One question I had when I looked at Dune last year was where would the game go from here? I saw two directions. The first would be to release sourcebooks and materials focused on the core Dune storyline and Arrakis itself. The second would be to support the broad story of this unique universe and play outside of that core world.
We've seen– and I think smartly–- that they've opted to take the first approach. All of the initial materials released either directly focus on Arrakis-focused play or generally support it. That's a good choice. It is material that people know and is the reason why people have likely come to the game. That's especially true at present when there’s a lot of attention given to Dune via the movie and the host of other products like board games (a surprising number of these).
But I'm most interested in the vibe and feel of that setting, rather than just exploring the original plotline. My focus has been on how we set up a campaign that allows people to get the feel of Dune but not be located on Arrakis or even directly interact with that. Below is my solution to that problem. I offer a quick (and some might say obvious) outline of a way to frame this kind of campaign.
Before we go too much further, be aware that my knowledge of this universe comes from having read all the books several decades ago and then rereading the first four original novels recently. (That's about all I could get through). To that add multiple viewings of both movies as well as a close read of the Dune core book. I have tried to read the Brian Herbert prequels. and I'm sure there are people who love them. But they’re flaming hot garbage. They may be doing interesting world-building at some point and using notes from Frank Herbert himself. I don't know. But the writing is just so bad.
CAMPAIGN SET UP
But let's start with the initial premise. We know that at the start of Dune the Emperor has swapped control of Arrakis and placed it in the hands of the Atreides. There’s suggestions of power blocs within the Houses and that this is being done to change the focus of the Atreides. At least that’s probably the general perception. Its also suggested that at the same time The Emperor shuffles a host of other families between holdings as a means of disrupting control and concealing the big plot. So within that chaos, the PCs are part of a family being swapped during those transfers.
We start with a House Building phase and give the players that set up. They will be making a newly minted major rank, just raised up from the ranks of minor houses. The PCs can figure out what they've done to earn this honor as you build the house. For the moment, we’re not going to define much about the planet that they’re being given control of. They can at this point throw out some ideas about the moon or part of a planet they were previously on (especially to eventually build a contrast with their new location. Having the PC be an absolutely new major house does several great things for us. For one it explains why the house would be unsure and off-balance, focused on building. Mechanically it gives the PCs house a strong primary domain of influence and two secondary ones. Those picks create a triangle and tell us a lot about the house. They also start with two rivals, one major and one minor.
At this point you may want to talk with the players about what level they want to start at. Do they want to be second–in-command to the major roles of the house (Councilor, Marshal, Swordmaster, etc)? This gives them some more freedom to move around and work with each other. The idea here would be that they will eventually step up into that role when their superior dies or is indisposed. Or do they want to start out as those big roles? This gives some more reason why they can set the agenda for the house. And it’s OK that they might be a little inexperienced, given the recent changes. Or the players may want some mix of these. (Sidebar: assign each of the players 1-2 NPC roles to make up the characters for– name, backstory, picture).
One key campaign idea is that this new planet they are taking over has been abandoned and left without a line of nobles overseeing it. Another major house once held control of it, but five or ten Cycles ago that family fled into the outer rim where renegade houses flee to. Exactly why and how that occurred should be a matter of rumor, speculation, and uncertainty. That backstory can be explored in play. But we know something happened to cause friction between the exiled house and the Emperor, driving them to drastic action. You may choose to reveal this before or after players define their family’s domains, but definitely before they choose house traits.
You can then work with the players to define details about this new planet. Go big– think of a world with some settled places but large swathes of other areas which are dangerous or untamed: massive canyons; a single temperate belt around the equator with a semi-fixed day & night side; weird tech caused gravatic storms, etc. Beyond this we’re only going to start with a few premises. The planet had settlements, cities, and infrastructure built and/or overseen by the previous household. The previous household had been particularly awful in their treatment of the planet and the locals. Maybe not Harkonen level, but bad. There’s both a more recent settler populace (several generations) and the possibility of an older, more native populace. In the the time since the exiled house fled, the planet has been left on its own in many ways. In the last few cycles, imperial troops have arrived to secure the planet, crack down on dissidents, and strip out wealth as a kind of Imperial tax.
- The population on this planet suffered under the yoke of that terrible family. Memories will still be fresh about how bad they were. The different groups will eye their new PC overlords warily.
- That population has also had time out from under the yoke of any family. Likely several, cultural, and religious movements have arisen. .
- The most recent, visible representation the population has had about the nobility is the presence of these Imperial troops. That's going to create a whole set of frictions there.
- The previous family ripped out a good deal of the infrastructure, valuable resources, and other developments to take with them. While they couldn't take everything they did serious damage and perhaps even left behind booby traps or dangerously sabotaged some things.
- That family took people with valuable knowledge with them: scientists, engineers, scholars, skilled laborers and beyond. Likely people with an intimate knowledge of the family’s workings and affairs would have been hunted down, though perhaps a few survive..
- As you collaboratively build this world, together come up with a sense of the industrial or practical strengths which made this valuable to the exiled family. Think about how to connect that up with the PCs’ family’s strengths.
- The remaining Imperial presence will be hanging over the PCs. They will take their time in leaving. Perhaps they have another agenda or something they’re looking for. The Imperial Arbiter of the Change as well as the Imperial Garrison Commander will be key figures here.
- Despite the recent Imperial arrival, the planet has in places become a hive of scum and villainy, a good resource for smugglers and thieves. Industrial strippers and scrappers would also target the planet to steal any resources or tech left behind. The PCs’ arrival will potentially disrupt their activities, so they could be a force acting against the house. That allows for some interesting political dimensions between those outworlders, useful smugglers, local criminal organizations, local political groups, and the general populace.
- One big overhanging campaign question should be why this house left. Ideally it should relate to a discovery, new technology, or special resource. Down the road if and when the PCs uncover those secrets, they'll have to decide how to exploit that and avoid the Emperor’s eye. Sidebar: In the later Dune books, the discovery of synthetic Spice is a key plot point, so I’d avoid that as the tech. It undercuts the Dune premise a little. But there are many other interesting things like tech to create super soldiers, new weapons, new resources allow for greater independence, or a tech that other factions keep to themselves.
- Did the exiled household leave agents– sleeper or otherwise– behind to cause problems. This can manifest in a couple of ways. There might be active saboteurs. Alternately the previous household might have done some religious or memetic engineering to create problems for anyone who took over.
- When setting up the two rival houses to the PCs, one of them, preferably the minor house, should have had ambitions of their own to take over this planet. They may already have agents on-site scouting locations. With the planet being turned over to their enemies, those operatives might shift their work to fomenting dissent, disrupting networks, and setting up assassinations. It depends on the level of hostility between them.
- Consider what other house(s) control planets or moons within the system. That gives a realm for political maneuvering and play. Perhaps the minor enemy house controls a colony nearby. You might also consider the Bene Gesserit presence. Do they have a Chapterhouse on the planet or is there one located on another planet in the system?. In my set up, one of the moons of another planet is a Guild crossroads– a colony technically owned by another house but loaned to the Guild in perpetuity. This makes the system important as a transit hub.
- Depending on how much you want to echo the Arrakis themes, you might have a group of people: original settlers, escapees from the previous house, a long-term secret cult who exist and thrive within the unsettled and dangerous environment. They might have knowledge of or access to the secrets of the previous house.
Another great hook and long-term plot for the campaign can be trying to recruit vassal families who can support the PC’s house. Because of the recent transition, the PC group won't have yet established those kinds of ties. This makes for some rich economic and political play, building up connections over time.
There’s even a Dune connection you can make in this set up. In the early campaign seed in news about changes happening across the Empire. In particular the disruption foreseen by the coming handover of Arrakis to House Atreides. At this point introduce representatives from a vassal family of the Atreides, a minor or nascent house. When news comes of the Harkonen’s seizure of Dune, the Atreides vassal family might come asking for protection and support. The Harkonens could be pursuing them, or perhaps one of the PC’s rival houses acting on their behest. There’s a great set of choices and flashpoints there: do you protect them? How do you support them? What’s the challenge of integrating them?
WHAT CAN THE PCS DO IN PLAY?
- Set up and secure the new base of operations.
- Survey the state of the infrastructure.
- Formulate a play of security and military deployment.
- Hunt for traps or other dangerous sabotage left behind by the previous house.
- Assess the local religious ecology.
- Gather intelligence on the different populations (urban, rural, smuggler, etc).
- Prioritize repairs and investment.
- Learn local customs.
- Gain the confidence of some portion of the population.
- Control or manage the black market and criminal underworld.
- Watch for signs of interference/attacks from rival houses.
- Hunt down the secrets of the previous house.
- Establish order in a distant free-city where smugglers have control.
- Study the native ecology (flora and fauna).
- Recruit agents.
- Begin to establish connections with potential vassal families.
- Transplant existing family domains to this new locale.
- Make family domains profitable here.
- Adapt military and technology to this new environment.
- Establish diplomatic ties and exchanges with other houses within the system.
- Spy on other houses within the system.
- Protect the house leader and immediate family.
- Explore lost sights.
- Figure out how the Bene Gesserit have manipulated things here.
- Establish new cultural practices and societal modifications