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[DitV] Reconciling False Doctrine to No Moral Judgment

Started by PeterAdkison, May 19, 2010, 10:57:43 PM

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Call me late to the party but I'm finally playing Dogs in the Vineyard.  I've been wanting to play for years but I have a lot of trouble running a game I haven't learned by playing under an experienced GM.  Thanks to Ben Lehman, I've now had that opportunity and now it's time to "fly, be free!"

The point I'm debating as I'm about to start my campaign is reconciling the instruction that the GM should not pass moral judgment on the players with the notion that there is such a thing as false doctrine.  The chapter on how to GM makes it very clear that the GM should not arbitrate morality, that it's totally up to the players.

I get it.  I love it!  I'm there.

However, the game's premise is that within this fictional space it is false doctrine that leads to false priesthood, then on to sorcery.  And the rules make it clear that false doctrine should be unambiguous, like "The king of life allows a woman to have more than one husband." As a GM you are clearly ruling on what is doctrine versus false doctrine when you create a town, especially as you step into territory not covered explicitly in the book.

What gives this weight is that within the game's premise is the fact that false doctrine leads to sorcery, with real honest-to-god demons that can manifest tangibly (let's assume the supernatural dial is turned really high).  One town has a cult with demons ripping shit up; the other town is nice and tranquil.  The difference is the false doctrine.

So it seems clear that there is THE WAY, which is the collection of doctrines espoused by the faith.

What happens if a player clearly breaks with doctrine?

If a female Dog takes two husbands, she's clearly breaking doctrine.

Sounds like pride leading to sin to me!

What if she recruits others?

Shouldn't I play God now and call her a cult?


Peter Adkison
Owner/CEO, Gen Con LLC
The best four days in gaming!

Eero Tuovinen

Well, isn't the ultimate solution to remember that the Church of Life is not necessarily right about everything? I mean, they say that false doctrine leads to sorcery, but does it? Also, is sorcery nceessarily evil? The only thing you're relinquishing as the GM is the right to provide absolute revelations or moral judgments from your position of authority. This does not mean that you can't say what the church leaders think or whether somebody has sorcery, for instance.

This is a topic near and dear to me because TSoY uses the same conceit of "transcendent morality might exist, but no player has the right to establish what it is with authority". Characters in that game might believe in supernatural forces, but no player has the ability to establish those forces as real - ultimately it always boils down to faith and your word versus mine, not the GM establishing what is objectively good or evil in this world. Essentially, there is no difference between a character's opinion and a character's divine revelation insofar as how we go about procuring those things: both are just something the player claims for his character.

As I understand DiV, it works exactly the same. People just tend to get confused by the fact that the game's setting includes a lot of theology as well. I mean, how can the player characters dictate what's right at the same time that there is an objective theology out there telling us what is right? As I understand, this is your question. The way I play this is that there is in fact no objective theology; there is just a theology that is omnipresent in the setting and established as a central part of the cultural heritage of the player characters. This is not the same as the theology being right.

Consider: a female Dog takes two husbands. Is it pride, first of all? If it is pride, does pride in fact lead to further sin? Who's to say that this is so? The various characters in the setting seem to think so due to that being the doctrine, but as we've already established, there's nobody at the table able to actually establish this as some sort of objective truth of the setting. What if that whole theological progression of sins is just superstition with some kernel of truth? What if sorcerers get their powers because they think they should have them, and this thought just happens to correspond with the theology because, what do you know, all those sorcerers are actually educated in Church of Life theology. What a coincidence.

So it seems to me that any cognitive incongruence related to this is just because the game's text isn't very clear about one fundamental truth: the theology of the church is actually no more an absolute truth than anything the GM might invent himself. Just like the GM can't enforce a direct absolute Morality of God on the players, he can't do that indirectly by upholding the Church doctrine as somehow sacred, either. It's all just opinions and beliefs of the people in the fiction, even when those beliefs are nigh omnipresent in the setting.

What all this boils down to is that this whole "GM can't judge morality" thing is probably more simple for most players than it's made out to be. All it means is that the GM can't undermine a character's conviction as to the supernatural realm by having God appear and tell him that he's right or wrong. He also can't do this in a round-about way by claiming that the character is factually a cult - the whole theology that defines the concept of "cult" in the game isn't even objectively true, how could any such truth-claim be? The very best the GM can do (and what he should, in fact do!) is to pick a NPC and have that NPC claim that the player character is a cultist and a sorcerer. Then the characters in the game can hash it out, and even if the PCs end up contradicting written doctrine, that doesn't mean that they're playing wrong or being evil - could just as well be that the doctrine is wrong, or it's being interpreted wrong, or whatever.

But really, I'm babbling unnecessarily. The simple answer is that the theology of the Church of Life is not an objectively true description of the game's setting, and therefore any claim of the GM that your character has just committed "Pride" will only make sense as something a character in the fiction might say, not as something the GM says. Had Vincent said this in the book, I suspect that the weirdest moral relativist interpretations of the game would disappear just like that.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
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Hi Peter. I think there's a simpler way to think about this. Peter, you're the GM. The female Dog has just taken two husbands in your game. Eek! False Doctine!

Now, your the GM. What do you do about this?

The book says, you don't do anything. Play the town and the NPCs. If an NPC wants to make a moral judgement about the Dog's behavior fine. If its part of a conflict fine, roll dice.

But the GM has no moral hammer to wield.
James R.


Sorry for the double. Two other quick points.

The GM does not play the role of God in DiTV. He doesn't have enough dice.

Even the fact that honest to God demons show up and go Grrr does not really prove anything other than a bunch of sun-baked, gun toting virgins all pumped up with religious fervor and indoctrination saw Demons. I mean if you went out in the desert and saw God, you might take that as proof positive of his existence, but would you be right?
James R.


Peter, I'm glad you got to play!

I think that the philosophical question is mostly misleading. Fortunately there's a straightforward rules question I can answer.

The rules for town creation and the rules for play are compatible, obviously, but separate. The town creation rules are for creating backstory; the rules of play are for creating story-story. Just like you don't roll dice during town creation to have the steward murder his wayward son, you don't apply the town creation rules to the PCs.

The rules for PC sorcerers are a little different from the rules for NPC sorcerers. Page, um, 69:
QuoteIf your character has a relationship with a demon, he or she can ask the demon for help at any time. Add the situation's Demonic Influence to your side, with supernatural special effects. This makes your character a sorcerer; what that means to your character's soul is, as always, in your hands.

No false doctrine or followers required. Those are town creation, backstory, requirements.

It's not explicit, but my personal take is that once a PC calls for help from a demon, from then on she can also become possessed at will and perform ceremonies to invite demons to possess her followers, if she has any, like NPC sorcerers can.

If you want me to chase the philosophical question around, I will, but it's important to get the rules answer down first.



Thank you, gentlemen!

I believe I have enough to work with on the rules side of the equation.

Vincent, if you have chased the philosophical question around already (hard to imagine you haven't), I'd love a link to the relevant post.  If not, and if you have time to do so now, that's awesome too.
Peter Adkison
Owner/CEO, Gen Con LLC
The best four days in gaming!


FWIW, I always think of towns from the point of view of the teachers in Bridal Falls. So, whatever the Faith holds as wrong is wrong, during town creation, even if I personally think it's just fine (homosexuality for instance). During play, I don't do that. I have my NPCs act and react based on their own beliefs and undersstandings.

Here are some links that cover similar ground that may be useful:

Ethically Neutral Town Creation

The Ultimate Arbiter of Evil

What are Demon's for?

Dogs using Sorcery

Hope those help.
James R.


Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes!

These threads are excellent.


Peter Adkison
Owner/CEO, Gen Con LLC
The best four days in gaming!