Posted by: Sean | August 28, 2008

Reading List: Dogs in the Vineyard by D. Vincent Baker.

Every Alliance paladin (and maybe even some Horde ones,) I ever play will be influenced by Dogs in the Vineyard, a brilliant tabletop RPG by D. Vincent Baker. A Wild West game with a difference that for once goes more than just skin deep, Dogs in the Vineyard has you playing psuedo-Mormon paladins in a pre-statehood Utah.

Go ahead, read the sentence again. I’m being absolutely serious. So is the game; there’s not a hint of irony, parody or humor about that concept; but instead the game treats its protagonists with respect and rugged nobility. Essentially, they are young men and women, devoted to their faith, selected by their town priest/mayors to become hunters of sin. Wandering from town to town, they uncover pride, sin and (if things have gone on too long,) murder. And then they…

Work out what to do about it. Again, think about that sentence. These are devoted men and women of unshakable faith. They cling to an absolute morality, far more so than the Holy Light of World of Warcraft. The Holy Light preaches respect, tenacity, and compassion; but only in general terms. The Book of Life (the Dogs’s holy text,) preaches very specific gender roles, that men may take multiple wives if the local priest agrees God wills it, that adultery is wrong, as is sex before marriage, as is homosexuality, as is wine, tobacco, and coffee. The Dogs are devoted to a very strict code, and believe absolutely in the existence of the divine. And then, when they find sin and pride, they carefully consider what to do.

Let’s take a simple example: The Dogs enter a town that seems blissful and happy. Then they find out that a local man, the town doctor on whom the whole town depends, is being cuckolded by his wife, who is having an affair with a young unmarried man. If the affair were discovered, the doctor could end up leaving the town, which would cause it to whither and die. What do the doctors do? Reveal the wife’s unfaithfulness and shame both her and her lover? Perhaps. Privately bring them into the mayor/priest’s quarters, reveal that they know what’s going on and explain that it will stop, now, on pain of death? Equally permissible. What about quietly confronting each of them, looking to find the causes of the affair, trying to understand the motivations and correct them, gently insisting only that the affair stop, leaving the wife to atone for her sins with God on her own terms? Again, equally permissible.

Think about this. In fantasy terms, this is remarkable. It’s a model of the paladin, which is pretty close to what the Dogs are, that is faithful, absolute in their morality, and flexible, smart and compassionate. These are people who could, and would, shoot a man dead in the streets because his sin and pride endanger the town, but talk down the frustrated farmer with the rifle even as he was about to commit murder, and forgive him.  They acknowledge context, refuse to believe that a single punishment should be doled out for the same crime every time, and understand that sinful actions are usually committed by good people.

World of Warcraft paladins can, and should, take a lot of lessons from these people; even the Blood Knights. (Although the virtues they’ll be safeguarding will be very different from those of the Alliance.) They should be absolute on the three virtues of the Holy Light, understanding them implicitly. While they acknowledge that no situation is black and white, they should scrutinise the actions of their charges, and refuse to tolerate the actions of those who do not uphold their high standards. They should be deeply moral, and judge others when they pull up short, but equally know that measuring up is hard, and support those who are earnestly trying, no matter what sins they may have committed in the past.

A do-gooder, holier than thou boy scout is a boring paladin, it’s absolutely true. But the key to playing a good, interesting paladin isn’t to be a puritanical, zealous prick. That’s trading one stereotype for another. They key is to be like the Dogs; to be complex and intelligent within the contexts of powerful morality and true faith. Reading this book will help you to understand how to be that character.


  1. interesting article. I have always found the Paladin archetype to be the least malleable. To me the Paladin is a very polarised character with very little room left for interpretation and I totally agree that by following set rules you could easily portray a Paladin character – of course it would still be up to your own imagination to add flourishes of originality in terms of language/vocabulary choice, and what divine rules sets you stick by. When does a Paladin stop being a Paladin? When are his/her divine rules considered perverse enough that they are no longer of the proper alignment? hmmm…

  2. One of my favorite ways to play my Paladin was similar to being a disillusioned priest, much like the cop character from the Prophecy.

    This paladin is still very in touch with her religion, raised with the teachings of the Light, but affected by a haunting nightmare that pushed her away from the Light that she followed, no longer certain that she is made safe by her faith. (In game terms, she is unable or unwilling to use Divine Shield or any other protective auras/blessings, convinced that they will fail.)

    The nightmares have ended, and she still retains her paladin abilities, but she uses them sparingly, in the fear that her reliance on them will cause the horrible visions to return to her. (Continually downranking heals, using her Lay Hands ability only in dire emergencies, and refusing to use Cleanse unless holding it back will guarantee someone’s death.)

    She has to work through these issues on her own, or with the help of the few friends she feels she can count on. She no longer prays to the Light, and feels uncomfortable when other Paladins or Priests (not Shadow, obviously) are around.

    It’s a lot of fun to play. The character has a lot of depth, and opens up a ton of avenues for her pathway back to the Light, and faith in herself and her powers again.

  3. Nice. How does your character manage to preach/protect the souls she’s responsible for, with such a shaken faith?

    I love the mechanical aspect to your concept.

  4. Thanks. 🙂

    She doesn’t preach anymore; she feels that her Faith is no longer truly behind her, and wonders if it’s really the right path for anyone. She no longer admonishes rogues for their penchant for thievery, and has since given Warlocks a pass for their manipulation of fel energies.

    As far as protecting others, she has come to rely more on her blade than her faith, but tends to fight without passion, almost mechanically.

    It will be interesting to see where her path takes her. If it continues the way it’s going now, she may just fall from her faith completely and become a Death Knight. (And admittedly a convenient way to get her on an RP server without having to pay a transfer. ^_^ )

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