Pen & Paper Roleplaying Central => Reviews => Topic started by: bromides on May 28, 2022, 03:50:52 PM

Title: Dune: Adventures in the Imperium
Post by: bromides on May 28, 2022, 03:50:52 PM
Modiphius' 2d20 system is interesting. The character sheets are light, not oppressively heavy things with overly numerated stats... and so the system also isn't overly hard and numeric in many ways. It's a narrative-ish system, which I bounced off of (HARD) when it came to the "Star Trek Adventures" game. Maybe it was the LCARS presentation, which I think is shitty (but everything Star Trek is infested by LCARS, which is grossly overrated as a working interface, IMO).

So, to the review...

"Dune: Adventurers in the Imperium" is a frustrating game that is perhaps one of the better 2d20 releases. Ultimately, it feels like half of a title, much like the recent half of a "Dune" movie that we got. The characters are interesting and not bogged down by overly complex crap traits and garbage stats. There are multiple levels of character contests/interactions, from the one-on-one duels to the high level strategic systems, moving armies and assets across the game board in a grand strategic play.

Yet... as spare and efficient as the character traits are, the sparse details around every level of play above the character level makes half of the game's dice rolling contests into a line art storyboard of game systems rather than giving you the feeling of a fully fleshed out game universe.

Yes, there's strategic play in the rules as written... but the game as written doesn't really reflect that. The intro scenario, examples of play and everything about "Adventures in the Imperium" are about character-level adventures in the imperium (quelle suprise).

So what you get is another set of rules where you're killing things and taking their stuff, albeit with a House Atreides (or House Atreides clone) twist. There's a hint of something more, but it just isn't there unless you're willing to put in a lot of time and effort.


Onto the book.
There's about 70 pages of setting material, which is about right when it comes to the Dune universe. You could throw in a metric fkton of material here and it would be too much or not enough, depending on which nerd is reading the material at the time. I think 70 pages is enough, in general.

Roughly 20 pages on various planets (Caladan, Arrakis, Giedi Prime, Kaitain, etc.) Most of the page count is on Arrakis, though. I find that problematic because IMO, Arrakis is a trap. There is nowhere to go from Arrakis once your characters arrive there. They die or they become gods. It's really the death of a campaign. You walk in Paul's footsteps, at best, and a re-tread campaign can either be brilliant (in rare cases) or extremely boring (in most actual cases). However, they're bound to their license, and the movie is about Paul... so it's a tricky situation where the license has probably dealt them a shitty hand about how to describe the universe as a whole. (Reducing it to Arrakis is predictable and dull, but that is my opinion.)

Key organizations also get page count, with 4 pages dedicated to the Bene Gesserit, as an example. That probably isn't enough for that organization, and what we get is extremely "safe". Very little about eugenics, despite a paragraph about the Kwisatz Haderach. The whole messianic thing, along with the eugenics, is not really there... perhaps because it's fraught with political problems in a 2021 reading of Dune, where woke and safe spaces abound. (Paul Atreides, the genocidal monster, as an emo hipster woke hero? LOL. Amazing. We'll see what they do with him in the bottom half of the movie.) It's like the era of sexless gender-ambiguous feminism, like the recent Dune movie's approach to Lady Jessica (as if they had to remake her because she was a woman and she needed to be a wymyn for a modern audience). No, the Bene Gesserit aren't weak because of their gender... they are strong. The whole wymyn super-ninja thing isn't as important to the Bene Gesserit's role in the Dune universe as their gender is, but Dune games are (ultimately) played at the character level, where wymyn ninjas are more important than being wives (to borrow an idea from the end of the Dune novel).

CHOAM, the Landsraad also are important, sort of. The descriptions are there, which are key because part of the game allows you to create your own House (and membership in the Landsraad & CHOAM are important, even if the mechanics don't exist in the rules). You're mostly left to your own devices with the Landsraad, with CHOAM.

There's also many pages spent on the history of the books, describing the eras prior to the Dune movie, such as the Butlerian Jihad. And maybe it's useful, maybe not. I find that a lot of backstory tends to be wankery, with little use and application to a game that should be played forward in time rather than backwards. A lot of the history just isn't that useful to a game because it's not actionable, and therefore, it's wasted space. However, for completeness' sake, you need this wankery or else the true nerds will revolt against your thing.


Next section allows you to create your own Great House. There's a lot of good/interesting text descriptions to flesh out... aaand, that's about it. It's good, and perhaps even useful for adding concepts to a story.

It may simply be excess overhead for your gamers, however, especially if you're only operating at the character level. What does it matter if your character is a peon for a Minor House or a Great House? You're an agent with little agency, doing the bidding of someone else

It's a cool idea. There's just very sparse implementation, and questionable applicability to the game-as-intended (which is "adventures in the imperium", riding sand worms and shooting people with maula pistols and taking their stuff). The idea is cool, but the implementation is weak and unsupported by the actual game.

(IMO, I can already do Arab-influenced sci fi Agent-level play in a far better way with Coriolis. It's a mistake to focus on Agent-level play in Dune, IMO.)


Next section... characters. At last! We're on page 100, and we've finally made it to the characters.

I really like the sparse nature of the character sheet. This is where 2d20 shines, IMO. It's not OSR, but there's a simplicity to the character sheet that is reminiscent of OSR.

There are 5 skills, for example. It boils everything down to a few concepts. Each skill has multiple "Focuses". So the Communicate skill includes things like Charm, Music, Disguise. Each character gets 4 Foci... er, ah, Focuses. And, mechanically, the Foci simply expands the dice roll range for a critical success. It's not like there are tables and tables of weird shit for each individual Focus. Each one has the same impact on how the dice work, so the system is mechanically quite simple.

There are 5 character Drives - Duty, Faith, Justice, Power, Truth. These are motivations for action, definitions of character. You write a descriptor for the top 3, and there are mechanical things that go with violating or acting in accordance with those statements.

Ultimately, "2d20" is based on a combination of Skill + Drive. You roll 2d20, and aim to roll under a combination of Skill + Drive. There's some rules lawyering about which Skill and which Drive apply to a particular action (since the Skill and Drive descriptors are broad), but the basic system is about adding Skill + Drive, and trying to score under on 2d20.

It's a simple, perhaps elegant system, and it uses the big nerd dice... the 20-sider. This is perhaps the most charming bit about the 2d20 system, in general. It's quick and it isn't overly complex. For some reason, it reads very well in this book where it seemed really weird to me in the Star Trek Adventures book. (I totally blame the distracting LCARS presentation... it just reads like a master class on how not to write a rulebook.)

There are meta-currencies, however. These are narrative-ish things that help players and GMs to drive actions a certain way. (If it's important to you, you spend the token and get more dice or some other ability to influence what is going on). Again, the meta-currency section is pretty clean and straightforward, assuming you don't hate the concept of narrative meta-currency at the tabletop.


Lastly (for this review), we'll get to the dice contests in a little more detail... which the book calls "Conflict".

Basically, Conflict is a game about moving assets around a game map, and then using those assets to overcome whatever obstacles they find in the various game map locations. Everything is about moving Assets, and then using those Assets once they are in place.

So, the "Duel" Conflict, for instance. The game is about moving your Knife/weapon into your opponent's personal space, and then using (stabbing) the Knife at the person.
The "Skirmish" Conflict... you move your PCs and NPCs around a game map (based on some physical area), and do whatever... steal shit, blow shit up, kill dudes, etc.
The "Espionage" Conflict... you move your spies, informants, surveillance devices, security/defense measures around a map made up of social groups & secured locations to extract whatever information you need to "win" the espionage.
The "Warfare" Conflict... you move armed forces, place fortifications around a map of physical space.
The "Intrigue" Conflict... as separate from Espionage, you're trying compromise or corrupt some aspect of the opposition.

All of these are good ideas, and the game-as-written only seems to use 2 of those ("Duel" and "Skirmish"). Everything else is mostly not an "adventure in the imperium" (yee haw).

Those other Conflict types are really good concepts that deserve more attention, but there are about 4 pages for Warfare (for instance) and 4 pages for Intrigue. That's it. Espionage is less. The intro scenario makes zero use of those higher level Conflicts. The examples of play also do not touch higher-level/House Conflict.

How do you overcome an obstacle with an asset? How do you determine that your House Guard are able to defeat the enemy Shield Wall, for instance? Target the asset and attack it, with a difficulty of 2 (i.e. 2 successes on 2d20) to overcome. Is that enough? Is it too reductive?

They did add "Quality" levels to Assets (which seem tacked-on, and not integrated into Asset selection during Character Creation, for instance)... so that a unit of Fremen Fedaykin or Imperial Sardaukar have Quality: 4 (plus a host of individual traits/keywords), and House elite troops are generally in the 3-4 range as a guideline. However, the application is still the same. 2 successes are required to overcome some obstacle, so a troop of Quality 0 Conscripts that score 2 successes against Imperial Sardaukar will remove the Sardaukar from the board. Does that make sense?

It just feels unfinished. There ought to be more examples and scenarios where this House-level play is fleshed out in the book, but it ain't.

IMO, that is the missed opportunity here. Like the Villeneuve Dune movie, it feels like half of something good. I can tell there's something good here, and there are good thoughts involved, but it's half of what I'd want.

That is ultimately the failing of this work. I like what it could be.
What it is? I'm not sure it can be recommended unless you want to buy in to the potential.
Title: Re: Dune: Adventures in the Imperium
Post by: HappyDaze on May 28, 2022, 07:43:27 PM
Thanks for the review. I got the Harkonnen cover version for cheap ($45) but have barely opened it. Not a huge fan of the 2d20 system, but I can see some positives in it for certain styles of play (which don't usually match mine or those of most groups I play with). Still, it's a pretty book.
Title: Re: Dune: Adventures in the Imperium
Post by: bromides on May 28, 2022, 09:48:45 PM
Same, same. Ordered the Harkonnen book from the big evil e-tailer. I really do like the red cover for the Harkonnen version. It stands out from the other books.

I am impressed by Modiphius' delivery method. In my Harkonnen book, I got a sticker with a code that gave me a free PDF version of the book from the Modiphius site (in addition to the printed copy that I ordered).

That was a huge positive for me as a customer, to get the digital copy in addition to the physical copy, and I didn't even order it from them. (The Harkonnen cover being the evil e-tail site exclusive, and the Atreides cover being the special edition from the Modiphius store.)

That being said... I do like this interpretation of 2d20. It's just under-cut by the focus on character-level action when a lot of the interesting part is the House-level action.

"Star Trek Adventures" was near un-readable for me. It's a sloppy book, IMO. "Dune" is far better at describing a system in a way that got me interested in it, although it leaves me hanging because I think the book is ultimately lacking in what I wanted from it.

Still, it got me more interested in 2d20 as a product. I'm more likely to check out the John Carter books, anyway. The woke Conan books, not so much, even if I love Conan the Barbarian.
Title: Re: Dune: Adventures in the Imperium
Post by: HappyDaze on May 29, 2022, 06:01:48 AM
The woke Conan books, not so much, even if I love Conan the Barbarian.
The Conan books are 2d20 done with a far more traditional skill system and advancement rules (in comparison to Star Trek Adventures). I like it for that, but it also leads to character bloat as you eventually get dozens (or even scores) of talents piling up.
Title: Re: Dune: Adventures in the Imperium
Post by: bromides on May 31, 2022, 10:42:18 PM
One thing I might do with Dune is to adapt the Skirmish rules to Twilight:2000. I don't want to haul out the hex maps every time there's a fuqing random event. The Skirmish concept in Dune is sufficient to provide structure without going 100% theater of the mind.

Twilight:2000 delivers the goods outside of the character level. Free League understands the survival hex crawl concept very well. Dune requires more work outside the character level.
Title: Re: Dune: Adventures in the Imperium
Post by: thornad on June 19, 2022, 08:44:05 PM
The book is gorgeous. The writing is on point. I just can't get into the 2d20 system.