Frank Herbert's Dune
Several years later, during my sophomore year of college at UConn, I was looking for a new book to read at the co-op. At the time my taste in fiction wasn't too spectacular, being dominated by Star Trek novels and the novels TSR put out. Still enjoyed Stephen King, though he was unfairly in the ghetto of "genre writers". Wanting something different, I decided to splurge on a new copy of Dune, my original copy some sixty miles away at my parents' house. This time it truly clicked for me. Not only that but it unleashed a fury of classic science fiction and fantasy reading. I devoured all six of the Dune novels in short order and then worked my way to Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, etc. During my fifth year (my time at UConn stretched out due to taking time off to co-op) I took a science fiction class which exposed me more writers. But it all started with Dune.
With that introduction, let's take a look at the novel itself. It is a coming-of-age story, about Paul Atreides, heir-apparent to his father Duke Leto Atreides' fief of Caladan. As the book begins Duke Leto Atreides has been granted a great prize, the fief of Arrakis, also known as Dune. Arrakis, a desert planet, is the only place in the galaxy where the spice melange, which grants prophetic visions and is required for there to be any hyperspace travel. The Atreides are to replace their enemies, the Harkonnen family.
Duke Leto correctly recognizes it is a trap, one designed to destroy him and his house but he takes his family there nonetheless, the alternative being becoming a rogue house. He is also determined to succeed. It is not giving much away to reveal that he fails in this effort. However, owing to his training and generations upon generations of selective breeding, his son Paul manages to survive and becomes one of the natives of the desert, the "fremen".
It's best not to discuss much more of the plot. Rather it is the setting we will discuss. This is an old, very old empire.It takes place at least ten thousand years in the future to judge by the dates being used. The setting is shaped by the "Butlerian Jihad" which, per the book's glossary, was:
[T]he crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. [Orange Catholic] Bible as "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."Everything about the setting is informed by this Jihad. Most have translated this crusade as a war against machine overlords and as I understand it the novels written by Frank Herbert's son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson took this approach. I don't know if this was Frank Herbert's intent but I myself always viewed this rebellion as more being an effort to reclaim humanity from its dependence on computers and machinery - something which might involve quite a bit of fighting if there were to be any disagreement on the matter.
Either way, the end result was a great evolution in humanity. It saw the creation of the Spacing Guild, a group who had a monopoly on space travel, relying on extensive physical and mental training and the prescience granted by the spice melange to navigate through hyperspace. It also saw the Bene Gesserit, a mystical sisterhood that was founded on physical and mental training that allowed them to become the "witches" of the setting. Without computers beings known as mentats came to replace them, humans trained in logic to become human computers. This is a very human book, with no alien civilizations orsuper-computers. As we'll see, this is not a technologically-impaired civilization but rather one which rejects technology that does what a thinking human can do.
The weaponry of the setting is both primitive and advanced. There are weapons such as atomic weaponry (its use forbidden by convention) along with lasers ("lasguns"). However the lasguns are near-useless as the main defense consists of shields which can block any fast attack - but a laser shot will create a nuclear explosion This has led to knife-fighting with specialized techniques - a fast attack will be blocked by the shield, requiring attackers use slowness to penetrate the shield.
I've just touched the tip of the society. You've also got feudal houses, assassins, religious crusades, giant sandworms, elite savage warriors, stillsuits to reclaim all of a body's moisture in the desert, etc.
Though Frank Herbert is not one of D&D's "Appendix N" (inspirational reading) authors, he is still a fantastic inspiration for such games. Hopefully my description gives the impression that Dune and its sequels contain excellent material worth mining for ideas. And one need not use it for science fiction gaming - with its feudal elements and near-magic powers of the Bene Gesserit and Spacing Guild it would not be much of a stretch at all to borrow much of it for a fantasy game. And even without mining anything specific Dune gives an excellent example of what sort of fun could be had by members of a noble house. It doesn't appear in the recommended reading section for Adventurer Conqueror King System but I think it fits in with the other works there perfectly.
There's a lot of controversy about the quality of the later books in Frank Herbert's Dune series and especially for the novels written by his son Brian Herbert with Kevin J. Anderson. My own opinion is Dune is probably the best of the novels and that I personally found the next two novels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, to also be of excellent quality. I found the remaining three novels, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune, to still be enjoyable but not quite up to the level of the first three. I'm definitely on the side of the fence with those who did not enjoy the later works by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.