People Who Don't Like Dogs In the Vineyard: Anonymous

by Dan H

Dan forgets, for the moment, that this isn't actually an RPG site.
Those of you who keep up with trends in the modern Indie RPG industry will probably have heard of a game called Dogs in the Vineyard by a man who goes by the unlikely name of D Vincent Baker. Those of you who don't keep up with trends in the modern Indie RPG industry, well to be honest you probably won't understand very much of this article.

Dogs in the Vineyard has received a large amount of not-wholly-undeserved praise directed primarily at its innovative dice mechanics and its refreshing approach to the way moral issues are confronted in the medium of a roleplaying game.

A lot of people I know really, really like this game. Pretty much everybody on the internet really really likes this game. I've played it, I've read it, I've really tried to get to grips with it, but:

Hello, my name is Dan, and I Don't Like Dogs In The Vineyard.

It's not the setting. I absolutely love the setting (such as it is), the idea of playing wild west Mormon inquisitors is pretty damned cool, and going from town to town laying the righteous smackdown on the prideful, the sinner, and the sorcerer while dressed in a patchwork greatcoat is pretty damned cool.

The things that really bug me are the system, and the philosophy which might or might not underly the system. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the sort of thing I'm talking about would be to provide some salient quotes. Let's take this, from the section of the introduction entitled "What's it like to Play?"
"It may seem odd at first, but the rules are there to support you and make it easy. I can't wait to show you the dice in action! And the payoff is terrific blood, passion, judgement, fire. Real, gripping drama all the way around the table." D. Vincent Baker, Dogs in the Vineyard, p7

Now, those of you that pay attention to the Indie RPG scene are probably aware that "System Does Matter!" is something of a rallying cry for the movement. That being the case, maybe it isn't so surprising that D. Vincent chooses to open his book with a paean to his dice mechanics, but really: "I can't wait to show you the dice in action"? Unless they strip or juggle or something they're just not going to be that impressive. Also: perhaps I'm being a bit too British here, but as a customer, I rather think it's my job to say whether the payoff in this game is terrific or not.

This little bit of gushing sets the tone for much of the rest of the book, Baker keeps lapsing into this fanboyish prose style that makes you feel like you've been cornered at a party by an overenthusiastic geek who won't stop telling you about his homebrew system. And haven't we all been there. (Hell, let's be honest, haven't we all been the overenthusiastic geek).

But to be honest, I could forgive all that, after all there's nothing wrong with a bit of enthusiasm. The problem is that, in my opinion at least, Dogs in the Vineyard seriously fails to deliver on the above promises. Later in the introduction, Baker describes in more detail what the system is supposed to deliver. He tells us that:
"The game's rules' job is to help you, the GM, reveal the pride, sin and corruption in the towns you create ... they work a) by helping you create congregations in turmoil, then b) by seizing conflicts and relentlessly escalating them, then c) by bringing the consequences back home to the players."
D. Vincent Baker, Dogs in the Vineyard, page 9

The problem is that the rules do precisely none of these things. Okay, that's unfair. They do, in fact, help you create congregations in turmoil, but no more than any other game with a moderately detailed setting will. Where the game particularly fails, however, is in "seizing and escalating conflict." This flaw in the game is particularly insidious because "conflict" and "escalation" are real English words with subtle narrative implications, but they are also mechanical concepts in the game, with meanings which are almost but not quite totally unlike the actual narrative concept of an "escalating conflict".

This would not be a problem in and of itself, except that Baker persistently treats game mechanical "Conflict" and "Escalation" as being identical to, and adequate substitutes for, the genuine escalation of a meaningful conflict.

For those who aren't familiar with the way it works, "Conflict" in Dogs in the Vineyard, like in most RPGs which use a conflict resolution system, essentially means "the character is trying to do something which might not work" and "Escalation" is defined on an extremely rigid scale (verbal, physical non-violent, physical violent, gunslinging). This is exacerbated by advice which encourages the GM to push for small stakes in any given "Conflict" making a DitV "Conflict" much more similar to an ordinary RPG "Task" than to anything resembling a meaningful component of a story.

I should probably take a step back here, since I've not really defined my terms hugely well. I haven't actually said what I think "conflict" and "escalation" mean outside the context of the Dogs in the Vineyard core rulebook. Part of the reason for this is that I genuinely don't know. Contrary to what various internet pundits might have you believe, the essential elements of narrative are not easy to define, either in general or in terms of a roleplaying game. If forced to try, I would probably define "conflict" as a tension between two opposed forces or concepts which provides the central drive of a story, and "escalation" as the increasingly extreme acts to which the conflict drives the participants.

The DitV rulebook never directly defines its use of the word "conflict." It seems to use it to mean "situation in which the outcome is uncertain". Examples given for suitable conflicts include "does your brother kill this woman," "do you outshoot the shooting instructor," "do you learn to ride" and "do you get murdered in your bed." They are all, in short, situations in which your character is trying to do something difficult and might fail. This seems, to me, to be functionally identical to every roleplaying game I have ever seen. Actually, there's an awful lot in Dogs which is functionally identical to every roleplaying game I have ever seen. Take, for example, its "relentless escalation" of conflict.

The system in DitV is heavily focused on this concept of "escalation". You start off having a conversation, then somebody shoves somebody else, then somebody throws a punch, then somebody pulls a gun. Now to give the game its due, it does produce exactly those sorts of situations: an argument turns into a fistfight which turns into a gunfight. Once again, though, this is exactly the same as every other roleplaying system I have ever encountered. The difference is that in Dogs the escalation is forced by the system, )you have to pull a gun in order to get more dice in your pool), while in a regular RPG the escalation is caused by the sorts of things that actually cause conflicts to escalate in real life (one approach to a situation has failed so we try another, more extreme approach). Because in Dogs shooting somebody is game mechanically identical to talking to them (and indeed, if you started off talking, your interlocutor gets to keep all of his "talking" dice) escalation doesn't really feel like escalation, it feels like a game mechanic. By contrast in a regular RPG pulling a gun actually invokes a whole different set of game mechanics: you literally take the conflict into a different arena.

In other words, I actually think that the conflict-resolution mechanic in DitV provides less drama, less blood, fire, and passion, than a regular RPG task resolution system.

The third claim Baker makes for his mechanics is that they "bring the consequences back home to the players." They do this by the means of "Fallout Dice". This bit is kind of fiddly, so I'll quickly summarise the DitV dice mechanics:

Everybody involved in the "conflict" rolls a number of dice determined by their stats. The initiator of the conflict then "raises" with two of his dice. Everybody affected by that "raise" has to "see" by using dice from their pool the sum of which at least equals the initial "raise." If you use one die to see you "turn the blow" which is good for you, if you use two dice you "Block or Dodge" and if you use three or more dice you "take the blow" which means you take "Fallout". This last concept "Fallout" is what Baker calls "bringing the consequences back home to the players." The problem is that it doesn't.

When your character "takes the blow" you, the player, describe what happens. Does a cutting barb give you a moment's pause? Does a bullet catch you full in the chest? However, you don't actually roll for Fallout until after the conflict is over, so you don't actually know of that bullet is going to kill you, or just graze you a little until well after you describe the hit.

Fallout can do a number of things to your character and you, the player, get to pick exactly what the effects are (it needs to be something appropriate, and it would be churlish to point out that you could deliberately choose ludicrous consequences in order to make the game seem absurd). Fallout can manifest in a number of ways, you can have your stats reduced, you can lose your gear, or you can gain new Traits or new Relationships rated at 1D4 which Baker, incorrectly, believes to be a bad thing. If you take enough Fallout, you might die, although in practice this usually only happens with guns.

Now I can see two major problems with the Fallout system. The first is small, and you can legitimately overcome it by playing the "it's not that sort of game" card. The first problem is that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever not to take the 1D4 trait or relationship as your Fallout. Contrary to what D. Vincent Baker might think, the way the dice mechanics work rolling a D4 while less good than rolling a D6 or a D10 , is better than rolling no dice at all. Since there is no limit on the number of dice you can roll, and no limit on the number of traits you can bring into play in a single raise, and no way to force somebody to roll one trait instead of another, it's always better to have a trait than not to. Furthermore, Traits are always going to be the easiest types of fallout to justify, because a Trait can be anything. If you get shot up real bad, then you can get an "I got shot up real bad" trait. If you get made to feel momentarily guilty by a particularly articulate townsperson you can get a "moment of guilt" trait.

Now if you take too much fallout, things stop being so much fun, your character can get seriously injured or die. Just like wait for it just like in every other roleplaying game you have ever played! The system for PC death in DitV is, contrary to what D. Vincent Baker might think, not much different to the system in any other RPG. It is true that in DitV a character never "takes the blow" unless he chooses to, he can always "Give" on the conflict, but again the same is true in any other RPG, it's the players that choose to start fights, that choose to tick off guys with guns. Furthermore, the GM in Dogs in the Vineyard is absolutely within his rights to introduce a conflict in which the stakes are "does your character get killed?" making the "Fallout is optional" thing rather academic.

Again, this might be best illustrated with an example, from the example "Ambush." What's at stake in this conflict is apparently "do you get murdered in your bed." Here is what D. Vincent Baker has to say:
"My first raise will be to hit you in the head with my axe, I get my Axe dice too! I'm rolling a lot more dice than you, so you'll probably have to Take the Blow. But check it out that means you take Fallout and you get to say how, it doesn't mean you're dead. You aren't dead unless the whole conflict goes my way." D. Vincent Baker, Dogs in the Vineyard, p89

Except that he's wrong. Well, he's not exactly wrong, but he's forgotten two quite important things about the way his dice mechanics work. Firstly, he's forgotten that since the axe-wielding maniac has started with a huge advantage, the conflict actually is fairly likely to go his way, which will kill the character. Heck, if the axe-wielding maniac had rolled really well, the player might have been unable to See the initial Raise, and might have just had his head cut off. Secondly, assuming the guy did, in fact, Take the Blow, he will be taking at least 3D8 in Fallout, probably more, which means he is actually extremely likely to wind up with a potentially fatal injury anyway.

As if his persistent failure to actually understand his own game mechanics wasn't enough, he then rounds the example out with this little gem:
"In most roleplaying games, saying "an enemy sneaks into your room in the middle of the night and whacks you in the head with an axe" is cheating. I've hosed the character and the player with no warning and no way out. Not in Dogs, though: the resolution rules are built to handle it. I don't have to pull my punches! (You've GMed a lot of RPGs before, right? Think about what I just said for a minute. You know how you usually pull your punches?)" D. Vincent Baker, Dogs in the Vineyard, p89

Leaving aside the fact that any sentence which begins "in most roleplaying games" is always going to be a pile of toss, the resolution rules in Dogs are not remotely built to handle people being murdered in their beds, because a massively important aspect of the system is the ability to Give on a conflict, to say "no, this isn't worth taking an axe in the head over." The Ambush doesn't give the player that option.

Also, once again, Dogs in the Vineyard is doing nothing that you can't do in an ordinary RPG. It still boils down to "succeed at this dice roll or series of dice rolls, or you die" and if the GM doesn't "pull his punches" killing the PC with this kind of ambush would be trivially easy: he's got Body 5, Heart 5, the axe is Big and Excellent, he's got the Axe-Wielding Maniac trait at 1D10, the Stealthy trait at 2D8 and so on. The only reason the player character could survive this kind of encounter would be because the GM made it easy for them. You can do exactly the same thing in D&D: the Orc sneaks into your bedchamber, make a DC 15 Listen check to hear him, if you don't hear him he'll need to make a normal to hit roll against an AC of 10, then he'll just do standard damage for his weapon, which any moderately experienced Adventurer will survive easily, then you wake up and can begin to fight normally.

In an ordinary game, having a PC ambushed in their sleep puts them at a large disadvantage. In Dogs in the Vineyard having a PC ambushed in their sleep puts them at a large disadvantage.

And indeed, the closer I've looked at Dogs in the Vineyard, the less and less I can see in it that is actually different to a regular RPG. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin comes from the "Actual Play" example at the back. I won't give the full quote, because it's very long, but what it boils down to is this: there was a problem in a town (the Branch Steward was having an affair with a member of his congregation who was actually in love with somebody else, this was a violation of doctrine that let the demons into the town, hilarity ensued). The players came to town, investigated, and came up with a solution (they packed the Steward off to Bridal Falls City, lied to his congregation about why they were doing it, and set up the girl with the guy she was after). On the way they fought a couple of possessed people. Now admittedly, I'm not reproducing the whole account, and admittedly, I'm being a little flippant in my presentation, but let's just go back to "What The Game Is Like" again: "Blood, passion, judgement, fire. Real, gripping drama all the way around the table" is what we were promised, but the end result seems to look an awful lot like every RPG I have ever been in.

One last quote to seal the deal, from the end of the Actual Play section. This is a quote-within-a-quote, in which D. Vincent Baker describes to us how his players described that session to him after the game:
"Later Tom wrote to me and said "Yeah, your description implied she was only doing it because he was the Steward, and it was cast specifically as 'Brother Malachi is abusing his position`, so it was a pretty natural progression." In fact, in my description, all I'd done is emphasise that he wasn't raping her. Meg and Tom between them had judged Brother Malachi so immediately and so viscerally that his guilt was objective and foregone. And then they lied to the whole congregation to protect a possible future between Avigail and Jonas! Isn't that fascinating? And unbelievably cool? Friend, that's why I play this game." D. Vincent Baker, Dogs in the Vineyard p145

Now there's a whole lot of things here which I find interesting.

Notice that Tom's description of events differs considerably from D. Vincent's. D. Vincent says that Meg and Tom (the players) "Judged Brother Malachi immediately and viscerally." The way Tom describes it, however, it sounds a lot more like he and Meg had just tried to work out what the GM wanted them to do. "Your description implied she was only doing it because he was the Steward" says Tom. Nothing Tom says implies to me that he felt empowered to pass judgement on the NPCs in any way other than one sanctioned by the GM at the start of the game. Nothing implied he was doing anything at all pro-active. The players were presented with a situation by the GM, they investigated the situation the GM presented, and then they took the solution that they felt the GM was leading them towards.

Occasionally, I wonder if my issues with Dogs in the Vineyard are a sign that I'm not capable of dealing with "modern" RPG mechanics, if I can't get over the fact that "I'm a really crappy shot: 1D10" actually makes you better with a gun than "I'm a really good shot: 1D6", or if I chafe at the idea that the consequences of PC actions might be player-controlled and largely positive. In reality, though, it isn't that at all. What bothers me about Dogs in the Vineyard is the very conventionality of it. Sure your character might have traits like "I'm nervous around women" or "I can't shoot straight", but you still achieve your in-character goals (which the game still assumes are identical to your out-of-character goals) by succeeding at in-character actions. You still have to worry about getting killed if somebody fires a gun at you, and judging by the actual play, you still basically run around investigating stuff and trying to work out how to solve arbitrary problems.

And that, Friend, is why I don't play this game.

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