Somehow, despite a decade of posts on this blog, I’ve never gone in-depth into Dogs in the Vineyard or what I love so much about it. There’s more to Dogs than I could easily cover in a single post: cooperative story-telling and turn-taking, cinematic descriptive and narrative tools, a conflict mechanic that encourages brinksmanship and escalation, a well-articulated method for understanding what’s at stake… all those elements are a delight.
But there’s another piece that Dogs explicitly encourages groups to home in on. That’s the experience of wrestling with moral conundrums, something many modern CRPGs both want—and struggle—to deliver. That’s what I’m focused on today.
Dogs asks groups of players to contend with moral and ethical dilemmas. That isn’t the only thing the game does, but that is what it’s built for. It’s the bedrock assumption of each new scenario.
The storyteller’s basic scenario creation tools are predicated on the idea that something has gone wrong in a community, something needs to be brought into the open and either accepted as right or made right. The storyteller is encouraged to take notes every time the players decide one way or another, and to revisit old decisions later on. Any time the PCs render judgment, Dogs wants the storyteller to return to the question in new circumstances, to poke and ask, “But what about now? What if it’s like this?”
It’s an RPG that’s tailor made to chase down those big conundrums, and to make them part and parcel of every session of play. The original rulebook literally says, “Identify and challenge the PCs’ moral grounds, by provoking their judgment.”
It’s also built around an evocative default setting that players may find off-putting. Not everyone has fun playing a quasi-paladin in a fantastical alternate history Old West. Fortunately, modding the system and changing the setting is extremely straightforward. And you can keep the conundrums as long as you adhere to the system’s underlying assumptions of the PCs’ power, authority, and responsibility.
By comparison, most CRPGs that I’ve played or watched only occasionally achieve what Dogs does routinely. I think this is because those games aren’t built around the same set of assumptions; they’re selling a different story, a different experience. When they offer those bigger moral conundrums, they’re often a climactic part of a larger narrative—they’re more like the apex of an arc than the bricks that built the arch to begin with. Those decisions are present in part to create a feeling of choice and agency in a game that might otherwise be quite linear, while Dogs’ climactic moral choices are just one thread in a larger fabric of constant moral exploration.
It’s not a fair comparison, really.
Tabletop RPGs are a fundamentally different medium than computer games. But computer games keep chasing that experience, trying to incorporate it in their narratives one way or another. I think the most successful ones create similar experiences because they’re honing their exploration of moral decision making from the get-go.
The CRPG that feels most like Dogs to me so far is The Witcher 3. The game’s constant prodding—what kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to relate to the other people in this world? What is right or just in these circumstances, and what unforeseen consequences might follow?—feels like a perfect parallel. Well, almost perfect. I don’t think any CRPG, no matter how much I enjoy it, can replace the joy of making those stories with my friends and seeing how they face the dilemmas before them.
Regardless, I’d love to know what methodology The Witcher 3’s writers used for building their various quests and moral questions.
I’m especially curious about that because CRPGs have to build as much as they can beforehand and hope that their creative choices land well with the audience. You can patch a game, you can make DLC, but it isn’t possible to support the same responsiveness that you can find in a gaming group. Thus, CRPGs can revisit moral dilemmas, and the well-written ones can offer lasting consequences (see my thoughts on the importance of that in last week’s post about Majora’s Mask). But I love the ability to design bespoke problems for my players to wrestle with. I love to tease out the places where their characters draw the line and where their opinions differ.
I suppose I’d add Divinity 2: Original Sin (and other isometric CRPGs) to this set of comparisons, if only to point out how different it feels. Perhaps The Witcher better delivers the feeling I’m talking about because of Geralt’s social position as a powerful outcast. Or perhaps it does because those other CRPGs dilute the concentration of their ethical-dilemma quests with less morally weighty fare. I suspect the reason has to do with how much The Witcher 3 paints its morality with shades of gray; solutions are not simple, and few choices are without painful consequences for someone. It’s a more ethically complicated landscape than most CRPGs put the time into creating.
It’s also more exhausting, at times. I’ve definitely finished a quest and sat back and said, “Oof.”
And that’s part of what makes me miss Dogs in the Vineyard. After a weighty conflict in Dogs, we can all take a moment and talk about it. At the very least we can appreciate the scene we just made and ask where those decisions might take the group next.
I’m glad I had the chance to play Dogs when I did. It changed the way I run games, the way I tell stories. I’m glad I still have the old book, and can draw on it for inspiration when I want to offer dilemmas to my players. I don’t have my own concrete methodology for building moral puzzles for my players, but I know where I can go to find good parts.
Oh, if you want to see the (out of print) DitV system, you can find it here on DriveThruRPG. This new version doesn’t have all the same tools or advice as the original, but it has the basic mechanics and concepts.