“I was thinking of you for the corebook adventure”. So went the email from Andrew Peregrine, line manager for the Dune RPG. OK, that’s fine I thought. The introductory adventure for a legendary sci-fi epic with 50 years of fandom and universe-building behind it. No pressure.
Who was I kidding? I went into panic mode about 30 seconds after clicking Send on my “Yes please thank you” reply to Andrew. Then I remembered the Litany Against Fear and recited it in my head.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
And yes, I did hear it in the whispered voice of the young Kyle Maclachlan.
OK, so I was going to do this. But how was I going to come up with a 5,000-word adventure that encapsulates everything I loved about the Herberts’ universe? Something that introduces newcomers to the core concepts of this unique setting, and gives players a chance to get used to the basics of the rule system? Oh, and be a fun, mysterious, tough adventure at the same time?
After listening to the 2007 audiobook of Dune about three times, I fell back on my Mentat training and broke my impressions down into the elements that I considered to be, for me, essentially Dune. Phrases like House vs House, Conflicting Ambitions, Conspiracy & Betrayal, Threat of Open War, Sly Assassinations, Bene Gesserit Schemes, and Giant Sandworms. Oh yes, I do like the sandworms.
Then I wrote them on coloured post-it notes and stuck them on my airing cupboard door so I couldn’t miss them every time I walked past on my way to the bathroom.
It seemed to me that any introductory adventure for Dune just had to be set out in the deserts of Arrakis, involve twisty-turny intrigues, a cast of non-player characters who were just awful, dreadful people, and also present the constant, imminent threat of a violent death for players and supporting characters alike. But where to set the game exactly, and how to bring all my core themes together?
The episode in the first book that stuck with me more than any other appears fairly on, when Duke Leto, Paul, the surveyor Kynes, and Gurney come across an enormous spice harvester vehicle out in the desert, and try to evacuate all the crew even as a hulking great sandworm is bearing down on it. A great little episode full of tough choices – do they try to save the vehicle and its precious cargo of spice, or save the men? – with a small cast of characters in a position to make life-or-death decisions. It almost felt like a scenario that most role-players would love to find themselves in.
So I took that as my inspiration, and had a good think about the inherent dangers of operating what is essentially a giant, lumbering, beetle-shaped, spice-snorting oil rig across treacherous seas of sand patrolled by mile-long worms big enough to swallow the vehicle whole. It seemed to me that everything involved in spice harvesting is about things trying to kill you. And that’s not even counting the bottomless dust basins, the drum sands which are effectively dinner bells for the sandworms, the choking dust storms, and those hostile, elusive Fremen who are liable to kill off-worlders as soon as look at them.
Cue several interesting discussions with Andrew and RPG-writing guru Jason Durall about the minutiae of the spice harvesting industry on Arrakis. Which was all crucially plot-relevant to the game, honest.
After listening to Dune a couple more times and staring at the brightly coloured squares of paper covering the airing cupboard door for a day or two, I came up with the plot for ‘Harvesters of Dune’, in which the player characters are despatched to one of their House’s huge flying carryalls somewhere over the deserts of Arrakis, and are tasked with investigating its poor spice productivity.
What could possibly go wrong?