I should probably port over some of the higher quality posts I made on Google+ for the sake of posterity. Let’s start out with a review I originally wrote back in April of 2017 for a wonderfully designed two-player rpg that is unfortunately underrated.
One of the highlights of Forge Midwest for me was getting a chance to play Matthew Gwinn’s two-player game, The Hour Between Dog & Wolf. The title refers to that twilight hour when the light is dim enough you can’t tell the difference between a friendly dog and a killer wolf — fitting enough considering the game is about a serial killer. And oh boy is it ever! But here’s the thing: I’ve heard people say that Dog & Wolf is too dark, too disturbing, and too difficult to get to the table. Nonsense! As Matt points out in the text, how many hours does the average American spend watching all manner of crime dramas, both tv shows and movies? And how many of those are about grim murders motivated by everything from greed to sexual predation? The answer is a lot, especially if you’re a fan of Law & Order (even more so if you’re into Criminal Intent) or films like Seven. Sure the topic can be rough, but so is your tv watching habit. At least with Dog & Wolf, you’re 100% in control.
When I sat down to play the game with a friendly guy going by the nickname “Troll,” I had already read through the book. To undercut a little of what I was saying above, my experience reading the text was a roller coaster. The first half of the book is dedicated to teaching the players about what it might be like to get into the mind of a killer or an obsessed investigator trying to stop the killer. Matt’s informative research works both for and against him here. On the one hand, I was drawn into the world Matt was creating, fascinated by the psychological studies he references to explain why someone might feel a yearning to kill again and again. On the other hand, I was starting to feel a bit squeamish by the end of the section because Matt isn’t pulling any punches. You will know that serial killers are real, and that they do some extraordinarily nasty stuff. Combine that with the photo-realistic “illustrations” peppered through the book and you have a recipe for some second-guessing. I think that’s intended, and you should embrace that feeling, but also press on.
Once you get to the game mechanics, you’ll understand and appreciate all of Matt’s research because understanding a character’s motivation makes everything else about playing the game natural and engaging. From here out, reading and playing the game is much easier. You begin to understand just how much leeway you have to create a story anywhere along the spectrum of PG to R-rated. Character creation was a breeze. Both Troll and I were able to come up with two convincing characters without much hand-wringing over the details. He decided to play a classic police investigator (a midwesterner transplanted to big bad L.A. and desperate to prove himself) while I created a thrill-seeking killer (driven by an unhealthy obsession to impress an abusive older brother).
My favorite part of character creation was coming up with an “engram,” or fantasy that plays out over and over in the killer’s mind and helps to explain his motivation for serial killing (i.e., trying to make the fantasy true, but never getting it quite right). In the case of Niles, the killer, his engram was all about murdering a stand-in for his older brother, the sports star. Most of all, Niles wanted to kill with thousands of people looking on, as if he was a sport star in an arena. The twist was that, in Niles’ mind, this killing would impress his brother such that Niles would finally get the recognition he thought he deserved. All of this came naturally as a product of character creation. The process is relatively brief so you can easily get through character creation and a full game in a single evening.
A couple other features worth mentioning are the Framing Table and the Setting Chart. The first is a circular chart that looks like a target. It’s divided up into eight pie-shaped wedges, and each wedge has an inner and an outer segment. Into these sixteen segments Troll and I filled in eight characteristics associated with the killer and eight associated with the investigator. So we had things like “I carry a picture of Dirty Harry in my wallet” and “Bribes serve the overall good” for the cop. For the killer we had things like “My brother won’t talk to me, but I need him to” and “The Public doesn’t appreciate my genius.” These items can be related to the setting, but they are always tied to the characters; and therefore they work brilliantly to firmly plant the characters in the setting. In-game, the Framing Table serves as a dice drop — wherever the high die lands determines an element around which you frame the scene. Awesome!
Second, you have what I like to call the “Setting Chart” (it doesn’t actually have a name as far as I can tell, but I’m claiming reviewer’s prerogative to give it one). This thing looks like a series of Scantron bubbles divided up into six rows of seven bubbles. Each row is arranged on a number line from one though the ominous looking “+”. And each row is associated with a single attribute from either the killer’s or investigator’s character sheet. There are no mechanical implications here, but as a tool for setting scenes and characterizing NPCs, it’s a marvel. The way it works is, you fill in the bubble on each row corresponding to the appropriate attribute. From that bubble’s position along the number line you determine the way in which the two main characters perceive the world around them. For example, if the killer’s Compulsion attribute is a five, the Setting Chart tells me that society (as perceived by the killer and investigator) is “Selfish.” If that same Compulsion rating were a two, then society is more “Sacrificing.” What a neat idea! In-game, Troll and I were able to look at the chart and immediately know how to play our NPCs — and more importantly, how to play our characters in relation to those NPCs. Like the Framing table, the Setting Chart plants the characters in a setting and (fitting for two obsessed people) filters that setting through the solipsistic eyes of both people.
So what actually happened in our game? To begin, Troll’s investigator, Lt. Svenson, investigated Nile’s latest murder. The game opened at the local YMCA where Niles had murdered a woman before pushing her off the high-dive — while filming the entire crime, of course. Svenson arrived early enough to see the body still floating face-down in the pool with a ring of blood emanating outward. We played though a few interactions with the beat cops before Svenson got down to business. Climbing the high-dive before remembering he was afraid of heights, Svenson found a few bloody footprints on the diving board. That said (if I’m remembering correctly), the dice were not with Troll and he failed his investigation scene. Side note: nearly all rolls in Dog & Wolf are opposed, pitting the investigator against the killer. In this case, it was the investigator’s Obsession score against the killer’s Cunning. If Troll had succeeded, he would have earned a point in Evidence (a high score in Evidence is needed to catch the killer). However, Svenson’s fear of heights had him scooting along prone on the diving board and inadvertently tainting the evidence. Result: Niles’ Cunning goes up a point and Svenson is left feeling duped.
Next it was my turn to frame a scene. I don’t remember the precise order in which we played, but I do know that, early on, Niles decided to mess with Svenson. I called for a Manipulation scene and decided to use Svenson’s serious meth addiction against him. Niles began to plant drugs and drug paraphernalia in Svenson’s suburban mailbox. At first, Svenson took Niles’ pranks in stride, but as the days wore on and Niles became bolder, the neighborhood and local cops took notice. So too did Svenson begin to crack, just a little bit. I made my roll, which meant the investigator’s Stability trait went down by one. I was in his head!
Skipping ahead a bit, after another successful murder (this one involving a tanker truck and a chase scene), Lt. Svenson was getting desperate. Troll decided it was time to “Cross the Line.” (In game terms, this means the investigator can potentially gain two points of Evidence in one go, but not without losing a point in Conscience.) Svenson tracked some of the drugs Niles had planted at his house to a dealer in the bad part of town. Hoping to tie the dealer to Niles, Svenson descended the stairs that led to the dealer’s packaging warehouse. The only problem was the warehouse was guarded by a rather large tough guy with a decidedly anti-cop personality. No matter, after a very brief exchange, Svenson pulled his sidearm and shot the tough (you know, in “self defense”). So Svenson gained access to the warehouse and was able to get Niles’ name and M.O., but not without a serious dead body problem.
There were some other scenes that saw Svenson and Niles locked in a cat and mouse game, but the truth is both characters were so brash and obsessed they were never going to last very long. Our final scene was atop a huge apartment building. By this point, Niles had lured another victim into one of his thrill-seeking stunts; however, Svenson arrived in time to interrupt what was quickly turning into a straight-up murder. And then Troll went all out, calling for another Crossing the Line scene! He allowed Niles to kill the woman by dropping her from the side of the building just so he could get a clear shot — and it worked. The game ended with Svenson amassing more than enough evidence for a conviction, but it didn’t really matter because Niles was dead, very dead.
Funny thing is there were five deaths during the game, but only three of which were perpetrated by the killer. That’s probably a bit much, but we were in a hurry trying to finish the game in a short time slot and didn’t have the luxury to mess around with more subtle forms of investigation. I’m sure with a slightly less gonzo pace, we would have amassed even more atmospheric, tense, and unexpected scenes pitting one obsessed man against another. As is, we both thoroughly enjoyed our experience, albeit a brief one. We accomplished a lot in a short amount of time, and it all made sense, and it all felt like a part of a bizarre and engaging crime movie.
So please don’t let this game slip your notice. If you’re looking for a rock solid game that expertly ties theme to mechanics, go for Dog & Wolf. It’s worth it.