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DitV with my all-LDS D&D Group

A little about our group, because I think it's pertinent here - we're all active members of the LDS church, so we're more than passingly familiar with the source material that Dogs in the Vineyard builds on.  We've been in a long-running (3 year) D&D game together, but someone wasn't going to be able to make this session and there wasn't a good alternate date, so I pitched the idea of running DitV for the remaining players, intended as a one-shot.  Several of them haven't ever roleplayed outside of D&D, so in addition to our shared religious culture, I wanted to run DitV to show them how a different system accomplishes making a story together. It had been more than 10 years since I've run DitV, but I knew it could and would deliver if they'd let it.

I didn't have quite as much time to prep during the week as I'd've liked, so I went looking for pre-made towns and found one I really liked: Bootblack Ridge ( http://www.indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=17472.msg185155#msg185155 ). It features the ghost of a dead Steward and some very well-constructed and subtle differences in what each NPC wants from the Dogs.  Reading through Brendan's town will be important to understand the scenario, as I'll describe reactions to it but not the town setup itself.

Players, their characters, and their initiation conflicts:

Jared, playing Brother Wylin (Complicated History), made a Dog who had lost his parents, and whose father had been a Steward who had apostatized (and who may or may not have been killed by Dogs when Wylin was young). Wylin was bookish and weak, and had a too-big but beautiful coat that had been made with love for someone else but then given to Wylin when that other person couldn't serve as a Dog.  Wylin's initiatory conflict was "I hope I can overcome my belief in my father's false doctrine - that there are really many Gods, not just the King of Life" - He won, which meant that his teachers and others actually failed to get that belief fully from him, but he learned not to talk about it publicly.

Mike, playing Brother Alex, a convert from back East who had been converted by a man who rose to a prominent position in the Faith. Mike decided this meant that Alex thought he was destined for greatness in the Faith too, and his initiatory conflict reflected this: he wanted to develop a small following among the other initiates that would bolster his belief in his chosen destiny.  Even after some big raises by me in the conflict, he eked out a victory on those stakes and nothing his instructors could do would stop others from going to Alex for advice on their problems.

Rob, playing Brother Hamish, a convert from Scotland who made his way to join the Faithful, and who had some scouting experience with the territorial army. He chose an initiation conflict along the lines of "I hope I made a lifelong friend during Inititation" - I paired him with as unlikeable a person as I could manage but he also ended up winning his stakes.

On their way into town, I had them spot what seemed to be a man up on the ridge in his rocking chair watching them come into town (the ghost of murdered Steward Boaz).  They rode in and found the acting Steward, Silas, and heard his point of view on things, then ended up seeing demon-possessed Sister Clemence and the barber Brother Levi tending to her. Further interviews with Brother Nahum and even Sister Eliphal all seemed to back up the same idea; that the mountain person Hazel had been the cause of the town's trouble and that she continued to curse the town from her hiding place in the mountains, and that Brother Silas ought to be the new steward, and that Steward Boaz had done wrong by defending her from Silas and his gang.

When they visited Sis Eliphal sick in her bed, she described feeling like there was a bloated baby sucking the life from her neck, so they tried to exorcise that demon, during which Bro Hamish took significant physical fallout. Instead of making him seek medical attention, we launched into a followup conflict where the demon tried to take direct possession of Hamish's body. He succeeded only by bringing in just about every ceremony he could think of, including finally eating his jar of Sacred Earth to get it inside him where it could do the most good.  

Exhausted after that ordeal, they retired for the night, staying with Brother Nahum, the dry goods store owner who'd seemed nice enough. We determined the following morning was Sunday and that Bro Silas had all but announced to everyone that the Dogs would be ordaining him as the new Steward at the morning service.  But at dawn, the Dogs found their way up onto Bootblack Ridge and found the fresh grave of Steward Boaz and the wilflowers left there by Sister Hazel, and the ghostly personage of Boaz himself. As they listened to his side of the story, it started to 'click' for them that there really was a strong opposition view to what they'd been told up to this point. They consecrated Steward Boaz's grave and set out to find Hazel.

(by this time, it was 1130pm; we usually play till midnight, so we started to compress time when we could).

Sister Hazel made clear that it was Sis Eliphal who first came to her for the mountain-person remedy, and that Eliphal and Nahum had committed carnal sin together. Hazel refused to go back into town with the Dogs and they decided not to make a conflict out of that in the interest of time. So they went back down into town, interrupted services, and brought everyone from the church over to the barber shop to witness as Brother Alex cast the demon out of Sister Clemence.  By now I had revealed as far as Murder so I had big 5d10 demonic influence dice, so I was making things pretty difficult for Alex. He pulled in lots of traits & relationships but took some "fighting-level" Fallout when the demon switched bodies to Eliphal and came at him with a handy razor (Clemence died without it to sustain her). He failed the exorcism (Demon-possessed Eliphal left) and failed his Fallout conflict and was going to die, so he had a death scene where he passed the mantle of "chosen one" on to Brother Hamish.

Brother Silas and his gang called them false Dogs and drew guns on them, some gunfighting found Silas dead and Hamish wounded.  Brother Wylin took 3d10 gunfighting fallout but rolled 2,3,4 and wasn't wounded at all - we determined it'd passed through his huge coat and _looked like_ it hit him in the chest but just made a hole in the coat.

At this point, we were past midnight and needed to wrap up quick, so I asked them how they wanted things to go.  Clemence and Silas were already dead, and Boaz laid to rest, but they decided to
- Kill Eliphal and hopefully get rid of the demon in the process
- Kill Nahum because of his adultery and lying to them about it
- follow Sis Leah's advice and publicly shame any remaining men and women who had committed sin

So they seemed committed to peaceful resolution up until the conflict where Alex and Clemence died, at which point they killed Silas, Eliphal, and Nahum.  They appointed Brother Levi as Steward. Sister Hazel and Boaz-and-Eliphal's young son Newton they took on to the next town.

Text from one of my players the following day: "It was definitely a "Well that escalated quickly!" ending! I had a blast. I really enjoyed the 1st-person role-playing and emphasis on the narrative style. Very interesting game mechanic compared to D&D. I know we said it was a one-shot, but if Mike ends up having to miss again during basketball season, I'd be happy to pick up with the surviving characters."

 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Dave, I'm working with a bias in that I don't like using others' towns for playing Dogs in the Vineyard, and can't get over the idea that doing so is missing an important feature of play. So, imagine this post littered with edits where I deleted phrases or tangents that keep repeating that.

In this case, I'm interested in the quick escalation. Given that there was a demon to exorcise, which is pretty much a "top o' the list" item, that doing so was a dangerous and, regarding the host, a violent act, and that the other malefactors in the situation were primed for full-on guns response ... I'm not seeing an escalation so much as a mandated showdown. It reminds me of many published Call of Cthulhu scenarios in which "investigate, investigate, revelation, bloodbath-y showdown" is genuinely all there is to do.

Part of that has to do with apparently heinous and entirely unsympathetic evildoers: murderers, racists, liars, and opportunists. They seem less like characters, more like roaches. Demon or no demon, going into pest-control mode and literally cleaning-up the town seems like the only and sensible option.

I could be misreading or basing my reading on necessarily incomplete information; after all, I wasn't there. If it seems like that to you, can you identify a series of interactions and rolls that presented unpredictable or unknown paths of possible outcomes, and for which what happened was "what we did and the way it went," as opposed to the utterly clear step-through-this-way sequence I described? Similarly, am I missing something about the NPCs which rendered them more understandable as persons?

 

Ron, thanks, those are useful questions.

First, about using a pre-prepped town;  you rightly point out that the rules expect that you'll make your own towns. And you may have observed in the way I described the way I went out looking at old Forge posts for towns that I have some small guilt about this. However, since character creation for the first session happens after you've already prepped the town, I feel like the real benefits of town creation are in campaign play, that is, after we start to see what kinds of decisions players are making about where the lines of morality are.  Knowing my players (but not what choices they would make during character creation) was enough to convince me that this town had something to offer the group.  Would my connection to the NPCs be fuller, my instincts deeper, if I had been the one to create the town?  Perhaps, yeah, so you're right to point that out, particularly as it relates to your larger question of whether large-scale violent climax was inevitable in this session.  More on that below.

But are we seeing  Pride: Dave thinks he has other priorities that interfere with prep time => Injustice: Dave disregards the rules and seeks out a pre-written town => Sin: the town can only end in a pre-destined showdown that abandons the "don't plan outcomes" principle in DitV?  I don't think that's what happened here for us on this occasion, but it requires some further explanation to understand why I think that.

Did the fact that Sis Clemence had some kind of demonic possession and the fact that there were gun-wielders on her side predestine a violent showdown? I'm not convinced; in fact, I think more than anything the thing that led to the extent of the violence was our end-of-night time pressure.
 

Early in the "investigation phase", the Dogs encountered Clemence, bleeding through sheet after sheet and quilt after quilt on the floor of Levi's barber shop.   I "actively revealed the town" by saying that in Levi's opinion there had been far more blood than one human could produce, but that she just wouldn't die. The Dogs discussed then and there whether to attempt an exorcism or whether to continue talking to more folk to find out additional perspectives.  If they had attempted to exorcise Clemence then & there, I think things could have gone very differently for the rest of the session.  For one thing, at that point I would have fewer Demonic Influence dice since the murder of Boaz hadn't been revealed (I don't count them spotting his ghost on the ridge since they didn't know what that was yet).  If they had succeeded in casting out Clemence's demon, she would either have died during the conflict or we'd have launched a follow-up conflict about saving her life.   From there, the session would have moved into different terrain as the Dogs revealed the rest of the town without the demon still possessing Clemence.  Maybe it would have come to fighting Silas et al, but that wouldn't have been inevitable. Maybe a healed Clemence would convince them to go hunt down Hazel instead.

Another spot when things could have gone a different direction would have been if things had proceeded as they did, but Alex survived the exorcism conflict and/or succeeded in exorcising Clemence at the end. By that point they weren't disposed to ordain Silas as Steward, but it probably only turned into a gunfight there because I knew we were past midnight and wanted to pile on pressure to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible. 

 

Most of the deaths really took place outside the conflict mechanics altogether in a kind of quick epilogue as players were itching to get home to bed.  So I think the time pressure more than the town itself caused us to allow that violence to blossom beyond the single demon-possessed Clemence.  Part of that is certainly mine to own as GM in terms of rushing-to-some-conclusion-any-conclusion.

Ron Edwards's picture

That helps me understand better. As you point out, it might not be the most edifying or play-is-the-priority answer, but life is real and games have to suck it up sometimes.

My current reliance on online/screen play has taught me a few things, one of them being that short-form play without driving at climactic conclusion isn't too bad a thing. The Sorcerer game in particular benefits from its limited session time, and hasn't suffered from "didn't have time to do anything" at all. I'm trying to get past certain learning-curve and screen-based slowdowns for my other games, but they are indeed showing me that it's not really important to make sessions into episodes. That's a bit tough for me to swallow as I've often striven for sessions to be enjoyable units of entertainment and experience, and even designed toward that with some emphasis. But looking at my current array of games in action, and thinking about what you're describing here, maybe it's time to relax that self-imposed constraint. There are a lot of games which have suffered in popular estimation and understanding because they are too often shoehorned into shorter-form play than they need to shine, especially in the one-shot convention showcase high-pressure situation, among them My Life with Master, The Mountain Witch, and in other examples besides yours that I've seen, Dogs.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm asking because you called attention to an issue in your post title and in the opening text. What do the players including you being members, and I presume observant, in the LDS have to do with it?

That phrasing isn't intended to imply that it shouldn't. Nor would I suggest - had it been the case, that I'd somehow known, and you happened not to mention it - that it should. I'm neutral on all of that when speaking in general. But here, in this specific case, you did bring it forward so I'm interested in why.

Possible answer #1 is "No real reason, it happens to be true and makes for an eye-catching title. Once it's performed that function, though, I didn't develop it in the text and don't think it had much to do with play." In which case, yup, I got it and done.

Possible answer #2 is "Oh yeah, I want to tell you about that, because this and that and the other thing." In which case, I'm interested.

I got to thinking about lore of yore, so I pulled up this here, a search page for "LDS" at the old Lumpley forum at the Forge. (looks like you have to be logged in there to see it, so I'll get some of the interesting individual links later)

Basically #1, though I expect if this were to run into multiple sessions we would see that evolve more into #2 and #3. 

Okay a teeny bit of #2 - Because we all have the same cultural language about our religion, it meant that the players were automatically 'on the same page' about what The Faith does and doesn't think is OK.  There weren't a lot of gray areas anyway in this town but it meant there wasn't very much difference from one player to the next on where the lines should be drawn, at least in the town we dealt with. Over time, could I play with the very real differences in where the players appear to draw the lines as individual observant Latter-Day Saints and bring those into play? Maybe. But I'd want to make sure that kind of thing was covered in a kind of lines-and-veils discussion of sorts before making it A Thing. 

On the minus side, the fact that we all share that culture meant that it was easy(er) for players to turn something that should be pretty serious in-fiction into a joke about modern Mormonism as we experience it.  Excerpt from our slack channel in the lead-up to the game:

rob: [9:23 PM]: @mike, lets start off roleplaying a conversation where we're discussing who is doing their home teaching, who isn't, and how we can help the families under our stewardship. Maybe suggested lesson topics for those teaching the flock

mike [9:24 PM]: You mean the Faith?

jared [9:24 PM]: ... and which ones to shoot in the street apparently

mike [9:24 PM]: "Listen, we're only going to shoot you once... for each month you didn't do your home teaching."

jared [9:26 PM]: funny - this Steward of this branch used to report 24% home teaching, but it has been 100% since Brother Renfield had a run-in with the Dogs

(I had pasted into the channel some of the text of the book, including the example under "A Dog's Authority" where the Dogs kill a man the steward had been working on redeeming)

(Added to clarify: what I'm calling #3 is your paragraph about lore of yore, meaning that LDS players steeped in that lore would automatically draw on it in play)

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks. I am generally interested in religions as such, religious outlooks and upbringing, and fictional religions, especially in role-playing, so I'll tell you my thoughts in the interest of clarity. There's no intended challenge and I don't mean for this thread to continue if you don't want.

First, I've noted that discussions of Dogs in the Vineyard often confound the setting of the game with either today's Church of Latter-Day Saints or more generally, modern Mormonism. Whereas I see it as a fantasy or magical-realism version of the early 1800s when no such thing existed, but instead the disconnected ferment of practices and social organization, which, in this setting, will one day become such a major institution. Therefore there's no need to "get" actual LDS (et cetera) history, and that nailling down any parallel or exactitude may be fun, or it may become misplaced effort.

Second, and related, misplaced effort from what? This part is tricky because I've been dismayed for over a decade at how badly various discussions have addressed the game's primary conceptual strength, as I see it. The key is that whatever the Dogs do, in the long run, will in the implied future-fictional saga, ,become doctrine. The phrase "the Dogs are always right" refers to the attitude of the future generations toward what they do, not to some mystical/metaphysical aspect of the setting. It is not license - far from it, it's the opposite, and quite terrifying: that on these utterly unprepared late-teens' shoulders lies the future social identity and function of this powerful church. For good or ill ... potentially very ill. Missing that point is especially easy to do if one is busy being verisimilitude-y about LDS history or projecting the modern-day into the game.

Third, there's a rich history of people with varying personal history in Mormonism/LDS encountering the game, which you've been part of for quite a while. I have too, despite being outside the margins, including getting Vincent and Jake Norwood together at GenCon in 2004, which I understand to have been significant. I think it's been a valuable and fascinating phenomenon in role-playing history, and would love to see someone summarize and reflect upon it, as a Seminar topic.

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