Review: Dune’s new TTRPG understands what makes the book great

Dune: Adventures in the ImperiumThis tabletop game captures the feel of Frank Herbert’s source material. Publishers Modiphius Entertainment have baked in the scope of Frank Herbert’s epic political power struggle, but also the intimacy of its personal conflicts. And they’ve done it with ambition and scale — plus a pair of clever opposed mechanics.

They create an amazing give-and-take together DuneIt extends far beyond character interaction and even into campaign meta-narratives. This results in a tense, if not fatal, stalemate between the players and the GM that threatens to lead to nuclear destruction and total collapse of Galactic Empire. It makes for an extremely fun and intense game night.

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium relies on conventional 20-sided dice for its skill checks, just like Dungeons & Dragons. However, it introduces another pool of resources which could have even greater consequences at the table. When players succeed at more than one task, it creates momentum. Every task (e.g. unlocking a door) requires a certain number of success. To unlock the door, players must roll 3 successes. If they have two success, then Momentum will be earned. Momentum can be used to solve further challenges or force through obstacles.

Bene Gesserit confront a hologram of a sandworm on Dune.

Image: Modiphius Entertainment

Momentum can be a tempting temptation to use up, so it is best not to do this. However, doing so could lead the party into a difficult situation later. That’s because spending Momentum creates Threat, a separate resource that game masters can use to make things more challenging. Threat could be used by game masters to raise the difficulty level of an encounter or add to the fun with unexpected story twists or more enemies. It’s fun at a micro level, with individual characters struggling for survival. But the game itself — just like the original novel — is far bigger in scope than that.

Adventures in the ImperiumIt operates on a large scale, which is unusual for other TTRPGs. During character creation, players won’t create just a single character. Instead, they’ll create an entire House — a collection of high-born characters and their blue- and white-collar retinue, as well as the planet, its society, and the culture that surrounds them. Although it may seem like only two people are fighting on Arrakis’ surface with swords, by the end your campaign players will have full command of entire platoons and weapons. From there, it’s just a hop skip and a jump to a galaxy-wide battle for power. Momentum and Threat still dominate the scene, even on that large scale.

Soldiers flee during the invasion of Arrakis. Fire rains down.

Image: Modiphius Entertainment

I only saw my players use Momentum once during our first game night — to help themselves escape from the maw of a sandworm. The players made an athletics-based final attempt at safety in a desperate moment. Momentum pushed them barely over the edge, and when they succeeded, everyone cheered — even me. The moment was filled with pure joy.

However, it left me as the GM with a formidable option: What if this success were reversed?

Like any TTRPG, the GM needs to exercise restraint. That’s especially true for something as powerful as Threat. It would have been easy, maybe even fun, for me to throw a wrench in their escape, collapsing the rock they landed on and sending them falling back into the worm’s mouth. Would it have made for a good laugh?

Use Threat as a bludgeon to cause bad judgements and hurt feelings. This is a fantastic way to ensure everyone leaves happy. But, when it’s used with subtlety, Threat offers one of the most fantastic ways to boost tension and organically introduce story beats I’ve ever seen in a TTRPG.

A fortune is read with tarot.

Image: Modiphius Entertainment

Rather than fiddling with damage numbers behind a GM screen, the game master can get players to sit up and pay attention by outright stating, “I’m spending one Threat to reinforce the enemy troops and two Threat to introduce the rumblings of a sandworm.” Alternatively, Threat can be used to suddenly drop a new character plucked from a House’s backstory into the mix. Maybe a player fails to pass a skill test that depends on their Bene Gesserit Training. The GM could use Threat to place an older mentor at the sidelines and watch disapprovingly. Threat can be a powerful narrative tool as well as a tool for violence, one that enables some great “oh shit” moments at the table.

That’s especially true when the party realizes you’ve been stockpiling Threat since session one.

TTRPG Rules are often only guidelines for the game. They’re ever-present and important, but they so rarely connect to the core of the universe. Dune: Adventures in the ImperiumThe rules are accepted wholeheartedly by everyone involved, creating an environment that feels as though everything is on the edge, waiting for the right person to push their advantage. It feels very much like Dune

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium Modiphius Entertainment supplied a final retail edition for the review. Vox Media is an affiliate partner. They do not affect editorial content. However, Vox Media might earn commissions for products bought via affiliate links. Here are some links to help you find. additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here

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