The Saga of Dune: Take 2. With Role-Playing.

10 Jan 2009

Over on Man Bytes Blog, the Round Table Discussion topic for January has been revealed. This month we’ll be answering the question: “What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first?”

To do that we must set the WABAC machine to 1940, when a young man named Frank Herbert is 20 years old and has an idea for a story he would like to tell. It is set in the deep reaches of space on a planet called Arrakis. He shares it with his friends and they have their own visions of characters and stories to be told within this Dune-world. Thus, decades before Dungeons & Dragons sees the light of day, Frank Herbert sits down to be Dungeon Master for the Dune role-playing game.

The World

Arrakis is one of the planets in the Known Universe. There are hundreds of them, all with their own stories and peoples. But Arrakis is special. It is a desert planet, where surviving from day-to-day is often a battle itself. The only reason for colonization of such a harsh would is the spice melange, an amazing drug that has become essential to the lives of billions. It is here where the Dune role-playing game takes places and Herbert’s story lives to be told.


The Dune RPG needs various combat systems. We need rules for hand-to-hand, for gun-play, for las-guns. And all of these, although cool, aren’t really interesting or specific to Dune for us today. Any number of other role-playing games already have ways of covering them. But Dune has something unique; the sacred spice melange. It adds centuries to normal lifespans. It connects the various planets in the universe, as it is a catalyst for interstellar travel. Neither of these are terribly interesting from a rule-creation system.

Spice can be used to instill prescience or glimpses into the future. Even those who take the bare minimum of the addictive drug gain strange prophetic dreams. In extreme doses it can unlock super-human powers: blinding speed, incredible mental facilities, ancestral memory.

Immediately the connection to magic is seen. But it needs to be more than just spells. The spice is dangerous and abusing it on simple whims can kill. To that effect, I look to the d20 Call of Cthulhu system of Sanity. Except instead of losing their minds at the horrors of the Mythos, a character could become trapped in the visions of the future and be unable to act in the world. Or one of their ancestors, unwilling to stay dead, would overpower their mind and assume control. Death, too, would be a possibility. Some, like the Bene Gesserit, are less likely to succumb to these dangers, but their powers would be weaker. Others would gain incredible abilities, but walk a fine line between human and abomination.


In Dungeons & Dragons there are a number of races and classes to choose from to build your character. In the Dune universe, everyone is (mostly) human.

First we have the fremen. The warrior people who come exclusively from the vast deserts of Arrakis. They are able to survive indefinitely in the sands. They are masters of melée combat, trained from birth to be fierce fighters. A fremen needs no weapon to be dangerous, but when you see one with a crysknife beware, for their blades always see blood.

Next are the Bene Gesserit. Seen by all as witches, they are an order of women who manipulate the human race from their own goals. As well, they are masters of the spice, able to do the unbelievable thanks to it. In addition, their years of training have made them the unseen masters on the battlefield. The only way you will know you are fighting a Bene Gesserit is when their knife is already in your back.

One could also be a member of the various noble Houses. Each one is different, masters of their own set of skills. The Harkonnen avoid direct combat, but are dangerous from afar. In hand-to-hand the Atreides are almost as deadly as the fremen. With a number of Minor and Major Houses, nobility would be a very customizable career path.

The Ixian Confederacy would be a choice for those who don’t wish to put their own bodies in harms way. These men and women are easily bested in combat. Instead of spending years training their bodies, they chose to become masters of technology. As such, they create weapons and machines that do their dirty work. Even with the ban on thinking machines, there are rumors that some Ixian technologies come close to conscious robots, able to think for themselves.

Finally, there are the “servants” of the Dune universe. The conditioned Suk who, in exchange for imperial training, are unable to cause harm. Most common are the Suk doctors, able to work miracles with the injured or sick, in exchange for their truly Hippocratic oath. While a Suk would never hurt someone themselves, they do not avoid wars or battles. As such, properly trained Suk are often sought after for various battlefield jobs.


The Dune story is about the Paul Atreides and his transformation from noble son of a failing House to Muad’Dib, Emperor of the Known Universe. Right away, this is a problem. While a book can focus on a single character, an RPG must make each player feel important. No longer can Paul be the Kwisatz Haderach if the remaining characters are not equally powerful. Thus, Dune must become a story about a group of heroes…

First is Paul Atreides. He is a young man caught between two worlds: the noble, political life of his father and the mystical life of his Bene Gesserit mother. Unable to choose, he straddles that divide. He sees himself as the fulfillment of centuries of prophecy.

Next is Stilgar. The wild fremen, knowledgeable in the ways of the desert. He has spent his entire life protecting his people from the Harkonnen. One day he may find himself leading the fremen, but for now he works with the ragtag group of survivors of House Atreides on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Princess Irulan is heir to the throne of the galactic empire, but also a Bene Gesserit sister. She was originally a spy, seeking to gain control over Paul Atreides and stabilize Arrakis for the sisterhood. She falls in love with Paul and betrays both the Bene Gesserit and her father. Now she works for House Atreides in an effort to make up for her past, as well as remain close to Paul.

The loyal Swordmaster of the Atreides, Duncan Idaho. He has protected the members of the House for many years. Viewing the Duke Leto’s death as his fault, Idaho keeps Paul close to his side. The man has a single flaw, his weakness for the Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother.

And finally, Dr. Wellington Yueh. A Suk doctor who is bound, through intense psychological conditioning, to do no harm. He has always worked for House Atreides, but when the Harkonnens captured his wife, he turned on his friends. It is he who betrayed the Duke Leto and forced House Atreides into hiding. When the Baron Knowing he will never be forgiven if he is discovered, Yueh works with the Atreides to kill the Baron Harkonnen.

The Story

Now we have a bunch of motivations and goals for these characters. Overall, they want to return House Atreides to power. So we’ve got a campaign. Unfortunately, Frank Herbert had his own plans which were shot to hell when his players picked their characters. Originally he wanted a metaphorical story that spoke to the dangers of empire and power. Both the Emperor and Baron Harkonnen would fall because of their very desire to rule over people. Herbert wanted spice to be a metaphor for foreign oil and to show our addiction to it was dangerous. That analogue is lost with melange as a source of magic. Here is the way I imagine that Herbert would try to tell his Dune story.

The campaign starts off with the various characters living their lives on Arrakis. Yueh’s betrayal is the beginning, but it quickly turns into an all out battle when the Harkonnens attack and overwhelm the Atreides. Paul discovers the death of his father, Irulan recognizes that the Harkonnens are bolstered by her father’s troops, Idaho feels he is responsible for not foreseeing the attack, Yueh’s wife is brutally executed by the Harkonnens. Together they escape into the desert, taking refuge with Stilgar’s people. Unfortunately, in his time away from the fremen, his leadership position has been stripped of him. He, too, is now an outsider.

The early campaign would be all about the group discovering their place in this new environment. They would have to prove themselves worthy of the fremen’s friendship. Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica, would be the only exception. Her Bene Gesserit sisters had, long ago, planted certain religious prophecies among the fremen. These prophecies were designed to help a Sister in case she was ever forced to live among the desert people. She becomes the connection between the group and the fremen.

The group would have missions to steal spice from Harkonnen, both for personal use and for the fremen. They’d be asked to keep the prying eyes of both the Emperor and the Baron away from the sietches by attacking cities. Meanwhile, Jessica would spread further prophecies about a group of “fallen nobility”. As the group members showed themselves to be strong allies, they would be let into the fremen fold. The spice users in the group would start to receive visions of a terrible future: a universe torn apart by war, entire planets eradicated, billions dead, and humanity on the verge of extinction. Eventually, the entire fremen people would begin to have dreams of that same future. Jessica would begin making plans to prevent it, starting a religion based on a Golden Path for the future, with the Atreides group at the center of it.

As Jessica begins to obsess with discovering the future, we see Herbert’s original intentions for Paul: ecological issues, empire, water, the dangers of the future, fundamentalism. Meanwhile, the group gets to experience the burdens of heroics, the notions that evil and good can be cut from the same cloth, that sacrifice is a necessary hurdle. And we also get to see some personal resolutions. Stilgar sees the thriving fremen. Yueh sacrifices himself to kill the Baron, saving his friends (the player then takes on the character of Gurney Halleck). Duncan helps Jessica, showing her how to return to the “now”. Irulan thwarts her father’s plans to place the Harkonnen Baron on the Throne by marrying Paul. And Paul returns House Atreides to a place of power.

And that’s where the first campaign would end… The fremen would be spreading across the universe, preaching the word of the Golden Path. The Emperor and the Harkonnens would be fugitives, seeking to escape the Atreides sword. The Bene Gesserit would no longer have a tight grip on the future of the human race. For a brief period, the universe would be safe. But this would not be the end for the characters. There are still many stories to be told about them. After all, there is Duncan and Jessica’s child who shows signs of abomination. There is the Bene Gesserit alliance with the surviving Harkonnens and the spice-hungry Spacing Guild, who all seek to remove the Atreides from Arrakis.

The saga of Dune is far from over…