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Games Make Stories - Stories Make Games

My interest in games has always been inextricably tied to interest in stories. Accepting the description of a game as a set of rules to produce a particular sort of gameplay experience, story is always a part of that experience. You can push that description farther and describe a game as an engine for creating a particular kind of story. Realizing that has helped me to disentangle some of the difficulties I’ve had in designing games and campaigns and in writing stories.

Time for an example: I just finished re-reading one of my favorite novels, Dune, and that leaves me lusting for some Dune-style gameplay (luckily tonight we’re kicking off our Burning Wheel: Jihad game). So what kinds of games provide gameplay that matches my favorite parts of the Dune story?
Here are four games that are inspired by the Dune setting: Dune CCG, Fading Suns (and Fading Suns D20), Dune Board Game (Avalon Hill), and Burning Wheel: Jihad.

The Arakeen Dinner This is an awesome scene where multiple characters match wits and intrigues over dinner. Which games in the list have a social conflict mechanic?
The Strategy Briefing Early in Dune, Paul Atreides is invited to a strategy meeting with the Duke and his retainers in which they plan high level strategy for cementing their hold on the planet. Which games provide the ability to execute high level strategies?
The Duel with Feyd Rautha Blades! Blood! Treachery! Feints within feints! Which games have a well developed tactical combat mechanic?
The Traitor Yueh Dr. Yueh is one of the great traitors of fiction (IMHO). His motivations are complex, but his actions are perfectly consistent. Which games include backstabbing treachery?

Here’s how I measure the games up:

Fading SunsDDAF
Avalon HillFBCB

Here’s what I'm thinking:

Dune CCG Dune CCG has conflict modes for warfare, dueling, intrigue, and economics, which is a plus for providing a Dune experience. All of these are abstracted to a high level, so they don’t provide a sophisticated back and forth, which is a weakness when you compare the duel mechanic with, for example D20 tactical combat. Dune CCG handles many story aspects (such as Yueh’s treachery) as mechanics on specific cards, which is what you expect from a CCG, but not particular satisfying.

Fading Suns I once gave this game a glowing review, a fact that now embarrasses me. I loved it for what it was trying to achieve. Unfortunately, it failed. The social “conflict” mechanic is to roll against diplomacy or something. Strategy can be similarly handled. The D20 version includes social feats that are supposed to channel the characters into doing more interesting things, but they don’t really do this very effectively. Compared with the Artha mechanic in Burning Wheel, it’s anemic at best. The setting is great, but the system doesn’t do anything in particular to support it.

Avalon Hill Being a board game, its goals are more modest than an RPG's, and it achieves them quite well. I haven’t had a copy for about 20 years, so my memory may fail me. The game focuses on the strategic level. There is a specific treachery mechanic, which is important. As an additional benefit, an effort was made to use non-standard mechanics in such a way as to give that slightly alien feel that one gets from the Dune setting (at least I do).

Jihad Jihad’s the obvious winner here, having both a highly developed social conflict mechanic and tactical combat. Burning Wheel is very complex, but that’s not specifically a weakness in regards to emulating Dune. I edge D20 out in tactical combat here because Jihad explicitly includes superior mechanics for feints and other maneuvers that fit Dune style dueling well. And Jihad also includes an explicitly strategic level of conflict. Triple threat there! Jihad also has a character motivation mechanic.

The “problem” with all these games is that none of them gives me what I want in the area of treachery. Maybe what I’m looking for is a tactical treachery mechanic that is as sophisticated as D20 combat or the Burning Wheel battle of wits.
On the other hand, a game can only go so far in giving you the kind of story you’re looking for. For me, this works out into the humble realization that I need to abandon some of my more ambitious game designing activities and write some stories.

The Mountain Witch is a game that handles treachery very well. In short, you invest Trust in your fellow PCs, which can be used as helping dice when you work together (making the group more effective). But, Trust points also turn into bonus dice when that PC betrays you, giving her more effectiveness when kicking your ass.

If we want to highlight PC vs. PC treachery (and loyalty) in our Jihad game, maybe we should consider this. Or maybe BW has a system that already covers it that we don't know about.

That's interesting. You mentioned The Mountain Witch before, but I'd forgotten.

My instinct has been to think that "good" treachery is "the GM's job", but that's an instinct that almost always turns out to be wrong. :)

I think whether treachery is part of our Jihad game or not is a good question to ask tonite. I think it could be very appropriate in a noble setting, as long as it doesn't eclipse the greater struggle.


Would you consider the Dark Sun campaign setting as inspired by Dune?



That's a good question. I'm not particularly familiar with that system. What do you think?

There are similarities between Dune and Dark Sun, but I think Dark Sun owes *a lot* to Talislanta as a primary source.

Because the Avalon Hill game is my favorite board game of all time, I have to object slightly. The treachery element is huge in that game, not only in the way the specific treachery mechanics work, but because the key to victory is claiming key points at the cost of your allies' resources and not your own. It's never good to be the weak partner in an alliance. I'd give in an A in both Strategy and Treachery.

I don't know a lot about Dark Sun, but from what I do know, I'm having a hard time seeing how it'd be "inspired" by Dune. It's got a lot more in common with Talislanta as John says, although again I don't think it really owes that much to Tal either.

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