Two of God's Watchdogs from Dogs in the Vineyard

Contrary to what you might expect from the title, Dogs in the Vineyard (DitV) is not about playing the puppies of a wine merchant. Instead, it’s a game set in a fantasy version of the Wild West but based off of early Mormon settlements* instead of the more familiar saloon towns. Players take on the roles of God’s Watchdogs, a combination of police, judges, and executioners. The Dogs ride from town to town, solving problems and dispensing justice among the faithful.

Dogs in the Vineyard is not a new game; its most recent edition came out in 2005. In the time since its release, DitV has been extremely influential on roleplaying design, especially in the indie scene. The game’s author, Vincent Baker, has gone on to make many other games, including the highly successful Apocalypse World. So how does Dogs in the Vineyard hold up over a decade later? Let’s find out.

The Writing Style Is Engaging

The writing of roleplaying books is usually dry and straightforward. That’s fine since these are instruction books rather than novels, but they do tend to make one’s eyes glaze over. Dogs in the Vineyard, on the other hand, is written with a witty authorial voice that keeps you engaged. The author’s sense of excitement about his game is palpable, and it makes you want to read more.

While an engagingly written book doesn’t actually make the game better, it does increase the likelihood of players bothering to read the rules, which makes a GM’s life much easier.* The moving descriptions of what everything looks, sounds, and smells like also assist the GM in visualizing the world, increasing the quality of narration.

One thing DitV’s writing doesn’t do is constantly remind you of how it’s “not like other roleplaying games.” This game was groundbreaking when it came out, but the book lets you make that decision for itself. It doesn’t try to tell you that in order to play Dogs you need to forget everything you know about roleplaying games, nor does it constantly repeat how revolutionary it is.

The Storytelling Philosophy Is Mostly Good

The first thing about Dogs in the Vineyard that made people stand up and take notice was its storytelling philosophy. It heavily emphasizes drama and narrative over simulationist rules, which was a breath of fresh air for many gamers.

One of Baker’s guiding philosophies for DitV is “roll dice or say yes.” This means that the GM shouldn’t waste time by making the players roll for pointless tasks without an interesting outcome. If the story for today’s session takes place in town, don’t make your players roll to cross the river. If a player wants their character to get a nice necktie for Sunday service, just let them have it because there’s no interesting story that’ll result from their failing. This may seem obvious to experienced GMs, but it’s valuable advice for those just starting out, and even today it is something many roleplaying systems don’t seem to understand.

Another major tenant of DitV is not planning how the PCs will act or how the story will end. Instead, you construct a town for the Dogs to visit, decide what’s wrong, roll up some NPCs, and let the fun begin. The only planning you do is to figure out what will happen if the PCs do nothing. That way, you can react easily to whatever they do, because you already know the situation inside and out. This style of planning has the dual advantages of guaranteeing that there’s plenty of conflict and making sure you don’t inadvertently railroad your players down one path.    

After the two big pillars, Dogs in the Vineyard has more good advice. It recommends finding out what’s important to your players and using that as the core of a story, which is a great way to keep the party engaged. DitV also recommends crafting scenarios around the PC’s most important relationships, so there’s a powerful pull to get into the story.

While Dogs in the Vineyard’s storytelling advice is quite solid, a few cracks show in the big pillars. An issue with the mantra of “roll dice or say yes” is that sometimes a GM has to say no. Players will occasionally ask for something that would hurt the game if it were granted, and in that situation even letting them roll for it is a mistake. If a player susses out who the big villain is in the first session and asks to shoot them in the head, you should just say no, because letting the villain die that early will destroy the story.

Not planning an ending at all can also have negative consequences. Mainly, it’s a good way to end up with a story that has no satisfactory resolution. I don’t mean an ending that goes poorly for the characters, but for the players. If the PCs only discover an ending as they go along, with no guidance from you, there’s a good chance those who aren’t as forceful at the table will go home unhappy. They might have wanted to save the Hamilton’s farm from a crop plague, but everyone else at the table decided burning it was the only solution, and you didn’t have any plan in place to reconcile the opposing views.

Despite these faults, Dogs in the Vineyard has some of the best storytelling advice I’ve ever seen in a game, no matter when it was printed. Just be careful not to take what it says to extreme conclusions.

The Setting Is Limiting and Problematic

The biggest problem with Dogs in the Vineyard is its setting. It focuses heavily on the religious aspects of the Faithful, and the PCs spend a lot of time dealing with those who violate religious rules. These rules include offenses like drinking coffee and tea. Unless you have a background with similar religious rules, it can be difficult to get invested in conflicts centered around people working on the wrong day of the week. That’s the limiting part.

The problematic part is that many of these religious rules focus on regulating who can have sex with whom and under what circumstances. The only correct circumstances are those of a heterosexual, monogamous couple who are either married or plan to get married at the first opportunity. Unless you’re a man of proper stature, in which case it can be a heterosexual, polygamous marriage. If the examples in the book are anything to go by,* your players are meant to spend a considerable fraction of their time being sex police.

If that wasn’t off-putting enough, this setting has a supernatural component to its sinning. When folks in a town start sinning, the town gets attacked by demons. The demons are usually subtle, but they are clearly real.* They possess people and make eyes glow, for one thing. So now you have a setting where the way people have sex can make demons appear. Sometimes it’s the sex itself; sometimes it’s people getting mad at the sex. Either way, this is a setting that assigns a supernatural penalty to being gay, and that’s not okay.

The Faithful are also highly misogynistic, with women expected to stay at home, act submissively, and “be receptive to courtship.” It’s unclear why such a sexist society has no issue with women being Dogs, granted the right to dispense justice by whatever means necessary.

The book even has a number of misogynistic example scenarios. In one of them, an adult priest is having an affair with a 15-year-old girl, and this is presented as a neutral situation where both parties are equally at fault. Never mind that the priest is the most powerful person in the village and that the girl is a teenager. The sexism isn’t usually enforced by demons the way the homophobia is, but it’s more than enough to alienate players who spend their real lives dealing with misogyny.

Of course, there’s nothing in the rules that says your PCs have to approve of any of this, but the players will have to bring that disapproval themselves because there’s little in the setting to encourage it. As the GM, you can also construct scenarios that avoid sex policing, but you’ll have to throw out most of the setting’s content and then do the heavy lifting yourself.  

Character Creation Is Intuitive, but Unbalanced

There’s a fine line to walk between character creation that’s too restrictive, and character creation that offers too many options, inducing analysis paralysis. Fortunately, Dogs in the Vineyard walks that line with flying colors.

Character creation is very simple. You choose a background for your character, and that background gives you pools of dice to assign. Different backgrounds give you different numbers of dice in each pool. For example, the Well Rounded background gives you the most dice for your basic stats. You might not have much experience, but you’ve worked hard all your life and are ready for anything. On the other hand, the Strong History background gives you more dice to spend on traits, which represent specialized skills. That’s the background for characters with years of experience in a specific field. Other backgrounds give you more dice to spend on relationships, for characters with deep roots in their community.

Choosing a background and assigning dice doesn’t take a lot of time or explanation, and your players won’t have to spend hours reading through long lists of options. At the same time, there’s enough freedom in how dice are assigned to make each character feel unique. Character creation also includes a mini-session where you set up a dramatic issue for each PC to start the game with. Many players have a difficult time finding their feet with a new character, so having something interesting to play off of can really help.

The problem with DitV’s character creation, like so many other systems, is balance. Of the three types of dice players get, there’s a clear hierarchy of usefulness. Basic stat dice can be used in almost every conflict, making them the most powerful. Trait dice are fairly flexible, so they come in a close second. But relationship dice are only useful in two circumstances: the PC’s relation is physically present, or the conflict is over the relationship. That’s a rare circumstance indeed, since PCs can have relations from all over, but each session takes place only in a single town. With relationship dice far less powerful than the other two, backgrounds that give a lot of relationship dice end up being a trap for inexperienced players.

A smaller balance issue comes in the form of gear. Gear has clear mechanical effects, some of which are very powerful, but the rules governing how much gear a character can have are extremely nebulous. They boil down to “how much a player can convince the group to allow.” This has the potential for serious abuse if not monitored closely by the GM.

Conflict Resolution Is Fun, but Flawed

Dogs in the Vineyard’s conflict system is complex, but it is relatively easy to learn. When conflict starts, the participants roll their stat dice, plus any relevant traits, relationships, or gear, and put the resulting dice in a pool. Combatants then use those dice to launch attacks against the enemy and defend themselves against counter attacks.* Because the system is flexible, attacks can be anything from hard words to deadly bullets.

The coolest feature of DitV’s conflict system is its escalation mechanics. A conflict might start as an argument and escalate into a fistfight when tempers flare, and then the guns can come out when murder glints in someone’s eye. Each time conflict escalates, combatants get new dice to roll, and the dangers to both winner and loser go up. This mirrors the conflict escalation of written stories and is a wonderful example of mechanics aiding the narrative.

A fly in the escalation ointment is that conflict can also “escalate” downwards, going from a gun fight, to a fistfight, or an argument. This is necessary for balance purposes, but not at all clear from the rules, especially since all the examples show the order of escalation going from words to fists to bullets. I had to hunt down an ancient forum post by Baker* to confirm this is actually how it’s supposed to work.

The biggest downside is that DitV’s conflict system only works well with two combatants. Add in more, and the whole thing gets really difficult to handle. The reasons why are complex, but suffice to say it requires major house ruling to make the system function with three or more participants. Of course, you can always rule that extra combatants offer bonus dice and do not actively participate, but that won’t be a lot of fun for the players who have to stand on the side lines.

Why Combat Falls Apart With 3+ Fighters

In DitV, combatants spend their two dice to launch an attack on their turn, and their opponents must then spend two dice to mount a defense. Those who run out of dice are knocked out of the fight. In a two-on-one fight, the solitary combatant must spend dice at twice the rate of their opponents, meaning an almost certain loss even if they are much more skilled. When there are more than three, things get even worse, since combatants are allowed to target as many enemies as they can “reasonably justify.” This gives a crushing advantage to players with a better tactical imagination and isn’t a good way to run a conflict system.

A final annoyance is that Dogs in the Vineyard has no mechanical means of resolving a conflict other than the full combat rules. While these rules are fun to use, they can get tiring if brought out over and over again, but the game has no other option. Fortunately, a house rule isn’t too difficult here,* but it’s a clear oversight.

Dogs Is a Fun Game in a Bad Setting

After eleven years, Dogs in the Vineyard is still an impressive piece of game design. Its mechanics are superior to many of the much more recent systems I’ve reviewed, it has almost no excess weight, and the storytelling advice is a cut above. Most impressively, its mechanics are focused tools that assist in telling a story, not getting in the way of one. Unfortunately, this game’s default story comes loaded with a steaming pile of bigotry. It is not welcoming to LGBT+ or female players,* which severely restricts its usefulness. GMs looking to run this game will need to do a lot of extra work to give their players a world that isn’t about homophobic sex police. That said, for GMs willing to do the extra work, this game is great for telling tales of conflict and emotional drama.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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