Assorted Cool Things about Dogs in the Vineyard

Dogs_in_the_Vineyard_cover_smallDogs can be something of a tough sell. It’s a bit mechanically heavy for storygames – lots of polyhedra, a fairly involved conflict-resolution sequence – but way too handwavy and narrative-oriented for people who prefer their RPGs to be mostly tactical combat.

Even more tricky, it’s set in a theocratic society with strictly established social roles, including very tightly-enforced gender roles; all sin ultimately derives from someone not properly fulfilling their role, from injustice in the Platonic sense. Sin literally brings demonic influence into the world. And the player-characters are in charge of enforcing it, of fixing it when it breaks down. They cannot be radical activists against the system; they have a great deal of flexibility and autonomy to interpret the Law (“the King of Life is occasionally a realist”) but, at heart, they’re more committed to the system than anybody. For a lot of players, that’s more than they’re willing to cope with.

But I love DitV. It’s one of those games which doesn’t just have one cool thing, but a whole host of them. Here are some of the ones that make me very happy.

The world. High desert is a really evocative landscape in the first place. The isolation and hardship of small Old West settler communities, also good. And onto this bleakness is layered a bleak mythology, this worldview of being the only truly Faithful people in the world, with the demons always trying to get in and spread corruption.

The coats. The uniform of the Dogs is a piecework coat – usually a long duster. They’re made by the Dog’s family, as a graduation present. The entire community contributes to it. The patterns and colours of the coat are a Dog’s signature, and make them stand out in a world of modest brown-and-black dress. The coats are superhero colours, except they’re superhero colours created by people who love you.

Equipment. Equipment grants you dice based purely on its quality – all gear is either normal, excellent, big, or crap. I am vastly entertained by crap equipment. Crap hat. Crap horse. Crap gun. Crap dog. Tell me you don’t want to have a character with Crap Horse in your game.

The other neat thing about equipment is that guns always roll 1d4 in addition to whatever other dice they have. This is unique – no other thing is allowed to mix dice sizes – and it’s one of those places where a mechanic is not just neat, but eloquent. d4 mean trouble – they make it a little more likely that you’ll win a conflict, but also more likely that you’ll get hurt in the process. Guns, whatever else they are, are always kind of crap. Perfect.

Relationship dice. You get dice for significant relationships – and the thing here is that what matters isn’t how much you like the person, or how strong your bond is. It’s how much you want that relationship to be a factor in the story. So you say ‘I’m interested in this relationship’, and then you get rewarded for getting that relationship mixed up in things.

Town creation. This is among the most beautiful GM tools I’ve ever come across. It’s based on the inevitable progression of sin and injustice: pride leads to injustice, which leads to sin… and ultimately cults and demonic possession and murder. It’s a really strong narrative skeleton –  as a GM you develop the story of a town tearing itself apart, step by step, and figuring out what the coolest point would be for the PCs to arrive and try to fix it. And it fits beautifully into social and theological construction of the world. This ranks among the most fun I’ve ever had doing pre-game GM planning.

You’re building a murder-mystery, sort of, except that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and maybe the murder hasn’t started yet. You start small: someone’s dissatisfied with their lot, and pridefully think that they deserve better. Then that spirals. Maybe the consequences manifest with someone else; maybe it’s someone else who sins, someone else again who begins false worship. But one injustice leads inevitably to another.

And all of this creates a town that’s seething with agendas. The Dogs have lots of power, but that means that everybody wants something from them.

The switch-up. This isn’t a game rule, more of an emergent feature: it’s that point at which the PCs, having spent their initial time in a fairly normal investigative-RPG team mode, shift into their role as judge, jury and executioner. And start arguing with one another. Or when one of them decides to switch all on their own, and the others are all what the fuck, man.

Raising the Stakes. The escalation conflict is at the heart of DitV’s mechanics. It’s designed to make conflicts volatile, to create a world where a harsh word can lead to a blow, where two brothers can wrestle and have it end in a stabbing. If you’re losing a social conflict, you can choose to drop out, fail to get whatever it was you wanted – or you can escalate.

Even without escalating, you can push on with a conflict at your own expense, by using lower and smaller dice, by being willing to get what you want even if you get fucked up in the process. The conflict mechanics are more fiddly and time-consuming than is popular in modern storygames, but they ensure that every roll is a big dramatic event with hard choices and trade-offs.

Conflicts Are Messy

As a GM, you craft a really interesting character backstory for why some NPC is the way they are. The PCs don’t happen to focus on that character, but the NPC sure notices them, and gets more and more desperate – and ends up does something that nobody could miss.

Here’s the story of the most deadly gunfight in my first town.

Constance has been having an affair with Abidan; they’re both married to other people. Constance doesn’t love Abidan, or dislike her husband; but Abidan, a wealthy gunsmith, gives her gifts. Constance’s husband is poor, and her history makes her acutely conscious of how vulnerable that makes her and any future children. (She’s not originally a local, and not much-liked among her neighbours.) She needs that nest-egg as insurance. But now the Dogs are sniffing around town, and Constance wants to be done with this. She blackmails Abidan, demanding a big payout or she’ll tell the Dogs. Abidan stalls. Eventually, desperate – the Dogs have just announced a town meeting at which they’re plainly going to declare who’s guilty – Constance confronts Abidan in his workshop, and things escalate to where she grabs a gun and threatens him. He doesn’t think she’s serious, and tries to take it from her; she fires, winging him.

The Dogs already suspect Abidan is up to various kinds of no good, and have tasked his daughter Honora – a potential Dog herself – to keep an eye on him. Hearing shots, Honora rushes to the scene, sees her father hurt and threatened, grabs up another gun – a pepperbox revolver – and now we have a stand-off. At this point the Dogs show up. Brother Ezra tries to talk Constance into surrender, while his comrade Eli tries to get Honora to stand down. Constance reveals that she has bad history with Dogs, and has excellent reasons not to trust them; she alludes to a horrifying backstory, although the Dogs don’t fully understand what she’s getting at. Constance freaks out, escalates by putting two bullets in Abidan, and Honora goes ape. Guns blaze! Eli goes to grapple the gun from Honora: she has a lot of investment in this situation plus some covert Dog training, there’s a gun involved, and she rolls some mean d10s. Eli ends up with a potentially-fatal 4d10 of Fallout. Constance fires mostly to cover her escape, but Ezra is a gunslinger and she goes down.

Abidan and Constance are both alive but injured. Eli’s bleeding out on the floor with a neck full of birdshot, and only survives thanks to prompt medical attention. Ezra, meanwhile, is angry, adrenalin-mad, and his friend has almost died; this is the second time today that someone’s drawn a gun on a Dog. He’s all for hanging Honora on the spot, and the other Dogs expend a lot of emotional energy on arguing against that. At the end of it, they don’t have the spoons for interrogating Abidan or Constance, plus they have that public meeting to get to. They’ve already spent a lot of the day discussing another complicated and distressing case.

Right before the meeting, they decide, with relatively little discussion or interrogation, to hang both of them for adultery. Honora is pronounced an exile, but in fact is spirited off for training at the Dogs Temple.

The Death-Spiral as Moral Failure

Dogs puts the player-characters in a position of effectively absolute authority. Yes, they have to answer to the Dogs Temple, but that’s always Too Far to Matter. Yes, the exact manner of how stewardship works should mean that they don’t have a right to interfere with certain matters – but they might decide that they do, anyway. Yes, they’re all worrying about God, but they are also empowered to decide what God wants.

This means that no matter how badly the Dogs fuck up, they’re ultimately only answerable to themselves, to their own sense of duty. They can shoot an innocent dead in the street, and the town will still have to accept their justice. The Dogs can make the worst mess in the world, piling lies upon evasions and murder upon mistakes, and then they can just pronounce their justice and ride on to the next town.

And this internalises the punishment. These are characters who are given vast responsibility – the ability to interpret God’s will and execute God’s justice in a community ruled by godliness. They’re given vast trust – the pure strength of their faith is meant to guide them. And so when they fuck up, your players are going to feel terrible about it.

Women Get Overlooked

The world of Dogs is seriously patriarchal. Society is ordered by a hierarchy of stewardship, of power and responsibility: married adults have stewardship over children and unmarried adults of their household, the husband has stewardship over the entire household, local Stewards have stewardship over all the households in their community. So when the Dogs go to a community, they tend to start asking around at the top: the Steward first, and then the male heads of household. (When you enter a household, that’s what the family assume is going on. The man is the one who stands up and asks what your business is. His wife, or wives, are bustling around in the background. Or if you meet the wife first, she goes off to get her husband.)

The problem with this is that, for the Dogs to need to show up in the first place, the stewardship system is failing somehow. The system’s fucked up. A Steward is failing his community. A husband is failing his family. A mother is failing her child. Going through the regular channels won’t work – that’s why the Dogs were called in in the first place.

The specific part of the chain that the Dogs are really concerned with is injustice. They stamp out demons and sorcery, sure, but that’s just the symptom. And they can’t, ultimately, fix what’s in people’s hearts – either the murderous hate at the end of the process, or the pride at its root. But they are expected, and empowered, to sort out injustice: the way that a whole community has gone toxic.

You make an NPC who plays some important role in the town, and who has an agenda and some secrets. OK, but if he’s that important then he’s almost certainly married. What does his wife want? Probably not quite the same thing. What does she know? Probably more than he thinks. How does this affect her? What’s she willing to do when the situation gets worse?

In that scenario I described earlier, none of the PCs had ever really talked to Constance. She was a red flag – a poor man’s beautiful wife, an out-of-towner, other people talking trash about her – but the Dogs had a lot of red flags, a lot of people they needed to talk to, and they just didn’t get to her in time.

Justice is Hard

There are a great many stories that boil down to the idea – wouldn’t it be awesome if justice were administered, not by a complicated, ponderous bureaucracy, its hands tied by red tape and its ostensive ideals compromised by politics and institutionalism; not by angry mobs; but by a handful of super-capable, unregulated, highly virtuous, cool-headed individuals?

That premise most obviously underlies superhero fiction, but it’s also a huge deal in detective fiction, police procedurals, spy stories. (GK Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades extends it to addressing legal-but-antisocial acts, in a sort of prefigurement of the ASBO.) These fictions routinely underlie actual political positions; the cops and the intelligence services are unimpeachable Good Guys, and do their job best without regulation or oversight.

Dogs is the antidote to that idea. The PCs are almost wholly independent of their superiors, and their word is taken as unquestionable law: it’s their job to interpret right and wrong, to fix communities through decisive action, and they’ll usually fuck it up. They have no guidelines, no oversight, no support, no real accountability except to one another. They’re meant to be guided by the pure intensity of their faith, their unimpeachable status as Good Guys. And they’re kids, really. Foolish, well-meaning kids.

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8 Responses to Assorted Cool Things about Dogs in the Vineyard

  1. Thank you for posting this. It highlights the reasons that I am adverse to playing it, but goes into other detail that helps me appreciate why other people love it so much.

    • metaphlame says:

      I second this. I love reading about it and I get to here! I just know too that I’m unlikely to play it with my usual group. But hearing how it works is fascinating and I’m grateful I got to read about it here.

  2. thinklish says:

    Cool review… sounds intense but fun!

  3. George Dorn says:

    As somebody who loves the idea of storygames but is generally terrified of playing them, this was very helpful. I’ve read through the DitV book but never played it; it sounds like the system actually supports the story structure it is going for, which wasn’t immediately obvious from the book.

    I actually like system-heavy games, and lack of coherent systems in storygames has frequently put me off them. Baker is one of the few authors that seems to like systems as much as I do.

    How is the play-time for DitV? I’ve been thinking about getting my various groups to try on a few other story games, and being able to promise that a game only takes 1-2 sessions of moderate length would be a strong selling point.

    • I found that 2 moderate-length sessions is about right for a decently-developed town. That doesn’t count character-creation, though; DitV’s character-creation isn’t incredibly fiddly, but if your players haven’t had a chance to read through the book themselves, it’s fairly important to be on-hand to guide character creation, explain the world, and so on. That might be another hour or so.

  4. Pingback: Mid-November Link Assortment | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  5. Alan says:

    Not familiar with the game, but as to the conclusion that these characters always fuck things up … it is also worth pointing out that apparently things were already fucked up. As bad as they may be, what is the alternative?

    In the real world, we have similar issues with law enforcement. We know they make lots of mistakes – but when they don’t act, do overall conditions get better or worse? It is difficult to even know.

    • Sure; but the fact that they fuck up is interesting because, under the worldview of the Faith, they’re essentially treated as infallible.

      The Dogs aren’t just cops: they’re police, judge, jury and executioner, unrestrained by use-of-force guidelines, Miranda rights, habeas corpus, or oversight procedures. All of that is assumed to be covered by the purity of the Dogs’ faith: they are on the side of Good, and to the pure all things are pure. So DitV is not really about ‘cops are bad’ overall so much as it is a criticism of the commonly-expressed sentiment ‘cops are The Good Guys, therefore we should give the freedom to do their job however they damn well please.’

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