Dogs in the Vineyard

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In print: $22.00
PDF: $14.00


You stand between God's law and the best intentions of the weak.

You stand between God's people and their own demons.

Sometimes it's better for one to die than for many to suffer. Sometimes, Dog, sometimes you have to cut off the arm to save the life.

Does the sinner deserve mercy?
Do the wicked deserve judgement?

They're in your hands.

roleplaying God's Watchdogs
in a West that never quite was.


From the Introduction


Dogs in the Vineyard is about God’s Watchdogs, young men and women called to preserve the Faithful in a hostile frontier territory. They travel from town to isolated town, carrying mail, news, and doctrine, healing the sick, supporting the weary, and pronouncing judgment upon the wicked. One early playtester said what she loves about the game: a town welcomes you with celebration and honor, but what you’re there to do is stir up its dirt and lay bare its sins.

The setting is a fantasy inspired by pre-statehood Utah, the Deseret Territory, in the early-mid 19th century. Picture a landscape of high mountains, icy rivers and cedar woods, falling away westward into scrublands, deserts, buttes and swells. The summer skies are heartbreaking blue, but the winters are long and killing.

Picture religious pioneers, fleeing persecution and violence in the East. They’re trying to establish a society based on faith and righteousness out in this frontier. They’ve made the long trek westward but they’re still in danger: their towns are small and isolated, vulnerable to attack from without, sin and corruption within. Under pressure, their pride becomes sin, their anger becomes violence, their resentments become hate. Winter and the demons howl...

Picture God’s Watchdogs, holding the Faith together.

From the Going Forward section of the Character Creation Chapter


As your character travels from branch to branch, here are some things he or she will routinely be called upon to do:

- Carry mail and news.

- Officiate or participate in holy ceremonies: naming babies, dedicating children to the Faith, solemnizing weddings, blessing the sick, anointing and sanctifying the dead. Most branches will have a Steward who can perform these, but the Faithful will be honored by your participation.

- Deliver doctrine and new interpretation as needed to the branch’s Steward and other office holders, and consult with them about the challenges the branch faces.

- Preach.

- Participate in, but hold yourself apart from, the branch’s social functions and celebrations.

- Help the branch out with physical work, like bringing in a harvest or digging out from a blizzard, only when the need is immediate and acute.

In a perfect world, your character would mostly shake hands and kiss babies. Too bad it’s not a perfect world, huh?

From the Going Forward section of the Character Creation Chapter


When your character is acting to preserve the faith of a branch, he or she can take whatever steps are necessary, and no one can justly complain. Your character acts on behalf of the King of Life; if anyone has a problem, they can take it up with Him.

Check this out:

Brother Zachary is the worst thing in Brother Joseph’s world. It’s not just that he’s a sinner, it’s that he’s unteachable, unreformable. Too mean and too proud.

Brother Zachary is single-handedly destroying Brother Joseph’s branch. But when Brother Joseph goes to the King of Life for guidance, it’s all: see to his needs, call him to repentance, cultivate him, serve him, help him, show him compassion. That, after all, is Brother Joseph’s job: look after each person in his care. The King of Life tells Brother Joseph what’s best for Brother Zachary. Brother Joseph has invested more time and care and worry in Brother Zachary than in any other single thing in his life.

Your character comes to town. The branch has a septic wound. A thousand resentments, sins waiting to burst free. If you leave it as it is it’ll tear itself to pieces. Brother Joseph’s doing his very best by everyone, but it’s stone clear: Brother Zachary will become too much for him to carry. Brother Joseph will do something terrible, with lots of people caught up in it, and it’ll be bloodshed, sorcery, and damnation.

Your character doesn’t care what’s best for Brother Zachary, he cares what’s best for the branch. You have him drag Brother Zachary out of his house and shoot him in the street.

Brother Joseph comes in a rage. “All my work, all my time, all my investment in Brother Zachary’s salvation! And for what, you kill him!”

“Your job is to heal the wound,” your character says. “My job is to save the body.”

From the Going Forward section of the Character Creation Chapter


Does this mean that your character can’t sin?

No. But it does mean that no one’s in a position to judge your character’s actions but you yourself. Your character might be a remorseless monster or a destroying angel — I the author of the game can’t tell the difference, your GM and your fellow players can’t tell the difference, only you can.

As play progresses, you’ll have the opportunity to consider your character’s actions and change your character’s Stats, Traits and Relationships to reflect them. That might mean that you give your character Relationships with sins and demons, problematize his or her Traits, and burn out his or her Relationships with the Faithful — or it might mean no such thing. Sin, arrogance, hate, bloodlust; remorse, guilt, contrition; inspiration, redemption, grace: they’re in how you have your character act, not (just, or necessarily) in what’s on your character’s sheet. Those moments, in play, are what matters.

Your character’s conscience is in your hands.

From the Design Notes Chapter


The Faith I’ve presented is based on early Mormonism. It may be that you want to play Dogs but the LDS and Utah flavor doesn’t do it for you. That’s fine; adapting the game to other religions is quite easy.

The Faith has a pretty much normal set of moral codes: don’t do violence to one another, don’t sleep around, don’t lie, cheat, steal, break promises, conspire against one another, or profit from another’s misfortune. It has the standard religious ones: worship the correct god in the correct way, don’t turn to demons or false gods for favors. It also has a handful of “avoid the appearance of sin” and “separate people” ones: modesty rules, including who’s allowed to be alone with whom, who’s allowed to touch whom, what people are allowed to wear; consumption rules, dietary rules; and random conduct rules of the “no swearing” sort (although what’s “swearing” and what isn’t might still be working itself out, socially).

The laws of the Territorial Authority are based on the same core moral code: don’t do violence to one another, don’t sleep around, don’t lie, cheat, steal, etc. The thing is, being made by the corrupt and decadent, the legal interpretation of the code differs from the Faithful interpretation in at least one key way. Maybe multiple marriage is allowed by the law but prohibited by the Faith. Maybe ritual tattooing is considered “violence” by the law but “correct worship” by the Faith.

So but within that framework, you can totally play around with the specifics. Does your Faith’s understanding of “don’t sleep around” permit or prohibit multiple marriage? Do its consumption rules permit or prohibit eating pork? What arrangements constitute “conspiring against one another” or “profiting from another’s misfortune”? What makes “correct worship”? When are the holy days and what do you do on them? Come to think of it, is “the King of Life” God (if so, YHWH, Jehovah, or Allah?), or Jesus, or the head of a Pantheon, or the Earth, or what? Are “false gods” gods who don’t exist, or real gods we oughta not be worshipping?

If you want to play Dogs with some other religious flavor, simply rewrite the PROBLEMS IN THE FAITH section in the town creation rules to suit your religion of choice, and change the ELEMENTS OF CEREMONY to match. Consider:

- Seventeenth-century Massachusetts, with the PCs as witch finders.

- Thirteenth century Europe with the PCs as Dominican inquisitors, the black and white Hounds of God.

- A modern-day mob game, replacing the Faith with the Mafia’s codes of silence and loyalty, with the PCs as enforcers.

- Or a game about the Untouchables, with the Law instead of the Faith, and the PCs as Eliot Ness and his people!

Any of those sounds interesting and fun to me.

From the GMing Character Creation section of the Character Creation Chapter

3. How much SUPERNATURAL EFFECTIVENESS are we building into our characters? Don’t judge whether it’s too much or too little — you’re to keep an open mind and follow our lead. The supernatural in the game will be somewhere on a continuum. At this end, barely any, where the demons are really just bad luck and the pressures a town has to struggle with to survive, and the ceremonies of the Faith only reassure the Faithful and remind them of their commitments to one another. At the other end, lots and lots, with the Dogs as powerful exorcist-gunslingers battling demons, sorcerers and ghosts, where calling a person by name can restore him to life and bullets slide off a Dog’s coat, striking sparks. Look at the Traits we give our characters, and you’ll begin to see where on that continuum this particular game will fall.

....But “follow our lead” doesn’t mean keep your mouth shut. If one of us is stuck for Traits, feel free to suggest “I’ve exorcised a demon,” “the King of Life speaks to me in dreams,” or “I’m a healer.” When it comes to initiatory conflicts, be sure to suggest some supernatural ones, along the same lines. If we don’t respond, then follow.

From the Cool Applications of Coflict Resolution Chapter


Think back to that supernatural continuum. Let’s say that we’re playing somewhere in the middle of it: not flashy, not colorful, but creepy...


- The stage: you’re bending over her body, cold, where it lies in the tool shed. She’s got a rake through her.

- You Roll Acuity + Heart. I roll Demonic Influence.

- Your first Raise is to Call her by Name and ask her ghost to answer your questions.

Sweet! Now we get to incorporate the chills, the disembodied voices, the reenactment of the crime, the pain, the hate of talking to a ghost into our Raises and Sees.

What’s at stake: DO YOU CONTROL THE DEMON?

- The stage: this is another initiatory accomplishment. Your teachers take you to a prepared place outside of Bridal Falls City, where there’s a consecrated grove of trees and a huge marble box. The box is carved with prayers and inside it there’s a demon. Your teachers give you a crowbar and wait among the trees.

- You roll Acuity + Heart. I roll 4d6 + 4d10.

- Naturally your Raises and Sees will be all ceremony.

- I decide at once that the demon’s going to try to possess you, and if it succeeds it’ll pantomime forcing itself back into the box, as a ruse to get your teachers to let it escape. So in my Raises I have it battering on you like wind, whispering into your ears, forcing itself into your mouth and eyes, anything to get inside.

I hope I win. I have a great follow-up conflict in mind.

Or let’s say that we’re playing way out on the other end of it, where the whole landscape of the game is magically charged. It’s a Western version of a Chinese Ghost Story!


- The stage: I rode down on her in the middle of the town street, but you spooked my horse and it bucked me off. Now I jump up, swinging my wicked big repeater around and escalating to shooting!

- We roll Acuity + Will.

- My Raise is fanning the hammer. Bam bam bam bam bam!

- You put forward dice to Block or Dodge and say something like this: “I sweep my coat around and the bullets spark off of it, like pang pang pang! I’m mighty with the power of righteousness!” Then you Raise with something like this: “I Call you by your Secret Name! Drop the gun!”

Fun, huh?