Genre: Fantasy - Western
Rules Weight: Light
Where To Buy: Print & PDF
In Dogs in the Vineyard, you play God’s Watchdogs – effectively circuit judges – in an alternate version of pre-statehood Utah. The Dogs, as they are known colloquially, administer justice to those of the Faith, which is based on period Mormonism from the early 1800s, the time in which the game is set.
I rarely mention the book itself when reviewing a game, because it’s the contents that really matter, but I have to say that this little book is simply beautiful. The cover is conservative, but has a lot of character, and along with the Lovecraftian font, simple illustrations and unique symbolism it really helps set the scene of that alternate Mormon Utah Territory that is the game’s setting. Being a small book, it’s also very Kindle-friendly as a PDF, which is something that I consider very important, that’s also something a lot of game designers seem to be neglecting. I got the feeling while reading it on my Kindle that the font seemed to change size occasionally on different pages, but I was unable to see anything like that when the print edition arrived, so I assume my eyes were deceiving me.
Dogs in the Vineyard definitely falls within the definition of a roleplaying game, but it sails close to the wind in that respect. I’ve found gamist roleplayers prefer to call it a story game, and with good reason.
The game has four attributes, called Stats – Acuity, Body, Heart, and Will – with all other skills and abilities falling under a system similar to Fate’s Aspects, here called Traits. Everything score is represented with dice. Here’s where those who call it a “story game” start to get upset. Players can name these Traits anything they please, and assign as many of their dice to each ability as they see fit. What this means is that you can create a skill named something like “Best shot in the world”, but only give it 1d6. The author explains that the amount of dice you assign to each Trai doesn’t represent how good you are at it, but how good it is in a narrative sense that you character has that Trait. So your character is still the best shot in the world, but with 1d6 it doesn’t do him a lot of good.
It’s an interesting system, but I don’t quite buy it. The problem is that for all this talk of you still being the best shot in the world even if you only have 1d6 in it, someone with only 1d6 is still going to miss a lot of the time, and there’s no way to really narrate that without admitting that, actually, he’s not that good a shot. So really, it’s a handwave explanation; you can only accept it if you don’t think about it too much.
It makes me feel as though the author got so wrapped up in the story game vibe that he couldn’t bring himself to restrict the players in any way. And it’s a shame, because the conflict resolution mechanics are unique and awesome. They’re designed purposely to restrict the player’s options and force them to decide how much they’re willing to give up to get what they want.
The way he does this is first of all by breaking conflicts into different arenas: talking, movement, hand-to-hand fighting, and gun fighting. At the start of a conflict, you determine what the conflict is about, what’s “at stake”, with whoever wins the conflict getting choose what’s happens to the thing at stake. Then you determine what method you’re starting with. Is this a situation you can talk through, or are you going to have to get physical?
The “movement” arena, I’ve paraphrased. The game rules actually call it “Physical, not fighting”, but that’s a hell of a mouthful and it doesn’t really explain what it is too much. Unless I’m misunderstanding the sparse amount that’s been written on what “physical, not fighting” is, it seems that a chase scene, a stealth scene, a scene with a group of Indians yipping and posturing on a hillside would all start in this arena, and those things are all movement-based, so in my games I call them that.
Once the players have decided on their approach – their opening arena – and what’s at stake, everyone including the GM decides what Traits are relevant and rolls their dice. Each arena also introduces Stats, with our movement arena, for example, introducing Body and Heart.
Once you’ve rolled all your dice you leave then right in front of you. Whoever started the conflict pushes two dice forward and narrates their action. This is called a “Raise”.
So let’s use the Indians example – known as “The People” to those of the Faith. This is kind of conflict that most RPGs wouldn’t have a mechanic for, so I think it’s a good one to look at. The Indians are posturing on the hillside trying to scare the Dogs away. The Dogs don’t want to go away – they’ve got business in the Indians’ territory. So what’s at stake is “who retreats”. Now we have a conflict, a stake, and an opening arena.
Everyone rolls dice – Body and Heart for the movement arena, and any Traits that apply – and the GM puts forward two dice as a Raise and narrates the Indians posturing and yipping on the hillside, raising their bows in the air, warning the Dogs away.
A Raise has to be “an action another character can’t ignore”. Anyone who can’t ignore the action has to “See”, by putting some of their dice forward to match or beat the Raise (the total of the two dice put forward). Putting forward one die “turns the blow” against the opponent, putting two dice forward “dodges”, and if you have to put three or more dice forward to match the number, then you “take the blow”.
So in our example, the Dogs each See the Indians’ Raise with two dice each. Their players narrate the actions they’re taking. Let’s say they decide that they’re all pointing and laughing. Now the Dogs each get a turn to Raise, and the Indians have to See each of them in turn. One Dog chooses to wave his pistol about and start whooping it up. Another decides to mime the Indians’ prancing, while the third says she’s laughing hard at the other two, loudly and all pantomime-like.
Eventually, someone runs out of dice to push forward. At this point, it’s stopped being funny and one group is starting to feel intimidated. The tension is high, and someone’s got to decide how far they’re willing to go to control the stakes.
Let’s say it’s the Dogs who are running out of dice. The Indians outnumber them, so they had way more dice. It’s obvious that if they don’t run, someone’ll start shooting. In mechanical terms, the players have to make a choice: do they give the GM control of the stakes, and run, or do they escalate the conflict and start shooting?
They escalate. By introducing a new arena, they get to roll some more Stat dice – Acuity and Will. They also get to roll any gun-related Traits. So the Dogs have made a decision on how far they’re willing to go for their stakes: the business they have in these Indians’ territory is worth risking their lives, and worth killing for.
Once conflict is resolved, any blows you took contribute to your Fallout roll. Fallout can be anything from gaining a new Trait to dying, or a bunch or things in between. Obviously, only combat can cause death, and gun fighting has a higher chance of killing your character than fist fighting.
Let’s say your Dogs managed to win the gunfight, but took some blows in the movement arena, and one took an arrow in the gunfight. Depending on what they rolled, they get a choice of what kind of Fallout they take. Most players, I’ve found, prefer to choose a new Trait rather than take damage to their Stats or Traits, if they can avoid it. So let’s say the Dog with the arrow in her rolls Short-Term Fallout, and she chooses to lose one die of Body for the next conflict. Another rolls Experience, and chooses a Trait, naming it “Feel Guilty About Killin’ Them Injuns” at d4. The third rolls badly and gets Long-Term Fallout. He takes a new Relationship at d4, “Chief of That Indian Warband”.
When the conflict isn’t against an obvious opponent — for example climbing a cliff-side — the conflict plays out in the same way, with the GM narrating challenging events rather than the actions of an opponent. For example, a rock dislodging beneath your foot, dust falling into your eyes, your fingers getting sweaty and slipping loose.
It sounds complicated at first glance, but it’s actually a very rules light system once you get used to the flow of Raise, See, Raise, See in conflicts. Because really, that, and escalation, are the only mechanics the game really has. Escalation particularly is a beautiful system, because the pressure the dice put on you to escalate simulates very well the pressure that is put on the characters to decide just how far they’re willing to go to get what they want, and that’s really the entire reason to play this game.
Integrity: ***** The core conflict resolution system really is the only mechanic in the game. You can’t get more integrated than that.
Combat: *** With the game’s conflict system, combat is not only fun, but a big decision. But being such a narrativist game, trying to optimise your character for combat feels pretty arbitrary.
Speed: ***** Dice are rolled at the start of a conflict, and the dice your put forward as you narrate Raises and Sees determine your success. Narrating your actions and resolving conflict are therefore seamless.