Dogs in the Vineyard: sex, religion and guns in a West that never was

The Thursday crew were down a couple of people, so we decided it’d be a good time to run a one-off of Dogs in the Vineyard (mentioned previously here).

The Dogs are young men and women sent to the frontier towns established by the Faith (which isn’t quite Mormonism), to bring practical and spiritual help to the community. Sometimes it’s the sort of help that comes from the barrel of a gun. After the basic character generation stuff, the game starts with each player saying what they hoped their character accomplished in training, leading to a conflict where the GM takes one side and the player the other, and the character gains another character trait as a result. All the conflicts in the game are like poker matches with dice, with each side having a pool of dice for raising and seeing.

Dramatis Personae

Brother Jeb, played by Tom who jacquic knows: ex-thief who converted to the Faith. At 30, he’s a bit older than the other Dogs, who are in their late teens/early 20s. Jeb hopes he can beat a demon. He wakes up in the middle of the night having sleep-walked into the storeroom of the Doghouse, mysteriously left unlocked. Whispers in his head are tempting him to steal the valuables in the storeroom but he spots something like a shadow in the corner and throws some sacred earth (which is also in the storeroom) at it. Brother Jeb got a trait of “I exorcised a demon”.

Brother Isaac, played by Rob who is not robhu: child of converts, very strictly brought up on an isolated farm, tends to see things in black and white. Hopes he can learn something about the real world. As suggested in the rules, Rob played Brother Isaac before the change his player wanted, and scribb1e played the thing trying to make him change. Isaac follows a thief who steals fruit from a stall in Bridal Falls (which isn’t quite Salt Lake City) and finds he’s taken it to his home to feed his starving family. Great raises and sees: Isaac: “You should have gone to the Faith for help”, Thief: “You’re the Faith, you help” (what the rules call Reversing the Blow). scribb1e ran out of dice and Isaac’s player narrated how Isaac makes the man take the stuff back and then Isaac buys him food instead. At Tom’s suggestion, Isaac got a trait of “There’s always a perfectly reasonable solution”.

Brother Ezra, played by me: 3rd generation Faithful, brought up on a big farm with brothers and sisters all over the place. Overcompensates to get attention. Ezra already had “I was top in Sunday school” as trait, so I decided Ezra shoots scripture from the hip and thinks that can solve anything. I wanted him to learn some humility. The conflict played out in the Faith’s hospital, where he tried not very successfully to comfort a dying girl with words from the Book of Life. She died, and he got “I can’t do everything by myself”. He took quite a lot of fallout, which lead to a relationship to the dead girl, and a bump to his “Heart” stat.

The town, played by scribb1e, was the rule book’s Tower Creek example with the names filed off as scribb1e knew I’d read the rule book. Tower Creek is recommended for new players as it’s hairy: it goes all the way to hate and murder in the Something’s Wrong progression, stopping off for some adultery and false priesthood along the way. In our version, it was called Dove Hill. Brother Ezra has a great aunt there, Sister Polly, and Brother Isaac has a cousin, Celestina.

Dove Hill

<lj-cut text=”Cut for demons, miscarriage, adultery, and mayhem”>The Dogs ride in to Dove Hill and end up at the Steward’s place. He’s asking for a blessing on his wife, who can’t conceive. The players think he’s talking about Sister Eleanor, who’s with him, but it turns out he’s also married to Sister Celestina, and she’s the one who can’t have kids. The Steward has 3 daughters by Eleanor who are married off, but hopes for a son to run the farm. The Faith allows polygamy (but not polyandry) but Eleanor doesn’t approve: Celestina is an interloper and young and pretty to boot.

Ezra and Isaac go with Eleanor to the local creek and find Celestina. They split up to have private conversations with each woman. Eleanor tries to persuade Ezra that Celestina should be made to divorce the Steward: the lack of children shows the King of Life doesn’t favour the marriage. There’s a conflict but Ezra knows that the Book of Life says the King of Life hates divorce, and he wins easily.

Isaac talks to his cousin. Celestina says that Eleanor won’t leave her and the Steward alone together, which makes the whole conceiving thing a bit tricky.

Back at the Steward’s place, before the Dogs can get into this, there’s a knock on the door. Sister Maria wants something, and holds a whisphered conversation with the Steward. “You can’t ask them to do that, it’s wrong”, he exclaims. “That” turns out to be naming Maria’s baby. Fine: it’s one of the duties of a Dog. The only problem is the baby is dead. Stillborn, and buried in a pathetically small grave near the meeting house. The players hew pretty closely to the Mormon idea of baptism for the dead, even though the rules allow them to make up the Faith as they go along. There’s no conflict as all the Dogs decide they’ll perform the naming ceremony over the grave, and do so post haste. Ezra decides to name the baby Grace. Maria sings “Amazing Grace”, and it’s kind of poignant.

On the way back, the Dogs meet Brother Nathan, the local lawman. He wants them to carry out a wedding. Fine: it’s one of the duties. But he actually wants them to confirm a wedding that Sister Polly carried out, between him and Sister Celestina. Turns out Nathan and Celestina were having an affair, and Polly got it into her head that the best way to deal with it was to marry them: after all, a man can have two wives, so why can’t a woman have two husbands? Ezra and Isaac win a conflict with Nathan on whether they’ll promise to do the wedding.

Meanwhile, Jeb wanders away from the lawman for some reason, and finds Polly’s house. She admits to the wedding, but says she was just trying to do the right thing. She tries to persuade Jeb to leave town as nothing good can come of the Dogs’ presence, but loses the conflict: Dogs have a duty to sort this stuff out.

The Dogs sleep in the Steward’s haybarn. Jeb is awoken by the feeling he got when the demons attacked him in the storeroom. He tracks it past the Steward’s house and thinks it’s gone to Polly’s place. The conflict here was odd: the stakes were “Do I track the demon?”, but scribb1e and Tom weren’t too sure how to raise and see in this metaphysical conflict. scribb1e gave away more of the location each time she had to block, which seemed wrong: if she’d taken the blow or Jeb had reversed it, maybe. Anyhoo, Jeb came back for the other Dogs. It was morning by now, and they all rushed over to Aunt Polly’s.

Jeb continued to experience the Reek of Wrongness about the place, but the other Dogs sense nothing, and just see an old lady in her nightgown. Maybe she’s in danger. They rush inside. It’s a one room house with no visible demons. Hmmm… Jeb asks Polly to hold his Book of Life for him, but she demurs. Uh oh. We kick off a conflict with stakes of “Do we find out what’s going on?”, which escalates suddenly when Polly becomes possessed and starts flinging kitchen knives. At this point, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, and we decide we’ve probably got the stakes wrong. scribb1e reckons she should have just narrated us finding out Polly’s a sorceror and then let us decide what to do as a conflict. As it was, when Jeb accused Polly of invoking the demons to try to help Celestina, scribb1e gave way: we’d worked out what was going on.

We were running out of time and didn’t want to start a follow on conflict. Jeb’s all in favour of shooting Polly, but Ezra’s reluctant to shoot his old aunt, even if she’s been summoning demons which, rather then helping Celestina get pregnant, have been causing miscarriages and stillbirths. Just for fun, Ezra’s the only one with a sidearm (the other two have long rifles which are back in the barn) so there could even have been some conflict between the Dogs.

We’d decided Nathan can’t marry Celestina because it’d be condoning adultery, and their marriage was invalid in any case, because Polly’s a false priest. scribb1e reckoned Nathan might try to leave the Faith and take Celestina with him, but we never played that out.

In the end, we had to stop as it had gone midnight, but alas, the juicy conflicts were still to be played out. lumpley recommends against spending too much time with everything shrouded in mystery: the fun in Dogs is resolving the impossible situations, not in working out who’s sinning against whom. I don’t think scribb1e did too much of the mystery stuff, but we did spent a while resolving the initial conflicts where everyone in town wants to persuade the Dogs to back their side.

I think another hour would have enabled us to sort the sinners out to our satisfaction, and that more practice at the game would have enabled us to sort out stakes for conflicts better. We spent some time sorting out how the rules worked, too. The co-operative story telling was interesting. scribb1e said that GMing it felt not too dissimilar to being a player, and indeed it was Tom (in his initiatiory conflict) who turned the supernatural dial up from demons as bad luck to demons having some visible presence, albeit as shadows where none should be. I enjoyed it and liked the poker raise/see mechanic for conflicts, even if it wasn’t clear how to use it for conflicts which weren’t with a particular person. Would play again.

3 Comments on "Dogs in the Vineyard: sex, religion and guns in a West that never was"

  1. It occurred to me later that although I turned up the supernatural dial because Tom wanted it, it was still possible to interpret the demons as being symbolic. They were clearly real to Brother Jeb – he really saw and sensed stuff. But neither of the others did. Maybe Brother Jeb was led to believe that the demon had gone to Sister Polly’s house because he’d already met her and sensed the Reek of WrongnessOMT.


  2. Thoughts on fallout:

    Once we’d worked out how the conflicts worked, we were all playing to avoid fallout, as if it were D&D and fallout was lost hitpoints.

    But I realised later that actually fallout is great. For players, it’s how you get extra traits and relationships and angst and stuff. For the GM, it’s a fantastic way to make the players feel guilty because they’ve just shot granny.

    So I wonder, if we played again, whether we’d have conflicts that were less ‘clean’.


    1. There are comments on lumpley’s site/forum to that effect. I never played DITV yet, but it sounded very interesting. My impression from other play reports was that it was a fascinating system (assuming you wanted to try something very unlike DnD) but that certain tricks for choosing traits, conflicts, etc so they’re fun don’t automatically come from play, and it depends whether people happen (or deliberately) fall into the right groove.

      A friend was eager to DM a game this university holiday, but wasn’t sure what people she knew would like to play.


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