Finally, Dogs in the Vineyard

This past week, I negotiated a trade for, among other things, D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard.  The game is truly inspiring.  Just read the design goals outlined by D. Vincent Baker:

“My design goals are: it’s interesting to Mormons, it’s relevant to Mormons, and it treats the concerns of Mormonism with subtlety and respect.”

I suppose that isn’t terribly engaging. But when several other RPGs that I like (e.g. Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel & Burning Empires, VSCA’s Diaspora, Chimera Creative’s Nine Worlds, John Harper’s Lady Blackbird) all pay homage to Dogs in the Vineyard, it is something that definitely deserves attention.

Actually the blurb at D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard page is more evocative:

You stand between God’s law and the best intentions of the weak.

You stand between God’s people and their own demons.

Sometimes it’s better for one to die than for many to suffer. Sometimes, Dog, sometimes you have to cut off the arm to save the life.

Does the sinner deserve mercy?
Do the wicked deserve judgement?

They’re in your hands.

roleplaying God’s Watchdogs
in a West that never quite was.

Now that’s much more engaging! The characters’ purpose is to make sure that the church’s body survives.  If that means amputation, then the King of Life’s will shall be done.

When the book arrived, I immediately set about reading it, and was outright impressed.  As Luke Crane and Jared Sorenson would say, “Game Design is Mind Control.”  And D. Vincent Baker drives it home.

The Die Schtick, as defined/proposed by Ryan Macklin and Josh Roby, of Dogs in the Vineyard is “where the magic happens.”  The dice mechanic is inspired by poker bets, which is fitting given that we are in the old west.

Each participant in the conflict rolls the relevant dice (based on relavent stats, relationships, equipment, and traits) and a turn order is established.  On each players turn they simultaneously narrate and expend rolled dice (via Seeing and Raising), pushing the scene towards resolution as dice pools are exhausted.  In most cases, the initial dice results are in the open so players can see rather early when they are unlikely to win the current conflict in its current form.

At anytime during their turn, a player can choose to escalate the conflict from conversation, to pushing, to brawling, and finally gunfight.  The incentive to shift the conflict is in doing so you then add new dice rolls to the dice pool.  So what starts out as a simple verbal confrontation can very easily spiral into a brawl with pistols being drawn.  And that is most assuredly D. Vincent Baker’s intention.

So here we have a dice resolution system that pushes toward conflict escalation.  We also have player characters who are anointed judge, jury, and executioner.  Both of which are ingredients for narrative fireworks!

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to play this with my regular group of players, but I’m itching to give it a try.

5 thoughts on “Finally, Dogs in the Vineyard

  1. Our design goals serve as poor blurbs for others. :) They aren’t selling points to us, but a roadmap to remember what we’re doing in the process.

    There’s a lot of neat little advanced tricks you can do once you get the dice game that involve figuring out the right moment as a GM to give in. So, it’s neat to see a die shtick that makes you focused on the dice and what they do in the game, and suddenly from left field having the MG give in when you weren’t expecting because the dice at the moment doesn’t say he has to.

    – Ryan

  2. That is a great point. Having only read Dogs in the Vineyard it is hard to get a sense of giving even if your dice are winning. However, I can easily see, in the heat of the moment, one of the conflict’s players realizing that “I see how I want to build from this conflict and there is nothing more that I need wager.”

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  5. “anytime during their turn, a player can choose to escalate the conflict from conversation, to pushing, to brawling, and finally gunfight”

    Those are not ordered states. If you are ambushed by men with rifles, you can close the distance and punch them in the face (gunfight escalated to brawling). If your former childhood friend starts shooting you, you can escalate to conversation, if you find a statement that can’t be ignored (“Luke I’m your father!”, or maybe “She never loved you anyway”). You can’t escalate to something already used, nor would I let someone escalate without a real reason (*blam-blam* “you owe me $2.50” ain’t gonna cut it).

    Game mechanic wise it frequently doesn’t make sense to escalate from guns to anything else (the bad fallout state exists now, don’t tempt it! Better to lose the gun fight with a clipped shoulder then to escalate to talking and maybe get shot in the head!), but when the narrative covers it I’ve seen people go for it. Normally from guns to fists, but sometimes from guns to words.

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