Dogs in the Vineyard: who do you know in Town?

I’ve been going through a really fun process of exploring and discovering (or rediscovering) “classic” indie/story games of the Forge era.

*A short aside: *

The current trends in game design seem to be largely focused on very freeform gaming (e.g. Follow, Fall of Magic) or PbtA games (or similar games which are traditional, but with more modern mechanics, like Tales from the Loop). I’m sure it’s just a temporary phase, but I’m finding it’s really nice to go back to these games and experience a large variety of design styles from game to game.

The latest game I’ve returned to is Dogs in the Vineyard. I loved this game and ran it quite a few times for different groups, but it’s been about 9 years since I’ve played it.

Rereading it and learning to play all over again is both challenging and tremendously rewarding. The rulebook is written in an incredibly approachable way and is just fun to read, as well as being a great teaching text.

However, I’m bumping into an interesting issue. Every Dog starts with some Relationship dice, which can be assigned to people who are important to you. As written, the game tells you not to assign most of your dice, because you don’t know who you’ll meet just yet. And it also tells the GM to prep a Town, completely separately from the players (i.e. the players do not participate in that process at all).

In most of the best Dogs play I’ve seen, the GM and/or group does something to conspire or contrive to have some close relationships between the townspeople and the Dogs. (Especially important if it’s a one-shot!) This really heightens play and makes things much more interesting. It’s also fairly believable, in a setting where tight-knit families settle a new land, and there could be relatives and old friends everywhere you go.

In my best Dogs campaign, I had the players tell me a bit about NPCs that were close to their heart - loved ones, family, enemies, etc - and I told them that for their first time out as brand new Dogs, they’d be visiting their own home Towns, to have their first experiences as Dogs and to have a chance to say hello to their families before they set out “on the road”. Our campaign took us through their hometowns, with great results. (We never intended to go to any other Towns, in other words; “visiting your home towns” was the campaign frame, and I populated each one with NPCs the players had invented.)

In my current game(s), I’m experimenting with including an NPC from the Town they’re visiting in their initiation conflicts, which has been reasonably useful, as well. (I’m still not 100% sure about this technique.)

However, the Dogs text is interesting. On one hand, the procedures of play, as written, don’t do much to create relevant relationships to the Dogs in the Towns they visit. On the other hand, in the examples of Town creation, the GM makes a real effort to make sure they do. In the first example, the GM specifically adds a family member for each Dog in the Town, and doesn’t stop until he has done so.

It seems like a bit of tension between the procedures and the examples. Did the players come up with those family members, or did the GM just dictate their relationships to them?

In most Dogs play, the GM generates the Town before the players make their characters, during prep time for the game. That makes it difficult to do this in any way that includes the players.

So, what’s the actual procedure here? How is this intended to go? How do you do it?

What’s the best way to create Towns in such a way that the Dogs run into important relations of theirs?

@lumpley, have you written about this anywhere? I know you’ve taken the game “off the shelves”, but if you’re willing to satisfy my curiosity, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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John S. (who used to go by “jenskot”) is quite possibly the most experienced Dogs GM in the world, having run the game at conventions well over a hundred times. His method (for one shots) is fantastic:

He prepares all the NPCs before the game, and then tells the players (as they create their characters) to come up with some intense, grabby relationships to them. I’m using this method in my current Dogs game, and it really helps make for a much more interesting game.

However, I’m really curious what the original intent of the rules was, and how Vincent or other people who were running a lot of Dogs back in the day were doing it.

My thoughts: If you find a particular way that you like to do it, that’s fine, do it that way. If it’s within the rules, groovy, it’s within the rules. If it’s not within the rules, cool, nobody minds.

This is what John S. did, and if you like his method, use it. It’s fine.

In con games and with players new to the game, my method was to take care to prompt the players with “does anybody want a relationship with this person?” for every NPC I introduced. With experienced players, I just made sure they remembered the rules for relationships and then let them make their own choices unprompted.

It’s pretty likely that the examples in the book come from the “does anybody want a relationship with this person?” method, since they come from pre-publication play, before there were any experienced players. But I don’t remember.

-Vincent

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Thank you, Vincent! (@lumpley)

Great to see a reply from you on this. Really appreciate it!

I should clarify, perhaps, that I’m not looking for “permission” or approval; I’ve done some things that work really well (and perhaps I should post about that here!), and I’ve seen some other things, and that’s all fine and dandy.

However, I was struck by a sort of potential contradiction in the text:

(1) The book seems to assume that the GM will write up a Town on their lonesome, and then get together with the players, who make characters. It recommends that each player could write up one or two NPCs, but leave the rest of the dice unassigned.

(Presumably, the dice can then be assigned in play, as either “Hey! I know that guy - that’s my uncle!”, or “Ooh, this NPC is interesting; I’m going to assign 2d8 to them.”)

Unless I’ve missed something, I don’t think the book indicates how to include or involve Relationships in Towns after the first one.

This is something I always see people new to Dogs struggling with. How do we actually get these Relationships to the table?

However:

(2) In the example of Town Creation, and in many play examples, it’s always a Dog having to deal with her brother or his dad or his grandma, or her former mentor… intense, deep-reaching relationships.

How do we get those into our Towns?

In the Town Creation example, the GM (I guess that’s you, as the author, Vincent!) specifically works to “tie in” each Dog by giving them a juicy family member in the Town.

In the first example town, there are three Dogs, and two of them already have connections in the Town - one Dog’s aunt is making moonshine and another Dog’s uncle has been badly burnt in a fire. Then you write:

“3D: I’m happy with the situation, but I want to hook Brother Cadmus in! How about Brother Cadmus’s younger brother, newly arrived in town. He’s listening too hard to Brother Benjamin’s raving uncle: he’s a potential convert to the potential cult. Good, all done. I skip to Step 6.”

It seems like the style of play suggested by the examples used throughout isn’t what people are getting from the rules themselves. You’re really working here to get everyone tied in!

This has got me really wondering how YOU, Vincent, get that happening! Especially in long-term play, where it might be strange to keep doing the above, town after town. (Or maybe not? Is that what this pseudo-Utah was like?)

I’m not going to bug you too much, though; first I’ll reread the book and check out the Dogs AP video on “How We Role”, which might illuminate some of that for me, perhaps.

It’s got me scratching my head! Interesting stuff.

Hi, Vincent!

I’m back. I’m happy to say that, since my last post, I’ve had time to watch and listen to a variety of people playing Dogs (including a video of you, Vincent, running a game), reread the book, and run a session myself.

A really interesting thing happened in that session, so I’m going to share that with you (even John S. told me he’s never seen this happen in a Dogs game before!):

I’m running it for a group of rather OSR-oriented gamers, who’ve never played Dogs.

In short:

  1. One of the players took Traits that allow him to do subtle things which might appear vaguely demonic (like change the colour of his eyes).

  2. In the initiations, I told them to include an NPC of the Town, if they wanted. (I had listed all the major NPCs in the Town on a piece of paper for them to consider for Relationships.)

  3. For his initiation, this player wanted a scene with the Steward, where he convinced the Steward that he knew a lot about occult things and demonology, and that the Steward could trust him as an authority on such things.

  4. Finally, we come to play the Town itself, and this Dog plays some tricks and launches a conflict to convince the Steward the he (the Steward) is possessed by Demons !

Pretty wild. Obviously, it worked, too, and it was in full public view, so now everyone in the Town (and the Steward himself) think their Steward is under demonic possession. The Dog is announcing recent marriages the Steward performed as invalid, and so on!

It’s double interesting because of the Town prep I’d done for the Steward. I don’t know if the players might read this, so I’d better leave out the exact details, but it’s incredible coincidence with what I had prepped: the way the Steward is going to interpret this “possession” in relation to his behaviour is going to be super interesting , and feels inevitable.

There’s also the question of whether believing you are possessed is enough to open yourself up to true demonic possession…

I’m now very excited to get back to this Town (we had to stop halfway through.)

Anyway, back to the question of Towns and Relationships:

My review of the material (book and actual play) confirms that, using the procedures “by the book”, we tend to get a Town full of people who are unrelated to the Dogs altogether.

Exceptions occur when:

  1. The GM sees a Relationship a PC made up during character creation, and throws them into the Town on a hunch/whim. (There’s a great example of this in John Harper’s old “Wolves of the North” actual play report - http://indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=16743.)

  2. The players, as they meet NPCs in the Town, announce, “Oh, hey, I know that guy! It’s my second cousin. I’m assigning some dice.”

The first is great, but is harder to employ long-term (unless the same one or two Relationships keep popping up in every town the Dogs visit, which stretches believability a little bit, plus some of them will likely die in the process). The second is also good, but - related to a bunch of discussions we’re having elsewhere - just doesn’t “feel” as real or weighty, in my experience. (Which is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself!)

The examples of play in the book, however, have the Dogs tied into the Towns at a much deeper level. In every example, each Dog has a meaningful (and usually blood relative) connection in each Town. It seems to me that this kind of connection would always intensify play quite significantly.

However, without adding in some procedures (as I did, and as John did), I’m curious how we get from the rules/procedures in the book to the examples in the book.

So:

Dear reader (especially Vincent, of course), how do you create Relationships/connections for your Dogs in play (especially for long-form play)? What’s the flow at your table? When does it happen and who makes it happen?

Did you miss where I answered this already?

In con games and with players new to the game, my method was to take care to prompt the players with “does anybody want a relationship with this person?” for every NPC I introduced. With experienced players, I just made sure they remembered the rules for relationships and then let them make their own choices unprompted.

It’s pretty likely that the examples in the book come from the “does anybody want a relationship with this person?” method, since they come from pre-publication play, before there were any experienced players. But I don’t remember.

Right! So you don’t do anything different in long-term play?

(I’m also hoping some other people might share their approaches and methods, too, not just you, Vincent, to be clear.)

That means, if I may be so bold as to say, that the examples in the book are a little misleading. (Because you don’t actually assign family relationships to your NPCs as you’re writing up the Town, sounds like.)

That sounds vaguely accusatory, which isn’t what I’m going for - nothing wrong with eliding some details for the sake of an example, after all! - I’m just curious as to what different ways of doing this might be. It’s all good stuff!

While I really hope Vincent will come back to answer this question for his own style of play, does anyone else have thoughts or experiences to share?

How do you tie in Relationships to a prewritten/predetermined scenario, when they would, ideally, be important to every PC?

What other ways to do this are there?

Is there anywhere to get a legit electronic copy of this game? I only became interested in this game after Vincent stopped selling it. Hardcopies sell for hundreds of dollars on the aftermarket.

I found a copy on a pirate site, but don’t feel right about getting it from there.

Not that I know of, Haladir! But perhaps someone else knows different, or Vincent will have something to say.

If not, I suppose trading copies with each other might be our only recourse (with Vincent’s blessing, hopefully, if he has strong feelings about the matter).

I’m still thinking on this, and trying to understand how, when, and whether Relationships are supposed to be recurring (i.e. the GM is supposed to rope them into future Town writeups) or a one-time bonus specific to a Town (a resource you get to allocate to make it easier to challenge the people you meet). Somehow, neither feels quite right for the game. It’s a conundrum!

Hi Paul! I’m also a relative newcomer to the game. My 2 cents:

For one-shots, use Jenskot method of leaving an NPC sheet at the table and let players assign relationships.

For long-term play, use Vincent method but tweaked in this way: for relationships with sins, demons or institutions, leave it as is; for relationships with people, erase it and leave it blank again after each concluded town. This way the players will always have a blank space to add relationships in each town. This also totally makes sense for the Community oriented backgrounds, as they simply know more people, or have more history with people, be it good or bad relations.

What do you think?

@Silva,

Thanks for popping by! It’s too bad that Vincent never came back to clarify what he meant, earlier.

I’ve been running a bit of Dogs lately and trying out some rules modifications (including many rules from “Afraid”), and now that I see someone else here is interested, I may take the opportunity to start a thread about the way I’m handling DitV these days - always good to have something on record!

Your method makes sense in many respects, but I’m not sure it helps us get the most out of the game. For starters, if we’re using “the Jenskot method” for a one-shot, and erasing and rewriting Relationships for each Town in long-term play, surely we must prefer one over the other? I don’t see any reason the “long-term” method you’ve described wouldn’t work for a one-shot, and, if we’re erasing and rewriting Relationships between Towns anyway, then we could use the ‘Jenskot’ method in long-term play without trouble, too.

Also, your idea to “erase and rewrite” Relationships conflicts a little with the Reflection rules (which, among other things, are supposed to replenish PCs’ Relationship dice).

It’s interesting, notably, that the Reflection dice (for Relationships) don’t depend on your character’s background (e.g. Strong Community), which could be read as implying that the previous/existing Relationship dice ARE intended to figure into future Towns. (Because otherwise the choice of a Relationship-heavy background would be useless after the first Town or two.)

For now, in my ‘house rules’, I’ve made new Relationship dice at Reflection different, depending on your character’s background.

So, what are the questions I’m really curious about here?

(@lumpley, just in case you’re still following along, these might be easier for you to engage with than my fairly long posts, above.)

I think that the questions are, more or less:

  1. Some players will create Relationships for their Dogs in character creation. Especially if the GM has prepared their Town already, what’s the best way to work these into play and the GM’s prep? How can we leverage those best? (The book is silent on this topic.)

  2. For Relationship dice that are unassigned, what’s the best way to get the most “bang for the buck” out of them? (The book says that the players are free to assign them in play, but doesn’t particularly seem to care about whether they represent an “instant connection” with an NPC, something that is purely at the dice level - “I, as the player, care about this NPC, so I assign them such and such dice right now”, or if we’re supposed to create some bit of history along the way, as well. If we do this by the book, then the GM really has no say in it at all. In that case, the answer to this question might be a technique, approach, or principle for the players to follow as a “best practice”.)

  3. To what extent should the GM take Dogs’ existing Relationships into account when creating Towns? In the book, the Town Creation procedure doesn’t reference this at all or lend any guidance, but in the example Towns, the GM very deliberately creates family connections for each Dog before s/he deems the Towns “finished”.

  4. Finally, how might any of these be different for a) a one-shot or the first Town in a long-term game, and b) a Town later in the sequence of long-term play?

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I don’t put forward or recommend any techniques or best practices that aren’t in the text. I can clarify what the text says, that’s it. I’m not the person to answer your questions!

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Oh, I will:

  • Treat the other players like ends in themselves, not as mere means.
  • Play with the x-card - you and your friends are more important than the game.
  • Use the x-card - normalize its use so it isn’t a big damn deal when it needs to be used.
  • Ask questions, build on the answers. This is as true for players as the MC.
  • Practice generous play.

Note: I have never played Dogs.

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Thanks, Vincent.

I appreciate the reply!

Of course, you’re not bound to any kind of reply in kind - I appreciate your prerogative to draw your boundaries as you will.

Still, I am rather stuck with this problem, and trying to figure out what you intended, and I just can’t see it. You’re sure you can’t share an anecdote of how you did it when running Dogs, how you saw someone else do it, anything?

Did you picture the “Wild West that never was” as being so tight-knit that a Dog might have blood relatives in every Town, for instance?

Does giving out different amounts of Relationship dice as part of Reflection support the rules’ aim, or subvert it?

I appreciate the reply, in any case.

That’s good advice! (Although I’m not sure what the first one means…)

However, I don’t think it helps us figure out what to do with Relationships dice in DitV!

I’m pretty sure! I think that you understand the game’s rules for relationship dice and I don’t have anything to add to them.

This is a weird place to be stuck though, Paul. @William_Nichols is kind of right. Fiddling around with the bang-for-the-buck of relationship dice isn’t going to fix the game if you’re having trouble with it. How many sessions have you played?

I’ve got to do a solid hour of bullshit capitalism, then I should have some mental space to expand. It’ll be fun.