New Year, New Game: Dogs in the Vineyard

Today is the Chinese New Year’s Day. Last night’s fireworks have left their remains strewn all around the streets and parking lots of residential complexes here in China, and everywhere one has the feeling that people are having great fun with their families, in spite of the mess.

In that spirit of festive messiness, I’ve decided to participate in a blog carnival started by Gnomestew.com, called New Year, New Game, which encourages gamers to try out new roleplaying games and then write about them. This last year I tried my hand as a Gamemaster for a slightly messy version of Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker. It was not only my first time playing the game, but my first time hacking it as well, even if just a little bit.

The eponymous “Dogs” of this game are supposed to be cowboy paladins of a sort, whose job is to travel from town to town (in a land very much like 19th century Utah), and confront the sinners they find there, righting wrongs and protecting the good people of their Faith. The problem is of course that sins don’t always break down so easily into “good” and “evil” categories, and sometimes in trying to confront evil, you might become evil. And what are good and evil anyway?

My two friends and I liked the moral aspect of this setup, but we wanted something a bit more familiar to our own background, and felt that a Star Wars setting would actually be a better match for us. After all, don’t Jedi basically run around from planet to planet, writing wrongs and protecting the good people of the Republic? Don’t they also face the problem that, in fighting the Dark Side of the Force, you might end up embracing it? And what are the Light and Dark sides anyway?

We tried it — we used the Dogs mechanics with a Jedi setting, and for a while it seemed like it was going pretty well, until I encountered some difficulties as the Gamemaster. Part of the difficulties for me involved the back-and-forth, attack-and-defend nature of the game. The rules say that you can attack with words, actions, fists or weapons, but whatever you do has to be something your opponent “can’t ignore.” Drawing that line on what my characters could ignore and what they couldn’t felt difficult for me at first. In hindsight, I let the players’ characters get away with word-based attacks when actually I was within my rights as the Gamemaster to just say “nope — they just ignore what you say and keep on fighting with you.” Being a firmer opponent would have made for a better game because otherwise I could never win any conflicts; they players always seemed to have stronger dice than mine. I wasn’t unhappy that they won, of course — I just wished that they had been forced to embrace the Dark Side in order to win sometimes, which would have made for the interesting part of the story — where do you draw the line? At what point do you accept failure in order to avoid becoming the evil you struggle against?

This led to the other problem: that the Jedi of Star Wars, and the religious cowboy-paladins of standard Dogs in the Vineyard actually turned out to be quite different in one very fundamental way. The Dogs are supposed to judge — their word is law when it comes to sinners, and if they don’t root out the sinners and make them stop sinning, then they’re not doing their job. Jedi, on the other hand, can afford to be much more aloof. Their mandate does not extend to private matters the way that the Dogs authority does, and their moral code allows for a lot more tolerance than that of the Dogs. If a woman in one of the Dogs’ towns is trying to rise above her station, the Dogs have to deal with that somehow (or rebelliously decide to be more open-minded than their training dictates), whereas men and women in the Star Wars galaxy are already supposed to have equal rights, and if not, then the Jedi would stand up to protect that. In short, the Jedi really are supposed to be good guys, while the Dogs only seem to be good guys at the outset, and then play reveals their moral position to be much more murky and confusing than it seemed at first.

There may be a way to play Star Wars characters with the Dogs rules and still get the right mix of moral questions that the rules are built to reinforce, but it would probably require more hacking of the system than I know how to do right now. In the future, before I change anything about a game system, I’ll be sure to play it exactly the way the rules say at least a few times so that I’ll know what should be changed to fit my preferences later on.

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