Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Dogs in the Town of Respite

I played Dogs in the Vineyard Friday night for the first time. All I can say is it's everything that you've heard it is. Unless you've never heard of it.

4 players spent about 2 hours total on character generation, including initiatory conflicts. My character, "Brother Jude," had a "Complicated Community" origin. We never established precisely what his family was like, but telling traits on his character sheet included "knows hypocrisy when he sees it," "knows cruelty when he sees it," and "to all appearances, does not feel pain." The other characters included a pious healer named Sister Ruth, a faithful intellectual young man named Brother Josiah who, unusually, went to university Out East, and Brother Everett, the most unusual of all of us, who actually lived Out East as a functional atheist till age 12, and was kidnapped and brought to the land of the Faithful by his crazy uncle, and who had outwardly learned to conform to the Faith but was inwardly an atheist -- or was he? Is it that the Steward was blind to his hypocrisy when he chose him as a dog, or that he knew Everett's heart more than Everett himself did?

This episode happened to focus on Jude and Everett heavily, though Ruth and Josiah both played key roles -- largely in bringing some sanity to the table in the face of the extreme actions of Jude and Everett. (In particular, Ruth's decision to follow Everett when he went on a dubious investigative mission is the only reason he's still alive, and Josiah's decision to publically defy Jude is the only reason Jude did not shoot his own brother -- the town Steward -- dead in the street.)

Jude and Everett's initiatory conflicts were "Jude learns to trust authority," and "Everett maintains his complete inward disbelief in the Faith despite the teachings of the Temple Stewards." Both failed dramatically, and both those failures colored the story dramatically.

I don't want to go through the whole story, but from Jude's perspective, what happened was this -- he was challenged on his authority by his much older half-brother, the town Steward, who never thought he'd amount to much. He decided to assert his authority ostentatiously and somewhat arrogantly to put his brother in his place. Having done so he found himself exaggeratedly supporting the authority structures of the Faith and in doing so alienating his niece and childhood playmate Serafina, who had gone to him for help and comfort from the injustices she felt her father was perpetrating on her -- he supported her father's authority over her, feeling he had to to be consistent in the authority he had asserted over her father. Finally he ended up seeing that the Steward, had badly, badly abused his authority over the his young son James, using him as a proxy in a crime of arson that nearly turned into murder.

In the end Jude was filled with fury at himself for buying into the system of authority that he never really trusted himself, which to him was now exposed as prone to corruption and abuse, and he turned that fury outwards against the Steward, and was barely prevented from executing him in a summary act of judgment (and it's a good thing for Jude that he was prevented, because I think that would have pushed him even farther down the dark path he'd set foot on at the beginning of this game.)

Jude ended up angrily consigning the situation to the other Dogs to wrap up and riding out of town.

He has vowed to himself never to trust the authority structures of the Faith too much again, not even his own authority, but to look to his heart and what he knows of the good and evil in each person -- and himself. (In the reflection segment of the game he added two six-sided dice to his Heart trait, which started out at the lowest possible value.) Whether he will be able to carry out that vow in the face of his basic anger and mistrust and coldness remains to be seen.

From my point of view as a player, I loved the game. I was surprised at how much fun I had playing a character who was so different from myself. I've found in roleplaying games, historically, that I've often come up with characters who I thought would be really interesting to play, with strong personalities or individual quirks, but their strong character turned out to be irrelevant to the story presented by the gamemaster, and ended up being put aside and more or less ignored in order to get on with the story. In Dogs, your character's character is so integral a part of the game mechanics that it almost has to appear in the story, and become part of it. Also, the fact that the Faith is small enough that you will almost certainly have relatives in many of the towns you meet, means that your story will become extremely personal. It sure did for Jude.

I found it easy to play Jude because I knew what he wanted and what drove him. I was (I think) able to play him convincingly, because his motivation and action and passion came through what he did, not just what he said or how he talked. I guess I'm trying to say that it was easy to make it about character, not characterization, as described by Christopher Kubiasak in part 3 of his awesome "Interactive Toolkit" series of essays* on rpgs:

Characters drive the narrative of all stories. However, many people mistake character for characterization.

Characterization is the look of a character, the description of his voice, the quirks of habit. Characterization creates the concrete detail of a character through the use of sensory detail and exposition. By "seeing" how a character looks, how he picks up his wine glass, by knowing he has a love of fine tobacco, the character becomes concrete to our imagination, even while remaining nothing more than black ink upon a white page.

But a person thus described is not a character. A character must do.

Character is action. That's a rule of thumb for plays and movies, and is valid as well for roleplaying games and story entertainments. This means that the best way to reveal your character is not through on an esoteric monologue about pipe and tobacco delivered by your character, but through your character's actions.
It didn't matter whether at a particular moment I was talking how Jude talked, or just describing him in the third person, because it was always clear that Jude had a reason for what he was doing and there was something going on in his head and his heart.

Anyway, everybody present had as fun a time with their characters as I did with mine, as far as I could tell, and there was a consensus that we must play this again, and soon, with the same group.

Oh, the conflict mechanics were great. They manifest the way violence can progress from mild to intense, verbal to physical in a natural and smooth progression, a topic which I've found interesting of late with my interest in non-violent communication.

The initiatory conflicts as a springboard for the game were great, because they put out on the table the notion of a conflict with real consequences for the character and their life, and the resolution thereof in an intertwined series of die rolls and narrative descriptions.

The character description system, describing attributes, skills, and relationships, was an excellent mix of specificity and openness.

Awesomeness all around. I could burble happily for a while but that's enough for me now.

* this series of essays, which I read a year or so before I discovered the Forge and started learning about "indie RPGs," is one of the single best essays on how to play absorbing and exciting RPGs (in the Narrativist mode, though Kubiasak doesn't use that term) I've ever seen.

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