Games You Should Be Playing: Dogs in the Vineyard

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Do you have what it takes to be God’s Watchdog in the West that never was?

That’s the question asked by Dogs in the Vineyard, a highly unusual roleplaying game. The players take the role of The King of Life’s Watchdogs, priests and judges who travel from town to town settling disputes, teaching the Faith and making sure no one is accidentally summoning demons.

A LAND OF BALM AND VIRTUE

“Dogs” has an incredible setting. It is a strange alternate history of the old west. Out in the plains of a land that may or may not be the U.S. Lies Bridal Falls, the cradle of the Faith. There the adherents of the one true religion praise The King of Life, the one true god. As keepers of The Faith the player characters are in charge of herding the faithful towards a righteous life, while treading carefully around the agents of the Territorial Authority, the actual legal officials of the country.

The setting spells plainly that The Faith is the only true religion, and people who do not follow it begin a spiral toward sinfulness and, eventually, demon worship. It is up to the players to identify those who have fallen into sin and take action, whether that action is redemption or execution depends on the story being woven by the group.

Now, at this point you may be thinking that this game is starting to sound like the negative-image of Dark Dungeons. Maybe you think that “Dogs” is doing what fundamentalists accused D&D of doing back in the early days of gaming. Is this some kind of ploy to trick you into becoming a God-fearing christian?

It’s really not.

This is a game that explores the nature of faith, obedience and trust. Just as you have to suspend your disbelief in your average fantasy game, Dogs asks you to immerse yourself in a world where adherence to the King of Life is the only way to save those that you have been charged to protect. The fictitious faith in this game is clearly meant to mirror Christianity but the Faith itself is not the focus of the game.

YOU ARE PLAYING IT RIGHT NOW

Ok, not quite, but the mechanics are very tightly woven into the whole experience. Dogs in the Vineyard features an absolutely inspired character creation system. You create your character as you play your first session, which culminates on a big life defining moment. Your character’s success or failure there will help to define him or her for the rest of the game. But don’t worry, failure’s a good thing.

The second amazing thing about the engine of Dogs in the Vineyard is that there is no such thing as bad stats. There are a lot of games out there that have systems for “Flaws”, that is to say inherent drawbacks that somehow impede your character, a trick knee, bad eyesight, nosy neighbors. Most games have a punishment/reward system for these. If your flaw flares up and hinders you, you are rewarded with experience points or something similar. Not so in DitV. A Dog who is “A Pretty Good Shot.” adds a bigger bonus than one who “Hates the sound guns make” but the latter still adds a situational bonus when guns are drawn, or can even apply that bonus to situations that do not involve gunplay as long as he is actively trying to stop people from firing a gun.

Also of note is an interesting focus on escalation. As towns descend into sin they go through steps starting with false dogma and ending in outright demonic possessions. These are actual marked stages that influence the stats of the game. Likewise altercations escalate mechanically from verbal arguments to deadly gunfights, each stage allowing players to showcase different traits they have generated for their characters.

(A) GOOD BOOK

The book itself is a beautiful little paperback. It looks like a small novel (so no one will make fun of you while you read it at the airport), the entire book is written as though D. Vincent Baker, the game designer, was having a pleasant conversation with you. It is an extremely enjoyable read even if you never plan to play it. The interior art is not very impressive, but the illustrations have a lithograph-like feel, and still add something to the general vibe of the book.

AN UNUSUAL GAME

Dogs in the Vineyard is not your standard RPG, it asks you to abandon a lot of the structure and cadence of more mechanical games, while also inviting you to immerse yourself in the strangely familiar mindset of The Dogs. If you’re looking for something beyond the battle grid, if you want to play a fictitious game with a historical feel, or if you just want to try out something new and different I strongly recommend that you track this little book down.