suppose it’s up to the players to write it down or remember it themselves. Second, an optional rule allows you to use this skill to determine the difficulty of other skill tests before you make them, in case you’re not sure about defusing that atomic weapon. Third, while in a Mentat trance you can make Observation skill tests to “determine the basic truth, nature, or character” of the situation at hand to use it for other Mentat skill tests. The difficulty of Mentat Trance tests is based on the obscurity of the information you’re trying to memorize or recall, and from how long ago. It’s Nearly Impossible to remember “obscure facts from over a year ago,” which means I have no business knowing the backstory for every character in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Pharmacy (Intellect, Suks): Pretty much does what it says on the label, and includes all drugs helpful, harmful, and recreation. (Assassins, after all, have their own skill for brewing poisons.) An expert Suk pharmacologist can innovate new drugs or fabricate complex ones from scratch.

Politics (Intellect): A fairly simple skill that identifies political groups and organizations and their key members. Difficult tests involve obscure details of a state’s political history or deducing things about the government of a place with which you have no real familiarity. Specialization is by House or organization.

Projection (Intellect, Mentats): This is the last of the trinity of Mentat skills, and it’s easily the most overwrought, try-hard dork skill in the game. Mentats use the Projection skill to “form proximity hypothesis [sic] to construct elaborate logic matrices used for determining missing elements, invisible plot lines, and probably explanations.” Or, in plain English, “at any time during a scene a Mentat may attempt to uncover a hidden fact or underlying motivation present within the scene.” Yes, once you get past the gobbledygook, this is blatantly a way for the player to roll dice to get clues. In fact, an optional rule says that if the game is moving slowly, the Narrator can just use the Mentat to feed the party whatever information they need to move the game along.

Then there’s this:


Alternately, if the Narrator has structured the adventure as outlined in Pathways to Infinity [the Narrator’s Guide], he can employ the following method: For each fact sharing the same scene ID letter designation (A, H, C, etc.) as the scene during which the test is made, the Narrator should reduce the standard Difficulty (13) by one. For each fact sharing the same scene ID numerical designation as the current scene, reduce the Difficulty by 2. All reductions are cumulative.

This is equal parts pedantic and amazing. It appears that Dune was originally intended to provide a method for constructing adventures, and marking planned scenes with narrative tags that can interact with investigation skills. That’s great, although in its undeveloped form is is totally useless. The discussion of how to use the Projection skill also mentions requiring the player to describe the kind of information he’s seeking, and to bring up the notable facts that he’s committed to memory using Mentat Trance. I think that Computation, Mentat Trance, and Projection were supposed to form a sort of narrative trinity in which you would use Computation to analyze a scene for potential plot coupons, Mentat Trance to obtain the plot coupons, and Projection to cash them in for hard answers, major clues, and situational advantages. The sample difficulties explain that you can use this skill to discover immediately relevant stuff (these “diplomats” are going to ambush you) or clues about plotlines only tangentially related to the scene (the Baron’s comments could only mean that he’s trying to infiltrate the Atreides advisors).

Projection has four specializations: Approximation Analysis, Factual Analysis, Proximity Hypothesis, and Zero-bias Matrices. My zero-biased analysis leads me to hypothesize that these are an approximation of meaningless bullshit.

Sciences (Intellect): This is another case where the bounded skill list was kind of a lie. You can just have a Sciences skill, which grants general knowledge of all sciences, or the Narrator can split it up into Physics, Chemistry, and Biology with further specializations. Because why wouldn’t you want more of those?

Theology (Intellect): Deep knowledge of religion, including identifying symbols, customs, and mythologies. It doesn’t include the active use of religion as a tool for propaganda and indoctrination. There are specializations reflecting the many religions mentioned in the books--Orange Catholicism, Zensunni, Mahayana Christianity, et cetera, but those are just bits of flavour that demonstrated how religions have synthesized and splintered beyond comprehension over thousands of years.

Underworld (Intellect): Knowledge of secret and criminal organizations and how they operate. Specialization is by world or types of crime rings. It’s mainly used to get ahold of illegal goods and services; getting ahold of a shipment of lasguns is a very difficult task.

World Knowledge (Intellect): Knowledge of the planetology and broad demographics of a homeworld. Like Language, it effectively forces you to treat individual specializations as skills unto themselves. Ugh.

Captain! I’ve discovered a desert planet in a universe much like our own. Set on a much smaller scale, but in an equally complex system!

Justice of the Great

Administration (Intellect): Bureaucracy and logistics, and making use of them to manage an organization and plan major projects and missions. There are already a bunch of skills about knowing things or being in charge of things, but this game also needs a management skill, I guess. Dune is a setting of intrigue and assassination, and wars of religion, and space opera technology and cool characters like Mentats and Bene Gesserit. But you can play a guy who is an administrator, and put points in the Administration skill, and administer things. You know what else you can do? You can kiss my ass. I’m tired of describing synonyms of the same word. This chapter has cost me half a bottle of Bulleit.

Command (Charisma, Nobles): Nobles use this skill to look impressive and boss people around. You can use it to order subordinates, plan projects, and influence dignitaries. I mean, there are already four or five skills that do that, but I guess this one is special because you use Charisma for it. Whatever.

Diplomacy (Charisma): With this skill you can negotiate agreements between Houses and other organizations, obtain concessions, and send people away happy. I like this skill especially because there are specializations for things that are unique to the Dune setting and likely to come up in a game, such as CHOAM affairs, Spacing Guild arrangements, and Kanly negotiations. Difficult tests involve things like arranging marriages between rival Houses and, at the extreme end, getting away with violating the Great Convention.

Espionage (Intellect): This is old-fashioned, Norman Smiley style spycraft. Forgery, cryptography, infiltrating an organization to gather information and relaying it back to your comrades. Infiltrating the Spacing Guild or the Sisterhood would be an epic feat.

Interrogation (Charisma): Coercing information out of people with an explicit or implicit threat. Ranges from pointed questions to sharp implements.

Leadership (Charisma, Swordmasters): Swordmasters use this to calm, discipline, and inspire troops in the field. It can eliminate penalties from fear and demoralization for other PCs.

Mercantilism (Intellect): The business skill. There are already a half-dozen business-related skills in this game, but I guess we need one called “Mercantilism” in case anyone decides to ship gold out of France.

Propaganda (Intellect): A skill you can use to convince the populace that arbeit macht frei or to keep calm and carry on. Skilled users can bolster their House, pass laws, or quell rebellions through sheer propaganda.

Psychology (Intellect, Suks): Suk doctors know how to diagnose and treat mental illness and trauma. This is particularly useful given that many factions in the Imperium know how to use hypnosis and psychological conditioning for subversion and infiltration.

Racketeering (Intellect): How to obtain money and favors but illegally.

Security (Intellect): Although this skill is said to represent understanding of security procedures and systems, all the sample tasks concern picking locks.

Statecraft (Intellect, Nobles): Nobles use this skill to further their House’s interests in political negotiations with tactics like flattery, bribery, blackmail, and threats. The description admits outright that it’s ultimately similar to Diplomacy, but involves scheming and bullying instead of reason. Congratulations, Nobles. One of your special class skills does the same thing as other skills, but calls you out as a privileged asshole.

Subornation (Intellect): Used for indoctrinating someone under your control. Brainwashing, torture, and even brain surgery can be used to subvert someone to your will. On the other hand, you can use this to reverse the effects of someone else’s brainwashing.

Subterfuge (Charisma): Lying, plain and simple. You can use it defensively, to lie your way through questioning, or offensively, to feed someone false information, or to disguise your emotional state.

Voice (Charisma, Adepts): After a shitload of boring, superfluous skills that amount to convincing someone to do something, we come to an interesting skill that lets you order people to do something. The Voice is part of the Bene Gesserit prana-bindu training that teaches them to have precise control over every fiber of their being. When an Adept speaks in the Voice, she can issue simple, direct commands which are so perfectly modulated that they compel other people on a subconscious level, invoking, fear, submission, or lust. Possibly all three. The Voice is usually used for short commands like “Open the door!” or “Drop your weapon!” but it certainly can be used in small, scattered doses to manipulate people. Its use is fairly obvious, however, and a big part of the BG’s reputation as mysterious ninja sex wizards.

Maiden, mother, clone.

Prayers of the Righteous

Artistry (Intellect): It’s a skill for making art. You will never use it. “Write me a song, Baron, or I shall have thee executed!” No. But you can specialize in Cartography, which is a hoot.

BG Way (Intellect, Adepts): In order to use the Voice on someone, you have to analyze them with the BG Way skill first. The same way Adepts learn conscious control over themselves, they learn how to “read” other people’s voices, mannerisms, and body language, making them near-perfect lie detectors. Adepts can also use their own BG Way skill to resist it being used on them, whereas it’s normally resisted with Charisma and Subterfuge.

Bargaining (Charisma): Another negotiating skill? Really? Bargaining is entirely focused on exchanging something for something and setting a price. Using the skill can’t force anyone, PC or NPC, to accept a deal. Yes, this skill is explicitly worthless!

Charm (Charisma): Specifically for manipulating people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t, you sleazeball. A nearly impossible task is “seducing someone who hates you” which is really not that hard. Wait! I’ve figured it out! This skill list is so long and pedantic because the authors have never gone bar-hopping with college girls.

Equipment (Intellect): This game seriously has a catch-all skill for “using devices.” I recommend you put a bunch of points in this so you can substitute for all the other skills that involve using gadgets. I’m not kidding, they give air conditioning systems as an example of an advanced specialty. Yes, that’s why someone plays a Dune game. To be a graduate of the Salusa Secundus School of Air Conditioning Repair.

It’s not a purse, it’s a messenger bandolier.

First Aid (Intellect): This skill covers emergency medical care, including emergency surgery, to stabilize trauma victims suffering from injuries or poison.

Gaming (Intellect): Gambling! And cheating while gambling! And not getting cheated!

Observation (Intellect): Your generic spot/search skill. A good skill, nothing much to say about it, except that it is also used in a lot of tests to resist being fooled by skills like Impersonation.

Persuasion (Intellect): Persuasion is yet another skill for convincing people to do stuff. It’s different from the others because it’s based on arguing the substantive merits of your position. For example, when I say that Dune’s skill system is overwrought because of a reliance on unpublished content, the need to adapt an in-house system, and prevailing trends in game design, that’s Persuasion. When I say that this skill system is a godawful heap of nit-picking bullshit and I’m sick of it, that’s...Statecraft, I think.

Prescience (Prescience): Oh hey, there’s actually a skill tied to the Prescience attribute! And it’s called Prescience! With this skill, you can enter the altered state of consciousness of your choice (drug binge, meditation, meditative drug binge) and beg Daddy Narrator for a prophetic vision. The better you roll on the skill, the more accurate and less metaphorical it is, and advanced users can experience visions while awake instead of while sleeping or trancing. When Prescience works, it guarantees you a vision that will be relevant in the current story, but on the other hand, you can’t scan the future or seek information on specific subjects in the same way as a computating Mentat.

Prophesy (Prescience): Prophesy is a more blunt “Roll dice, get clue” skill. Unlike Prescience, you can attempt to Prophesy upon a particular person or place, and if successful, the Narrator will tell you something that absolutely will happen. The only catch is that it’s free of context--for example, you may know that another House’s diplomat is going to attack your servant at a meeting, but you will not know why. Maybe he’s saving you from an assassin!

Repair (Intellect): A standard repair skill, although Equipment already does that exactly.

Ritualism (Intellect, Adepts): Do you remember me mentioning the Missionaria Protectiva in a previous update? Ritualism is like a super-Theology skill, which Adepts can use to recognize and exploit the many beliefs, legends, and superstitions with which their forebears have been “seeding” civilization for millennia. In practice, an Adept can wander into a completely unfamiliar culture and use Ritualism to analyze their beliefs, figure out how it influences their customs and behavior, and figure out a way to fit in, or even to be regarded as a holy figure.

Sabotage (Intellect): Considering that there are already Assassination, Equipment, Repair, and Security skills, I’m not sure this is necessary...except that it encompasses demolitions, too. Who doesn’t love explosives?

Truthtrance (Intellect): Truthtrance is essentially an advanced form of BG Way, and thus probably not a necessary skill in its own right. The difference between the two is that while BG Way detects emotional states and lies, a Truthsayer can listen to a false story and analyze it to determine what really happened--even if the teller doesn’t know that their story is false, they’re relating a botched account they heard second-hand, or they’ve orchestrated the situation so that they don’t know the details. It’ some serious Rashomon shit.

Now that the skills are done, there are a bunch of cool traits. They will have to wait until the next update, because I am tired. I hate this and I hate you and I hate myself and if Matt Colville and that other guy are reading this, I hate you fuckers too. I don’t care if Last Unicorn forced you to use their shitty Star Trek system.

Please! No more skills!

Next time, on Dune : Traits.

The Explaining of the Characteristics, Part 2

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 4: The Explaining of the Characteristics, Part 2

Traits in Dune are like the Merits, Edges, Advantages, Flaws, or whatever else you want to call them when they show up in many other games. They represent special abilities or weaknesses that can’t be quantified as skills, and are divided into Advantages and Disadvantages. Like most games of its time, many of the disadvantages are roleplaying-related, and they grant extra Development Points. Like skills, they’re divided into the “Valor of the Brave…” et cetera categories.

The Valor of the Brave

Alertness (1): Right in front is probably the best bargain in the game. For 1 point, you get +1 to your Intellect (Perception) edge and a general “danger sense” ability that gives you a free Observation test when you’re in peril.

Bimanual Fighting (2): You can fight equally well with either hand. This isn’t just useful for two-weapon dueling or weak-hand shooting, but for sneaky attacks where you quickly switch a knife to your other hand before attacking. (This is a maneuver which is actually highlighted a couple of times in Dune , and which I’m glad to see shows up in the combat system.)

Dueling (2, Swordmasters): When using a dueling weapon, you have access to several special maneuvers in combat.

Heroism (2): You have a high pain tolerance. Any wound penalties are treated as a category lower, and you get an extra die to resist any physical trauma.

Immunity (1 to 3): You are immune to a specific disease, drug, or category of poisons. Immunity to disease makes little sense--how would you know if the Narrator plans to subject you to a plague, and what kind? Do you really want to pay 1 point to be immune to influenza? (Yes, it’s listed.) Poisons, on the other hand, makes a lot of sense. There are five categories of poison, costing 1-3 points based on their severity, so you could be totally immune to all poisons for 15 points total.

Latent Prescience (3): You start with a Prescience attribute of 1 instead of 0, and you can buy Prescience skills. This can be purchased during play, in case you’re wondering.

Olympian Physique (3): One of several Advantages that gives you an extra point in a Attribute, and allows you to raise it to a maximum of 6 instead of 5. Olympian Physique improves, y’know, Physique.

Prana-Bindu Conditioning (3, Adepts): Okay, so from a setting point of view, prana-bindu conditioning is the foundation of all the Bene Gesserit’s cool powers. Learning near-total control of their entire body’s musculature and nervous system is how they achieve superhuman powers of observation and martial arts mastery. But this advantage, on the other hand? All it does is allow you to enter a fakir-like trance where you need only a fraction of the normal food, water, and air to survive. The other Adept-only traits don’t even make this a prerequisite, so you could just save yourself 3 points if the Narrator isn’t paying attention.

Resilience (1): You get a bonus to healing checks, and so does anyone providing you with medical care.

Shield Fighting (1): You are trained in the art of dueling with a personal shield. In the Dune universe, elite fighters wear personal force-fields that can only be penetrated by three things: gases, a lasgun beam (which creates a nuclear explosion), or a slowly-moving object. Thus, the greatest soldiers in the galaxy are all experts with knives and swords, and fight with deceptive swordplay and expert timing (not to mention special projectile weapons).

Like Dueling, Shield Fighting gives you access to a set of special combat maneuvers. However, it only costs one point because it comes with a downside--since shield dueling teaches you to slow your strike just before making a kill, you take a penalty whenever you’re fighting unshielded. In the original Dune, this is an important plot point--but only in Paul’s first real duel, when he’s not only unaccustomed to fighting without a shield, but a teenager who has never fought to the death before. I think this is a case of focusing on a bit of the source material a little too hard.

Weirding Combat (2, Adepts) : Oh yeah! This is Bene Gesserit kung fu. Adepts know how to channel their skill at observation and bodily control into mastery of hand-to-hand combat. They maneuver in ways that make it seem to their opponent that they are vanishing and reappearing, and strike with superhuman bursts of speed and precision. The “weirding way of combat” is actually what the Fremen call it, and if you’ve seen David Lynch’s film, the “weirding module” weapons were replacements for the Weirding Way because he thought that “kung fu on sand dunes” would look silly. Weirding Combat gives you access to another special set of combat maneuvers.

Whipcord Reflexes (3): You get +1 Coordination, and a maximum of 6.

Addiction (+1 to 3): You’ve seen this in every other game. Fortunately, the Dune setting provides you with a whole new array of crazy space-drugs to get yourself addicted to. My favourite is semuta , which is a combination of techno music and narcotics. I like Dune’s way of measuring the effects of addiction: with weaker addictions, not getting your fix means taking injury penalties, whereas severe addictions--say, to spice--results in actual injury or death.

Chronic Pain (+2): You have some sort of painful condition that flares up from time to time. At least once per session, the Narrator should require a test to see if you have a flare-up, imposing a penalty to all Physique and Coordination tests.

Physical Impairment (+1 to 3): A serious physical handicap, which can include missing body parts, blindness or deafness, or paralysis. It’s up to the Narrator to decide how this impacts any tests you make.

Learning of the Wise

Direction Sense (1): Why does this show up in so many games? I think somebody put it in a RPG sourcebook after watching The Great Escape or something, and it just got copied by other designers for years. Uh, you have a flawless sense of direction and you can accurately estimate distances. Go you.

Enhanced Sense (1): See above. You get a +1 to Observation sense where your enhanced seeing, smelling, etc. is relevant.

Imperial Conditioning (2, Suks): You’ve received the Suk school conditioning against taking human life under any circumstances, a conditioning which is almost impossible to break. You signify this with a diamond tattoo on your forehead, and by wearing your hair long and gathered in a silver ring. Of course, this means that you cannot be any kind of fighter or assassin, but it also grants you instant social status, as any Suk doctor can be trusted to give medical care to anyone, even a hated enemy. In practice, you get an extra die on any Bargain, Charm, Persuasion, Interrogation, Subornation, and Subterfuge tests, because your Suk status comes with a measure of instant trust.

Information Network (1 to 3): You have a network of contacts within an organization--your own, maybe an enemy’s. What you get out of it is up to the Narrator, as the rating measures the prominence of your primary contact and the size of the organization. Knowing a smuggler is worth 1 point, whereas a Great House advisor is worth 3 points. You can take this one multiple times to represent multiple networks. I think that it’s defined too narrowly for what it does--conceivably, one of the intriguers from the novels could have a ton of networks.

Linguistic Talent (2): You have an instinctive grasp of new languages, and get an extra die on Language tests (as long as you already know the language). However, you should not take this advantage, because your Narrator should not be using the rules for handling languages, because they’re terrible.

Machine Logic (2, Mentats): Your brain is like a computer, able to run other processes in the “background” while your attention is focused elsewhere. You can make an extra Intellect-based action during any turn without taking a multiple action penalty. “Off-hand penalties still apply,” so this is more useful for analytical tests like Observation and Mentat Trance than for disarming a bomb and picking a lock at the same time.

Mentat Awareness (2, Mentats): Uh...this doesn’t do anything. At all. The text says “Mentats instantly know when something deserves their attention. Like one wrong note in an orchestra, they can see that something is out of place...this trait complements the Mentat Trance skill.” But it doesn’t actually give any explicit bonuses or anything. I cannot see this Trait being useful unless the Narrator wants to ruin any mystery or tension by considering himself honor-bound to inform the Mentat player whenever there is A Clue to be found in a scene.

Metabolic Clock (1): Your fine attunement to your own biological rhythms means that you can always guess the time to within 15 minutes...unless you’ve been sleeping or otherwise unconscious recently. This is a great way to tell which players were too dumb to take Alertness instead.

Plasteel Will (1): You have “more willpower than the average person.” So, uh, a +1 to Charisma (Willpower) maybe? No, it just gives you an extra die to resist attempts to influence you, so it’s like a half of a half of an Attribute point.

Trained Intelligence (3): +1 Intellect, and a maximum of 6.

Truthsaying (3, Adepts): You’ve undergone the rigorous and dangerous initiation to proper use of the Truthtrance skill. You bear the title of “Truthsayer” which comes with 2 points of Renown (Prayer).

Brash (+1): Unless you spend a Karama point to counteract it, the Narrator can force you to take reckless actions that are embarrassing at least and life-threatening at worst.

Diminished Sense (+1): You take a one-die penalty to tests involving a particular sense. Protip: Be bad at smelling things, and use that point to buy Alertness.

Hypno-ligature (+1 to 2): Unbeknownst to you, the Bene Gesserit have identified you as a potential threat, and have secretly conditioned you to respond to a secret trigger word by freezing or falling unconscious. It’s up to the Narrator to decide which Sisters have access to the word, and it doesn’t explain the difference between the 1-point and 2-point versions of the disadvantage.

Perversion (+1 to 3): Ugh. Your character suffers from “moral perversion” related to some kind of obsession or compulsion. The key example from Dune is Baron Harkonnen, who is a homosexual pedophile and actively delights in disgusting others by flaunting his morbid obesity. It’s completely up to the player and the Narrator to work out the nature of the Perversion, how often it will be relevant, and how many points it’s worth...but what if you just don’t?

Pyretic Conscience (+3, Suks): The downside to Suk conditioning, the “conscience of fire” makes it impossible for a Suk doctor to deliberately harm another person, or even to withhold medical treatment. It doesn’t force you to be an ideological pacifist, but you can’t take any action to hurt another person, even indirectly.

Twisted Conditioning (+1 to 3): You’ve received a deliberately perverted version of the conditioning normal to your vocation, or the conditioning you received has since been subverted. The textual example is Piter de Vries, the “twisted Mentat” who serves the Harkonnens as a psychopathic torturer and assassin. However, it can also represent Adepts who have secretly been turned against the Bene Gesserit, Suks whose conditioning has been broken, et cetera. This is another trait with uncertain benefits and costs, and it’s up to the Narrator and player to work it out.

Justice of the Great

Assassin’s Code (2, Assassins): You are a trained assassin, and you’ve assimilated the rules of the Great Convention into your practices. It’s unclear how this is an advantage. Presumably, you will always know if an assassination plan is legal or not, and there is some fluff about extending “professional courtesy” to fellow assassins, and being able to receive the benefits of confidentiality and noninterference in return. Considering that assassins aren’t played up as point-of-view characters in the novels, this vocation could really use some fleshing out to make it as interesting as the other character types.

Ally (1 to 5): You have a friend in a high place. Someone like a colleague in an aligned House is worth 2 points, whereas a Noble of another House is worth 5. Once again, what these alliances are worth in practical terms seems to be totally up to the Narrator.

Commendation (1 to 3): You’ve been decorated or promoted for going above and beyond the call of duty. This is yet another entirely roleplaying-based advantage--different point costs lists different ranks, from lieutenant to commander, and fancy-sounding decorations like “Cluster of the Hawk,” but what they mean is up to the Narrator.

Compounded by Whispers (3): Intrigue, treachery, and spycraft are second nature to you. When you make tests concerning intelligence, propaganda, and interrogation, you can spend a Karama point for an additional drama die. (More on that in the next chapter.)

Highborn (3): You are of noble blood and entitled to call yourself Lord or Lady, no matter your vocation. You get +1 Caste (maximum 4). Perhaps you are adopted, or the survivor of an extinct House.

Honorarium Familia (2): Your House has honored you by naming you as one of their na-familia , the attendants treated like part of the royal household. You get +1 Caste (maximum 4), and you’re protected under the same Articles of Kanly that apply to royalty.

Magnanimous Appeal (3): +1 Charisma, and a maximum of 6.

Military Genius (3): House security and warfare come naturally to you. When you make tests concerning military operations, security, and leadership, you can spend a Karama point for an additional drama die.

Patron (2-4): You have someone powerful watching over you from afar--examples of varying costs include a Suk School Professor, a Spacing Guild representative, or a Great House noble. Rather than being an Ally you can actively call on, a Patron will “smooth things over” when you get into trouble.

Adversary (+1 to 3): Somebody in a rival House doesn’t like you, and will actively try to sabotage your efforts if given the opportunity. The point value is based on your enemy’s level of power--a professional rival in another House Minor is worth 1 or 2 points, whereas a 3-point enemy would be the officer of a rival Great House.

Bonded Allegiance (+1 to 2): The House you serve paid your way, and you are an indentured servant, likely to be treated as if your Caste was one level lower. That said, your indenture is only for a few years, so they’re not likely to treat you like dirt and see you sign on with a rival House.

Dual Allegiance (+2): Who says you can’t serve two masters? You owe allegiance both to your House and another organization, usually the one that trained you in your vocation. Per the text, the two organizations are aware of this, but of course there will be many situations where you will be caught in a conflict of interest. This is mandatory for Adepts, and common among Suks and Assassins who still have strong ties to their schools.

False Allegiance (+3): You are secretly working for an organization other than your House, and actively undermining the House’s interests in favour of your true allegiance. In a feudal society that still relies on vast networks of advisors, confidantes, and household servants, this is a dangerous game to be playing.

Renegade (+1): You previously renounced allegiance to another House. This hurts your Renown, and makes your current House suspicious until you prove your worth and loyalty.

Shaitan’s Bargan (+2 to 5): You’re in a proverbial “deal with the devil” to a rival organization, and they own your ass under threat of death or worse. However, the details are entirely for you and the Narrator to figure out.

Vendetta (+2 to 3): In the Dune universe, Vendetta is an ancient word with a formal and rigid definition. A rival House has formally and openly named you in a declaration of Kanly, meaning that you are a legal and valid target for assassination attempts. The difference between the 2-point and 3-point versions is unexplained except that it is for you and the Narrator to work out. I figure that having Piter de Vries on your ass is a lot scarier than some pissed-off House Minor nobleman.

Prayers of the Righteous

Contraband (1-3): You have access to some kind of equipment that you’re not supposed to have. This could be something that’s normally legal for another vocation (such as a lasgun or an assassination drone) or entirely forbidden and mysterious technology, such as a cybernetic implant or a device for disabling shields.

Hand of God (3): You regenerate Karama points at twice the normal rate.

Heir (1 to 3): You’re a potential heir to your House. One point makes you one of several possible heirs, while the 3-point version makes you the current Heir Designate, in which case, watch your back. And your wine glass. And your food. And your governess’ jewelry. And that prostitute’s thigh. And

Human (1 to 2): For some reason, you got the attention of the Bene Gesserit, and they sent a Reverend Mother to subject you to a test in which you had to force yourself to endure agonizing pain or be killed. Having passed the test, the Sisterhood now consider you a genuine “human,” a person capable of mastering their animal instincts. They accord you a certain measure of respect, and from time to time you can call on them for small favours or bits of information.

Moralizing Creed (1): You have a code of honor. In exchange for following it, it’s possible for you to spend up to 5 Karama points (Narrator’s discretion) to boost actions that further your ideology.

Noble Title (1 to 2, Nobles): You are a member of the aristocracy, and you have some kind of title like “Defender of the Ream” or “Usher of the Thistle.” Most of these are suffixed by - absentia meaning that someone else does the actual work. Nonetheless, you get recognition and +1 Renown (Justice).

Prized Bloodline (2 to 3): Something about your genetics makes you valuable to the Bene Gesserit’s plans, and they will make efforts to protect you from harm and misfortune. On the other hand, they will almost certainly meddle in your life and career, especially when it comes to your marriage. Hopefully, they will try to marry you to a Bene Gesserit Adept because that stuff I said about controlling every muscle and nerve? Yes, that’s right.

Spice Diet (3): The spice melange, the most expensive commodity in the universe, is a regular part of your diet, and as such you enjoy the benefits of health and an increased lifespan. You get Physique (Constitution) +1, Prescience (Sight) +1 if you’re already prescient, and a 25% longer lifespan. However, your spice diet is mild and regimented enough to avoid spice addiction.

Terrible Purpose (2 to 4): You are “instilled with the overwhelming suspicion that [your] future is governed by fate.” Moreover, you feel sure that this purpose will put you at odds with your allegiances and convictions. This is an almost pure bullshit narrative advantage, but the Narrator is directed to give you free Karama points to spend on tests that accord with the secret Terrible Purpose.

Unrealized Potential (3): Couldn’t decide between Whipcord Reflexes and Trained Intelligence? This lets you wait until you know what Attribute you want to boost--at any time during play, you can choose an Attribute and have the ability to develop all the skills related to it to level 6. It doesn’t grant any boosts on its own.

Byzantine Corruption (+1): You have a particular moral weakness related to one of the seven deadly sins--no, wait, I’m sorry, one of the Orange Catholic Bible’s seven venal sins. Choose from pride, lust, hate, avarice, wrath, envy, or sloth. You lose a die on tests in situations where you’re tempted by your moral vice, and dramatic failures in these instances can lead to you gaining negative Renown traits.

Dark Secret (+1 to 3): You have a dark secret that could ruin you if discovered. Fortunately, we’re given some guidelines for the point costs. One-point secrets are listed as embarrassing (like having lowborn parents), 2-pointers are potentially career-ruining, and 3-pointers are ones that could get you executed.

Code of Conduct (+1 to 3): The negative counterpart to Moralizing Creed, you follow some ideological principle strictly One-point examples are merely tedious or time-consuming, like observing a diet or prayer regimen. 2-pointers are strict, predictable behavioral guides, such as never lying under any circumstances, and 3-pointers are life-threatening stuff like “always avenge an insult to your House.”

Genetic Eunuch (+4): This is a nasty disadvantage with both mechanical and setting penalties. The Sisterhood has determined that you have a critical genetic flaw that makes you useless to their plans for controlling the Imperial bloodlines. You can’t have Bene Gesserit allies or Patrons. Even worse, you must choose an Attribute related to your genetic flaw. You can’t develop skills higher than the level of the attribute, and raising the attribute costs double development points. The emblematic character from Dune is the Emperor’s closest advisor, Count Fenring. Just as it is in Dune , the text doesn’t explain if the character is actually impotent or sterile.

Rogue (+2): You’ve renounced all former affiliations, and wander the Imperium as out-freyn, an outlaw adventurer. Mechanically, it costs you a Karama point to participate in combined tests, as you don’t work well with others.

Superstitious (+1): Even if you’re educated enough that perhaps you should know better, you can’t help but pay respect to a great deal of folklore and supernatural beliefs. This tends to annoy your superiors and colleagues.

Those are the Traits of Dune. You can see a great deal there that’s typical of the Advantages/Disadvantages systems that were and still are popular in a lot of games. The most interesting features of Dune ’s Traits are the ones that are most strongly tied to the setting. That’s because they’re the best and the worst--some have clear mechanical benefits and penalties, even ones that influence the flavour of the combat rules, while others do literally nothing at all.

Next time, on Dune : The rules!

The Rules

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 5: The Rules

The rules chapter covers basic die-rolling conventions, and includes the combat rules. In fact, combat is the only thing that gets special treatment in the rules. Unlike White Wolf’s Storyteller system, for example, there are no special rules for handling chase scenes, infiltration, crafting, etc. as something more elaborate than a single skill check.

Before getting into the die mechanic, Dune explains how it handles time. Combat rounds are five seconds, and sessions are divided into scenes . A chapter is a story within the campaign that can usually be resolved in one session, and the campaigns is called a chronicle . Notably, Dune calls out downtime scenes as interludes , which make room for spending experience and embarking on House ventures.

Only a Sith deals in absolute values.

Dune ’s system is a slight variant of the ICON system from Last Unicorn’s Star Trek game. The die mechanic is a simple roll-and-keep system. Roll a number of dice equal to the relevant Attribute, and keep the highest one. Add your skill level, and that is your total.

The big wrinkle is that one of the dice is always the Drama Die . If the Drama Die is a 6, you get to keep the highest 2 dice, and you may achieve a dramatic success. If the Drama Die is a 1, a failure may become a dramatic failure. The chance to keep 2 dice is the most important part of the Drama Die rule, but there’s a whole page on determining the degree of success or failure based on whether the Drama Die was a 6 or a 1, whether you succeeded or failed, and whether you did so by 6 or more. For example, if you rolled a 6 on the Drama Die but failed, it’s an “acceptable loss” that doesn’t set you back or put you in danger. If you rolled all 1s, it’s a horrible failure.

For example, Malik Richmond has Intellect 3 (Perception +2) and Observation 3 (Inspection +1). Counting those fiddly bonuses, that means he has an effective Attribute of 5 and skill level of 4 when searching the royal residence for hidden assassination devices. He rolls 5 dice and gets 1, 2, 2, 4, and 6. He keeps the 6 and adds it to his skill level of 4, for a total of 10. If that 6 had been the Drama Die, he would keep the 6 and the 4, for a total of 14. With the latter result, he can tell if one of the household servants is keeping a secret, just by spotting a small bead of sweat.

Dune ’s die mechanic really doesn’t well with me because of the way it handles the probability of success. Usually, when a game’s die mechanic produces bizarre results, it’s because the designers didn’t really understand their own mechanics, or they assigned target numbers with no thought behind them. Dune definitely doesn’t have the latter problem. Every skill has examples of routine, moderate, etc. difficulties, and this chapter explicitly says that average PCs have a chance of failing Moderate tasks and will usually fail Challenging tasks, and that even characters like Paul Atreides will need luck to accomplish the Nearly Impossible.

First, a feature of the system is that Attribute ratings--which is the number of dice you’re rolling--isn’t actually very important. I don’t mean to probability-nerd all over you. In fact, I had to use an online engine to calculate the averages, and I can’t tell you how swingy it is. Simply put, in a “roll and keep the best die” system, the average result from 2 dice is 4.47, and the average result from 6 dice is 5.56. On a given roll, a guy of average intelligence has a good shot at outperforming an outstanding genius. More points in your Attributes are still good, since there are only 4 of them covering almost all the skills. But for any given task, skill is more important than talent.

Speaking of skills, a related problem is that it’s hard to know what skill levels the PCs should have. You can certainly make characters with high Attributes and high ratings in a concentrated set of skills. But if you follow the recommended character creation method and let story guide your choice of background packages, you’ll probably get a character that is very good at a handful of very specific things, and has ratings of 1-2 in many skills. Dune has too many fucking skills.

( Dune encourages the Narrator to let players substitute a skill they have for a skill they don’t with minimal fuss, but that just reinforces my point. It also kinda encodes “Is the GM a dick?” as a factor in the rules more than other games.)

The last and most important problem is that beating those high difficulties virtually requires that you roll a 6 on the Drama Die. When that happens, your results jump dramatically! On a normal roll, the average die result ranges from about 4.5 to 5.5, but when that Drama Die hits, it jumps to 9.5 to 11.5. However, that’s almost entirely up to chance. You only have a ⅙ chance of getting a 6 on your drama die. Using one of the Traits that gives you two Drama Dice (such as Compounded of Whispers) only boosts the chance from 17% to about 30%. “Nearly impossible” means exactly that. Not just for average people, or for player characters, but even Paul Atreides doing what he does best.

The skill examples for Challenging and Difficult tasks are things that the novel characters did on a regular basis. And while I don’t think PCs need to be as powerful as Thufir Hawat and Duncan Idaho, they shouldn’t be throwing Hail Mary passes just to try to be as cool as they are, sometimes.

To be fair, this doesn’t account for one big advantage the PCs have on their side: Karama Points . PCs start with 3 Karama points, and you can spend up to 3 Karama one-for-one to boost your Test result. You can do it at any time, too, turning a failure into a success. Karama replenish at the end of the session, or whenever the Narrator decides you are roleplaying well. Dumping your Karama on a Test is almost as good as keeping another die, and it’s not even very expensive to buy up your Karama Pool with experience points! Buy up your Karama, spend away, and suck up to the Narrator. (By the way, it's called "karama" instead of "karma" because that's how they spell it in the book. Ten or twenty thousand years of history will do that to a language.)

Matt Colville has said that he really didn’t like the ICON system, and it shows. The Narrator is advised at every turn to allow skill substitutions, hand out Karama points, reward good roleplaying, and assume that the PCs are competent adventurers who are capable of great things. This is good advice, of course, but I think they’re trying to forestall problems that could be fixed outright if they’d had more freedom to tweak the rules.

Am I supposed to be welding something?

Special Tests

Although combat is the only thing that gets a really detailed subsystem, there are a few kinds of special tests. The first is the Attribute Test . Instead of rolling your relevant Attribute (Edge) and adding a skill, you roll the base Attribute and add the relevant Edge, without getting to add a skill. For example, say you’re trying to bust through a door, and the Narrator rules that Athletics doesn’t apply to this act of brute strength. If you have Physique 2 (Strength +1), you roll 2 dice and add 1 to the result. The authors say that there is pretty much always a relevant skill, and flat-out tell you not to use these Tests

The second is the Opposed Test , which is mercifully simple. Most of combat consists of Opposed Tests, as do situations where, for example, you’re trying to sneak past someone or outmaneuver them. You both roll your relevant skill (like your Infiltration vs. their Observation) and the highest result wins. In a tie, the person who rolled highest on the Drama Die wins. If one side has a situational advantage, they can get a bonus of +1 to +4 on their Test. To get a +4, you have to have a staggering advantage, like if you’re fighting someone who just had his eyes gouged out.

Extended Tests are used for accomplishing something that’s going to take time. The Narrator sets a total that you have to achieve over several tests in order to be successful. The Narrator also determines how much time each Test represents, how long you have to get it done, and if failures set you back. So disarming a complex security system could take several Tests representing a few minutes of time apiece, and you have an hour before you’re discovered. Or you’re stranded in the deep desert of Arrakis, trying to repair your thopter, and you get to make a Test each day until the Coriolis storm hits.

The party can make a Combined Test to tackle a problem together. Everyone rolls the same skill. The best result is used as a base, and if anybody else succeeds, each success adds 1 to the total.

The only kind of Test that gets anywhere near as much complexity as combat is the Renown Test . It’s a test to recognize prominent people and know something about them, and comes with a chart showing how someone’s rank and Renown traits make it easier to recognize them. Being recognized for your status and reputation is both good and bad--it’s beneficial to have others know your reputation for fairness, for example, but it makes it difficult to pass unnoticed. There is an example of a PC recognizing a semuta -drugged dancer as a Bene Gesserit adept and the daughter of a famous family.

The last kind of special Test is the House Venture , which happens when PCs attempt a project to advance their House’s cause during an interlude. It works like a normal skill Test, but you use the House Attribute instead of your own. These are covered in more detail later.

Next time, on Dune : Action and Combat!

Action & Combat

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 5, Part 2: Action & Combat

Dune has a fairly involved combat system, with many special combat maneuvers and dueling rules you can really sink your teeth into. In fact, for better or for worse, the combat rules mirror the fiction of the original novel: Hand-to-hand combat gets a lot of detail, ranged weapons are an afterthought, and large-scale warfare is mostly left to your imagination.

Rounds and Actions

Dune uses an action point system, set in a five-second Combat Round. Every combat move is either an Action or Reaction, helpfully coded as A or R with the number of required Option Points. (A Ranged Attack, an action that costs 1 point, is A1.)

It quickly becomes apparent that Coordination is the godly attribute for combat. Coordination (Dexterity) is used for most combat rolls, and Coordination (Reaction) determines your initiative order--no rolling--and the number of Option Points you get to execute maneuvers.

Dune doesn’t let you use your Option Points all at once when it’s your turn, nor does it use “scripted” combat. Instead, everyone declares their first Actions in initiative order, and then declare any Reactions to other characters. Once these are resolved, another series of Actions and Reactions begins until everyone is out of Option Points, at which point a new Combat Round begins. (The language can become confusing, because Dune talks about more than one “round of actions” happening in a Combat Round.)

The catch is that after your first Action, the second costs +1 points, the third costs +2 points, and so on. Reactions work the same way, and are tracked separately. You can’t declare Actions if you don’t have the Option Points to pay for them, but you can declare any number of Reactions. However, If you don’t have enough points to pay for it, you take the difference as a penalty to your roll. (All weapons have a base Difficulty, so at some point, there’s no reason to declare more defenses--you couldn’t possibly roll higher than their base Difficulty to hit.)

For example, say Duncan Idaho has Coordination 5, giving him 5 Option Points. On the first round of Actions, he makes an Armed Attack (A1) with his kindjal. He also declares a Block (R1) against an attacking Sardaukar trooper, and another Block (R2) against a Harkonnen thug. The second Block costs an extra point because it’s his second Reaction. In the next series of actions, he takes no Actions but is forced to Block (R3) a third time. He only has 1 Option Point left, so he suffers a -2 penalty to his roll.

There are optional rules for side-based initiative, surprise tests, and lastly, for fatigue, which takes away Option Points in subsequent rounds for those who fail a Physique test. (I’m all for making Physique more meaningful, but what Narrator wants to make every combatant roll, every round?) There is also a table for movement and terrain modifiers while in combat, but unless one side is fleeing, movement rates and distance are only meaningful to gun-wielding characters.

Attacking and defending

Attack and defense rolls are simple, using Coordination (Dexterity) and Armed Combat, Ranged Combat, or Unarmed Combat. The attacker’s base Difficulty is determined by their weapon--melee weapons have one Difficulty, ranged weapons have a Difficulty for each range category.

Defensive Reactions are more varied. The Dodge maneuver is a roll to change the Difficulty to hit you, Block is a roll to reduce damage, while special maneuvers like Parry turn the to-hit roll into an Opposed Test. But as a general rule, rolling higher than your attacker negates the attack.

As for damage , unarmed attacks do Physique (Strength) damage plus a maneuver bonus. This is stun damage unless you’re trained in martial arts or the Weirding Way. Melee weapon attacks do damage based on the weapon, and Physique doesn’t give a bonus. (This makes some sense, since most fighting is done with short blades, often with deliberately slow strikes to penetrate a shield.) As for guns, lasguns do ridiculous damage, while other guns do a small and insignificant amount of damage on their own. An excellent to-hit roll doesn’t translate into higher damage unless you rolled a Dramatic Success.

(There are rules for cover, which gives the attacker a penalty based on coverage, and the defender some armor based on the material. However, there are essentially two kinds of guns: lasguns, and guns that shoot darts and pellets and rely on poison to inflict injury. Lasguns cut through solid rock, everything else will bounce off a wooden door.)

Dying and Staying Alive

When you take damage, you might get wounded and suffer penalties. You reduce the damage of each hit by your Resistance, which is equal to your Physique (Constitution) plus any armor you’re wearing. Furthermore, there are seven wound levels, from Healthy to Killed, and you can take damage equal to your Physique (Constitution) before dropping to the next level. A character with high Physique can shrug off several times more damage than an average character.

When you reach the Incapacitated level, you’re knocked out and effectively out of the fight. Stunners and needlers can be loaded with narcotic ammo that knocks you out as soon as you hit the Stunned level. That can make them one-hit weapons...fortunately, their base damage is shit against anyone with decent Resistance.

As for armor, there are two kinds: body armor, and body shields that use a Holtzmann field to deflect incoming objects. Armor increases your Resistance, while body shields work by increasing the Difficulty to hit you. Body shields have an adjustable setting, but high settings chew up battery power. Dune ’s equipment list doesn’t include a huge variety of body armor. Wealthy Nobles carry body shields, and elite soldiers do the same or wear “battledress” made of breathable mesh fabric that’s as effective as any mail or Kevlar. There are also rules for powered armor, even though that doesn’t appear in the books. It’s a heavy metal bodysuit with servos that increase Strength.

There are rules for getting hurt by drowning, falling, radiation, and so on, and a big table of optional hit locations, but fuck all that. Poison, on the other hand, is a special element of the setting and deserves special mention. There’s a potentially infinite number of made-up exotic sci-fi poisons, so the game divides them into 5 categories.

Type I : No effect for (Physique) hours. Then you take 1 point of damage per hour until stunned, then 1d6 damage per hour until you get treatment or die.
Type II : No effect for (Physique)*10 minutes. Then you take 1 point of damage per 15 minutes until stunned, then 1d6 damage per hour until you get treatment or die.
Type III : 1 point of damage per minute until stunned, then 1d6 damage per minute until you get treatment or die.
Type IV : 1d6 damage on contact and every round until you get treatment or die.
Type V : Specialized nonlethal nerve toxins that can inflict blindness, deafness, paralysis, etc.

Types I-III represent poisons that can be present in food, drink, or a gas. It’s worth noting that the Great Convention unequivocally bans the use of poison in weapons of mass deployment, and advanced poisons can only be used against declared targets in kanly. Type IV is lethal contact poison, and Type V is, of course, for plot devices.

As for healing , First Aid is used to stabilize victims of poison, and can instantly heal one or two wound levels in the field, but after that you can’t benefit from more attempts. Medical Arts, on the other hand, gives bonuses to your Physique rolls to heal wounds naturally.

Alright, now that the basic rules are out of the way, the real fun is in all the special combat maneuvers you can do. This is where those special Traits like Dueling, Shield Fighting, and Weirding Combat come into play.

Pickle surprise!

General Options

Aim (A1): You get +1 to your next attack. A good use of any leftover Option Points at the end of a round.
Dive for Cover (R2): Make an Athletics Test and you move to nearby cover, gaining Full Cover but falling prone.
Dodge (R2): If you want to Dodge in reaction to attack, you have to declare it before the attacker rolls. Your Dodge total becomes the new Difficulty to hit you.
Drop & Roll (A2 or R2): Make an Athletics Test, and you get the benefits of a Dodge plus reducing the cost to Draw or pick up a weapon.
Hand Switch (A0 or R0): This is an interesting move because it captures a bit of the setting, where it comes up in a couple of dueling scenes. When you Hand Switch, you quickly pat your weapon from one hand to the other, which will foil a Disarm attempt and also give you a bonus to your next attack. (If you don’t have Bimanual Fighting, the off-hand penalty will offset it.)
Regain Footing (A1 or R1): Used to stand up from prone.

Close Combat Options

These are only possible with Armed Combat and Unarmed Combat.

Armed Attack (A1): A standard melee weapon attack.
Attack Sinister (A1 or R1): An attack with an off-hand weapon. This incurs a penalty, but sinister attacks can be counted as Reactions for purposes of counting your multiple actions.
Bind (A1): A grapple. It can be used armed or unarmed, and prevents you and your opponent from moving until one of you breaks free.
Block (R1): When you Block, as opposed to a Dodge or Parry, your roll subtracts from your attacker’s damage roll instead of making it harder for them to hit you in the first place.
Charge (A3): You can make your full move and attack, with a bonus to damage and a chance to knock your enemy down.
Disarm (A2): You knock your enemy’s weapon away. You take a penalty if you’re unarmed.
Foot Attack (A1): A kick. Difficulty 7, 1d6+Strength+3 damage.
Hand Attack (A1): A punch. Difficulty 6, 1d6+Strength. Given that the difference in Difficulty is slight and your enemies will probably be Dodging anyway, there is little reason to ever punch instead of kick.
Press (A1): After a Bind, either figher can Press to break free and inflict penalties on his opponent in the next round.
Tackle (A3): Similar to Charge, you move, Bind to an opponent, and knock them down.

Dueling Options

A-ha! Here’s where those thematic Advantages come in. You need the Dueling advantage to use these maneuvers, as well as a dueling weapon: a sword, slip-tip, or kindjal.

Feint (A0): A fake attack. You declare an Armed Attack, hopefully provoking enemies into wasting Option Points by declaring defensive actions, then reveal it was just a Feint. Since Dune doesn’t require you to play “combat cards” or suchlike, I suppose you’re free to declare an Armed Attack was really a Feint right up until you would have rolled dice.
Counter-feint (R0): Fiddly as hell. When you declare a Counter-feint, you can change it to a different Reaction when an Attack turns out to be real, but your new Reaction costs double the normal Option Points.
Parry (R1): Like a Dodge, but cheaper, and using your Armed Combat skill.
Parry Sinister (A1 or R1): The parry equivalent of an Attack Sinister.
Riposte (R1): An Armed Attack that you can only declare after a Counter-feint or Parry. If it follows a counter-feint, it costs no Option Points.

Only the slow face penetrates the shield.

Shield-Fighting Options

Body shields can only be penetrated by objects at very low velocity—-perhaps the speed with which you’d absent-mindedly reach out to pick up a mug. If either the shielded fighter or their enemy move too quickly, they harmlessly bounce off one another.

You can only use these maneuvers if you have the Shield-Fighting advantage. You need a body shield for defense, and a dueling weapon for attack—-Slow Attacks are so slow that a blunt weapon couldn’t possibly hurt anyone.

Slow Attack (A2): A Slow Attack is a carefully timed Armed Attack that negates the penalty to hit a shielded opponent.
Shield Defense (R0): A successful Armed Combat Test negates the benefit of the Slow Attack.
Slow Attack Sinister (A2 or R2): Exactly what it says.

Martial Combat Options

The Unarmed Combat skill is goofy. It has three specializations—Brawling, Martial Training, and Wrestling. Using these special maneuvers doesn’t require a Trait, just the Unarmed Combat (martial training) specialization. Brawling and Wrestling don’t get special maneuvers. The only apparent advantage to Brawling is that it’s used for improvised weapons like bottles and chains, in a setting where those aren’t very useful. (Would you bet on the Sharks and the Jets to take out the Sardaukar?) As for Wrestling…I think they forgot about it. Presumably your specialization bonus would apply to Bind, Press, and Tackle maneuvers, but I can’t find anywhere it says so.

Body Throw (A2): After a Bind, you can break free and throw your enemy, inflicting 1d3 damage. Difficulty 9.
Driving Kick (A1): Like a foot attack, but it’s Difficulty 8 and does 2d6+1+Strength lethal damage.
Power Strike (A1): Like a hand attack, but at Difficulty 7 and doing 1d6+3 lethal damage.
Manual Disarm (A2): Like a Disarm, but you take no penalty for disarming someone with your bare hands.

Weirding Combat Options

The awesome martial arts of the Bene Gesserit, these maneuvers require the Weirding Combat advantage.

Blinding Attack (A?): This adds to another Unarmed attack, allowing you to spend extra Option points for extra damage on a one-for-one basis.
Deft Precision (A?): Like Blinding Attack, except that your Option Point spends increase your roll to hit.
Blurring Motion (R1): A Dodge, but cheaper. It also says that it’s handled as an Opposed Test…this is weird, because attack and defense actions already effectively work like Opposed Test. The only difference it makes is that with an Opposed Test, it doesn’t matter if the attacker beats the base Difficulty of their weapon. But, anyway, it’s a cheaper Dodge.

Ranged Combat Options

Ranged combat gets short shrift in Dune . There are no special maneuvers for it, really; you have either a silly little dart gun or a lasgun which comes with the risk of a nuclear explosion if it hits a shield. Happy hunting.

Reload (A1 or R1): You reload your gun.
Ranged Attack (A1): You shoot a gun or throw a knife. Ranged Attacks can only be Dodged.
Autofire (A2 or A3): Nobody in Dune uses machineguns, really, but lasguns have “arc” and “full burn” modes that correspond to burst-fire and autofire.
Calibration (A0): Used to change the mode on a lasgun or stunner.
Cover Fire (A0 or R0): You lay down a laser arc that attacks everyone in an area. It has a stiff penalty, and is more useful for covering an escape.

The combat chapter ends with a well-made quick-reference sheet, and an example of combat. In the example, two swordmasters and a Mentat stumble upon a group of three saboteurs planting an explosive. The Swordmasters draw their blades and make quick work of the thugs as the Mentat is aiming his stunner. However, the Mentat’s success on a Projection test reveals that these three were just a diversion--saving the three from being ambushed by five approaching enemy soldiers.

Alright, shift’s over. It’s spice-thirty, am I right?

Overall, I like Dune ’s combat system. It’s primary fault is that some of the maneuvers are too fiddly. Some require a Test before you can successfully do something unopposed, like fast-drawing a weapon. More importantly, there are too many maneuvers which change the basic mechanic of how attacks and defenses work--Block rolls to reduce the attacker’s damage, Dodge increases the Difficulty to hit you, and other maneuvers change the resolution method to an opposed Test (which is only slightly different from the way Dodge already works). But that being said, this is not hard to simplify. In fact, if I was running a game where dueling was paramount, like a Highlander game or something, this is the ruleset I’d look at first.

The real problem with Dune ’s combat rules is what’s missing. There are no rules for explosives, artillery, or vehicles, nor any rules for unit tactics or mass battles. That’s pretty important since war is a huge part of the setting, and characters in the book wage war with everything from guerilla tactics and suicide bombers to mortars and giant worms. In a later chapter, we’ll see that there are rules for handling an entire military campaign as a House Venture. But those are handled with a single skill roll, which belies the need for a Warmaster to spend points on several different skills to reflect their military prowess. (In fact, the designers seem to have forgotten that the Armament skill even exists—all mention of using lasguns refers to the Ranged Combat skill.)

The problem lies in the source material itself. Warfare in Dune is extremely baroque. We know that the Guild’s monopoly on space travel makes it impossible to wage interstellar warfare, that the Great Convention outlaws nuclear weapons, and that combined with the effectiveness of Holtzmann shields, this makes small armies of elite infantry a serious force. But does that mean that when two Houses declare war, they send gangs of swashbucklers to settle it with knives? Are all forms of industrial warfare obsolete, or will a body shield fail you when a bomb blows up the hill you’re standing on?

All of the fighting seen in the first few novels is under unique circumstances on a unique planet. The Fremen wage guerilla warfare against the Harkonnens, the Sardaukar launch a secret and illegal attack on the Atreides, and it all happens on a world where Holtzmann shields don’t work and most of the planet hasn’t been mapped. The event that could answer these questions—Paul’s great jihad—-takes place between Dune and Dune Messiah and is hardly depicted at all.

Ultimately, the way Herbert rationalizes “rayguns and rapiers” in the Imperium is just as fanciful as it is in Burroughs’ Barsoom or Vance’s Tschai. That’s all well and good for an adventure novel, but when translating Dune into a game, it means the game designers have to make decisions about the setting and define its boundaries so that the players can engage with it. The skills in this game imply that armoured warfare does happen, and they state outright that biological and chemical weapons are banned along with atomics. Besides that, it’s up to the Narrator to figure it out.

A Voice from the Outer World

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

It’s been a long time since I updated this review, so the links to the previous chapters are here .

Shit! They’re sinking our battleship!

Chapter 6: A Voice from the Outer World

From my point of view, many games contemporary to Dune devote their GMing chapters to attempting to appear profound without really saying anything. It's not that they're all pretentious, although some certainly are. (Cough cough, Everlasting.) I mean they waste a lot of words repeating advice that boils down to "Keep track of everything and do everything more," and offer little real insight or detail on the creative process. Describe every scene in exhaustive detail, characterize every NPC to the nth degree, keep extensive notes on your intricate plotlines, et cetera. There will also be advice on using props, music, and mood lighting, which nobody I ever knew ever used. Preparation? Hours of it. Roleplaying? Make sure to do that, a lot, all the time. Where this all seemed to lead, from the early 90s to the turn of the century, was a GMing style where the emphasis on "story" encouraged the GM to write a novel and railroad the players through it.

Dune , I'm glad to say, has very solid GMing advice to offer. It has specific advice on running the Dune setting for players who aren't hardcore fans, but most of the space is dedicated to good advice in general--how far to go in setting the scene and characterizing the NPCs, how to respect player agency, and knowing when to lead the PCs in the right direction and when to get the hell out of their way. My only real criticism of it is not of the advice in this chapter, but of the rules' failure to really back it up. Although the GMing chapter is short, it's devoted entirely to the actual process of GMing--presenting the campaign, preparing for sessions, and running scenes.

In the grim darkness of the Imperium, this is what stinkbugs look like.

The Narrator’s Role

Dune begins by saying that the Narrator’s primary goal is to entertain the PCs, who are their audience, and that the Narrator and PCs work together to tell a story. Gauging the difficulty of challenges and encouraging the PCs to act as a team are identified as some of the most crucial and difficult tasks. Also important is encouraging teamwork and a sense of family among the PCs, since the game is based around playing a noble entourage.

Although it doesn’t state it directly, Dune implies that it expects you to plan out your campaign as a rough outline, planning ahead for major turning points and how they will be different depending on how the PCs react, how NPCs react to them, and whether or not they achieve key goals. It expects you to do the same thing on a smaller scale for individual sessions.

It offers some advice on preparing for sessions and using premade adventures. (Of course, the planned campaigns and modules were never written.) When using modules, read them thoroughly and plan to replace stock NPCs with ones from your campaign that serve the same function, and establish contact between them and the PCs where it makes sense. Using props is suggested, but the reader is admonished to have them ready and not fumble around with them; they don’t gush about how magical it is to have mood music on CD.

To educate the reader in how to describe a scene, Dune uses the example of a rustic artists’ retreat where a venerable Moritani assassin is rumored to be hiding. (I can’t help myself from pointing out that such a scene is appropriate to Herbert, but sounds right out of a Jack Vance novel.) The book provides two examples of describing the setting, one being the sort of poetic, lyrical description that nobody ever actually says out loud, the second being more focused on the mood the Narrator should be trying to set. It encourages granting scenes a touch of life by adding description to buildings, objects, the weather, etc., but not just for its own sake; for example, you can drone on about the lush vegetation, but it’s more to the point (and relevant to the example scene) to describe a copse of trees as “thick enough to hide a lone sniper.”

There are some things I can quibble about. Some examples of scene-setting description are too flowery, and it does imply the use of Star Trek style banter--you know how no one on Star Trek ever goes into a bar and orders a beer, but instead they go into a refreshment conclave and order a Centaurian spice-beer? That.

Dune also poses a method of scene pacing that I’ve not seen before, and one that I think is really great. Every scene exists to pose a question. Decide what the question is, and when it will have been answered. When that happens, it’s time to wrap up and move on. The question can be as simple as a momentary dilemma, but it should pertain to the plot rather than being filler for its own sake. For example, a scene might test whether or not the PCs can sneak past the Harkonnen scouts without a fight, but either way they’re meant to learn when the Harkonnen are launching an attack.

I’m sorry, I was looking for the North African campaign.

Dune doesn’t seem to assume that everyone in the group is a Dune fanatic. It's up to the GM to remind players that Harkonnen are known for treachery, or that people in the Imperium transfer information by recording it on wire reels. (This is also related to the principle of “assumed competence,” explained later.) When the PCs are headed in the wrong direction, Dune actually recommends throwing a fight their way--not to scare them onto the right track, but to let them have some fun and give the Narrator the opportunity to throw them some obvious clues,

Another task that Dune keeps coming back to is the importance of characterizing the supporting cast. Not every NPC needs a lengthy description, but like scenes, NPCs should be described as they are introduced with a trait or two that’s relevant to what’s going on. If a particular NPC is going to become more important in future scenes, you can characterize them further each time you come back to them.

Using the Rules

My reading of the section on how to use the rules is coloured by my knowledge that the writers really didn’t like the ruleset they’d been given. It’s adapted from LUG’s Star Trek game, and as I’ve discussed in previous chapters, its chief sins are its probability spread and the fact that there are far too many skills and sub-traits. (It could easily be made better by making a blanket fix to the core die mechanic, chopping down the skill list, and ignoring specializations and sub-Attributes entirely.) With that in mind, it’s not surprising that this section is about when to bend the rules or ignore them entirely.

The first principle of using the rules is not to penalize players for proposing solutions you didn’t expect. Stonewalling PCs until they choose the one correct strategy is one of the worst traits in a referee, and it leads to players passively expecting you to lead them by the nose. Also, if the PCs figure something out sooner than you expected (like identifying a traitor) they’re entitled to the fruits of their cleverness. If you really need to stretch things out, you can always throw an action scene at them.

Korba’s Discount Torches! We kill the out-freyn for his water and pass the savings on to you!

This advice comes with the caveat that you shouldn’t let the players walk all over you; don’t reward really silly ideas. Strangely, Dune phrases this in terms of the PCs “blatantly defy[ing] the laws of the Great Convention.” I agree that it really muddies the Dune setting if the PCs can break the most important laws in the universe and smooth it over with lucky rolls.

Another principle is assuming the PCs are good at what they do—-drama between hyper-competent elites is the basis of the franchise, after all. If a PC has a skill at level 1, they can use a gadget or pilot a ship or otherwise do routine tasks without screwing up. Skills are for dramatic situations; otherwise there’s no point in rolling and you’re wasting your time. By the same token, if a PC is barking up the wrong tree—-for example, interrogating a NPC who doesn’t know anything—-just cut them off and move on.

All of this ties into the principles of maintaining pacing and drama. A common refrain in games is “only roll when the PCs have a reasonable chance of failure,” but that doesn’t go far enough. In practice, you should liberally ignore rolls or require them inosofar as it maintains the tension of the scene. If the PCs are fleeing a full-scale bombing raid, you can ignore Athletics and Dodge Tests as they’re running, then require them when they need to do something like cross a bridge.

The last sections boil down to “listen to your players and treat them fairly.” If you’re paying attention, the players will indicate what kind of stories and situations they enjoy. If your party is an Adept, a Suk doctor, a Strategist, and a Noble, they probably aren’t in it for the space-knife-fights. Of course, not everyone likes the same things, but you can spread scenes (and Experience points) around. Besides, listening to the players doesn’t mean always giving them the kinds of problems they like to solve—-any group will get bored with a campaign that’s just a string of duels or battles, for example, so give them challenges they don’t readily know how to handle.

Next time, on Dune : Something I don’t think I’ve seen before, a whole chapter devoted to the subject of theme.

Pillars of the Universe

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

It's been a long, long time since my last update, so links to previous chapters are here.

Chapter 7: Pillars of the Universe

Dune does something I rarely see in a game: it has two separate chapters on gamemastering. The last chapter, called “A Voice from the Outer World” was full of advice on how to run a session in the moment--describing scenes, when to use or ignore the dice, that kind of thing. This chapter, however, is about how to structure the campaign, with sections on implementing theme, characterizing NPCs, and writing scenarios.

The chapter opens with a section on theme--overarching themes, which it calls “pillars of the Dune universe,” and more narrow, specific themes that can inspire plots for a story. This section is the reason this chapter took an absurdly long time to review. It’s not long, but it’s dense, and section on theme in particular had me ruminating upon the themes of Dune and how they can be implemented in the roleplaying medium. The authors obviously have an excellent grasp of Dune and its themes, even if the specific examples they provide for incorporating them into an adventure are hit-or-miss.

Epic Drama: Simply put, everything that matters in the setting is huge and ancient. The Spacing Guild, for example, has been around for thousands of years and spans galactic civilization, and you see that manifested in the form of ships which are big enough to hold two cities (with enough space between them that they’d never know the other was there). The PCs aren’t space truckers roaming around somewhere in this setting--they’re part of the elite ruling class, playing for the highest possible stakes.

Human Conditioning: Many of Frank Herbert’s books deal with directed human evolution. ( The Dosadi Experiment is a prominent example.) In Dune, humans are trained from birth, by organizations that have perfected their methods over millennia, to be superhuman by our standards. Following up on the advice from the last chapter, the authors encourage you to apply this to your games by embracing the characters being incredible polymath badasses. Mentats are smarter than computers, and Swordmasters are both generals and master martial artists like ancient epic heroes.

Preservation & Evolution: The institutions of the Imperium have remained more or less stable for tens of thousands of years, but the system creates prodigious individuals with grand ambitions, and even the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood itself has a long-term plan that would upset the whole system in their favour. Dune games aren’t meant to be a series of adventures with the backdrop of a status quo that never changes--it should be expected that the fall of Great Houses, the rise of illicit technology, all-consuming wars of religion, etc. should play a role in your campaign.

Karama & Jiaz (Miracle and Prophecy): This one is a little trickier, and concerned with the phenomenon of prescience in the Dune universe. If one can see the future, is free will an illusion? Do prescients only see possible futures? Is prophecy affected by the prophet’s biases? Does glimpsing a possible future doom you to follow that particular path?

The book provides an example: You could invent a great historical catastrophe, then run a campaign where the PCs are presented with developing events that mirror the catastrophe, raising the issue of history repeating itself. While I think this could work if you’re ready to do a campaign that mirrors, say, the Butlerian Jihad and changes the setting as much as Paul’s jihad, it still strikes me as contrived. I think it’s easier and better to do a campaign that explores the political impact of religious prophecy and mysticism, with prescience serving to give the prophecy undeniable substance.

Plans Within Plans: Everyone in the Dune universe has a scheme going, and it’s never obvious. The PCs shouldn’t be presented with tasks that are as simple as “go to a place and retrieve a thing” or “go fight these bad guys.” The closure they get at the end of each session should raise questions about what to investigate next. The game does a good job presenting this theme: even in the example of combat from the rules chapter, the Mentat PC determines that the attack is a feint to distract them from a frontal assault elsewhere.

Your face-dancer belongs to Noxzema.

After covering the “pillars,” the chapter covers more specific themes, or topics. To paraphrase the book, if pillars describe what the Dune universe is about, topics describe what a particular Dune story is about. This is where we get to that “hit and miss” part I mentioned--while I agree that all the topics listed show an admirable grasp of the setting, some of the suggested ways to introduce them to a story are just so-so. Specifically, I find that the examples given along with a description of the topic are often weaker than the ones succinctly listed in a sidebar on the following page.

Preservation of Key Bloodlines: The Imperium is a feudal, caste-based society, even if the fiefdoms encompass entire planets. The nobility are fighting for the survival of not only their genes but their way of life. The Bene Gesserit manipulate the system to serve their own ideology.

The game says that this is the easiest topic to incorporate because, as elite members of a House, the characters are dealing with threats not only to their own lives but to their entire House and the society it represents, and can be explored in stories including everything from House vendettas to political upheavals to natural disasters. While this is true, I feel that it doesn’t fully address the element introduced by the Bene Gesserit. To put it bluntly, the BG breed people like livestock. Among the nobles they largely control who mates with whom, the sex of their children, and thus if they have male heirs. Arranging political marriages is as old as politics, but the Sisterhood is in fact principally concerned with genetics. That’s a very powerful and disturbing theme that goes beyond Machiavellian backstabbing.

Science of Tradition: This one’s relatively straightforward, concerned with what happens when one of the venerable traditions of the Imperium is challenged, or one of the power groups tries to exploit it for their own benefit. The caste system, the bans on technology, even the Great Convention itself.

Moral Incertitude: While Dune has obvious good guys and bad guys (or at least bad guys) it doesn’t really deal in simple good vs. evil narratives. Due in large part to how planetary feudalism works, the Great Houses have free rein to develop radically different ideologies on their home planets. The Atreides value integrity and noblesse oblige while the Harkonnen see themselves as apex predators who have the right to abuse and degrade everyone beneath them. Meanwhile, corporate entities like the Guild and Bene Gesserit have their own ideologies which supposedly promote the common good, but don’t respect individual rights or dignity.

The relevant blurb suggests that you can demonstrate this theme by contrasting, for example, an Atreides and Harkonnen character, which I find pretty weak. Examples from the sidebar include forced relocation, the fall of a demagogue, and labor strikes--immediately political topics that are much more interesting.

Taming of Worlds: Houses in charge of a world have to “learn the language of the planet,” both its ecology and its culture. Although the nobility develop their own ideologies, they’re usually removed from their populaces and united by a cosmopolitan, courtly culture. Failing to understand the worlds they rule is a recipe for a repeat of every colonialist fiasco in history. The game suggests that, rather than something as monumental as the change of fief on Arrakis, you can explore this theme in any story where the PCs’ House is given control of a region, an industry, or another planet, and has to physically explore the territory or overcome a rift in understanding between them and the common people.

(In previous chapters, I complained that the model for the PCs’ House Minor assumed they would just be controlling a region ranging in size from a city district to a continent, but not a whole world. Now we know that the PCs can indeed be given fiefdom over a planet, but I wonder if that makes their Fief stat pointless.)

Messianic Prophecy: The official religion of the Imperium is “Orange Catholicism,” but in practice, the ruling class are agnostic and adhere to the Great Conventions as a secular religion. But the lower castes follow any of a bewildering variety of religions, most of them esoteric hybrids of the ones we know. The books make reference to “Buddislam,” “Mahayana Christianity,” and most importantly, the “Zensunni” that is the basis of Fremen religion. Also, the Bene Gesserit have infiltrated many religions to “seed” them with myths of, among other things, prophesied messiahs and wise-women with mystical powers, in order to better manipulate them.

The thing is, none of those religions get a long extended discussion of their theology in either the original books or in this game, and that’s okay. The game is mainly concerned with how religion and superstition impact society. The PCs might find that their subjects project religious roles onto them, positive or negative, and they will have to deal with the consequences of adopting that mantle or rejecting it, as Paul Atreides did. Suggested story concepts include a prophet inciting religious war, the arrest of a religious leader causing riots, and the discovery of ancient texts prophesying an apocalypse.

Your Majesty, it’s very cold in here. Your penis candle just isn’t warm enough to heat the entire throne room.

The Supporting Cast

Dune reiterates that the PCs are the stars of the story, and everyone else, from nameless slaves to the Emperor himself, are all the Supporting Cast. This is where the game’s core philosophy of gamemastering comes into play, and it’s a good one. To sum it up: Everything in your game, particularly scenes and NPCs, should have a specific purpose. If you know the purpose of everything, you can describe it with some flair, get to the point, and know when to wrap up and move on.

First, decide what the character exists to do in the story, whether you intend for them to be a recurring antagonist or source of information or just a disposable messenger or thug. You don’t have to write a detailed biography, but you should give them a goal and a motive, however simple. It’s suggested that you give them a name along with a brief description that sums up their role and personality, like “talented and pompous Swordmaster” or “Loyal and subtle Mentat.” You can swap these traits around to get vastly different characters.

It’s suggested that you only give NPCs the stats you actually expect them to use, devoting the time saved to detailing their appearance background in proportion to how much screen time you expect them to have. Regardless, we’re told it never hurts to at least name characters in order to humanize them, no matter how minor they are. There’s more impact in a NPC lieutenant reporting “Sir, the Harkonnens attacked. They killed Murad and Hamza,” instead of “We lost 2 soldiers to a Harkonnen raid.”

Lastly, Dune wants you to tie the Supporting Cast into the story by emphasizing what it labels “the out-freyn (casteless) and unfamiliar” and “common origins.” While I’ve gone on at length about the Houses shape their fiefdoms in their own image while being part of a courtly, secular galactic society, there are some universalities among the common people, too. And it’s the little differences that often stand out, or turn out to be not so small after all. Wherever the PCs go, there is a universal language (Galach), the faufreluches caste system, the laws of the Great Convention, CHOAM’s economic bureaucracy, and representatives of the Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Mentat and Suk schools, and so on. You can set the scene with differences in accent, fashion, and cuisine while also finding parallels between the worldviews of groups as different as the Fremen and the Sardaukar.

Disney lost millions on their “Magic Ziggurat” resort.

This is a good opportunity to go on a rant about what I see as a vital key to Dune’s overall themes. I say this as a fan of the series, not as a critic of this game--I don’t think it’s something obvious the authors missed or failed to grasp, just my own analysis.

To me, the throughline of Dune’s themes, and a useful lens through which to view its principal characters, is that culture is a survival mechanism. Our cultural differences are differences in how we adapt to our environment. Colonizing a foreign country is like introducing strange species to a different ecosystem--both the native and non-native species must adapt to survive the abrupt change in the environment.

The frighteningly evolved, capable, and Machiavellian main characters in the Dune series experience love, lust, greed, pride, and religious ecstasy like other people, but they have an alienating degree of sober awareness about the purpose and impact of their own attitudes. This raises disturbing questions about the deliberateness of their actions--for example, elite classes throughout history have often asserted that they are superior to the commoners by dint of genetics and education, and carefully controlled who marries who. But talking about controlling the breeding of people to produce desired traits is something else. So is engineering a religion in order to produce desired social consequences decades or centuries down the line--can you sincerely believe in a religion while manipulating and exploiting it towards a practical end?

And expanding on what I said above, Dune is very concerned with what happens when our ideology doesn’t serve us in an unfamiliar environment. The story of the first novel is a great example: The Bene Gesserit are obsessed with genetic purity, but they dismissed the Fremen as superstitious primitives. The Harkonnen are obsessed with profit and exploitation, but dismiss the Fremen as desert trash. The Emperor is obsessed with his military supremacy, but never suspected that the Fremen are better fighters than his elite commandos. The Guild is obsessed with spice, but cut secret deals with the Fremen for spice instead of investigating its source. This is an important point to understand if you’re going to try to play a game in the Dune setting: Even these ancient societies of superhuman geniuses make mistakes when their ideology blinds them to possibilities that don’t fit their worldview. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming the Imperium is too rigid and too powerful for the PCs to change it.

Nite Brite, Nite Brite, make a face to glow at night. Bilal kaifa.

Creating a Story

Although Dune is full of advice about crafting campaigns and individual scenes, it doesn’t prescribe exactly how many scenes should fit into a session or how many sessions should comprise a campaign. It prefers to discuss things in terms of “adventures” and “stories” and leave that up to you. So if the details going forward seem vague, that’s why.

First, the game is concerned with Homeworld vs. Off-World adventures. Homeworld adventures, set on the PCs’ home planet in and around the fief of their House Minor, serve to ground them in the setting and introduce many central themes of the game. Off-world adventures are opportunities to change the scenery, present different themes, and perhaps allow the PCs to confront some of the major power brokers like the Guild or BG in ways that wouldn’t normally happen in a House Minor’s domain. But a whole series of off-world adventures leads to the PCs just feeling like adventurers or “space truckers” like they would in many other sci-fi games. PCs wandering from planet to planet on miscellaneous adventures also don’t participate in House Ventures (which are covered in the next chapter) or aren’t around to see their impact.

Dune suggests that story creation should start with choosing one of the central themes discussed earlier, then creating a central conflict. If you’re at a loss for a plot framework, it suggests you borrow one from history, mythology, or Shakespeare.

When advising us on creating scenes, Dune hammers on the principle that you should have a clear idea of the scene’s purpose. That guides you in setting the scene properly (describing environments and such) and knowing when to wrap up and move on to the next scene. Character interaction is good, but if the scene has served its purpose, wrap it up. We’re told that handling scenes this way will, over time, teach players that each scene is a set of opportunities.

Dune instructs you to script the overall story according to the classic Three Act Model, including scenes that contain the setup, the turn, the midpoint, the second turn, a climax, and epilogue scenes. And while the advice for setting these up and executing them is good, this is the point where I find Dune’s GMing philosophy too scripted for my taste.

Continuing from the previous chapter, the example story goes like this: The PCs are trying to find a Moritani assassin. An artist in the capital reveals that the assassin has retired to a quiet life as a craftsman in a forest village of woodcarvers. When they find him, they’re suddenly attacked by Sardaukar! After making their escape, they later learn that the assassin played an important role in the Moritani-Ginaz war that wiped out the latter house. The PCs now have a moral imperative to safely escort the assassin to a Landsraad council, where his testimony will reveal that the Emperor had a hand in the affair, which is why the Sardaukar are after them.

But what if the assassin dies in the initial assault, and the PCs have to obtain the needed information some other way? What if they’d rather cut a deal with the Emperor to conceal the scandal? What if they fail to elude or fight off the Sardaukar? The model seems fairly linear, and doesn’t provide much wiggle room for the PCs to “fail forward” in way that’s interesting (and not totally obvious). Granted, this particular example assumes the PCs have been given a good reason to find the assassin in the first place, but it makes too many assumptions for my liking. I’m not the kind of GM who thinks that he can never fudge a die roll, or that PCs going monkey cheese crazy has to be accommodated, but I like to give them enough room to make big decisions that are logical to them, but not obvious to me, without being caught floundering.

Next is advice on crafting the campaign, or chronicle, as a whole. Episodic chronicles are exactly that, and a series of story arcs done this way can be said to comprise a “book.” This kind of chronicle allows you to complete a story arc and then move onto a different theme, present a different antagonist or central conflict, while remaining part of the same overall story. From time to time, a game session that explores a tangent can set up future story arcs.

The other model discussed is the “Epic Chronicle.” The main difference between the two is just one of attitude and vision: an episodic chronicle can chart the history of the PCs House Minor, perhaps as they take it from obscurity to greatness. Epic chronicles are more concerned with theme than with history, and every story arc needs to have an eye on that central theme. An episodic chronicle can be a picaresque, whereas an epic chronicle definitely cannot.

Mark Hamill was never the same after his drum majoring accident.

Next time, on Dune: Rules for advancing your character...and your House!

A Shortening of the Way

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 8: A Shortening of the Way

Fancy title aside, this chapter deals with advancement. There are several types of advancement in this game--experience points to increase your character’s stats, Renown to increase their standing, and Asset points to advance your House. Then there’s the matter of House Ventures, representing critical junctures or long-term projects to further your House’s goals.


Experience points are meant to be handed out after each “chapter” of the story, which I kinda-assume corresponds to one or two game sessions. They’re awarded based on accomplishing the party’s goals, doing so spectacularly, performing great deeds along the way, and good roleplaying. You can also reduce their awards for bad roleplaying or accomplishing the party’s goals only with major setbacks or by creating other problems. (I’m not a big fan of singling out players for good or bad roleplaying, and other rewards and penalties strike me as dependent on the railroady adventure design the authors sometimes encourage.)

The theoretical maximum is 10 points, and assuming the Narrator isn’t stingy, PCs can easily be collecting 4-5 points per session. As you can see from the experience costs listed below, they’ll be increasing their stats quickly.

Like pretty much any game from this era, a few things jump out at me, indicating that a savvy player can easily game the experience system. First, new skills are expensive. I’ve come down hard on this game for a character creation system that tends to give you 1-2 points in a bunch of skills, from a skill list that’s way too long, in a game that demands specialization in order to succeed at challenging tests. The advancement rules give you some incentive to have a broad, thin spread of skills to start, for better or for worse.

Second, Attributes don’t cost much more than skills. Remember that in this system, you roll your Attribute as a die pool, taking the highest die, while skill points add directly to your total. In the rules chapter review, I discussed how increasing your Attributes doesn’t increase your average roll as much as you’d think--but as there are only four Attributes, you still have the incentive to buy them up, at these prices. Skill specializations don’t seem worth it unless you can use it all the time. Advantages are expensive. Third, Karama is expensive, but worth it--Karama is a pool you can spend to directly increase your skill rolls. The book notes that characters with a high Karama pool can succeed whenever they really need to. I’m not scared of that, since the basic difficulty mechanics of this game are punishing, but I’m not interested in making Karama spending a major factor in gameplay, either.

Spending experience is subject to the Narrator’s veto if it doesn’t make sense, particularly when it comes to things like buying Advantages or eliminating Disadvantages. The game also suggests you can give out “limited” experience points that can only be used toward specific Advantages or Disadvantages. For example, if you work with a Bene Gesserit NPC on an adventure, you could get limited XP toward making her an Ally. This makes sense on a superficial level but I really, really don’t like it. It’s an invitation for the Narrator to decide how you should develop your PC for you, and effectively punish you if you want to go another way.

”So without the Butlerian Jihad, we wouldn’t have these great Mao jackets or overhead projectors.”


Renown is a measure of fame, reputation, and rank. As with experience points, there’s a list of recommended rewards, and Renown points are divided into 4 categories (Valor, Learning, Justice, and Prayer) based on what the Narrator feels appropriate. As with experience points, if the PCs are doing what PCs in roleplaying games do, they’re going to rake in Renown unless the Narrator is being stingy.

PCs gain Rank in their Profession as they increase their Renown and their Profession’s key skills. Thought Rank doesn’t have direct mechanical benefits, it’s not meant to be some abstract, D&D-esque title for your class and level, but to have meaning in the story--it’s presumed that a Noble who advances to Rank 5 will indeed be the Heir Designate of his House. The requirements to gain rank aren’t high, either, and I can easily see the PCs advancing to high rank after a few adventures. Nothing wrong with that.

The game cautions you not to make Rank simply a matter of gaining Renown and spending experience points on skills, and suggests Renown tests or even interviews to discuss the PC’s history and ambitions. You could adjust a Profession’s key skills based on the nature of the House, and there are rules for “departmental transfers” in which you drop a rank. But really, why fuck about?

“He’s right over there, y’know.”

House Advancement and Ventures

After each adventure, the Narrator is supposed to conduct a “Narrative Debriefing” with the players to discuss how their actions furthered their House’s goals. The sticking point of the debriefing is whether or not the PCs accomplished any Narrative Ventures. These are critical points during gameplay where the Narrator decides that a single Test, win or lose, constitutes a far-reaching political move. Of course, “stabbing the Emperor to death” would be a huge political move, but it’s meant for things like a speech at a Sysselraad conference, a negotiation with a CHOAM delegate, a tactical decision during a major battle, and other decisions where the outcome isn’t immediate.

Players can’t just decide to initiate these--the Narrator is supposed to design the adventure with such opportunities in mind, and determine when one arises. They can be any kind of Test--the only difference is that you use an appropriate House Attribute instead of the PC’s own. Later, during the debriefing, the Narrator awards Asset points for successful Ventures, which can be spent to improve House Attributes.

Dune has rules for using Assets to buy things for your house besides basic stat increases, but the cost and the benefit is totally up to the Narrator--I can’t help but compare it to the Company rules from Reign, which are more fully developed.

”This is the weirdest catalogue shoot I’ve ever been on.”
“What is a ‘tech vest’ anyway?”

PCs can also spend Asset points (1-3, Narrator’s discretion again!) to launch an Interlude Venture. These are big, long-term projects to improve your House’s standing as a nation-state, where events happen “off-screen.” Launching an invasion, starting a business venture, initiating a War of Assassins, persecuting dissidents, etc. For example, when Thufir Hawat conducts a security sweep in response to the attempt on Paul’s life, that’s a Narrative Venture. When we learn that Duke Leto has been sending his best fighters to make friends with the Fremen tribes, that’s an Interlude Venture.

As with Narrative Ventures, the Narrator determines the relevant skill and type of Test (these are often extended Tests). And if the PCs triumph? Uh, they succeed at their objective. No strictly mechanical impact, no return on their Asset investment. Granted, this could be huge, like assassinating an enemy or eliminating a problem so that it doesn’t come up again. Dune isn’t, and doesn’t need to be, the kind of game where literally everything that happens in the story can be quantified in the rules. But it really doesn’t sit well with me that there isn’t a defined way to use the House rules to pass from House Minor to Great House status.

It also appears to me that the problems with Dune’s lengthy skill list are likely to rear their ugly head again when the players want to do Interlude Ventures. This game is good about consolidating its skill list when it comes to combat, but it has way too many professional and social skills. In deciding what skill is most appropriate for a Venture, the Narrator is caught between letting the PCs use a handful of their best skills for everything, or screwing them over by insisting they use Economics instead of Mercantilism.

The Dark Side hasn’t been kind to Billy Idol.

Next time, on Dune: A sample homeworld. Chusuk, Planet of Music!

Chusuk, the Music Planet

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 9: Chusuk, the Music Planet

The entire chapter is devoted to the planet Chusuk, complete with a ruling Great House, their Houses Minor, their history and political situation, and notes on the planet’s geography, economy, and religion. It’s an example of how to create a homeworld for the PC’s House, or just a world that they can visit for an off-world adventure. (Several, I hope, if you’re putting this much work into it.)

House Varota is a very new Great House, having only enjoyed that status for about 1500 years. Its founder, Francesco Varota, was a virtuoso musician and craftsman from a clan of instrument-makers in the 9th millennium. He became the Emperor’s court musician until the two had a falling out. Shunned by the Emperor’s friends, Francesco took shelter among his rival Houses as a wandering minstrel. Unknown to all but themselves, Francesco and the Emperor had staged their falling out so that Francesco could become a spy. He fed the Emperor’s enemies false information while soliciting their secrets. Francesco and the Emperor “made up” on the latter’s deathbed, and Francesco was granted a baronet on his homeworld.

Francesco spent his reign using his broad acquaintanceship among the nobility to leverage trade deals and craft alliances. And whereas he was a charmer and a spy, his son Philippe was a consummate political genius who rallied popular support and conducted political intrigues. He also authored the Varotan Manifesto, a Machiavellian handbook. His heirs added to it over millennia, until it became an encyclopedia of intrigue. The final page was written shortly after House Varota overtook House Mandervold to become the new ruling Great House on Chusuk.

Earl Angustin Varota has lead the House ably, but he’s ready to retire. He’d like to hand control over to his daughter Corina, whose husband Dubrahm died suddenly of heart disease that their Navachristian Suk Doctor, Memphis Dion, was unable to treat. They wait for her son Analdo to come of age.

Angustin’s wife, Lady Luchessa flunked out of the Bene Gesserit at a young age, but retains their skepticism of religion, though she is a patron of the arts. Sevrenty Tomash is the Varota’s Master of Assassins, almost 100 years old but sharp as ever. Aeneus Miracola is their Swordmaster, and still regrets not finding Dubrahm in time to save him.

Houses Minor

House Adici controls a bustling city and a booming import/export business. They want to expand their territory, and are making connections with Great Houses who do business with them.

According to legend, House Deseo descends from an illegitimate son of Francesco Varota who served his father as a spymaster. They control a large fiefdom encompassing several provinces, and still function as the Varota’s loyal intelligence service.

House Levrache is Lady Luchessa’s birth house. They sycophantically support Varota, and control a province which supplies timber to many Varotan industries.

House Mandervold still has an axe to grind with Varota for replacing them as Chusuk’s Great House. Their baron and his bound-concubine, who is Luchessa’s sister, plot to assassinate the Varota heir and put their son on the throne.

House Nambure controls a northern province. Its people are unusually tall and strong, and form the bulk of the planetary militia. They train their soldiers to fight in a unique and ancient style, and the swords they manufacture are found all over the planet.

Think I’ve got this whole Renaissance thing pretty much figured out.


Central to Chusuk’s identity is its origin as a refuge for Navachristians fleeing the religious persecutions of Emperor Forneus I. Civilization on Chusuk began as a network of communes, so that if one was discovered by inquisitors, the others could escape. Fortunately, Forneus was deposed and the persecution ended before this ever happened.

The planet celebrated its religious freedom with an explosion of art and culture that earned it the name “The Music Planet,” and its politics evolved along the same lines as the rest of the Imperium. House Mandervold was recognized as the planet’s Great House a few centuries after Forneus’ death. They ruled the planet with a laissez-faire benevolence, a policy House Varota has more or less continued. So commerce, religion, and art are the three principal cultural forces on Chusuk.

Chusuk is similar to Earth in size and shape, with icy poles and a tropical equator. The population is relatively small and ecology-minded, maintaining vast preserves of ancient forests. Much of the world’s economy is based on its unique natural resources, like high-quality cotton and rare woods, used to manufacture luxury goods. All of the world’s Houses Minor grew out of some cottage industry or another. The Varotan Trade Faire, once a quaint cultural festival, grew into a major CHOAM event where merchants come from all over the Imperium to spend billions.

At this point, I should mention that Chusuk isn’t completely original to this game. The non-canon Dune Encyclopedia mentions Chusuk, a planet devoted to art and music, Varota the instrument-maker, and the “Navachristians of Chusuk.” It was also Gurney Halleck’s home planet before the Harkonnens raided it. However, although Navachristianity is mentioned more than once in the original Dune as one of the religious traditions incorporated into the Orange Catholic Bible, it never receives even a brief description itself--many people assume it was a blend of Christianity and indigenous Navajo spirituality. The authors of this game take the liberty of defining it here.

Navachristianity’s central tenant is that God sent not one, but many messiahs to guide humanity--a messiah for every civilized world, for every era of history. Detractors call it the “Billion Jesus Church.” Navachristian theologians believe that they can examine the history of any inhabited world and identify the Navachristian Messiah for each age, and are fascinated with what they see as the “messianic identity pattern” that identifies him or her. They celebrate several holidays (notably ones that seem to correspond to Easter and Christmas). Chusuk is the center of Navachristianity, but the religion is common enough that you can often find a temple in most major cities throughout the Imperium. It should be noted that Chusuk theologians don’t recognize any messiahs as having been sent to Chusuk yet...

By and large, the rest of the Imperium is more interested in Chusuk’s arts than its religion. The Varotan Arts Institute and the Imperial Academy of Music are renowned throughout the Imperium. The exclusivity of the former has sparked at least one War of Assassins. The latter sponsors apprenticeships in instrument-making. Varotan instruments are auctioned off for huge sums. Chusuk has given birth to entirely new art forms such as water sculpture, sculpted fountains in which both the pattern and the sound of water flowing over their surface is precisely controlled for aesthetic effect.

In the grim darkness of the 21st Millennium, there is only Orientalist painting.


The Spaceport of Mondriagne is considered the most beautifully decorated spaceport in the Imperium--spaceports are technically Guild facilities, and usually cold and functional. The port is the size of a small city itself, and transports all kinds of goods. Anyone you need the PCs to meet, they could meet here.

The Holy City of Coramshar is home to the second-largest cathedral in the Imperium, and features organs carved by the greatest Varotan masters.

The Snow Springs are located in the planet’s subarctic region, which also happens to hold an active volcano with open lava pools, creating a network of natural hot springs. It’s a luxury spa for the galaxy’s elite (many of whom probably also come for the trade fair).

The Ruins of Lor are an enigma--crumbling stone ruins scattered throughout the planet’s central archipelago, indicating a thriving civilization millennia before Chusuk was settled by Navachristian refugees. The largest ruins now deep underwater. A large corporation has secured exclusive development rights to the archipelago; other businessmen joke that the “Lead Sea” will sink the company.

Adventure hooks

Chusuk Messiah: Working with a Bene Gesserit contact, the Navachristian Church has received credible reports that God’s messiah has finally appeared on Chusuk. The PCs are sent to find evidence of miracles, reporting to the Bene Gesserit agent.

Stalking the Wild Zevec: A nobleman in the PCs’ House wants to capture a dangerous big cat native to the high, cold mountains of Chusuk.

Precursors of Chusuk: A kinsman to the PCs’ House has been asked to send a team of experts (the PCs) to investigate an amazing find in the ruins of Lor.

Holiday Excursion: After a difficult mission, the PCs are offered an all-expenses-paid vacation to the Snow Springs, where they are certain to come across some kind of trouble by sheer coincidence. Also entangled in the plot are a bearded, kickboxing cowboy and a man who can make grenades out of pine cones.

Next time on Dune: Texas Ranger: “Instruments of Kanly,” a sample adventure.

Instruments of Kanly

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Chapter 9: Instruments of Kanly

“Instruments of Kanly” is a sample adventure for PCs. It makes some assumptions about the Entourage’s House, and provides some background.

The Entourage’s House has a longstanding rivalry with another House Minor, House D’murjzin. (That’s hard to spell and impossible to pronounce, so I hate these fuckers already.) More than a century ago, Lord Anton defeated Innis D’murjzin in a duel to first blood, winning a priceless Varotan baliset. However, decades later, he was assassinated and the baliset went missing. News just broke that House Adici, one of the Varotan Houses Minor, has recovered the baliset. They’re going to auction it off at the Varotan Trade Faire.

The Entourage’s House patriarch sends them to Chusuk on a diplomatic mission to authenticate the baliset, so as to establish favourable relations with House Adici and impress both House Varota and their own Great House. He’s given them an allowance to bid on the baliset, but isn’t particularly concerned about regaining it--that’s a tertiary goal at best. He introduces them to Master Desmond Karos, the archivist at their House’s Academy of Arts, who will authenticate the instrument for them. Little do they know that Karos is a traitor working for House D’murzjin, who plans to steal the baliset for himself, leaving the Entourage’s House in a political bind, and flee Chusuk with the D’murzjin delegation.

The adventure takes place in 9 scenes set over 7 days.

Dude. Don’t be that guy.

Act 1, Introduction, Day 1: At a strategy meeting, the House patriarch explains the importance of the Varotan Trade Faire, Lord Anton’s baliset, and their mission to use the occasion as an opportunity to convince Compt Lorenzo Adici to forge a trade agreement between their Houses. CHOAM laws entitle the Adici to act as the “agent of sale” for an anonymous owner. He acknowledges the symbolic value of recovering the baliset, but makes it clear he doesn’t want the Entourage getting “emotionally involved.” The trade agreement comes first.

Act 1, Scene 1, Day 1: The Entourage is introduced to Master Karos. Though an old man, he is eager to visit Chusuk “one last time.” If permitted, he’ll describe the customs of Chusuk and the Trade Faire at some length. More importantly, he’ll demonstrate his means of authenticating the baliset. He’s not just going off of long-ago memories; he has an illicit Ixian device which precisely measures harmonics. He demonstrates with his own baliset, clipping the small device to the back of the instrument as he plays. It reveals that his baliset is an “inferior replica” of the Varotan masterpiece.

(The device is harmless, of course, but it uses microprocessors to measure and analyze data, and is therefore a violation of the Great Convention. This is another instance where the authors have to come up with their own interpretation of the novels’ details; the Butlerian Jihad was a rebellion against “thinking machines” and the Orange Catholic Bible says “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of the human mind.” But the books never precisely state that any and all computers are forbidden, and it’s implied that the Jihad wasn’t as simple as a war against robots. Anyway…)

Act 1, Scene 2, Day 2: The Entourage boards their patron Great House’s massive frigate, which conveys them to a much more massive Guild Heighliner for transit to Chusuk. The scene is meant to impress upon them the luxury of the Great Houses and the even more vast resources of the Guild. A Guild representative visits the Entourage and gives them the once-over, asking them if they have anything to declare. If they conceal the Ixian device, he cryptically says “Your future is safe with us.” If they reveal it, it’s merely a faux pas--he just waves his hand and says that such things are beneath notice.

Act 1, Scene 3, Day 4: The Entourage arrives at the lavish Spaceport of Mondriagne. This scene is also mainly an opportunity for the PCs to soak in the setting, learning about the customs of Chusuk and the other Houses participating in the Trade Faire. They meet Sator Pell, the Adici’s chief of security, a gruff military man who welcomes them and takes them to their guest lodgings. Pell has to return to the spaceport to receive the Adici’s next guests--the D’murjzin. In the meantime, the Entourage has the opportunity to mess around if they want.

Act 2, Scene 1, Day 5: After enjoying the Trade Faire for a couple days, the Entourage is invited to a lavish but informal reception hosted by the Adici. Karos is well respected here, and offers to make introductions. The PCs can interact with any number of minor NPCs here who could reappear in future adventures.

One such NPC is Rugi Pallos, a very successful “antiquities dealer” and rumoured art smuggler. She and Karos display an immediate mutual dislike. However, she is actually his handler for the D’murjzin. The Entourage will also meet Compt Lorenzo Adici, who receives them warmly with a short speech and a toast.

Act 2, Scene 2, Day 5: Sator Pell interrupts the reception to address Compt Lorenzo, who immediately ushers the Entourage into an elevator along with Pell and several guards. The Entourage and the Adici guards interrupt a theft in progress in the museum! There is a fight with several black-clad ninjas trying to steal the baliset. If the Entourage doesn’t get involved, the Adici guards defeat them anyway. If captured, they refuse to talk, but interrogation may reveal that they are D’murjzin agents. Hours later, they die from poison already in their systems. Karos examines the baliset and uses his device to authenticate it, ensuring that it hasn’t already been replaced. (In fact, that’s exactly what happens, and Karos and Pallos are in on it.)

Act 2, Scene 3, Day 6: This is the big one. As the auction is about to begin, the Entourage arrives with Karos to publicly validate the baliset. This time, Karos declares it a fake, feigning worry and confusion. If they try to tell Karos to go ahead and pass it off as genuine, he confesses to Compt Lorenzo himself. Either way, Compt Lorenzo drags the Entourage into an adjoining conference room to chew them out and figure out what the fuck is going on.

Act 3, Scene 1, Day 6: Compt Lorenzo, Pell, Karos, Pallos, and the Entourage are in the conference room. The Adicis don’t believe the real baliset could have been stolen after the attempted theft--it’s been in a vault. They let the Entourage direct the conversation, but if they reach an impasse, Lorenzo will ask Pallos for a second opinion. Pallos leaves to get her notes, and during this time, she’ll instruct her D’murjzin agents to plant the real baliset in Karos’ bedroom. When she returns, she produces notes and even photographs verifying that the baliset on hand is a fake--and that an expert like Karos should have known this just by looking at it.

Karos is panicking. The D’murjzin weren’t set on abandoning him, but they left it up to Pallos, and she decided that throwing him to the wolves is the only way to make sure that the Entourage can’t recover from this fiasco. If he’s a fraud, then clearly the Entourage orchestrated the theft. Basically, she exposes the scheme, but says it was Karos and the Entourage rather than Karos and herself. Enraged, Karos calls her a no-good art thief, but doesn’t reveal the truth. If the Entourage doesn’t suss out the truth then and there, Compt Lorenzo orders a search of everyone’s quarters.

Act 3, Scene 2, Day 6: The Entourage is present for the search. The search of Pallos’ quarters reveals nothing, scaring Karos. His quarters are searched next, and Pell finds the real baliset. However, he also finds a small shigawire reel. If the Entourage examines it, they find that it contains 150-year-old readings from the real baliset, as well as recent readings and false ones. It should be obvious at this point that Karos betrayed them, and the right course of action is to declare him a traitor and convince Compt Lorenzo. If discovered, Karos makes a run for it, hoping to reach the D’murjzin embassy, and is quickly captured.

Act 3, Scene 3, Day 7: The day of the auction for the real baliset. The Entourage will be bidding against either the D’murjzin or a proxy (if Pallos revealed that they are the “anonymous owner”). The bidding is resolved with skill tests to determine if the they can both win the baliset and stay under budget.

If the Entourage has accomplished both their goals, then they’ve won both a substantive political victory and a symbolic one.

Stop or I’ll shoot...darts, I’m pretty sure! Poison ones, maybe!

So what do I think of it? First, I’m impressed with the concept and theme of the adventure. This is an introductory adventure, designed to get the players to embody their characters and become natives of the setting, so to speak, and it’s excellent at illustrating the Dune setting. It highlights all its essential elements--the social order and caste system, the prohibitions on technology, the importance of culture and how it affects the way people think and act, and above all, the emphasis on diplomacy, intrigue, and the struggle among the ruling class to get ahead at one another’s expense.

The Entourage has to navigate an unfamiliar world with an unfamiliar culture. They get to see the wealth of the Great Houses and the staggering power of the Guild. The rules of the Butlerian Jihad play an important role in the story, as does CHOAM and the tradition of kanly. The only things missing are the overarching importance of melange and the machinations of the Bene Gesserit, but the plot really wouldn’t benefit from such entanglements.

But the execution is flawed, and it brings to bear all issues with the rules and with the way the game encourages you to structure adventures.

Each scene ends with notes regarding possible Ventures and important skill Tests that can be made. It’s really bad at this. First, most of the Ventures aren’t actually Narrative Ventures--they don’t specify that you gain Asset points from succeeding. The recommended Tests are even worse. Several of them are just there for show, and the PCs aren’t said to gain anything by succeeding. The only fight that occurs doesn’t matter, and is just there for the Entourage to flex their muscles--they can stand around watching the Adici guards fighting the D’murjzin infiltrators, and the Adicis will still win. But most importantly, almost all of the listed Tests are BG Way or Truthtrance Tests, and almost all of those are to notice that something is going on with Karos--he’s agitated, apprehensive, afraid, et cetera at various points in the adventure. The notes don’t mention the possibility of a Mentat using Computation or Projection to read Karos, despite the fact that reading people and analyzing motivations are specific uses for those skills. Of course the listed Tests are not supposed to be the only ones, but the adventure as written doesn’t give you anything to do with any character class besides a Bene Gesserit Adept.

The adventure assumes that all the listed scenes will play out with their basic structure intact, and the Entourage has few actual decisions to make. Essentially, the success or failure of the mission boils down to them saying to themselves “I think this really suspicious guy is trying to fuck us over” and saying to Compt Lorenzo “No, we’re not in cahoots with this guy, he’s trying to fuck us all over.” And if you have a Bene Gesserit in your Entourage, you will have found a bunch of giant neon signs reading “This guy’s really suspicious” before the big reveal. There’s no guidance on what to do if the Entourage confronts Karos before the auction. (I don’t mind that, if the players are really boneheaded, they eventually find the smoking gun in his luggage anyway. It is an intro adventure, after all.)

Truthtrance is for “discerning the truth of an event,” which sounds like something Slavoj Zizek would mumble in his sleep.

Next time on Dune: The culture of the Imperium!

The Culture of the Imperium

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Book 3, Chapter 11: The Culture of the Imperium

Dune posted:

"I see in the future what I've seen in the past. You well know the pattern of our affairs, Jessica. The race knows its own mortality and fears stagnation of its heredity. It's in the bloodstream -- the urge to mingle genetic strains without plan. The Imperium, the CHOAM Company, all the Great Houses, they are but bits of flotsam in the path of the flood."

"CHOAM," Jessica muttered. "I suppose it's already decided how they'll redivide the spoils of Arrakis."

"What is CHOAM but the weather vane of our times," the old woman said. "The Emperor and his friends now command fifty-nine point six-five per cent of the CHOAM directorship's votes. Certainly they smell profits, and likely as others smell those same profits his voting strength will increase. This is the pattern of history, girl."

"That's certainly what I need right now," Jessica said. "A review of history."

"Don't be facetious, girl! You know as well as I do what forces surround us. We've a three-point civilization: the Imperial Household balanced against the Federated Great Houses of the Landsraad, and between them, the Guild with its damnable monopoly on interstellar transport. In politics, the tripod is the most unstable of all structures. It'd be bad enough without the complication of a feudal trade culture which turns its back on most science."

Jessica spoke bitterly: "Chips in the path of the flood -- and this chip here, this is the Duke Leto, and this one's his son, and this one's --"

"Oh, shut up, girl. You entered this with full knowledge of the delicate edge you walked."

" 'I am Bene Gesserit: I exist only to serve,' " Jessica quoted.

"Truth." the old woman said. "And all we can hope for now is to prevent this from erupting into general conflagration, to salvage what we can of the key bloodlines."

Jodorowsky’s Kenneth Branagh’s Dune

The Imperium as we know it arose from the ashes of the Butlerian Jihad, a century-long revolution that touched all corners of human civilization, sweeping away a hierarchy in which “thinking machines” were allowed to direct human affairs. The century that followed saw the Battle of Corrin and the founding of the Imperium, the creation of the Landsraad, and the founding of the Spacing Guild.

Over ten thousand years later, these three institutions--the Imperial Household, the Landsraad, and the Guild--are still the three pillars of human civilization. The Emperor holds a military hegemony, the Landsraad represents the ruling class, and the Spacing Guild holds a monopoly on faster-than-light travel.

The Great Convention

The Great Convention, the supreme law of the Imperium, is composed of the Guild Peace and the Articles of Kanly. The Peace lays down acceptable and unacceptable means of conflict in general, while the Articles define acceptable means of conflict between individual Houses. Essentially, the Great Convention allows Houses to wage war on each other without subjecting entire planets and populations to the ravages of total warfare.

The most inviolable law is against using atomic weapons on living creatures. (This implies that they keep them around for killing, say, Cybermen and Terminators and whatnot. The game also assumes that this law applies to some other weapons of mass destruction, like chemical and biological weapons.) Investigations into these large-scale violations of the Great Conventions are extremely serious, conducted by the High Council of the Landsraad (which is chaired by the Emperor). Long story short, if found guilty, they can go so far as to disenfranchise a Great House of its status. (This is a departure from the novels, where Paul notes that the penalty for using atomics against humans is “planetary obliteration.”) If found guilty, a Great House’s best bet is to pay the Guild for sanctuary on Tupile, a planet they maintain for defeated Houses to live out their days in comfortable exile.

Kanly, or vendetta, are blood feuds between Houses which can last for generations. The Articles of Kanly govern these feuds. The law protects the aristocracy from lethal violence outside of kanly, so only nobles (and their minions) can kill other nobles, and then only after a formal declaration.

It begins when a noble initiates a Rite of Kanly. They must petition the emperor and get approval, and the Rites govern the means of attack and counterattack. Negotiations are opened if one House accuses the other of violating the rules, wants to renegotiate terms, or is ready to negotiate terms for surrender. The Emperor appoints “Judges of the Change” to oversee vendettas just as he does changes of fief.

Houses who have declared kanly often challenge one another to formal duels. The participants must agree to terms such as the time and place, the weapons that will be used, and if seconds will be fighting for them--a Swordmaster commonly fights for his liege-lord. Duels can be to first blood, surrender, or death, whatever terms the parties involved can negotiate.

The most deadly kanly is the War of Assassins. Kanly requires you to name who is and isn’t a valid target, and wars of assassins can go so far as to exterminate a House’s entire lineage. (Brutal, yes, but the point is to limit political violence. Poisoning a baron’s drink, or even killing a baby in its crib, are preferable to poisoning a well or bombing a city. If the aristocracy want to fight over who’s in charge, they can bloody well kill each other.) The negotiations alone can take weeks or months, and the war itself can last for generations. But only the most powerful houses can enter wars of assassins without the affair consuming all of their time and energy until the matter is resolved. It only ends when one House surrenders, or the Judge declares that one side has been thoroughly defeated.

The Landsraad investigates violations of the Articles of Kanly just as it does the Guild Peace. Violating the rules of a duel is likely to result in punishment of the offending nobleman, but broader violations may result in sanctions against the entire House. Punishment can range from fines and loss of titles to exile or death.

The Faufreluches

The faufreluches is the universally enforced caste system of the Imperium. It defines the rights and privileges of each social class concerning marriage, property, and legal protection. Members of the same caste may have vastly different levels of wealth, education, and freedom (depending on the culture of their homeworld), but there are hard limits to social mobility.

The regis familia is the highest and smallest caste, consisting of the members of all the Great Houses and their Houses Minor. There are over a thousand Great Houses and at least ten times as many Houses Minor. Most nobles can trace their lineage at least as far as the Battle of Corrin, and even after 10,000 years, the families that are or aren’t part of this cast has only shifted by one or two percent.

The na-familia is a special caste of people who, while not nobles, are an indispensible part of a House’s retinue. To be na-familia is a vassal relationship requiring a declaration of allegiance, and they enjoy their status at the pleasure of their liege. You may have noticed that most of the PC classes--Mentat, Swordmaster, and the like--fall into this caste.

Bondsmen are commoners sworn to service to a house, generally measured in decades. The bondsmen are generally professionals who comprise a comfortable middle class, though the don’t enjoy the special protections of the nobility and their entourage.

Pyons are serfs, plain and simple, with all the quasi-slavery that implies. Although the Imperium is far more industrialized than Europe in the Middle Ages, pyons are bound to the land--or factory, et cetera--where they work, and are bought and sold along with it.

Maula are out-freyn: not technically part of the caste system at all. They have no human rights under Imperial law and are at the mercy of their governing House. Some Houses’ laws at least respect their right to life, whereas on other worlds they may be hunted for sport, or else subjected to the most degrading kinds of slavery and exploitation. The lucky ones perform the most undesirable sorts of manual labour. Besides slaves and criminals, this caste includes any who live as outlaws, such as the Fremen and spice smugglers of Arrakis.

The hierarchy is as follows: the Emperor, in conjunction with the Landsraad and CHOAM, distributes valuable fiefs among the nobles of the Great Houses. Each Great House has many Houses Minor serving it. The Houses Minor enjoy all the privileges of the noble caste, but all a Great House’s Houses Minor put together typically control only a fraction of its overall wealth. Houses Minor are branches of their patron House and are expected to serve it and further its aims. Na-familia aren’t quite nobility and don’t enjoy shares of CHOAM profits, but they’re highly valued and may be responsible for millions of commoners.

There are a few groups within the Imperium whose members are adjacent to the caste system, but move comfortably within it. Representatives from the Great Schools, the Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit, are accorded a status which approximates that of na-familia. This status also applies to emissaries from the Bene Tleilaxu and the Ixians, two secretive hermit kingdoms that specialize in biotechnology and advanced electronics, respectively. The respect accorded to such out-freyn dignitaries only extends so far as they don’t offend the Great Houses.

“I am Hans…”
“...und I am Franz…”


CHOAM is the universal corporation that oversees all meaningful economic development. Great Houses have broad authority to control their homeworld’s economy, but since CHOAM regulations apply to all interplanetary trade, CHOAM reaches down into every inhabited world. CHOAM regulates each and every trade good, from melange, the most valuable commodity in the universe, on down to mundane goods like textiles and fertilizer.

CHOAM administers all kinds of corporate conglomerates, regulatory committees, and boards of directors under its umbrellas. “Directorships” in such entities are how one becomes truly wealthy in the Imperium; they’re basically voting shares of stock that come with a seat on this or that board or committee. Make no mistake, CHOAM is a tool of the ruling caste. Unlike the aristocracies of early modern Europe, the Great Houses need not fear being supplanted by a bourgeoisie capitalist class--because CHOAM rules simply forbid you from accruing directorships until you are allowed to purchase your way into the nobility.

From a storyteller’s and a roleplayer’s point of view, CHOAM is a convenience--you don’t need to keep track of a massive web of bureaucracies, just one big one. It also shows how ossified the Imperium has become over thousands of years.

CHOAM has three branches. The Board of Directors, headed by the Emperor and filled out with representatives from the most powerful Great Houses, distributes those valuable directorships, commercial charters, and holdings (including fiefs). There are three types of directorships: ones that can be inherited, ones that end with the holder’s life, and transient ones that fluctuate along with shares. The Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit are entitled to a share of CHOAM profits, but they have no voting power, and must lobby the nobles who hold directorships.

The second branch is the Emporium, basically the CHOAM stock exchange, where they trade everything from spice to socks, and you could liquidate and reinvest a Great House’s entire holdings within hours. The third branch is the Regulatory Commission, which polices trade and conducts investigations into any accusations of wrongdoing.

Great Schools

Outside of CHOAM, training in the Great Schools and their lesser kin are the best way for commoners to climb the social ladder. The Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit are called Great Schools because they’re ancient, unified, powerful, and indispensible to the Imperium. The Spacing Guild doesn’t really get a write-up, though, because they’re secretive and isolated--they’re not protagonists in the novels and they’re not playable characters in this game.

The Bene Gesserit was founded as one of the schools devoted to maximizing human potential shortly after the Butlerian Jihad. It is an all-female Sisterhood which, to outsiders, appears to be a semi-mystical order that is a repository for all the occultism that has sprung up around various religions over the millennia, a dark mirror to the Orange Catholic Bible’s intent to reveal and reconcile the core principles of those religions.

How ironic, then, that the Sisterhood is atheistic and as merciless as the thinking machines they replaced. Their real mission is the husbandry of the human race, which they accomplish through political manipulation and controlling who breeds with whom. They care about the survival of the species, but not about ideals like liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There’s no getting around it; the Sisterhood’s methods of accomplishing their goals are pitiless and frankly gross.

The Sisterhood’s prana-bindu training does allow them to perform incredible feats like metabolizing poisons, entering trances, and superhuman martial arts, but these are parlour tricks compared to their training’s use as a political tool. Bene Gesserit Adepts are extremely perceptive and manipulative, not to mention healthy and attractive. They can read body language like a book, and modulate their own voice and body language to manipulate others. Their sexual skills allow them to seduce anyone, use sex to bend their lovers to their will, and control the sex of their children. Just as importantly, the Sisterhood educates its students in academics, courtly graces, and politics. If you were an patriarch in an aristocracy where intrigue is the norm and assassination is legal, wouldn’t you want the mother of your children to be such a woman?

The Sisterhood is vital to the Imperium because of the education it provides to women. Practically all the Great Houses send their daughters for training, and they will return to their families as desirable candidates for political marriages. Other Bene Gesserit trainees are sold to the nobility as concubines and servants, while others are born into the order and act as its agents. The Sisterhood commands a great deal of loyalty from most of its trainees, and after arranging marriages and concubinages, it instructs its members whether to have children, with whom, and what sex the children should be. If they simply wants a man’s genetic material, they’re not above sending an agent to seduce him, get herself pregnant, and return to the Sisterhood to bear her child in secret. (Adepts born and raised within the Sisterhood are often ignorant of their parentage--all the better if, for example, the Sisterhood plans to inbreed them to preserve certain genetic traits.)

Bear in mind that not every woman trained by the Bene Gesserit will become a superhuman infiltrator who is fanatically loyal to the Sisterhood. Some don’t advance far in training and some wash out. Nonetheless, they are inextricable from Imperial society. The chief example of how far this influence goes is that the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV doesn’t have a male heir, because the Bene Gesserit decided he shouldn’t.

So what’s the point? The Bene Gesserit maintains an ancient Mating Index, a genealogy of all the Great Houses. They’re working on the improvement of the species at a genetic level, and influence politics to prevent the social upheavals that result in wild, unknown mixing of genes. But their ultimate goal is to produce the Kwisatz Haderach. The most advanced Bene Gesserit Adepts are Reverend Mothers, who have used pure spice essence to gain access to their ancestral memories. But they can only access the memories of their female ancestors, not the male. Every male the Bene Gesserit have trained to attempt this has died in the attempt. The Kwisatz Haderach, meaning “one who can be in many places at once,” is a theoretical male, necessarily a prescient prodigy, who can accomplish this feat. Such a man would “bridge space and time” by being able to see clearly into both the past and the future. He would be a “super-mentat” able to perfectly chart a course for humanity’s future.

Because, you see, the Bene Gesserit believes that humanity is doomed, otherwise. Despite their best efforts to improve human genetics and prevent catastrophe, the Imperium is a stagnant entity that rejects science and innovation. It’s vulnerable to a sudden upheaval within one of its three pillars.

This makes for some very strange gender politics in Dune. The Imperium is a patriarchy, but the marriage and breeding of the ruling class is controlled by an all-female clergy. But the clergy, in turn, degrades its members to the status of livestock in a quest to produce a male saviour.

The Sisterhood’s other, instrumental project is the Panoplia Propheticus, the process by which they use religion to manipulate the masses. They’ve spend millennia sending undercover agents to “seed” societies with religious beliefs and cultural ideas that influence their development along lines that benefit the Bene Gesserit. The Missionaria Protectiva is a series of religious memes, including the concepts of mysterious wise women and a prophesied male savior, that exists to allow a Bene Gesserit agent to seek shelter and set herself up as a revered leader if she should ever find herself alone and cut off from support.

The other schools

All the other schools--those for Mentats, Suks, Swordmasters, Assassins, and other House experts are given such short shrift that there’s nothing for me to even summarize here. Mentat schools train Mentats, the Imperial College trains Suks, and so on. To be fair, the source material makes it clear that these traditions don’t even approach the unity, power, and influence of the Bene Gesserit, but this is a game. Give the people who are interested in those other “character classes” something more to go on.

Family in the Imperium

Family and marriage in the Imperium is patriarchal and based on the more-or-less nuclear family. Most marriages, and nearly all noble marriages, are arranged. The bride’s family often provides a dowry. Nobles have little concern for romantic love in marriage--they have concubines and consorts for that purpose.

Concubinage is widely condoned, even encouraged. Concubines don’t have all the rights of spouses, but command respect (especially if their lover has no spouse). If a concubine is a bound concubine, their children are considered legitimate heirs. A nobleman who hasn’t yet married may have children by a bound concubine, so that he has heirs, while still leaving open the possibility of a political marriage.

There’s no rigid rule of succession--the Emperor must sanction a Great House patriarch’s choice of heir. Women can’t inherit, but if a nobleman dies with no male heirs, a son-in-law can inherit. The eldest son is usually considered heir apparent. A named successor enjoys the title heir-designate, and is privileged to use the title na-Baron, na-Duke, etc. devolving from his father’s title.


Galach, an “Indo-Slavic” language, is the lingua franca of the Imperium. Most homeworlds also have their own languages. Houses also have battle languages, secret languages that include code words, hand signals, etc., for use in war. Various other groups also use variants of chakobsa, a word for a family of languages that derive from the Bhotani assassin clan. It is often written in symbols and pictograms, and incorporates clicking and whirring sounds. Mhirabasa is a diplomatic language of great complexity and precision, used only by erudite representatives of the Spacing Guild, Bene Gesserit, and Great Houses.


While the nobility is largely agnostic, the Orange Catholic Bible forms the basis of the civil religion of the Imperium. After the fire of the Butlerian Jihad died down, representatives from the most powerful religions formed the Committee of Ecumenical Translators. Their goal was, as they saw it, to disarm religious fanatics of a dangerous weapon--the idea that any one religion possessed the sole truth. The Committee spent decades working on it, synthesizing the Bible, Quran, Vedas, and many other religious texts. They dispensed with ancient symbols such as the cross, and added new concepts, such as the dictates of the Butlerian Jihad--the chief commandment of the O.C. Bible is “Thou shalt not deform the soul,” which includes the dictate “That shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” Its cosmology is dualistic, describing a benevolent God and malevolent Devil.

The O.C. Bible received a mixed reception upon release. Riots ensued, and many societies continued to practice old religions or found new ones. But Orange Catholicism did provide some sense of spiritual and moral unity to humanity as they continued spreading out and inhabiting new worlds.

One spiritual tradition worth mentioning is the Zensunni Wanderers. A fusion of Zen Buddhism and Sufi mysticism, Zensunni exhorted its followers to contemplate and relentlessly seek the truth--very appealing in the wake of a society that had let machines do its thinking. However, as the Zensunni rejected the O.C. Bible, they were forced to wander from planet to planet fleeing religious persecution. One Zensunni splinter group became the Fremen of Arrakis.

I’m tired of pirate foosball. Can’t someone invent video games?

Arts and Entertainment

Art and culture are part of the means by which a ruling House makes its homeworld a reflection of its ethos--and the means by which it propagandizes its subjects while keeping them content. Houses patronize artists and whole academies and artistic traditions. Imperial culture celebrates the concept of the troubadour, a wandering minstrel who combines playing, singing, poetry, philosophy, and comedy.

Celebrations are an institution, from private soirees to vast religious festivals. These are a relief for the common people, and another opportunity for political maneuvering among the nobility. Society also celebrates competitions of all kinds, from the artistic to the athletic. Because of the wide range of House laws, events such as gladiatorial combats are far from unheard of.

The Imperium also has more than its share of hedonism and debauchery, even moreso among the upper classes. In addition to tobacco and alcohol, the Imperium has developed a wide range of exotic drugs such as semuta, a hallucinogenic drug whose effects are activated and modulated by atonal electronic music. Despite the best efforts of moralists, prostitution and gambling find their way onto every planet--not surprising for a society that accepts serfdom and slavery.

Next time on Dune: Technology of the Imperium. Including equipment lists, and answers to what this game assumes about the Butlerian Jihad.

Technology of the Imperium

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Book 3, Chapter 12: Technology of the Imperium

This chapter is both an explanation of how technology works across the technophobic Imperium, as well as a list of equipment PCs will likely use or encounter. (As far as equipment is concerned, I’m not going to copypaste the exact stats for every weapon and so on.)

The Butlerian Jihad

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam posted:

"Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them."

The Butlerian Jihad is a core element of the Dune setting, but one shrouded in mystery. Herbert never fully explained it in the novels; it receives brief glossary definitions and is referenced by many characters. All we know is that it was a violent revolution against “thinking machines” and the elite who controlled them.

It’s implied that the war was not so much a Terminator style war against cyborgs, but a popular revolution in a society that had come to rely on machines to perform all their labour, and on computers to do all their planning, to the point that intellectual, artistic, and religious life were utterly stifled. (Years later, in a short story for the San Francisco Examiner, Herbert imagined a 21st-century revolt against computers which erupted because the computers enabled a brutal surveillance state.) Brian Herbert and Anderson’s spin-offs, of course, made the Butlerian Jihad a war between Cylons Cybermen Cymeks and men wielding special anti-robot swords.

Anyway, let’s talk about the Butlerian Jihad as they actually present it in this game.

The Butlerian Jihad began over 10,000 years ago. Humanity lived in the last days of a technological Gilded Age. Artificial intelligences piloted interstellar craft, controlled planetary defenses, and planned the economy. Robotics and automation allowed most people to live decadent lives of leisure. But this state of affairs spawned a technocratic bureaucracy which effectively ruled the Known Universe, leading the people in quasi-worship of the machines that now administered all human societies.

This regime collapsed thanks to Emmanuel Butler. Once a leading technocrat, he had access to information that demonstrated a pattern of what he called “humanity’s enslavement to its machine culture” in his fiery public speeches. The technocracy issued warrants for his arrest, and he was eventually captured and executed after a show trial--but not before the regime’s brutal police tactics had incited riots which spread from Butler’s home planet of Neitzevine and eventually engulfed the entire Known Universe. The Jihad was not prosecuted by any single organization, but was a popular revolution that lasted nearly a century. It eventually calmed only after its ripples had reached the furthest colony worlds. (The only exceptions were the planets of Ix, Tleilax, and Richese, which were physically remote and whose economies relied in technological innovation.)

What does it say about my Furby?

The Jihad killed billions, and most saw their standard of living decrease. But humankind felt a freedom and sense of purpose it had not known in centuries. The “Great Schools” arose to develop human potential instead of technology. In time, the “Butlerian proscriptions” were codified in the commandments of the Orange Catholic Bible and in Imperial law. The proscriptions are a cornerstone of human society, and it’s because of this, not in spite of it, that they aren’t clearly defined or enforced by a single entity. Across the Imperium, local and planetary governments forbid certain kinds of technology, while prevailing religions condemn them. At the highest levels, CHOAM and the Landsraad prescribe harsh punishments for the creation, possession, and use of forbidden tech.

In practice, however, the aristocracy commonly own forbidden devices, usually purchased at high prices from the Ixians or Tleilaxu. Most Ixian devices are harmless luxuries, or have specific tactical uses for espionage. No nobles are eager to incite a witch-hunt that would eventually implicate themselves.

Foundations of Technology

Although the Imperium shuns computer science, it has had thousands of years to make developments in physics, materials science, and agriculture. Most of the science-fictional tech that Dune PCs will encounter is based on one of a handful of key innovations.

The Holtzman Effect: Discovered by Tio Holtzman, the Holtzman Effect allows for electronic devices that manipulate gravity, momentum and inertia, and can even “fold space” to allow interstellar travel. Applications of this technology include the Holtzman Drives that power Guild ships, on down to personal shield generators and even the humble glowglobe--floating lamps that can be found everywhere from the Emperor’s palace to poor Fremen cave-dwellings.

Crystalline Metals and Superalloys: The Imperium has developed advanced alloys that combine metal with crystalline and polymeric structures. Materials like plasteel and metaglass are far tougher than conventional metal, concrete, and glass. Fanmetal is a crystalline aluminum that is incredibly light, strong, and flexible, allowing things like vehicles with telescoping passageways and wings that unfold seemingly from nowhere.

Radio control: Devices that used to be self-guiding now operate by advanced radio control. ComNets allow for planetary communication with little or no interference (by anything short of, say, a coriolis storm or an atomic explosion). Many, many devices rely on radio control, the most sinister example being the hunter-seeker assassination drones.

Servoks: “Thinking machines” may be forbidden, but often they’ve been replaced by very sophisticated automation that uses clock-set timing, hydraulics, radio, and other sensors. Locks, irrigation sensors, and the complex “fighting dummies” that Swordmasters use to hone their art all rely on servok mechanisms of varying type and complexity.

Pharmaceuticals: The foundation of the Great Schools spurred the development of many drugs to enhance human abilities, and besides that, the Suk school has had millennia to develop a wide variety of drugs. The dark side of these advances are poisons and recreational drugs with incredible potency and extremely specific effects.

Agriculture: Many worlds cultivate plant life for extremely effective and specific industrial uses. For example, the incredibly strong “shigawire,” used in “reels” that are essentially advanced cassette tapes, is actually a metallic plant fiber derived from a type of vine.


Okay, on the equipment. The game describes many kinds of equipment, providing game statistics and costs. (Soof the equipment (like vehicles) is so expensive that the prices are irrelevant to the amount of money that PCs carry around. I won’t get into the statistics of each and every article of equipment.


Personal weapons are remarkably simple. Thanks to Holtzman shields, most projectile weapons are out, as are bludgeons, so most people fight with knives, swords, and specialized pistols.

The standard weapon is an 8-12 inch knife called a kindjal. Most are slightly curved, but they come in a variety of shapes and sizes reflecting their origin. While kindjals are well-made knives for the professional warrior; there are also inferior stats for common knives.

A “slip-tip” is a double-edged stiletto, meant to be used in the off-hand. Slip-tips are so named because they easily slip through defenses, shields, and ribs. They’re often used in dueling, and often poisoned. They do less damage than kindjals, but give a better bonus to parrying.

Throwing knives are balanced for throwing, but perform poorly in melee combat. It’s almost impossible to pitch a thrown knife through a shield.

Swords, like kindjals, come in a wide variety of styles. They are considered aristocratic weapons, subject to caste-restrictions on most worlds. They do much more damage than daggers, but are less accurate.

A flip-dart is a poison needle that flips open from a bracer, ring, belt, etc. (Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen tried to kill Paul Atreides with a flip-dart on his hip.) The needle’s cover is hermetically sealed so that it can’t be detected by a poison snooper.

The gom jabbar is a Bene Gesserit weapon, a deadly poison needle concealed in a thimble-like fingertip ring.

A maula pistol, literally “slave pistol,” is a cheap, clunky spring-loaded dart gun with a 10-round magazine. They have very poor range, can’t penetrate shields, and the darts are not very dangerous unless they’re poisoned or fired with pinpoint accuracy.

Needle guns are similar to flip-darts; wristwatch-sized bracers that shoot a poison dart.

Stunners are pistols use compressed gas to fire poisoned pellets. Multiple settings allow a skilled user to fire at different velocities so as to penetrate a shield. Like maula pistols, these guns do little damage, but only need to do 1 point of damage to dose the victim with poison.

Hunter-seekers are something every noble child learns about at a young age. A hunter-seeker is basically a poison needle floating on a small suspensor, controlled by an operator using short-wave radio. The range is only 50 meters, so the assassin is always hiding nearby. The seeker senses movement, so the operator attacks using his Assassination skill. A hunter-seeker that strikes will continue boring into its victim in following rounds, killing them quickly. It’s difficult, but possible, to grab a hunter-seeker and smash it or throw it in water, destroying it.

Lasguns are powerful, man-portable cutting laser. They can easily carve a person into charred hunks of meat. They also simulate the function of automatic weapons, as the beam can be swept across multiple targets. However, they are heavy, bulky, and prone to overheating, not to mention expensive.

Lasguns can be fired on pulse (short standard burst), a lasing arc (sweeping several targets), or full burn (high damage sweeping multiple targets). The last most is very potent, but consumes much power and requires a Test to avoid overheating the lasgun.

But the most important limitation on lasguns is what happens when you use one on a Holtzman shield.

If you get hit by a lasgun, you’re probably dead. But if you use a lasgun on a shield, you’re dead, everyone around you is dead, and your entire extended family may be executed. Might I suggest this fine kindjal instead?


Battledress covers any of a wide variety of military uniforms. Thanks to space-age materials science, the Houses can wear uniforms made of durable fabric that not only protect them, but are warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and look real fancy, too. Battledress can grant up to 3 points of armor for a thick “plasfiber” uniform. I haven’t playtested much combat in this system, but considering the default weapon is a dagger, it seems like the combination of easy-wear armor and personal shields would make for lengthy combat.

Powered armor appears nowhere in the books that I know of, but nerds love their fucking anime armor. Powered armor is much like medieval articulated plate, just with advanced materials--not to mention internal suspensors and a generator. In addition to 5 points of armor, it comes with communications gear, an air supply, and the ability to survive everything from poison gas to hard vacuum. It even has air conditioning! These suits are so expensive, they’re only used by high-ranking House personnel for special missions, which is a great excuse to never use them in a campaign.

Personal Shield Generators! Now here’s the sci-fi gadget that everyone associates with Dune. Personal shields generate a Holtzman field around the wearer, harmlessly deflecting any object that isn’t traveling very slowly. It’s one of the main reasons wars in the Dune universe are fought by small, elite units using anachronistic weapons. The slowness required to penetrate the shield is about the same speed with which you might, say, casually reach out and pick up a wine glass, so shield-dueling is a peculiar and intricate art of slipping your knife through your enemy’s guard at just the right moment.

The generator takes the form of a bulky belt buckle. Mechanically, they grant both armor and an increased TN for your opponent to hit you. Shield belts have five settings, and higher settings grant better protection, but they consume battery power faster. There are also demi-shields that only protect half of the body. They’re cheaper, but mainly used for arena combat.

Other Gear

ComNet Transceivers are bulky cell phones that accesses planet-wide radio networks. Since radio is easy to intercept, the best “encryption” is having your own secret language.

Banana Com!

Filmbooks are analog laptops, filmbooks play audio, video, and text from reels made of shigaware, a metallic plant fiber that can be used as a recording tape.

Krimskell rope is an incredibly strong plant fiber that is especially useful as a ligature: the more you struggle, the tighter it gets.

Medkits do the same thing medkits do in every RPG, but Suk doctors also have surgical kits with all sorts of specialized tools and drugs.

Oil-lens binoculars are kind of neat. Instead of glass, these have a lens made of oil held in place by an electrostatic field. They’re much more powerful and can be tuned with much finer precision.

A paracompass, from the Latin “para” meaning “sort of” and “compass” meaning “a compass,” is just a fucking compass.

Poison snoopers detect a wide range of poisons, and are commonly hidden all over the place--chandeliers, centerpieces, and so on. Handheld snoopers are also commonly used.

Shigawire Imprinters record text, audio, and video onto shigawire reels. Some can even record infrared or 3D! These are especially used by Mentats to share or learn large amounts of information.

Solido projectors are small devices which project translucent 3D images. These have many uses, but are notably used for “ego-likenesses,” three-dimensional moving portraits.

Glowglobes, as I mentioned, are ubiquitous lamps powered by organic batteries and floated on small suspensors. They can even be leashed to your clothes so that you have a handy lamp following you around.

Suspensor belts grant mobility to the injured and disabled, and can help you carry heavy loads or navigate treacherous areas. They can lift several hundred pounds. They are strong enough to levitate you off the floor, but have no built-in propulsion, so if you did that you’d just flail around uselessly.

Cuterrays are essentially lasguns used as tools. They range from tiny, precise surgical cutterrays to vehicle-mounted ones that can carve tunnels through solid rock.

Shield dissemblers can be used to disable pru-doors, mentioned below. They aren’t potent or fast-working enough to disable a large House shield or a personal shield.


Pru-doors, or prudence doors, are Holtzman-shielded doors. To get through them, you must either disable their generator or use a special shield-dissembler.

House shields are huge Holtzman shield networks requiring a powerful generator and many relays. They can protect an entire Great House palace, and selectively open portals to allow entry or exit. A dissembler might open a single entrance, but the only way to drop the whole shield is to disable its generator.

Palm locks are special servok locks keyed to a handprint. They’re mainly notable because Bene Gesserit can potentially fool them with their prana-bindu training.


Groundcar” is a really broad term for any ground vehicle, from a small cart to a tank. Groundcars can be wheeled or hover on suspensors, and all are electric.

Ornithopters are the most common air transport. They use jets for takeoff and landing, and can do so vertically like a helicopter, but while in the air they use wings that beat like a bird’s. Thanks to plasteel and fanmetal, they’re very light.

The game has some rules for vehicle combat, chases, and maneuvers. The action devolves into combat rounds, and follows a simple system where the fleeing ship takes the initiative, rolling to perform maneuvers, and the pursuit ship has to perform the same maneuver to keep pace. If the fleeing pilot fails, the pursuer takes initiative and gains ground. Failure by either party can result in a crash. It’s a pretty good system; if I recall right, it’s a little more detailed than what was on offer from Vampire and others from the same family of 90s die-pool games. You can also spend your Option Points to use vehicular weapons.

Lastly, there’s a table for all the equipment in this chapter, with stats for how high a caste you need to be to use the item legally, standard cost, and black market cost. But the costs are largely superfluous. The rules barely track how much cash the PCs have, much less the exact amount of a House’s cash reserves, so knowing the exact costs of tanks, planes, and House shields only serves to inform you of their relative value.

So that’s technology, and equipment, in this version of Dune. I’m pleased with it. Aside from occasional bits like the power armor (why is Dune fanart always full of Space Marine armor?) it follows logically from the original novels. The version of the Butlerian Jihad presented here is not particularly radical or fascinating, but serviceable.

Next time on Dune
: An in-depth treatment of the Spacing Guild.

The Spacing Guild

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Book 3, Chapter 13: The Spacing Guild

This chapter takes a deeper look at the Spacing Guild, the organization that controls all interstellar travel in the Dune universe. This may seem odd, since there are no Guild PCs, and the Guild’s workings are opaque even in the original novels. But the chapter tells the Narrator and the players what they need to know about space travel, and the game expands on the Guild in ways that help rationalize some significant features of the setting.

The Founding of the Guild

Faster-than-light travel in the Imperium uses the Holtzman Effect to “fold space,” traveling through higher dimensions so that a ship seems to disappear in one place and reappear in another, as if someone had folded a map to make two points adjacent. (Yes, just like that scene in Event Horizon). The mathematics involved in safe foldspace travel are incredibly complex, achievable only by an intelligent supercomputer.

Like the other “Great Schools,” the Guild was founded in the wake of the Butlerian Jihad. Without AIs, the civilization of the Known Universe would fragment. The Guild was a cabal of scientists and spacefarers determined--like the Bene Gesserit and the Mentat schools--that the only solution to their problem was to train the human mind to superhuman levels. They created training programs centered on mathematics, particularly logic and chaos theory.

After decades of experiments (including some lethal disasters) they hadn’t gotten any further than test flights in which a navigator moved a shuttle in and out of “foldspace.” This all changed when the Zensunni migrations brought news of melange, the “awareness spectrum” drug named for the diversity of its chemical properties. After a few more decades of dangerous experimentation, the Guild discovered that massive doses of melange allowed a pilot to see forward in time, envisioning safe paths through higher dimensions without the aid of supercomputers.

Veteran spacefarers flocked to the Guild’s banner, and after the better part of another century, they had trained the first generation of Guild Navigators. When they announced their findings to the Known Universe, they were effectively announcing their monopoly on interstellar travel. The Guild’s monopoly is twofold: Only they have the Holtzman drives that can fold space, and only they can train Navigators to pilot those ships.

The Guild’s monopoly on interstellar shipping extends to a monopoly on banking. The Emperor, the Landsraad, and the Guild are the tripod of political and economic power in the Known Universe. The Guild controls entire planets, “nexus worlds,” devoted completely to shipyards, factories, fuel stations, and banking facilities. The Guild’s importance is such that the Imperial calendar reset to measure years as BG and AG (Before Guild and After Guild).

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only En Esch Headtube Dracula.

Navigators and Heighliners

Like Mentats, future Navigators undergo a lifetime of rigorous mental training. But Navigators go a step further: throughout their training they consume massive doses of spice, multiplying their lifespan and mutating them into amphibious creatures who live cloistered in large metaglass tanks. “Addiction” is too mild a term; they literally swim and breathe in clouds of spice gas.

In the Known Universe there are ultimately two kinds of ships: Guild Heighliners, and everything else. Only the Guild’s vast Heighliners are outfitted with space-bending Holtzman drives, and they are kilometers-wide ships that can hold hundreds of House frigates and millions of tons of cargo. Heighliners can’t land on a planet, so all cargo and personnel have to be ferried up to the edge of a planet’s gravity well in frigates and shuttles, which are mostly owned by the Houses. A single Heighliner could easily transport all the assets of several Great Houses at once.

Guild Policy

The Guild may be a cult of transhuman math nerds, sure, but first and foremost it’s a business. The Guild and the Houses need each other; without clients, they’d go broke like any other business. The Guild’s interest is in keeping the wheels of commerce turning.

The Guild’s universal Shipping Contract is built into the Great Convention, and the Guild maintains a strict neutrality. They deal with any House or corporation that can afford it, charging everyone the same rates. Law enforcement isn’t the Guild’s responsibility, so in most cases they don’t care who or what you ship. (If your drugs get seized or your assassins get arrested as soon as they disembark, it’s likewise not their problem.)

That said, the Guild maintains extremely strict security--most of the time spent in space travel is actually spent on safety and security procedures. If you should, say, try to conceal hazardous cargo to avoid paying hazard rates, the Guild will punish you with confiscation, fines, price hikes, and potentially, the revocation of shipping privileges. Losing Guild shipping privileges can destroy a House, assuring that they will never again rise above the level of a petty House Minor.

The most notable restriction is on the transport of military personnel and materiel. War is bad for business, and the Guild discourages it with insanely high shipping rates for any kind of military transport. This is the primary reason that war in the Imperium is fought by commando squads and not mechanized divisions, even moreso than personal shield technology. (The Guild could easily tip the scale of a war by offering discounted rates to an allied House. But for all their faults, the Guild doesn’t lean toward risky, short-term profit thinking.)

Guild security also requires all passengers to remain in their vessels during transport, with shields down. Supposedly this is because shifting mass and active shields disrupt the Navigator’s ability to plot a course through foldspace, but it’s really to prevent any violence onboard and to prevent anyone from infiltrating the inner workings of a Heighliner.

I’m sure someone is going to point out that it should be impossible for such a large and widespread organization to remain impenetrable and prevent all but the most trivial corruption, but again: absolute monopoly on the technology that sustains the Imperium.

Traveling with the Guild

Traveling across the Known Universe through foldspace only takes a few hours, but your actual journey could easily take the better part of two weeks. Most of the time is spent embarking, disembarking, and waiting in line.

First, it’s the House’s responsibility to prepare their cargo. Packing a cargo frigate takes 6-18 hours. Then, of course, the Heighliner is boarding perhaps hundreds of ships every time it visits your planet, so all of these ships have to fly up to the Heighliner and wait in line to be conducted into the holds, a process that can take up to 20 hours. (If you’re just traveling, you show up with your luggage and travel on Guild shuttles like any commercial flight, but there’s still plenty of waiting around.) The whole process repeats in reverse whenever the Heighliner makes a stop at another planet, with numerous security checks by the Guild’s Spacing Authority along the way.

Once you’re aboard, your travel time depends on how many more stops the Heighliner is making on its way to your destination, which depends on where your takeoff and destination planets lie on the shipping routes. Travel between two high-traffic worlds can take as little as a couple days, whereas traveling from one minor world to another can take up to 14 days. It’s not as bad as ocean voyages in the Age of Sail, but enough time to get cabin fever. (On a backwater planet, you might even have to wait for weeks until there’s enough shipping traffic to justify a Heighliner stopping by.)

This info is mainly to give you an idea of how long space travel takes, and what kind of scenes the Narrator can set on a Heighliner. Travel from planet to planet can and will be totally glossed over in most adventures, but scenes aboard the Heighliner can focus on smuggling, dealing with stowaways, or forbidden cargo that the Entourage doesn’t even know about. Dealing with a traitor in their own House while trying to smooth things over with the Guild can make for an adventure in itself.

One of these days, one of these days, gotta get a word through one of these days

Other Spaceships

The Houses themselves actually control most spaceships, sublight vessels capable of traveling around their own solar system. All Great Houses have cargo and transport ships, and possibly heavy cruisers and space stations for planetary defense.

Sublight ships are classed as lighters (shuttles), frigates, cruisers, and orbital stations. Cruisers and stations are military vessels too large to make planetfall. There are descriptions of several different kinds of vessels, but thankfully, no rules for space combat or prices for these ships.

Frankly, spaceship combat is too far beyond the scope of the game’s focus, and too far out from what is actually depicted in most of the novels, to be worth giving a full treatment. Notably, most kinds of heavy cruisers (Monitors and Crushers) are actually made of of several armed frigates that lock together. “Crushers” lock together in order to literally drop on planetary defenses and crush them. The thing is, specific descriptions of battleships just brings us back to the muddy question of how and when the Houses actually deploy these ships against each other, and what that means for the supposed supremacy of groups like the Sardaukar, who are the most feared army in the galaxy because they’re extremely well-trained foot soldiers.

The aptly named House Not Appearing in This Book.

Nonetheless, your Entourage might make a journey on a House-owned spaceship, and there are suggestions for standard space-trucker RPG obstacles like asteroid fields, mechanical problems, and meddling patrols by the Spacing Authority. There’s also a chart that allows you to calculate the cost of booking passage with the Guild, and I’m not sure why. Since you’re playing the elite Entourage of a vastly wealthy House, all references to exact costs seem like a pointless sop to thinking more appropriate to games with a different mindset, like D&D or Shadowrun.

And you don’t even get a little bag of pretzels.

Next time on Dune: Imperial Planetology, and an overview of the Great House homeworlds.

Imperial Planetology

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Book 3, Chapter 14: Imperial Planetology

“Planetology” means a great deal to the Dune universe. Herbert was concerned with ecology, sociology, and history, and so he conceived of “planetologists” whose studies encompass all the environmental and social sciences. In the game, the Imperial Planetological Survey (IPS) is an Imperial bureau that collects information on every planet in the Known Universe. This is logical, since Liet Kynes, Imperial planetologist, is the “Judge of the Change” for the transfer of Arrakis from Harkonnen to Atreides control in Dune.

The IPS has a “survey form” with concise information on inhabited worlds: its astronomical name (Earth would be Sol III), rotation period, geography, climate, demography, and economy. The Entourage can even send away to the IPS for information--but beware. Like any bureaucracy, the IPS is prone to mistakes or corruption. Having an in-setting bureau that can give the PCs incomplete information on their mission is a neat idea. This chapter gives us the survey forms along with detailed descriptions for the most notable Imperial worlds.

Although terraforming is limited to the Guild’s weather control satellites, there are tens of thousands of inhabited planets in the Imperium. Legally, they all fall into one of a few categories. Homeworlds are the home and fiefdom of a Great House and its Houses Minor. Only about a thousand inhabited planets are homeworlds (meaning there are about a thousand Great Houses). Siridar-fiefs are other planets held entirely in fiefdom by a Great House, inheritable like any other piece of land. Quasi-fiefs are similar, but held at the discretion of the Emperor--Arrakis is a quasi-fief. So for example, when House Atreides was awarded the fiefdom of Arrakis and moved his royal family there, Duke Leto might style himself “Duke Leto Atreides of Arrakis, Duke-absentia of Caladan” He might appoint a “siridar-governor” to manage Caladan for him.

There are also out-freyn (“immediately foreign”) worlds that technically aren’t part of the Imperium at all. Some of these are backwater hives of scum and villainy which no Great House has managed (or bothered) to conquer. But this also includes such places as the homeworlds of the mysterious Ixians and Tleilaxu, whose societies are alien to the Imperial caste system.

Before reaching thy next level of experience thou must gain 7 points. See me again when thy level has increased. Goodbye now, Hero. Take care and tempt not the Fates.

The pastoral world of Caladan has been ruled by the siridar-dukes of House Atreides for 26 generations. It is a very Earth-like world, but warmer and wetter, almost 80% covered by water. Rain and fog are common, but outside the hurricane season, the weather is generally pleasant. Caladan is an almost idyllic world with geology ranging from snow-capped mountain ranges to dense forests, vast fertile plains, and sandy beaches, with little scrubland and no true desert.

The planet has three large continents and many small islands. Most of the population lives on the Western Continent, where Cala City is the home of the Atreides’ Castle Caladan. The smaller Southern Continent hosts the Atreides’ primary spaceport, while the Eastern Continent is largely unpopulated besides the undetailed “Sisters of Isolation.” Intriguing.

Caladan is a beautiful world, but not a rich one. It’s not rich in minerals, and relies on mariculture and agriculture for its economy, namely fishing, pundi rice, paradan melons, and the famous Caladanian wine. This is why the Atreides are relatively poor for such a politically prominent Great House.

Anyone touches my squares, you get the hose.

Giedi Prime was once a majestic world of high mountains, ancient forests, and rich seas, but the greed of the siridar-barons of House Harkonnen has made it a polluted hell. The planet is naturally cold and arid, only half covered by water with vast stretches of tunda. Generations of strip mining, deforestation, erosion, and industrial runoff have made it even more inhospitable. Arable land is rare and marine life is nearly extinct. What was once a sparse but beautiful planet is now choked with smog-spewing factories and squalid tenements, awash in smog and acid rain.

If the Harkonnen have no scruples about squeezing every bit of wealth out of their home planet, they have even less regard for their people. About 25% of the population are maula, slaves without even the human rights accorded to serfs, held in shantytowns and forced labour camps outside the cities. Most of the rest of the population are crammed into filthy and overcrowded cities, working long hours under the threat of the overseer’s whip. Harkonnen industry is rapacious but not at all efficient, typified by decrepit housing, outdated equipment, and no central planning. When the laborers do get a rare holiday, most celebrate in the same manner as their Harkonnen masters, with drugs, gambling, and other vices.

When it comes to the nobility, the Harkonnen spare no expense on their comfort and that of their offworld guests. In the capitol of Harko City, they put on a show of lavish wealth and forced cheer for important visitors, but it’s a thin veneer--you don’t have to look far to find the filth, crime, and atmosphere of dread among the servants. But even the worst parts of Harko City aren’t much danger to the nobility, thanks to the Saarvek (secret police) patrols. The industrial city of Korvak is much more typical of Giedi Prime. Its richest families live in environmentally sealed housing while the commoners are exposed to toxic dumping from the city’s many factories.

The Moritani homeworld of Grumman is a stark and inhospitable world, if beautifully so. Its low temperatures and thin atmosphere support extended ice caps, permafrost, taiga, and perpetually windy grasslands where the mastodon and saber-toothed tiger thrive.

That’s the short version. There’s a recurring problem with the homeworld writeups for all the Houses we don’t know from the novels: too little information on their culture in favour of geography and climate.

Grumman’s equatorial regions are warm enough to support agriculture, but most of the planetary economy comes from mining and timber--and assassins. In the free city of Irbassa, home of the Laurentii House Minor, the ways of the ancient Moritani assassins are being revived in secret training grounds in the Monastery of Dur.

No, Crunchbeef. The Southern Sun needs you!

Kaitan is the homeworld of House Corrino, the seat of Imperial government, and therefore the most important planet in the Known Universe. The Corrinos seized control of the planet from House Carnethian in the wake of the Battle of Corrin, making it their new home after their original homeworld, Salusa Secundus, was devastated by a nuclear attack. Except for its six moons and series of icy rings, Kaitan is extremely similar to Old Earth, abundant with natural beauty and resources. And in fairness to the Corrinos, they’ve made Kaitan a vision of what Imperial government can be at its very best.

Kaitain’s development is under the management of the IPS. Guild satellites control the weather, while the cities are masterpieces of urban planning. In the capitol city of Corrinth, wide boulevards radiate outward like spokes from the Imperial Palace, which houses the Golden Lion Throne and the Landsraad Hall. Poverty is unknown on Kaitain, where even the middle-class suburbs are opulent by the standards of other worlds.

The rest of Kaitain is evenly populated, with the occasional trade city or private resort. Ruins from the early reign of House Carnethian attract archaeologists from across the Imperium, while the Sardaukar War College is strictly forbidden to non-Corrino.

Sikun, governed by the siridar-marquisate of House Tseida, is known as a planet of forests and rivers, where redwoods grow to incredible heights. Unlike Grumman, the planet is graced with mild temperatures and much fertile land, so fruits, nuts, medicinal plants, and mariculture form part of the domestic economy as well as timber. Sikun’s timber industry is known for crystal-teak, a unique translucent wood. Thopters carry passengers across endless forests and high mountain ranges to major cities scattered across Sikun.

House Tseida’s real economy is based on their practice of legal services, covering every field of law from CHOAM contracts to Kanly disputes. Sikun’s legal tradition grew out of the Butlerian Jihad, but the Jihad taught House Tseida that society would turn on any entity that appeared to be accumulating too much power behind the scenes. Therefore, the Tseida took a cue from the Guild and the Sisterhood, and allowed their Houses Minor to each practice their own schools of law independently, while the Great House accedes to the status quo in the Landsraad and maintains a facade of professional disinterest.

Wallach VII takes its name from an unimaginative explorer who simply named all 17 planets in the Laoujian system after himself. The first Navachristian settlers on Wallach VII suffered massive casualties from storms before gaining a foothold and building the city of Tonnerburg. Centuries later, the Sardaukar conquered the planet and established the siridar-barony of House Tonnerburg as Imperial vassals. When House Tonnerburg was overthrown by a rebellion, the Sardaukar general who reconquered the planet was given control. General Banarc changed his family name to Wallach and assumed the siridar-barony.

Wallach is a relatively flat planet, still prone to hurricanes and tornadoes even after centuries of Guild weather control measures. Its economy is a healthy mix of minerals, timber, furs, and other agriculture. Wallach VII’s original capitol, Marasuet city, sits in the center of vast plains and surrounded by military bases, spaceports, and thopter hangars. The new capitol of Banarc City sits on a high precipice over Burseg Bay, and is called “The Rookery” for the large black ravens the Wallachs raise in their royal fortress.

The planet Arrakis, which the natives simply call Dune, is a hot desert planet with two moons that definitely didn’t inspire any science fiction films released in 1977. Besides the polar ice caps, the planet is so hot and so dry that there is zero rainfall and no open water to be found, with salt flats and tidal dust basins where another planet would have seas. Arrakis has been held in quasi-fief by House Harkonnen for 80 years, and it is the richest fiefdom in the Imperium--because despite its incredible harshness, Arrakis is the only source of the spice melange, a drug that is the most valuable commodity in the universe. The spice extends life, and its consciousness-expanding properties are vital to the Bene Gesserit and, even more importantly, the Guild Navigators.

Civilization is only possible in rocky regions in the northern latitudes. The deserts are wracked with Coriolis storms, sandstorms reaching 800kph and capable of reducing a human body to scattered splinters of bone. If the storms don’t get you, then you’re prey for the sandworms, hundreds-meter long megafauna who can sense the vibration of a man walking across the dunes.

If the supply of spice is ever disrupted, Imperial civilization would collapse. Despite this, Arrakis and its spice are poorly understood. The Guild declines to deploy weather satellites or fully map the planet, citing atmospheric disturbances. Imperial planetologists have only scattered stations in the northern hemisphere, and the Harkonnen have no census of how many Fremen survive in the deep desert outside their cities. The truth is, knowledge is power, and the powerful factions of the Imperium are wary of one another gaining too much knowledge of Arrakis, or of being seen to do so themselves.

Mining spice is a guerilla operation; beds of spice suddenly erupt to the surface in “spice blows” where they are hopefully detected by spotter aircraft. Transport thopters drop “sandcrawlers,” tracked vehicles that work frantically to scoop up spice for processing before the nearest sandworm arrives. Arrakis is home to spice smugglers with their own spotters and crawlers, hoping to claim spice beds missed by the powerful Spice Mining Guild.

Carthag and Arakeen are the planet’s only true cities. Arakeen is a small garrison city of only 2 million, while Carthag is a huge city that houses over a third of Arrakis’ documented population. It is also a typically Harkonnen city, with gaudy domes and skyscrapers towering over a wretched peasantry who thirst for the filthy water wrung from Harkonnen rags. In many homes in both cities, environmental seals to control temperature and preserve moisture are the only signs of modern technology. The scarcity of water is the most important fact of life on Dune, producing simple technologies like windtraps and dew collectors to catch what little moisture is in the air, as well as stillsuits, bodysuits which collect almost every drop of moisture shed by the human body. (Realism note: I assume stillsuits have some kind of electric cooling system, or wearing them would be a particularly unpleasant form of suicide, condemning yourself to cook in a person-shaped Crock-Pot.) Still, most of the population’s water is provided by the Water Seller’s Guild, who “mine” the polar glaciers.

The desert is populated only by an unknown number of Fremen, mysterious people descended from Zensunni Wanderers who traveled from planet to planet fleeing religious persecution millennia ago. Out-freyn, speaking an ancient language and practicing a unique religion, they are popularly associated with the smugglers of Dune, and rarely discussed by the other natives of Arrakis. The Fremen live in rocky outcroppings and caves, and practice even more strenuous water discipline than other natives.

Ecaz is almost an earthly paradise, with incredibly fertile forests, jungles, and grasslands. Ecaz is the homeworld of House Vidal, and the primary source of the Imperium’s most exquisite science-fictional plants--fogwood, krimskell vine, and drugs such as sapho and semuta--as well as mundane crops like banana and avocado. Ecaz attracts large numbers of tourists as well as woodcarvers, agronomists, botanists, and other researchers.

Isn’t this planet interesting? Don’t you want to play House Vidal, and rule the other planet where the magic drugs come from, instead of some dry windy planet covered in conifers? Yeah, I thought so.

Hagal is called the Jewel Planet, the homeworld of House O’Garee. Although its largest, richest veins have been mined out, many more wait to be discovered. It is famous for its unique opafire, opaline gems with many glittering colours which decorate the Imperial crown jewels, and Hagalian quartz, from which the Golden Lion Throne is built.

The writeup on Ix is a fucking treat, because it’s an excuse for Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson (who acted as consultants on this game) to pitch one of their shitty prequel books. Ix, so named because it is Alkaurops IX, is ruled by House Vernius. It’s an icy planet, covered in tundra and alpine forests, which appears to be completely uninhabited. That’s because its cities are kilometers underground.

Once transported below the surface by suspensor-lift tubes, visitors to Ix will find huge grotto cities where suspensor-driven aircraft flit between massive stalactites, and railways and groundcars are common. Huge projectors create the illusion of an open sky. Aristocrats and important officials occupy the upper levels, while the uniformed commoners work in clean, modern factories. Well-treated and well-paid, these “suboids” have little reason to rebel against the ruling class...were it not for Bene Tleilaxu propaganda! For more information about the suboid rebellion, see Dune: House Atreides by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, published by Bantam, squeezed out of a butthole in 1999!

Richese, home of House Richese, is famed for its technological advances. House Richese fell precipitously when it lost the fiefdom of Arrakis to House Harkonnen, and their technological innovations can’t compete with those of Ix. They tried to consolidate their position through political marriages; Duke Leto Atreides’ mother was a Richese noblewoman. I think Richese is an excellent hook for an Entourage. A House that can offer them not-quite-Ixian gear, in need of allies, with a grudge against the Harkonnen--I could build part of a campaign around that.

One doesn’t speak lightly of Salusa Secundus, the abandoned homeworld of House Corrino. The planet was devastated by atomic weapons, launched by a House which has since been so thoroughly exterminated that not even its name survives. After relocating to Kaitain, the Padishah Emperors maintained Salusa Secundus as a siridar-fief and prison planet, where the Imperium’s most dangerous criminals are sent to spend the rest of what promise to be brief and miserable lives. Even a society that tolerates brutal slavery blanches at reports of a 60% death rate among new prisoners.

Salusa Secundus has a thin atmosphere, which means scorching days, freezing nights, and perpetual windstorms. The planet only has 20% water coverage, most of which is still toxic. The surviving wildlife includes Salusan bulls and laza tigers.

The dirty little secret of Salusa Secundus is that it is not merely a prison planet, but a training ground for the Emperor’s Sardaukar shock troops. Those who can survive the planet’s environment are eligible to be indoctrinated to be loyal to the Corrino, with the potential of wealth and prestige beyond anything they’ve ever known. The current siridar-governor is Burseg Corrin-Ashcraft, a distant cousin to the Emperor, with a reputation for cruel discipline and fanatical elitism even by Sardaukar standards.

Wallach IX, also called Chapter House, is an independent homeworld for the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. The Sisterhood has made their planet economically self-sufficient through agriculture, and the planet serves as their headquarters and training ground. That’s all we know. For more information, buy the Bene Gesserit Companion, coming soon from Last Unicorn Games! :dawkins:

Tleilax is an out-freyn world, not technically part of the Imperium at all, controlled by the mysterious Bene Treilaxu. Even stranger than the Ixians, the Tleilaxu strictly control access to their homeworld, allowing only a few dignitaries who come to bargain for their strange biotechnology. Like Ix, Tleilax has developed technologies that are considered forbidden and even blasphemous. Whereas the Ixians deal in forbidden electronics and computerization, the Tleilax have mastered biotech and eugenics surpassing even the Sisterhood. Face dancers are shapeshifters who act as jesters and spies, while gholas are clones grown from cells taken from corpses. They have also demonstrated the ability to create prosthetic eyes, and to condition “Twisted Mentats” who exhibit psychopathic personalities and are unbound by the ethics that are a normal part of Mentat training.

Tupile is a planet, or a series of planets, maintained by the Guild as a sanctuary for renegade Houses who opt to go into exile to escape destruction. The Guild refuses to reveal anything about Tupile, and fear of losing their shipping privileges prevents any House from investigating. Perhaps Tupile does not exist at all--no one who seeks sanctuary there is ever heard from again. Still, the Guild sells unique agricultural products that supposedly come from Tupile, such as corepsidon bush ink, schlag hide, and the sondagi fern-tulip.

Next time on Dune: It’s the last chapter, containing Famous NPCs and standard stock characters.

Imperial Personages

posted by Halloween Jack Original SA post

Introduction, Preface
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3, Part 1
Chapter 3, Part 2
Chapter 4, Part 1
Chapter 4, Part 2
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14

Okay, looking back, I now realize why this review took so long to complete.

Book 3, Chapter 15: Imperial Personages

Our survey of this game ends on an anticlimactic note, with a chapter of information on some of the most important Great House nobles and stats for stock NPCs. The notes on named characters don’t include any stats at all, but the stats provided for the lesser NPCs answer a question I’ve had as I’ve been reading the book: what does a given number in a stat or skill mean with regard to how your character stacks up against the people from the novels?

In short, the game makes good on its promise that even having 1 point in a skill makes a character an expert. If your PC has stats and skills in the range of 3s and 4s, they’re equal to unnamed but elite supporting characters like Sardaukar commanders.

Big Deal Imperial Dudes of Legend

[curiously not pictured]

The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV is a stern but cunning aristocrat who supports the status quo. He’s very much an “iron fist in a velvet glove” sort, who wears a Sardaukar general’s uniform and helmet as an unsubtle reminder that his elite stormtroopers are the source of his power.

Count Hasimir Fenring is the Emperor’s right-hand man, the closest thing he has to a friend. He is his advisor, emissary, de facto “spice czar,” and a feared duelist and assassin. His wife Margot is a high-ranking Bene Gesserit. The Sisterhood considers Fenring a failed Kwisatz Haderach--he is supremely talented, but a “genetic eunuch.” (Whether this means sterility or impotence is never made clear.)

Duke Leto Atreides, or “Leto the Just,” is the rare noble who truly believes that loyalty is a two-way street. His well-earned reputation for integrity has allowed him to recruit a House Entourage that is second to none, and despite his House’s relative poverty, has made him the unofficial leader of a coalition of Great Houses in the Landsraad who oppose the Emperor and his allies.

Lady Jessica is Leto Atreides’ bound-concubine and the mother of his heir. She was one of the BG Reverend Mother’s most promising students, but disobeyed the orders of their breeding program by bearing Leto a son. This severely disrupted their plans to wed an Atreides daughter to a Harkonnen son, ending a centuries-long vendetta and creating the Kwisatz Haderach in one masterstroke.

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who uses a suspensor belt to compensate for his immense corpulence, is a ruthless schemer whose hunger for greater wealth and power is only matched by his hatred for the Atreides. He will not rest until the Atreides line is extinguished.

Created for the Harkonnen by the Bene Treilaxu, Piter de Vries is a “twisted Mentat” for whom normal ethical constraints are replaced by obsessive sadism. He serves the Baron as a spymaster and torturer, but his expensive spice addiction and sadism shock even the Harkonnen--Piter is blithely aware that the Baron plans to execute him the moment he outlives his usefulness.

na-Count Tycho di Moritani rules as regent in the name of his senile father, keeping him around in case he needs him as a shield against any legal retribution. Why would he need it? Well, the main project of his rule is to secretly revive the ancient cult of Bhotani assassins, while embarking on a public relations campaign to change his House’s image.

Verdun Dei is the former leader of another school of assassins, recruited by Tycho to revive the Bhotani ways. While other Moritani advisors handle the propaganda campaign, he focuses entirely on turning a long-abandoned monastery into a secret training ground. He is training his instructors using the Fraternus Electi, a compilation of Bhotani lore, and has outfitted the monastery with state-of-the-art devices from Ix and Richese.

Lady Catriona Tseida rules her House as regent for her young nephew Iorgu. She is a conservative ruler who focuses on strengthening their relations with other Houses. Her combination of striking beauty and keen intelligence makes her a beguiling negotiator.

Moebius Ahearn was a Sunnivas professor who shocked his colleagues when he left his academic post to become an “ethics advocate” for House Tseida. It’s implied that he puts a moral face on Tseida’s changing policy on advocating for more technology, but I don’t see many story hooks with this guy.

Baron Wolfram von Wallach, like the ancestor who founded his House, was a decorated Sardaukar veteran before taking up House leadership. Though elderly, he still exercises his body and mind, able to hold his own against several younger men on a sparring mat.

Lechter Aedile is Baron Von Wallach’s Suk physician. An excellent doctor and geneticist but a poor politician, he was glad to be recruited into House Wallach from a stalled academic career.

Supporting NPCs

CHOAM Delegates are financial advisors, ambassadors, and diplomats, with skills related to negotiation and financial laws.

Concubines are commonplace among the Houses. They don’t just correspond to the “courtesans” in other games; they rear noble children, and have skills related to managing royal households since their children’s lives depend on it.

Guild Spokesmen are prescient Navigators who haven’t turned to fishmen yet and are empowered to speak for the Guild. Defying any Spokesman means defying the Guild, so they’re pretty damn cocky around Imperial nobles who are used to being obeyed. They have a Prescience stat, the diplomatic and mercantile skills you’d expect, and Racketeering? Even the Guild isn’t incorruptible.

Imperial Planetologists are mainly in charge of taking censuses and monitoring how Houses use their planet’s resources. They’re mainly scientists, but they have some political power--you don’t want them tattling on you to the home office. Judges of the Change are similar: non-noble, but still high-status Imperial agents appointed to monitor things like kanly and quasi-fiefs, and tattle on you if you fuck up.

Landsraad Emissaries are basically senators appointed to represent their Great House in the Landsraad. It’s a common job for nobles who aren’t the firstborn, and they have high ratings in social and political skills.

Sardaukar Commanders are the best of the best, officers in the Emperor’s elite Sardaukar troops. While they are fanatically loyal to the Emperor like all Sardaukar, commanders tend to be “egotistical, even megalomaniacal.” For reference, these guys have physical attributes and combat skills each in the 3-4 range, and traits like Heroism and Resilience, to give you an idea of how fighty PCs stack up against the best fighters in the galaxy that aren’t Fremen.

Truthsayers are elite Bene Gesserit sisters who act as human lie detectors, and are hired out to the Houses for this purpose. Stat-wise, they’re at least as scary as Sardaukar officers--not as much in combat, though their Weirding Combat makes them formidable, but they have 4s and 5s in stuff like BG Way, Politics, Subterfuge, and Voice, allowing them to bend almost anyone to their will.

Umma are prescient, religious mystics not governed by the BG or Guild, who wander about preaching and agitating. Most high-status people consider them charlatans.


Criminal is a catch-all for any sort of underworld operator. They have some combat and stealth skills, but are mainly focused on shady business related skills.

Demagogue represents “anyone who leads a mob against the establishment,” including religious fanatics and labor activists--the sort of people a feudal House has to deal with. Their skill focus is entirely social.

Guards are House security personnel, the kind who would be trusted to guard an Imperial household, with combat stats and skills in the 2-3 range. House troopers are weaker, with attributes defaulting to 2 and 1-2 points in combat skills.

Sardaukar troopers are a different breed, with physical attributes at 3, combat skills at 2-3, and the Heroism trait as well as high survival skills.

Saboteurs physically or socially infiltrate enemy organizations to throw them into chaos. They don’t have combat skills, but high levels in skills related to Stealth and using high-tech equipment.

Slave gladiators are usually maula, but considered valuable to their House. Their stats represent a gladiator who’s managed to survive many battles, with stats similar to a Sardaukar trooper. Also, something I didn’t notice before: These guys have the Shield Fighting trait, which really ought to be possessed by other elite fighters like House Guards and any Sardaukar.

Troubadours are some of the rare individuals who travel many worlds working for many different houses as musicians, poets, and storytellers. Because of their unique position, troubadours are romantic figures who carry a mystique reputing them as lovers, spies, and duelists. Troubadours have artistic and social skills, and most do develop combat skills in case they get into trouble.

Other Extras I don’t care to go over in any detail include slavemasters, interrogators, merchants, and sleeper agents. Their stats aren’t all that important, but such entries are important to establishing the nature of the setting.

Even the Emperor’s Sardaukar terror troops will be helpless before the might of our bumper jumpers!


Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium is a solid presentation on the Dune setting that does an intelligent job of filling in the gaps where need be. On the design front, it has a few innovations (namely the incomplete House Attributes) and is otherwise very much of its time.

So would I play this game? To be honest, no. I mean, I’d certainly play in the Dune setting, and I’d happily go along with most of the authors’ assumptions about setting elements that are left vague in the novels. But the system mostly sucks. The ICON system is one of those late-90s-early-00s in-house systems that was created for the sake of having an in-house system. The skill list is way too long, including many skills that overlap each other and some class-specific skills (like Ritualism and the Mentat skills) that are meaningless gobbledygook without nonexistent subsystems that were meant to appear in sourcebooks. The House Venture rules are incomplete.

I like the House Attributes themselves, and the combat system is pretty cool and far better than the core mechanic it’s based on. (It’s rare to see an action-point based, maneuver-based combat system from the 90s that isn’t a tedious minigame.) I could actually use a lot of material from this book. But I think it would be dishonest to say “I’d totally play this game--after I take a chainsaw to the skill list, replace the House rules with the Company rules from Reign, and oh yeah, change the basic die mechanic.”

I also wouldn’t be inclined to play a random House Minor, competing with other Houses Minor for resources on a Great House homeworld, with everything the PCs accomplish happening several steps below the scale of importance of the events of the novels. Fuck, in the novels, Duke Leto only refers to his Houses Minor in a couple of throwaway lines! I’d much rather have my PCs playing through the author’s own Dune Adventure campaign, doing important things adjacent to the stuff the characters are doing. I agree with the developers’ research that said that while people playing a Star Wars or Star Trek game want to be as powerful as the main characters, people playing a Dune game probably don’t want to be Paul. Even Paul doesn’t want to be Paul; that’s the point! Fight alongside characters like Gurney and Duncan instead.


BI-LA KAIFA: Amen. (Literally: “Nothing further need be explained.”)