Dogs in the Vineyard

“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.

Comments

Great call, rabbit. I've played Dogs a couple of times and I think it's a great RPG. It's definitely on a whole other tack from where D&D has gone and I don't doubt some long-term D&D players will have trouble approaching it. But it's not so out there that there's nothing in common.

If I was attending GenCon this year, I'd totally try to get a game going with you guys and some of the group from Story Games. Alas, maybe next year.

I've read Dogs and want to play it really badly. I've played Primetime, it's not too bad, but very chaotic. I'll play anything written by Clinton R. Nixon, I especially want to try Donjon.

I don't care if 4E is back to being more of a mini game, that's what it's always been best at, anyway. They've just finally embraced it and made a rules system that makes sense for it. If you want a "real" story-telling RPG, go buy something from White Wolf with a colon in the title, or find an indie game on the Forge that suits your fancy.

Mixolyde wrote:

I've read Dogs and want to play it really badly. I've played Primetime, it's not too bad, but very chaotic. I'll play anything written by Clinton R. Nixon, I especially want to try Donjon.

I actually played Dogs with Clinton. It was a terrific experience.

Rabbit, Sounds like you need to explore the possibilities a little.... Take a chance on one of the Indies on shelf 3. Let it fulfill your expectations. Carpe Gamem!

Quintin_Stone, you should come to Gencon this year and every year.... Even if you must beg the powers that be to get there. It can be 4 days of gaming bliss, with no distractions from home.... This year a few of us are pushing it to the limit. We are making it 5 days of gaming, with extra gaming stuffed into the front-side of the con. While the let down and sleep deprivation are tough the following week, it is definitely worth it.

Next year, cmitts, assuming it doesn't coincide with my sister's wedding...

Which it looks like it will. IMAGE(http://rps.net/QS/Images/Smilies/grumpy.gif)IMAGE(http://rps.net/QS/Images/Smilies/censored.gif)

I've completely given up on CRPGs being anything more than power-gaming (getting more and better stuff, and more and better abilities and skills, so you can keep up with killing more and better baddies), with some story trickled on like a no-fat vinaigrette. Even in games lauded for their deep storytelling, like Mass Effect and KotOR, I find myself focusing on fighting and leveling, and sometimes barely even reading or listening to the dialog. On the other hand, whenever I run a pen and paper RPG, it's all about the character interaction, the story, the moral choices and natural consequences of tough decisions.

It's been a while since I've run an RPG. Some of that is because, being in my early 40s, most of my friends are married, have kids, stressful jobs, and busy schedules. My one "hold out" friend is getting married later this summer, and despite the fact that his fiance seems very nice and open to gaming I know it's just a matter of time before the clamps come down and I see less and less of him.

There's something else, too, that seems to come with age (at least it has for me). I know that for some gamers, RPGs are an escape, but for me they were always a place to wrestle with important questions, to provide a way for people to engage in interesting and often emotional interactions with each other. I saw the potential of RPGs to do the same thing for gaming as Battlestar Galactica did for TV SciFi. When I was young, I had something to say (or at least I wanted to have something to say), and my one outlet for exploring my philosophy and ideas - for seeing them play out in some way that at least approximated real life - was RPGs. Now that I'm older and have had many more and much more varied experiences, I have less to say, ironically. My beliefs are far fewer and less certain than when I was young, and I have no energy left for wrestling with the Big Questions that mattered so much to me when I was a teenager, and so for me a big motivation for running and playing RPGs has faded. I feel like my options are to craft a stereotypical story with carboard people (which Fourth Ed seems to encourage, as a backdrop to the tactical combat), or to put the extra energy into something more story-driven that will probably end up being much ado about nothing. I have no interest in the former and no energy for the latter. In other words, I find that my middle age malaise, far from driving me to retreat into imaginary worlds, has actually sapped me of the desire to go there any more. It's a curious turn of events, but it does make sense when I think about it.

Anyway, if you're stoked about the game and can't wait to play it, then why not do it? You have to sieze the pleasures life offers you. Rob may be right about 4th Ed. But so what? It's your game and you can make it into whatever you want it to be. That's the beauty of RPGs - they are just frameworks for you to go and do wherever and whatever you want. If you want more story in your 4th Ed. sessions, the rulebooks can't stop you. The rulebooks are the special effects technical manuals, but it's still up to the writers and directors to make their movies come alive.

Miserere wrote:

Anyway, if you're stoked about the game and can't wait to play it, then why not do it? You have to sieze the pleasures life offers you. Rob may be right about 4th Ed. But so what? It's your game and you can make it into whatever you want it to be. That's the beauty of RPGs - they are just frameworks for you to go and do wherever and whatever you want. If you want more story in your 4th Ed. sessions, the rulebooks can't stop you. The rulebooks are the special effects technical manuals, but it's still up to the writers and directors to make their movies come alive.

I will indeed be using 4ed this way with my group of acne'd actors. There's nothing stopping me from that, and I do think I can bring the wonderment. But my fear for these hallowed books on the third shelf is complex, made more so by not having that group of RPG nuts nearby. My hope is to explore them a bit more in the coming year. The games. Not the nuts.

From reading what you've said there, I urge you to play Fallout 1 and 2.

Both are the ultimate experience (for me at least) in playing your own story in an RPG.

I remember that when I played it I would call my friends to discuss about our adventures and we'd get such different experiences, you'd think we were playing different games sometimes.

I especially remember this one time where I was fooled by a gang into attacking a village and I ended up killing everybody. I realized I was wrong too late. My friend on the other hand killed said gang instead.

You could pretty much meet with Jesus H. Christ in Fallout and shoot him in the groin if you felt like it.

There's just no boundaries (*almost)

Interstate - I've played both Fallouts, and loved each for their own specialness. And while part of my love for them is that sense of self direction, it ultimately still feels hollow and alone. I'm not sure it's actually possible, nor is it necessarily some goal, for the computer to completely replicate the tabletop experience, anymore than it can replicate any number of other real-world interactions.

The most awesome RPG experiences I have ever had have all pretty much come from playing Kult: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kult. The actual defined universe of Kult is very thin on the ground but the possibility for those people who have the imagination to truly get into it (and a GM with serious personal issues) have made this an awesome game for immersion and wonderment every time.

I'm totally up for playing some indie RPGs at PAX, even if it cuts into our 4th Ed. playing time.

Reading articles like this one make me sorry I don't live near the friends I used to game with in college. I moved an hour south for work...

rabbit wrote:

Interstate - I've played both Fallouts, and loved each for their own specialness. And while part of my love for them is that sense of self direction, it ultimately still feels hollow and alone. I'm not sure it's actually possible, nor is it necessarily some goal, for the computer to completely replicate the tabletop experience, anymore than it can replicate any number of other real-world interactions.

Ultimately any simulation is predictable. Its the same theory behind brute force cryptography attacks. Therefore, simulations always miss the 'human' element that helps tabletops so much.

rabbit wrote:

Interstate - I've played both Fallouts, and loved each for their own specialness. And while part of my love for them is that sense of self direction, it ultimately still feels hollow and alone. I'm not sure it's actually possible, nor is it necessarily some goal, for the computer to completely replicate the tabletop experience, anymore than it can replicate any number of other real-world interactions.

I've never played a videogame that can replicate the tabletop experience. I'm not saying one is better than the other; just that they are very different beasts and each has its own distinct strengths.

Were there more rules in earlier versions of DnD that encouraged "wonderment?" My experience is confined to 4e, so I don't get how reading the new rules conveys this as a lacking area from previous versions. That is to say, does one read the rules for saving throws, and then question where the wonderment went? Like miserere said, isn't that up to the players? How do rules facilitate this?

I think the point is that previous rulesets had more flavor, more variety, more little obscure nooks and crannies. Let me be clear that I think this was often as not a BAD thing, and I think that for my purposes 4e is a superior system. But it feels a bit less like nostalgic D&D and a bit more like generic well-made RPG system number 12.

We're just crotchety old men. I think it goes without saying that the storytelling always comes from the GM and the players, in the end. The difference between DnD and Dogs is one of intent. DnD is about conflict resolution and action and tactical combat. Dogs is about personal struggles and moral issues and stories for the sake of the stories.

I've been continuing to read up in my 4e books, and honestly, it'll be like D&D and other pen & paper rpg's have always been for me: a framework upon which a group is able to build whatever kind of experience they want. The rules and structure don't constrain us, they simply give us a base upon which to build.

And this is coming from a guy who was initially negatively disposed towards 4e.

McChuck wrote:

Were there more rules in earlier versions of DnD that encouraged "wonderment?" My experience is confined to 4e, so I don't get how reading the new rules conveys this as a lacking area from previous versions. That is to say, does one read the rules for saving throws, and then question where the wonderment went? Like miserere said, isn't that up to the players? How do rules facilitate this?

I think we all kind of get attached to our first experience with any series, more so with RPGs. It's kind of a mix of that first love kind of feeling, and the fact that breaking into the world of paper RPGs is a bit of a trial the first go round. AD&D 2nd Ed. will always have a special place for me because that was where I broke into the RPG world for the first time. The ones I picked up later were usually superior systems, but I never spent the same amount of time reading the manuals cover to cover, trying to figure out what really makes this thing work. When 3rd ed. came out I totally ignored it. It wasn't my D&D anymore. It was something new and unfamiliar, too shiny, too bright, and I had already invested too much time into 2nd ed rules to change anyways. Now I'm really pretty excited about 4th ed. because it's been long enough away from D&D in general that I can look at the rules on their own merits, and kind of separate myself from the experiences I had back when I was a lad. That being said I still peruse the bookshelf at the game store for any curios that could be an interesting read.

rabbit wrote:

We're just crotchety old men.

What? No. Nobody thinks you're old.

It's hard to deny that what I hear about 4th edition sounds more like World of Warcraft than previous editions. Get to the action, make it more accessible and "awesome". That said, listening to the Penny Arcade podcast where they actually ran a game, if their group had just added in more flavor text and more riddles/puzzles, it would have been very similar to my 3rd edition experiences. There's a give and take involved in this model, where in order to bring new players in, games have to reach out to folks who are used to video games and movies. At the same time, once they're in, the hope is that they branch out to Rabbit's 3rd shelf. It seems like that's the business model Wizards of the Coast is going for, and no doubt they believe that's also the cultural gaming model they hope to put in place.

Dogs in the Vineyard is a fantastic game, but it's not everyone's cup of tea. For two alternatives that might appeal to more traditional gamers, you should check out (Donjon creator) Clinton R. Nixon's Shadow of Yesterday [1] and (Dogs in the Vineyard creator) Vincent Bakers' In a Wicked Age [2]. They combine unique fantasy elements, some game crunch, and some story game elements.

[1] http://crngames.com/the_shadow_of_yesterday/
[2] http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/13/13669.phtml

I'd second In a Wicked Age -- I've been playing in a (viking-themed) drop-in campaign with that system over the summer, and it can be very enjoyable building up stories around certain characters (whilst being free to play one-off characters as well). Mind you, as with most narrative-oriented RPGs, it's particularly sensitive to its players.

Now of course most RPGs are to a degree, but a system-heavy game like DnD can force players with (ahem) less-than-desirable qualities into line in a fashion that makes them only occasionally irritable but still overall part of the fun. Narrative-oriented RPGs really require their players to get it in a way others don't. I've found In a Wicked Age to be particularly weak against scene-stealers, who interpret their abilities as being particularly strong and interfere constantly with other player's scenes.

Uh, vaguely on topic, I wouldn't worry about that 3rd shelf -- sometimes the possibilities exceed the actuality; in a way, you've already gotten your money's worth from Dogs in the Vineyard just dreaming about it (you didn't pay too much for it, did you...?).

One of the things that me and my group decided to do when the Dungeon Crawliness of many RPGs got to us was to eliminate XP altogether, making leveling up a part of the natural progression of the story instead of just a way to track how many monsters you've skewered ass-to-mouth with your blade. Once characters have no Specific incentive to kill every monster they come across, they are Usually forced to come up with deeper motivations for their characters, usually resulting in a more engrossing Role Playing experience for the group. Mostly.

The Ice Mother Campaign I'm currently running uses no XP and we're having a good time with it.

Also, I think its important (for me and my players at least) to do a few things before you start playing.

1) Have the players and DMs come up with the world they are playing in as a collaborative effort instead of the DM thrusting all the characters into his/her world. This helps give players a feeling that they really are part of the world that their characters are in. For instance in the Ice Mother Campaign, one of my players helped me craft the frozen world in which, really, only one god exists, and those who do not worship her are heretics, heathens, or demon worshipers.

2) Help the players to come up with their character concepts in twos or threes as opposed to by themselves. This helps to alleviate that awful feeling some players get when you've got the Rainbow Coalition of races and classes meeting at an Inn and all of a sudden forming a party. For those of us who have played a lot of RPGS' it can be a bit grating. In the Ice Mother Campaign, two of my players form a Tandem of High Priest and Harpooner, sworn to fufill the Church of the Ice Mother's noble goal of eradicating heresy in all forms. Having that built in bond and understand helps to direct the play a bit and leads to some interesting interactions with other players who DON'T share the bond.

3) Put limits on the campaign, or rules structures that force people to really think about the characters that they make. The Ice mother campaign was pretty focused in that regard. Everybody was human, no other races existed that weren't monstrous, The only "magic" that existed outside of the church or the northern barbarians shamanistic hoodoo was the evil sorcery gotten from pacts with demons, but those are all enemies.

4) Ignore the rules sometimes. For me, the things that make an RPG session special are the flares of personality that character show, in and out of combat. As a DM I always like to bend the rules in order to create a cinematic moment for a character or to let a risky plan the group came up with succeed.

All this being said, it pays to have people in your group willing to buy into a world concept and really flesh out their characters. I happen to have ONE person in my group of five who does this and while I wish I had more, I am grateful to have him there.

Benticore
Out

rabbit wrote:

We're just crotchety old men.

McChuck wrote:

What? No. Nobody thinks you're old.

Sorry McChuck, in my book, Rabbit qualifies as old and crotchety, especially crotchety! Rabbit may say I'm older, but that is just splitting hairs (Which by the way, I still have).

Benticore wrote:

Once characters have no Specific incentive to kill every monster they come across, they are Usually forced to come up with deeper motivations for their characters, usually resulting in a more engrossing Role Playing experience for the group. Mostly.

I don't know for sure when it was introduced, but I do know that D&D 3e moved away from the "XP for killing stuff" and presented it as a reward for overcoming obstacles, whether through violence or other means. Certainly the idea that XP is only rewarded for violence has been holding back RP games for years, in my opinion.

Benticore wrote:

1) Have the players and DMs come up with the world they are playing in as a collaborative effort instead of the DM thrusting all the characters into his/her world.

Of course sometimes you end up with situations like my Fallout campaign where the players decided to name their town "Lower Robo Squirreltonvilleshireburg 2049: The Meadows". This was after I vetoed Vaginatown. Don't even get me started on the time-traveling whale in our Universalis game.

Benticore wrote:

2) Help the players to come up with their character concepts in twos or threes as opposed to by themselves.

This is a huge factor to running character-oriented games. Definitely discourage characters being made in a vacuum.

I love the character creation rules in Dogs and Spirit of the Century.

I have only played Dogs a little bit but I love it.

If you want to add another really fantastic game to your pile of cool indie RPGs check out Houses of the Blooded. It is coming out this week-ish. I got to play it with the creator at a local gaming convention and it is very much the anti-D&D as he describes.

http://www.housesoftheblooded.com

edited to add link

The BEST non paper RPG out there right now, for my money, is Etrian Odyssey, for the DS Lite.

It is so story light and setting heavy, that you can totally put your own story in there, and even reinforce it with gameplay. Also, you can beat the first one, and get a password for the second.

rabbit wrote:

I love the character creation rules in Dogs and Spirit of the Century.

I'm anxiously awaiting our Dresden Files playtesting. It uses more or less the same Fate rules as SotC.

cmitts wrote:

Sorry McChuck, in my book, Rabbit qualifies as old and crotchety, especially crotchety! Rabbit may say I'm older, but that is just splitting hairs (Which by the way, I still have).

I've said it before. There needs to be a sarcasm font.

brightcrazystar wrote:

The BEST non paper RPG out there right now, for my money, is Etrian Odyssey, for the DS Lite.

I never played the first one, but I'm playing the second on my bus rides back and forth to work. It's a bit grindy, but really interesting and fun. Then again, I'm also a total nerd for maps.