This last Wednesday I ran a one-shot session of Dogs in the Vineyard. What a great game. The system is interesting in play, and the direct instructions for game preparation are wonderful.
System in play
Dogs uses a randomness-first conflict resolution system. Players establish stakes, then each roll a giant pool of dice. Able to see the others’ results, they take turns “raising” with the total of a pair of dice, then “seeing” with enough pips to equal that total. When you run out of dice, you lose. If you can see with few dice, you’re doing well. If you need many dice to see, you’re doing poorly—not only are you falling behind in the dice economy, but you also take “Fallout”: changes to your character’s traits and relationships, including experience, personal growth, and wounds.
This is a neat tactical minigame. In a many-sided conflict, it’s interesting to play. There are definitely tactics to be exploited, drawing out particular high dice and ensuring you’ll be able to see forthcoming raises with singleton dice.
Because each See and each Raise require narration, there’s a nice flow of interaction in the conflict. Everybody knows what they can say when: you can’t narrate a finishing move unless you’re actually finishing, but then you know you can. You know to narrate a weak, misapplied thrust when raising with a 2, and to narrate a crushing blow when raising with a 20.
Also, it lets us use all our polyhedral dice. This is fun.
Building towns and NPCs
D. Vincent Baker, the author of Dogs, has made several innovations in gaming. I hope he’s remembered for this one: clear, systematic instructions to the games-master for how to generate background, non-player characters, situation, and conflict. There’s an algorithm and a recipe for creating cool supernatural Westerns here. You can see it reflected in my notes: all problems start with Pride. Pride leads to an Injustice. The response to Injustice is Sin. Sin permits Demonic Attacks. Either the victims of the Demonic Attacks or observers will come to believe False Doctrine, seeking to explain why some are receiving supernatural punishment and others are not. Practicing that False Doctrine is Corrupt Worship. If three or more do this, one is a False Priest. Demons obey False Priests, and they become Sorcerers. Eventually, the Demons induce them to ritualistic, senseless Hate and Murder.
Children were playing, pretending to be Dogs and priests. They used a real Book of Life. The father of Abraham, Brother Jeremiah, finds them. He punishes them, falsely exercising Stewardship over the children of other men. This is Pride. In particular, he punishes Ezekial and Amos, the sons of other men.
Jeremiah doesn’t want the issue to come up again; he’s ashamed of his sons sins, but doesn’t see them as long-term or important.
Abraham’s learned his lesson. That was a righteous punishment, so it works!
Ezekial and Amos are bitter. Amos wants the Dogs to punish Jeremiah and bring him down. Ezekial has joined Gideon, and thinks he’ll take vengeance himself!
The players ran off with this and got involved with the kids before Amos had a chance to find them, so they never met him or Jeremiah. Then things were on a roller-coaster, so they didn’t find out about any of this Pride stage until the postgame, after they’d burned down the church and engaged in a raging gun-battle with the Sorcerer.
Gideon sees the beating. He figures he can be Steward to others as well, if it’s done in short violent bursts. He starts correcting younger children, often brutally.
Gideon can mean “he that bruises,” by the way. So when the PCs start noticing weird bruises and hemophilia, it’s possible for linguist players to notice this and do something about it. It’s not likely and in fact it’s almost impossible, but the hook is there.
Gideon wants the Dogs to see him as a prophet, but not until he’s ready! He may set up contests against them, where the Demons help rig it.
Gideon lies to his parents about what he’s doing, beats other kids, and tries to exercise Stewardship not his own.
Gideon’s parents, Brother David and Sister Leah, are proud of their son. They want the Dogs to override Brother Caleb’s righteous failure to take Gideon as a dog, accept him as a new Dog and take him to the Temple.
This worked! I was shocked. Half the PCs did seem to side with David & Leah and want to help Gideon, suspecting the Steward. Half backed the Steward. They ended up all on the right side, of course, but I’m not sure I’ve ever intentionally gotten that sort of ambiguity before. Dogs provided a nice lab environment to play with it.
Lots of kids are showing up bruised and beaten, even those not in Gideon’s club.
The children of the town cannot bear the touch of their parents.
Parents in general are concerned about the kids. The town doctor, Richard, from Back East, thinks it may be a contagious hemophelia and wants to quarantine the town until it’s solved. The Dogs can’t leave.
The urban, civilized players believed the Doctor, who was mostly full of himself and an Eastern Atheist. They pretty quickly figured out that “hemophilia” meant “demon attacks,” though.
Beatings continue, but morale improves. Gideon’s now leading a sort of micro-Dogs unit, and believes he can train these kids as well as the Dogs’ Temple could.
Track 2: Parents misinterpret. Brother Achab and Sister Kallai think their kids, Joanna, Myra, and Tarta are getting bullied. They want the Steward to track down who it was.
Track 3: Kids blame others. Luke says it was the Branch Steward, Brother Caleb. His father, Madiah, decides the Steward probably can beat his kids and it’s OK!
Mark and Rebekah blame “a Mountain Person” they hadn’t seen before. Violence is brewing against the mountain folk, but hasn’t broken out yet. Their parents, Brother Daniel and Sister Deborah, only kind of believe them. He does, she’s not quite sure. So he wants a crusade led by Dogs, and she’s holding him back.
Leah and Darah blame their parents when the Dogs ask, and aren’t quite lying. Their parents do beat them sometimes.
The kids take Gideon as their Steward (oops), call themselves Lions of Gideon (double oops) and start directing their prayer through self-torture and through Gideon (oh dear)
The Steward’s own witch-hunt for the demons, breaking up families. The Steward wants his way of doing things endorsed. He’s got Leah and Darah staying with him now, and wants Luke.
This really got the players nervous about the Steward. Apparently the goal of protecting children from predators is deeply ingrained—they saw a weird relationship with children, and a fostering system, and freaked.
The Steward has exceeded his bounds
Sorcery and What the Demons Want
Help the kids solve problems. Gideon shows up as a regular Encyclopedia Brown, helping the Dogs and being a great kid and an Obvious Leader.
Also, encourage the Steward to go to far, fostering kids away from suspect parents. But don’t encourage the Dogs to do this, because if they do it it’s probably OK!
Along the way are subprotocols for involving player characters, ensuring that they will find relatives, foils, and sympathetic folk among the NPCs. Taken all together, this is genius. I want this sort of support from more of my games! It means I can prepare for an adventure and know I’m generating something good. I’ve got lots of room for flexibility, but know I’m staying on-message and in-theme.
I can see descendants of this system in Weapons of the Gods and in Burning Empires.