Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Dogs in Judea

While in general I take a dim view of "new school" hip-kids-in-skinny-jeans type games like Dogs in the Vineyard, I do think its core idea of giving the player characters real power (perhaps ultimate power) over the people in the game world is quite a compelling one. Essentially, it's a surefire way of getting the PCs to engage with the game world, each other, and their own characters' beliefs, in a very direct way.

If I was going to run it, though, I think I would set it up more like the Book of Judges, because:

a) There is more scope for smiting, and
b) You know, Samson killing 1,000 Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass, and stuff.

The Bible is a very underdeveloped resource for RPGs. I suppose you can put this down to two things - firstly, fewer kids these days being forced (like I was) to go to Sunday School every week, thus less familiarity with the source material, and secondly, a lingering fear of RPGs being seen as some sort of blasphemous satan-worship-enabler. But the Old Testament and the Talmud, not to mention the Apocrypha, are great sources of adventure (and vignette) material. I'll explore a few of these over the coming days.


  1. Another reason gamers may avoid that particular book of tales is that many folks associated with it are downright scary. (Disclaimers follow) At least the louder and more active folks. At least among those I have had contact with.

    Also xian games sell almost as well as Fatal so there is little reason for companies to publish them. Though I think Green Ronin did an old testiment book? I think it is cited in the nifty book they did on the trojan war.

    I agree that the bronze age in general is underdeveloped in gaming, outside of Runequest that is, and could use some good low fantasy books.

    Anyway, looking forward to the blog entries. I hope this does not become a religious screamfest.

  2. I have faith in my readership not to be silly. We've been very low on screamfests since the beginning of this blog.

    You're probably right about that third reason. But I'm not really talking about a Christian game... more a "Biblical Legend" inspired one.

  3. Green Ronin's Testament D20 product was very good, hampered primarily by the fact that a) it was D20 and thus not ideal for historical fantasy and b) it tried to cover too much ground in two few pages. That said, I found it very well done and inspirational and really wish I could somehow convince some friends to play a game set during the Reign of the Judges.

  4. While I agree there is a certain element of skinny-jeans-and-ironic-beard-growing-PBR-swilling hipster games, Dogs in the Vineyard is just good game design.

    The two ways it stands out to me is in the way conflict resolution allows for escalation and in the way that towns are seeded with conflict.

    Apparently there is lots of "mods" for the rules to present other settings, from mobsters ro Jedi. In that, one could adapt the Book of Judges to Dogs in the Vineyard with some tinkering.

  5. I think we probably see more Bible-related stories than we think. For one thing, those stories filter out to us from people who intentionally used them as inspiration, so we get the stories secondhand. Second, the stories frequently feature fundamental human drives and circumstances, so those themes can crop up without any specific contact with the Bible.

    Then of course there are all the stories we see that are directly Biblical but projected through a different artistic lens. You could probably get some interesting results using some of that source material in a Dark Sun or Planescape campaign, or Shadowrun, or just a noir setting.

  6. But the Old Testament and the Talmud, not to mention the Apocrypha, are great sources of adventure (and vignette) material.

    Very true. The Big Book of Bible Stories, with its archaeologically accurate, lovingly detailed evocations of the weapons and armour of the time, was - along with the Greek Myths - one of my first intros to fantastic heroism.

    David counting coup on a sleeping King Saul (payback for Saul's spear-based harp music critiques) has long been a favourite. :)

  7. From my own Catholic upbringing, very little attention was paid to the Old Testament after, say, the early 1980s. Too bad, because there's plenty of inspirational "action and adventure" in it's pages...

    This is an interesting topic; I'd like to see how it pans out for you!

  8. I'd like to see players come across the treasure/tribute described in 1 Samuel 4-6.

  9. Ahh, the hours I whiled away scribbling D&D maps on the backs of church bulletins in my little protestant church.

    I actually started making a Biblical game as a kid. I first ran into trouble not knowing what players would do (there weren't any monsters to fight, no dungeons). But there was also something about the Bible's stories being pretty much all God-directed that I understood even then was a problem (the ultimate railroad game?)

    I remember having a breakthrough and thinking, Aha, I'll make it a post-rapture game where Christians are being hunted. But that lost all the dust and blood, the old school feel of the miracles.

    Anyway, that was my preteen attempt, maybe new school games offer new tools to approach the genre.

    Interested to see what you come up with.

  10. You might take a look at Natan Slifkin's "Mysterious Creatures"/"Sacred Monsters", a regular monster-manual of biblical/talmudic creatures. Apparently, a good part of the book is available for free on google books.


  11. I have used the Bible quite a bit, actually, though I don't know the source material that well myself. It fits with my interest in post-mediaeval European settings.

    I think actually a lot of my role-playing worlds in the past 10 years have been inspired by "The White Bird of Kinship" which has a kind of post-apocalyptic catholic Europe that really appealed to me. Christianity is really rich source material, and even though most people in the west don't know it in detail, if you dredge something up from the bible they get it fast - it's shared cultural knowledge.

    It also fits well with planar adventures, demons, a lot of the stuff that D&D et al use to make the gaming supernatural.

  12. There is, in the US, a reasoned avoidance of Judeo-Christian mythos based gaming outside a very small set of directly Judeo-Christian based games designed to teach the specific Judeo-Christian ethos the publishers wish to impart. The simple fact of the matter is that it's much easier to avoid confrontation with the lunatic fringe if you don't use their toys in your games. In a country where a significant portion of the populace is engaged in a "culture war" that results in you having to spend a lot of time explaining to stupid people that you aren't evil and aren't going to sacrifice their children to Satan, it's simpler to just ignore that as a publishable source in most cases. There are probably a lot of personal campaigns that use biblical/talmudic materials for flavor or even as a setting.

    My personal opinion is that given how boring the Bible is, they are probably dull campaings. But then again, I don't spend much time playing historically specific campaigns either.

  13. Perhaps it is useful to point out that many, if not most, of the Cleric spells in D&D are based on the bible. Blade Barrier, Sticks to Snakes, Part Wood, Resurrection (duh), Continual Light, Meteor Swarm and so forth are all ultimately biblical in inspiration. The bible has awesome stories, despite the terrible messages they contain.