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Sometimes, nobody gets shot in the face.

PhotobucketRecently my brother, my wife, and a friend played Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, a fantasy Western game of God’s Watchdogs protecting a struggling religious community, at gunpoint, from corruption and injustice. My brother and I had been wanting to play it with each other for quite some time. It was a joy to play together!

DitV derives a lot of tension from the “how far would you go” question in exerting your will, applying constant pressure along those lines. “Would you wrestle down your brother to stop him from shooting that whore what defiled his boy? Would you draw a gun on him? Would you shoot him?” And similarly, “to save this town from disaster, would you shoot this person who’s causing trouble? Even if his reasons are sympathetic and heartbreaking? Even if his family depends on him?” and so on.

As a result, Dogs and games like it get sort of a rep, for being horrible bloodbaths where everyone’s shooting everyone in the face, where conflict ramps up, up UP to tragedy, and everyone Comes To A Bad End.

And sure, it can be. Sometimes you want it to be. But our game wasn’t like that. For one thing, there were no rebellious cults forming, no Sorcerous subversion, no attacks by demon-possessed maniacs–yet. There were just people, mired in an intractable mess. There was the old man who’d dug up some old silver coin on his land and insisted it was his, not the town’s. There was the desperate father who needed the bounty to trade for his diseased daughter’s medicine. The poor browbeaten Town Steward whose clout didn’t equal the old man’s, and was losing the respect of the townsfolk whose needs he couldn’t fulfill. And the proprietor of the local mercantile, convinced he could use the silver to make peace with the hostile tribal folk and trade for food to recover from a devastating crop blight.

All was poised on the brink of disaster. In fact, it’d already come to grief, as the father went to the old man’s estate to take the wealth by force and ended up accidentally shooting the patriarch’s only son. And in fact without intervention things would get far, far worse. But in fact the Dogs’ involvement (which can turn quite bloody itself given their power of Judge and Executioner!) served to defuse tensions, de-escalate conflict and allow reason and justice to prevail. Everyone tried to press the Dogs to take sides in their conflicts and grudges, but they kept their heads and worked out a solution for the good of the town, not individuals, while balancing the scales of justice. The temptation always loomed to bring violence to bear, but no one did. Everything stayed on the level of talking–and it was awesome.

The tension was palpable, and the resolution satisfying. Without a single shot fired. The tension arose from the question: Will it turn violent? Consider Azariah, the desperate father, trying to hold off my brother’s character at his doorstep, afraid for himself and his sick daughter. Brother Clarence pressed him until he gave in. They both stood poised to start shooting to get their way, but Azariah was unwilling to escalate to gunplay. He blinked first, and submitted his will to the Dogs.

This goes back to what I was talking about in Paying Your Dues. Sure, it could be fun if the Dogs rode in and encountered murder at every turn, desperate folks solving their problems at gunpoint, and malefactors refusing to relent. Fire and judgment! Hooray! But how much more satisfying to start simple and build, to solve one town’s problems handily only to see the issues complicated in the next, and further escalated in the next? To see the Dogs themselves evolve under increasing pressure? To see a strong soul with sure hand and shining eyes, then watch him strain ’till he’s like to break?

That agonizing question–will he break?–is what we want to answer. But the end is meaningless without the journey.

Peace,

-Joel

2 thoughts on “Sometimes, nobody gets shot in the face.”

  1. That definitely sounds like a sweet premise for a game. Can you describe, in brief detail, how the game works?

    Are there certain game mechanics that you feel foster this tension that you’re talking about, or is there something more intrinsic to the setting that allows you to make those leaps of imagination?

  2. The two work hand in hand, actually. You roll dice for a whole range of attributes–from plain ol’ toughness and quick-wittedness or whatever, to specific traits like “my Pa taught me to shoot” or “I learned right from wrong at the temple”–then push them forward when you fire off an attack, whether a verbal barb, right hook, or gunshot. When an attack is coming your way, you Reverse it, Block it or Take the Blow, depending on how well you’re able to match it with your own dice. If you have crappy rolls you can get a fresh pile of dice by escalating to a different arena, like brawling or shooting. But there’s a risk. For a verbal blow you’ll mostly just suffer wounded pride, but fighting can net you serious injury and a bullet has a chance of killing you outright. you can “Give” to drop out of a conflict, and lose what you were fighting over (Matt’s conflict with Azariah was to humble him to the Dogs’ authority). So you’re faced with a constant choice of “how far do you go?” Is it worth getting shot? Is it worth shooting someone else? in the example I decided that brother Azariah just wasn’t willing to shoot it out with a Watchdog to get his way. If he was more desperate he might have.

    And that’s my job as Gamemaster over the course of several towns as the Dogs ride their circuit. I look at the players’ answer to these questions (is preserving a man’s property rights worth letting him gauge a struggling community?” for example) and escalate. I frame situations later in the session or in the next town that asks essentially, “really? Even now? How about now?” and see how well the Dogs can untangle messes and stick to their principles when the heat’s on.

    The setting itself reinforces this because the Dogs have ultimate authority over the community to make judgments–absolve folks, condemn folks, reinterpret doctrines or establish new ones. This means the players have the freedom and responsibility to decide for themselves how to do right by the town, rather than following a code in the RPG text or guessing what the GM’s “right answer” is. I don’t have them. The sinners are in their hands.

    Thanks for the questions!

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