System mastery matters

No matter how many “no prep” games and supplements I see, system mastery matters. I’ll even go so far as to say that there is no such thing as no-prep gaming. The very idea is marketing more than anything else. There can be aids that cut down on prep time to an absolute minimum, but there’s no way around prepping material. Are there exceptions, sure. I’ll get to those later, but they don’t count the way it might be expected.

Now, I’ve seen people argue that this is no longer the case, that games don’t have to require loads of prep. There can be games people just sit down and play. Sort of. Someone at least needs to read the rules first. This is even true of board games. So yeah, no prep? I think that’s a bunch of nonsense, especially for the people running the games. If someone isn’t familiar with the system, then managing a game session is next to impossible. Full stop, there’s no way around this. No amount of charts, tables, sidebars, or what have you can make up the difference.

Let’s take a moment to explore this further. What is system mastery? Is it necessary that a person has the game memorized? No. Although I’ve definitely played in games where people knew the manuals almost by heart. What system mastery really means, at least to me, is that the person understands how the game as a unified whole is expected to function. It isn’t required to have every rule-as-written committed to memory. What is needed is an understanding of how the rules play off of one another to make the game being played the unique experience it is supposed to be.

A core piece of advice in almost every gaming supplement is that the GM know the material prior to bringing it to the table. This is an essential component of running a published adventure. The GM has to read it first. As stated above, this is true of board games as well. Otherwise, the adventure would be unplayable. I’ve tried to cut corners with this, and it hasn’t gone well. A lot of time was wasted, and the game dragged on far more than was necessary. I was lucky to have patient players that let me stumble my way through these early attempts at running sessions, but I learned a valuable lesson by being bad at my role. Prep is core to gaming, and there is no way around that fact.

There are exceptions to this. From the player side, it isn’t necessary to know the game. It’s entirely possible to sit through a session as a player and simply work through a game’s mechanics when prompted. “You should roll a saving throw here.” or “This would be a good time to use the ______ skill.” Just a couple of examples, but these experiences are fairly common. In fact, this probably how most people learn their way through any game. Someone that confidently knows the system will walk a new player through the material. It was like this for all of us, but the need for at least one person to understand the game was clear. System mastery, again.

The other exception would be GM-less games. Some games exist as their own rules system, doubling as the Game Master, as well as the rule book. Games like these have really grown in popularity due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With all of the health and safety regulations from around the world it became more difficult to bring a group of people together. Hence the rise in solo RPGs. As the player, the person working their way through the game simply follows the prompts in the rules, and then responds accordingly. However, groups of players can work their way through a GM-less game. Fiasco anyone?

At this point someone reading might be saying to themselves, “What a load of garbage. I’ve been running Basic D&D since I was a kid, and I could definitely run multiple game sessions without prep, let alone one.” This is probably true, but the veteran gamer’s ability to do this rests on their mastery of the system. If someone has that much experience with a particular game then their mastery of it allows for that improvisational ability. As an aside, I’m a bit envious of people that have this depth of knowledge that allows for this kind of gaming.

Anyone who has ventured behind the screen to run a session or two will hopefully be nodding their heads in approval by now. I cannot fathom how anyone could realistically think they could show up at a game without prepping. From the player side it’s possible, but even then it makes things more difficult. Despite what people have said about being able to cut corners with dungeon design, random encounters, or whatever, it is vital that the person running the game knows the system well. Imagine if this was put into play, “Hey, I have this game. Let’s play it.” Players look at other person that brought the game ask, “OK, how?” Gleefully, the game’s owner responds, “I don’t know. Let’s play it anyway.” This is a recipe for disaster, albeit one that could be enjoyable and memorable. Fun can be had by stumbling through a rule book, to be sure, but it will likely be a more efficient experience if the GM has learned the game. Learn from my mistakes, take the time to prep.

Final Fantasy 6 (Boss Fight Books), a review

There probably isn’t a series of games that has ever captured my imagination quite like the Final Fantasy series. I have sat and played most of the games, although I have admittedly not touched the MMOs. They are well-conceived games and merit discussion in their own right, but for me, and I suspect many others, the sixth entry into the series stands apart.

My reverence for this particular game brought me to pick up Final Fantasy 6 from publisher Boss Fight Books. The book is a critical analysis of the game, most specifically, its music, and by extension celebrated composer, Nobuo Uematsu. And that music is iconic. I’d even go so far as to argue that most nerds would recognize “Prelude” from the Final Fantasy series of games since it has become a staple of the franchise’s soundtracks.

Most fans will debate which entry into the series is the best, with many people taking sides in favour of the sixth or the seventh game. Regardless of whatever acrimony there might appear in this respect, just about everyone agrees that the music is always top-notch in every single iteration of Final Fantasy. I would place myself among these people, and the first video game soundtrack I made a point to own in physical form was Final Fantasy 6. Obviously, it’s I have a deep affection for this game, even if it might be tempered by nostalgia at this point. Uematsu himself is highly respected for his body of work, similar to how John Williams is held in high regard for his film scores. Deken takes issue with this comparison in his examination. (After considering his approach that Uematsu and Williams are not really a good comparison, I concede that he makes a strong case.

FF6 came out almost 30 years ago. Being in North America, I was only able to play the first and fourth games in the series, or FF1 and FF2 as they were known in my corner of the globe. I loved them both and was anticipating FF6 when news broke that the game was finally coming. I don’t recall purchasing it as a ‘Day One’ release, but I definitely didn’t wait long to add it to my collection. Once I had it in my hot little hands, I was not disappointed. It was and is a masterpiece.

Neither was I disappointed with the book that reviewed the game’s legacy. People can say whatever they want about the game’s place in history, for a long time it was the benchmark that every other RPG was measured against. The game’s music helped make that possible.

As author Sebastian Deken discusses, the game took some interesting turns by incorporating an expansive soundtrack. It was on three CDs! Each character has their own song and the game makes expert use of them. Not only that, but the composition itself is ambitious and wildly varied. I’ll leave the formal critique to Deken because he was extremely adept at it, but I found myself agreeing with a lot of his assessments.

The book does a great job of discussing ideas about why the music from FF6 worked so well, and how it differed from its predecessors. One point that I thought was also interesting was the infamous opera scene. This had to be in this book, and Deken’s take on it was very thoughtful. It worked in the game in a way that fit the game, beautifully, but, as he points out, it only truly works in the game. This is obviously a bit of a flaw, but something that didn’t really make a difference to anyone helping Celes sing her part. At the end of the day, the limitations of the hardware didn’t matter. The opera scene fit the game. It doesn’t need to be recreated in the real world because it was written for the game.

One of the problems of this book though is that it doesn’t treat the game as a whole. It really only addresses the music, and so aspects of the game that really stood out, both for good and bad reasons, weren’t really investigated as much as they could have been. Could there be another book-length critique of FF6? Sure. Should there be? That’s a good question. Perhaps Boss Fight would consider authorizing another foray into FF6 legacy, but Deken’s book stands well on its own, even if it’s a bit limited in its scope.

Ultima-atley, this book was great. I felt like I was reading an easily digestible academic thesis. Yes, it could have been longer and covered more ground, but what’s available is perfectly substantive. At no point was this book ever pandering, or petty. Rather, it is intelligent, insightful, and frankly, a must-read for anyone that is a fan of the Final Fantasy games, especially FF6. This was my first time reading one of Boss Fight’s books, and I’m impressed enough that it almost certainly won’t be the last time I purchase something from this publisher.

The Artefact (part 2)

*Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of the organizations named in this review, nor have I received any form of compensation. I paid for my copy of the game through the original Kickstarter.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a beta version of a solo RPG titled, The Artefact. (The link for that review is here.) This follow-up review is late. My apologies, especially to the game’s author if they were hoping for a more timely treatment of the final product. Unfortunately, this is something I’ve been putting off for a while. Fortunately, the game being discussed isn’t impacted by the tardiness of my updated examination of the final version of the game. For anyone that might be unfamiliar with The Artefact, the idea is that an individual player will write a story from the perspective of an inanimate object. The game is a short, zine-style RPG that is available in both digital and physical formats.

When I first played through the game in the beta version, my impression was that the game was more of a creative writing exercise than anything else. There was a wide variety of artifacts, as well as some interesting prompts to kickstart the writing process. When I ran through the game, I was left with a unique item that had a relatively complete story about its existence. I was happy with the result and wanted to find a game I plug my item into.

Where that original run-through of the game faltered was, I believe, at least partially, the result of its incomplete status. It was the beta version, but it had no end. I arrived at the “end” of the game, and there was no resolution. I had simply run out of game to play, as there were no more pages in the book.

The final iteration of the game, which can be purchased here, is a significant improvement over the beta version. The game does now have a resolution. Using the charts, the object that lies at the heart of the story will probably have a different life span for each play of the game. Once that lifespan has run its course, the game ends. While the object in question may linger on, the story terminates with the object being lost, damaged, forgotten, or what have you. Yet, the object created had a life, regardless of how that span plays out.

My main takeaway after playing through this game, both the final version and the beta, is that I had something that I could drop into a TTRPG with no issue. If nothing else, The Artefact is a worthwhile tool for creating compelling content for other games. So much so that it was included in the Bundle of Holding for Novel Writing Tools that corresponds to the annual “National November Writing Month”, aka NaNoWriMo. (At the time this article was written there were 14 days left to purchase the bundle.)

I enjoyed creating a timeline for my artifact, a shield to be specific, and got to build out a meaningful tale around it. In this story, the game ended with the shield having been locked away in a vault for safe keeping, and ultimately was forgotten, along with everything else it was stored with. A fitting ending for a revered item, but one that leaves room for the story to grow. Perhaps adventurers stumble onto this vault, discover the shield, and then are able to piece together its history. It would be a compelling game in and of itself to do that kind of sleuthing, and it’s easy to see how using something like The Artefact could significantly add depth to a regular game.

What’s more, it can be a way to circumvent writer’s block since all the player needs to do is respond to prompts, rather can concoct the story from their own imagination. After I played it, I was left with pages of a compelling story (2,118 words to be exact) that worked as much of an explanation of my shield, as it did to articulate the world the shield was a part of. If I wanted to explore all of this further I’d be able to develop a sort of archaeological approach to worldbuilding that could be very fruitful.

None of this is to say that everyone needs to play this game. It’s purely optional, and really only suggested for those that enjoy writing these kinds of backstories. There are lots of gamers that prefer things be kept as simple as possible. A few lines or a couple of short paragraphs are all that some people require for their own games, and that’s fine. If you’re one of these people, then The Artefact, and games like it probably aren’t for you. However, if you enjoy writing, then I would suggest you consider picking this game up. It’s a short, affordable, and infinitely re-playable solo game that can be an excellent complement to creative writing, as well as numerous TTRPGs.

It’s NaNoWriMo time again!

Good luck to everyone participating. I’m not. This isn’t some holier-than-thou statement. I just don’t have much time to dedicate to NaNothis year. However, I am running an experiment. I’m doing a NaNo’s worth of non-fiction writing. By most counts, I’m probably like 5,000 words behind my target, but whatever.

The content I create this month has incorporated many of the ideas required for a NaNo project. I have been planning out my articles. It helps to create a road map, and this is a new kind of project for me. I’ve never tried to generate articles or non-fiction like this before.

Everything I create is going to end up as an article on this site. Earlier in the year, I’d set a goal for myself to see if I could average a visitors day, and create content for an entire year; essentially, 52 posts from January to February. My NaNo experiment is a means to finalize content for the remainder of the year.

So far, I’ve prepared about 1500 words. That means that I am far behind my target. A couple of paragraphs up, I said about 5,000 words. In order to keep up with NaNo’s pace, it requires something like 1700 words a day to maintain a word count that will complete the project. After six days, which is when I was writing this article, I should have about 10,200 words. That means that with the 1500 words I have written I’m behind approximately 8700.

Since I aim for my articles to be about 500 words each, give or take, then I’m behind by about 17(!) articles. Clearly, I have some catching up to do. Will I be able to do it? No idea. At the end of the day, I just wanted to try and keep pace, but not write a novel.

I would love to write an entire book of non-fiction, and this is an initial foray into seeing that project become reality. Gaming as a hobby has had a relatively short history, all things considered. There have been countless articles about the hobby, and all of it combined feels as if it were only just scratching the surface. My NaNo experiment will build on all of that, and take its place among all those other voices.

GenCon, a first and a last time (probably)

This year, I went to Gen Con for the first time. It will probably be the only time I ever get to go, but I’m not sure I’d make it a point to go back. (I’ll explain below.) This was on my bucket list of things to do, and I did it. One down, only 1,965,097 to go.

My first impression as a first-timer was shock at how many people actually turned out. In gaming circles, it always feels like you exist in a dark shadowy corner of the world that only a handful of others know about. Bringing people together at a convention dispels that, and it’s a positive, empowering feeling. This is especially true because gaming has historically been such a maligned hobby. We all know we’re out there, scattered around the globe, but seeing tens of thousands of us all in one place is very affirming.

For my part, I could only go for one day. I loved being there, and the scale of the event was a complete surprise. There was more available to experience than I could have possibly fit into a single weekend, let alone the one day that I had. This isn’t to complain at all. It was great. It isn’t often I’m in an environment that has so many people that were interested in the same stuff as me. It’s really eye-opening.

What’s more, I was able to meet people who have created products I love playing. Shockingly for me, I met Rob Heinsoo. I’m a bit ambivalent about 4th Edition D&D, but I love Pelgrane Press’s 13th Age. If you like fantasy role-playing games and haven’t played it, I would strongly suggest checking that game out.

The downside that I saw in Gen Con was on the logistical side. It’s cool to have so much, but being there is soooo expensive. The idea that attending Gen Con would be 1,000 or more is entirely possible if someone went all four days. That’s a lot of money. I can’t afford it, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of other people can’t afford it. Then there’s the location.

Gen Con is in Indiana every year. It could move. It was something I kept thinking about while I was there. “Why can’t Gen Con be set in different cities? Or maybe, why can’t there be two Gen Cons? One in Indianapolis, and one in some other city. The other city could then be changed from year to year.

These are just thoughts and ruminations, but at the end of the day, I’m glad I went. It was a good time. Despite, my complaints, I’d love to go again, but I probably won’t. The cost alone means it’s not likely. It’s hard to justify spending that much money on the convention, let alone just four days(!), and I know that there are other conventions closer to where I live. Still, as the gaming convention in North America, it was a positive experience and I would encourage others to go if they’re able.

What does “indie” mean for gaming?

Calling a game “indie” has certain connotations, but what does indie really mean? This thought came to me the other day when I was reading through a conversation on a message board about what people’s preferred games were. I kept on seeing people who said they liked “indie” games and started wondering, what is an indie game?

It’s probably useful to consider context. Video games, for example, have a different scale when it comes to the sizes of the organizations that produce them. Don’t believe me, then just look up the credits for the people that create games. Lots and lots of people create games, and in a capacity akin to filmmaking. Revenues are often tallied in 10s of millions of dollars. The world of tabletop gaming is much smaller, and by all measures.

Therefore, indie in video games will probably fit what I suspect is the definition of the term in the popular imagination. Connotations for indie are generally assumed to be a small organization, and team, of people operating their own little entity that produces games. There are no shareholders to appease, and it is likely the that games produced, as well as the company itself are relatively small organizations. This is where indie lives up to the term it is an abbreviation of, independent. In this case, independent of corporate influence.

When it comes to the world of tabletop games, the concept of indie is less obvious. For all intents and purposes, I’d estimate that 99% of the tabletop industry qualifies as being “indie”. (I have no official stats to back this up.)This makes the term almost meaningless for tabletop games because it can be applied to pretty much everyone. What would be the exception were publishers that didn’t qualify as indie. Yet, the term persists, and I’m not always clear on what it is supposed to mean.

Some ideas that could be applied would have to be assumptions that the number of people involved in the production of a product (game or supplement) would probably be fairly small. Additionally, the associated revenues of the products are probably small as well. It would also be presumable that the audience for those products is proportionally small as well. The repeated term “small” is relative, but tabletop gaming, especially role-playing games, is a niche hobby. If we apply the admittedly vague criteria above, then indie games are essentially a niche within a niche. So, very small.

Ultimately, the sticking point for me is that games shouldn’t be described as an indie. There needs to be a different term because indie is largely meaningless. While it is possible to infer meaning when the term indie is used, it isn’t a clearly defined concept.

There’s one other dimension to this, marketing. Calling a game “indie” brings with it connotations of its own, often about attitude. Indie games can buck corporate directives, which is positive, but it’s the concept of “cool” that also is associated with “indie”. Those small companies and products are given different considerations and have different expectations of them. These can be dubious associations, but they are just as prevalent as any other idea lumped into the definition of “indie”.

Nothing really needs to change in the industries I touched on here, at least as far as operations are concerned. What would be nice is perhaps a different approach to discussing organizations of different sizes. Indie is a catch all term that people assume has more meaning than it actually in fact does. We need some new semantics in gaming. While I’m all for supporting smaller creators, I think it’s time to think up a new vernacular for having those conversations.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance: Chronicles #1), a review

What books do fans of fantasy fiction think of when they reflect on the works that define the genre? After The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, or A Game of Thrones and its subsequent sequels, it’s fair to challenge people to name works of fantasy fiction. “name your top five fantasy novels…” I imagine people would name Harry Potter or Conan as well, so we’re up to three or four now.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? People might struggle to name more than a few. Despite its apparent popularity, fantasy is not well-explored by most people. Interestingly, one of the books-series of books, actually-that I often see on shortlists of “Best Fantasy Novels” is Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. In fact, I picked it up and read it because someone else suggested it as a favourite work of fiction.

This novel is the first in a trilogy that details the adventures of a group of heroes in a fantasy world (Krynn) created for the tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Tanis, Sturm, Caramon, Raistlin, Flint, and Tasslehoff find themselves pitted against the forces beyond their comprehension, and seemingly well beyond their capabilities. They read like archetypal fantasy. Dragons, medieval wizards and warriors, elves, dwarves and so on. So much about this book perfectly encompasses what I suspect most people imagine when they think of fantasy fiction, for better or worse.

This book scratches a particular itch. On one hand, and let’s just get this out of the way, detractors of fantasy will point to books like this as an example of why the genre is garbage. Overall, the sophistication of the story probably fits with YA novels. The characters feel somewhat contrived and based on well-worn cliches. On the other hand, who cares what they say!

So much of what has become a staple of geeky culture is evident in this book. The humour, the character archetypes, and of course, the fact that the story is one giant D&D reference. Back when this novel was published, in 1984, people thought about stuff like TTRPGs much differently. There was the infamous Satanic Panic, which would have been at its peak when this novel was published. Tabletop gaming, in general, was much more niche 38 years ago when this book hit the stands. Yet, this book has endured and has cultivated fans for decades. From start to finish, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is like a precursor to every geeky joke and anecdote you might expect to hear people swap at a gaming table.

This last point is probably the most important for the novel’s legacy. It’s easy to tear this book down because it isn’t highly refined literature. However, it is fun, and it is fun in a unique way for its fans. Sometimes a book can be greatly enhanced when the audience gets the “in-jokes” that are peppered throughout the story. Weis and Hickman wrote their tale to include all of that, but the thing that stands out for me is that they get the in-jokes as well. They could be swapping them with the readers because they’re also the audience. Both author and reader played TTRPGs, principally D&D.

It was a level playing field between the creators and the consumers, and even if the stories don’t break the mould, they bring to life what a lot of gamers were engaging with during TTRPG sessions. These novels were created to breathe a different sort of life into D&D (see Shannon Applecline’s Designers & Dragons), and they ultimately succeeded. The original Dragonlance modules served as inspiration, and have become something of a cult classic in fantasy fiction.

No, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is not for everyone. People who like fantasy and D&D might not even like Weis and Hickman’s treatment of the source material, but there are those that do. These novels are for the people that play games, first and foremost. That was always the intended audience, and it always will be. If you’ve ever played D&D and enjoyed traipsing about the wilderness, clashing with evil spellcasters, and slaying monsters, then these books are for you. They were always meant for you.

Star Trek Adventures: Enterprise Player Characters

*Originally published at British Fantasy Society

One of the fun aspects of playing a game that already exists as a movie, television show, or in any other medium is that there is the chance to rewrite how things could have gone. Ever watch an episode of any show, perhaps Star Trek Enterprise, and say something like, “that’s a terrible choice, what they should have done was…”? Well, now is the perfect chance to test those ideas! Modiphius has published an affordable supplement that gives fans of the show pre-generated characters for Captain Archer and his crew.

Within this brief supplement are the crew of the Enterprise. It’s short and focused, only including the characters needed for the supplement. There are enough characters for players to pick one, and still have crew members leftover that can function as NPCs. Modiphius even statted out the Enterprise among the characters-a nice touch. 

 The book is extremely attractive visually. Cover to cover, it’s quality vibrant full-color art. In keeping with other products in the Star Trek Adventures line, the publisher kept the standards high. There’s a nice little introduction to set up the supplement so it isn’t just a compilation of characters. Additionally, each character has a short paragraph outlining who they are and their role onboard the ship. It’s a nice touch that deftly adds a bit of personality, and background to each of the characters.

Something that might have been nice would have been suggestions for character progression if players had wanted to emulate the show. How might the characters grow under players’ control, but in a manner similar to what a viewer might see on television? This would have been a small way to let players even more fully immerse themselves in the show.The product has limited use, but that’s kind of the point. These characters are pre-made to take the guesswork as well as prep work out of people’s schedules. They were made to suit a specific purpose, and they don’t really leave anyone purchasing them wanting for more. While the characters feel a bit static, players should feel empowered to put their own unique spin on each member of Captain Archer’s crew as the adventures progress at the gaming table. If you’re a fan of this iteration of Star Trek, then this is a solid addition to your collection.

Shadow of Mogg

*Originally published at British Fantasy Society

Welcome to life after “The Event”! Manic Productions has published a post-apocalyptic game called the Shadow of Mogg after a successful Kickstarter campaign. Will you and your fellow survivors hang on to the shreds of democratic civilization, or will it all fall apart?

The game is centered on surviving a devastated world in a small and highly democratic group. Anything is up for debate, and everything needs some kind of consensus. The title gives the ultimate hint of what those stories might be like. Shadow of Mogg is a “post-brexit” ttrpg. Players are tasked with trying to hold on to the remnants of their now ruined civilized society.

The game is set primarily in the London Underground and this where the players will collaborate with the game’s Speaker (gamemaster) to help the story unfold. Weighing in at 90 pages, Shadow of Mogg is easy to define as “rules-light”, and their tables to help make what is present very straightforward. 

At Shadows of Mogg’s core is voting. Literally, anything can be voted upon in this game, and one of the more amusing examples in the book is “who eats first?” This is a central component of the game, and overall, the rules are fairly simple. Everything is resolved via die rolls, often d6s. The voting mechanic is a fun element of the game. However, it could quickly degenerate and require The Speaker to intervene to ensure the game functions smoothly. Additionally, the game’s designers included, and encouraged, the use of safety mechanisms (“X card” and the “Lines and Veils”) to make sure everyone at the table is comfortable and having a good time. Notably, these come before the rules and are suggestions for running the game itself. 

There is a very strong DIY “zine” aesthetic throughout the text. Everything is laid out with the appearance of having been printed and cut out of something and glued onto another piece of paper. It adds a great effect to the tone the game wants to capture. Unfortunately, at times it’s a bit too much and there are places where words are obscured by gray smudges. This was likely intentional, but it doesn’t necessarily help people reading the game.

Something else that tripped me up was, “why the London Underground? Couldn’t this be anywhere in the UK?” The designers could just as easily have used a generic term such as “abandoned train tunnels”, and nothing would really have changed. What’s more, the mechanics felt loose enough to be played as something along the lines of Mad Max or Waterworld, which is a strength. It’s fairly obvious that the game is a satirical take on life after Brexit, but the rules don’t tie into the setting enough for my liking.  

Altogether, this is a unique ttrpg, and a fun take on group dynamics, which are front and center in Shadow Of Mogg. While it won’t be for everyone, there’s a lot to be said for giving people a neutral forum to discuss the controversy. Shadow of Mogg does just that. It provides a venue for players to look back on things, and reflect on what unfolded and why. This could be comedic or dramatic, but that’s determined at the table. Will the group survive? Will the players continue to uphold their past society’s political ideals? Should they? Shadow of Mogg takes life after Brexit to its logical extremes and beyond in a fairly irreverent and creative manner. If you’ve got an itch for disaster scenarios, but don’t fancy pummeling your way to a brighter tomorrow, this game might be worth a look. 

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium

*Originally published at British Fantasy Society

Published decades ago, Frank Herbert’s award-winning Dune spawned a series of novels and is now a tabletop roleplaying game from Modiphius. The game puts players into the complexities and nuance of Herbert’s deep space interpretation of the future of human civilization. This adaptation of the classic story is primarily focused on the novels to develop the game, rather than any other media.

There’s a lot to like about this book, and it is very readable, containing everything needed to pick up and go with minimal effort. The art is fantastic, and although it feels a bit dark, it captures the atmosphere of the novels. Additionally, Dune’s massivetimeline is annotated,  listing each book as they relate to the game’s lore. This is great for referencing the original source material, and for newcomers. Predictably, the default setting is Arrakis, the planet Dune is namedafter. Arrakis is nicely outlined, but it would have been helpful to have visual aids since there are only a couple of cities on Arrakis. 

Need friends and enemies? There’s a useful NPC gallery containing some of Dune’s most important personalities, as well as NPC archetypes that can easily be re-skinned. What’s more, there’s even an introductory adventure module that can be run to give people a taste of how the game plays without having to prepare the material. Resources are plentiful to assist people just to easily dive right in.

Some of the rules are innovative, for example, there are two ways to create characters. Players can take the time to develop a fully-prepared persona, or create a skeleton that grows as a campaign progresses. There’s even  “troupe-style” play where players use ‘supporting characters’, basically, NPCs, that are important, but not necessarily managed by the GM. This adds complexity to the game, but these secondary characters give players a different presence at the table, a fun twist on gameplay. 

One aspect of the system that stood out is Assets. How this appears to work is that a player could spend Momentum to introduce an asset to help them overcome an obstacle or a conflict, for example by calling in a debt. In principle, this is a pretty nifty idea, but in practice, this could be problematic. GMs will need to be alert, and ensure assets fit the game’s scope. 

Beyond designing characters, players construct a House. The rules for this process are simple, containing pros and cons for the scale of the House. Unfortunately, the characters are supposed to all belong to the same house. While this makes perfect sense, it would be fun to have rules allowing characters to be members of different, even rival houses. 

What makes this game stand out as a TTRPG is in the chapter for Gamemastering on how to implement Dune’s themes, such as religion, the effects of spice, the scale of the environment, and so on. What’s in the book is great, but a bit academic. Here’s an example from incorporating faith,

When incorporating elements of faith and religion into their stories, you should try to balance these meta-narratives implicit in the setting against the characters that experience these concepts as authentic expressions of themselves and their beliefs. 

The section is vital to making Dune unique, but it could be presented with language that was a bit less opaque.  As an RPG, Dune has resulted in a remarkably comprehensive book. There are areas that are lacking in detail, but this is a game that is loaded with opportunities for supplements. It would be stunning if Modiphius wasn’t already working on these. Like any other game adapted from existing media, it’s going to be for fans of Dune before anyone else. However, there is a lot in the core book, and it all feels very open for anyone that might be looking for a well-developed science-fiction line.