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Monday, 27 October 2014

2004: Dogs in the Vineyard

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, will releasing the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles to be reviewed. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

-oOo-

Picking titles from one anniversary to the next has proved to be easier for some years than others. 1984 was a particularly fruitful year, offering plenty of choices, but the subsequent anniversaries—1994 and 2004—in terms of RPGs and board games have been more challenging. 1994 is difficult because it was at the height of the Magic the Gathering boom, it was before Settlers of Catan would initiate the popularity in board games that we see today, and it was at a time when RPGs were tending towards generic rules. By 2004,  board games were truly on their rise to popularity that we know today, whilst RPGs tended to be dominated by their use of the d20 System, the mechanics derived from Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. That though was in mainstream roleplaying…

By 2004, a publishing movement had arisen that if not in opposition to mainstream RPGs, were certainly outside it and definitely broke the model of how RPGs were played and what they focused on. Firstly, the games were self-published, self-promoted, and often, self-distributed; secondly, they focused not on broad settings with the GM serving as the ‘sole’ gatekeeper for the game, but instead concentrated on single genres, set-ups, and stories. They focused on character and story, often telling morally and emotionally wrought tales in which during the telling, the players had greater narrative input than in the traditional RPG. Their play was collaborative, not just between the players, but also between the players and the GM—and sometimes they dispensed with the GM all together.

By 2014—a decade later—it should be noted that whilst the ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ movement is not dead, much of its design ethos and intent has been absorbed by the mainstream, most notably in the form of Evil Hat Design’s FATE RPG and the more recent Firefly Role-Playing Game from Margaret Weis Productions. No ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ would win an Origins Award—the industry’s premier award, though Bully Pulpit Games’ Fiasco would be nominated in 2010.  A number of Indie style RPGs have won the Diana Jones Award, arguably a critically more prestigious award. They include Paul Czege’s My Life with Master, Ron Edward’s Sorcerer, and both Jason Morningstar’s Grey Ranks and the aforementioned Fiasco, the latter remaining to this day, the best known title to have come out of the Indie movement. The first games though, to offer this style of play are arguably Hogshead Publishing’s New Style series—The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, Puppetland/Powerkill (Puppetland has just been relaunched on Kickstarter), and Pantheon and other Roleplaying Games being notable entries—but they predate the movement and they were not self-published.

In 2004, the most well-known were My life with Master and Dogs in the Vineyard. It is the latter, published in 2004, which is that year’s entry for the anniversary series of reviews. At first glance, Dogs in the Vineyard: A Role-Playing Game looks to be a Western RPG. It is set in Western United States, the indigenous population is not necessarily to be trusted, and the characters ride the land dispensing justice. This to an extent is true, but Dogs in the Vineyard is not as simplistic as that. The setting is the Western United States, specifically the Deseret Territory of pre-statehood Utah in the middle of the 19th century, isolated and wary of the Territorial Authority; the Mountain People may not be trusted, but they are to be brought into the Faithful; and the player characters are members of the ‘Order Set Apart to the Preservation of the Faith and the Faithful’, who ride from town to town, preaching and performing ceremonies—baptisms, weddings, funerals, and so on, keeping the peace, protecting the Faithful, ferreting out and punishing sinners, and bringing not only the word of The Faith of All Things in the King of Life, Reborn to the people, but also messages and the mail. They are the King’s Watchdogs, or ‘Dogs’, and are known for their finely embroidered coats that is their badge of office.

There is a certain historicity to this set-up. Parallels may be drawn with antebellum Utah—the Utah of the 1840s and 1850s, the mistrusted authority of the USA and Washington, DC, and of course, with the Mormon faith. On its first page, the author states that Dogs in the Vineyard is a fantasy inspired by the history, and although other options suggest elsewhere and elsewhen the game/mechanics can be set should anyone object to its depiction of Mormonism, Dogs in the Vineyard treats the religion with respect. Indeed, although it gives certain specific details, and that mainly for flavour and feel, it mainly presents the Faith as a moral code, which makes the mechanics and tone of Dogs in the Vineyard not only more easy to translate to other times and settings, it makes it much less offensive.

Each session involves the player characters, or ‘Dogs’, riding into town and interacting with the townsfolk as they carry out their duties. In doing so, they discover that someone in the town has fallen prey to the sin of Pride at a perceived injustice, which left unchecked has escalated to false doctrine and false priesthood. With the growth of sin in a town, the King of Life is likely to withdraw his protection and thus allow demons into the town. Their presence, left unchecked, will eventually result in sorcery and murder… The duty of the Dogs is thus to root out the cause, judge the sinners, and dispense mercy and punishment according to the tenets of the Faith. Then they ride out, leaving in their wake, a townspeople that may be shattered by their experience—several of them may be dead, and the town may be in flames. The Dogs may have suffered also, depending on the choices made and the relationships ruined. Between towns, they ride the beautiful Deseret Territory, reflecting upon their actions, readying themselves for the next town, or to retire as a Dog, their duty done.

A Dog is defined by several dice pools, the size of which are determined by the type of character, whether that is Well-Rounded, Complicated History, Strong Community, and so on. This sets the number of dice to assign to a character’s Stats—Acuity, Body, Heart, and Will; Traits—freeform aspects of the character such as ‘My Grandfather’s Hunting Knife 1d6’ or ‘I have a honey’d tongue 2d4’; and Relationships—ties to places and people, like ‘My brother Ned, who always seemed to pull me from the fire 2d6’ or ‘Under the green shade of the woods 1d8’. Lastly a player decides on his Dog’s equipment, generally a horse, guns (it should be noted that guns of this period are black powder, percussion cap, single-action weapons), perhaps a knife, and the coat that is his Dog’s badge of office. Lastly, each Dog undertakes an initiation rite whilst training to be a Dog. It is different for each character and serves as a means to introduce the mechanics of Dogs in the Vineyard. There is plenty of flexibility in character design and capacity for player input, but such freedoms back in 2004 were just a little daunting...

Our sample character is Sister Temperance Deakins, the adopted elder daughter of a family of undertakers. A foundling of the Mountain People, she was exactly what her mother wanted until her sister Prudence was born, all blonde curls and skin like milk. Temperance still had a place in the home and was put to the household chores or went with her mother to bring succour to the folk who had recently been bereaved. Only her Grandfather accepted her fully and never favoured Prudence over her. Prudence remains jealous that Temperance became a Watchdog and not her.

Name: Sister Temperance Deakins
Background: Complicated History

—Stats— {15d6 dice}
Acuity: 4d6 Body: 3d6 Heart: 4d6 Will: 4d6

—Traits— {4d4, 2d6, 2d10 dice}
Measured shot 1d4
I am God’s Watchdog 1d6
I am an uneasy rider 1d6
There is always women’s work to be done, 3d4
I know the ways of Grief 2d10
I overcame my fear of guns 1d6

—Relationships— 5d6, 2d8 dice {Available: 2d6, 1d8 }
Blood 1d6
My pretty sister Prudence, jealous that I am a Dog, 1d8
My adopted Grandfather, who accepted me, 2d6

—Belongings—
Colt Paterson revolver, 1d6+1d4
Big old nag, 1d8+1d4
Watchdog’s Coat 2d6 (Green with red piping and the Tree of Life embroidered in gold on the back).

Mechanically, Dogs in the Vineyard also departed from traditional RPGs in that its focus is entirely upon conflicts, including conflicts between the Dogs and between the Dogs and the townsfolk that they are passing judgement upon. Essentially with mundane tasks and mundane knowledge, it is accepted that a Dog either knows the information or not, or can undertake the action or not. In fact the GM has one simple rule to any situation; either say “Yes”, or roll the dice and begin a conflict—indeed this was its very first appearance in any RPG. Conflicts come into play when there is something at stake, for example, “I will impose my will as a Dog and convince the congregation that I bring the true word of the King in Life” or “I will chase down the sinner, Brother Nathaniel, and bring him to judgement”. Resolving the conflict involves Poker-style mechanics opposed rolls of dice pools. The base for each pool is a pair of stats—Acuity and Heart when talking, Body and Heart for physical actions that do not involve combat (for example, in a chase), Body and Will for fighting with fists, knives, and so on,  and Acuity and Will for gunfights. To this can be dice from appropriate Traits, Relationships, and Belongings. For example, in a situation where Sister Temperance has to use a gun, she rolls her Acuity and Will, Measured shot, I overcame my fear of guns, and her gun, for a total of 8d6, 1d4, 1d6, and 1d6+1d4.

The results are not added, but kept as single dice. Then those in the conflict make Raises using up the value of pairs of their dice, narrating what they say or do as part of the Raise. In response, a target can See this Raise by countering it with dice equal to the Raise. Two dice will block the Raise; using one die will not only stop it, but Reverse it and let the target keep and use the die in his next Raise; and lastly three or more dice means that the Raise has been partly blocked, the target Takes the Blow and suffers consequences after the conflict is over. Should one side of the conflict concede or run out of dice, he suffers Fallout and will gain possible consequences.
For example, as part of her duties as a Dog, Sister Temperance has returned home to discover that her sister Prudence dressed in black and mourning for her late husband, a man whom she did not love and did not want to marry. Now she has a child and is jealous of the perceived freedoms that Temperance has. She has been complaining to her father-in-law, the local Steward, seducing him with her words and persuading him that Temperance’s place is with her mother, not with the Dogs. He now preaches that no one born of the Mountain People can be called to be Dog… This is false doctrine.
Temperance confronts her sister. The stakes for the conflict are to force ‘Prudence to admit her jealousy drives her pride and her sin’. For this, Temperance will roll her Acuity and Heart Stats, I am God’s Watchdog and I know the ways of Grief Traits, and Blood and My pretty sister Prudence, jealous that I am a Dog Relationships. This gives her 4d6, 3d6, 1d6, 2d10, 1d6, and 1d8 to roll, the result being 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, 7, and 8.
Prudence likewise rolls her Acuity (2d6) and Heart (4d6) Stats, Butter wouldn't melt (2d4) and Grieving Widow (1d10) Traits, and Blood (1d8) and I am jealous of my sister, the Dog (2d6) Relationships. She rolls 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 5, and 7.
Temperance confronts her sister and says, “You have my sympathies sister, I know how grief must sit upon you.” and Raises with a 5 and 5 for 10. Prudence responds with, “What do you know of grief? You have lost nothing and gained everything!” and Sees Temperance’s Raise with a 3 and 7 for 10. Prudence then makes her own Raise with a 4 and 4 before saying, “You abandoned us, your family, just like your real family abandoned you!”
Temperance Sees this with her single 8—sufficient to Reverse the Blow and retain the 8 for her next Raise—responds with, “I was doing my duty unto the Faith and answering when I was called.” She then Raises with the 8 and a 7, saying, “And just as I was doing my duty by the King of Life, so were you!” 15 is far more than Prudence can See with two dice and is forced to use four dice—5, 4, 4, and 3—instead. The consequences are that Prudence suffers 1d4 in Fallout for each of the four dice used to See. Stung by her Sister’s words she flies at Temperance in a rage. What this means is that she Escalates and the Conflict now becomes physical!
Escalating is the only way in which a Dog can gain more dice. That is, switching up to more dangerous forms from conflict—from social conflict to physical combat to gunfights. Each time the combatants would reroll. Similarly, as the conflict escalates, the Fallout dice also escalate, from the d4 of Social conflicts to the d6 of hand-to-hand conflicts to the d8 of conflicts involving melee weapons to the d10 of conflicts involving guns.

Each town is a scenario in itself and there is plenty of advice for the GM on creating towns and the hierarchies of sin that beset them. Essentially sketching them out in broad detail along with the various NPCs and their desires—NPCs always want something of the Dogs as they are the final arbiters in any situation—so that the GM can add further details as play progresses. Especially helpful here are the details on everyday life in the Vineyard and the constrictive expectations of everyone’s role in society, as they add flavour and they are reason enough for one of the Faithful to doubt his place or suffer from jealousy. From this of course, it is relatively easy to step onto the hierarchy of sin. What the GM is not doing is setting up a plot or a story to tell, but rather leaving it up to the players’ Dogs to decide what they do, where they go, and who they speak to, and ultimately how they resolve the situation that a town is hiding.

The core of the advice on running Dogs in the Vineyard is twofold—“Escalate, escalate, escalate” and “Drive Play Towards Conflict”, supported by the simplicity of “Roll the dice, or say yes”. What this means is the Dogs and thus the players are constantly being pushed to confront the evidence of the sins that lurk in every town and the sinners themselves to force them to admit their guilt. Then of course, to make and pass moral judgements upon the sinners. Whilst the towns themselves are unlikely to be memorable—though the GM is free to add as little or as much detail as he wants—it is the sins of the townsfolk that that mark one town from another and make them memorable. Certainly it is what the Dogs will reflect upon as well as the judgements passed after they leave the town.

One aspect of Dogs in the Vineyard that the GM can set ahead of time, or indeed can be agreed upon by the GM and his players is to what degree the supernatural actually plays in the Deseret Territory and in undermining the people of the The Faith of All Things in the King of Life. It may not exist at all, except in the minds of believers, but the threat may truly be real, with an unbeliever willingly accepting possession by a demon or a sorcerer, a false prophet, having a demon at his beck and call.

Physically, Dogs in the Vineyard is an imposingly simple book with a beautiful cover. Inside, the book at first looks surprisingly plain and the artwork is disappointing. The later is still true a decade on, but my opinion of the book’s look has changed in that time. With the layout and the choice of font, handled by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, Dogs in the Vineyard has a period feel and a plain, unadorned feel that lends it a certain charm.

In comparison to the mainstream in 2004, Dogs in the Vineyard was a truly focused and moral game, one that was truly radical for its time. Although Poker-style play underlies the game’s mechanics, their  application as a means to escalate and drive conflicts forward was radical, not to say daunting. The game’s mechanical focus on conflict was equally radical, but its advice to “say yes, or roll dice” has very much become part of mainstream roleplay design and theory. Radical also was the game’s focus on making moral judgements. There had been RPGs in which the players and their characters passed judgements before, most obviously the Judge Dredd RPG, but that was really a satire in which the law was enforced unflinchingly and unfeelingly. In Dogs in the Vineyard the judgements are made on a moral basis and that ultimately is the game’s great strength.

To be truthful, there were few great RPGs being released in 2004, or in any of the opening years of the 21st century and arguably not from mainstream publishing. Dogs in the Vineyard: A Role-Playing Game is one such great RPG. Its mechanics were and remain elegant, its design as an RPG as morality tale delightfully radical, and it is still one of the best RPGs to have come out of  the ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ movement.