A Dune-like RPG campaign

The only roleplaying game adaptation of the DUNE universe was released by Last Unicorn Games in 2000.  Only 2-3,000 copies were ever printed, as LUG had just been purchased by WotC, and the license was never exploited by WotC before it lapsed.  So while I have read some reviews, I’m unlikely to be picking up a copy any time soon.

So today I started thinking about the background elements in Dune, and what they might look like in a fantasy setting (setting aside the possibility of a straight take on Dune, its just a bit hard to travel around that universe, and it suffers a bit from plot inevitability).

  • No elves, its 100% human (having no intelligent non-humans though, does cut down on your range of opponents for conflicts with the PCs)
  • A decadent and/or weakening central authority (the Emperor was losing power slowly in the Landsrad as Dukes like Leto II became more powerful)
  • A shadow government of viziers/mages (the Bene Gesserit in the novels, in which they were referred to as witches by some characters)
  • Noble houses controlling significant political, military and economic resources (not big on culture though)
  • the Great Houses have access to a “nuke” (Family Atomics) but
  • Factions with near absolute monopolies on critical resources or infrastructure (water, spice, transport, communication, technology, prescience)
  • A static culture where nothing much has changed in a very long time (technology/research is seen as evil/forbidden or tightly controlled, warfare is limited and controlled)
  • A god-like messiah who turns into a tyrant, then repents (probably not much fun for PCs to be around that kind of train-wreck)
  • ancient conspiracies manipulating events
  • bad guys who wear black hats made from kitten fur
  • a fated reincarnating hero who always dies (Tleilaxu gholas imply a form of resurrection, albeit one in which no one will ever trust you again)
  • perilous wastelands, where the environment is as likely to kill you as the locals are, and spawn super soldiers/nomad hordes that conquer the world from time to time (penal colonies as well)
  • Shapeshifters (Tleilaxu Face-dancers)
  • secret battle languages, assassins, poison (food, drink, weapons) and quite a few tech toys
  • super powers such as precognition, mentats and the voice, as well as Charles Atlas peak human conditioning
  • a defence mechanism that combines cataclysmicly with one rare form of attack (shield + lasgun = boom!)
  • including some theme of contemporary interest (in Dune its the environment, I have been interested in piracy and slavery/human trafficking lately)
  • a mega-corporation controlling commerce (CHOAM, OPEC, etc)
  • an ancient jihad that proscribes some otherwise sensible forms of behaviour (science is bad)
  • a technique for avoiding scrying (the No rooms).

Spice itself has a range of significant attributes as the big McGuffin of the Duniverse:

  • extends lifespan, enhances vitality and perception (but does it act like Viagra?)
  • limited supply, high demand (both difficult and dangerous to harvest, a metaphor for both water and oil)
  • one source (substitutes are poisonous) source is embedded in the ecosystem (unobtanium)
  • catalyst for travel, communication (shipping and commerce)
  • coin, currency substitute
  • mixed with food and drink (spice beer, spice coffee, etc)
  • addictive (but with few serious side effects unless you stop taking it).

Thinking of fantasy games, for Vampires blood is a bit like spice, what other substitutes can I devise?  Runequest had Truestone – a finite supply of cosmic stuff from before the dawn of time (and the supply was guarded by anti-chaos berserkers who didn’t want the one remaining spike of it removed from the body of the Devil). Relics of prophets and saints, milking angels tears, demon essence, slime eggs, magic gems/focuses, and my current campaign has Dragon’s Blood as a source of restorative magic potions.  Overall though, I think its hard to get away from something drug-like, which is ingested/eaten or smoked.  It could be the gateway drug that triggers magical abilities in people, perhaps its essential in teleport spells, and a requirement for immortality.  Black lotus perhaps? Or just Lotus, with the possibility of different effects from different varieties of Lotus.  Then we get a Lotus-eaters riff to make a classical allusion with.

Okay, now working some of this stuff into the basis of a campaign setting.  Lets start with a world that is mostly mundane, but has some fey like wild zones and an unfortunate habit of spawning a Hellmouth every few thousand years, through which enters a ravaging horde (which is how all the various sentient races arrive).  The first race are good builders, Dwarves perhaps, which gives us some nice scenic ruins to dungeon crawl through later on.  Lets postulate unreconcileable philsophical differences between the Dwarven clans lead to a war of annihilation. Exit stage right, the Dwarves, leaving the ruins filled with dangerous artifacts.  Perhaps at the tail end of this conflict the Elves turn up, just enough time to learn/steal a few secrets and to put the boot into the survivors.

So, start of glorious Elven Empire and its golden age.  More incipient ruins are constructed, but more of an above ground nature.  Elves use Lotus to extend their lifespans and to enhance their magical powers, and proceed to live in harmony with the environment (by limiting their numbers there is enough Lotus to go around for everyone).  Ugly Trolls turn up, and proceed to be subjugated by the Elves for slave labour.  Cue time of decadence in the Elven Empire.  Then nasty Goblins turn up, for a quantity versus quality series of battles, ending with the Elves triumphant and the few surviving Goblins fleeing into the wastelands (where over time they can turn themselves into super-soldiers, or at least Uppity Rabid Gobboes).

Humans turn up before the Elves have fully recovered from the Goblin Wars and there is a very chaotic century during which a lot of shit goes down.  The turning point is when one elven Family defects after being slighted by the Emperor, and the Humans figure out how to persuade the Trolls to change sides (“How about ten years of service rather than a lifetime of slavery?”)  At the end of all this the Humans have now established some kind of Empire, and the Elven remnants are hiding out in swamps, forests and concealed fortresses and suddenly having to deal with Lotus withdrawal symptoms and the prospect of having their lifespan reduced by 75% even if the humans don’t kill them first.  This process also creates a lot of ruins.

A while later the Humans are dealing with a major rebellion, when a clan of Dwarves turns up with an offer to good to refuse.  Rebellion collapses as the Dwarves demonstrate how useful this “technology” stuff is.  The clan gets recognised as a noble house, the nobles get exclusive use of the whizzo tech, and the Elves start wondering if the Dwarves still hold a grudge from way back when.

Other bits and pieces:

  • use some Turkish language, because I think jadu (witchcraft) and jadugar (witch) are neat words
  • use some Ottoman Empire culture, because then we can have evil Viziers
  • half-elves are just elves that have fully assimilated into human culture (the term for a human that assimilates into elven culture is “traitor”)
  • Trolls are short-lived, so once they have done their decade of service, they have about five years left to enjoy their retirement (its a Janissary/Mameluke role)
  • some kind of epic transport system (monorail, canals, teleport chambers?) that can be used to circumvent the nasty wastelands, with an order of “neutral” mages that maintain it
  • the Imperial Guard have a level in Badass
  • Goblins are the designated mooks
  • 7-12 Great Houses and many more Minor Houses (including one Elf House and one Dwarven House), each House has at least one thing it can do, either a unique power, or something they are just the best above all others at
  • the Great Houses have access to some kind of “nuke”, but everyone keeps warfare limited to make sure the nukes don’t get used
  • in Dune the Great Houses had planets, here we can probably give them entire cities.
  • why have Gholas when you can have Ghouls?
  • Lets make the facechangers undead as well as doppelgangers.

So, here is hoping that Runequest VI comes out soon, and then I can start playing with stat blocs.

4 thoughts on “A Dune-like RPG campaign

  1. 5monkeys May 19, 2012 / 8:38 pm

    A thought while reading this was to use multiple planes, and have transport between them via magic/spice. (This was before I saw how you’d introduce the races.)

    Another thought is to have the Spice be a finite mineral that is expended during use. It can be mined and refined at great expense. You could go the Warhammer fantasy way and use Warp Stone/Crystallized Magic/Uranium. Although I suspect you’d want more reliable effects from the material.

    Make the face changers face stealers. They could consume the body of the target. The Mistborn series has some interesting shapeshifters.

    As an aside, all the best stuff from the culture of the Imperium of Man in 40k is grabbed from Dune.

    I guess I should read more Dune. I stopped after Children of Dune, and I haven’t read them since high school. I’ve come to appreciate the setting quite a lot over the years.

  2. texarkana23 May 19, 2012 / 8:42 pm

    I appreciated God Emperor of Dune a lot more in my late 20s than in my early teens. The non-Frank sequels were pretty tedious IMO.

  3. 5monkeys May 19, 2012 / 8:53 pm

    Fading Suns strikes me a fairly interesting game for it’s Dune-like elements. There seems to be way to an awful lot of universe information/backstory to it though. It’s an impediment to getting into it.

    That’s always been one of the strengths of traditional fantasy. Elves/Dwarves/Goblins/Orks/Trolls/Hobbits are all well recognized touch-point cliches. The same goes for the D&D class-types/roles.

    I wonder what behavioral/research stricture you could put on society to freeze it in place. Maybe forbid reading/writing.

  4. texarkana23 May 19, 2012 / 10:08 pm

    I played in a multi-year Fading Suns D20 game run by Ed. It was very enjoyable. Very much a slow planet hopping game. Religion/culture can slow things down, as would massive crime and corruption, but you need it to all add to a paradigm that does not favour growth/change.

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