Master Plan - June 2006
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Adding Gimmes for God's Watchdogs

Last month, I wrote about a children's game idea, and mentioned that I would finish it this month after trying the game out with some kids. While I was able to playtest with a couple kids, I want to get some more in before I conclude that piece, and hope that the next month will present more opportunities.

In the mean time, I'd like to talk about D. Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard. I have now both ran and played this wonderful game, and I must say it lives up to every bit of the hype I've heard. When I first ran Dogs, I was truly surprised at how well the system reinforces the style of play the author sought out. While this is not intended to be a game review column (and Dogs in the Vineyard has many, many fine reviews already), I feel a couple points bear stating.

When one PC wanted to search a boarded-up storefront owned by someone who had been run out of town, my gut reaction as a GM was to make the world challenge him -- such as asking for a strength check to pry the boards off. But, as Dogs hasn't any mechanic except a single conflict resolution one, running "Do I get into the boarded-up store" as a drawn-out conflict seemed at best barely entertaining and at worst pedantic. In other games, this situation would have been covered by some sort of "Boolean" roll: a single roll with an instant yes-or-no evaluation. But such challenges are outside the scope of Dogs in the Vineyard.

So, I took Baker's advice: "Roll the dice or say 'yes.'" Since I didn't roll the dice for a conflict, I let the character do what the player wanted.

My instincts as a GM were further challenged when the same PC said he was looking around for anything interested or peculiar. I naturally wanted him to make some sort of "notice" or "find stuff" check. Now, while I could have run the breaking-and-entering portion of this evening's entertainment as a conflict, albeit not a very interesting one, I didn't even see how I could possible do so here. (Imagine the player and GM going back and forth with dice saying "I think I see something" and "Oh, it's nothing." Yeah, that's why I play role-playing games, for that sort of riveting excitement.) So I withheld nothing, giving the PC the information he sought.

I got to "get my conflict on" with a little something I like to call "Do you surrender to the Territorial Authority man waiting outside?" Now that was an interesting conflict; indeed, what Dogs is about.

Dogs in the Vineyard has challenged my ideas on gamemastering and game design. I definitely recommend every GM looking to expand their horizons to try this game and other indie games, and see how they make you think about you GM. Keep an open mind to how they differ from the norm.

In the spirit of that, I will share what I have recently learned. Running Dogs has shown me that there are certain elements of role-playing games that I like, and one of these elements is missing from Dogs. I also run Truth & Justice and GURPS, and both of those systems enable me to reward players during play for, well, for whatever seems worth rewarding -- be it good character play, helping another player out with something, cracking wise, covering me for food when I'm broke, whatever. I call this idea a "gimme," though I've also heard it called "brownie points," "awards," "rewards," "bennies," and other names -- some genre-specific, some not.

I find that I really enjoy this aspect of GMing, which is part of why I keep returning to these games, especially Truth & Justice. When I ran my Dogs in the Vineyard game, I wanted to do this same thing. So, for this month's column, I'll attempt to create that works with Dogs and also fits my need.

Project Title: Adding Gimmes for God's Watchdogs
System we're going to pick on: Dogs in the Vineyard, naturally.
Goal: As an element to the system that allows for instant reward and gratification with as minimal detractment from the core ideas of the system as possible.
Scope: This isn't meant to be a driving mechanic, as Hero Points are in Truth & Justice. In addition, this will not become a required element.

In pondering what would be a proper addition, I started with what act I wanted to do: I want to give throw the PCs a poker chip on occasion, and for them to actually look forward to having and using them. Like such elements in other games, this is a spendable resource, so they eventually give me the chips back to do something.

That part was easy. Another easy part is knowing when to give them out. This is a metagame concept, so I'm rewarding the player rather than the character. What Chad Underkoffler refers to as "Esprit de Corps" in T&J is what I mainly give out points for: impressing me or the other players with some excellent roleplaying, saying something that muses all of us, and just making our collective gaming experience more enjoyable.

I also like to throw out gimmes from time to time for doing things like getting the pizza, doing a soda run, and the like. For those moments, the gimme is a way of saying "Hey, thanks man. I appreciate it."

That all boils down to "GM fiat." That is not the sort of thing I would necessarily want to base a crucial mechanic on, but this is a purely optional element, I don't see it as a bad idea.

Next comes the hard part: what do the players actually do with them? There is only one mechanic in Dogs in the Vineyard -- the conflict exchange. Adding a use for these gimmes outside of that mechanic would be much more drastic of a change that I'd like. I'll stick to modifying the conflict system, which involves dice both during it and in dealing with fallout afterwards. Since this is a purely metagame system, I want these gimmes to affect the dice.

First idea: I think about allowing these points to soak fallout, but then I would be inadvertently denying my players advancement of their characters, since only through fallout do they advance. This idea doesn't work.

Second idea: I turn my attention towards the dice during the conflict. I ponder allowing chips to be cashed in to add more dice to their pool, but after thinking about that for a few minutes, I decide against that because, in keeping in the spirit of the game, their actions should be what bring in more dice, as the involve traits, relationships, or the ever popular escalation option. This is another idea that doesn't work.

Third idea: I don't have many options left. The thought occurs of being able to reroll dice. The rule as it forms in my head is: "Spend a point, reroll one of your conflict dice." This idea could work.

As I let this roll around in my head for a while, I decide that I'm not completely happy with it. The fact that one chip can reroll any low die -- d4, d6, d8 or d10 -- doesn't sit quite right with me, so I amend the rule in my mind: "Spend a point, reroll one of your d4 or d6 conflict dice. Spent two points, reroll one of your d8 or d10 conflict dice."

Fourth idea: Another addition occurs to me: "You keep the new roll, even if it's lower. Spend an extra point before rolling, and you can keep the higher of the two rolls." But that starts to become more complicated than I want, so I strike most of it, keeping "You keep the new roll, even if it's lower."

With a little bit of polishing, I collect my thoughts and come up with the following name and ruleset:

Favor Points for Dogs in the Vineyard:

Favor Points are points awarded by the GM that allow players to reroll conflict dice. During the course of play, the GM may award players with Favor Points for any number of reasons, including:

  • Exemplary character play
  • Helping another player with understanding and playing the game
  • Amusing the GM and other players
  • Moving the game along
  • Assisting the GM
  • Other actions that help make the collective gaming experience more enjoyable

A player may use Favor Points during a conflict to reroll a die. Depending on the die type, the Favor Point costs change:

  • For d4 or d6, 1 Favor Point to reroll
  • For d8 or d10, 2 Favor Points to reroll

In any case, the new roll is kept, even if it is lower than the previous roll. There is no limit to the number of Favor Points a player may hold or the number he may spend during any given conflict.

The name "Favor Points" felt like the right flavor for Dogs -- using these points gives a Dog even more favor with the King of Life than he normally does.

I haven't had a chance to play this yet, though it sounds like we may try it this Friday, during the second half of another GM's Dogs in the Vineyard two-shot. I talked with that GM about this idea, to which he responded that he liked it, though he had a different though with the use of Favor Points: "Spend one to increase the result on a die by 1; spend two to reroll a die." Another interesting idea, but then that's why I game with these gentlemen -- they have a lot of great ideas.

That does it for this month. I look forward to concluding my Children's Game idea next month, and then a couple weeks after that I'm off to GenCon. I hope to see some of you there. Of course, as always, feel free to email me at if reading this idea ends up creating a few of your own.

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