Over a month ago now (on July 23), my good buddy Tom had several of us over to his house with the specific intention of playing a few of the newer “indie”/storygame RPG’s. There was an aggressive schedule planned with 3 time slots for games and sign-ups and all, but in the end, people were late and games ran long, and it didn’t turn out quite like we had hoped. But I did get in at least one really great session, as well as some filler boardgames as well.
Dogs in the Vineyard
The game I was most interested in playing was definitely Dogs in the Vineyard. It’s actually almost venerable by indie RPG standards by this point, but I’d never had the chance to play before, and I was excited to run it for IndiePendence Day.
If you don’t know much about it, Dogs is ostensibly a game about teenage, pseudo-Mormon cowboys who police the faithful and dispense the King of Life’s judgement however they see fit. But really, it’s a game about moral dilemmas, where failure isn’t as much at stake as figuring out how far you’ll go and what you’re willing to do in order to succeed.
The really amazing mechanical feature of the game is how conflicts escalate. First of all, there is no skill resolution mechanic at all outside of conflict with another character. So the only time you pick up dice and roll is when you want something to happen and another character disagrees. And in fact, the Game Master is encouraged to “say yes or roll the dice”, which is a clear directive to let the players determine the course of the game and only fight back when it’s really interesting.
Characters basically have 4 stats: Acuity, Heart, Body, and Will. These stats are combined for different types of conflict, so when you are just talking, you use Acuity+Heart, physical non-fighting (pushing past someone, for example) is Body+Heart, fighting is Body+Will, and gunfighting is Acuity+Will. Characters also have dice for Traits (which are freeform skills similar to something like aspects from the FATE system), replationships, and equipment. But to bring in these extra dice, they must be incorporated into the narrative in some way.
The actual structure of the conflict begins with players rolling dice for their stats used in the conflict. The aggressive player (initiating the conflict) then puts forth a raise of 2 dice and narrates what this move represents in the fiction. The defender then gets the chance to respond to the raise by putting forth dice equal or greater than the total on the raise dice. If 2 dice are used, the raise is blocked/dodged (basically for no effect), if 3 or more are used, some fallout is suffered by “taking the blow”, but if only one die is used, the defender actually reverses the blow and can use that die to make the next raise. Speaking of that, the defender then gets their turn to offer a raise that must be countered, and turns are taken back and forth until someone runs out of dice.
At that point, players basically have two options: to give or to escalate. Giving surrenders the stakes of the conflict, but you actually get to keep your highest remaining die (assuming you have one) for use in a follow-up conflict (maybe to salvage some semblance of the original stakes). Escalation means changing the type of conflict and getting to roll more stat and possibly equipment dice.
So for instance, Brother Hezekiah is trying to get Sister Hope to admit having an affair with the town Steward. The conflict begins with just talking, so both players roll their Acuity+Heart. Things don’t go well for Hezekiah, and the impudent wench is making him look like a fool (possibly because she had more dice or maybe just rolled better). At that point, he either gives in, pulls in other dice from equipment, traits, or relationships, or he escalates the conflict. Thinking that she needs to be put in her place, he decides to shut her up by slapping her, getting then to roll his Body+Will and add them to his pool. From there, maybe Sister Hope pulls a Derringer from her garter and shoots at him, adding her Will dice (since she had already rolled her Acuity in the argument) and the dice from the gun to her pool. They keep making raises against each other and responding however they can until someone must give.
Dogs in the Vineyard encourages you to do character generation at the table, so we started off the session with me leading them through the process. Once the characters are complete, you run through a short initiation conflict that both helps define one more trait for the characters and serves as a quick introduction to the conflict mechanics.
The town I designed (which is a rather quick and simple process compared to the adventure/scenario generation burdens of most RPG’s) was called
Kenny, Shawn, and Jeff dispensing The King of Life’s Justice
As thge dogs (Kenny, Jeff, and Shawn) rolled into town, they pretty quickly learned that the Steward had been recently killed in an attack by the local tribe of Mountain People (native Americans, basically). But Brother Clarence, a relatively new convert and former policeman from Philadelphia, had managed to fend off the invaders pretty much single-handedly.
When they first meet Brother Clarence, he’s wearing a beautiful, multi-colored coat, which they find to be a little strange. It was very similar to the kind of coats that Dogs wear, and when they talked to him later, he openly admitted assuming the roles of both a Dog and Steward of the town. The coolest scene in the whole game for me, at least, was when Kenny and Jeff had a conflict that night about how to handle Brother Clarence. Kenny was open to the idea that maybe the King of Life had actually called Brother Clarence to serve those roles, while Jeff wanted to call him out and put him on trial before the whole town. In the end, Kenny gave on the stakes that they would have a town meeting to discuss his calling, but then won a follow-up conflict that they would at least listen to his story and make a fair decision.
By the end of the meeting, of course, Brother Clarence was shooting demon fire from both guns until the Dogs finally put him down. Shawn was mortally wounded, and despite the best efforts of his companions, died as well.
What I think…
Dogs in the Vineyardwas just as incredible as I’d always heard. I love how the conflict mechanics can represent anything from a few seconds in a gunfight all the way up to the events of days or weeks of something like tracking someone through the wilderness. It’s always dramatic and interesting, and since each raise and respose has to be narrated into the fiction, you never lose sight of the story due to the role of the mechanics (which is so typical of many traditional RPG’s).
One of the keys of the setting is that the Dogs are basically above reproach. So any judgement made by a Dog is, by definition, just and right. Of course, players can determine that their actual Dog is corrupt and unjust, but there’s just no one in the fiction outside of the actual Dogs hierarchy that can call them on it. So what this does is to set the players up into a position to really determine the direction of the story.
In this case, for instance, it was a very real possibilty that the Dogs could have confirmed Brother Clarence as Steward and maybe even approved his appointment as a Dog. And just to keep it as ambiguous as I could, I never showed any signs of real demon-possession until after they had made up their mind about him, just so there would always be a little glimmer of doubt in their minds that they were doing the right thing.
And while all of the characters in this game were genuinely trying to do the right thing, I imagine that it would be extremely interesting to have one Dog who was really not a nice person at all. Both the response by the townsfolk and the inter-party conflict amongst the Dogs would be really interesting.
Dogs is a game all about ends and means. Within certain bounds, players sort of explore and define the morality of the setting, and then have to decide how far they will go to uphold that point of view. It’s fun and interesting and challenging, and I hope to get many, many more chances to play it.
A Penny for My Thoughts
For our second session, I led Keith, Jeff, and Kenny in a game of A Penny for My Thoughts, which is a GM-less game about amnesiacs who take a drug that lets them look into each other’s memories. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the game other than to say that it didn’t really go over too well.
Penny is a game that is very different from most RPG’s. It sort of turns the the whole idea of control over your character on its ear, because unlike most games (where you have absolute control over the actions of your character but not the environment), in Penny you can define pretty much anything except for the actual actions of your character. It’s very improv-ey, and we really didn’t jive too well with the collaborative storytelling that the game was looking for.
One thing that I think tripped us up over and over was the desire to “be awesome” in what we came up with. Rather than just go with the flow and give the obvious answers to what was happening, we got stuck trying to come up with something cool every time. In the end, we ended up stopping after everyone finished the second part of their story (about 2/3 through the game) because I didn’t think people were actualy having much fun.
I had a good time with it the first time I played, but we also had trouble then with people getting stuck and not knowing where to go next with the story. I’d love to try it again, but I don’t know how interested anyone else would be…
Before and between and after all the roleplaying I also got in games of Forbidden Island, No Thanks!, White Elephant, The Lord of the Rings LCG, and Jenga. I don’t need to go into detail, but we had a really great time with Jenga…
As always, I thank Tom for running the Gameathonapocaloozafestacon series, and especially for this chance to play more RPG’s! I just wish I had more time to play them more.