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Subject: Rex - an essay review. rss

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Jonas Hellberg Hellberg
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Since so many others have gone through the mechanics of Dune, how they differ in Rex and a lot of the other “meaty” stuff, I thought it might be enough for me to do one of my softer reviews, in the form of an essay. And since this game and its predecessor build on a strong narrative I thought it should revolve around the theme, retheming and narrative.



I’ve read the original Dune novel by Frank Herbert, and I have to admit I actually kind of liked the movie. Saw it again not too long ago and still enjoyed it, but I can see why David Lynch wanted to disown it, especially considering what’s been done to it, but maybe his opinion shouldn’t weigh too heavily. The miniseries remake was more faithful to the original, but suffered from relatively poor production values.
There’s a thought that kept cropping up as I read the rules to Rex - since I know the original, both story and game, how will I relate the two narratives to each other, and are they different enough to be seen as separate?

The way that FFG has chosen to handle the situation with the rights to the Dune franchise has opened up the option of expanding the Twilight Imperium universe. How good is the transition? Has FFG created a strong enough franchise that it has the potential to rival that of Dune?

In broad terms the retheming goes something like:
Arrakis = Mecatol
Imperial power threatened = Imperial power threatened
Atreides foresight = Jol-Nar knowledge
Harkonnen treachery = Letnev treachery?
Bene Gesserit neutrality = Xxcha diplomacy
The emperor’s centrality = Lazax’ centrality
Spacer guild monopoly = Hacan transport monopoly
Fremen indiginousness (for want of a better word) = Sol aggressiveness

As you can see from the list above, my analysis stays pretty much the same on both sides of the equals sign. That also means that the TI universe has become structurally derivative of the Dune universe by necessity. Wherever they may take this franchise in the future they’ll have to admit that it’s reminiscent, if not derivative, of Dune unless they say that Rex is not canonical. Perhaps they just don’t mind and they want to treat the TI franchise as a melting pot of existing science fiction.

Now I have to say that for both these universes, the setting is certainly what makes the games’ scenarios possible. Transported to a setting on earth they would have been hard to explain, for what I’m guessing is the same reason that Vinci was transformed into Small World - it’s one thing to say that Elves have this or that quality, but a whole other thing to say that civilization X had trait Y compared to civilization Z. Reality is just a bit more complex than that.

In the Dune setting, the unique properties of the different factions set them apart - access to spice, access to generations of training, access to thousands of years of tradition and so on, none of which can be had on earth as we know it today, thus making them plausible by the fact that we have very few points of reference, but since they are some kind of human we can relate to them no matter how strange they seem.
In the TI universe, the inhumanity of the different factions instead serves to set them apart - they are essentially different from us and since we don’t know of any alien civilizations we have nothing compare with, except in the case of the humans.

So, how well does the new setting work with this constellation?
Pretty well, I say.

To begin with, spice is now influence.
Influence is a pretty fussy concept to begin with and so it’s easy for game designers to lean back on. You see it in a few different titles such as Warrior knights. In Dune, the spice is pretty much the basis for the whole economy, much as oil is for us today. It is traded between the factions and powers all decisions. It appears on the map in spice blows and is destroyed by the storm and worms.
In Rex, influence is a catch-all commodity that lets you get an edge in combat and transport your troops to where they need to be. It appears in certain areas and gets blown away by bombardment. Certain areas are shielded and so can’t be bombarded. For some reason, influence never shows up in these safe spots and that kind of gets me.
I would rather have it that some regions weren’t considered “shielded” but instead just deemed less important targets. The card “Public support” has you rushing to the broadcasting station to propagate your message to the masses which makes the area a target for the fleet in contrast to the slums nearby. As a whole, I think the transition from spice to influence works well if you see influence as favors being traded, the give and take of political clout. Putting in a good word about the Xxcha at the broadcasting station might get you sponsorship in return.

The Universities of Jol-Nar are the great scientists of the TI universe, so it makes sense that they
a) know what new technologies the others are investing in
and
b) they have a sense of what’s going to happen because of their superior intelligence (in more than one sense of the word, I suppose)
Both points seem to make sense when you put them into a modern perspective. The ones with superior technology often have superior intel and so they’re one step ahead. That’s not to say they can’t be stumped, and that’s the case with the Jol-Nar as well.
The Atreides rely on a more magical explanation - prescience and such. More fantasy than SciFi, but that’s how the Duniverse works.

Essentially, the Xxcha are the UN. In the beginning of the game they formulate a plan for peace, and if they manage to make that plan a reality, they win. That is, they choose a faction and a turn for them to win, and if that happens they steal the victory and become the masters behind the throne. They have everything to gain from manipulating the different factions into certain courses of action. Being in an alliance with the Xxcha is certainly beneficial, but you might end up getting robbed.
It also makes sense that they can flip to neutral if they don’t feel like fighting - they’re the peacekeepers, staying out of harm’s way if they have to. The domination power is kind of hard to explain - the Bene Gesserit obviously know how to control minds with the Voice, but how do the Xxcha do it? Is it the galactic Geneva convention at work? It seems implausible that they would forbid their adversary from using a biological weapon and then use that very same weapon against them.
As a side note, how come they look like earth turtles? If they don’t have a terrestrial background, are we to believe that it’s a serendipitous case of convergent evolution? I’d bet on a terrestrial source in this case. Maybe there is a backstory along the “ancient aliens” line we haven’t heard of?

The Lazax are the imperials, the falling romans. It makes sense that they have access to the mechanized units (Sardaukar), seeing as it’s their planet that’s being invaded, so they ought to have heavier units than the others, for the sake of defense. They get the influence that everyone’s bidding for the strategy cards in the beginning of each turn, and I suppose you have to look at it as a bit of an abstraction that represents the imperial authority; that everything goes through the Lazax. You might see it as a sort of sales tax - that buying new equipment inevitably makes the central authority richer. All the more ironic when you turn that laser against them.

The Hacan are the transporters, and while it makes sense that they get their resources shipping other factions’ troops to the planet, it doesn’t really explain how they got into that position to begin with, but Here is a fine essay on the retheming that does a good job of explaining the whole Rex scenario and why the Hacan have established their fleet supremacy.
It is almost implied that their entire species is devoted to trade, and as such are naturally inclined to shipping and trade. Seeing how resources such as oil are being treated on Jord today, it might not be that implausible. In both Dune and Rex, you pay the guild/Hacan to have your unit shipped to where you need to go. Double the amount if you’re headed for a hot spot. Fair enough.

The Letnev? I don’t know. The Harkonnen are sly, treacherous and unforgiving. Game-wise, they get double the amount of strategy cards and get to keep all their traitor cards. In short, they’re deadly in combat. The Letnev certainly feel like the most grey of the factions. It’s easy to apologize, I suppose - they have material wealth and so they easily bribe others and have access to a lot of resources.

But ah, the Federation of Sol.
I must say I think FFG’s solution is pretty nifty. You can see that they’ve become the crux of the game, and rightly so. You're (probably) on Jord right now, orbiting around Sol. (Jord is the Scandinavian word for Earth by the way. Tip of the hat to mr. Petersen)
So yeah, the Federation of Sol are the ones who started it all. They started the rebellion (righteous!) and blew the imperial palace sky high, killing the emperor (oh my). They’ve been further entrenched in the game’s narrative by not only having the sand worm converted to the Sol offensive cards (blowing everyone else but them sky high) but also being associated with the Dreadnaught fleet, no longer an inanimate feature of nature (the sand storm) but a calculating machine, mindlessly pounding the city beneath it to dust.
As we learn from the back story, the humans are the main rebels. But mr. Petersen has another angle ready for us, one that tells us that even in a righteous rebellion, the worst of humanity is exposed. In the back story, Petersen relates to us through the eyes of the Lazax who are seeing their glorious capital invaded and turned to rubble. The end of the story reads very much like a description I read about the german invasion of the Ukraine. It’s an interesting way of putting it, giving a nuance to the rebels and reminding us that war is hell.

On the one hand - the rebels.
On the other hand - the atrocities.
No victory comes without a cost.
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Rus
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geas wrote:
The way that FFG has chosen to handle the situation with the rights to the Dune franchise has opened up the option of expanding the Twilight Imperium universe.

I don't think they've done much "expanding". The story of the Lazax empire fall, complete with most of the details described in Rex, was an already developed pivotal event from the TI3 universe before Rex. They were just lucky to find an event that fit Dune mechanics without feeling contrived. Or maybe the lore is so rich that one can find an event to fit any mechanics. It's a common misconception that the TI3 universe does not have well-developed lore. The designers talk about this in more detail on the FFG site.

I enjoyed reading your interpretation, but to me, the themes feel completely different and are only superficially similar. The motivations of all the races, the reasons for the war, the politics and general premises and themes of the universe are all completely different from Dune.

geas wrote:
Arrakis = Mecatol

Mecatol is not Arrakis. Mecatol is more like Kaitain from Dune. It is the capital of the galaxy and the seat of the imperial palace of Lazax. In Dune, the struggle is about controlling the most important resource in the universe, and the focal point is the planet that produces it. In Rex, the struggle is about percieved oppression by the empire, and the focal point is the capital of the empire.

geas wrote:
Imperial power threatened = Imperial power threatened

Dune: Imperial power threatened, but the focus is not on the empire.
Rex: Imperial power is not merely threatened, but in fact completely sacked, and this is what the focus is on.

geas wrote:
Atreides foresight = Jol-Nar knowledge

Agreed (except in my mind the "not equals" sign seems better, and I would put it as "Jol-Nar" technology. The story is that the Jol-Nar supply the technology to all other races, so of course they know what everybody has. There is no supernatural element in the Jol-Nar like there is in the Atreides.

geas wrote:
Harkonnen treachery = Letnev treachery?

This is the only thing that is similar in my mind and in fact I think the Letnev were inspired by the Harkonnen (back when the Letnev were created, what 20 years ago?)

geas wrote:
Bene Gesserit neutrality = Xxcha diplomacy

Again, agree, but I would use the "not equals" sign as neutrality and diplomacy here really are different in my mind (And, probably "pacifism" is a better term than "diplomacy".)

geas wrote:
The emperor’s centrality = Lazax’ centrality

Lazax is anything but central! Their Emperor has just been killed, the imperial palace has been destroyed, and a genocide program is about to be instituted (which in fact would be successful and the Lazax would be thought extinct 70 years after the events of Rex). Unlike the emperor in Dune, the Lazax in Rex are fighting for survival.

geas wrote:
Spacer guild monopoly = Hacan transport monopoly

The Hacan "monopoly" is a blockade. It's not really a monopoly from that sense. Also, they are allied with Sol, so they are only blockading others. The Spacer monopoly is an actual monopoly.

geas wrote:
Fremen indiginousness (for want of a better word) = Sol aggressiveness

I would not use the "=" sign , and in my mind the thematic explanation of Sol's abilities is not their aggressiveness, but their alliance with the Hacan and therefore the immunity to the Hacan blockade.

geas wrote:
As you can see from the list above, my analysis stays pretty much the same on both sides of the equals sign. That also means that the TI universe has become structurally derivative of the Dune universe by necessity. Wherever they may take this franchise in the future they’ll have to admit that it’s reminiscent, if not derivative, of Dune unless they say that Rex is not canonical. Perhaps they just don’t mind and they want to treat the TI franchise as a melting pot of existing science fiction.

Indeed TI3 is a melting pot of existing science fiction. However, as I mentioned above, it's canon was established before Rex and is not derivative of Dune. As you can see, my reading of your analysis is that things are very different on the two sides of the equals sign.

geas wrote:
In the TI universe, the inhumanity of the different factions instead serves to set them apart - they are essentially different from us and since we don’t know of any alien civilizations we have nothing compare with, except in the case of the humans.

What about all the stories and motivations? To me those seem stronger than physical appearances (and in fact the physical appearances merely evoke the motivations):
Lazax: persecuted former emperors of the galaxy
Sol: rebels leading the invasion and the fight for freedom from perceived oppression
Hacan: Allied with Sol, masters of trade/shipping, blockading Mecatol
Jol-Nar: Supply all technology to all races, almost to the point where the other races cannot use it without their help
Xxcha: "turtles", or defensive pacifists who would rather employ means other than fighting
Letnev: Treacherous race that really doesn't have any high principles to fight for. A minor skirmish with Sol started the twilight wars that escalated into the Sol invasion of Mecatol.

geas wrote:
Influence is a pretty fussy concept to begin with and so it’s easy for game designers to lean back on. You see it in a few different titles such as Warrior knights.

More significantly, you see it in TI3, that's the real reason why Rex has influence!

geas wrote:
but how do the Xxcha do it? Is it the galactic Geneva convention at work? It seems implausible that they would forbid their adversary from using a biological weapon and then use that very same weapon against them.

Xxcha, as a race, is just better at defense than any other race. Their "forbid" ability is just a mechanical way of implemnting that. They don't forbid the weapon, they just let the attacker know that it will be useless against their defenses.

geas wrote:
As a side note, how come they look like earth turtles? If they don’t have a terrestrial background, are we to believe that it’s a serendipitous case of convergent evolution? I’d bet on a terrestrial source in this case.

You worry about that but not the Hacan? Or some other races in TI that don't appear in Rex? I don't think this is explained in TI canon, but there are three standard explanations in general sci-fi I'm aware of: (a) convergent evolution as you mention; (b) intelligent precursors seeding similar forms of life on different planets (c) interstellar panspermia

geas wrote:
I suppose you have to look at it as a bit of an abstraction that represents the imperial authority; that everything goes through the Lazax. You might see it as a sort of sales tax - that buying new equipment inevitably makes the central authority richer.

After the assassination of the emperor, Mecatol Rex is in the state of anarchy. There is no "sales tax". However, I agree with you that thematically things like strategy cards still "go through the Lazax", as they are the ones that know how the infrastructure of the planet works and presumably some of them can be bribed to help other races.

geas wrote:
The Hacan are the transporters, and while it makes sense that they get their resources shipping other factions’ troops to the planet, it doesn’t really explain how they got into that position to begin with.

As explained in TI3, Hacan are allied with Sol in their invasion of Mecatol Rex (using the antimass drive supplied by Jol-Nar), and Hacan's role is blockading the planet. But, because of their trader nature, they are willing to take bribes to secretly get other races' troops through.
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Jonas Hellberg Hellberg
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Very fine and valid points, Rus!

Quote:
The story of the Lazax empire fall, complete with most of the details described in Rex, was an already developed pivotal event from the TI3 universe before Rex.


Yes, the fall of Rex has been part of the TI universe for a long time. My concern for FFG's sake is that by mapping the event to the Dune game they might tie the two franchises too close for comfort.

Quote:
Mecatol is not Arrakis. Mecatol is more like Kaitain from Dune. It is the capital of the galaxy and the seat of the imperial palace of Lazax.


Fair enough, I might have been to hasty with this conclusion. Mecatol is probably more like Rome, which fits the image of Lazax as the crumbling Roman empire. (The galactic Roman empire idea probably harkens back to Asimov) On the other hand, I would then argue that the idea of Arrakis has been conflated into Mecatol as it is the key to controlling the empire. The scene of the struggle could have been a fringe or frontier area of the empire, but that would obviously have taken a lot of the pathos out of the narrative.

Quote:
the "not equals" sign seems better


Agreed. I used it to point to mechanics rather than narrative, meaning what the mechanics were mapping in Dune vis-à-vis Rex, but I obviously wasn't too clear on that point.

Quote:
Xxcha, as a race, is just better at defense than any other race. Their "forbid" ability is just a mechanical way of implemnting that. They don't forbid the weapon, they just let the attacker know that it will be useless against their defenses.


That's a reasonable way of analyzing it, but it doesn't really explain why the Xxcha are good at defense other than their inherent "turtliness". There's something magical about an explanation like that, which works well with game mechanics but is harder to pass in narrative. Consider reading a book where the enemies of humanity are hard to fight because they are "turtly". You'd probably want something meatier than that. But yeah, I suppose you could say that their physiology lets them withstand punishment to a higher degree than the others. That doesn't explain how they can forbid the other party from playing a certain defense card though.

Quote:
You worry about that but not the Hacan? Or some other races in TI that don't appear in Rex? I don't think this is explained in TI canon, but there are three standard explanations in general sci-fi I'm aware of: (a) convergent evolution as you mention; (b) intelligent precursors seeding similar forms of life on different planets (c) interstellar panspermia


Oh, I just picked the turtles as an example. It's not that I'm partial to cats (though I am). My point was that I was interested in whether or not there was an explanation for it. Alternative (b) combined with the Lazax' galactic empire is starting to sound quite a lot like the Traveller universe, which I'm very fond of, so that wouldn't be a problem for me.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveller_(role-playing_game)
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Martin Presley
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I wouldn't say TI is derivative of Dune, but it's clearly been influenced by it. But it's no more derivative of Dune than it is of Star Wars, Star Trek, or any other spacey SF.
 
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