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Dog Eat Dog
Posted On 7/24/2012
Dog Eat Dog is a "story game" -- a style of RPG with light rules designed to shape a narrative experience rather than resolve actions in the manner of more traditional RPGs. Its subject is imperialism, and its impacts both on the colonizers and the colonized.
It is played without a gamemaster, per se, although one player (the richest, per the game's rules) plays as "the Colonizers," with more power over the narrative than the others, since by nature the Colonizers are in power and control the military and police forces. Each other player is a Native.
Before the game proper begins, the players select "traits" for the Natives, and for the Colonizers. These something like "The natives are friendly and easy-going," or "The Colonizers have a democratic government." Each player selects one trait for both sides. Traits are important, both because they serve as points of conflict, and because, in the end game, part of the outcome is determining to what degree each of the Natives has become assimilated to the Colonizers' social norms. Natives play themselves; the Colonizer player plays the whole system of control, including all members of the Colonizing society on the Pacific Island where the game takes place, as well as any quisling Natives who serve the regime.
Once this is done, and each of the Natives has determined something noticeable about themselves, what they are known for to other Natives, the first scene begins. One of the Natives decides what he or she is doing in response to the takeover of their island by the Colonizers. The basic rule is: the player whose scene this is may invite any other Native to join; the Colonizers may always enter a scene whenever their player wishes; and if the Colonizers are in a scene, they can prevent any other Natives from joining, and may force any Natives they wish to join.
As a first rule, what happens in the scene is negotiated by consensus. However, a player may call a "conflict" if they object to something -- for example, if the Colonizer decides to have the police haul away one of the Natives, the Native player might decide to fight back, causing a conflict. There's a system of dice rolls to determine who gets to narrate the result of the conflict -- except that the Colonizer can always declare "Fiat" and control the narrative.
At game inception, there is one "Rule:" The Natives are inferior to the Colonizers. Each time a scene concludes in which the Colonizers were present, a new rule is added, on the basis of what happened in the scene. For instance, if the Natives are organizing a resistance, and their meeting is broken up by the police, the new rule might be something like "Secret meetings of dissidents are banned." The Natives decide what this new rule is.
At the end of a scene, as well, the Colonizer decides, for each Native present in the scene, whether they followed the Rules or not. Each Native begins with 3 tokens, and the Colonizer with 2 for each Native. For each Rule that a Native followed, the Colonizer must pay one token to that Native; for each rule that a Native broke, they must pay one token to the Colonizers. The Colonizer also decides whether the characters he controls followed the Rules or not -- and loses one token, out of the game, if not. And -- this is important -- the Colonizer also loses a token if he failed to enter the scene.
If a Native loses all tokens, they "run amok;" the next time they appear in a scene, they must do something shockingly violent and destructive, must die by the end of the scene -- and the Colonizer loses three tokens.
The game ends when either the Colonizer, or all Natives, have lost all their tokens. If the Colonizer has lost all tokens, he must then narrate how and why the Colonizers decided to grant the Natives local autonomy. At the same time, Natives with 2 or fewer tokens must narrate how they were changed and embittered by the occupation; and those with 6 or more must narrate how they were assimilated into the Colonists' culture; those in between can provide whatever epilog they wish. Then, the players with tokens remaining jointly decide what has happened to the island, and the outcome of colonialism. This is true also if all Natives have lost all tokens -- but of course, in this case, only the Colonizer has any, and he narrates the outcome.
The interesting aspect of this is how simple this scheme is; the Colonizer has two tokens per Native, but loses two for any death (and 3 if they run amok). The Natives decide on the rules, but the Colonizer decides whether they have abided by them or not, so the Natives have essentially no control over whether they gain or lose tokens, unless they assimilate and become lickspittle supporters of the Occupation. Much of game design is math, but the math is very simple here -- and dire. The Colonizer pretty much has to intervene frequently, to avoid a loss; and the huge power imbalance between the two sides will inevitably cause conflicts.
From such a simple scheme, we get a game of real subtext, grappling with an emotionally (and historically) fraught issue, creating narratives that are spontaneously generated by the players -- but shaped to a particular end.
It's games like this that makes you realize anew the paucity and vapidity of conventional videogaming violence and bombast; and makes you smirk every time someone says "Well, it's a young medium" to explain why most games are artistically void. Games are not a young medium, and games are not artistically void; games can be powerful, and you just know where to look to find ones of artistic merit. Here, for instance.