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[DitV]deconstructing dogs, gencon play

Started by Emily Care, August 26, 2005, 07:25:03 PM

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Emily Care

Hi Everybody,

There's been some talk about a certain game of Dogs in the Vineyard that happened at GenCon. It contained some serious and disturbing events that had happened in the town, and raised issues for the actual people involved. So, I will proceed by discussing the general in-game events and my own issues with what transpired, and leave everyone else to address their own issues as they wish.  If we all observe this boundary, I believe we may be able to have good discussion while respecting everyone's privacy.  Tom and Meguey have given a good example in their posts about the game of Bacchanal played at the Embassy (also on Saturday night, no coincidence in my book) of how to discuss touchy issues sensitively.

Enter the Vineyard
The group of us took part in the game, 4 players & 1 gm. There were many strong bonds of friendship between the people in the group. The characters were a slow Dog with simple faith (male), a solid Dog with a strong faith (female), a world-wise Dog who had strong skepticism about the faith but who was versed in it front and back (male), and a combat-strong  Dog who was struggling with issues of anger & forgiveness with his family. Players matched gender of characters, gm was male. 

So the initiation conflicts spotlighted issues we chose:  self-doubt, forgiveness, inspiration & belief, helping others believe.  The characters, to my eye, formed an interesting web of overlapping issues, I couldn't wait to see how they would interact with the story unfolding.

Broken Arrow Proper
We get to the town, Broken Arrow Branch. True to form we are brought into it from the first. The whole town is gathered together, neglecting the fields to sing in the church, praying together for deliverance from the wrath of demons or G*d that were smiting them.  It turns out that for the last year or more no child had been born living to the town.  The current Steward was taking the place of the old one who had lost his faith.  With the continued loss of the babies, he had begun preaching that the Faith was a lie and had taken to a retreat in the woods, abandoning the town. 

The Dogs responded to these issues. We split up—two of us going to speak to the old Steward, one to talk to the midwife, one to the graveyard where the children were buried.  No dice (figuratively speaking) with the midwife—she already knew to sterilize here equipment. No dice with the Steward, he chased us away with a barrage of shot-gun fire coming from (presumably) others who had joined his false Priesthood.  The trip to the graveyard ended with the souls of the children sent to heaven.  Inspiring and very productive, but not leading to an end to the troubles.   A bifurcation in the experience of the characters began here: the one with simple faith sent the souls to heaven & had a strongly supernatural experience; the skeptic spoke with the midwife, and for him the trail was grounded in the material of the earthly plane.

But when the Dogs delivered the mail to the family of a young 14-yr old mother who had lost her child, it all exploded.  In the mail was a doll her family had ordered to help her greive, she broke the doll & ran.  She wanted to die, felt she had done wrong, felt the towns' loss was her fault, but it turned out she had been raped by two young men of the town. 

Lines, Veils, Father, Sons
At this point we discussed, as players, how we felt about these issues: were there lines we needed to not cross, were their veils we needed to draw?  Context of the situation was discussed: 14 was marrying age for the setting, very different from present day.  The rape was likely in the order of date rape, non-consensual but with grey lines.  We discussed it and were content that all were okay with what happened before going on.

The two Dogs who confronted the young men happened to be my own (the female with strong faith) and the skeptic.  We shook down the father, and made him bring forward his two sons. He denied the allegations at first, then blamed himself, saying he had let down his family & his father in how he'd raised his sons.  Of the two sons, when questioned, one was quiet and troubled, he smirked and acted unrepentant, inciting us.  The Dogs were at the pass—did they enact justice & save this town by killing the young men who had wronged the girl, ending the horrendous trauma that had swept the whole town, or act with mercy, or look to other authorities? 

My character had helped a friend believe that he could become a Dog during her initiation conflict.  She had strong faith in the efficacy of faith and the power of transformation.  The skeptic had a strong belief in the authority of the Church, but no faith in the supernatural effects of God or demons.  He put the gun in the hand of the father, telling him to put right what he had done wrong in raising the boys.   The repentant boy was to be pardoned, sent to the Territorial Authority, but the other, to be punished on the spot. 

Ms. Dog & Isaac
This was an interesting point for me.  All along, the others had checked in with me to see if the events as narrated were within my comfort zone. I was the only woman.  Would I take the events more personally? Would I be horrified by the narration of a cold blooded execution before my eyes?  I had to take a moment to look deep inside myself.  I was not triggered, I was not horrified.  These actions fit the characters, fit the time, fit the setting & the mission of the game.  Or rather, I was horrified, of course, but in the way that art horrifies.  It takes us by the hand, and walks with us to the edge of horror, allowing us to look with our own eyes upon what things we might otherwise look away from. Things of the world, things of ourselves.  What we are, and what we are not.  So that we can look upon eachother with greater understanding, and hopefully, more compassion. 

So, it was fine for me.  But I and my conception of the character did not want the young man to be executed.  I wanted to affirm the theme of transformation that I had brought in with my character's story.  I wanted the defiant young man to change.  To have the option of change, to be able to truly heal this town, rather than to tear out the festering wound by cutting off an arm.  I said much of this, the other players knew my intent. So, I had my character who was standing near the two sons and the father, allow the father to raise the gun.  The father clearly did not want to do it.  Then, in a raise or a see—I don't recall which—the other brother put himself in harms way.  Again, my character had the option to affect this, but did not. Again, the father did not want to kill his son.  At the last moment when he had made the decision to kill the son, I would say, you do not.  We arranged for a follow-up conflict to follow the current one which would have the stake "does the young man truly change".  And then, the unexpected happened.

The player of the skeptic had the raise or the see as the father held his gun to the repentant son's head.  And in his narration, he jostled the gun so that it went off.  The player was dead to rights (so to speak) in his right to make this happen, but still, I recall him checking with us all to be sure this would not upset us as an outcome. It would have taken some conversation to figure out how it would have gone if any had said no, but it was okay. We accepted it.  It occurred.  The follow-up conflict happened. The gm gave.  The son changed. 

...Makes us Stronger?
Strong, strong stuff.  It affected us as people.  It brought us to our own feelings about these events. For some the impact was stronger than others.  And then, we had the pinball effect of reacting to each others' reactions.  Dogs allows (encourages?) you to take a stick to the hornet's nest.  Can we blame the designer if we get stung?  We spent a good couple hours checking in with each other afterwards, talking about the issues that had arisen.  We found out a lot about each other we hadn't known, little and big things.  We left, I felt, better friends for having gone through a harrying experience together.  As the gm said,  Moose in the City had a similar outcome but was much more fun.

Another aspect of the game that I saw, was that the issues we bring into play with our characters are not  necessarily what will be addressed in the game.  They may be over time—there is plenty of advice for the gm in the game to watch carefully what your players write on their sheets about their characters, watch their choices, and build towns that intersect with them. Poke your players where they show they want to be poked.  But in a one-shot what you get is that the characters are going to influence the answer to the questions posed by the gm in the town.  A pair of young men rape a girl causing the death of countless innocents—should they be shown mercy? Is a change of heart enough to redeem them? Is justice in the death or in the life? 

I'm deeply glad I was part of this game.  I am glad for the depths to which the others were prepared to go with me and with eachother.  Also, I'm sad that it hurt so much.  A large part of what we talked about after the game was:

If we are going to do this together, how do we do it so we don't hurt one another?  Can we? And if so, how do we write our games so that other people can do the same? 

These are the questions.  What are our answers? What are the questions we haven't touched yet?  This is new territory, we need new ways.  But, also,  hurting one another in gaming is very much not new.  It happens over and over, we all know the stories.  How do we take what we are doing and help people be kind with one another, rather than just giving them new tools to inflict old damage?

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games

Ron Edwards


I was not in the game. However, I have suffered many hours of debriefing about it and would like to use them as legal tender to participate in the discussion. Furthermore, I am not going to discuss events in the game at all.

Instead, I will offer an interesting difference between two "superfamilies" of highly Narrativist-focused game design (yes, the ones on my diagram that I waved around the whole con; people who haven't seen it, too bad).

Well, a little orientation. This is a diagram of techniques families. No one post it, please; I just fixed it and your versions are tehsuxx. On the left-hand side, one superfamily is rooted in stuff like Over the Edge and Cyberpunk and goes on through the "door" of Sorcerer, branching apart from there. It includes Dogs in the Vineyard.

On the right-hand side, the other superfamily is rooted in stuff like Story Engine and Soap, and it goes on through the "door" of Universalis, branching apart rather drastically from there. It includes (via MLWM) Polaris.

All you people who are crazed with anticipation, just settle down. All that matters now is one single point, and you don't really need the diagram for it. Except to see Dogs 'way over on one side and Polaris 'way over on another, like critters in vastly different sectors of a phylogeny.

On the side which includes Dogs, single participants have overriding, brutal, arbitrary authority over the "II" of IIEE. In other words, what their characters want to do and start to do cannot be overriden or even mechanically modified by anyone else at the table. If you state, "He kisses her," and the group goes into the Conflict Resolution system, it's established, the kiss is both intended and initiated.

On the side which includes Polaris, the entire IIEE of any character's actions/etc is subject to vetting of some kind, whether it's negation, modification, or letting it lie, and whether it's full-group or by a designated person. All actions are subject to drastic reinterpretations of the outcomes of Conflict Resolution. Including the first "I," intent, of IIEE. If you state, "He kisses her," then eventually, the way the scene works out, it's at least possible that he never even thought about or tried to kiss her.

Bald, painful fact: the left-hand side is socially more dangerous, and the right-hand side is socially safer. And it strikes me very firmly, after discussing this game with a number of people who were involved, that at least a couple people were approaching playing Dogs as if it were in the other "superfamily." They assumed that if they were uncomfortable with what a given PC was about to be doing, that they had a say in vetting that stated action. Whereas, bluntly, the game is set up for exactly the opposite.


Eero Tuovinen

Thanks for the low-down, Emily; we Gencon-limited have been on hot coals about hearing what the session was all about.

Ron: it's really, really good of you to post that. When you showed the diagram to me in Stockholm I took it into my backbrain, but didn't really process it yet. Then I started playing humongous amounts of Dust Devils, and noticed that the one thing I absolutely love about the game is the manly, gloves-off gambling rights the players have on stuff. It's not a weak-livered concensus building exercise, it's something where each player has the right and the means to stand his ground. Then I started thinking on it, and what do you know: I came to this exact conclusion, that one fundamental difference between the two historical "traditions" you outlined is in how they deal with player-character rights. Thanks for affirming the idea.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Ron, I like what you wrote. Group consensus is required in Dogs to hit the Conflict Resolution system, though. So I think this is maybe where the 'schizophrenia' you're talking about comes from: once you're in the process you're in it, no going back, and people can do things to each otehr, but you don't have to 'go there' in the first place until everyone agrees.


Emily said
QuoteIf we are going to do this together, how do we do it so we don't hurt one another?  Can we? And if so, how do we write our games so that other people can do the same? 

Funny, I can away from Bacchanal with a nearly idential question burning in my brain. I'm working on it *right now* in another window.

This seems to have been a game similar in harshness to the no-fantasy-at-all Under The Bed game. I'm really intrigued by how conscious you were of *not* stepping in to change things in the second-to-last conflict. It sounds like everyone was being fairly careful to check things first, and then it hit a wall. I hope other players can add more light to this. It's pretty clear to me that knowing which superfamily you are playing in will/could help people be better prepared for the level of possible emotional issues. 


Clinton R. Nixon

Quote from: Meguey on August 26, 2005, 08:27:30 PM
It sounds like everyone was being fairly careful to check things first, and then it hit a wall. I hope other players can add more light to this.

So, I was a player in this. Guess who I played? (The skeptic.)

I think we all were very careful to check things first in this game. I think we might not have been as honest on  saying if we had a problem. From my standpoint, I didn't check because of some hippy-Universalis-like-"superfamily"-concept, but because I knew I was going to hit buttons, and just wanted to make sure it was cool with everyone. How do I put this? I didn't ever give up any rights over my character, but I wanted to make sure everyone was ok with what I was doing with my rights. Does that make sense?

I really want to talk more about this, but I have work in front of me right now. I will post my thoughts on the game in a few hours.

Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


I'd like to lay out the game's ultimate two conflicts, if I may. I don't know about anybody else but I found them both technically and emotionally devastating. In a good way; in the best way.


So they've found the two brothers out. On the town writeup it says "older brother (Joe) wants the Dogs to punish him; younger brother (Sam) wants the Dogs to forgive him" - so that's how I'm playing 'em. Sam's disturbed, quiet, and he's just admitted that they'd raped the girl; Joe's smirking, flip, and I don't believe he's going to live through this. The Dogs present seem very inclined to give both of the brothers just what they want.

The father's just protested that it's his fault, not his boys'. One of the Dogs - Clinton's - responds with a horrific pronouncement of judgement: "then it's yours to punish." He forces his revolver into the father's hand.

Conflict: Will the father kill Joe? Emily specifies that it's will the father, not does the father, to give herself room for a followup.

Talking raises and sees, physical raises and sees, and finally the father escalates to fighting: he starts stomping the shit out of his own son, so he won't have to shoot him. The Dogs pull him away and I'm out of dice, I give. He'll do it. He points the gun at Joe's head.

Em has her Dog put her hand on the gun. We're all going, Abraham and Isaac. Conflict: Will Joe change? The players are on the side of yes he will, I'm on the side of no he won't.

Em and Clinton roll; I roll the two brothers as a group NPC. I have wicked big dice, including a 2d10 relationship - and they all come out high. I'm looking at a roll that can beat two Dogs: practically every die showing a 5+.

I raise: Sam [the younger brother] kneels and pulls the gun over to his own forehead.

Clinton's first to see, he takes the blow. He could have blocked, but instead he kept his high two dice. If he uses them on his raise, I'll have to take the blow.

He looks at me with god damn a terrible look. I know what he's going to do. He raises that the gun goes off - but he can't quite even bring himself to say it. He gestures, starts and stops, he lets me tell it. The father blows his other son's brains out, the younger son, the son they were going to forgive and rehabilitate.

I give at once, I shove all those big 5+ dice away from me. Joe changes, you can bet your ASS he does.


The game was problematic. Here's my free advice: think hard before you decide to bring two brothers raping a 14 year old girl into your game, and then think hard again before you actually go through with it. And yeah, I worked that out all by myself.

But damn, those two conflicts, those were pure and perfect.


Ben Lehman

Quote from: Ron Edwards on August 26, 2005, 08:02:37 PM
And it strikes me very firmly, after discussing this game with a number of people who were involved, that at least a couple people were approaching playing Dogs as if it were in the other "superfamily." They assumed that if they were uncomfortable with what a given PC was about to be doing, that they had a say in vetting that stated action. Whereas, bluntly, the game is set up for exactly the opposite.


Ron, I tried to express this when you talk about it in person, and failed, but you're just wrong about this statement.

The conflict between players in the game, all of the problems in the game, at least on my end, had nothing to do with the shared imaged space at all.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  There is, in another universe, another game where the exact same events transpired in the SIS and an identical Ben was totally fine with it.

Hi, guys!  I was one of the head-smashers with reference to the game.  Let's not get too deeply into the personal issues at stake, but suffice it to say that rape is a personal issue for Clinton and I, and our opinions on the subject of rape victims and rapists are about as different as jack cheese and the color pink are different.

Everything that grated on me about the game, that in all honesty makes me shake and tremble a bit when writing about it, had to do with Clinton (and the rest of the group's) reactions to the actions of Clinton's character in the game space.

That Clinton's character wanted to kill the boys: Fine.

That Clinton's character did accomplish the killing of one of the boys: Also fine.

That Clinton, with great relish and enjoyment, detailed to us all his plans for his character executing the boys without trial in cold blood, or maybe castrating them, and then announced that he had come up with something "way, way, darker" that he wouldn't tell us what was: Not at all fine.

Is the difference between the two of these just not clear?

If we had been playing Polaris and Clinton had announced the same action, it wouldn't have mattered if he had later recanted it, because, frankly, I don't care whether the character does the action, or wanted to do the action, or tried the action, or what.  The character doesn't exist.  The players do.

These issues between players will exist regardless of what branch of the tree you're on, because the issue is between people at the table.


Clinton R. Nixon

Quote from: lumpley on August 26, 2005, 09:00:21 PM
The game was problematic. Here's my free advice: think hard before you decide to bring two brothers raping a 14 year old girl into your game, and then think hard again before you actually go through with it. And yeah, I worked that out all by myself.

It could have been worse. It could have been her father (my first guess) or she could have been pregnant. I might have set the town aflame for either of those.

Anyway, you're right about those two conflicts. They were totally the crux of my experience and they were, what, five minutes apart? That's a lot of emotional barbeque in a short about of time.

I want to talk about why my character was who he was, and why I as a player had such a strong reaction in game.

All good role-playing is group therapy.

That's not a "theory" or anything. It's a tenet, something I believe like others believe in reincarnation or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever. Ya can't argue me out of it, but you can discuss it if you like. It's important for this.

Months back, I made a Dogs character named Esther Whatley at Dreamation. I got real attached to her: she was the strong, kick-ass, tomboy woman character I always wanted to play. (We can go ahead and assume she's a sexual fantasy of mine. Why not?) Here's a corollary to the above statement that matters for her, though:

All characters you make are, in the end, a part of you.

I call this the "Grotesque Principle." Every character I make will be a grotesque of one of my own emotions or experiences, something about me taken out of context and magnified. Esther is my feminine side, no doubt about it. I've noticed that in Dogs, it's easier to not go too far with the grotesque - it's not that removed from you.

Virgil Whatley, the character in this Dogs game, was her brother. That was clear on the character sheet. What was unclear, what maybe I should have said: Virgil was me. I didn't push the magnification at all. Skeptic? Check. Knows the religion of his birth well? Check. Wishes he could fit into it? Check. Angry? Check. Judgmental? So check.

Shit, my name, had my father chosen instead of my mother, would have been Virgil. Named after my great-grandfather, Virgil Whatley. Circles within circles here.

Vincent didn't know my background, either. I grew up in a foster home. From age 10 to 18, one hundred abused or neglected children came in and out of my home, often going back to the people who originally abused them. A lot of this was sexual abuse. I enjoyed (?) it - I mean having the kids around. But the sense of righteous anger, the wish I could do something about it, and feeling like I couldn't, well, that apparently got buried deep.

'Cause when I found out this little girl was raped, my character turned from thoughtful, quiet skeptic into fucking Batman. And what was a little scary, and definitely a source of contention was the fact that it wasn't that I was playing my character as willing to end this problem violently. Apparently, it showed on my face that I as a person wanted to end these problems violently.

For the record, I don't. Do I like playing it out in a game, though? Yeah. I knew it was going to be dramatic and awesome and was grinning like a meerkat at the thought of ol' Virgil striking a blow for vengeance. I think some of the problems in game were mistaking me really enjoying how dramatic this was going to be as me really enjoying the idea of killing a rapist.

My final thoughts
It wasn't the tramatic experience it was made out to be. It was healing. That's what therapy does, although it hurts sometimes to see the scabs. I learned that, man, I kind of have issues about wanting to shoot child molesters in the face. And that's ok. But, also, I learned that's not acceptable, and I've got to figure out a way to integrate my wish to make a difference into society (in this case, work with other players to make a dramatic scene that no one was too upset with.)

But Virgil? He's a scary fuck to play. I think that toy goes back in the box. Maybe me and Esther should hang out next time.

EDIT: Cross-posted with Ben. I, um, pretty much don't disagree, except with regards to how I was at the table. See above.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


I'm watching this so closely you won't believe it. Awesome write-ups, people, and please continue. One thing that jumps at me from the last few posts:
Quoteexecuting the boys without trial in cold blood
That's Dogs. They are judge, jury, executioner, everything. They are the hand and voice of the King of Life. I can totally see that it freaked you out, Ben, but the cross-posted bit goes a long way to explain it, from where I sit.

We had a very similar shooting in one of the first Dogs games I played, with three Dogs; one was for mercy, one was for vengance, and I stood back as the faithful one who saw that the King's work would happen between the other two. The man got shot point blank in the head. Also a rapist, as I recall. I wish deeply we could pick that game up again, because I spent the next few days channeling Clint Eastwood, and it was way cool.

I also think we all have "Batman buttons", when our personal history overpowers our character concept. I personally think I've gotten some of my best gaming in that place.

Another true thing about gaming: we are not going to ever know the full backstory of the players at the table, and this sort of misunderstanding is going to happen. Period.


Ron Edwards


Ben, you misunderstand me. Again.

I see no point in my continuing the conversation. If anyone can see where my point plays a role in what Ben said (because his text is, I think, 100% compatible with what I said), then make whatever use of it you want. I'm out of it.



This is what dogs does.

I don't understand why Ben is uncomfortable with Clinton's character's actions.  Shouldn't he be allowed to author his own character's actions?

When the game works, Dogs begins with players being excited about their ultimate authority and ends with the terrible weight of that kind of power pressing down on them.  The end result of their actions, for any solid session, ends with the players at the table in some manner of ethical debate.

Matt Wilson

Quote from: Paka on August 27, 2005, 01:10:19 AM
I don't understand why Ben is uncomfortable with Clinton's character's actions.  Shouldn't he be allowed to author his own character's actions?

Ben, smack me if I'm wrong here, but ...

People don't seem to be getting it. It really has very little - if anything at all - to do with the game. It's purely Ben discovering in play that Clinton's opinion on something really jars with his own. It doesn't have anything to do with a family tree or game rules either. It could have happened in a discussion as they were walking back from the exhibit hall.

The same thing could have happened in a game of Primetime Adventures. It could have happened in any game. It could have happened anywhere. It happens to me all the time when I'm watching a TV show or reading various Internet discussion boards.

It's along the lines of you and me hanging out and me saying, "I think all people with brown hair are scum, and my character's going to kill them all." It's not me playing a character an opinion, it's me as a person having that opinion. Clinton's and Ben's reactions had nothing to do with their characters or the fact that they were playing Dogs. It was "you, a person, have an opinion that I'm not comfortable with."

Game rules can't do anything about that. At least no game rules I see.

Ben Lehman

Thanks Matt.

Although I don't think either person's opinion was as unreasonable or abhorrent as

"I think all people with brown hair are scum, and my character's going to kill them all."

I'm sure that that's pretty much hyperbole, though.

The game brought up the issues.  The issues weren't about the game as a game.  Dogs in the Vineyard, as a game system, performed admirably.  As I understand it, it is designed exactly to bring up such issues.  It certainly has for me every time I've played it.

I think there's a couple of places we could go from here.

1) We could talk about the issues that came up between Clinton and I in more specific detail, and not talk about the game.  (I'd rather not do this in great, graphic detail, honestly.)

2) We could talk about how we handled those issues, during the game, and how the game brought them up.

3) We could talk about the game itself, which had a bunch of stuff that was also pretty fascinating.

4) We could talk about the discussion afterwards, which is tangentially related to #2.

Other folks who played?


Christopher Weeks

Emily's post way up at the top asks questions about how we can hit these hard, thorny issues without getting/causing hurt and how we can write games to facilitate that kind of hurt-free play.  Sadly, I don't have anything smart to say on it, but I think that direction is more interesting than any of the four options that Ben's presenting.  I've played some hard issues over the years and never been hurt by them.  What I'm wondering now is if I've ever hurt others with my bull-moose "lines and veils are for pansies" attitude.  I think it's possible.