Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium
Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium Capsule Review by Derek Guder on 19/04/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 3 (Average)
While a pretty book with an interesting system, the lack of setting detail makes it difficult to run a game based solely upon this book.
Product: Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium
Author: Steven Bishop, Matthew Colville, Richard Dakan, Jack Emmet, Matthew Grau, Steve Long, Christian Moore, Owen Seyler
Company/Publisher: Last Unicorn Games / Wizards of the Coast
Page count: 286
Year published: 2000
Capsule Review by Derek Guder on 19/04/01
Genre tags: Science Fiction Far Future Space Conspiracy
The Dune role-playing game has been a long time in coming. Aside from the usual hurdles that books have to overcome before they hit the shelves, the game had to wrestle with long delaying legal issues and then a complete corporate buy-out by Wizards of the Coast before it was finally released at GenCon this year. Even that was only a temporary version, the “Limited Edition.” Before the game sees unlimited release it will be overhauled and Last Unicorn’s Icon system will be taken out and replaced with Wizard’s own d20 system. Was it worth the wait, and will it be worth even more waiting for the mainstream release? Unfortunately, not really.
Visually, the game seems live up to its rather expensive price tag. It is a nice hardcover book and the pages are all color, printed on quality paper - the book even smells nice. There is something very satisfying about its weight and the way the paper bends, Dune is a very well-made volume, durable and pretty. The art that graces those pages is only average to good, with a few exceptions, but the color does help to make it much more appealing and engaging.
As I mentioned, the limited edition of Dune uses Last Unicorn’s Icon system, a variant of the ones used for the various Star Trek game lines the company also produced. I have yet to read my copy of Deep Space 9, but I imagine that a few of the notable elements of the Dune version are unique to the game, such as the skill grouping. The basic die mechanic of the Icon system is similar to that of the Silhouette system that Dream Pod 9 uses. In Icon, rolls are made with a number of dice equal to the appropriate attribute. The applicable skill rating is then added to the highest die to compare against a target number. The system is simple and versatile, the two things I demand of any gaming system I would actually use.
The attributes themselves (Physique, Coordination, Intellect, Charisma and Prescience) all have “edges,” or modifiers. An edge is a bonus or a penalty to an attribute in certain situations, and each attribute has two of them to provide more detail and variation. Physique, for example, has the edges of Strength and Constitution. A character with greater or lesser Strength than his Physique would otherwise suggest will have either a positive or a negative rating in that particular edge, effectively changing his attribute rating for tasks relying on Strength. There are a fair number of skills, covering almost any situation. There most unique feature is their grouping, however, as they are divided into the Valor of the Brave (physical, combat), Learning of the Wise (knowledge), Justice of the Great (politics, social) and Prayers of the Righteous (everything else). Aside from the flavor they bring to the game, these categories tie in with closely with a character’s reputation and make it clear just what he is known for. Character creation and some of the general system rules could have been laid out or explained with a bit more clarity, as it sometimes took me a few reads to really be clear on a passage or rules. They add up to quite a nice system altogether, however, and even if the Icon system is slightly more complicated than most systems I like, I would definitely like to try it out. The combat system, especially, is much more complicated that I normally like but that complication allows for enough interesting options that I found it quite intriguing. Even though the Icon system seems to passing away in favor of d20, I think it is something worth checking out.
Something that a lot of people were waiting forward to in the release of Dune was the rules for creating, maintaining and expanding a noble house. Unfortunately this is where the system was a bit lacking. While it providing an intriguing groundwork, describing a house in the same way as a character (with attributes, edges and even an experience analog), it failed to go much farther. What information there is on using those traits in play, or even fully explaining them at all sometimes, is rather limited, often boiling down to broad, sweeping advice. Even with the limited space of the book, the Last Unicorn would have done well to put more attention towards those rules, especially since the house-building campaign is the strongly encouraged (and even assumed) game basis. What the book does present is interesting and food for thought, but not an entirely complete system, especially compared to the rest of the Icon game engine.
Another failing of the book is the setting it presents. I bought Dune hoping to use it as a detailed reference to the world described in the novels, but I found it to be rather thin and sparse. The way the history chapter is laid out makes it nearly impossible to get a solid feel for the flow of history – a problem only aggravated by the almost complete lack of dates or other references. The entries on the Great Houses are all quite interesting, but rather abbreviated at only a page each. There is no room for a long look at details like distinct house culture or anything more than the house stats of associated minor houses. The culture chapter is similarly short, with sections on the various schools, religions and social customs of the Imperium being long enough to be interesting but too brief to satisfy, unfortunately. The chapters on technology, the Spacing Guild and the worlds of the Imperium are all very good, although they could have used some space for an overview and a general discussion of their subjects. Judging from the quality of the Spacing Guild information, a similar chapter on the Schools and another on the Houses of the Imperium would have been an excellent choice, providing enough room to really explore those ideas.
The strangest thing about the setting, however, is that two entire chapters are devoted to exploring the planet Chusuk and an adventure based their. The planet and its accompanying adventure is interesting, but I do not know why this space wasn’t used for more central concerns. A chapter on Arrakis or more cultural information would have been much more useful. While the message that not all games set in the Imperium have to be on Dune itself, that is the most dramatic and memorable stage of the setting, and the novels (and game) were even named after it. Not ever chronicle of the Imperium has to be about the sandworms and the Fremen, no matter how cool they are, but that is something that could have been better addressed as a note in the game master’s chapter, to be followed up on in later releases.
Dune provides a good system, although its major selling point is somewhat incomplete and rudimentary, but it fails to deliver with the setting. There is not really enough information to provide a comfortable base for someone who has not read the novels, and yet there is also not enough new or detailed knowledge to make the game really useful to someone who has. If you really love the novels and the universe, than Dune may make you happy, but otherwise it is something you should carefully consider buying. Personally, I am waiting for further supplements, hoping that the detail I had hoped for in the basic book can be found there, although I will be doubly wary. I hold no love for the d20 system and the amount of detail in the core book makes me wonder just how much room there is within the Dune license.