Dogs in the Vineyard, meet Random Character Creation

edited June 2010 in Story Games
I know I'll be called a heretic for this forever, but I've been thinking about how a lot of people run Dogs as a one-shot with strangers, and how it's very popular as an "introduce hardened D&D players to indie games" machine. I was asked to run it in that context recently.

In that kind of situation, I think Dogs could benefit from a quick, easy character creation. Something that:

a) Gets people over the "do I need a character background/history for this game?" question.
b) Helps people come up with their Traits quickly and easily, while
c) getting them into the mood of the game.

I've seen too many people (including myself, the first time I made a Dogs character) struggle too much for an "interesting" character concept and then come up with Traits that never came into play.

So, here's what I've come up with, in two parts:


  • edited June 2010
    Step One

    Here, you decide on your Dog's Background, and then allocate your Stat dice.

    [Note: All the random creation stuff is intended to get you playing faster. If you have your own ideas ready, you can always just choose options instead of rolling. The idea behind rolling is to get ready faster when you don't know what to do--such as if you're playing Dogs for the first time.]


    Draw a single card from a deck of playing cards and note the suit or roll a d4:

    * (1) Hearts

    Strong Community: You come from a supportive community, with many loved ones, family, and many friends. Their support has allowed you to become a Dog. You know what a good, strong family--and a good, strong Town--looks like.

    * (2) Spades

    Complicated Community: You've come from a tough place, a tangled life, an family falling apart. You hope being a Dog will help you overcome that and build a better life for yourself and those around you.

    * (3) Diamonds

    Strong History: You've got what it takes. Your Steward was a strong man; you probably know your Faith well. You were the obvious choice for your Town to send to Bridal Falls.

    * (4) Clubs

    Complicated History: You've seen some bad things in life. Things most of the Faithful wouldn't know how to handle--but you just might. Maybe you're just more worldly than the average Dog, or maybe you struggle to do the King of Life's will yourself.

    Note: I've left out the "Well-Rounded" background. It doesn't say anything interesting about your character; doesn't give you any material to build on at this point.

    Finishing Step One

    If you wish:

    1. Write a short sentence giving a detail about your background. This will become a Trait in step two.
    2. Assign your Stat dice now.

    You don't need to do either of these things right now--only if you feel ready. Move on to Step Two, in either case.
  • edited June 2010
    Step Two

    Traits, Relationships, Belongings.

    Relationships, I feel, depend on how the GM is running the game. So if you don't know, just leave those dice unassigned until you can figure it out in play, or ask the GM for a list of NPCs in the Town you're heading to, and pick a few of them as your Relationships.

    Traits and Belongings, though, those we can do:

    1. Traits

    You will need to generate at least two or three Traits for your character. For each one, you will roll up a theme and a statement, then write your Trait. Stop when you feel like you know your character a little--in any case, you can't have more Traits than the total number of Trait dice you start with. Three of four Traits is perfect.

    * Table 1: Themes

    Roll a d20.

    1. Family
    2. Faith
    3. Justice served
    4. Money
    5. Children
    6. A woman's role
    7. A man's role
    8. Sin (choose: sex, prostitution, murder, taking what's not yours by right, something else)
    9. Love, Sex, & Marriage
    10. Duty
    11. The authority of elders
    12. Outsiders (choose: Mountain Folk, non-Faithful)
    13. Fitness/athleticism
    14. Superstition/witchcraft/the supernatural
    15. Parenthood/parents
    16. The doctrine of the Book of Life
    17. Blood, violence.
    18-20. Guns

    In addition to these, every character also has the theme "the Lord's Watchdogs". Roll a statement for that, below. The result becomes either a Trait or a Relationship, as you wish.

    * Table 2: Statements

    Roll a d8.

    1. I excel here
    2. This is my weakness/flaw
    3. I fear this/I fear for this
    4. I would protect this with my life... or another's
    5. My knowledge/experience with this runs deep
    6. I am scarred by this.
    7. Someone took this from me.
    8. I have earned this with my sweat and blood.

    Once you have a theme and a statement, write a short phrase about this thing in the first person. Think of it as a little tidbit of your character's personal history that you're discovering. That phrase becomes your Trait.

    Once you feel you have enough Traits, assign your dice to them.


    You roll "Guns" and "I excel here". You write: "I'm a good shot."

    You roll "The doctrine of the Book of Life" and "I am scarred by this". You write: "I fear my soul is already condemned." Or maybe: "I have strayed from the King of Life's will."

    2. Belongings

    You have:

    * Your Dog's Coat, symbol of your authority
    * A horse
    * A jar of consecrated earth
    * The Book of Life
    * A gun

    If you like, add one other possession you carry to the list.

    Now assign dice:

    * Pick one item: it is Excellent, high quality, expensive. Write "1d8" beside it.
    * Pick one item: it is Big, impressive, powerful. Write "2d6" beside it.
    * Pick one item: it is Crap, poor, shoddy, worn, old. Write "1d4" beside it.

    The others, write "1d6" beside them.

    Finally, write "+1d4" beside any item that is a gun.

    Finishing Step Two

    If you didn't assign your Stat dice in Step One, do so now: you'll know where they go by now.
  • edited June 2010
    This thing is just a "Little Idea" I had on the subway yesterday. It's not very well thought-out; the lists are just off the top of my head, and can certainly be improved (although I do want to keep the Guns theme in 18-20 "critical hit" area, just for a laugh). I would love to have your help here. Some of the Themes are not so hot--help me out! I'll edit them above as better alternatives come up.

    In general, the idea is to create characters quickly but also get everyone into the spirit of the game quickly--it should help cut down on some of the "pre-game spiehl" you need to make as a GM when running Dogs for new players.

    The rules for determining Belongings are intended to introduce people to how the Belongings rules work as well as help define each Dog. Take them as an opportunity to explain how the Coats are made in this "Wild West that never was": maybe lead by asking the player with the Strong Community background, "Is your Coat Excellent?" Or the one with the Complicated Community background: "Is your Coat crappy? Why not?"

    What do you think? Is this Little Idea worth getting into better shape?
  • I like this idea a lot. Very very nice work. Make sure you mention that all guns get an extra +1d4, in addition to their other traits, because they inherantly make things more complicated.
  • Thanks, Jonathan!

    Just added that in.
  • I'm not against this in principle, but is it actually faster than just walking people through it?

    There's certainly a strength in being surprised by some random element, though.
  • Jason,

    I think it depends on the number of people, and their familiarity with Dogs.

    The main "problems" this tries to circumvent are:

    a) A person has no clue at all. They say, "Huh? Help." (This one is fairly rare.)
    b) A person is afraid to play without a character concept that's "cool enough" or "powerful enough" or what-have-you. The kind of person who sits there trying to think of a character concept and background before committing to play. I wish someone had told me not to have too much of a character concept before playing the first time I played! Dogs is different from a lot of games in this respect. Along the same lines, I've seen many gamers with the habit of writing really long lists of equipment/possessions--especially if they worry about the GM playing "against them" and want to have all this stuff written down on their sheet *before* we start.
    c) Perhaps most importantly: I think/hope that it communicates a lot about the Dogs world, saving the group some time in terms of "learning about the Dogsverse". By choosing a background, you've learned a little more about how becoming a Dog works, for example. Seeing the list of themes gives you some idea that you don't need or want to create a bunch of Traits about your character's "Gun Maintenance", "Fishing", "Keen Sense of Taste", and similar Traits, which can add a lot to certain types of games but not to Dogs. I think I saw a Dog with a 3d8 Trait in "Mountain Climbing", for example. As you can imagine, it never saw play.

    So, I'm really thinking of beginners and one-shots without much time to explain things, and that kind of situation. I think it would have helped me in my first game.

    What you're talking about, though, is another use: for people who've played Dogs a LOT, it might inspire them with some different Dogs concepts. (I feel like I always end up playing the same Dog over and over, for example.)
  • edited June 2010
    I think your only valid point is C, the other two being easily solved by communicating expectations and being helpful. For C, yes, I know from experience that it totally works - a Fiasco playset is a nutshell summary of the universe in which you'll be operating, as is the In A Wicked Age oracle list. By reviewing the options, even ones not chosen or rolled, you are infilling situation and setting. So that's cool.

    Also: Mountain Climbing 3d6 not being used is a total GM fail.
  • Jason,

    I'm not sure if you're supporting this idea or questioning it! I've seen people struggle with my a) and b), but maybe they just didn't have people on hand to tell them what to do differently. Still, not everyone has that kind of personal resource on hand, so tools are handy.

    As for the Mountain Climbing, I'm thinking specifically of a situation like this: The GM is running a game at a con (or something similar), shows up with a prepared Town, explains what the game is, quickly runs players through character creation and initiations--there's only a few hours left to go. Several characters have Traits like "Mountain Climbing"; everyone's trying to figure out how this game works, we need to wrap up the game by the end of the slot. Most GMs I know would "totally fail" in that situation, including myself. Do you disagree with that? The effort required to run the Town and keep the drama going tends to override any attempt to look over character Traits and work them in, in my experience, especially in a Town that's running tight on time (whether in real life time or in-game time). Like, "your brother's walking across town to shoot the shopkeeper's wife. What do you do?" Most people wouldn't know how to work in Mountain Climbing in a situation like that, GMs and players both.

    How would you do it?
  • Posted By: Paul T."your brother's walking climbing across town to shoot the shopkeeper's wife. What do you do?"
    Anyway, Paul, I'm challenging your assumptions but I am not trying to be a dick. If I'm being a dick let me know and I'll step away.
  • edited June 2010
    The thing about Traits in Dogs, in my experience, is that you usually have to extrapolate their applicability in any given conflict. So whether you've got a trait like "I used to spend my days in the Mountain wilderness" or "Mountain Climbing", you have figure out what that Trait's description implies that you know, or can do. Doing so requires some creativity, and sometimes negotiation during play to justify a use of the Trait.

    Continuing the "Mountain Climbing" example, the obvious extrapolation is that the Dog would be able to hold on to things well with his or her hands, would have good endurance, be able to tie strong knots, judge the soundness of stone structures, and such; but since religion is so prevalent in the Dog's life, it's reasonable to expect that the Dog would know parables and proverbs related to mountains that could give leverage during talking conflicts. It's also reasonable to suggest that the Dog has spent a lot of his climbing time in solitude; allowing him ample prayer and meditation time, giving him an edge in conflicts.

    "Mountain Climbing" might not be as fancy or imaginative a Trait as "I used to spend my days in the Mountain wilderness"; but there's no reason why that should gimp its versatility.

    To address "your brother's walking across town to shoot the shopkeeper's wife. What do you do?" specifically, the first thing to do is to initiate a conflict with the stakes "do I get to the Shopkeeper's house before my brother?" and roll dice, then as a raise you can have your dog say "with my climbing expertise, I scale the building wall in order to take a more direct route to the shopkeeper's via the building roofs" and roll in the "mountain climbing" dice, or something like that.
  • Good points, Leo and Jason.

    Does that make this character creation process useless/unnecessary? Or do you see some benefit in it for at least some players?
  • Posted By: Paul T.
    Does that make this character creation process useless/unnecessary?
    Not in my book. In every Dogs game I've ever played or run (even with Vincent), the creation process has been a lot of stare, study, scribble, study, study, scribble, etc. And that's besides some players having uncertainty or inexperience issues. I am all about a tool that can cut that down.

    One tool I want to use that I always forget to is to talk about what everyone's Dogs are like before designing the stats. This means not even handing out the character sheets until we've informally talked and gotten a nice brief but clear picture of each Dog. In such a sitch the character sheet would hopefully write itself. But I've never been present enough to try it.

    I really like what you're doing, Paul, for several reasons. One, I like random generation and the creative boost it gives you if you're willing to let it. Two, as you say it conveys what sort of things are good and fitting for this game. That's a super-great teaching tool, which as you say could eliminate a lot of the need for explainy-talk that takes you away from actually playing. And Three, like all good random roll charts it also functions as a pick list for those who don't want to roll, so people can get the benefit of self-determination AND the benefit of outside prompting. Win-win!

    Good show!

  • Posted By: Paul T.Does that make this character creation process useless/unnecessary? Or do you see some benefit in it for at least some players?
    I definitely don't think that it's useless. I can see value in this for people who have difficulty deciding on character concepts, or people who just prefer to let the dice do the work of building the character. I also definitely see value in this as a teaching tool for players new to Dogs, and story games in general, within whom the expectation that character traits/stats must be, or are names like "Climbing", "Horse Riding", and so on, is deeply entrenched.

    I encountered that very situation with one of my players when I first decided to run Dogs for them. We were all long time players, but this particular player had no exposure to story games whatsoever. His mindset was very firmly set in the traditional game mode and he struggled to break out of that box. This random character generation tool would have been very valuable to help him out.
  • Great, I'm glad to hear that. That's precisely what I was going for!

    Of course, the absolute *best* way to make a Dogs character would be to play out four or five accomplishment scenes, and get all your Traits that way... too bad it doesn't seem terribly feasible.

    But that's how I *wish* it could be done--all your Traits come from play, from the things you hoped you could accomplish and fought for.
  • There's also a lot you could learn from the Burning Wheel approach to generating traits, which involves asking questions of the players. Like: have you ever killed a man? What's the thing you most regret? Why/how did you get picked to go to Bridal Veil Falls and become a Dog? What were your experiences with Dogs like, growing up?
  • Those are great! They might need to be more specific, or more "leading", for first-time players, though ("Have you ever killed a man?" is great. "What were your experiences with Dogs like.,.", for someone unfamiliar with the Dogs-verse, not so helpful, unless you're going for a collaboratively created gameworld kind of thing).
  • I ran Dogs for two new groups of players this week, and we used this procedure. Character creation wasn't totally random, but I'd offer to roll on these tables maybe 2/3 of the time, and we got some good Traits and things out of it.

    The section for Belongings worked really well, too.

    Writing Traits can still take a while, though.

    For future games with new players, I'm thinking I might prepare a list of Traits to choose from (that you can simply pick or roll). That would probably be really helpful - just plop it down on the table, and tell people to grab some or write their own, as they wish. Speed things up a lot!

    Once you've played a couple of times, you get a much better sense of what kind of Trait is interesting and fun for you, but until then that could be really useful.
  • edited July 2019
    I'm further compiling notes and techniques for facilitating character creation, since it can eat up a lot of time and confuse people who don't understand the game just yet.

    Here are some other ideas and prompts.

    In all cases, your own ideas are best; these are for when you don't know what to do and want some inspiration or to move on to the next step.

    Traits and Relationships

    First, take one of these, or rewrite it in your words. If not, make note that you didn't (see Relationships, below):

    * I'm one of God's Watchdogs
    * I'm a Dog
    * I was chosen to be a Dog before I was born
    * I have no idea why I was chosen to be a Dog
    Next, consider the things Dogs are selected for and trained to do:

    Am I a good shot?
    How would I describe my physicality - strong, fast, untiring, weak, frail, beautiful, ugly?
    What am I like when I talk to people?
    Do I know how to preach; do I know my faith?
    How do I feel about my calling?
    Am I strong in my faith, or do I doubt it sometimes?
    What sin do I fear I am susceptible to?
    Consider your character's history:

    Have I ever killed someone?
    What do I regret most?
    Why or how was I chosen to go to Bridal Falls?
    What unusual skill, aptitude, or experience do I possess?
    If those do not give you enough Traits, roll a prompt from the generator (above) or proceed to prewritten Traits, below:

    Prewritten Traits

    Roll 2d6 as many times as you need, the first for the group and the second for the selection from that group. Each pair of dice rolled gives you a Trait.

    Rewrite any Trait as necessary, to suit your character.

    * I'm a good shot
    * My hands are [beautiful/soft/calloused/scarred/strong]
    * I'm as strong as an ox
    * I'm shamefully curious about the joys of cruelty
    * My hands shake when I handle guns
    * I am a convert to the Faith

    * When I quote from the Book, I sense the power of the King of Life
    * I killed a man once
    * I can draw a gun like lightning from the holster
    * I was beaten near to death as a child
    * I can see through lies
    * My broken rib makes me frail

    * I'm ugly as sin
    * I never tire first
    * My faith protects me
    * I'm utterly unremarkable in every way
    * I know how to handle booze (and drunks)
    * I once scared off five bandits with an unloaded rifle

    * I'm tempted by the pleasures of the flesh
    * I struggle with the reality of the Faith
    * I'm an intoxicating flirt, and I know it
    * I look completely harmless and unremarkable
    * I love even the worst people, because otherwise I'd hate them all
    * I can ride like the wind

    * I smell the wind and the dirt and the land speaks to me
    * You'll be dead before you pull the trigger
    * I've got the hands of a healer
    * My family is wealthy; I've never worked a hard day in my life
    * I can smell the demon inside you
    * I don't know my own strength

    * The King of Life saved me from sin
    * This scar on my face marks me for life
    * When I raise my voice in the Lord's service, it rings to the heavens
    * I am as slippery as a snake
    * I believe I once brought a sinner back from the dead
    * I was possessed by a Demon, once

    If you didn't take a "Dog" Trait earlier, your first Relationship should be with the Dogs (as an institution). Simply write "the Dogs", or, for more detail, answer one of these questions:

    * How do you feel about Bridal Falls, your teachers there, and your training?
    * Why were you called to be a Dog?
    * Do you love, respect, admire, fear, or resent the Dogs?
    * What were you experiences with the Dogs like, growing up?

    For other Relationships, use the following list of prompts, or make your own:

    * This person is a blood relation, close to my heart. (Optionally, combine with any of the items below.) If you don't assign any dice to this Relationship, give it a d6, for free.

    * This person trained me, is my mentor, or is my hero
    * I owe this person an apology/a debt/everything
    * I saved this person's life/this person from sin
    * This person saved my life/saved me from sin
    * I am desperately in love with this person
    * This person is or was my lover

    * This person took something precious from me
    * I desperately want, need, or crave something from this person
    * This person once left me for dead
    * I once nearly killed this person
    * I am terrified of this person
    * I fear for this person; I would protect them with my life
    Consider, first, any NPCs that have already been created: by the GM (ask who lives in the Town you are going to next), by other players (likely as their own Relationships), or appearing in an initiation/accomplishment scene.

    You may also take a Relationship with an institution, a place, a sin, or a demon, but don't do so unless you have a really clear idea of what and why.

    To create a random Relationship, ask about an NPC someone else has introduced, and then proceed:

    How likely is this person to be related to you? Pick a number from 2 to 5 (3 by default, and the higher the more likely), then roll a die.

    1 - This person is a blood relation. Stop.
    Your chosen number or below - This person is a blood relation. Keep going (below).
    Your chosen number or above - This person is not a blood relation. Keep going (below).

    Next, roll two dice to choose a Relationship type from the two lists above. The first die determines the (larger) group, and the second selects a particular Relationship. Rewrite it as you feel it suits your character and the NPC.

    Give them a name, if necessary.
  • Have I ever killed a man?
    Suggest "someone" rather than "a man."
  • Good point! Thanks.
  • Chargen can take awhile, but FWIW, I've run Dogs chargen even for people who'd never gamed before, or never played anything but D&D3.0 or some shit, and it went fine.
  • Yes! My experience is more or less the same.

    I find it far slower and far less reliably successful than other games I play these days, though (especially compared to PbtA-style playbooks, for instance).

    I ran Dogs with two separate groups over the last few weeks, and had a new player join in a third session. Character creation always took 1 to 1 1/2 hours, and wasn't super smooth.

    Relationships, by the book, are particularly confusing/unclear.

    The tools I'm messing around with here really helped speed up the process and (more importantly, perhaps) to give people an idea of what kinds of things are appropriate. (I also have a different approach to character creation in the works. Maybe I should post that, too? It's just a different breakdown of character creation options.)

    One player said he had a very vague idea of his character, and then rolled Traits of the random table, discarding any which "didn't feel right". That worked suprisingly well to define the character!

    My general issue is that "by the book" character creation, for newbies, is a lot of work, but doesn't tend to generate characters that are that well suited for play. Veterans create much better characters, and faster. I'd like to narrow that gap.

  • My general issue is that "by the book" character creation, for newbies, is a lot of work, but doesn't tend to generate characters that are that well suited for play. Veterans create much better characters, and faster. I'd like to narrow that gap.
    I've not played Dogs but I did just reread the book, what's the specific issues with 'by the book' character creation
  • There is nothing “wrong” with character creation, but it’s very open-ended, which means that some players just “get it” and they can make a character without any trouble, but the people who don’t need a fair bit of guidance.

    Relationships, in particular, are tricky. It’s not immediately clear what they’re for or how they should be done. Leave them unassigned? Define them? Should the GM work then into Towns or not? Etc.

    A player who doesn’t really understand the setting and the genre often has trouble writing good Traits.

    With players who all understand the game well, no time constraints, and/or a GM or other facilitator who has the time to explain everything, it works really well, though.

    Ideally, I’d like a playbook-style presentation which limits the scope of open-ended character creation to the point where a newbie can do so with very little guidance. A presentation which gives a sense of the setting and what a Dog’s role is.

    This thread has been a good overview of the issues and some possible solutions, so I’d recommend reading it before playing.
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