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Tabletop Game / Dogs in the Vineyard

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Do the wicked deserve judgement? Does the sinner deserve mercy? They're in your hands.
— Back cover copy

Dogs in the Vineyard is a Tabletop RPG by D. Vincent Baker (Poison'd, Apocalypse World) where you play as travelling priest-judges in a Weird West. According to The Other Wiki, it won Indie RPG of the Year and Most Innovative Game in the Indie RPG Awards of 2004, and in 2005 was nominated for a Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming.

It's set in a Fantasy Counterpart Culture to the Deseret Territory of early Utah. The Player Characters are part of "God's Watchdogs" or just the Dogs, who travel a circuit among various towns of the Faithful delivering mail, conducting religious ceremonies, and rooting out sin and crime. The Faithful believe in a controversial religion known as The Faith in All Things in the King of Life or just "The Faith", heavily based on the historical beginnings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism).

Adherence to the Faith offers real, though somewhat intangible, protections from Demons (who are also real but somewhat intangible). Therefore, if one of the Faithful sins, it's a major problem for the community at large; Demons will make the town begin sliding towards corruption, hatred and murder. The Dogs are sent in as preventive medicine, damage control and, of course, Exorcists.

Much of the doctrine of the Faith is deliberately left undefined, apart from its monotheism + general lifestyle rules. This means that the players invent most of the doctrine, and have authority as wandering prophets to reinvent and revise it. The Game Master is explicitly forbidden by the rules to second-guess the player's judgment: Only the players can do that, by gaining Fallout in the course of their struggles.

Notable for having a system where your character's opinion could change as the result of an extended conflict, typically when you gain Fallout.

Compare Sorcerer (2001) and My Life with Master.


  • Adventure Towns: Each town's problem is expected to take 1-2 session to solve. After which the Dogs depart and continue their assigned travels until they find a new problem.
  • Badass Longcoat: Each Dog has a colorful longcoat, hand-quilted by their family as a symbol of their station. Heavily damaged/repaired coats are greatly respected as they show the wearer's experience.
  • Badass Preacher: Your average PC.
  • Church Militant: Your average PC when things get tough.
  • Church Police: Players are "God's Watchdogs" ("Dogs"), who travel from town to town helping out the community and enforcing the judgements of the True Faith of the King of Life. This may involve anything from delivering new instructions from the central Faith authority, to executing heretics.
  • Clean Up the Town: A standard session's plotline.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The King of Life.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The Faithful have many views quite different from modern liberal-democratic society, especially when it comes to women's agency. Men can demand that any woman marry them, and high-ranking Faith officials may take multiple wives. (Though women are allowed to become Dogs and in doing so, gain the right to refuse a man's courtship.)
  • Film Noir: Although set in The Wild West, the book mentions that typical games will be more like noirish mysteries than typical westerns.
  • Full-Name Ultimatum: Commanding someone by Name is said to make it so that "their soul can't ignore you". It's also an effective tool against demons.
  • Good Republic, Evil Empire: Inverted. The Faithful live under a secular government and are subject to its laws (though its reach is rather loose on the frontier), but most real authority and leadership comes from a benevolent theocracy. Conversely, "Back East" is a hotbed of apostasy, decadence, and persecution that the Faithful moved west to escape (at least according to them).
  • Holding Out for a Hero: Every town you visit is wrapped up in some big problem that they can't solve themselves. Justifiable, however, in the Dogs have other duties beyond laying down the law, but those aren't as exciting, so the GM might not bother to describe the long stretches of time where all you do is deliver letters and anoint the sick.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: The Dogs have basically total license to do whatever they want, guided only by their heavy education in the tenets of the Faith. However, the book notes that "Dogs have no authority to solve the problems of families or individuals, that’s the Steward’s job, except as the problems spill over into the congregation as a whole. (Which they pretty much do, so that’s okay.)" It gives this example, among others:
    Brother Zachary is the worst thing in Steward 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 Steward Joseph’s branch. But when Steward 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 Steward Joseph’s job: look after each person in his care. The King of Life tells Steward Joseph what’s best for Brother Zachary. Steward 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. Steward Joseph’s doing his very best by everyone, but it’s stone clear: Brother Zachary will become too much for him to carry. Steward 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.
    Steward 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.”
    • Notably, this is only accepted by the Faithful; the Territorial Authority (secular government) will probably get on your ass if you keep killing people wherever you go.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compare to Deadlands, another Wild West-esque TTRPG where the player characters fight supernatural horrors. A cowboy wizard who is empowered by demons is a Mook in Deadlands, and the BBEG in Dogs.
  • Magic Is Evil: And often used unintentionally.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Whether the Faith is true or just a vital social construct is left ambiguous; the game can be played with or without overt supernatural influence.
  • Noble Savage / The Savage Indian: Both tropes in play. The Mountain People are believed to be the remains of a former Faithful civilization. They are alternately feared & scorned or seen as a sign of hope. Dogs who are converted Mountain Folk are often put on a precarious pedestal.
  • Obliviously Evil: Many of the people causing trouble in a community are doing something that seems pretty innocent but is against the tenets of the Faith and society, like meddling around in another family's affairs or acting outside of their gender role.
  • Our Demons Are Different: Demons in this game aren't physical monsters so much as a supernatural force of bad luck and misfortune. However, they can possess people and give them minor weird effects.
  • Path of Inspiration: All beliefs other than the Faith are said to be "a) actively demonic, cults created by Faithful leaders fallen into sin; b) corrupt and decadent, like the majority religions of the East; or c) idle nonsense, like most of the religions in the wider world." When a town gets too corrupted, they'll often sprout Corrupt Worship for the Dogs to contend with.
  • Railroading: Discussed and very strongly warned against. The GM is advised to simply create each town and let the players interact with it as they will. Presumably this requires a very engaged and understanding group of players.
    Don’t play “the story.” The choices you present to the PCs have to be real choices, which means that you can’t possibly know already which way they’ll choose. You can’t have plot points in mind beforehand, things like “gotta get the PCs up to that old cabin so they can witness Brother Ezekiel murdering Sister Abigail...” ... let go of “what’s going to happen”. Play the town. Play your NPCs. Leave “what’s going to happen” to what happens.
  • Rule of Three: Religious ceremonies are considered to be more effective if three Dogs, or two Dogs and a Steward (priest-mayor) conduct them. On the other side, an instance of "Corrupt Worship" needs three participants before it evolves into a "False Priesthood".
  • Saintly Church
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: It's entirely within the Dogs' authority to rewrite (or at least re-interpret) divine law to suit the needs of a town.
  • Start of Darkness: All towns in trouble follow the same pattern (until at some point the Dogs show up and hopefully put a stop to it all): someone's Pride leads to an act of Injustice, which provokes or descends further into Sin, which opens a town to a Demonic Attack (anything from natural disasters to human tragedy), whereas a town of faithful is protected from such harm. Over time, this leads to the spread of False Doctrine and Corrupt Worship led by a False Priesthood who can use Sorcery to command the demons, eventually ending in Hate and Murder. (Whew!)
  • Talking the Monster to Death: Dogs tend to solve the vast majority of their problems this way.
    • To explain in more detail, the choice of how far to escalate any given encounter (from talking all the way to lethal force) is always in the hands of the players. You can often throw more weight behind a more dangerous encounter, but the consequences are much worse if you fail. It's often better to solve things with words.
  • The Teetotaler: Everyone. As pseudo-Mormons, they also don't drink coffee or black tea, and nearly no one smokes but the elderly.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: It's not uncommon to come across these, depending on how well the town's sin is hidden and how many people are in on it.
  • Weird West: Depending on how overtly the supernatural aspects are portrayed.
  • The Wild West: Mostly averted. The setting is more true to the historical Mormon territories than the saloons, gunfights, and general lawlessness of typical Westerns. In terms of pop culture's view of history, it plays more like colonial America than a Western "shoot-out at high noon" game.