Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Forms Must Be Obeyed: A Dune RPG One-Off

The Beginning Is A Delicate Time...
Way back in the mists of time, my Dad got me Dune II for the Acorn as a Christmas present.  (Yes, we were an Acorn family - I still pine for the days of RiscOS.)  He had seen it somewhere and, remembering that he had enjoyed the Dune film, figured he'd give it a punt.  I ended up enjoying it enough to chase up this film my Dad had mentioned, and then the novel it was based on, and then some of the sequels.... and ended up very much hooked.

I've wanted to run a Dune RPG for a while, but for various reasons it hasn't ever happened.  It came back to mind in the past year or so as I reread my way through all of Dune - finally completing the last of Frank Herbert's sequels.  Still, playing a game set in the world had been only a pipe dream....

Until this Wednesday.

Francesca Annis as a rather delectable Jessica in David Lynch's Dune.
My main issue has always been system.  Dune has only ever had one official RPG by Last Unicorn games but it had such a terribly small print run (due to legal issues) that copies goes for $200 and no legit digital copy is available.  It's a very pretty book but the only practical way to use it is as an illegal scanned PDF or a printout thereof.

The Shortening Of The WAy
This holy grail is, however, not something I rate that highly.  Dune calls itself the Dune game but it's very narrow in focus: playing as members of a House Minor in the pre-Paul-Atredies, "House prequel" era.  (It came out at the same time as House Atredies, and the fluff therefore includes fragments from the early Herbert Jnr/Anderson novels which may put off some Herbert Snr Purists.) Interested in playing in any other time frame or any other type of character, including the Great Houses who are the stars of the fucking novel series?  Well, then, just consult one of a half-dozen supplements mentioned by name.... but which were never released because, as mentioned, the game was obliterated by legal problems.  There's also the fact that I find the ICON System quite dull - it's just Generic 90s RPG Rules Set #723

Not Generic 90s RPG Rules Set #723

Instead, my preferred choice was Burning Wheel, a fantasy RPG which has a free supplement called Burning Sands which is Dune-with-serial-numbers-filed-off.  I've ran Burning Wheel before for some of my regular players - Ailsa, Raj and Matthew did a little one-off, and Matthew has ran us through the related game Mouse Guard.  From this we learned that we were alright with the core mechanics but that it isn't ideal for one-off play: in particular, it's got a very fiddly combat system called Fight! and an equally detailed social combat system called Duel of Wits.  Burning Wheel has lots of cool stuff going on but it requires a fair bit of player knowledge of the system to work.

Another reason it's not ideal for one-off play is that several game mechanics only come up if you design your own characters and play them over months of sessions - stuff like the lifepath system for character creation, the way you track individual dice rolls for each skill to track when they individually advance and the existence of not one, not two but three separate types of "Hero Points"  The end result is that when the players sat down and saw these terrifying character sheets...

....and they flipped out, but large chunks of that aren't relevant for one-off play.

For our one-off the adventure I used was Instruments of Kanly, the sample adventure out of the Last Unicorn Games edition.  Charles, Raj, Matthew and Ailsa played: an intellectual junior noble, a suspicious Mentat Warmaster, a loyal Swordmaster bodyguard and a bitter Assassin.  Serving House Tseida, they travelled to the planet Chusuk to take part in an auction for a musical instrument which is an artifact with connections to both their house and their rivals House D'Murjzin. 

Princess Irulan from the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series - wearing one of her more sane outfits.

The end result was theft attempts, suspicion, diplomacy and an awkward finale in which House Tseida appears complicit in a crime and must choose between two imperfect options.

The Spice Must Flow
Pacing wise, the adventure just had too much going on for one night and it was a real rush in the last hour or so.  We could have really benefited from an extra night and it's a shame that we just don't have time for that.  In particular we didn't get a chance to play with Fight! or Duel of Wits - whereas in the original Burning Wheel one-off I ran I got to show each of those off.  That particularly did Matthew a disservice since his Swordmaster's main gimmick was his combat prowess.

That said, tone wise the game felt pretty good to me.  I love Dune, me, and getting to say words like Navachristianity, Kanly, Heighliner and Sysselraad make the 13 year old in me squee with delight.  The players definitely seemed to get into the swing of things - they schemed and politicked in the way of Dune, with Raj particularly getting into the head of an unhinged Mentat who trusted no-one.  All the characters were quite potent power-wise which was another plus for me - Dune's main character are almost all total bad-asses, trained by exclusive schools or veterans of decades of adventure.  Bad dice luck happens, but on the whole our Assassin, Mentat and Swordmaster felt equal in awesomeness to Gurney Halleck, Thufir Hawat or Duncan Idaho to me.

I still have my very battered copy of Dune with this cover.

Would I play this again?  I think so.  I wouldn't want to do another one-off, though - I'd want to do a proper campaign.  Burning Sands assumes as it's default a post Dune, pre-Dune Messiah game with the players either taking the side of the Fremem Jihad or the nobles resisting it.  I think that's an idea with legs - my only real limitation is finding the time to fit it into the many other games and game ideas we have sloshing about...

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