Dune Adventures in the Imperium is one of Modiphius games latest TTRPG releases, and it doesn’t disappoint. I will break the rule and tell you up front, you should buy this game if you are a fan of soft rule TTRPGs or the Dune universe.
The mechanics are interesting and deceptively complex, the book is gorgeous, and the setting is one of the greatest science fiction worlds of all time.
There are some aspects that fall short of the games promise, and due to the heavy focus on creativity over rules it won’t be for everyone. If you are still curious about the game or want to know more, then keep reading and we will dive a little deeper into the game.
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Classic TTRPG Mechanics with a Dune Twist
The 2D20 System
Modiphius games has released multiple TTPRGs using the 2d20 system including Dune: Adventures in the Imperium. Each game has a few changes around the edges, but most of them still use the same core mechanics. Dune is no different. If you have played a 2d20 system before you will find DAI easy to pick up and play. For those that have never played a 2d20 system, I will briefly touch on the mechanics.
No surprise that the heart of the system is rolling two 20 sided dice. Unlike other systems, the same 2d20 dice are rolled for skill, combat, or any contested check. The goal is to roll under a value determined by your characters stats. The number of successes will determine the outcome. Based on the situation, the game master will determine a difficulty value which is the number of successes needed. The Gm will also determine which skill will be used first. Then the players will determine what drive they associate with the task at hand which. Finally the players and the GM can choose to use any momentum or threat actions. These may increase or decrease the dice pool, and the roll is made.
The base is simplistic, roll two dice. Layered on top of that roll are a handful of adjustment mechanics which make the system come to life. Dune has four major mechanics that build around the basic rolling of 2d20 to make the game much more interesting. Threat and momentum, assets, statements and focuses, and scene traits.
Momentum and Threat
Threat and Momentum are a resource that is collected based on both the rolls of the players as well as the choices that GM and team make. Players share a group pool of momentum. They can use them in multiple ways including buying more dice, adding scene traits, or creating an asset. Each time the players roll successes above the required they gain momentum, and they lose one after each scene.
The way the mechanics work encourage the players and GM to use them often. This incentivizes the players to participate in the story building of each scene. In addition to rolling for momentum, the players can choose to give the GM threat to gain advantages.
Threat works the same for the GM as momentum does for the players. The major difference however is that the GM doesn’t obtain threat by rolling. Instead they start with a certain value of threat based on the size and reach of the players house. Having this additional weapon at the GM’s disposal raises the tension of the gam. The players know at any moment threat could be used against them and allows the GM to adjust the difficulty of a scene at optimal times.
Assets include everything from hand held items to intergalactic warships. The breadth and flexibility of the asset system makes it both wonderful and terrifying. Due to infinite possibilities it is easy to find yourself reusing the same few assets or frozen in some weird state of paralysis analysis.
Add to the no limits system the ability to use threat or momentum to create an asset out of thin air, and every GM and player must literally be prepared to deal with anything showing up at any moment.
The simplicity of the system is that any applicable asset adds or lowers the difficulty one level. This can be changed however by upgrading the asset quality. Dune doesn’t support the classic RPGs idea of finding loot or being rewarded with something new and shiny. The players can be driven to find better quality assets however to improve their chances in the world.
Statements and Focuses
One of the more interesting additions to the TTRPG stable of stats and dice is the drive and focus rules. To create a more collaborative system and involve the players more often, Dune requires that the players pick which drive they will use when making a contested check while the GM choses the skill. This allows the player to decide why their player is taking an action while leaving the GM to decide how the player needs to make that action.
Replacing the more traditional proficiency or skill point systems of other TTRPGs, skill focuses allow players to pick what specific actions their character is good at under the generic skill umbrella. Drive statements are freeform motivations that the players can create while making their character to embed the characters desires into the game. If a player wants to play a character who is loyal, they can choose a statement for their Duty drive to showcasing the characters loyalty, and then be rewarded for playing the character according to those motivations.
Traits are simple effects for each scene that either increase or decrease the difficulty of different actions. If the players are trying to survive on the Sands of Arrakis, whether it is day or night will change the difficulty of their survival. If they are trying to break into a nobles home, it may be beneficial to the team if the scene occurred during the rain.
Outside of just natural traits, the NPCs or other situations can also effect the scene. Some great examples provided by the book for example are how much player have had to drink, if the NPCs in the room are hostile or friendly, or even how the players choose to interact with the scene itself. If the team walks into a funeral scene disrespectfully, then the mourners will no longer want to help the players and the difficulty to get information from them will increase.
Where this system gets really interesting is when the GM or the players decide to use momentum or threat to change the traits of the scene. This dynamic creates a separate and strategic battle outside of the dice rolls between the players and the world with what logical story changes could be made to a scene to tip the scales one way or another.
The Universe of Dune
Imperium and the Eras
While the game advertises that you can play in any of the eras, it is Imperium centric. It should be obvious. Dune Adventures in the Imperium. However it is worth discussing briefly.
Many Dune fans, some in my group included, were excited to jump into the universe during the Butlerian Jihad, or the Scattering. Outside of a few mentions throughout the book, and a broad overview in the history chapter, there is not much guidance on running a game in a different era.
The game is definitely playable in the other eras, but it will require a lot of work from the GM to flesh out the world, assets, and other character traits outside of the Imperium. All of the mechanics and core rules will easily apply to any moment along the timeline, but everything else will have to be invented by the GM and players. This small crack is the first that highlights the major gap of Dune. While the mechanics system is balanced and easily malleable to any world, there is not a robust support structure for the unique universe of Dune.
Playing a game outside of the Imperium era is almost the same as using the system to play in a completely different universe. Modiphius gives you the rules to create assets set in other eras, but they don’t give you any already created assets from those eras. The same is true for the NPCs, houses, locations, and everything else about the world that you would need to play the game.
If you don’t have the time or don’t feel comfortable creating everything for a different era, then you will be limited to the time of the Imperium with the provided materials.
No Place Like Arrakis
Arrakis is awesome. Almost every nerd who buys this game will want to fulfill that life long fantasy of setting foot on the sand sea. If that is all you wish to do, and you have no desire to play a campaign outside the orbit of Dune, then stop what you’re doing and buy this RPG right now. However, just like the different timelines of the universe, you may find playing a non-spice related game a little more challenging.
The good news is, Arrakis is awesome! While there is no overt push by the book to play on the planet Dune, a noticeable chunk of the content makes the most sense when played on the desert planet.
Fremen allies are included in the book along with special talents for navigating the harsh environment. Assets include stilsuits and thumpers that would only be useful on Dune. Additionally, there are very few locations that are described throughout the text, with Arrakis taking up half the allotted paper devoted to the planets.
Similar to the discussion of eras you will need to do quite a bit of inventing and creating if you plan on holding a game away from Dune’s sandy shores.
A Limited Supply of Houses, Organizations and NPCs
Continuing the theme of content gaps, one of the most notable is the lack of information on the houses, organizations and NPCs of the universe.
I won’t drill down too far into this category as it starts to fill like beating a dead horse. For a game built upon the players joining or creating a house of their own, the other organizations that they will be competing or allying with are crucial. Major houses, and many of the more famous or interesting smaller houses get a brief half page description. Outside of those few groups, you are left to create you own or try and pull from the novels themselves.
For some this may not be an issue as the book does give an excellent system for creating houses. This approach however does make it feel as though you need to jump right in to the clash between the Atreides and the Harkonnens, and doesn’t provide much of an on ramp to the galactic story lines that play out in the books.
A Wonderful Work of Art
I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention somewhere in this review that the book is an absolute work of art. It is worth a purchase for any Dune fan even if you don’t plan on playing the game. Seriously.
While most, if not all, of the lore and story information can be found in the Dune encyclopedia or the books themselves, the history is covered clear and succinctly in this title. Chapter two of the book is devoted to the lore and history of Dune, and it spans a massive 70 pages. Inside is everything you need to know, and almost everything you would want to know, about the history of the story-verse. Included is an overview of the different sects and schools that make up the bulk of what can be considered the games classes.
There is information regarding the technological and political state of the universe. Chapter two is such an excellent primer into the universe as a whole, that it makes the lack of options outside of the classic novel stand out as an obvious downside.
The Dune TTRPG Favors One Playstyle
Imagination over Rules
Each mechanic of the system from the scene traits to the asset creation pushes the game and players to be more creative with their play style over running into combat and letting the rules hash out the winners.
Dune shines when time is spent building out the players house and putting thought into each characters drive statements. Additionally, the asset and scene traits heavily reward players who are willing to add to the narrative and minimizes those who merely use the rules to gain advantage.
For example lets look at a parade ambush.
The players are setting up next to the road to attempt to assassinate and individual along the parade route. To start the GM assigns the scene trait crowded, leading to a higher difficulty stealth maneuver. In an attempt to counteract, the players use a momentum point to apply the night time trait reducing the difficulty back to normal.
Knowing they were going to try this mission earlier, the players acquired the poison asset to make the assassination a bit easier as well.
Now comes time for the roll. The chosen assassin needs to make a skill check and to do so chooses the Duty drive with a statement ‘what must be done must be done’. They justify by this by saying they are meeting the needs of their house.
In order to complete this simple task, the players have added three things to the narrative. They helped set the scene, plan the preparation activities, and give their characters motivation for the action.
Politics vs Skirmishes vs Fights
One of the aspects of the game that I was looking forward to most was the scale of encounters in the Imperium. The book does an excellent job at laying out the differences and possibilities for everything from warfare using battalions to man on man fights.
Changing the scale of encounters is where the asset system really excels. Since the idea of an asset is somewhat vague, you could have access to anything from a knife to an assault force of trained soldier. Each asset only counts as one item, but has entirely different applications.
This type of versatility puts additional focus on the preparation for each session or encounter. Assets can be anything the players or GM choose to make them and due to the rules are quickly addable into your game. Additionally because of the advanced quality rules, advanced assets can make or break each encounter.
Wrapping all of these items together well is the intro adventure provided with the core book. Harvesters or Dune feels like a classic TTRPG starter adventure set in a massive new world. The adventure finds the players headed for the sands of Dune to investigate a malfunctioning carryall and working to protect their houses spice investment.
Most of the aspects of the game are showcased well in the one shot adventure. The only aspect of the game system that is left out is large scale political war fare. After playing through the Harvesters of Dune, it is an excellent introductory adventure. It could use a little tweaking to work with a group of players who want to build their own house.
Whether you choose to make adjustments or not, I highly recommend using the intro adventure as it is an excellent resource!
Should you buy the Dune TTRPG?
Yes. With one main caveat. This system is not for you if you prefer rule heavy encounters or you are hesitant to interject with creativity. Everything about the game system and the universe are bests applied to groups of individuals looking to spin a creative narrative, and not just roll the dice.
If you find entertainment in roleplaying, are a fan of Dune or collaborative story telling, then get the book! You won’t regret it!