06 April 2005

Dogs in the Vineyard Playtest Impressions

Well, I got to play it last night at the local games club. I played with one person I know fairly well, one I am acquainted with and one who I hadn't met before. The fact that we all had a damn good time despite this reflects pretty well on the game, I think.

So we sat down, I give the three of them a brief introduction to what the game's about and the structure of the Faith and go into character generation. That goes okay - not as well as it would have for people who knew each other better, I suspect. We get some good characters:
  • Brother Cutter, orphaned by Mountain People. An angry, sinner-smiting young man.
  • Brother Ezekiel, a student of theology and doctrine.
  • Brother Tom, a Mountain Person convert with a big chip on his shoulder about it.
Brothers Cutter and Tom, needless to say, weren't exactly happy about working together. The conflicts to round off character generation went okay except for me falling over a bit when conducting arguments about the nature of the Faith (this came up in both Ezekiel and Tom's ones - I managed okay for one).

So they ride in to Eagle Falls Branch. They take a look around a little outside the town and a boy comes up to greet them. They pretty much grill him on whether he has been learning the Book of Life and so forth. A pretty hard-ass start, I thought. The kid was just being friendly. Anyhow, he invites them into his place for something to eat and drink. His ma sets the Dogs up and then asks them to deal with her daughter Tryphena, who wanted to marry the wrong man. Both families and the Steward agreed the marriage wasn't ordained and told them to forget it, but it seems they were still seeing each other. The Dogs say they'll sort it out but don't talk to the girl now (in fact, they never did). They head into town instead.

They go to see the Steward, Jeduthan, except for Brother Cutter - he decides to check out the guy who's the other side of this love affair. Ezekiel and Tom sit down to talk to the Steward, who's a convert from back East. They immediately decide he's a bad guy because of all his decadent Eastern furnishings. He lets them know that there's a problem with a few of the congregation refusing to come to meetings on the Sabbath - because they dislike him for his background.

Meanwhile, Cutter scares the willies out of Archibald, who repents and promises to no longer question his ma, pa or the Steward.

Then the Dogs have a bit of a meeting in the town square and tell the folk that they're here and they're gonna sort out everything that's wrong. They ask people to come and let them know what's wrong, and spend the afternoon fielding more and more details about Micajah and the others he's convinced to avoid Jeduthan's preaching. Apparently Micajah was expected to be the Steward after the last one died but Jeduthan got appointed instead. There's also a few stories about bad things happening when Jeduthan's blessings ought to have protected the town.

The Dogs decide to sort out Micajah. They head to his house, where Cutter and Ezekiel start trying to get him to admit that he's a sinner. He comes right back with the line that he always ought to have been the Steward and that the Eastener ain't a true Faithful. Eventually Tom gets sick of this and pulls a gun on the guy. We go into a bigass conflict, starting with fighting and then escalating. We had shooting, tomahawks, demonic powers, exorcism and probably some other stuff before it all ended with Micajah shot down on his porch and Brother Tom bleeding to death from a couple of bullets in his gut.

Cutter and Ezekiel work feverishly to save Tom's life, and manage to do it by the skin of their teeth.

Then the three of them go through the town and get every one of the people influenced by Micajah's false teachings to go back to the Faith. Strangely enough, they all complied with this. Also, Cutter went of alone and married Archibald and Tryphena. I think he just felt sorry for them. They told Jeduthan off for letting things get as bad as they did, pretty much implying he was basically at fault for it all.

Reflection at the end had Cutter and Tom warming to each other significantly, which was nice. I don't think they pondered their judgments too much, oh well.

So that's what happened, now the analysis.

The game's astonishingly good at making the Dogs judge people. It really is hard to just go dump the problems on the Dogs, though. Baker says this himself. Every other damn game you're expected to hide the problem. So you are constantly thinking "Oh, let's just hint at this thing... No! Tell them the whole damn mess!" But it works. Especially with these Dogs... they made their judgments quick, and I suspect they might need to learn to double check what's going on as we play through some more towns. Either that or just hope they make a good choice first time.

The "say yes or roll dice" advice works like a charm (once I caught myself beginning a conflict out of habit when I didn't need one - I just said it all went as desired and didn't make that mistake again).

The dice mechanics are great. They work much smoother than they read and they've got a lot of style. I don't think I've seen another game where everybody "got it" so quick, either. It's fun, too - especially when the players realized things like "if I pull my gun and start shooting, I get all these extra dice to roll".

Overall, play seemed to be everything the game promised on reading. I cannot recommend this game enough. Buy it (one of the guys who played last night told me he ordered one already).


hix said...

Sorry I missed it (prepping Changeling/TSoY over at Jenni's). Do you have plans to play again?

Luke said...

It was a great game. I often enjoy many small press games but find them difficult to play. However, Dogs had many of the traditional RPG elements holding the innovative stuff together.

The dice system was nice. I found it lay between the normal conflict resolution and HeroQuest's system. Though the dice didn't really equate to anything in game, it did create the exact sense of escalation and evolution of conflict out of character that is perfect for the Western/Inquisition genre.

I want more :)

The Gamester At Large said...

hix: Next WARGS I'm planning to run with the same people, and maybe take on another player if everyone was okay with it. Of course, that will be a Tuesday night as well.

Luke: I agree about the dice system. I think also that the narrating what is going on with each see and raise is the way to make it relate to what is going on. It's still pretty abstract, but that's the basic idea.

In terms of comparison with HeroQuest, I think it's mainly just more elegant. HQ gets a bit crufty once you get into it, but DitV keeps it pretty straightforward. Mainly because you have a smaller set of stuff on the character sheet to consider.

I'm going to have to get a bunch more dice, though... I haven't run out of any types when using my whole collection before!

Luke said...

I agree. Dogs does have the advantage that the game is much more focussed stylistically. Whereas in HQ the system is a nice idea, in Dogs it is almost 100% appropriate.

BTW Mike, if you are keen, I may try my hand at a Town at some stage at WARGS. It seems like the game works fine in dropping in and out PCs so we could even make it part of the same game.

The Gamester At Large said...

Luke, you are welcome to run a town any old time, including next WARGS meeting. I think the game would work fine with GM duties rotating, and probably the changes in town style would be cool.

Luke said...

I think I may be tempted to push things a little more towards a "Western" (just bought the Good, Bad and the Ugly soundtrack ;)) but I don't think that should be an issue.

hix said...

I believe we're shifting our Tuesday game so that people can go to WARGS, so - pending current players' approval - I'd love to give it a go.

The Gamester At Large said...

Cool, in answer to both previous comments.

Ivan Towlson said...

Having painted myself into a "voice of negativity" corner elsewhere I'd like to echo Luke's comment and say that I really enjoyed the game -- great atmosphere, innovative ideas, lots of fun -- so thanks, Mike. I would love to play in one of Luke's towns as well to see how GM style influences the workings of this kind of system/setting.

I continue to cordially disagree with you and Luke about the dice system, but as you guys have noted elsewhere I am coming at this from a traditionalist RPG viewpoint of "action resolution" rather than "narrative resolution," so I need to suspend judgment for the time being. I will however say that I am still concerned that it doesn't encourage escalation per se (e.g. from verbal argument to gunplay to exorcism) but merely random changes of tack to grub up new dice. But this may just be a matter of learning as a group how to narrate the evolution of a conflict -- as you said we as players did not know each other very well, and I for one am not experienced with this kind of game design.

Anyway, I don't want to sound negative, and I definitely want to play in the next session as well. Thanks again.

P.S. Luke -- interesting that you talk about the Western film genre. I had a similar "this is perfect for xxx" reaction, but mine was country music, specifically the bleak world of Johnny Cash (sounds like a theme park ride *grin*). It's interesting that both genres are widely perceived as hokey and cheesy, but contain a very dark, moral "sin-and-redemption" subgenre -- a core which Baker seems to have isolated in a way that few authors do. In fact, given that his predecessors are "Boot Hill" and "Deadlands," it's nothing short of bloody miraculous *grin*.

The Gamester At Large said...

Ivan, I can see where you're coming from but I think that escalation isn't as random as you say. After all, you've got make sense in the ongoing conflict - and if that means trying to talk down someone who's shooting at you, that's fine with me.

It's interesting about the task resolution versus conflict resolution thing, though. I've pretty much moved completely into wanting my games to resolve conflicts rather than tasks - to the point that I no longer really want to play a task-resolution mechanic. Yeah, that's the 99.9% of rpgs that are out there... it's like a mental shift that I don't want to go back from.

I guess it's an emphasis thing - when playing a game (these days), I'm never really interested in whether my guy hits with that one blow. I just want to know if he won the fight.

The Gamester At Large said...

Oh yeah, and you're right about the music. Baker says "the soundtrack is Johnny Cash [and a list of similar musicians] and you should play half spirituals and half murder ballads".

Luke said...

A collection of random comments:

1. Dogs should be scored by Johnny Cash :)

2. The interesting thing about the Western is that it is often a moral play. Even more interesting is the concept of "The Code of the West". Many Westerns involve people being gunned down due to breaches of personal ethics. This contrasts to how we mildly deal with such behaviour today. I think that Dogs was really good at bringing moral quandries to the foreground in a Western setting.

3. I understand your point regarding escalation and it is valid to an extent.

First, the system also promotes evolution of conflict, which I think is very good. You don't just sit and shoot but are encouraged to try and think of ways each conflict involves your character. In Westerns conflicts have a much greater meaning and often there is much inner workings.

Second, there is escalation. What is really good about Dogs is that the players are making conscious decisions to escalate all the time. Think on the whole conflict resolution as a whole not just the raise mechanism.

- You establish the stakes of the conflict.
- You then begin to narrate the conflict. Things often begin with talking and the consequences start low.
- The conflict is resolved unless one decides to up the ante by making the conflict larger. However, by doing this the consequences get worse for both sides. For example, pulling out a gun is a desperate measure that may allow you to win the stakes but at what cost.
- The other person in the conflict then has to decide whether to escalte as well or lose. The reason he may decide to loose is because at that stage the consequences are still low.

The result is that the players should be evaluating what is at stake and what consequences they are prepared to take to acheive those stakes. We didn't really get to this level of thinking at WARGS as it was our first time up.

We assumed loosing the fight would mean death. However, that wasn't the case. In fact it was our blind pursuit of victory that actually killed Tom.

The schtick in Dogs is that stakes and consequences are seperated. You can win the stakes but at the cost of your life. Then you ask was that worth it. Add in the fact that the player makes fully conscious decisions as to this all the way through and so only the player is truly responsible. This suits the moral side of the game perfectly. To what lengths does one go to with absolute authority to pursue justice?

Ivan Towlson said...

I was all set to tear you to shreds, claiming that escalation was a no-brainer option and that the only reason not to grub up dice was because one couldn't think of a way to haul "Likes baked beans 2d8" into the narrative, but then you said:

In fact it was our blind pursuit of victory that actually killed Tom.

Uh, yeah. Yeah. I begin to see. Escalating allows you to improve your chances of success, but at the expense of potentially greater costs. Whereas walking away means you lose the stake, but minimise the personal consequences. That's pretty neat.

In fact that's pretty startlingly neat.

I still have serious issues with "trait stuffing" and "random walk escalation" as suspension of disbelief breakers, but this may just be a personal style thing -- e.g. Mike indicated that when GMing he doesn't want to be too strict for fear of stifling innovative play.

Please be patient... I think the enlightenment train is now approaching the station but it still has a way to go.

(Random and unexplored thought on the "random walk escalation" problem: in terms of DitV mechanics, one might make a rule that one can only escalate using the same or higher dice type. E.g. once you've deployed d8s, you can no longer grub for d6s or d4s. Or perhaps better, apply a similar rule to fallout dice -- once anybody has used a d6 fallout attack (e.g. fisticuffs) you can escalate only to things that cause d8 or d10 fallout (e.g. Three In Authority or gunplay) -- but this might be hard to mix with relationship or other non-physical escalation. Hey, Ivan, way to drop from the intellectual and philosophical plane to grungy ol' dice mechanics.)

Luke said...

Another interesting point is that a d4 is actually seen as a bad thing, though we were treating it as a good thing. This confused me for a while. Surely a d4 is better than no die.

However, the problem with a d4 or invoking a trait to generate a d4 is that it will provide the constant temptation to See in a way which causes Fallout or the Raise in a way which allows the opponent to Reverse the Blow.

For example you have 2 and 4. You are Raised 9 by the opponent. Normally you would have to fold. You have a 2d4 relationship (which is meant to emulate a poor or even negative relationship). You decide to invoke the relationship anyway and get a 2 and a 3.

Your dice are now 2, 2, 3 and 4. So now you can See with 2, 3, 4 and suffer some Fallout. You are then left to Raise with a 2 only. This is easy for the opponent to See with just 1 dice, allowing him to Reverse the Blow.

I haven't quite got my mind around it but d4 traits and relationships do provide you with more options but these options are often bad for the PC. Like the conflicts, traits seem to be judged on more than one axis.

To give a final example, Cutter invoked his poor relationship with Tom (d4) in both the fight and the heal check. I can't remember the actual results but will be keep an eye on them next time.

However, I think that the result was that despite a very small improvement in helping Tom, it came at a great cost. I do remember Mike Reversing the Blow in the heal roll because my 1st Raise was so small (I used the d4 relationship dice). This actually made Tom sicker to begin with and was a good example of how my mixed feeling for Tom made it harder for me to really care whether he survived. In reality, this probably should have been adjudicated as I healed him but I didn't set his ribs correctly (because I didn't care enough) or something.