Vincent Baker, author of the roleplaying games Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age and more, was the guest of honor at the Portland area’s Gamestorm convention last weekend. I had the opportunity to play a couple of his games, and they provoked a powerful emotional response. Here’s two vignettes:
1) Dogs in the Vineyard:
Sister Eleanor is one of God’s Watchdogs, virginal nineteen-year-olds sent out with a Bible and a gun to solve the problems of religious frontier towns. They arrive in town during a funeral. Brother Charles’ daughter has been murdered, and he’s frantic to have the Dogs marry her to her husband posthumously—the Town Steward refused to bless them, then disappeared–so she won’t have died a harlot. Eleanor yearns to ease the stricken man’s grief, but when she meets prospective husband Brother Ephraim, a pompous elder who doesn’t give a shit, she wavers. The father is aghast and tells them all to just go.
Sis. Eleanor follows him to the graveyard, and helps him dig the grave in silence, then finally asks him to please talk to her so she can bring the killer to justice. Charles asks, “will that make it right?” Eleanor can only answer, “I don’t know. but I can’t let it go.” Bro. Charles tries to storm off, but Eleanor bars his way and insists, and he gives in, telling her what he knows. She leaves, but with a feeling growing in her gut: “I don’t know if I can make it right.”
The rot in the town soon outs itself—Brother Ephraim had the Steward killed to control the town himself, and had the girl killed when she challenged it. There’s a showdown, bullets fly, and Bro. Ephraim is subdued, dying. Sis. Eleanor goes to Bro. Charles and offers forgiveness to his son, who was Ephraim’s pawn. She puts her hand on Charles’ shoulder and the father breaks down weeping. Eleanor stands over him and she too sobs and sobs.
Hold on to that for a moment. Note that Eleanor is a rough and rowdy Dog who takes after her father to the consternation of her mother. Then clear some brainspace for this story as well:
2) Apocalypse World:
Half a century after the bombs fell, a motley band of “water collectors” roams the ash wastes making their REAL living through thievery. Operator Proust is the man with the plan, Savvyhead Jessica is a beautiful and compassionate mechanic, Angel Gabe is a medic who wishes they really WOULD dig a well once or twice, and Brainer Cybelle is a transsexual lover of humanity, in every sense (who’s fond of Jessica). As their rig stalls out in the middle of nowhere, low on “go juice,” they’re attacked by the men of Esco, a local enclave leader they’ve robbed, wanting back not so much their loot, but Jessica with whom Esco is smitten. There’s gunplay and Jessica is shot and in a bad way. Next thing we know, the band is captured, the Operator and Brainer laboring in the Slave Pits, while the Angel is chained in the infirmary, tending to Jessica.
Gabe heals Jessica, but the first face she sees on waking is Esco’s, and she realizes he’s a good man and she cares for him. About then Proust makes his play: threatening to blow the whole place with an artillery shell dug up in the Slave Pits, unless Esco lets them all go. Esco says fine but the girl stays, and that’s when Cybelle makes HER play: using her Brainer gifts, she brushes Esco’s shoulder and murmurs, “show us the girl. I’ll stay with you until they’re safely away.”
Esco is totally swayed—he suddenly has eyes only for Cybelle, and orders his men to release everyone. As Gabe is ushering Jessica out, her eyes lock with Esco’s and she sees total indifference, and it shakes her. Cybelle is led off and lets Esco have his way with her, which for a Brainer lays his mind bare: she feels all his burden and regrets, and sees that his heart is broken over losing Jessica, twice. She further sees that if this breaks him, his community will not survive. While Esco sleeps, Cybelle is overwhelmed in the Psychic maelstrom.
Enter Jessica. She comes bearing a bowl of water, a symbol of healing and reconciliation. She holds it out before her, in the center of the triangle of lost souls. As Esco awakes and Cybelle comes to herself, understanding and forgiveness pass between them.
I played Sister Eleanor and Cybelle the Brainer in these stories, respectively. Both of them moved me to the brink of tears, and left me with treasured memories of the games. I hope that an echo of that comes through in recounting them. But what was going on in these games that brought us there?
Simply put: I created characters who care passionately for others, but whose presence can’t help but cause them pain. Eleanor wanted desperately to ease Charles’ suffering, but her role, her duty, as holy judge could only add to his grief. Cybelle cared for Jessica deeply, but could only help her by seducing her love. And likewise she cared for Esco, and cherished their time together, but in the process had to steal him away from where his heart lay.
Many factors, both of context and of craft, supported that. For instance, the creation of a town for Dogs involves populating it with people who want, desperately, help that will bring grief to someone. And there are a ton of cues in both games calibrated to propel the protagonists forward on a collision course with the setting. Eleanor’s parental issues and stubborn streak came directly from selecting “complicated history” in character creation and working out what that meant to me, and from having a ton of relationship dice to assign when, for instance, she met a grieving father and her heart went out to him. In Apocalypse world, everything about your character from Name to Look to Moves is selected from a list, which far from being restrictive, is an amazing springboard for creativity. If I hadn’t had “caring eyes” and “awkward, angular build” staring me in the face, Cybelle would never have come to be. Those cues told me a lot about what kind of person she was, sexually and emotionally–not a slut, not a whore, not a manipulator, but a genuine lover of people. There were cues from the other players as well–for instance, I could never have predicted Jessica’s gesture of reconciliation; I figured I was charting a course to pure brokenness for the trio.
As I said the actual craft of play enhances all this. Vincent, I found, had a true gift for inhabiting these grief-stricken characters, conveying their brokenness and humanity with a few deft strokes of dialogue, body language, inflection and so on. And I’ve developed in myself a knack for seeing my character simply, directly, as a person, which helps give me a clear, easy vision at all times for what they will do next, without hemming or hawing about what would be the “coolest” or most “meaningful” thing for them to do.
And of course the final ingredient is that you have to want it. And I most definitely want it. When I gushed to my friend Ogre about these games, he nodded appreciatively and said “Joel, that is the perfect story for you. That’s the story you’re drawn to, more than anyone else I know.” And I realized he was absolutely right; this is something my soul is seeking. And I’m so glad I’m finding it.