Dogs in the Vineyard is a popular roleplaying game, published by Vincent Baker’s Lumpley Games. It won the Indie RPG of the Year and Most Innovative Game awards way back in the 2004 Indie RPG Awards. I’ll tell you all about it– but if you’re looking for multiple opinions, other gnome comments are scattered throughout.

So what are Dogs and what do they do?

The characters that the players make up are all Dogs. [No, not the animal.] Dogs is a convenient shorthand– they are officially members of the Order Set Apart to the Preservation of the Faith and the Faithful. With a mouthful like that, it’s no wonder people came up with nicknames for them.

The Dogs are an elite group of highly trained, divinely called characters. In a medieval setting they might have been Arthur’s Knights, but this is a western, so they are holy gunslingers. The Dogs are trained at the temple at the heart of the faith. When they graduate, they ride a circuit, visiting towns of the faithful and solving the problems that crop up. Some of those problems are traditional small town problems like jealousy and adultery, while others are the dark work of demonic cults and evil sorcerers. In either case, it’s up to the characters to investigate and solve the town’s problems, backed by all of the authority of their faith.

Patrick Benson writes: Dogs In The Vineyard is a fun game, and you will do yourself a favor by playing it at least once. The setting is built upon a sliding scale, so that the GM can have actual demons in the game or the characters in the game merely believe in demons. This sort of freedom can keep the game fresh if you decide to run multiple campaigns with it. One session is pure supernatural horror, and the next can be a psychological thriller where faith and desires collide. Be prepared though, because despite what the hype has been the game does not “tell you exactly how to GM it”. Yes, there is the “say yes or roll the dice” rule, but you need to keep tabs on the traits players come up with to make sure that the players are cooperating within the spirit of the game. A good min/maxer type of player will quickly exploit this type of system.

General Play

Players start by showing up to the table with only an appropriate character name and a sketchy concept. They discuss their characters and work through character creation together. Players assign pools of dice (based on character background and upbringing) to traits, skills and relationships. [This is something like a Shadowrun’s priority assignment system, where each set of abilities is assigned separately, and picking a background implicitly sorts the number and size of dice in each category.]

After those basics of character generation are complete, each character picks an accomplishment they’d like to achieve during their training at Bridal Falls City. This is like a mini-prelude for White Wolf games. The accomplishment is played out with the full conflict rules (save escalation by the GM). It’s a great chance to try out the conflict system– which is somewhat complex and very different from other RPGs– in a structured way. It does a good job of teaching the system and helps everyone to start seeing the likely outcomes when the dice hit the table.

With the characters established and cloaked in their coats, the Dogs ride from town to town. The setup is strongly episodic– each town is a new collection of people and problems to solve. Other than the characters and their personal stories, very little carries over from one town to the next.

The characters ride up and start investigating, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the town. While there are elements of investigation, the GMing advice strongly encourages throwing the problems at the characters instead of hiding them. After all, these traveling young people are empowered to fix all of their problems– who wouldn’t try to bend their ear and get the Dogs to see things from their perspective? Of course, the problems aren’t always love triangles and crying beaus; sometimes the very fabric of the faith has been disrupted by sorcerers spreading false doctrine. These villains rarely rush forward to confess their sins; instead they stir the town’s passions and obscure their role in the current misery. If the Dogs start snooping too close to their comfortable situation, out come the guns.

Eventually the Dogs have the information they need. They decide among themselves how to solve the town’s problems and go do it. Often they’ll call a town meeting and make shocking revelations, or even string up the malefactors right in the town square. Other times they’ll marry a couple, remove the town’s steward, or do whatever else they feel is necessary to heal the branch.

Then they mount up and ride on to the next town. As they leave town, the reflect on their actions [with a game effect of granting additional skills, like spending experience or leveling after an adventure in other games], and prepare themselves for the next town on their list. This overall pattern for the game– on the campaign wide and specific adventure levels– is recapped over three pages at the end of the Structure of the Game chapter.

Book Structure

dogs_in_the_vineyard_cover_small-1The book is organized into several chapters, beginning with a quick roleplaying overview and very quick setting background. After this introduction, the book follows a very structured pattern. Each chapter covers a new concept that builds on the previous material. At the end of the chapter a one or two page recap of the chapter’s contents is provided for quick reference.

As a GM, this is a very handy system for guiding the players through the game. For example, the summary at the end of the character creation chapter includes the dice for each background, includes reminders about the two die minimum for stats, and brief instructions for traits, relationships and belongings. The last instruction is a reminder to ask what they hope their characters accomplished during training. The summary ends with a quick list of four questions the GM should keep in mind during character creation.

This system of introducing a topic and covering it extensively for the chapter, then summarizing the key elements at the end of a chapter is a boon to the GM. During character creation, the GM can guide all of the players for 90% of their tasks from the one page summary, with the remaining elements covered in detail in the chapter’s heart, back in the last few pages.

Kurt “Telas” Schneider notes the following. Caveat: I have limited exposure to DitV; I read the book a few times, and played the game once with a novice GM.

DitV is a good book, but (with 20/20 hindsight) I didn’t find it to be as revolutionary as proclaimed. There was a sense of the game being written primarily for the “how far will you go to win?” morality question, which seems to be a very limited scope. If I wanted to have fun while testing my moral limits, I’d go to a strip club…

That said, I definitely got something out of the “say yes or roll the dice” and “lose = XP” concepts.

The Life of a Dogs GM

The Dogs GM is in an interesting position. The book lays out her duties and very clearly states that its distribution of power and expectations is non-standard. For example, unlike most game systems, the GM is not arbiter of whether there is a bottle of whiskey behind the tool shed, or a fence to duck behind in a gunfight. The rules clearly indicate that if there’s a question as to whether an item would occur, the GM should ask the players. It’s a very interesting approach to ensuring that the game world picture syncs in everyone’s mind.

Strong mechanical guidelines exist for creating adventures, a simple step by step process for creating the next evening’s play. Someone with no knowledge of the game could create a good town by reading the town creation chapter alone, never reading the system. As the GM you know the PCs and players, so you can design a town that fits the characters better, but walking through the procedures alone is enough to generate an interesting evening’s play. That’s handy for the preparing the first session; you can create the first town before you know who the PCs are.

Similarly, statting up NPCs is very different from almost any system I’ve ever tried. As you create the town, you create and identify interesting NPCs, but you don’t stat them out. Instead, there’s a very quick procedure for generating batches of 6 proto-NPCs [his term]– basically, bunches of stats just waiting for a personality. When a conflict comes up in game, you pick the set of stats that matches the character’s strengths and assign traits on the fly. The system sounds unusual, but does a great job of keeping the GM focused on the personality of the NPCs during town creation and roleplay.

The book instructs GMs on procedures, but also on focus and approach. Throughout town creation, the GM is reminded that their goal is to create a situation ready for action– but not to imagine outcomes or try to anticipate the character’s actions. Similarly, the GM never judges the characters from the position of god– the real relationship between the King of Life and the character is up to the player, and is often reflected in the traits and relationships that they pick. That doesn’t mean there are no consequences for action; the GM reacts in character as the townsfolk. If your Dogs have settled the last few towns’ problems by stringing up half of the men, they should expect terror– or armed resistance– when they ride into the next.

The Dice

One of the most distinctive elements that sets Dogs apart is its conflict resolution system. Like many games [from PTA to True20], it uses a unified resolution mechanic for all conflicts of any type. However, the Dogs in the Vineyard resolution system accomplishes its goals in unexpected ways.

At the beginning of a conflict you state your goal. The book’s recurring example is of a Dog intent on stopping his brother from murder. If you win the conflict, you get your way. (Many D&D fights could be viewed as having the conflict goal of “kill the enemy”, with each round of attack and damage rolls stacking up to sway the overall conflict.) Each conflict is made up of many actions, each specifically called out and made concrete in the game world. Other conflict resolution games, like PTA, often resolve conflicts in one quick card draw or roll of dice. Dogs takes a different approach, breaking the conflict down into a series of events, with each component event requiring narration and dice.

Another interesting element of the resolution system is that both sides roll their dice for the conflict upfront and openly. All of the abilities on the character sheets are rated in terms of dice. I might have a 4d6 body, a 2d8 crackshot skill, and a d4 relationship with the bandit I’m tracking. When I get into a conflict, I roll the appropriate dice and leave them on the table. The die results signal the tone for the fight– if you roll poorly, you can narrate your character’s actions and effort to match.

Fights undergo a pattern of “raises and sees”. Each time you describe an action that moves you toward your goal, you “raise” by pushing forward two dice. Your opponent then has to “see” [push forward dice totaling your raise] from their own pool of dice and describe how they respond to your action. Since they saw your raise, you haven’t accomplished your goal for the conflict yet. Now they raise and you have to see or lose. This repeats, back and forth, until one side gives up and the conflict’s goal is completed or prevented.

Since the dice are all on the table, you can map out how the conflict is likely to go. You can see that your Dog is going to lose to the footpads well before it happens. There are a few twists on the resolution that kick it up a notch. First, you roll dice based on the type of conflict you’re having. If you chose to escalate the conflict (by turning a shouting match into a pushing match or a shooting match), you get to roll more dice. Similarly, if you use your traits and tools, they also allow you to roll their associated dice. So when you’re looking at your pool of rolled dice and they’re telling you that you’ll lose… the temptation to escalate is there.

As the raises and sees go on, each time you had to use 3 or more dice to match your opponent’s see, you took a blow. Depending on how your disagreement was expressed at the time– gunshots, punches, or searing words, you’ll take different amounts of fallout (basically damage). So you might win the overall conflict, but take a gutshot accomplishing it.

Another interesting effect, mentioned by Telas above, is that you sometimes learn from taking the blow. When you roll your fallout (damage taken) after the conflict, you learn, improve, or change if at least one of the dice comes up a one. This is a nice lure for players and can encourage mighty heroes to take a wound once in a while.

John Arcadian says: “Dogs In The Vineyard is the best story narrative intensive game of poker played with dice that I’ve seen. The setting itself doesn’t pique my personal tastes, but I’ve seen it run well in other story rich settings (Serenity, Italian Diplomacy). Dogs shines in its use of an interesting game mechanic and the fact that players wager dice on their actions. I don’t see it holding out in a long term campaign, or for a standard fantasy dungeon crawl, but it is an excellent diversion for a night. It will certainly get your group thinking in different ways about your game, and that is always welcome.”

Managing Dogs over the Long Haul

I run and played in a few one shots, and ran a campaign that lasted through four sessions including character generation. That wasn’t long enough to see any real abuses of the system crop up– in fact, while the Dogs were more interesting after play and interesting trait advancements, they weren’t a lot more powerful. Now, given another five sessions, I can imagine that the additional trait dice would be getting to the point that the PCs wouldn’t have to escalate much anymore… and that would be a drag.

Have any of you played Dogs for many sessions? Any advice on how to handle it long term, or is it somehow self correcting? Or do characters just tend to stake their life on unwinnable conflicts before the tide of advancements and reflections strips them of the need to work for their victories?

Useful Resources

  • John Kim has a great support page for Dogs, including strategy notes, character sheets, handouts, and a one shot adventure.
  • If you’d like to look over fifty or so towns, Doyce’s Randomwiki has a huge Directory of Example Towns.
  • The Lumpley Games forum on the Forge is a great place to talk over towns with other GMs. The towns I ran improved significantly when other GMs brought up points I’d overlooked, mentioned characters that needed more fleshing out, and generally improved our games with their sage advice.
  • The Dog’s sources website has links to lots of interesting setting details, some nifty play aids, and features some excerpts from the game. A few links are broken, but many still work.

Want to learn more about Dogs in the Vineyard? Read on…

Drop by Lumpley Games and order Dogs in the Vineyard today!