A Terrible Dogs in the Vineyard Session!

A month or two ago I got interested in playing Dogs in the Vineyard because of some of the discussion here about it. I played with the same people that I played my very successful game of The Pool with after taking a couple weeks break from playing when that game ended.

So, we made characters, and the players seemed pretty excited. I was getting excited too, but there was something bothering me…the conflict resolution system. Even playing through the three small conflicts that end character creation was a drag. And not because people weren’t trying or giving up in frustration, but because the whole process of describing every little detail of the many back and forths quickly drained us all creatively. Only one of the conflicts was fun to play throughout. And by the end of each one I was tempted to give just to get to stop narrating.

But we had our characters, and I prepped a pretty cool town that week. You’ve got a guy who has been traumatized by the horrific death of his son who is failing to take care of his wife…who is of course sleeping with another man who pays for her food and clothes. And his wife is now a sorcerer, through no real fault of her own besides desperation and hunger. So I was really excited to see what they would do with this situation, and my girlfriend had said to me that week how much she liked her character and was interested in the setting, so naturally I was looking forward to what she was going to do! (oof, sorry if these sentences are terrible but I am tired today!)

So we started playing, and some short conflicts got resolved. I realized very quickly that for the dogs to fail at a conflict would require a long war of attrition on my part–escalating, bringing in traits (which means writing them on the fly for the NPC unless they already have one from a previous conflict, so yay even more exhausting mandated creativity in order to just resolve one little bit of uncertainty), creating relationships…and for the early conflicts, I was unwilling to do this, so the dogs walked all over my characters.

The second session started with my girlfriend’s character, Sister Submit, battling it out verbally with a sorcerer. Cool right? Wrong. Once the trait dice started hitting the table, and the conflict escalated, we were looking at like…30 minutes of narrating back and forth. I tried to make it consequential, but not every narration can be “she tips over the lantern and the whole room goes up in flames.” It just isn’t possible given the constraints on what you can say at the time. I realized that I would have to give for the conflict to end it  without exhausting us, but I really didn’t want to. This was my cool sorcerer! She had cool cat eyes and her kitchen knife hit like a gun!

Then the worst happened. Sister Submit escalated to shooting, and suddenly we were rolling in even more fucking dice. At that point, everyone in the group, including me, decided to end the game and play something else next time. The good thing was that everyone was in agreement. And I don’t feel any need to defend games that clearly aren’t working just because of other people venerating them online–I was the one who initiated the end of the session/the game. The worst part was that my girlfriend thought she had done something wrong by even beginning the conflict, but all of us reassured her that it was the system that was failing us and I think she felt ok after that. But I felt similarly whenever I called for a conflict–do I really want to go through all this fucking back and forth bullshit right now?

Dogs in the Vineyard failed as a game for all of us. To be honest, it didn’t feel like it worked as a game at all. Any game that makes me hesitant to grab the dice, that makes me not want conflict to happen (when normally I love dice, I love hard hitting failure etc.) is failing as a game. The rules of the text were not fun when we tried to use them. I think that the requirment to think outside of the box for round after round of raising and seeing (or else you are just saying “I block his swing”, “I swing at him”) is simply not sustainable in a 2 – 3 hour game for me.


10 responses to “A Terrible Dogs in the Vineyard Session!”

  1. You’re Not the Only One

    Hi Sam! Overall my experience was similar, although not quite as tough as yours. One thing we did was to make sure we made our "sees" very simple, so that they didn't require much creativity – "I just look at her," for example, would be a see. 

    I wonder what the game would be like if much fewer dice were used.

  2. It’s pretty clunky

    I do love Dogs, but the resolution system is pretty clunky. It can absolutely give rise to great scenes and give some amazing bounce, but it's much too finicky and drawn out for my tastes. The late great Swedish RPG theorist Johan Rising once did a simplified version using playing cards and a liar's dice bluffing mechanic that took a lot of the finicky stuff out but left the interesting parts. I don't think he ever finished or playtested it (which was unfortunately par for the course with him), but it looked really promising to me.

  3. Singing for your supper

    I don’t think I have to go into any detail about the toxic mess of “you can’t roll until you do your performing seal act of scintillating description, and after you roll, guess what, it means you can get up and do another act just like it. System!!!”

    I completely agree that working through Dogs in the Vineyard’s conflict instructions, as well as those in In a Wicked Age …, promotes this behavior and looks like it’s what the mechanics are for. No argument. This is probably even where Wushu picked it up, for the results anyone can see: the single worst RPG publication of the past two decades. (See the discussion in Design Curriculum #3: Talk/Roll.)

    Therefore what follows isn’t apologia for the game, or a claim that “well, you didn’t play it right.” It is a demonstration of black belt work with a text, for purposes of practical functional play. Figuring out whether it reflects authorial intent is someone else’s problem.

    Victory is not a mystery

    There is no Bounce during Raises and Sees. Once the two handsful of dice are rolled and sitting there, victory is fixed (not counting innumeracy and misplays).

    In the book’s example, B wins, as they have more dice and more higher-value comparisons – the single higher value of 7 to B’s 6 is not enough.

    A (“you”): 1 2 2 3 4 4 7

    B (“I”): 1 1 1 3 4 5 6 6

    There are three variables (number of dice, total value of each set of dice, distribution of values within each set), so it’s not a single simple curve, but the algorithm for victory ought to be easy to figure out for people who like doing those.

    As an example of something that would pop out in a graphic version, these two rolls have the same number of dice and the same total:

    A: 6, 6, 6, 1, 1, 1

    B: 4, 4, 4, 3, 3, 3

    A wins by Raising with with 6+6, which forces B to sacrifice all three 4’s, then 6+1 which burns the three 3’s. Meaning: given equality in these two key variables, then the distribution of values matters, favoring the wider spread.

    Raises and Sees are not Bounce

    The Raise-and-See process determines who takes how much Fallout. This is a bit flexible because A chooses what to Raise with (it can be any pair of dice) and B chooses what to oppose with (a pair of higher dice or three or more lower ones). We must proceed by assuming this is not about numeracy and that no one is bad at seeing how to do it, after a learning curve.

    Imagine the book’s example if each player Raised with their highest pair available and Saw with the best combination to preserve high dice. I won’t go through it step by step, but the result is that B wins and A has to Take the Blow, gaining Fallout. Whereas in the book, A initially Raises with a median value (4+3), preserving high dice, so it concludes with B winning, as is preordained, but A takes no Fallout.

    Raising and Seeing toward this end is still not Bounce because there is only one optimal way to minimize Fallout and/or feed your opponent some Fallout, every time. Therefore Fallout is also fixed as a rolled outcome. (I do not take seriously the possible justification that differences in personal mathematical agility are supposed to deliver Bounce.)

    Conclusion 1: Don’t fuck around pretending that the turns for Raise-and-See change the outcome; they don’t. The only value added is choreography for which both people get to contribute.  

    If we embrace that as a feature, then, contrary to all assumptions, I think the best default narration for any Raise or See is extremely minimal and not expected to be distinctive or dramatic. Therefore if-and-when someone is hit by inspiration, that particular Raise or See is valuable and the narration’s impact will correspond to the value. (Which, incidentally, does not mean the talking has to be longer.)

    Addendum: some Bounce. Escalations and Traits bring in the strongest influence or variation, because you don’t know what effectiveness the new dice add, or fail to, until after you have committed to them. The fictional component does matter here, because you may enter the productive decision space in which you could win or have a much better chance to win if you Escalate, or use this-or-that Trait, or both … but only by doing something you might rather not do at this moment or to this person.

    That basically keeps us still in Conclusion 1. These narrations as well should be kept quite brief and barely enough to say what’s being brought in. Because, again, if-and-when a given choice for Escalation or Trait is surprising or revealing or otherwise cathartic, its narration stands out.


    It is very rightly asked, why can’t we just dispense with the Raises and Sees and all that shit. Why tap-dance and seal-bark like this? One can even justifiably reject the two-person choreography argument; you don’t have to embrace it as a Feature, it really only adds value if you specifically want to do it, not because two is intrinsically better than one or five or twenty.

    The game does permit Gives – just lose the conflict and all the dice go away. Consider flipping the whole explanation of the system around so that Gives are the default upon looking at the dice, if one doesn’t want to Escalate. Then Raises and Sees would only become used when people want to engage in the two-person choreography.

    Conclusion 2: When you’re losing, frigging Give. Right away. But consider the questions below carefully.

    Since the game doesn’t lean this way in its explanations, a couple of important questions (if one were do that) remain unclear to me.

    1: Can a person say “I Give” when they have superior dice, thus throwing the conflict? I hope not; that destroys the point of rolling dice at all.

    2: Most important, do the Stakes apply in full, to their fullest possible fictional effect? Thus, for a mutual-murder gunfight, I could look at the dice and just say, “I Give,” and get my head blown off (and get it over with, basically).

    If so, what does that mean for Fallout? Is it bypassed in more extreme form, or is it bypassed meaning no such effects apply?

    If it’s more (i.e., “worse than Fallout”), my character is dead as mutton, simply by Giving: no Fallout Sum calculation or roll or anything. If it’s less, then somehow you “won” the conflict to kill me but because I took no Fallout, I’m not in danger of dying. I prefer the former, obviously, as the latter is blither, but the book is quite silent about this.

    Consider a less lethal situation, however. This guy is shouting at that guy to get out of his house (so no lives are on the line, unlike the book’s example in which talking is literally lethal for someone). So, we look at the dice, and one person obviously loses, so the player Gives. Well … is it like the gunfight above? Do we proceed as if the losing party took any-and-all conceivable Fallout and worse? Or do we ignore Fallout and just proceed with minimal/basic success in the victor getting what they want? Here, it seems like the opposite conclusion is better, to say that Fallout or its fictional equivalent (disastrous consequences) isn’t relevant.

    3: Related to the above, what is this about Cut Your Losses? To Give is supposed to mean losing this conflict for real, fully … but also, apparently, ceding it on your own terms such that you retain some kind of advantage for the next conflict. I cannot make sense of this whatsoever. What does “ceding it on your own terms” even mean, given that you are fictionally overwhelmed and at the victor’s mercy?

    Also, the Fallout consequences (or the equivalent of Fallout, the most consequential defeat, basically) make no sense at all. The text says outright that you’d Give when you you don’t want the upcoming Fallout from Taking the Blow. But this was evident from the start – it’s not some revelation in the middle of the choreography. If Giving were always a Get Out of Fallout Free option, the loser should Give every single time at the beginning of every single conflict, and no Fallout would ever be gained, let alone applied.

    I concluded back in 2006 or so that I wouldn’t play Dogs in the Vineyard again unless the group and I answered these questions and formalized how to Give – basically, completing the game design.

    • I’m going to say a bunch of

      I'm going to say a bunch of stuff but I want to make it clear that this is totally from my experience with the game. It's not a "you're doing it wrong" statement but rather "how I made it work" perspective.

      I absolutely agree with Ron that you want to keep your Raises and Sees short and pithy. But I'm going to a step further and say they need to be poignent. And that poignency is directly related to the Giving mechanism. It's why I think what you SAY with a Raise is profoundly important.  Let me see if I can articulate why.

      So, first, I think a lot of people think the whole thing about Talking->Physical->Physical Violence->Guns thing is one way.  It is not. You can totally shoot at someone to get your gun dice and then go right back to talking. Depending on how they responded this may be you hunkered down behind a wall shouting at them or standing over their bleeding body. Either way the what ever it is you say should emotionally land harder than a gun shot. In short: the person should be wishing you had just killed them rather than have to respond to the thing you just said.

      Which brings me to Giving. Ron asked "Can you Give if you have superior dice?" to which my answer is, "DEAR LORD YES! Because it's the only way the side with losing dice can win!" How? By timing a Raise and targeting such that the person (a) has to Take the Blow and (b) absolutely DOES NOT WANT TO on purely ficitonal and emotional terms.

      In other words every Raise should make the character with superior dice think, "I can win this but I don't want to if it means…"

      Early on this is largely a matter of life and death which is why I think Vincent was always saying your first town should go up to Hate and Murder. Let there be a clear bad guy and have a cool shoot out with some sorcery flying around. People know taking gun fallout can kill them so it's simple:

      "I can win this, but I don't want to if it means I might die."

      Once you're a few Towns in you start to see where the characters stand ideologically. Fallout changes a character so you start to learn where the character's don't want to change and you targer your most powerful Raises THERE.

      "I can win this but I don't want to if it means I might die." switftly turns into "I can win this but not if it means I have to admit Sister Helvetica' infidelity was justified."  Especially since I executed Brother Ariel two towns ago over his.


      You know, they start shooting to avoid the topic. Can you admit you were WRONG and Change? Because your two options are (a) stay silent and concede or (b) kill those who have laid your flaws bare.

      At least that's how I played it and the Raise/See system was not at all overlong and boring. It was a series of sharp very tense emotional jabs as you attempt to drive the other side into Giving.

      And for what it's worth as a GM I am ALWAYS open to having this happen to the NPCs.  A lot of times I Give because the player just said something so utterly crushing that I'm like, "Oh yeah, that just knocks the wind of him. He falls to the ground in tears. It's over."

      So yeah, that's my take on it.  It's been at least 15 years since I played but that's how my play went.


    • Jesse, I completely agree

      Jesse, I completely agree with you. I think the Italian edition of Dogs has incorporated these very tips in a more explicit way. They have certainly helped me to aim for strong, hard-to-ignore Raises during the game, the kind that forces players to ask themselves how far they are willing to go. I think that answers, comprehensively, Ron's first question.

      As for the second question:

      2: Most important, do the Stakes apply in full, to their fullest possible fictional effect? Thus, for a mutual-murder gunfight, I could look at the dice and just say, "I Give," and get my head blown off (and get it over with, basically).

      the manual actually offers a clear procedure: if the stakes were "Will my character die?", and you were to decide to Give, you act as if you had scored 16 Fallout with the appropriate size dice. A Fallout that high leads to being knocked out and, without adequate medical care, dying quickly. I think it's a good compromise from the two positions – ignoring the Fallout procedure and ending up with superficial wounds due to ridiculous randomness – but I haven't yet had a chance to test how the mechanic works practically at the table.

      A certain element of the discussion struck me: why stay in the conflict when you clearly observe that you have lower dice than your opponent? It's a rationally nonsensical behavior, but I think the promise of that Bounce offered not only by Escalation, but also by Traits and the elements that can be summoned from the physical scenario make you want to risk to defend what you want. 

      In one town I played, the Dogs confronted a sorcerer who asked their forgiveness for the death of a child caused by his greed. Players didn't back down even in the face of their opponent's dice superiority while racking up considerable fallout. In these moments I see a decisive choice by the players: not backing down to defend what is right, even in the face of defeat – as actually happened, with disastrous cascading results. I think they are beautiful moments, perhaps derived from a lack of knowledge of the rules of the game, but particularly strong and emotional. They certainly offer material to offer even stronger conflicts in later towns.

    • Thanks for all the replies. I

      Thanks for all the replies. I think Ron's is the only one that actually helps my concern, to be a little blunt. I think identifying the holes in the rules for when/how to Give really helps me to understand what was going wrong, because in play we were certainly keeping narrations short (there are so many to do!). Relying on the presence of "interesting" sees/raises is irrelevant because interesting ones will present themselves organically and cannot be just created out of nothing, which is something I found out by trying to make them happen and utterly failing. I get this now and I think I understood this in my gut after the session failed out. 

      The only thing that I am having a hard time with understanding in these posts is the idea of predicting a loss for yourself as simple. When you are playing an NPC, you will often have no pre-written traits. They get filled out as a session progresses. Traits can be extremely important in changing the dice pool to your favor, and I saw this happen while playing (which made me even more quick to stop playing). In conflicts with a sorcerer or a possessed person, dice from demons can suddenly be added (which can mean another 5d10 hitting the table plus some hefty 2d10 traits). I don't think it is always as simple to recognize when you are losing given the ability to get more dice from escalation and traits up until the last 2 or 3 raise/sees. Once we hit this point, we were quick to give…but it relieved none of the pain of going through the procedures up to that point. Basically, the more you care about winning this conflict the more painful playing it becomes, and that is really not a good feeling. 

      The presence of Cut Your Losses confused me even further. I don't know what else to say about it. 

      Warning!!! The below paragraph contains extremely disorganized thoughts that are poorly articulated due to tiredness (as do all of these paragraphs…)

      I think the advice about making raises poignant doesn't really help me, because the conflicts we ran into trouble resolving were building the tension and creating a more complex situation that the players could engage with from the simple pieces of the backstory and current situation that the players gain from interactions with NPCs. For example, the result of this conflict about making someone see their sins for what they are will create a much more complex situation after the conflict is resolved. My choices in these conflicts will color my future choices…but I need to get through these choices/conflicts first! I don't know if this makes sense…I am basically saying that you can't go all "will you really do that?" on the players if you're just warming up the engines–

      Just because it is on my sheet that this guy did this to this guy etc. doesn't mean that the players know that or care about it. I think if we had gotten farther in we could have had some hard-hitting moral decisions come into play, but moral decisions need to come from somewhere…and we couldn't even get far enough to really get to them to the point where they make us want to go through the raise/see process. So poignant sees/raises have to come organically, their existance cannot be a rule, is how I see it. When they come up we will put them into play…sure. And so they don't fix the issue I am talking about. 

      Wow, my thoughts are messy, but I hope you can see the point I am trying to make. Again, all the replies are appreciated! 

  4. Coming back to it

    The only thing that I am having a hard time with understanding in these posts is the idea of predicting a loss for yourself as simple. 

    Playing Shock with you last week made me think, “Yay, Sam!!”, and then I realized I hadn’t followed up in this post.

    In predicting a loss, I’m talking about right at the moment that dice have hit the table, when looking at the numbers that are showing. It’s true that the dice can change up via escalation, but when that happens, I’m talking about a new assessment when the new dice have hit the table. My discussion of knowing the success or failure is a matter of right-now, for the current dice totals, going into Raises and Sees, specifically about the content and meaning of that exchange, i.e., that they contribute little if any Bounce.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong. Your point raises another, more important question, regarding whether going to a “new dice” step reflects or creates a genuine fictional sense of escalation. Is it, or does it feel, causal from the content of the previous Raises and Sees?

    In retrospect, I can see why the fiction-first/system-first debate at Anyway, which I do not think has much substance and has understandably gone nowhere, began with this very game on people’s minds. You can’t formulate any debate about functionality for rules that aren’t there. If the rules for Giving were clarified, then escalation would be understandable as why one might or might not do it in a given moment (the sense of “cause”), and therefore the Raises and Sees within a given dice-comparison would be engaging because they would affect that might/might-not.

    That’s really what I hoped for in playing the game, especially differences of viewpoints among the player-characters. I don’t see “hunt the demon wumpus” or “get everyone to group-hug” as the emotional core of play, at least for me. Instead, it’s the possibility that one Dog did escalate (or Give) in that particular moment of conflict, and another Dog thinks or says, “why in the name of the Three would you do that,” and therefore the situation has changed. Not because the town swings this way or that way as a final effect, but because the Dogs inside the situation may reconsider their views and their relationships to one another, and we continue to play with more uncertainty, and perhaps some trepidation, about what will eventually occur here.

    It will probably not surprise you that our game waaay back in 2005 fell apart right at this moment when we couldn’t understand what Giving did, during a lethal gunfight. We finished out the town, but it was mostly pro forma after that point, and we didn’t continue.

    I’m pulling these quotes out from your discussion of narrating Raises and Sees, because I think they are actually more important and substantial than that limited topic.

    … the conflicts we ran into trouble resolving were building the tension and creating a more complex situation that the players could engage with from the simple pieces of the backstory and current situation that the players gain from interactions with NPCs. For example, the result of this conflict about making someone see their sins for what they are will create a much more complex situation after the conflict is resolved. My choices in these conflicts will color my future choices…but I need to get through these choices/conflicts first! I don't know if this makes sense…I am basically saying that you can't go all "will you really do that?" on the players if you're just warming up the engines–

    … moral decisions need to come from somewhere…and we couldn't even get far enough to really get to them to the point where they make us want to go through the raise/see process.

    I went to all the trouble of doing that in order to write one simple reply: yes, yes, yes, yes.

  5. Reflections on the death of a group (2 years out):
    After playing this failed game of Dogs in the Vineyard…this group of players never came back together. Although I remember laying out my thoughts on why we failed to have fun together this time, the intensity of the fail state was high. It really deflated two of the three other players. We picked up a game of Trollbabe the next week and two of the players were very timid and disinterested. And then we stopped playing together.
    I think failing at a game that we all took to be a genius influential game really tore up the confidence and trust we had built (or maybe schedules just got messed up, I don’t know). Since then, I have had failed sessions that didn’t cause the group to dissipate. I’m wondering how we come back from bigger failures, especially with new players who are just beginning to build their confidence. This topic might be better for a new post but I wanted to start with this.

    • The first thing I can think of is: if I’m introducing someone to this activity, I will select from a handful of games that I know will work for us. So far this list includes Lamentations of the Flame Princess, The Pool, Trollbabe, Sorcerer, Champions Now, all of which I have played with new players. But sometimes we will fail, and it won’t be the fault of the game we’re using. That’s something I don’t feel I have a great answer for yet. But I do have a recent example:
      I was recently playing S/lay W/me with my partner. Our first session was awesome, easily the best session of the game I’ve played. In the second one, we failed and had to stop.
      The next night, we were hanging out, walking around Northampton and we started talking about the session. They told me they didn’t know if they had the authority to say a specific thing happened, which made them get stuck and frustrated while trying to finish their go with a proper forward moving action. I want to note that they don’t know any of the terminology we use here–they said it for themselves. So we talked about authorities for a few minutes and that was that. No need for a huge debrief. This was a casual interaction that took about 5 minutes. Since then, we have gone on to play more in a normal and fun way.

    • I’ve been thinking about it on and off since you posted this originally. There are a lot of variables, including the reputation of a game as “fun in a can,” which is a burden that no game can or should carry. For one thing, it dampens the perfectly ordinary capacity to arrive at a table-top solution and be happy doing so. I think that may be my general response: allowing for “well, let’s fix it this way,” whether for now or pending a review of the text. I don’t know if this always works – I’ve been thrown off a game more than once too – but I know things have gone easier when I took a more generous approach in the face of gathering murk.

      Regarding Dogs specifically, I’ve been planning to review it in light of Adriano’s comment (the rule regarding giving), which I think is based on the Italian publication, as it’s absent in my version.

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