By Andrew Peregrine
Conflict is an essential part of Dune, from deceit and intrigue to outright duels to death by blade. One thing we have been asked about is a more detailed example of conflict, especially concerning duels. So, by way of explaining the rules and showing how the system can be used to mirror the exciting conflicts of the novel, let’s look at Paul Atreides’ climactic duel with Feyd-Rautha at the conclusion of the novel Dune. In this example, Paul is a player character, and so uses Momentum, Feyd-Rautha is a non-player character and so is played by the gamemaster, who uses Threat.
To keep things simple, we’ve not detailed the result of every dice roll. We just declare which is a test and whether it is a success or not. This way we keep the focus on the system and not the numbers. If you want to play out this scene for yourself, in the Dune Core Rulebook you’ll find Paul Atreides (p.244) and Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (p.253) detailed. We’ll keep things basic to illustrate the beats of a duel, but both Paul and Feyd-Rautha have certain abilities and talents that would apply. So, as we go we’ll note how some of those are being used.
Obviously, there are a few spoilers ahead here, so if you haven’t done so already, now is the time to catch up on reading the novel (as it concerns events not depicted in the film).
Paul Atreides and the Fremen have taken control of Arrakis and captured the Emperor and his entourage. When Paul notices Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen among the assembled nobles, he sees an opportunity to finally lay to rest the vendetta between their Houses. The Emperor sees one last chance to rid the Imperium of this Atreides usurper.
The Emperor’s face was touched by an abrupt smile. “If Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen...of my entourage...so wishes,” he said, “I relieve him of all restraint and give him freedom to choose his own course in this.” The Emperor waved a hand toward Paul’s Fedaykin guards. “One of your rabble has my belt and short blade. If Feyd-Rautha wishes it, he may meet you with my blade in his hand.”
“I wish it,” Feyd-Rautha said, and Paul saw the elation on the man’s face.
So, this conflict will be a duel as it is two opponents in single combat. If it wasn’t so important it could be a skirmish, but with the Imperium on the line it’s a scene to play out to the fullest.
Looking at the dueling map on p.171 of the Dune Core Rulebook, Feyd-Rautha’s personal zone is the red circle on the left, so we’ll call his two red guard zones A and B. Paul’s personal zone is the green circle on the right, and we’ll call his green guard zones 1 and 2. If either combatant can move an asset into their opponent’s personal zone and make a successful attack, they will win the conflict.
However, as they are both a player character (Paul) and an important non-player character (Feyd-Rautha) such an attack will be an extended test.
Each combatant is armed with a single blade. In Paul’s case this is a crysknife, but Feyd-Rautha has chosen to wield the Emperor’s personal blade. Such an asset might be used in several ways, not least of which being proof of the Emperor’s favor. But the most important trait it has in this situation is that it is poisoned. Both blades are easily Quality 4 assets.
The gamemaster makes it clear to Paul’s player that there can be only one defeat option for either combatant. This is a duel to the death.
“Is the Atreides ready?” Feyd-Rautha called, using the words of the ancient kanly ritual.
Paul chose to answer him in the Fremen way: “May thy knife chip and shatter!” He pointed to the Emperor’s blade on the floor, indicating that Feyd-Rautha should advance and take it.
Keeping his attention on Paul, Feyd-Rautha picked up the knife, balancing it a moment in his hand to get the feel of it. Excitement kindled in him. This was a fight he had dreamed about—man against man, skill against skill with no shields intervening. He could see a way to power opening before him because the Emperor surely would reward whoever killed this troublesome duke.
What makes this fight a little easier to manage is that no shields are being used (although Paul would be able to reduce the extra Difficulty, a shield would add to it, using his The Slow Blade talent). As such each opponent only has one asset, their knife. Both choose to start with their knives in their right hands. So, Paul’s crysknife asset starts in zone 2 and Feyd-Rautha’s blade starts in zone B.
“Shall we fight, cousin?” Paul asked. And he cat-footed forward, eyes on the waiting blade, his body crouched low with his own milk-white crysknife pointing out as though an extension of his arm.
They circled each other, bare feet grating on the floor, watching with eyes intent for the slightest opening.
Paul and Feyd-Rautha both open the fight attempting to move an asset into their opponent’s guard zone, hoping to then move it to their opponent’s personal zone.
Paul goes first, successfully making the Difficulty 2 Move test to move his asset boldly. He moves his crysknife into Feyd-Rautha’s opposite guard zone (A). As this allows him to move an opponent’s asset, he then moves Feyd-Rautha’s knife into Feyd-Rautha’s personal zone. Feyd-Rautha is forced to be defensive when Paul’s blade slices towards as they circle.
On Feyd-Rautha’s turn he tries the same thing as he needs to get his knife back into play. From his personal zone he can only move the knife into one of his guard zones A or B. Paul’s knife is now in zone A, so if Feyd-Rautha tries to move his asset there it will be more difficult. He attempts to move boldly into zone B and his roll is a success. So, he too can move an opponent’s asset and moves Paul’s blade back into Paul’s guard zone 2.
At the end of that exchange Paul’s blade is in zone 2, Feyd-Rautha’s in zone B. The two opponents are circling and sizing each other up. While it may seem little has changed, both opponents managed to roll better than the two successes needed to move their assets. As such Paul has gained some Momentum and Feyd-Rautha has gained some Threat. After a couple more turns of this, with neither finding advantage, both combatants have collected points in their respective pools.
“Perhaps you have only pagan rites here,” Feyd-Rautha said. “Would you like the Emperor’s Truthsayer to prepare your spirit for its journey?” Paul smiled, circling to the right, alert, his black thoughts suppressed by the needs of the moment.
After a turn or two of circling, it is clear someone needs to gain an advantage. Feyd-Rautha uses his next action to gain a new trait, something that he can use to his advantage. He offers a few barbs at Paul, attempting to bully him into losing confidence. If Feyd-Rautha wanted to impose a trait on Paul, that would take a contested roll. So Feyd-Rautha tries to gain the trait ‘Confident I Will Win’. However, Paul spends Momentum to make the Difficulty 2 test a little harder and Feyd-Rautha fails the test. He doesn’t gain the advantage he was hoping for.
Feyd-Rautha leaped, feinting with right hand, but with the knife shifted in a blur to his left hand.
Paul dodged easily, noting the shield-conditioned hesitation in Feyd-Rautha’s thrust. Still, it was not as great a shield conditioning as some Paul had seen, and he sensed that Feyd-Rautha had fought before against unshielded foes.
Feyd-Rautha once more takes the initiative and breaks the pattern of circling with a deadly lunge. He moves his knife subtly and successfully shifts it into Paul’s zone 1. He then keeps the initiative and moves his blade again into Paul’s personal zone, poised to attack. But he can’t take a third action so has to let Paul take a turn.
Paul moves his own knife boldly, shifting it into Feyd-Rautha’s guard zone A, and uses his option to move an asset to shift Feyd-Rautha’s blade into Paul’s guard zone 1. Now each combatant has an asset in the other’s guard zones, only a step away from making an attack.
During the exchange, the gamemaster considers if either of the fighters’ training in shield fighting might hinder them, as they are fighting without them. But the gamemaster decides that as both fighters have had enough experience fighting unshielded opponents it is not worth making this weakness a trait. However, Paul does have The Slow Blade talent, which allows him to ignore enemy assets such as a shield, but also Feyd-Rautha’s knife when it is being used defensively.
“Does an Atreides run or stand and fight?” Feyd-Rautha asked. Paul resumed his silent circling. Idaho’s words came back to him, the words of training from the long-ago practice floor on Caladan: “Use the first moments in study. You may miss many an opportunity for quick victory this way, but the moments of study are insurance of success. Take your time and be sure.”
Feyd-Rautha attempts to gain a trait again, hoping to get an advantage as the fight enters the endgame. Calling Paul a coward, he attempts to gain the trait ‘I Am in Control of the Fight’. Given that he hasn’t gained an advantage in the fight yet, the gamemaster increases the Difficulty of the test to create the trait, and fails the roll. So once more Feyd-Rautha doesn’t gain the advantage.
In the brief respite, Paul tries to do the same. Instead of trying to bully his opponent, he tries to focus on his training and remember the words of Duncan Idaho. He makes a roll to add the trait ‘Observant’, and his roll is a success.
“Perhaps you think this dance prolongs your life a few moments,” Feyd-Rautha said. “Well and good.” He stopped circling, straightened.
Paul had seen enough for a first approximation. Feyd-Rautha led to the left side, presenting the right hip as though the mailed fighting girdle could protect his entire side. It was the action of a man trained to the shield and with a knife in both hands. Or... And Paul hesitated... The girdle was more than it seemed.
Having just gained an appropriate trait (Observant), the gamemaster allows Paul’s player to make a test to see if he can notice something about his opponent. He succeeds and the gamemaster tells him that there is something odd about Feyd-Rautha’s fighting girdle.
Unbeknownst to Paul, Feyd-Rautha has a second weapon asset hidden in the girdle. It has the trait ‘Hidden’ that could have been used to gain a bonus in an attack. But now that Paul has noticed it, the trait is nullified, even before Feyd-Rautha can bring it into the fight.
“Why don't you speak?”Feyd-Rautha demanded.
Paul resumed his probing circle, allowing himself a cold smile at the tone of unease in Feyd-Rautha’s voice, evidence that the pressure of silence was building.
The two combatants exchange a few moves again. Each tries to move their asset to a decisive position. However, they are too evenly matched, and each movement is countered by their opponent. The Momentum and Threat pools are still building, though, so it is not wasted time. However, Feyd-Rautha’s Rapid Maneuver talent allows him to push his blade one layer further into Paul’s defenses (but at the cost of 1 point of Threat), keeping Paul on the defensive.
“You smile, eh?” Feyd-Rautha asked. And he leaped in mid-sentence. Expecting the slight hesitation, Paul almost failed to evade the downflash of blade, felt its tip scratch his left arm. He silenced the sudden pain there, his mind flooded with realization that the earlier hesitation had been a trick—an overfeint. Here was more of an opponent than he had expected. There would be tricks within tricks within tricks.
“Your own Thufir Hawat taught me some of my skills,” Feyd-Rautha said. “He gave me first blood. Too bad the old fool didn't live to see it.”
And Paul recalled that Idaho had once said, “Expect only what happens in the fight. That way you’ll never be surprised.”
Again the two circled each other, crouched, cautious.
Paul saw the return of elation to his opponent, wondered at it. Did a scratch signify that much to the man? Unless there were poison on the blade! But how could there be? His own men had handled the weapon, snooped it before passing it. They were too well trained to miss an obvious thing like that.
With his blade asset in Paul’s guard zone 1, Feyd-Rautha chooses to make a strike. He makes a subtle move, successfully getting his blade once again into Paul’s personal zone. Then he keeps the initiative to act again and make an attack action. This action will be an extended contest against Paul’s skill and could potentially see an end to the fight. Paul’s roll sets the Difficulty for Feyd-Rautha and he rolls well. However, Feyd-Rautha uses a lot of Threat, overcoming Paul’s roll and the necessary requirement (as this is an extended test) enough to cause a defeat.
However, Paul has the option to ‘Resist Defeat’ once per scene. The Quality of Feyd-Rautha’s blade makes this quite expensive in terms of Momentum (5 Momentum for a Quality 4 weapon – it is, after all, the Emperor’s blade). But Paul has the Momentum and if he doesn’t spend it, the fight is over.
While Paul manages to avoid being defeated (killed, given the stakes set at the start of the duel) he has still been wounded by Feyd-Rautha’s blade. While it might not defeat Paul, the attack was a success and using the Resist Defeat option means Paul must take a complication. So, the gamemaster decides that Feyd-Rautha’s blade got close enough to cut Paul and give him the complication ‘Poisoned’. This trait will apply to everything he does.
While Feyd-Rautha’s blade is still in Paul’s personal zone, Paul knows Feyd-Rautha needs to build up more Threat to stand a chance of a successful attack, although such an action would be decisive. So, he takes a risk and tries to gain another trait to use in his own plan. He realizes Feyd-Rautha has been trained by the same teacher, and as such Paul might be able to predict some of his moves. He makes a test and successfully gains the trait ‘Trained By the Same Master’.
“That woman you were talking to over there,” Feyd-Rautha said. “The little one. Is she something special to you? A pet perhaps? Will she deserve my special attentions?”
Paul remained silent, probing with his inner senses, examining the blood from the wound, finding a trace of soporific from the Emperor’s blade. He realigned his own metabolism to match this threat and change the molecules of the soporific, but he felt a thrill of doubt. They’d been prepared with soporific on a blade. A soporific. Nothing to alert a poison snooper, but strong enough to slow the muscles it touched. His enemies had their own plans within plans, their own stacked treacheries.
Feeling confident, with a blade poised in Paul’s personal zone, Feyd-Rautha wants to make the next move decisive. He tries to rile Paul by talking about Chani, hoping to gain the trait ‘Threatening Paul’s Lover’. But his roll is a failure.
Paul uses the opportunity to try and rid himself of the ‘Poisoned’ complication. Normally this would be impossible without an antidote, but the gamemaster rules that Paul’s Bene Gesserit training allows the attempt. This test involves ‘Overcoming an Obstacle’, and while the gamemaster sets a high Difficulty, Paul succeeds and removes the complication.
Again Feyd-Rautha leaped, stabbing.
Paul, the smile frozen on his face, feinted with slowness as though inhibited by the drug and at the last instant dodged to meet the downflashing arm on the crysknife’s point.
While his Threat pool is still low, Feyd-Rautha decides to make use of his blade being in Paul’s personal zone by making another attack. But this time he is unsuccessful and cannot beat Paul’s roll in the contest.
Feyd-Rautha ducked sideways and was out and away, his blade shifted to his left hand, and the measure of him that only a slight paleness of jaw betrayed the acid pain where Paul had cut him. Let him know his own moment of doubt, Paul thought. Let him suspect poison.
Paul takes a tactic from Feyd-Rautha’s playbook and moves his own blade subtly. He succeeds the move roll pushing his blade into Feyd-Rautha’s personal zone from the guard zone A. Then he keeps the initiative to make an attack, using all his Momentum. He is successful, and while Feyd-Rautha can Resist Defeat himself, he doesn’t have the Threat left to do so.
But the contest is an extended test, meaning Paul must meet a requirement, which is Feyd-Rautha’s Battle skill of 7. Paul’s successful attack grants 2 points towards the requirement, plus another 4 for the Quality of his crysknife. But 6 isn’t quite enough and Paul doesn’t have the Momentum left to get that final point.
Feyd-Rautha gets hurt though, and the gamemaster decides that Feyd-Rautha gets a bit upset at this sudden reversal.
“Treachery!” Feyd-Rautha shouted. “He’s poisoned me! I do feel poison in my arm!”
Paul dropped his cloak of silence, said: “Only a little acid to counter the soporific on the Emperor’s blade.”
Feyd-Rautha matched Paul’s cold smile, lifted blade in left hand for a mock salute. His eyes glared rage behind the knife.
Paul and Feyd-Rautha roleplay out this moment between themselves. Even in the tensest of duels there is no reason to focus only on the dice rolls. Banter, role playing, and threats, whether intended to gain or remove traits, are to be encouraged.
Paul shifted his crysknife to his left hand, matching his opponent. Again, they circled, probing.
Feyd-Rautha began closing the space between them, edging in, knife held high, anger showing itself in squint of eye and set of jaw. He feinted right and under, and they were pressed against each other, knife hands gripped, straining.
Paul, cautious of Feyd-Rautha’s right hip where he suspected a poison flip-dart, forced the turn to the right. He almost failed to see the needlepoint flick out beneath the beltline. A shift and a giving in Feyd-Rautha’s motion warned him. The tiny point missed Paul’s flesh by the barest fraction.
Both combatants now have an asset in each other’s personal zones. They are locked together under each other’s guard looking for a final deadly strike.
Feyd-Rautha chooses this moment to reveal he has a second secret asset, a flip-dart concealed in his girdle. He had hoped to use its secrecy to his advantage, but Paul spotted it some time ago. Still, it is a second asset and as dangerous as any knife.
Paul makes bold moves to shift Feyd-Rautha’s blade away from his personal zone. But Feyd-Rautha responds in the same way, gradually moving his assets forward alternately. While Paul can keep one at bay, soon both threaten his personal zone.
Treachery within treachery within treachery, Paul reminded himself. Using Bene Gesserit-trained muscles, he sagged to catch a reflex in Feyd-Rautha, but the necessity of avoiding the tiny point jutting from his opponent's hip threw Paul off just enough that he missed his footing and found himself thrown hard to the floor, Feyd-Rautha on top.
“You see it there on my hip?” Feyd-Rautha whispered. “Your death, fool.” And he began twisting himself around, forcing the poisoned needle closer and closer. “It’ll stop your muscles and my knife will finish you. There’ll be never a trace left to detect!”
After a series of bold moves from both opponents, Paul’s blade is in Feyd-Rautha’s guard zone A, but both Feyd-Rautha’s assets (the knife and flip-dart) are now in Paul’s personal zone. Either could be used to make a final attack.
To get every advantage for his final attack, Feyd-Rautha tries to gain the trait ‘Pinned my Opponent’, which the gamemaster makes quite an easy Difficulty, given the situation. The test passes and Paul now has another trait to contend with, one that grants Feyd-Rautha a bonus to the Difficulty of an attack.
Paul strained, hearing the silent screams in his mind, his cell-stamped ancestors demanding that he use the secret word to slow Feyd-Rautha, to save himself.
“I will not say it!” Paul gasped.
The gamemaster reminds Paul’s player that Jessica’s player added the trait ‘Secret Weakness’ to Feyd-Rautha before this combat started. But it is up to Paul to decide if he will use that trait to his advantage. He (perhaps foolishly) decides not to as he wants a fair fight.
Feyd-Rautha gaped at him, caught in the merest fraction of hesitation. It was enough for Paul to find the weakness of balance in one of his opponent’s leg muscles, and their positions were reversed. Feyd-Rautha lay partly underneath with right hip high, unable to turn because of the tiny needlepoint caught against the floor beneath him.
While Feyd-Rautha has been working to maneuver assets into place, Paul has been building his Momentum pool. He chooses to spend all the points in one attack, especially as the trait ‘Pinned my Opponent’ increases the Difficulty of the contest. However, he has the ‘Trained by the Same Master’ trait to offset that, but the gamemaster won’t allow him to apply ‘Observant’ in this case. His The Slow Blade talent isn’t useful here as we are dealing with traits, not assets. But if he has the Momentum, Paul could find his Cool Under Pressure talent very useful here.
Paul’s dice roll well, and he wins the contested roll with Feyd-Rautha. Again, he can only collect 6 points towards the requirement, but after the last attack he only needs 1. Feyd-Rautha is also out of Threat, having spent it all on moving assets and his previous attacks. Feyd-Rautha is defeated, and Paul’s player is allowed to narrate Feyd-Rautha’s well-deserved end.
Paul twisted his left hand free, aided by the lubrication of blood from his arm, thrust once hard up underneath Feyd-Rautha’s jaw. The point slid home into the brain. Feyd-Rautha jerked and sagged back, still held partly on his side by the needle embedded in the floor.