10 March 2005

Read-through Review of Dogs In The Vineyard

Heh. That didn't take long. Actually, I'm ill and taking the day off work, so sitting at the computer reading through the whole of Dogs In The Vineyard was as good a way to occupy my time as anything else.

To start with, this is a very well-written game. Baker's prose is fairly informal and manages to be clear, fun and really shows how excited he is about his game. The game is filled with summaries of important rules and/or processes and examples, all of which are a cut above the average (or the good, really).

The setting is great. There's just enough detail to get you right into it, the rest left extremely open. It's a western, with the players acting the part of "Dogs" for the Faith. You live in a colony far from the civilized parts of the country, where the people follow a Mormon-like religion. It's specified loosely enough that you could set it in the old West or it could just be a fictional world kind of like that. The Dogs are people authorized by the elders of the Faith to ride through the towns and deal with any sin that they find there. How you deal with it is pretty much up to the players - one example in the game describes a complicated situation in a town that is sorted out by a Dog finding one of the people involved and shooting him dead. Your actions aren't above the law, so you may find yourself in conflict with the legitimate authorities, too. Overall, it is just bursting with neat ideas for characters and scenes in play. I must say, I came out of this chapter wanting to play a Dog who had a secret coffee habit. The Faithful do not approve of coffee or tea, you see, and that's just so much cooler than a secret drunkard. Ha!

The structure of play is essentially that of a wandering Western TV show. The Dogs visit a town, they find out what's wrong, they sort it out and then it's off to the next town. Baker suggests that each town ought to be one session, with the occasional two-parter.

Next is character creation. It's pretty normal. Baker insists that characters be created as a group with everyone brainstorming ideas for the characters together, which I'm certainly in favour of. He provides typical backgrounds for Dogs brought up amongst the Faithful and those who are more recent converts, which add a bit more flavour and spark a few more ideas. There's a description of Dog training and you finish off your character with an attempt to accomplish something in particular during your training (like "Try not to swear so much" or "Impress my teachers"). This is resolved using the full conflict resolution rules to give everyone a first taste of how it works. You also gain one last Trait based on how you did at it.

Your characters can't die or leave play until you want them to or specifically choose to risk their life in a conflict. I approve of this (as noted in my last post) and I've put the same rule into The Ship. I may have even taken the idea from Baker (after reading some of his blog). Also, when you do have your character leave play, you make a new one with the same dice for Stats, Traits and Relationships plus a few bonus ones. It's good to see a little sweetener for people thinking of going out in a blaze of glory (or leave the calling in a huff, even).

Relationships are important and in character generation you reserve some of your dice in this area for later. These can be used at any time to add new Relationships for your character. I like this, for the cinematic 'instant friendship/hatred' that it reflects.

There's also a good section on what the GM ought to be doing during the character generation session. The advice is sound and looks like it will do a good job of making sure that all the Dogs are suited to getting good stories happening.

The description of the conflict resolution system reads well. It copes with any kind of conflict, and has a nice see & raise system that measures how the conflict escalates as you go. There's a lot to describe, so I'll leave it there. Basically, it looks damn good. He finishes off with a section on how the system can do several cool things - like conflicts finished in a split second or drawn out over days.

Next he has a big explanation of how the game is structured. This lays out what happens in different parts of play and what the GM and players should each be doing. It's a good idea and is helpful to understanding the game.

The rest of the book is GM advice and systems.

First up is town creation. Baker explains here the progression of sin in towns and how a little pride can develop into hatred and murder. He takes you through ways that each stage can manifest and has plenty of examples. Then he takes you through a series of steps to develop each town and it's problems. Essentially, you start at the smaller problems - writing a little description of who has done what - and work your way up the progression until you feel like you've got enough going on to fill the required session(s).

Next is NPC creation. Now, you'll have some names and things going on for some of the townsfolk from your town creation but no stats for them yet. Now you go through a partly random, partly arbitrary choice system to write up six "proto-NPCS". These are sets of stats and values for Traits with no names or descriptions attached. As conflicts come up in play, you take one set of numbers and use it for the NPC concerned. Looks like a good way to do things.

Last is the general GM advice section. His advice is very good and he highlights a few things that Dogs in the Vineyard does differently to most games.

One of these is that nobody is supposed to keep stuff secret from the other players. For example, rather than the standard "Roll perception to see if you detect the ambush." you are encouraged to say "These guys are waiting to ambush you behind the barn. What are you gonna do?"

He also wants to make sure you keep on the moral questions that the game's ultimately about. So you shouldn't have a plan for how the problems in a town are resolved, you should just make them interesting. You also need to look at what the players have previously been interested in exploring and make your towns about those problems. And then push them harder on it. Is it worth hurting someone over this? Killing them? What if there's this mitigating circumstance? In some ways that might come across as fairly un-fun, but the game's built to make these issues into fun.

Perhaps the most important advice, I think, is to not decide how it should end. Just set things up and see what the players end up doing. After all, part of their job is to judge. He makes that point somewhere - if a Dog decides to let something stand, that's them saying "The Faith allows you to do that". Or maybe it's the Dog descending into heresy and sin. In either case, it's going to be fascinating to see where it goes.

My last words: this game is absolutely great. Buy it and play it (unless the description all sounds a bit hard, I suppose).

It makes me regret the many years of playing games that focused on all the traditional roleplaying stuff, rather than the great games they could have been instead. Oh well, I just have to catch up now I guess.

And talk about raising the bar on what I'm prepared to publish myself. There was me getting smug about how well I was doing. That little bit of pride won't be going any further, thanks to Mr Baker.

1 comment:

hix said...

Yeah, DitV. Drool and will get round to running eventually.

I've asked Graphic to start stocking Dogs In the Vineyard (and also Primetime Adventures - my other must play).