“It’s just HeroQuest minus the cardboard walls.”
Rob's back from vacation, so I pinged him on IM to catch up. I wanted to share my excitement about Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition which had arrived in his absence. Hes read it. He's less than impressed.
"What do you mean? It looks awesome,” I protest.
“It's just a tactical miniatures game now. They took out everything they gave Dungeons & Dragons that sense of place.” I'm forced to admit I agree with him.
“I guess I just see Fourth Edition on its own terms,” I explained. “I think it's very, very good at what it's trying to be.” In my head I can imagine running it for my inconstant group of teenagers. I know in my bones this will be easier. Faster.
Rob pauses. It's IM, so for all I know he's left the room. The pregnant pause of the white screen is unforgiving.
“Yes but it's not what I want to do when I'm playing an RPG," comes the final reply. "It lacks wonderment.”
For the moment the conversation drifts off into the unspoken continuance of the finished digital thought.
I close the IM session. I'm a bit hollow. A bit sad.
Standing up to stretch my legs, I walk over to the black lacquered bookshelf, its shelves sagging under the weight of untapped worlds. I flip thin paper pamphlets from right to left looking at poorly designed covers, reading spines. On the third sits a small library of indie RPG's.
I don't have a local group of grown-up storytelling RPG fetishists with whom to explore these games. To be honest, most of the folks I know whom I would peg as "storytelling RPG fans" I'm not all that inclined to hang out with. It's not that they're bad people. They just have an intensity and narrowness-of-focus which I find offputting. It's the same problem I have with most live-action role players. I get that uncomfortable feeling that if I offered them a martini the only outcome would be endless stories of their virtual exploits.
So my indie RPG shelf ends up being a library of possibility.
In the middle of that third shelf sits a slim tan-colored book: “Dogs in the Vineyard.” I bought it at GenCon 2005.
2005 was an off year in my life as a role-player. Half Life 2 was easily the game of the year, a game whose role-playing elements were a bit thin. You’re Gordon. Stand here and listen. My second favorite title that year was Guild Wars, a game I loved as much for the story and the cutscenes as for the combat. The one game actually labeled “RPG” that engaged me was Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich. In retrospect, these were three solid (losely defined) role-playing experiences, at least for video games. But they were someone else’s stories.
No matter how well constructed, every computer role-playing game I have ever played has been someone else's story. With the concept of RPG now firmly bolted to the delivery mechanism of MMO, this problem hasn't gotten any better. Static quest lines make it virtually impossible to truly affect an MMO world. Even the best MMO feels like a complex network of storytelling on rails. Yes, I know, there are alternatives. A Tale in the Desert. Second Life. Muds. But these fail Rob’s test: wonderment.
Which is why, in 2005, I was so excited about Dogs in the Vineyard.
Like the rest of the RPG's on shelf three, it’s text heavy, rules light, and short on pictures. But what Dogs does have is a highly detailed and wondrous world - an alternative Wild West unashamedly dominated by one true religion – The Faith. The conflicts which drive Dogs are about faith, authority, and the struggles of sin and justice on the frontier. Every character in the game is an anointed champion of the one true faith: a Dog. Every play session represents a visit by the circuit-court revivalist mailmen known as Dogs to a town on the frontier. Each story arc is an escalating exploration in speculative fiction. No hexes, no squares, no miniatures, no prefab modules. Everything created in collaboration with the GM, not just in conflict. It is both wide open and completely constrained. There are no elves or demons in corporeal form. There are people and faith in difficult times.
It’s 160 pages of a novel missing only a plot.
Dogs in the Vineyard is the best role-playing game I have never played. I’ve played it in my head a dozen times. I’ve written a review in my heart based on what I imagine it to be. It's what I hope for every time the shiny new computer RPG shows up, promising me an open world where my actions will matter. That I will not only receive a benediction of story, but deliver it.
I’m terrified to play Dogs in the Vineyard , and every other game on shelf three. I don't want to be wrong. I don't want to end of that first evening of Dogs in the Vineyard or Spirit of the Century or Primetime Adventures or that inspired indie RPG some college student will be selling at GenCon 2008. I’m crippled with fear that it will end with a group of five friends sitting uncomfortably, thinking self-consciously that all we’ve done is express our inner loser. That perhaps we shouldn't have just lived in the cardboard walls of HeroQuest after all.