As you may have noticed, I am going to be talking about a less than trad game in this column. There will be a few of these in the near future resulting from my trip to GenCon. I want to cover the things I did there, then it is back to 1990 as usual.
On Sunday at GenCon I was intercepted by Vincent Baker as I walked by his booth. To be honest, I did not know who he was at the time as he had never been an employee of TSR or West End Games (seems they are still making these things!). He asked me if any of the games looked interesting. I noticed Dogs in the Vineyard on the shelf, it was the only game on there that I recognized and I had actually heard a lot of good things about it in the past.
We sat down at the table in the booth and he talked to me about the game for quite a while. He was very polite and enthusiastic about the game. He was obviously very passionate about the subject matter and the system he had created. The book was only $22 so I wound up picking it up.
The book is visually simple, yet appealing. It is well edited, with no obvious typos. Vincent Baker uses a conversational tone in Dogs in the Vineyard, talking directly to the reader. His enthusiasm is present in the book, he often points out things he thinks are cool while explaining the rules.
He does a good job explaining the rules. I have come to prefer the conversational tone while explaining rules over the traditional clinical style. Writers using the conversational tone tend to spend more time explaining why they made the design choices they did. As one of the stated purposes of this column is to find ways to play games in ways that the rules suggest the designers intended, rules explanations are always welcome. Vincent Baker, like Luke Crane, does a good job explaining how he thinks Dogs in the Vineyard should be played. There are, of course, drawbacks to the conversational style. The conversational style tends to make the book less useful as a quick rules reference. All in al I have come to prefer it though.
The system in Dogs in the Vineyard is an interesting one, and well matched to the purpose of the game. Players roll large amounts of dice and then one of them Raises the others by describing an action and putting forward two dice. The players effected by that action have to See the Raise by matching the value of the dice. If they do not have dice left to match they can give in and accept the consequences or they can escalate to get more dice. If a player escalates from talking to fisticuffs or gun play the danger of loosing increases. It is a fairly simple system that moves fast and does a good job simulating the back and forth nature of most conflicts. As I read it, I could not help but think how cool it would be as a sword-fighting mechanic.
The setting for Dogs in the Vineyard is pre-state Utah. The players are young Mormons sent to ride circuit and stamp out sin and heresy in the towns of the territory. They are armed with nothing but a gun, a book, and a coat made by their family. The major conceit of the game is that once pride enters a town the situation deteriorates on a Yoda like track, “Pride leads to sin, sin leads to suffering…” The inevitable conclusion is murder. The players need to stop the process in each town before it gets out of hand.
For a non-traditional, story stick game, Dogs in the Vineyard is amazingly Old School in many of its philosophies. THe adventure path, Castle Ravenloft, pre-set plot mentality is completely rejected here. GMs are encouraged to set up a situation with no solution in mind and let the players find their own way, reacting to their actions and the dice results. Kind of like a story sandbox.
Vincent Baker suggest how Dogs in the Vineyard can be easily adapted to work with other religions and settings. I think the rule set would work great with a paladin like order. I could use the game for my Knights Templar of the Circle of Dar Janix order. The Knights could be sent on a mission to stamp out witchcraft armed only with their training, magic sword, and ancient armor.
I don’t give letter or numerical grades, but this one is worth picking up. It is a really good example of ways RPGs can be done that are very different from D&D, but still feel familiar.