As a self-proclaimed gamer girl, I get asked for recommendations all the time. Any genre, any game type, I have a favorite that's not usually on the radar; however, my absolute, all-time favorite recommendation is the paper-and-pencil RPG "Dogs in the Vineyard." From the narrativist gameplay, story-focused character generation, elegant conflict resolution system, and simple game-mastering formulae, the system just sings in all the right places. Its biggest accomplishment - and consequentially the subject of this little column - is that it takes the player out of their life, puts them into an different (and sometimes uncomfortable) body, and forces them to make a great story out of it.
Yes, Dogs in the Vineyard is good enough to receive that level of praise and attention. I don't hand it out often.
DitV's greatest accomplishment, however, was helping me to "get" the social conservative movement. Sure, I'm not a fan of it, but until I played this game I didn't really understand what drove people to act they way they do towards our community. The reasoning is simple: it's our job as neighborly people and our government's job as leaders to keep others from making bad decisions. Where social progressives tend to see the village raising the idiot leader, the social conservatives see the idiot leader raising the village. Without the RPG, I would never have been able to understand how the social conservative world justifies this distinction.
An explanation of a game session comes after the jump:
DitV has players roleplaying as Watchdogs in the "Wild West that Never Was," working for a church built upon an analogue of the Mormon religion. A game session consists of going to a town, finding the sin that is causing anything from civil unrest to demonic sorcery, and correcting it using whatever means they feel are necessary. The game shouldn't really appeal to me - I'm a nonreligious person by nature, and prefer not to get into discussions of morality based on religion - but Dogs offers players the opportunity to experiment and explore the moral questions in an environment safe from serious ramifications. Characters do not fail so much as they grow from their experiences, and in doing so their players get a chance to explore our own prejudices and moral compasses.
We had a group of three Watchdogs in the game session: one repentant alcoholic, one Calvinist preacher, and me, a "nothing better to do" Watchdog who inherited the career from his father. We arrived at a small town somewhere in the dusty Western desert, where we were invited to dinner by the mayor of town. This is all par for the course, as Watchdogs are like the sheriffs of these frontier towns, the be-all and end-all of enforcement. There, we received a quick-and-dirty breakdown of the town's problems: the pastor had forbid the children of the town from dancing, and the children were sneaking off to dance with the local tribesmen and women. (Like I said, Old West that Never Was.)
The bulk of the adventure consisted of us talking to town members, gathering information, and discovering who was behind the youths' new "dance parties." For sake of brevity, we discovered that a dark priest was behind the parties, and the kids were to be human sacrifices for a ritual. This culminated in a good old-fashioned showdown of good and evil, spirits flying through the air, robed men brandishing hatchets, and flintlock pistols smoking. Cheerful, no, but oh-so-much fun to play through!
The real meat of the campaign, however, came after the climactic fight had ended. At that point, the game forced me out of my usual moral compass and into a mindset I hadn't experienced before. Back at town, we had to break terrible news: of the twelve children who left town that night, only six returned. To the town, the children were led into sin by this dancing issue, ultimately ending in their deaths. Fingers were pointed. Threats were leveled. Above this all, though, rang a single question:
"What do we do now?"
In that moment, with the game world on the table, I didn't react the way I thought I would. The real me would have simply said that kids needed the freedom to be who they wanted to be; if that meant dancing, so be it! As a Watchdog, however, being tied to the Holy Book of the game world's land, my train of thought went a different way. Dancing was fine, yes, but if not kept in check it could lead to children performing inappropriate and immoral acts. Keeping the town pure was more important than individual freedom. Without the tenets of the religion, and without strict moral guidelines in place, the tiny frontier town would collapse on itself.
This conclusion felt as natural as breathing in the shoes of a Watchdog.
We came to a compromise: the children would be allowed to dance, but only in ways and to songs that were specifically approved by the town leadership. We reasoned that this gave the elders a chance to impart their culture onto the next generation, keeping tradition alive, and helped the people of the town grow closer as a community. That was our role, after all, as a Watchdog of the church: keep the town pure, keep the people on track. Did the kids like it? Not really, though they were ready to follow our lead, seeing that we saved their lives. The needs of the town outweighed individual freedom.
Again, my reaction in the game situation was not how I would respond in real life. One of the magical things about the paper and pencil RPG is that, through structured storytelling, we can disconnect ourselves from our own preconceptions and take on the role of someone else. In that gaming session I was, for all intents and purposes, a religiously-oriented social conservative concerned with a town's safety from sin. Above all else, we maintained the need to protect people from their own wickedness at all costs.
I may fight against the religious right's real world policies, but in those two hours of gaming I got to be them. Then, thankfully, the game ended and my mind came back to home base, better for the trip.