Dogs in the Vineyard

Dogs in the Vineyard is an indie RPG designed by D. Vincent Baker before his work on Apocalypse World. Originally published in 2004, the second edition was released by lumpley games in 2005, which will be referenced henceforth. Although Baker has publicly disowned and pulled the game from sale in 2019 due to personal dissatisfaction with its Old West and Mormonism-inspired setting, he has authorized the commercial release of a setting-agnostic version of its game system (titled simply DOGS) in the same year.

The game is of particular interest to this survey thanks to the escalation aspect integral to its core mechanic. While other games, like AW and SIFRP, include ludic options for escalating an unsuccessful persuasive (social) interaction to a violent (physical) one, Dogs provides by far the most robust simulation of this process. The core mechanic of the game, described on pp. 53-83, is inspired by poker and geared primarily towards interpersonal conflict rather than environmental obstacles. The simplified procedure is as follows:

  1. Stakes. The GM and the players negotiate the specific stake(s) over which the conflict plays out.
  2. Stage. The GM describes the backdrop of the conflict, after which one player describes how their character provokes the conflict, determining its initial "arena" (mode of interaction), which can be "just talking" (social), "physical but not fighting" (physical), "fighting hand-to-hand" (melee), or "fighting with guns" (guns).
  3. Participants. The GM adjudicates which characters, player and non-player, participate in the conflict to claim its stakes.
  4. Dice. For each participant, their respective player takes a number of d6s equal to two of their character's primary stats (referred simply as "stats", each equaling 2 or higher) relevant in the initial arena (social = Acuity + Heart, physical = Body + Heart, melee = Body + Will, guns = Acuity + Will), as well as any dice representing their relationships with people, institutions, places, sins, or demons involved in this conflict (as participants or as stakes). Each player then rolls all their dice and places them on the table in front of them.
  5. Initiative. The subsequent interactions between participants occur in "Rounds", similarly to turn-based combat in other RPGs, with each character getting one "Go" per Round. The order of their Goes (equivalent to "initiative" in D&D) is determined by the sum of the two highest dice in front of them at the start of the Round, meaning that it typically changes from Round to Round.
  6. Rounds. On their own Go, the participant is the agent, and their player must choose to "Raise" or to "Give":
    1. To Raise, the player describes what their agent does that one or more of their opponents cannot ignore (explicitly naming the patients of their action) and puts forward any two of the dice in front of them. Each affected patient now has to "See", to "Escalate" (if they can't See), or to "Give" (if they can't or won't See or Escalate):
      1. To See, the patient player must put forward any number of dice whose total value is equal to or greater than the sum of the two the agent's has put forward. Depending on how many dice this takes, Seeing has different ludic and narrative effects:
        1. If the patient player Sees with one die, they Reverse the Blow: the patient turns the agent's action against them in-fiction, and the player gets to keep this die (without rerolling) for their next Raise or See. In every other context, any dice put forward are discarded at the end of the current Go.
        2. If the player Sees with two dice, they Block or Dodge, countering the agent's action.
        3. If the player Sees with three or more dice, they Take the Blow: the patient is hurt by the agent's action. The player sets aside a number of "Fallout" dice (see below) whose number is equal to how many were used to See and whose size is determined by the agent's current arena (social = d4s, physical = d6s, melee = d8s, guns = d10s).
      2. To Escalate, the patient player describes what the patient does to escalate the conflict to a more dangerous arena (not necessarily the next higher one), and rolls extra dice from the stats relevant to this new arena (but not if they've already rolled with these stats earlier in the same conflict), which they can then use to See the agent's Raise.
        Note that escalation is unilateral, so every other participant remains in their previous arena until their player also deliberately chooses to Escalate (which anyone can do at any time, including before Raising on their own Go).
      3. To Give, the patient player describes how the patient backs out of the conflict, forfeiting their claim on the stakes. This lets them avoid Taking a Blow they cannot afford to take.
    2. To Give, the agent player follows the same procedure as above. Unlike a patient player, the agent gets to "Cut Their Losses" – i.e. to keep the highest die currently in front of them as a bonus for any follow-up conflict that may result from the current one later in the game.
  7. Resolution. The Rounds and the Goes (i.e. steps 5 and 6) repeat until all but one participant have Given, who then gets to decide the fate of the stakes.
  8. Fallout. Finally, each participant's player rolls all Fallout dice they've accumulated from Taking the Blows (if any) and add together the two highest results. This number determines what negative consequence their character suffers as a result of participating in the conflict, ranging from a mild distraction in the next one, through lasting harm and injury, to immediate death. Additionally, any 1s rolled with the Fallout dice represent learning experiences for the character, allowing them to improve their stats and/or relationships.

We observe that out of all game systems examined so far, Dogs is the most egalitarian regarding the agent-patient role distribution among PCs and NPCs. While the subsequent SIFRP merely likened its persuasive interactions to a battle of attrition by making both gameplay procedures eerily similar, Dogs not only makes the latter a ramp-up of the former, but outright equates them by using language like "attack" and "blow" for both. Both games frame their social interactions as contests whose goal is to deprive the opposition of its will and/or means to resist, allowing the winner to seize the contested prize.