2005-09-20 : Dogs in the Vineyard, the Vision

Christian Fasy wrote me the other day:

I have wanted to contact you ever since I bought the game. As a member of the LDS faith, an avid role-player, a student of history, a lover of fantastic fiction, and a fan of westerns, I believe that I am your ultimate target audience.

I loved reading this game and I got a bunch of my LDS gaming buddies together and even invited my father, himself a convert to the church who doesn't do pen and paper role-playing, but is a gun nut and historian in his own right who started the Utah chapter of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS).  He expressed some anxiety to me about playing a game with me and my friends, and I scoffed at him. The SASS is an organization of western shooters, who meet and have shooting matches in full period costume, using only period weapons, and who all go by period aliases.

Compared to Dad, my friends and I are all couch potato posers!

Anyway, when we got together, my father did an impromptu one hour and forty five minute lecture on black powder weapons for me and my friends. He brought several of his guns. Then another friend, whose own father collects period black powder reproduction pistols, showed up with a case of the old blunderbusses! We had props everywhere to go with our big bowl of dice and the drinks and Doritos.

I had copies of the character creation and conflict resolution rules for everyone, and once I got Dad to stop lecturing, I explained the whole thing cold to the group. I had asked everybody to come up with a character idea and a 'look' based on a favorite actor out of Western movies. We had, variously, Sam Elliot, Kevin Costner from Silverado, Clint Eastwood from Pale Rider, Alan Rickman, and believe it or not, Jimmy Cagney as an Irish convert. Dad chose a Mountain Person who had also converted.

We played out everyone's' initiatory conflicts. For your information and interest, out of 5 players and one GM, 4 of us had been on missions for the church and one (Dad) was a convert, so many of us had experienced first hand the actual 'Dogs Temple' in 'Bridal Veil City'. This lent a lot of power to the initiatory scenes. I got some of the best role-playing I have ever experienced in my 26 years of running RPGs, and the kibitzing rules were very well used. At one point, I thought we were going to have a hard time when my father declared that his character's initiatory goal was to have the rest of his group respect him for who he really was; not as a Dirty Injun and not as a Noble Savage but for himself. I should never have doubted.

He set the scene in scripture class where he caught up the Instructor misquoting and misinterpreting scripture. We staged several more instances like this and by the time he was done, EVERYBODY respected him. In fact, the oft-repeated in joke of the night was "We'll put up with the Injun, but not the Irishman."

It was an amazing experience. We only got part way into the town and several had to leave, except two players. These two had been on actual missions. I set up a scene with an NPC brother who had lost his wife to a richer man and was trying to decide between murder and suicide. It was a long, depressing exchange for the characters.

The player, who's Costner based character was the brother of the NPC, had actually lost his own wife several years ago to breast cancer. Watching him dialogue with his 'brother', a man in the blackest despair, was an inspiration. He was pulling stuff straight from his own experiences and personal tragedy to answer the problems of this NPC brother of his. It became intensely personal and a beautiful thing.

After convincing his brother to give up his weapon, the two dropped him off with the Steward for safe care. The two players were experiencing emotional exhaustion after all this. They both sat back with a relieved "Whew!" in stereo. It was classic. And then came the bit that, for me, was the capper for the entire evening. Only someone who had been on a volunteer mission for their church or some equivalent charity work could truly appreciate it.

The two characters were down, really down. Affected by the brother's plight, overwhelmed by the town's black mood and feeling outnumbered by the bad guy and his army of goons, the characters (Costner and Cagney!) schlepped around the ranch house and paused by their horses in the cool evening air. 'Costner' wraps his hand around the saddle horn and stops, telling his partner how blasted he feels inside. 'Cagney' looks at him for a minute and after a long pause says, "Well Brother, how 'bout we sing a hymn?"

From memory the two PLAYERS picked an actual hymn from our LDS hymnal, and sang two verses right there on the spot. The 'Cagney' player started playing around with the words, adding references to what they wanted to do to the bad guy, and both of them started laughing. I joined in for a rousing third verse and we all broke up.

I don't know if I have conveyed it clearly, but for a minute there, it was like actually being on my mission. I know the other two were feeling it as well. The despair and the catharsis of the moment throwing us back through time to an imaginary place, but with our real personal experiences acting as a lens to focus the moment.

I was so delighted that I declared extra dice for them from Ceremony. We broke up the game and all went home. Two days later, the Costner player calls me up and asks when we are going to finish the game because he has been dreaming about his character. This hasn't happened for him since he first played D&D 25 years ago. I got similar responses from all the players.

I just wanted to say 'Thanks'.

Who here knows the story of how I came to write Dogs in the Vineyard? You'll see that my whole vision has been fulfilled.

1. On 2005-09-20, ScottM said:

That is very cool, very powerful.  Well done faithful group, and well done Vincent.  Congratulations.


2. On 2005-09-20, Brand_Robins said:

This, Vincent, is why you kick ass.


3. On 2005-09-20, Brennan Taylor said:

This is way better than the fan mail you get for KPFS.


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This makes...
XP go "LOL!"
jk go "another lol"
lpl go "i want to kill sinners for the king"

4. On 2005-09-20, Vincent said:

It surely is.


5. On 2005-09-20, Christian Fasy said:

Vincent, thanks for posting my letter. I'd really like it if you would take my letter and describe point for point how this session fulfilled your vision.
Thank you,


6. On 2005-09-20, Peter Dyring-Olsen said:

Man, I feel so... slow...but, Vincent... I really don't KNOW the story - I mean, I may sort of have a FEELING but I would very much like to have some solid knowledge. Care to share or point me somewhere? Cheers.


7. On 2005-09-20, Meguey said:

Ditto on the point-for-point description. This was so very much better a game played by LDS players than the painful one we played with your family.


8. On 2005-09-20, Vincent said:

Well, I don't know about a point-for-point, but I'll tell the story at least.

I grew up LDS, very much so, in Payson and Provo Utah, right in the heart of the church. I'm fifth and sixth generation Mormon, descended from pioneers and from Bishop Chamberlain of Orderville; in my veins runs the blood of the great old Utopianists. But I left the church when I was 19, after choosing not to go on a mission. This left me wounded! 12 years later when our story opens (2003, that is) I'm going, "dang, time to grow up and move on, but how?"

I meet Jake Norwood at GenCon '03. He's LDS, he lives in Provo, he designed a rock-solid RPG called The Riddle of Steel, he's on the Forge. I'm all set to not like him. He'll be the first non-family Mormon I've interacted with since, oh, 1996. He twigs that I'm all set to not like him; to his credit he doesn't take it personally. I'm all caught up in some imaginary struggle with him before we've even met, and he's ... just not. Bless him.

So we bond over food, he doesn't flinch when I drink beer in his presence, he's a great guy, and by the end of the con we're friends. Friends enough - he probably didn't find it significant, especially, just I did. I come home from GenCon going, "know what, Meg? I made friends with a Mormon. Can you believe it?"

So then just a couple of days back from GenCon, Michael Hopcroft starts this thread at the Forge. He announces a gaming convention in planning, of by and for Mormon gamers, in Utah. I'm not interested, until Jared Sorensen says:

"I'm so gonna get on the list of guests. Lumpley, we'll need to chat about bringin' KPfS to Utah."

CALLED OUT! In front of my new Mormon friend Jake! And I'm like, uh, normally I'd join Jared in mocking, but ... Jake's watching, and ... uh...

(Here's a side story. Some time ago Ron Edwards called me, we were talking about the Forge, then we were griping about certain people, and suddenly he stopped. "Here we are," he said, "a couple of the shining minds of RPG design - you'd think we'd have something to talk about other than who we like and who we don't like." We're such monkeys.)

Anyway, called out. Scroll down to this post and you'll see the first ever articulation of Dogs in the Vineyard's design goals.

"My design goals are: it's interesting to Mormons, it's relevant to Mormons, and it treats the concerns of Mormonism with subtlety and respect."

Within a couple of months I've got the watchdogs preserving the faith bit, and the title, and then a year later it's a whole game. Remember this RPGnet thread, Brand? If you read me answering to RandomGoblin, like here, you'll see just how badly I want you all Mormons to like my game. Badly, is how badly. Anyway the game sells like crazy, it plays like crazy, it makes me money, it opens friendships, it's a big part of me making peace with my history - and seriously, making peace with my history. Growing up and moving on. Awesomeness.

My junior high friend Porter looks me up. I send him the game and he's struck by the integrity with which I treat the subject matter. That's awesome too.

But until your email, Christian, I had these design goals floating out there, right? Unfulfilled. Or, if fulfilled, unconfirmed. I was pretty sure I'd nailed 'em - I mean, Brand likes the game, right? Porter does. But all this time I've been hoping for something just like this letter you sent me.

Then you did. The end!


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This makes...
James go "Holy shit, it's me."*

*click in for more

9. On 2005-09-20, Brand_Robins said:

I do like the game. I find that it fits into a lot of things in my life in a very personal, powerful, and sometimes difficult way. Everything I love and hate about my own church is in there, somewhere, and playing it is....

It's something else. Unfortunatly I've not yet had a chance to play it with a lot of other Mormons, much less my family. I live very far from home now, and don't get back all that often. When last I did there was a wedding, and everyone was busy - but my dad did look at the game, and was interested. So maybe someday I'll give an actual play report about that game.

But I'm a swearing Mormon who hangs out with pot smoking marxist and only did a Service Mission, so I don't know if I'm the guy you were looking for anyway. ;)


10. On 2005-09-21, Meguey said:

"it's a big part of me making peace with my history - and seriously, making peace with my history."
Can I just say, without oversharing too much, that this was an amazing process to watch unfold? Thanks.


11. On 2005-09-21, Ninja Monkey J said:

There was a day when Vincent was telling me about this. I think we were out in the back yard and Elliot was on the swing. And Vincent's telling me this story, and I'm all, like, "I have no analogous experience to this."

So I got to hang on and watch. Such a nice thing came out!


12. On 2005-09-21, Keith said:

This is just so great Vincent.  The very notion that you made peace with your history through your game just brings a smile to my face.  Very fucking cool.


13. On 2005-09-21, Christian Fasy said:

"Then you did. The end!"

Man, I laughed a lot over that one.

Well, Vincent, I'm sorry I didn't write sooner, but I'm very glad that I finally did. In fact, I'm honored to have hit the right button.

I want to state that gaming Mormons are a special breed, a narrow target indeed. I admit to choosing which friends could seperate the fantasy from the history, and not feel uncomfortable. Let's not forget that Mormons, just like other humans, come in all shapes and sizes, a rainbow of flavors, and a wide spectrum of thinking. Some have more open minds than others.

I was so impressed with your respectful but upfront treatment of the 'Faith', the fantasy threads woven into the historical context, and the bitter-sweetness of the 'what if' that raises so many questions about faith and religion and right-action (to borrow a buddhist phrase); the questions of ethical behavior when you can, by default, be a law unto yourself, can never actually be wrong; and what kind of person that makes you. Really, just a thing of cognitive and emotional beauty. I just HAD to share it with my friends. We had so many moments of "That is SO COOL' overlaying the kind of chuckle reserved for describing big motorcycles, fast cars and action heroes.

I know that my friends all love the flash and bang, the sturm und drang of it, and the opportunity to identify with the characters in a new way, a safe way that touches on their most deeply held beliefs without mocking those beliefs at the same time. Me, I also dig the philosophy. There were a lot more things that happened in that game that I just loved. I'll try to put all of it down in the Forge sometime this month.

Brand, I haven't met you, but this quote was telling:
"But I'm a swearing Mormon who hangs out with a pot smoking marxist and only did a Service Mission".

You have excellent references. I come from a long line of brilliant cursers that could put long-shoremen to shame with the licks of flame that come from our tongues. I've hung with my own share of pot smokers, apathists, communists, anarchists, fanatical republicans, wiccans, homosexuals, goths, gun nuts, libertarians and social democrats and that's just my immediate family.
Only a Service Mission? Only? Don't be so modest.
You know, Jesus hung out with sinners and tax collectors. Should we do less? ;-)


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This makes...
BR go "Next time I'm in Utah I'll look you up."*
CF go "That would be cool.."*

*click in for more

14. On 2005-09-21, Poh Tun Kai said:

Just Wow. This is why roleplaying can be so good for people.


15. On 2005-09-21, Judd said:

The power and conflict behind the making of Dogs definitely shines through.  The game's fueled by something and it ain't just rockin' dice mechanics.  Now we know what.


16. On 2005-09-21, joshua m. neff said:

What a fantastic actual play write-up, what an amazing experience for Vincent, and what a brilliant post and comments. Wow.


17. On 2005-09-22, TonyD said:

Awesome. I was raised very religiously and actually spent some time studying for the priesthood. When i read Dogs I was thunderstruck that someone managed to put a coherent explanation of good and evil into a game and make it work for role-playing. Cheers!


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This makes...
NInJ go "In what tradition?"

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