Comments on Dan H's People Who Don't Like Dogs In the Vineyard: Anonymous

Dan forgets, for the moment, that this isn't actually an RPG site.

Comments (go to latest)
Jen Spencer at 15:48 on 2007-03-29
How did you feel about Care Bears in the Vineyard?
Wardog at 15:51 on 2007-03-29
Care Bears in the Vineyard sounded WELL COOL - I think the problem is the game is inherently pretty exciting, it's just the system doesn't support it. I have to play Dogs at some point. At the moment I'm just voicing randomness.
Dan H at 11:01 on 2007-04-02
Care Bares in the Vineyard was cool, but it highlighted a lot of the issues with the system. Instead of thinking to myself "What would my character do in this situation" I was thinking "how can I use my 'Obscurantism' trait". Similarly, I didn't escalate conflicts because I cared about them in character, I escalated conflicts as an alternative to taking Fallout. It was all good fun, but it wasn't "Blood, fire, judgement: real gripping drama all the way around the table."
I stumbled across this article looking for somthing else,but it makes me wonder if you ever revisited this game?

From my perspective, as someone that still loves this game and ranks it as one of the best, you appear to be viewing the game text through a distorted lens. Where you see a game that doesn't actually depart from standard games and does things strangely, I see a game that rarely if ever overlaps with my more traditional gaming background and does things elegantly.

I agree the text of the game is rubbish. The style is just outright annoying and it actually serves to obscure some of the game's basic procedures. For example the escalation rules you describe are not correct but ninety percent of readers of the text make the same mistake. They assume escalation to be only one direction from talking to gunfire when you can escalate from any arena to any other. This is a problem with the text, it needs a total rewrite in my opinion.

Anyway, my comments are not aimed at converting you, more wondering if you even looked at the game again?
Orion at 14:22 on 2015-03-16
This game does have one or two nice features that conventional/old school RPGs don't. The big one, for me, is the ability to play out one "conflict" to settle something that another game would model as a huge number of discrete actions or not model at all. In Dungeons & Dragons, sneaking through an enemy camp requires some arbitrary, unknowable, and likely very large number of hide and move silently checks. Fights with multiple participants grind through hideous numbers of die rolls. Whether a character learns a new skill is either deterministic or by fiat. It's genuinely awesome to have a game where "can I infiltrate the enemy camp?", "can I beat up the gang of thugs?", and "can I learn to ride?" are able playable "conflicts."

Unfortunately, Dogs isn't the only game that does this; lots and lots of indie games do, including better games from the same designer. Dogs isn't your only option for that feature, and it's not even a good option. Whatever gains in speed of play you might hope to gain from reducing "fight the gang of thugs" to one conflict, you lose when you realize that resolving a single conflict may require an absurd number of operations, and that the game actually encourages players to drag out every damn scene by rewarding the mechanically for filibustering. If you just keep changing the topic frequently enough to touch on everything in your backstory, you will eventually roll all the dice on your sheet and win. Make sure to carry a bag full of weapon, swing each one once, then drop it and grab the next one.
Arthur B at 15:51 on 2015-03-16
This game does have one or two nice features that conventional/old school RPGs don't. The big one, for me, is the ability to play out one "conflict" to settle something that another game would model as a huge number of discrete actions or not model at all. In Dungeons & Dragons, sneaking through an enemy camp requires some arbitrary, unknowable, and likely very large number of hide and move silently checks. Fights with multiple participants grind through hideous numbers of die rolls. Whether a character learns a new skill is either deterministic or by fiat. It's genuinely awesome to have a game where "can I infiltrate the enemy camp?", "can I beat up the gang of thugs?", and "can I learn to ride?" are able playable "conflicts."

To be fair, I think a certain amount of the above either comes to received wisdom in terms of refereeing and/or designing adventures for D&D rather than the actual written rules, a certain amount comes down to the axiomatic assumptions of the rules, and a certain amount is orthogonal to D&D's concerns. To break down each of your examples:

- I am not aware of any edition of D&D which specifies hard and fast rules requiring heaps of rolls to infiltrate the enemy camp. In fact, I'd say that in most recent editions I'd say that good DMing practice would involve just setting a single difficulty level for that and having the character make the appropriate roll, unless you wanted to do something like have an onion layer-type setup, where the deeper the PC penetrates the more beneficial stuff they get out of the infiltration but the greater the danger they are in if they're caught. The latter case is the sort of thing which the extremely binary setup of Dogs is ill-suited for, whereas a game like D&D can handle that more granular situation by adjusting the target number or applying penalties to die rolls accordingly. (Of course, in an investigation-and-espionage themed game, resolving the infiltration of an enemy base in a single die roll would miss the entire point of play, much as rolling "do you defeat the dungeon?" as a single conflict would ruin old-school dungeon crawling.)

- Fights typically requiring an extended series of die rolls to resolve is a specific game design decision. In general, the more rolls you make to resolve any particular fight in a game, the more likely it is that stronger enemies will beat weaker enemies and superior tactics will overcome inferior tactics, because whilst a single roll here or there may be a fluke over time a series of rolls will tend towards the average. Conversely, if a conflict is resolved in a single (or very limited number) of die rolls, suddenly blind luck becomes a much greater factor and flukey results are more common.

The former is better for a game which emphasises clever tactics on the part of the players and rewards efforts made to stack the odds on their part before combat is joined (and, indeed, to encourage players to back down from or avoid combats where the odds are clearly against then). The latter is better for a game where a sudden reversal of fortune could happen to anyone, there's only so much massaging of the odds you can do, and entering combat is always highly risky. It isn't really a flaw of D&D that it chooses to be the former sort of game rather than the latter and then makes appropriate design choices to implement that.

- Learning new skills is the sort of thing which the assumed timescale of a D&D adventure doesn't really allow for and tends to be kept for downtime. "Do I already know how to ride?" as a related question can come up and is, as you say, either deterministic or based off fiat, though at the same time pretty much every RPG session you'll encounter includes a bunch of details which are at least deterministic or based off fiat; for instance, the design of a Dogs adventure is largely deterministic on the part of the referee, and so far as I can recall you can't use a conflict in Dogs to actively contradict a fact about the gameworld the GM has already established.

To a large extent, though, pretty much any conflict in any RPG can be reduced to a single roll: simply get the group's agreement that nobody particularly cares to spend a lot of time on this matter and have someone make an appropriate roll using the game's typical action resolution system and an appropriate difficulty level. Boom, done.
Orion at 17:50 on 2015-03-16
I've played and run D&D 3.5 extensively. I'm coming to that conversation as an outsider or as a detractor; I would say that D&D 3.5 is one of the best RPGs ever made. One of the assets of third edition D&D was that it had actually quite detailed rules for a number of things, which made it substantially less subject to fiat ruling than almost any other system. Unfortunately, some of those rules simply don't work, but are still explicit enough to seem binding. Stealth and perception are probably the most egregious examples. If you want to creep past a room with 5 guards in it, then you'll be making a hide and move silently check, and the DM will be rolling 5 spot and 5 listen checks. As you go through the complex, it's not really clear whether and when you need to roll more hide checks, but it is clear that the DM is rolling dice for every observer. That's both extremely time-consuming and extremely deterministic. I've both played in and run games where we played it this way, but it resulted in everyone choosing to not use those skills very often. You certainly could choose to bypass those rules entirely and let someone make a single roll (hide? move silently? one of each?) to learn some arbitrary information, in the sense that you could do anything your group agrees will improve their experience but that's really a level of divergence from the explicit rules that I think it passes beyond "adjudication" to become "changing the rules."

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a game that provides for complex tactics and in which resolving combat is intended to be time-consuming because it's intended to be enjoyable. I like that kind of game, so I play a lot of D&D. There also ought to be games where fights can be resolved relatively quickly in order to get back to the action. That's an obvious idea that few games have really delivered on, so I think it's worth taking note of when someone does pull it off. Most games that are supposed to be "less combat oriented" end up like Vampire, where fighting is about as complicated as in D&D but much stupider.

Although I want to reduce reliance on fiat, it's not because I have any great distrust of GMs. You're quite right to note that the conflict rules in Dogs actually do very little to tie the GM's hands, and players still can't easily swim "against the stream" of the GM's intentions. I like rules that cut down on fiat because reliance on fiat actually imposes a cost on the GM as well as on the players. It's better to outsource as much decision-mkaing to the dice as possible, so that the GM can spend more of their attention and creativity on the bits that are most important to them. Rolling dice, even for something basic like "is my character a good rider," may well generate a more interesting answer than anything the player OR the GM would have come up with on their own.

Again, I wouldn't recommend actually playing Dogs. You really don't have to look far to find a better game; even Vincent's following project, Apocalypse World, has almost all the upsides and only some of the downsides; I just do think the folks who found it new and exciting were onto something.
Arthur B at 18:29 on 2015-03-16
I've played and run D&D 3.5 extensively. I'm coming to that conversation as an outsider or as a detractor; I would say that D&D 3.5 is one of the best RPGs ever made.

Sure, but equally it seems odd to compare D&D to a game which isn't trying to do what D&D is trying to do when there's ample other games that came before Dogs which tried to do what it tries to do to varying levels of effectiveness.

Unfortunately, some of those rules simply don't work, but are still explicit enough to seem binding. Stealth and perception are probably the most egregious examples. If you want to creep past a room with 5 guards in it, then you'll be making a hide and move silently check, and the DM will be rolling 5 spot and 5 listen checks. As you go through the complex, it's not really clear whether and when you need to roll more hide checks, but it is clear that the DM is rolling dice for every observer.

FWIW, 5E has made this very elegant - the skill list has been greatly rationalised so you just have a flat "Stealth" skill, and observers have a "passive perception" score which is effectively the DC required to sneak past them, so to sneak past 5 guards you just roll Stealth and see if you can beat the best passive perception score amongst them.

You certainly could choose to bypass those rules entirely and let someone make a single roll (hide? move silently? one of each?) to learn some arbitrary information, in the sense that you could do anything your group agrees will improve their experience but that's really a level of divergence from the explicit rules that I think it passes beyond "adjudication" to become "changing the rules."

This may be where our differing experience of D&D comes into play; I've tended to avoid 3.5 precisely because of the preponderance of explicit rules that previous editions didn't need and subsequent editions have quite effectively streamlined (though 4E and 5E make very different decisions about just what to streamline).

It's better to outsource as much decision-mkaing to the dice as possible, so that the GM can spend more of their attention and creativity on the bits that are most important to them.

What if decision-making (as a whole or on specific subjects) is the part that is actually important to the GM?
Orion at 20:12 on 2015-03-16
Stealth is always a tricky case to end up debating, because it's an extremely hard design problem that almost no designer has ever gotten right. It's especially difficult to discuss because it's a classic case where players (here including game masters) tend to skim the relevant sections and assume it said something that made sense to them, rather than engaging with what's there. For example, this:

observers have a "passive perception" score which is effectively the DC required to sneak past them, so to sneak past 5 guards you just roll Stealth and see if you can beat the best passive perception score amongst them.

Is just wrong. The sidebar on page 60 says that you can use Stealth to hide from anyone whose passive perception you can beat, but it also says twice that you will be revealed if you make noise. There's no rule given for for being quiet. Because the language is focused on the sneaking character ("if you make noise, you give away your position") rather than on the perceiving character ("you may be detected if an nearby creature can hear you"), I think the most defensible reading would be to default back to the general-case for skill use, where the DM assigns a DC based on the perceived difficulty of the task. So, if the orc guards have 12 perception, you may only need to roll a 12 on stealth to hide from them, but actually getting past them might require a DC 20 (hard) "creep through piles of dead leaves" check. It's not clear whether this would be the same die roll or a second roll, although let's be charitable and assume that they want you to do it the reasonable way (with one roll).

It seems so obvious that there should be a "beat the guards' passive perception to sneak past them" rule somewhere that it's easy to assume it must be there, but it's just not. The plain text of page 60 tells you that stealth is the skill you would use "slink past guards," but not what you would need to roll. Page 69 says that if you beat the enemy's passive perception, you can surprise them in combat, but it doesn't say that you could avoid the combat instead. There actually is no rule empowering a PC to do any kind of scouting, burglary, or infiltration.
Arthur B at 20:57 on 2015-03-16
I think you are either cherry-picking a lot from the sidebar on page 60 or using an out-of-date version of the basic rules PDF - on the current version, at least, the full text paints a very different picture.

On making noise, it specifically clarifies making noise as doing something like knocking over a vase or shouting a warning; it also says you remain hidden as long as you are quiet, which is not the same thing as silent. In addition, contested rolls are only called for for any creature that "actively searches for signs of your presence" - there's a whole passive perception section which specifically states that passive perception is the DC to avoid notice by creatures who are not actively looking for you.

It's also manifestly untrue that there's no rule empowering a PC to do any sneaky stuff - on page 60 of the basic rules it specifically says "Make a Dexterity (Stealth) check when you attempt to conceal yourself from enemies, slink past guards, slip away without being noticed, or sneak up on someone without being seen or heard." "Slip away without being noticed" would allow avoidance of combat; "slink past guards" covers exactly the sort of situation we have been talking about.
Orion at 22:49 on 2015-03-16
I'm using the basic rules pdf, v 0.2, which I've just downloaded from the Wizards website today.

It's also manifestly untrue that there's no rule empowering a PC to do any sneaky stuff - on page 60 of the basic rules it specifically says "Make a Dexterity (Stealth) check when you attempt to conceal yourself from enemies, slink past guards, slip away without being noticed, or sneak up on someone without being seen or heard."

If all a game does is tell me what stat or skill would be relevant, I don't actually count that as a rule. I look at it this way: in a "no rules" freeform session, each PC can do whatever the DM feels it's reasonable for that PC to do. Assigning numbers to the PC's skills doesn't fix that by itself. If the DM is picking arbitrary DCs between 5 and 30, PCs can still only do whatever the Dm feels like it's reasonable for them to do. The main reasons we add rules are to give the players some ability to predict what their PCs are capable of, and something to appeal to if their ideas about the direction a scene should go are out of sync with the DM.

I understand that you feel 5E's stealth rules are more robust than that, and I'm interested in that discussion, but I think this is a sufficiently important point of method that it's worth discussing on its own.
Arthur B at 13:54 on 2015-03-17
I understand that you feel 5E's stealth rules are more robust than that, and I'm interested in that discussion, but I think this is a sufficiently important point of method that it's worth discussing on its own.

I think it is worth breaking this apart from the stealth discussion, not least because we've established that stealth in 5E doesn't use arbitrary DCs - the DC for avoiding the notice of someone who isn't actively looking for you is their passive perception, and someone who is actively searching gets to roll a contested Stealth-vs-Perception test with you.

The way I see it, any tabletop RPG boils down to an extended conversation between the referee and the players; this being the case I don't see "the PCs can only do what the DM feels it's reasonable for them to do" to be a problem, because the process of negotiating with the referee and convincing them to set a favourable DC or provide you with suitable bonuses to your roll and so on is a legitimate part of that conversation.

If anything, I would say that this capacity to negotiate with the referee is a necessary fix for the inflexibility of the rules, rather than inflexible rules being a defence against a hostile referee. If the outcomes you are getting in a game flies in the face of your understanding of your character's capabilities, that usually comes down to one of two problem:

- As regularly happens with White Wolf games, the fluff about what you're supposed to be able to accomplish with a particular skill level doesn't really map to your chances of success according to the rules as written.
- The referee themselves has a decidedly different picture of your character's capabilities than you do.

Detailed rules to fall back on can solve the second problem if the system actually supports your vision for the character, but they can't solve the first problem, whereas loose rules combined with a referee open to negotiation can solve both problems.

Moreover, DCs fixed by the rules don't really solve the problem of referees using unfavourable odds to shut down player actions they aren't interested in, because the referee is still free to throw whatever opposition they like at the PCs, however unfair. (See, for instance, the axe-wielding night visitor Dan talks about in this article.) In a loose system a mean referee can just set the DC to hit a goblin at 30; in a tight system a mean referee just substitutes a more impervious monster in place of the goblin.

There is no rule-based solution to playing with someone that isn't fun to play with. You just chalk it up to experience and stop playing with them (or if they're a lousy referee but fun as a player, stop playing games where they are refereeing).
Orion at 22:04 on 2015-03-17
Let's set aside the hostile-referee case, because it's not that interesting. I do think that rule-driven DCs help there too (they make it more obvious that you're being set up to fail, and they give you the chance to succeed by doing something the MC didn't expect and thus didn't foreclose), but a bad ref still makes for a bad game.

So, let's assume a referee of good faith whose sensibilities are similar to that of the players. In fact, let's go to the opposite extreme -- suppose that every negotiation ends in complete agreement and that no one is dissatisfied with any of the rulings made. I want to argue that even in this case, mechanics that require negotiation imposes substantial costs. When you depend on the referee's adjudication, you don't know what you can do until you check with your ref. To do that, you need to get your ref's attention and they need to spend at least a moment of time considering it. If a combat scene or action scene is happening, that means you may not be able to decide your move in advance, because you may need to wait for your turn to come around so you can ask what DC your MC would set for some jump, or swim, or climb you may be considering. Outside of combat, when your group is making larger-scale plans, rule-generated DCs are even more beneficial for two reasons. First, as in combat, it just saves time if you know what you can do without having to ask. Second, more importantly, it saves you from screwing yourself over on what I like to call "implied tasks" or "secondary tasks." Basically, a primary task is something your character freely chooses to do. You can always ask the referee immediately before choosing it what your chance of success is. An implied task is a check you end up being forced to make because of an earlier choice. Implied tasks are dangerous because we rarely think to ask about them, and rely more on unstated assumptions.
Swimming is a great example of an implied task. If there's a rapid river below my character, and I'm thinking of trying to cross the river on a narrow beam, I'm probably going to ask how difficult a balance roll it would be. I'm less likely to remember to ask how difficult the swim roll would be if I fell in. In that situation, while my focus is elsewhere, I'm likely to just assume that my character can or can't handle the rapids and that my referee probably feels the same way. If I assume "can" and the ref doesn't feel the same way, I could get myself into trouble. On the other hand, if the DC for an armored human to stay afloat in rough water is something I can just look up, I would have already check whether my character can survive a dunk in the pool, and if my character cannot survive taking a dip, I would know that going in an be sure not to put myself in that situation.

Basically, I want to say that the downside of negotiating with your referee isn't the risk that you might not get your way, it's the time spend doing the negotiation.
Arthur B at 11:52 on 2015-03-18
I want to argue that even in this case, mechanics that require negotiation imposes substantial costs. When you depend on the referee's adjudication, you don't know what you can do until you check with your ref.

When you depend on static DCs set by the rules, you don't know what they are until you check with the ref. Sure, you might know that goblins have AC (whatever) as standard, but what if the goblins' wizard ally has enchanted their armour without you knowing it? In practice you always need to check what the current DC for a task is with the referee anyway because you don't have the same access to information the referee has except through discussion with the referee.

To do that, you need to get your ref's attention and they need to spend at least a moment of time considering it.

To do *anything* in an RPG you need to get the ref's attention and they need to consider it. What tabletop RPGs have you played where PCs can go off and do a whole bunch of shit by themselves without notifying the GM?

If a combat scene or action scene is happening, that means you may not be able to decide your move in advance, because you may need to wait for your turn to come around so you can ask what DC your MC would set for some jump, or swim, or climb you may be considering.

And again, because you don't know whether your jump would be impeded by an invisible wall, or your climb would be complicated by a grease spell on the cliffs, or whatever, you still need to check what the DC is even in games where those are set by the rulebook.

First, as in combat, it just saves time if you know what you can do without having to ask.

Except because you never know what hidden factors might be at work, you still need to ask in systems with rules-generated DCs anyway.

Swimming is a great example of an implied task. If there's a rapid river below my character, and I'm thinking of trying to cross the river on a narrow beam, I'm probably going to ask how difficult a balance roll it would be. I'm less likely to remember to ask how difficult the swim roll would be if I fell in. In that situation, while my focus is elsewhere, I'm likely to just assume that my character can or can't handle the rapids and that my referee probably feels the same way. If I assume "can" and the ref doesn't feel the same way, I could get myself into trouble. On the other hand, if the DC for an armored human to stay afloat in rough water is something I can just look up, I would have already check whether my character can survive a dunk in the pool, and if my character cannot survive taking a dip, I would know that going in an be sure not to put myself in that situation.

This seems to be a huge stretch. Why, exactly, is it more likely you will forget to ask "Just how swimmable just this river look anyway?" than it is for you to look up the "swimming in armour" rules in your rulebook?

For that matter, are you constantly looking shit up in the rulebook whenever you are called on to make a decision, including the DCs for failure conditions like falling off the beam into the river? I point-blank refuse to believe that this is faster than just checking with the GM.

Plus, yet again, you're assuming that you have a perfect knowledge of the situation which by definition the players in the typical GM-plus-players tabletop RPG format don't have. How do you know that the beam isn't polished with nigh-invisible grease? How do you know the river isn't an illusion?
Orion at 15:28 on 2015-03-18
For that matter, are you constantly looking shit up in the rulebook whenever you are called on to make a decision, including the DCs for failure conditions like falling off the beam into the river? I point-blank refuse to believe that this is faster than just checking with the GM.

It took me 2 minutes and 40 seconds to look up the following: Swimming in rough water is DC 15, and with the -7 armor check penalty for masterwork full plate, I would need a +12 swim bonus to automatically succeed by "taking ten." I'f I'm being shot at, I can't "take ten," but I won't actually sink unless I fail by 5, so if I have a +18 swim bonus I'm in no danger. Climbing a tree is DC 15, while climbing a generic dungeon wall is DC 25. Walking a 2-inch beam is DC 20, unless it's coated in invisible grease, in which case it's DC 25.

Suppose that the group wants to take out a fortified camp of enemy goblins. While the referee is describing the front walls, the gatehouse, and the visible defenders, it occurs to me that it might be a good idea to ignore the front gate and make a sneak attack by crossing the river and scaling the back walls. I can check the books to see whether that's something I would be able to do while another player is asking for more information on the the front of the fort, or negotiating with an NPC about acquiring equipment. If I decide it's a good idea, I'll still have to clear it with the referee, but if it looks impossible, I don't waste their time. If it does look doable, I can open talks with the referee like this: "Hey, the players handbook suggests that swimming rough water is DC 15, and climbing a dungeon wall is usually DC 20. Does "rough water" sound like a fair description of the conditions? Does my character have reason to believe the walls might be more difficult than that?"

How do you know that the beam isn't polished with nigh-invisible grease? How do you know the river isn't an illusion? I would say that this is a good time to remember that There is no rule-based solution to playing with someone that isn't fun to play with. You just chalk it up to experience and stop playing with them
Arthur B at 18:34 on 2015-03-18
It took me 2 minutes and 40 seconds to look up the following: Swimming in rough water is DC 15, and with the -7 armor check penalty for masterwork full plate, I would need a +12 swim bonus to automatically succeed by "taking ten." I'f I'm being shot at, I can't "take ten," but I won't actually sink unless I fail by 5, so if I have a +18 swim bonus I'm in no danger. Climbing a tree is DC 15, while climbing a generic dungeon wall is DC 25. Walking a 2-inch beam is DC 20, unless it's coated in invisible grease, in which case it's DC 25.

"What's the difficulty on swimming that river?"

"In your full plate? 22, and you won't be able to take ten because the goblins are firing at you".

This is an exchange which shouldn't take more than 10 seconds, and takes about as much time as saying the following:

"Based off the book, it looks like the DC for swimming that river should be 22 - I'm assuming I can't take 10 because of the goblins, right?"

"Right, and that DC sounds correct to me".

Don't get me wrong, in some types of game extensively nailed-down DCs can be an advantage, but I really don't buy that efficiency is one of those advantages. There's just as much scope to get into boringly drawn-out argument over hard and fast rules as there is over matters of GM fiat.

How do you know that the beam isn't polished with nigh-invisible grease? How do you know the river isn't an illusion? I would say that this is a good time to remember that There is no rule-based solution to playing with someone that isn't fun to play with. You just chalk it up to experience and stop playing with them

OK, but setting my arbitrary examples aside you'd agree that there are numerous reasons why a hidden variable might be at work in a game situation which you are not aware of but the GM is which doesn't necessarily equate to the GM being an arse, right? And even if it doesn't happen very much, the fact that you personally never know whether it's the case means that even in a fixed-DC system, you always have to check your DC figuring with the referee anyway - at which point you're spending just as much time talking to the referee as you would in a fiat-DC system.
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