[AP] Prepping for Dogs in the Vineyard and blorb, Narrativism, and game state

I've been asked to run a Dogs in the Vineyard game for a group of fairly hardcore OSR gamers, which excites me: I like running Dogs (which I haven't done in many, many years!), I like playing with new people, I like introducing people to new styles of gaming, and I like seeing how different styles of players create new chemistry and new dynamics at the table.

The experience has not disappointed on that front!

We introduced ourselves to the game, wrote up characters, and went through initiations.

I did a slightly heretical thing and wrote out a list of the NPCs before we played: important people from the Town where the PCs are headed. The players could take Relationships with them, and I encouraged them to use an NPC from the list in each of their initiation scenes (which everyone did, albeit with some prompting from me).

That was fun, because we now have the Steward convinced that one of the Dogs may have direct experience with demonic possession, the Steward's wife suspicious of what secrets one of the other Dogs is hiding, and the former deputy Sheriff once witnessed the third Dog fight off and cow three armed men.

I am also very reminded of how similar Dogs is to old-school D&D in so many ways.

It's a funny, subversive design, in some ways tremendously adventurous and paradigm-breaking, and, in other ways, incredibly traditional. It's one of my favourite games to explore and think about, for this reason among others.

Along the lines of an "old-school" mentality (as opposed to a "story game" mentality), I encouraged the players not to worry too much about "character concept", but to leave room for the characters to develop in play, or even to play them more or less 'as themselves'.

The Dogs turned out to be pretty interesting nevertheless: one carries a blood-soaked wedding dress which may house a demon (his initiation conflict was that he hoped his superiors at Bridal Falls wouldn't discover that he was hiding it!), the other is trying to hide his homosexuality, and the third has a collection of Traits that allow him to pretend or "fake" demonic possession.

Pretty interesting stuff!

Comments

  • Now, on a more specific topic:

    Of course, given the discussions we're having lately, I can't avoid but look at all the steps I'm taking through the lens of our discussions on Narrativism, the 'game state', 'blorbiness', and so forth.

    Dogs ("DitV") has some really unusual features, in that it's a pretty heavily "story game"-style Narrativist game (hard to argue otherwise), but also old school in many respects. Some of the old school aspects include the GM's role in preparing a Town (which consists of a relationship map - though it's not framed in those terms - and a history of recent salient events). In addition, the GM commits to an agenda for each NPC (what they want), to revealing the Town in play (this makes playing the NPCs easy), and to "what would happen if the Dogs didn't show up". This is the totality of the prep: we don't draw a map, determine anything about non-salient NPCs, or write stats for anyone. And we (usually) do all this before the PCs are created (though I do suspect that most GMs will prep or pick a Town with a complexity relative to the number of Dog PCs in the group - that seems like a good practice to me).

    As anyone who has played the game can tell you, that works like a charm.

    I think that looking at specific examples of actual play is a really great way to examine and test theoretical ideas - after all, the proof is in the pudding, and who cares what shape the theory takes if it doesn't give us anything we can do to improve our games?

    I humbly offer this game exercise as a thing to dissect for anyone interested. We can suggest techniques and pick things apart, and I'll try to put into practice anything that seems interesting and potentially fruitful when I play with the group next week.

    So, the things I'm thinking about this as I do it are the following (and keep in mind that this is basically a one-shot):

    * The rules for statting up NPCs are interesting. The book tells me to make "proto-NPCs", which are half-filled-out stat blocks, which I can then assign in the moment to any NPC.

    Oh, Sister so-and-so is in a conflict? Ok, I grab this stat block and use that for her.

    The Traits are not defined; rather, I can fill them in as I play, on the spot. (In response to what's happening; so the Traits are guaranteed to be useful to an NPC when I use them.)

    The default assumption is that those stat blocks, once set, are not to be changed afterwards. If there's a second conflict with Sister so-and-so, her stats will be the same as in the first conflict, in other words.

    There are also "Town dice", which are unassigned and can be used by the GM at any time. They are completely "free", in other words! But you are limited to a set number of them, and once they're used up, they're used up.

    (This would be equivalent to having 10 points you can "spend" during a D&D session to boost HP, AC, or attack bonuses for your monsters, at whim, any time you want, even in the middle of a roll!)

    However, later in time, Vincent made a new, simpler version of the rules for NPC stats which are even more fluid and less defined.

    http://lumpley.com/index.php/anyway/thread/294

    These are even looser, in part because the sets of dice you see there are to be applied in whatever order the conflict happens. (It may be hard to figure these details out from the short writeup there, unless you're very familiar with Dogs.) So, in other words, if you give the 9d6 option to the Steward in a conflict that starts Physical, those dice aren't now "bound" to Physical; if there's a later conflict that starts with Talking, you still roll 9d6, all the same (even though, in theory, he "should have" had different stats for that arena).

    Vincent says that, "[f]or con play [...] I don't imagine I'll ever make NPCs by the book again."

    Since then, I've seen that pretty much everyone who plays the game uses the "simple NPC rules", discarding the original, more detailed rules in the book. (I've read a lot of advice threads by experienced Dogs players online, and had many discussions in person.)

    When I learned to run Dogs, I started with these rules and never used the "by-the-book" version. I didn't have time to prep and learn them the first time I played, was advised not to, and never looked back.

    Questions:

    Is there a mismatch between the "old-school" nature of Town prep, and then very "un-blorby" nature of the NPC dice rules (even by the book!)? How does it affect the game? Does it make it better or worse? Why was pretty much everyone, including Vincent, so quick to adopt the simpler and less "blorby" rules?
  • Next:

    * What is the role of GM prep in relation to a Narrativist agenda, in this instance? Even though the prep for the game is fairly old-school, does it serve the game to inject more thematic elements into my prep, now that I know who the characters are?

    For instance, one of the Dogs is described as being able to play the piano (and even took a Trait to that effect). Pianos are probably pretty rare in the "Wild West that never was"; they would be popular, sure, but who would build them? Or bring them across the wilds prairies all the way from out East?

    So, should I include a piano in the Town, now that I know that it could be interesting for the Dog? (It's even more specific, actually, since he's said one of the NPCs in the Town used to take piano lessons with him as a child - so it wouldn't be totally out of the blue.)

    However, what is my role as a GM and making this decision?

    What about other elements I've learned since I chose the Town writeup: what about these themes of demonic possession, homosexuality, and banditry? Should I be making an effort to adjust the Town writeup so as to include them? If I do, should I worry about how I'm doing it, and my mental process for doing so?

    * Hypothetically, I could increase the detail of the prep pretty dramatically, by developing a lot more detail around the Town, its denizens, and other details (e.g. the weather).

    Should I do so? How do I figure out what's salient and what's not? What details are useful, which are worth doing in some principled way (i.e. "worrying about it", randomizing, having a system, instead of just following whatever instincts throw ideas to the top of my head)?

    Which elements would help make the game better, which would be unnecessary, and which might be actively harmful?

    Lots of interesting questions to ponder. I invite discussion! And ask away about anything you want to know (I have a feeling many of the current readers might not have played Dogs a whole lot, so I don't expect you to know everything you need to know without asking.)
  • FWIW—and this is tangential to the thread—the way you did the NPC list from the town the PCs were going to is how @jenskot does it, too, and AFAIK he is still the world's most experienced DitV GM. So I don't think it's heretical to do it that way--how could it be?

    I'm going to let people not familiar with DitV (I've run it a fair amount myself, including one full campaign of it) comment more first.
  • edited June 13
    I think (?) you know that @jenskot was the first person I ever played Dogs with, so everything I learned, I learned from him. Well spotted on the NPC technique (although I've never actually seen it in practice!).

    The really heretical part, though, is using those NPCs in the initiation/accomplishment scenes. I still think it's a good idea, but it's only the first time I try it (and I can imagine some people might consider it a stretch, in terms of believability).

    We had a great thread about Dogs here on the forum a while back, by the way:

    http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/12353/suggestions-for-dogs-in-the-vineyard-rookie

    Now back to our regular conversation...
  • I ran another session in the same way (different players, except for one).

    The same questions come up:

    The game is in a funny middle ground between traditional and non-traditional. How much leeway should the GM exercise to use dramatic coordination to align the Town contents with the PCs?

    Would the game be improved by a more “blorby” approach, or not? Do we need tools to control what the GM can “inject” into the “game state”? If so, why and how?
  • Here's an interesting case of a "blorb" related dilemma - I think @2097 might enjoy or appreciate this one, since it's related to some of her recent ponderings:


    We want the Dogs to have Relationships with people in the Town. We want these to be juicy.

    So, when do we introduce these?

    * By the book, it sounds like it's the player's job to say, "Hey! That guy we just met? It's my uncle." You do it at the table, in the heat of the game.

    But this means that the player is making the decision based on the way the character is presented. Is this good or bad?

    It's certainly less "emergent" or less likely to surprise you than the methods below.

    * In John's method, the NPCs are written up by the GM, and the players attach relationships to them before play.

    This is great, but the players have little say in the nature of the NPCs or how they will be presented in the Towns. You can say you're in love with an NPC, only to discover that, when you actually "meet" them, they're not someone you'd really ever fall in love with, at all.

    * In my method, the players write up the NPCs, and then I make Towns using those NPCs.

    This is great, but the GM is now writing Towns consciously, around the NPCs the players have come up with.

    What I did to make it more "blorby" was to inject a random element into Town Creation, and then separate the Town Creation step from the NPC Creation step.

    This worked beautifully for me! (However, it's pretty involved, and it also runs the risk of the same problem as John's method.)

    The Method

    1. The GM writes up the Towns, drawing relationship maps, and marking each NPC with a number. He doesn't know anything about the PCs (or at least the Relationships) yet!

    2. The players write up their NPC connections, and hand them to the GM.

    3. The GM randomly assigns the NPC connections to the numbered positions in the relationship maps.

    Example

    So, for instance, you say your uncle is a former murderer, now reformed, and you had a hand in reforming him. You tell me a bit about what he's like.

    My Town has a Steward, a murder victim, and someone locked up for the murder.

    I make some rolls, and it turns out that... the uncle us the Steward! Interesting! Or I could have rolled differently, and he might have been the fellow wrongly convicted, rotting in the Town's jail. Or the victim of murder.

    This creates an emergent thing neither you nor I would have thought of, throwing a wrench into both my plans and yours.

  • When I ran Dogs (don't worry Lumpley I used another setting and another legal/religious code) I just placed the relatives as I wished since I was placing Paper before seeing Rock.

    But I like this better:
    Paul_T said:

    The Method

    1. The GM writes up the Towns, drawing relationship maps, and marking each NPC with a number. He doesn't know anything about the PCs (or at least the Relationships) yet!

    2. The players write up their NPC connections, and hand them to the GM.

    3. The GM randomly assigns the NPC connections to the numbered positions in the relationship maps.

    This is good. An isomorphic way to do that, possibly easier, is to leave blanx instead of numbers and then fill in the blanx randomly. Sort of what Thanuir proposed.
  • How did you place the relatives “before seeing rock”? Did you just dictate it to the players, or what?

    Also, what setting and moral code did you use? Dogs reskins are fascinating :)
  • Paul_T said:

    How did you place the relatives “before seeing rock”? Did you just dictate it to the players, or what?

    It’s been a while so I’m not 100% sure but I think that’s what I did.
    Paul_T said:

    Also, what setting and moral code did you use? Dogs reskins are fascinating :)

    I used the al-Qadim era of the Zakhara region of the planet al-Toril which is part of the Forgotten Realms setting. There is a very clear & usable two-page spread of religious-legal code in the Land of Fate box set.

    I like it because it’s
    • low on the sexism
    • has some things very familiar to the players
    • has some things alien and new to the players
    Taking a law such as a mandatory worship day and cranking that up (using the Dogs processs) into a gameable town was great.

    Obv if you want confronting sexism to be a theme in the game (I mean, sometimes you go to the dungeon to find out how to make peace with your days in the dungeon, after all) it’s a bad choice.

    I’m tryna look at my prep to find out what laws I started from.

    We have the prohibition on alcohol, mandatory pilgrimage, mandatory worship day, and one I can’t tell for sure. It was a local war between al-Badia and al-Hadar over a spring in the desert.

    I see that I had rolled up D&D stats for all characters as well, not that those stats were ever used. Since everything that happened in the dogs game was also canon in our larger D&D campaign. (I did something similar for Cthulhu Dark and Microscope, calling the project “1001 Nights Off”.)

  • This game has been moving forward, and looking at it through the lens of our recent conversation has been really interesting.

    On one hand, messing around with the dice rules in rather un-blorby ways is very tempting in Dogs (and may be beneficial). The balance of how many Dogs are involved in a conflict changes how it feels and how fast it is to play out, so I could even see using a rule to that effect (e.g. picking a die profile based on how many Dogs are in the conflict).

    Applying proto NPCs or dice profiles to the NPCs is *supposed* to be done on the fly, in any case, and doing so intentionally seems to improve the game rather than to hurt it. (Since the purpose of the NPCs' die pools is largely to put pressure on the PCs to make difficult choices, rather than to establish reliable and consistent interactions in the "game world". I actually suspect that a static difficulty/die size/value for any NPC, based on the number of Dogs interacting with them - or some similarly invariable measure - might be perfect for this game, in the same way that unchanging "difficulty" ratings in AW make it easier and more interesting to GM/MC.)

    On the other hand, the way I've set up Relationships with existing NPCs without any reference to the Town's situation (which is written/prepped before any contact with the players or their PCs at all!) creates some very blorb-like emergent situations and results. The players know the names and identities of some of the NPCs, but not their roles in the Town nor the situation that's been prepped.

    As they name Relationships to the NPCs, and play out scenes with them in their initiation conflicts, interesting coincidences and twisted situations result in an emergent fashion. I wrote about one such situation (although somewhat obliquely, for now) over in the "what did you play this week" thread:

    http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/comment/486445/#Comment_486445
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