"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power." – Abraham Lincoln
Last weekend, two out of town gamers (Sal and Robert) were visiting my daughter Giulia and her husband Tenchi. Would I run a game for them? Of course I would. Sal really wanted to play Dogs in the Vineyard; would I mind running that? No, of course not, I’ve had it for years and just never got around to using it as a guest game – why not now?
So this post is part review and part session write-up. I read the rulebook again, started out using the Box Elder Canyon Branch adventure in that, and modified it on the fly as we played.
Brother Cadmus has decided that his role as Territorial Agent and census-taker warrants a living wage, and is spending his whole time lobbying for that rather than running his farm (Pride). His wife, Sister Felicity, has to feed their three children somehow, so has started making moonshine in the barn and selling it (Injustice).
Brother Ephraim, a farm hand, runs out of money to buy whiskey, so breaks into the church at night to steal the silver Tree of Life from the altar. While he is in there, his lantern’s light attracts the attention of Brother Benjamin, and when Benjamin enters to investigate, the lantern is knocked over, burning the church to the ground and severely disfiguring Benjamin while Ephraim escapes out of the rear window (more Injustice).
Benjamin decides that this is the doing of the Mountain People woman Eve Many Horses, on the grounds that some Mountain People pray to spirits and therefore she must be a witch (still more Injustice). He starts praying for her death (Heresy), and decides that the Steward, Brother Artax, is unfit for duty because of his tainted blood (either more Injustice or additional Heresy). Meanwhile, Ephraim, wracked by guilt, has introduced Benjamin to moonshine to dull the pain (definiftely more Injustice and Heresy) and is spending far too much time with him; he hasn’t joined in the prayers yet, but some night soon that’s bound to happen over a shared mason jar of moonshine.
It’s at this point that four newly-minted Dogs ride into town. After a couple of days asking questions, a stake-out of Brother Cadmus’ farm, and a couple of fist-fights both ended by Sal’s Dog brandishing an enormous revolver, they work out that moonshine is involved, where it came from, and who’s buying it; a short but brutal field interrogation on one of the outlying farms buys the Dogs the story of what happened in the church, at the cost of one of Brother Ephraim’s fingers.
The Dogs explain forcefully to Brother Cadmus that he needs to straighten up and fly right, make him demolish the still, and give his wife some money and herbal recipes to tide them over until the farm is back in production. They give Brother Benjamin a herbal pain-relief placebo in the hope this will help him give up moonshine.
The Dogs drag Ephraim into town, explain to the congregation what really happened, and entreat them half-heartedly not to kill him. Brother Benjamin opines that "It was thet Mountain People Witch what made him do it," but they ride off satisfied with a job well done.
Meanwhile, in the darkness of his cellar, Brother Benjamin continues to pray for Eve’s early and unpleasant demise. And the Dogs have established the doctrinal precedent that sometimes it’s okay to drink moonshine for medicinal purposes… In an ongoing campaign, those two issues would come back to bite them at some point, probably the next time their circuit brings them back to Box Elder Canyon.
QUOTE OF THE SESSION
“We’re comforting the children by telling them their mother has been possessed by a demon.”
They meant it wasn’t really her fault, and she was okay again now, but you can imagine how the kids took it…
WHAT WENT WELL
We were totally immersed in the game – we started playing around 11 AM, and at 2.30 PM realised we’d missed lunch, so whipped up some guacamole and ate it at the gaming table. We finished around 4 PM, and by the end players were making the Sign of the Tree at each other (and NPCs) over the table at dramatically appropriate points.
In hindsight, character creation was the most enjoyable part of the session. Sal explained this best I think, saying "It’s not often you get to play through the pivotal moment of your character’s life." It’d be interesting to see how the group character creation in Mongoose Traveller worked with this team, I think it would go well.
Sal’s exorcism of a demon in training went right down to the wire, but he succeeded in the end; let’s just say he got a new Trait out of that, “Whatever it takes 1d6”, and leave it at that. Tenchi’s character has a complicated history, and for his training challenge bluffed his way out of being recognised by an old criminal acquaintance thanks to an unusual Belonging – "Mammoth beard 2d8". We decided that since it could be shaved off, it was a Belonging not a Trait.
Giulia’s herbalist character took as an aspiration "I hope I don’t get addicted to any of the herbs we use," and only made it thanks to the intervention of Robert’s PC, the use of her Dog’s Coat ("I focus on the coat, it reminds me of my family, and I know I can’t let them down like this,") and her horse – which ate the supply of offending herbs. The fallout is that her horse now has the trait "Addicted to herbs 1d6".
The Dogs’ Coats were a real hit. All the players were happy describing their coats, and how the coats changed as the game went on, and like me they love the idea that you can apply permanent damage to your coat to avoid more serious long-term fallout. Sal’s Dog has a coat where he makes marks representing each demon he has faced down, and how much fun could a GM have with that? Giulia’s coat is a herbal, embroidered with all the various healing herbs – the idea is that she can point at them and say "I need this to save your father’s life," and so on. She is defacing the pictures of the addictive herbs, but still trying them all – after all, someone has to find out, right? Robert’s Dog’s coat is torn and bloodstained where he was gored by an ox while saving the life of a ploughboy previously gored by the same ox. Tenchi’s Dog? Well, nobody’s going to notice the coat while it’s obscured by a 2d8 beard.
As a GM, I was delighted by the discussions around the table about what would be a just punishment for each of the sinners. I gave them a range of repentance – or lack thereof – from “Oh Lord, what have I done?” (Cadmus) to “Where were the Dogs when I needed them? Where was the King of Life when I needed him?” (Benjamin) to “Please don’t cut off my hand! I’ll be good!” (Ephraim) to “The King has placed me in Stewardship over these children, and they will not go hungry while I am their Steward!” (Felicity). It was fascinating to watch their reactions, especially with Ephraim, where they decided that a one-handed farmhand would be a burden on a small community, but they had to cut something off or the congregation would kill him for burning down the church. Cadmus and Felicity showed genuine repentance and got mercy in return, Ephraim showed fake repentance and was maimed, Benjamin showed no repentance at all, but they decided his hideous burns had been gained doing the King’s work and were in and of themselves punishment enough.
WHAT COULD’VE GONE BETTER
Conflict resolution got in the way for me as the GM, and I’m pretty sure I was doing it wrong, so I fell more and more into straight narrative play as the game progressed. A few more sessions would fix that problem, I think. I did briefly consider using the super-cool setting with Savage Worlds as the game engine, but I think the poker-style conflict resolution is so central to the feel of the game that it wouldn’t work
I hadn’t prepared any NPC statblocks in advance, so I was making them up as I went along, and I think conflict was too easy as a result. It didn’t seem to hurt the game, though.
From the constant talk around the table about exorcising demons, and the fact that one of the characters invested heavily in demonology skills and demon-suppression equipment, I should have realised that the group wanted the game to be about demonic possession. That would have been easy to add into the game by using Demonic Influence dice, which I completely forgot about.
The players started off investigating the church fire, then spent most of the session chasing moonshiners, before remembering they had decided the important thing was to find and punish the church-burner. They never did figure out what Brother Benjamin was up to.
You need more d4, d8 and d10 for Dogs than we normally have around – as three of the five at the table were Shadowrun players, there was no shortage of d6. This is because when you roll a die, it needs to stay on the table until that conflict is over, whereas in a typical game you would use the score right away and reroll the die.
Dogs is more about solving puzzles and interacting with NPCs than it is about killing things and taking their stuff. With the group of players we had, that worked very well.
Dogs has a very different vibe to most games we play, because of who the characters are. The players like having total authority over NPCs and total freedom of action, because the NPCs acknowledge they are Big Damn Heroes. As a GM, I like being able to cut to the chase – the NPCs tumble over themselves to involve the Dogs in their problems, so no valuable session time is used up identifying the problem or persuading the NPCs to help. This works very well and would be easy to use in any other game.
The way towns are set up works well to create an adventure, and would work well in any game for scenarios of mystery or intrigue.
- Tenchi: That was more fun than I expected.
- Sal: It was everything I hoped for, and more. I have to play this again.
- Dogs in the Vineyard is really a supernatural Western detective show, and a lot of fun to play – that was one of the best sessions we’ve had in years.
- There are many lessons to learn from this game, but it’s unlikely to topple my favourites from their pedestals.
- As always, who’s playing matters more than what we play. For this group, Dogs in the Vineyard works really well.