The shopkeeper from Back East? His wife isn’t really his wife. He’s the procurer and she’s the available woman. Their marriage is a front.
Your brother’s son, your nephew, is fourteen years old. He’s been stealing money from his father, your brother, and taking it to visit this woman.
Your brother is in a bitter rage, humiliated by his son’s thievery and grieving his son’s lost innocence. He’s going to shoot her.
What do you do?
Dogs In the Vineyard, published by Lumpley Games, bills itself as a game of “roleplaying God’s Watchdogs in a West that never quite was.” It combines a highly unique setting with an innovative conflict-resolution mechanic to create a system that’s unlike anything else on the market.
Go, Then; There Are Other Worlds Than These
In Dogs’s West, The Faith of the King of Life has taken root and blossomed in the wild territory of Deseret. Here, the Faithful eke out simple lives in the harsh wilderness and do their best to survive — but the Territory is a cruel mistress, and Demons lie in wait to ensnare the hearts and minds of the common folk. The rulebook is curiously ambiguous about how literal these Demons are, but you can play them as anything from “the seeds of wickedness within every man’s heart” to “literal supernatural forces of Evil that poison crops and possess the innocent.”
You take on the role of one of the aforementioned Watchdogs, colloquially known as the “Dogs.” Half-priests, half-gunslingers, your duty is to travel from town to town and ensure that the Faithful are observing the Laws of the King of Life. If need be, you have the King’s permission to exact whatever measures are needed to preserve the Faith and protect the Faithful (even if these measures aren’t strictly legal in the eyes of the Government Back East!)
The Man In Black Fled Across the Desert, and the Gunslinger Followed
The first step in creating a Dog is to select their Background. These Backgrounds are divided along two axes: History/Community, and Good/Complicated. A Dog who grew up on the streets of Bridal Falls City and learned to fend for himself might have a Complicated History, while another Dog who was raised in a friendly small town would have a Good Community.
Attributes in this game are measured in number and size of dice, and each Background gives a different amount of dice to allocate between the different attributes.
These attributes are roughly divisible into three different categories: Stats (one’s physical and mental prowess), Traits (the qualities that make one Dog stand out from another, like “Spent three years in the Army Back East,” or “Knows their way around a wound”), and Relationships (the people and places that the Dog is acquainted with.)
First Comes Smiles, Then Lies; Last Is Gunfire
Conflicts in Dogs utilize all three of these categories. Whenever the GM believes that an action might have consequences for failure, they may declare a Conflict has begun, and all characters involved state what they hope to gain and stand to lose.
Once the stakes have been established, both sides roll dice for any attributes involved in the conflict. For instance, when setting up for an argument with a friend over how to properly understand the Faith, a Dog might roll 6d6 to represent his combined Acuity+Heart, 1d8 for his relationship with his buddy, and 1d8 for the Trait “I’m well-versed in the Book of Life.”
Once all the dice have been rolled, the main mechanic of the game comes into play: Raising and Seeing.
In Dogs, conflicts work a bit like betting in a hand of poker: one side makes a “bet” with their dice, and the other has to match that bet with one or more of their dice. Whichever side cannot put forward dice loses (unless they Escalate things — but we’ll get to that later.)
Whichever side initiated the conflict gets to Raise. To do this, they put forward two of their dice and describe what they wish to do. The higher the numbers put forward, the more forceful the action, and the harder it is to react without receiving Fallout (again, to be discussed later.)
In response, the second party in the conflict may put forward dice of an equivalent total to See the Raise. The number of dice they use to See determines how skillfully they can respond to the Raise. Seeing with one die turns the action back on the attacker; two dice dodge or block the brunt of the attack; three dice mean that the character doing the Seeing takes the blow but keeps moving forward resulting in a number of dice equal to the number used to See getting added to the Fallout pool.
After Seeing, the second party may Raise, and the cycle goes back and forth until one side has run out of dice or is unable to See with their current dice pool. When this happens, the party Seeing must make a choice: lose the contest, or Escalate things.
Escalation is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: moving from words to actions, actions to fists, or fists to guns. When you Escalate, you get a brand-new set of dice appropriate to the new conflict — but naturally, as the danger of your actions increases, so does the amount of Fallout that you can accrue.
After the conflict has finished, players roll for their Fallout total and suffer the results, which can range from subtracting one die from a trait for the next conflict all the way up to death. Each type of conflict has a maximum amount of Fallout that can be incurred (Talking caps at 12, for instance — words can’t cause wounds!), so the more you Escalate, the worse things can get for everyone.
Close to the End of the Beginning
In the end, I can’t recommend Dogs in the Vineyard enough. It can be played as anything from a completely mundane drama of words and lead on the High Plains to a mystical battle between Good and Evil set in the wilds of the West, and whatever your choice of setting, the dice mechanics make for fascinating roleplaying situations.