Monday, October 21, 2019

Making a Powder Keg, the Dune Way

Want to make a setting that is a powder keg of competing interests, intrigues, and goals? A potential conflagration into which to thrust your player's characters?

The set-up of Frank Herbert's Dune is what you should be stealing from. Although it's got a ton of worldbuilding and detail, the basic set-up of Dune is pretty simple and easy to reskin to suit just about any campaign setting. The conflict in Dune revolves around six competing factions, each of which is easy to scrub of specificity and refashion. 

Here's what Dune has and here's where you get to play with the ideas therein:

Dune Has...

  • House Atreides & House Harkonnen
  • The Bene Gesserit
  • The Fremen
  • The Padishah Emperor
  • The Spacing Guild

So You Need...
  • Two noble houses with a long-standing hatred of each other that will inevitably erupt into violence
  • A religion that masks its political power in the guise of spiritual guidance
  • The unaligned tribal military force that exists outside the structure that defines the place of the other factions
  • A powerful military force that defends traditional power structures and the interests of a distant ruler
  • A mercantile force that masks its political power in the guise of pure economics
Notice that each of these groupings represents an approach to political power: the power of aristocratic title, the power of religion, the power of the nomad, military power, and economic power. Create factions that represent these groupings of political power, make them compete for a limited resource, and let the sparks fly. Now you've got a powder keg. Hand your players the match and see what happens.


  1. Definitely. Dune is great about this. And of course, the historic interplay and interdependence among the factions adds extra spice. Heh. Spice.

  2. Fun fact” Dune was initially published by Chilton the guys who used to publish all those car repair books. Anyway, it’s the gold standard for intrigue, imo.

    1. Apparently they took a bath on publishing it too; although it's a best-seller now, it tanked at the time.

  3. My Guignol-sense is tingling! Is there another entry in the Wormwood / Urazya sequence in the works?

  4. Don't forget the Bene Tleilaxu! Power through technology.

    1. Are they in later books? I don't remember them really being in the first one; beyond that, my memory is hazy.

    2. They're the ones with the face dancer spies, and they make gholas. They also produced Baron Harkonnen's "twisted mentats." They're a lot more important starting in book 2.

    3. There's a good lesson there too: once a big blowup has been resolved in your campaign, add new factions to stir the pot.

  5. Excellent setup. Could work well with fronts (from dungeonworld) as open ended campaign arches for a sandbox campaign.