A Game Per Year: Dogs In the Vineyard (2004)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of Dogs In the Vineyard

Dogs In the Vineyard is a religious-themed Western roleplaying game and another product of the Forge design movement. It’s set in an abstracted version of the American old west where the characters are Dogs, judges and enforcers sent out by the Faith to resolve problems in various settlements.

With pretty much any roleplaying game, a key question of design is to consider the emotional affordances it provides. What kind of feelings does the game allow? What are its thrills?

This is especially important because there are many things that can be enjoyable to do in the fictional context of a roleplaying game that would be wrong, damaging or otherwise bad in real life. Games allow us to enjoy these things in a constructive, non-harmful way.

Dogs In the Vineyard is unusual in the sense that its emotional appeal is exceptionally sharply defined. It’s all about judgment and both players and characters get to judge others to their heart’s content. What’s more, they get to be essentially right. The game helpfully provides a supernatural framework where the core sin of pride leads to an escalating ladder of problems all the way up to demonic threats and murder. This means that being judgmental is righteous. Further, the GM is exhorted not to judge the players or the characters, preventing the unpleasant prospect of being judged for judging wrong.

I don’t think it requires more than ten minutes on Twitter to see that being judgmental is one of humankind’s great pleasures. However, in daily life it can have unpleasant repercussions. It can strain relationships and give you a reputation as a judgmental person. Because of this, a roleplaying game is a wonderful venue for letting it all out.

The Faith provides a moral framework for the characters. How the players feel about it depends on their own, personal morals but I’m going to assume that most people who read this are liberal types like me. In this case, the Faith’s morality is not the player’s morality.

The Faith is modeled after an early version of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It’s a strongly patriarchal system with strict limits on gender roles and all kinds of sex that deviates from that between a married husband and wife. Thus, the player characters might be invited to judge a situation where a woman commits the sin of pride because she wants to live with another woman instead of taking a husband.

This casts the judgement exercised by the characters in an interesting light. In large part, what they do would be wrong by modern liberal standards, for example enforcing gender roles through violence. In this sense, the game invites players to play characters who have strikingly different morals from their own. Evil characters, in fact.

(Unless the player is a violent religious conservative, of course.)

There are some parallels for this. Various Warhammer 40K games explore a similar territory where the characters enforce a morally repugnant system. Judge Dredd is a very similar character to the Dogs. However, these examples are satirical while Dogs In the Vineyard plays it straight, inviting players to explore its emotional territory and all its complexities without the distancing effect of humor.

As the game says: “Your job as the GM is to present an interesting social situation and provoke the players into judging it.” What I like about this advice is that it strips away the veneer of the character. The player is directly invited to judge.

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