Friday, 16 March 2018

A 'Dune' roleplaying game

Image result for dune first editionIn my last blog entry I discussed my love of the Dune universe and the fact that I have never been able to run a game with that same sense of intrigue and mysticism. I thought I'd expand on those thoughts a little more and try to make sense of why that is. Bear with me; this is probably more for my own edification than anything else.

I have never owned an official Dune roleplaying game, namely 'Chronicles of the Imperium', so I have never seen an official interpretation of the science fiction and religious elements of Herbert's book in practice. That's a shame in many respects as if I had seen the game I may have had a better understanding of what it was I wanted to do with a Dune game, where I wanted it to go and what kind of story I wanted to tell. However, I couldn't find a gaming group to play that kind of game with. My group was casual and enjoyed having fun with the games - as did I - and even though I tried to surreptitiously sneak games with these grand ideas into the mix they never took off.

I used to think it was a decent game system I required. After all, it was easy for me to have grand ideas of star-spanning adventures, intricate plots and intrigue between the great Houses of the Landsraad, and soul-tearing tales of religious passion and persecution. Would I have run the game on Arrakis, and have the players members of the Fremen, or House Atreides, or even spies for the Harkonnen or the Padishah Emperor? Maybe they could have been simple traders, or smugglers, or perhaps I could have designed a lesser House for them to represent? The scope of Dune is huge and there's plenty that could be done, so all I needed was a game system that could reflect that.

I should mention that my desire to run a Dune game only included the first three books by Frank Herbert, and elements of the universe he created in the following books. I've only read the first two of the Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson books but never continued. I imagine that there is plenty more material to choose from in their books, but they are beyond the scope of what I wanted to do.

At first I went with my standard science fiction options, namely 'Traveler' and 'Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game' (WEG 1st Edition). These are two great games - the Star Wars D6 system being my favourite - and quite easy to create a campaign around. In fact, with a little tweaking the psionics and the Force rules could be modified into something that would suit the Dune universe, and the effects of the Spice could be interpreted by the rules. But, to me, Dune felt more like a science fantasy story, based as it was on feudal houses and mystical prophecies.

So, I looked at standard fantasy systems, mainly 'D&D' and 'Runequest'. I also looked at 'Starfinder', but to be honest the standard 'Pathfinder' game seemed more suited to the setting with some elements of Starfinder included. I came to the conclusion that starship rules weren't really a necessity as space battles weren't the order of the day in the Dune series. D&D was a default option - it was the game that my group played the most - but the leveling put me off as I wanted the players to concentrate on the story and not what their characters could get out of it and how they could improve, which is something that I feel D&D focuses on. With Runequest I found that I had better luck with 'Cthulhu: Dark Ages', what I see as a kind of Runequest-lite. It was quick and easy, and with a little modding I could bring in modern weapons from normal 'Call of Cthulhu' to reflect the weapons in Dune. Pathfinder is good, but I'm moving beyond rules complexity these days and it had the same problems as D&D.

I had choices as far as system was concerned, but I came to the conclusion that no matter how perfect the system was or how well I could adapt it to suit Dune, the real challenge was convincing a gaming group to sit down and play an epic game of intrigue and otherworldly powers.

And that was the real problem, I think. I couldn't force the players into spending their time focusing on a world that they may not have felt the same way about. The general feeling at the table was all about having fun and partaking in crazy adventures, and to ask them to reset their gaming habits to a more serious tone was a bit of an ask. I did try through other games to include a sense of seriousness and drama to test the waters, but inevitably the games reset to the fun factor. My attempts to find a group who were willing to play a Dune game the way I would have liked it to be played were fruitless.

So, I moved on to games that emulated the ideas of Dune but were not Dune; perhaps my players would play a game where they could still have fun but also allow me to introduce these elements into the game to satisfy my own needs?

Firstly, I attempted to create my own game. 'Spirit' was a game set in the League of Seven, seven star systems ruled by the Kerraph Empress Thane Cherin, and was set hundreds of years after a devastating civil war that tore the League apart. Hundreds of other star systems had moved on and created their own civilizations and empires, and the drive of the game was that the League was trying to bring them back into the fold with the promise of advanced technology and, if necessary, violence in the name of their Kerraph Empress, who was descended from a deified person who first created the Clans and the League... oh, I could go on for ages about that. I wrote it up and put it out there for people to play, but it wasn't complete or polished and it was more of a tester to see what people thought.

It never saw much play; I ran a few games using my systems, a D12 system that wasn't great and my own SKETCH system, but I ultimately settled for the D6 system. The games were fine, the feedback was good, but it didn't hit the mark.

So, I decided to read another game of the ilk and that was 'Fading Suns', which is right now being developed by Ulisses North America. It was excellent, the game system was usable and the setting was very close to what I was looking for, with Houses and a pseudo-Medieval culture. Sadly, I never got to play it.

Now I have 'Coriolis: The Third Horizon', but I won't repeat myself here. I talked about that in my last blog post.

So... what did I take away from all of this?

Well, for a start I think I approached the difficulty of running a Dune game the same way I did when I was trying to run Middle-earth games, which I talked about here. I was somewhat elitist in my view on how a Dune game should be played and was most likely rather limiting on options; because I had a definitive vision of what the game should be I didn't take the player's views into account. They may not have been interested in the deeper philosophical elements of the game, but they may have played it with a sense of melodrama that I would have no doubt enjoyed. It's that meeting half-way thing I think I struggled with, the point between getting really involved in a game and simply enjoying it for what it is.

System-wise, I don't think it really bothered me as long as we had a system to use. I don't think I would have enjoyed a crunchy system with hundreds of options as that can sometimes detract from the purpose of the game, but a system that was too light wouldn't have given the PCs much individuality, and detailed characters are something that a Dune game cries out for. I think that's why the D6 system would have worked for me, it's an easy intuitive system with enough detail to have really unique characters.

Actually playing in the Dune setting? Now that I look back on it, I'm not so sure it would have worked as well as I would have wanted. It may have been fun for a few games, but the overarching metaplot of the Houses and CHOAM and the Fremen... the players would have felt that they were playing second fiddle to a much bigger story, and as the fate of the human race had already been decided thanks to Leto II they may have felt that their actions were pointless, with much bigger things hanging over their heads. I get that, and it didn't need to be the case, but once again the vast scale of the setting - and it's fame - would have overshadowed things.

So that just leaves me with 'Dune-but-not-Dune'. I think this is going to be the best way to go. My own 'Spirit' game is always an option but it requires a huge rewrite and a better game system, but it means that the players can do things that will affect the overall story arc which is a much better experience for everybody. If I do use this I'll most likely use the D6 system, primarily the 'Mini Six' system from AntiPaladin 'games.

'Fading Suns' is an excellent choice and I liked the original game, but if I go down this route I'll wait for the new edition from Ulisses North America.

'Coriolis: The Third Horizon' is the game that set me off on this whole thing anyway, the game reminded me of what it was I wanted to do with a Dune-esque setting because of the ethereal Middle Eastern influences on the game setting, which is something I felt was present in Dune. Of all the options I think this will be the one that I end up pursuing as the mystical, intrigue and adventure elements are all there, so it truly is a game that will allow me to meet my players in the middle.

Alternatively, I could keep searching for a group who are as invested in the Dune world as I am. I'm no expert on Dune - far from it - but I feel I would get a lot from running a game such as that. It was what made my Star Wars games of the 1980s/1990s so successful; the entire group were already huge Star Wars fans so their passion for it came out in the games. That's something I'd love to replicate with this.

If you've made it this far then thanks for sticking with me. I think this was more to help me make sense of what I wanted from a Dune game in my head, and I wanted to share my thoughts.