Tags: dogs in the vineyard


The sweet sweet taste of... defeat

Recently rpgactionfigure embarked on a game of Dogs in the Vineyard, which has apparently been going well. I am deeply ambivalent about DitV as a game. On the one hand, it ticks most of the boxes for what interests me about roleplaying: it's intensively character focused, it revolves entirely around complex social and moral dilemmas, characters are expressed as a skill-psychology complex rather than purely meta-game or purely physics, and it's set in a version of The West. We all know how much I love that. However, my half-dozen experiences with one-shots of this game have been universally and deeply disappointing.

My biggest beef with the way I've experienced this game is in the story structure - the GM advice more-or-less directs the GM to place the daemonic force wherever the PCs end up focusing their attention. While this means that in every game you find the heart of the corruption, it also means that if you think someone's guilty, they're about to become so, which just wipes out all the shades of grey which usually make for the best parts of a moral game. That may just be a function of my specific experiences, and not a general trend in the game: you tell me.

Second, by only a hair's breadth, is the dynamic conflict escalation. At any time in a conflict, a PC can draw on more of their qualities to assist in the fight. My experience has been that once you've exhausted your obviously relevant quality, you either end up dredging up the most ludicrous juxtaposition of the situation and your character to draw on utterly irrelevant qualities, or you raise the stakes and bring fisticuffs into the conflict. Particularly in the latter case, you can end up virtually obviating the intent of the conflict by, for example, killing a person you were trying to persuade.

It's really this second "problem" that's been the main discussion betwixt rpgactionfigure and myself. His basic answer to my criticism was: sometimes you've just got to accept that you've lost.

Of course, I had a rationalization handy - and particular examples where escalation and subsequent PC victory were necessary on moral and thematic grounds, if not actually important within the context of the specific conflict. But, afterwards, I took a step back: why is it really important to win conflicts?

In a bald sense, we're trained by life to seek victory against adversity: isn't that the broad basis of our decadent Western Civilization? But in a narrower sense, we're used to an adversarial construct within our games. The GM sets up challenges, and we defeat them. D&D in its various forms has spilled much ink on just how to go about setting up an appropriate-level challenge: see grandexperiment's recent musing on Skill Challenges for an example of where this thinking leads.

In most RPGs, failure leads to the closure of story possibilities. Make a bad dice roll in an interrogation and you miss a vital clue. Make a bad roll in combat and you're making up a new character. In most situations, losing is bad. That's why it's called "losing". IME, DitV isn't a strong exception to this; though if rpgactionfigure's group can make story-hay from it, that's just fine by me.

There are a couple of game systems out there which more explicitly tackle this notion.

Most prominent of late is Gumshoe in its various guises. It's an investigative game where clues are handed out automatically. In the crucial "why are we here" sense of a game about investigations, failure is simply taken off the table. PCs automatically get clues that advance the main narrative, and if they happen to take a tumble in ancillary activities, well, the mystery still gets solved, right?

To me, this is deeply unsatisfying, as I've posted elsewhere at great length!

The other possibility is to make losing a necessary precursor to winning. With Great Power attempts this: your character takes a pummelling, giving you cards which can be used at the 11th hour to transform your nearly-wrecked character into a transcendent rampaging victor.

WGP has terrible balance and structural issues - but the core idea is workable. Lose now, to win later. In a subtler form this idea is built into FATE with its aspect tags and compels.

This solution though is more-or-less like a savings scheme. It's really great at the end, when you've saved up enough suffering to buy a win, but in the meantime you're swallowing a lot of bitter pills and taking a real pounding.

The third way, the sort of perfect ideal solution, is to actually make losing as appealing as winning: making them equal outcomes with different shadings. This is a kind of generalization of New Colomboism. But this is not exactly easy to achieve, particularly not if you've got a near-linear challenge->victory game construct like your typical fantasy quest.

It's tempting to effectively ex-machina encounter outcomes, either before or after the event. In an investigative game, after a failed roll to find a clue an NPC turns up who volunteers some crucial bit of investigation. Or the classic post-fail-switch. Our hero gets knocked unconscious in the fight, only to awake a prisoner in a gilded cage because the evil sorcerer has fallen in love with their noble valour. These are parlour-tricks which work perhaps once a campaign, and can't really be your bread and butter outside of pulps as a way of making failure fun.

Perhaps the simplest solution, adequate for most means, is the "most circuitous route" - failure diverts, but doesn't block.

But perhaps all of this is still somewhat missing the point of conflicts. The point of a conflict is to allow one side to win, and one side to lose. The point of a challenge is to overcome it. If you're not comfortable with losing, perhaps you should be looking at a different game paradigm: the world and the worlds we can imagine isn't limited to a struggle for victory.