Tragic Trajectories

Vincent Baker, author of the roleplaying games Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age and more, was the guest of honor at the Portland area’s Gamestorm convention last weekend. I had the opportunity to play a couple of his games, and they provoked a powerful emotional response. Here’s two vignettes:

1) Dogs in the Vineyard:

Sister Eleanor is one of God’s Watchdogs, virginal nineteen-year-olds sent out with a Bible and a gun to solve the problems of religious frontier towns. They arrive in town during a funeral. Brother Charles’ daughter has been murdered, and he’s frantic to have the Dogs marry her to her husband posthumously—the Town Steward refused to bless them, then disappeared–so she won’t have died a harlot. Eleanor yearns to ease the stricken man’s grief, but when she meets prospective husband Brother Ephraim, a pompous elder who doesn’t give a shit, she wavers. The father is aghast and tells them all to just go.

Sis. Eleanor follows him to the graveyard, and helps him dig the grave in silence, then finally asks him to please talk to her so she can bring the killer to justice. Charles asks, “will that make it right?” Eleanor can only answer, “I don’t know. but I can’t let it go.” Bro. Charles tries to storm off, but Eleanor bars his way and insists, and he gives in, telling her what he knows. She leaves, but with a feeling growing in her gut: “I don’t know if I can make it right.”

The rot in the town soon outs itself—Brother Ephraim had the Steward killed to control the town himself, and had the girl killed when she challenged it. There’s a showdown, bullets fly, and Bro. Ephraim is subdued, dying. Sis. Eleanor goes to Bro. Charles and offers forgiveness to his son, who was Ephraim’s pawn. She puts her hand on Charles’ shoulder and the father breaks down weeping. Eleanor stands over him and she too sobs and sobs. Continue reading Tragic Trajectories

Breaking tradition, mending souls

My family decided to postpone celebrating Christmas this year. See, my brother’s in the National Guard currently serving in Iraq, and he doesn’t get home on leave until the middle of January. So we thought, it’d be better to just wait a few weeks, then we can all celebrate together.

This made the actual day of Christmas and the week leading up to it strangely empty. Because I knew our “real” Christmas would come later, the atmosphere of anticipation passed me by, and Christmas day felt flat. My wife and I did join on her family’s celebration,  but for me there was no zest, no family warmth or misty sentiment. I had spiritually drained the life out of the day.

This struck me as a mild example of how breaking with tradition can disrupt your whole being, to say nothing of those around you. traditions are a means of forming identity, and it’s no light thing to reinvent “who you are,” especially if the rest of your culture still adheres to the path you’ve left behind. Continue reading Breaking tradition, mending souls

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