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Dog Town: A Review

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Game: Dog Town

Publisher: Cold Blooded Games of New York Port Talbot

Author: Jonathan Ridd

Played: Dragonmeet 2005

Gore Rating: 9/10 (Don't read this before lunch)

Spoiler Value: Does contain spoilers to the introductory scenario, "The Missing Mafioso"

All I knew about Dog Town when I set out for Dragonmeet was that it was a game of 1970s gangster action set in New York, something I knew because General Tangent had bought it during the week with the intention of us playing it on Sundays, and we (him, me and John) had spent the week discussing it via email.

On the train journey down to Dragonmeet I learned some further facts from General Tangent, which were that the author of the game was flying in specially from New York in order to sell and demo his creation. And whilst two of those facts were wrong - he wasn't from New York and he hadn't flown - one was right: he, the author, was in fact, the author.

The Cold Blooded Games guys had a stand just next to the entrance, and since General Tangent was keen to be educated in the ways of the game by its creator he signed up, and since I fancied actually playing a game at Dragonmeet (for the first time in five visits), I signed up too.

The game's 12 o'clock start gave us time to have a quick spin around the trade hall before finding our table for the game. Upon arrival at the table, we were soon introduced to Jonathan, the game's author, and the third player in our game, a guy whose name I didn't catch and who will therefore be henceforth referred to by the name of the character he was playing, Rocco. (Just pretend I'm doing it in order to reflect how "in character" we were while playing).

As soon as Jonathan started explaining the game, I was immediately struck by the non-Americanness of his accent - less "the Valley" and more "the Valleys". He (and the guy with him, who I think was his brother) did in fact hail from Port Talbot.

Yes. They were Welsh.

General Tangent did point out, when we were discussing this later, that their website doesn't mention anything about them being Welsh. But then as I pointed out - and I'm not claiming any special insight here - when one is selling a game of gritty New York mobster action, not slapping a "Made in Wales" logo on your website does rather qualify as your first marketing decision.

And at this point I should point out that I have nothing against Welsh people; one of my best friends is Welsh. And the whole incident of my then girlfriend leaving me for a Welsh transsexual is a long way in the past, and while I then swore never to visit the Principality again, I've long since restricted the Fatwa to apply to the Rhonda Valley only.

Why, these days I can even drive across the Severn Bridge without going into the shakes!

(Although I still think it's highly dodgy that they make you pay on the way in, rather than the way out).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Dog Town.

The game is set in a fictional district of 1970s New York called Dog Town, which consists of a number of neighbourhoods. The game comes with maps of the entire area, showing all the various businesses, and the idea of the game is to make your fortune through criminal activity. It comes with a long recommended viewing list (to get the GM and players into the groove), containing items such as Goodfellas and the Warriors.

We had a choice of three characters, each of which was "multi-classed". (I can't remember what the game term was, but they're basically classes). I was immediately drawn to Ryan, whose character sheet proclaimed him to be a "Thug / Asshole".

A Thug is, well, a thug, and an Asshole is basically Begby from Trainspotting. (But still a mate, you know?)

The character sheet went on to describe Ryan as an alcoholic psycho with a hair-trigger temper and a complete disregard for life (both his own and others). And on his equipment list he had an MP40 (a.k.a. A "Schmeisser") submachine-gun. How cool is that?

The other two characters were Doyle, an ex-boxer fighting type played by General Tangent, and Rocco, a more brainy type played by, *cough*, Rocco.

The scenario started off with the three of us being summoned by a criminal boss of our acquaintance to a car park so - pausing only to drop by my apartment to pick up my MP40 and deposit it in the boot of my Dodge muscle car - we headed off to said car park, where we parked up; I waited by the trunk really hoping that something would go down so I could start spraying lead from what is, let's face it, the most iconic submachine-gun every made. (I had a picture of it on the back of my character sheet, and everything).

Regrettably for my asshole Ryan, all that "went down" was that we were informed that a local mobster's son, one Thomas O'Something, had disappeared, and that it was our task to find him. All we had to go on was that he'd been visiting New Jersey the previous night in his powder-blue Cadillac, but had somehow disappeared on the way back, and that he had a friend called Eddie.

But the good news was that we all had a skill called Street Knowledge (I had 10) and so we could immediately start rolling to see what else we might already know about the guy.

This is probably a good moment to explain a little about how Dog Town's task resolution works. Dog Town initially appears complicated, because it has a huge number of attributes, derived attributes, and skills, with the skills having a basic value followed by what is usually active and passive values. However, the basic principle (which does seem to hold up in play) is that you get all the complicated calculations done during character creation, so that the actual play is maths free.

A roll will always consist of your thing (attribute, derived attribute, skill, or whatever) against either a straight difficulty number, or against someone else's opposing thing. You subtract the opposing value from your rating to get a modifier, which will be positive (if you're better than them / likely to succeed) or negative (if you're worse than them / likely to fail). Then you roll a D20. Score 11 or better and you've succeeded to some degree; 10 or less and you've failed to some degree.

As mentioned above, there are degrees of success and failure. I don't know how this is explained in the rulebook (I don't have it) but Jonathan had bought an experimental "one-sheet table" which has all the various success levels on it, and this proved to be very useful. (I believe he's since made it available as a download on their website).

Our various roles produced the knowledge that a guy like Tommy would probably have hung around in two places: the casino, and a nightclub called Caesers. So off we went.

The Casino proved to be shut for renovations, but we thought only one word... well two actually.

Private game.

I got out my lock picks, and set to work on the padlock. Dog Town has a system for resolving actions in which continued effort is required and a high level of skill should usually win out; you keep on making rolls, with successes accumulating until you reach a score of 20. Unfortunately, failures move you backwards, and after three failures had pushed me to about -10 I figured that since I was now getting pissed off, Ryan would be doubly so - and shot the lock off.

So much for making a quiet entrance.

Inside we found... renovations. But we knew that this didn't preclude the possibility of a private game, so we had a search around, during which Rocco and Doyle found that all the cash had been removed ("Is there any cash?" ... "No, the cash tills are empty") and I found a portable drill ("Are there any cordless drills?" ... "Erm... yes").

I then made myself happy by going into the Ladies toilets ("Always wanted to see what they look like") and drilling holes in the cubical partitions (no reason). We then moved through into a private gaming area, which I vandalised (drilling holes in the roulette tables) and the others ransacked, stealing booze from behind the bar and breaking open a cigarette machine to get both fags and cash. Having taken that back to my car in a knotted up dust sheet and deposited it in the trunk (Hey! See how well we were getting down with that funky Yank-speak), myself and Doyle returned to the casino, leaving Rocco by my car.

(I'd been a bit concerned when he said that he'd stay outside, fearing that he wanted to sod off with both my car and the stuff, but he assured me that he wouldn't, and I said that I'd kill him if he did, so all-in-all I figured I could trust him).

Back inside, me and General Tangent made further success rolls and found our way into a private office. There was no-one in there to kill, but we searched the place thoroughly and I found a nifty nickel-plated revolver in the desk drawer.

(As I type this, it occurs to me that I might have been playing too much D&D recently).

We also found a hidden floor safe, but we couldn't open that, so I contented myself with drilling holes in the desk.

We then set off for Caesers, which we found closed for business (it was still early evening) but open for access (the bouncers hadn't yet arrived, and the barstaff just nodded when we told them we were there to see Dom, the owner).

We found Dom in his office, snorting a line of coke, with a huge bag of said substance on the desk beside him. To cut a long story short: we asked him about Tommy O'Whatnot; he claimed - way too quickly - to have never heard of the guy; we slapped him about a bit; he admitted that they were business partners in a coke dealing enterprise, that Tommy had supposed to be meeting him at the club the previous evening, but that he'd never shown up, and that Tommy had a mate called Eddie he usually hung around with; we slapped him about a bit and confiscated the huge bag of cocaine; we searched his office and found a big wad of cash; we slapped him about a bit and stole the cash; and then we sold him a protection policy.

As we told him at the time: "Give us five hundred dollars a month, and no-one will ever come into your office and treat you like this again!"

Actually, there was a bit more to the story than that. Ryan was also supposed to be a joker, always trying to set up a laugh. So I worked out a cool sequence (we'd literally only just arrived at this point) that was supposed to go something like this:

Ryan: Your security are a disgrace! D'ya think they're good enough?

Dom: Yes.

Ryan: [Punches Dom hard in the face] Ya sure?

But it actually went something like this:

Ryan: Your security are a disgrace! D'ya think they're good enough?

Dom: Yes.

Ryan: [Punches Dom hard in the face]

Dom: [Falls off his chair unconscious]

Rocco: What the fuck are you doing?

Dom: You've ruined my punchline you bastard! [Kicks Dom in the chest]

We left Dom's office with an industrial sized quantity of cocaine, a big bag of cash, an open-ended weekly protection contract, and the information that Tommy sometimes hung around at a club called Supersix. We were just about to head on over there, when a drunk street girl tottered past asking us if we owned a powder-blue Cadillac, because one was apparently being stolen round the back.

I immediately charged down the side alley, gun in hand, followed by Doyle and Rocco (I guess I was in front because their first instinct had been to think, whilst mine had been to head for the fight). What we found was:

  • A Puerto-Rican standing beside the trunk of the Caddy, looking through a wallet.

  • Another Puerto-Rican crouched down beside the steering wheel of the car, hot-wiring it.

  • A street-girl of some kind, cowering in the back of the car.

As we run towards them, I shouted: "Oy! That's my fucking car!"

The Puerto-Rican doing the hot-wiring looked up at me and said: "Fuck off, puto!" ("Fuck off, homosexual!"). So I decided to shoot him in the face.

It's perhaps appropriate - given that this is supposed to be a review, and not just a sad, adolescent "And then I shot him in the face and it was really cool!" roleplaying anecdote - to explain a little about how the combat system works.

What in other games is termed "initiative", that is the business of deciding who gets to do what when, is determined in Dog Town through the use of slots. Slots are decided not on the basis of an overall global attribute, but are dependent on whichever skill you're planning on using that turn. I haven't read the actual rules, so I can't comment on how well it would work in situations where you are mixing many different types of actions: but in the combats we did it seemed to work pretty well.

My handgun skill gave me seven slots. Different types of actions take different numbers of slots. Typical actions include:

Draw: draw your weapon (two slots).

Snap shot: fire one quick shot (one slot).

[Something] shot: fire one, better aimed, shot (two slots).

Rapid fire: fire three shots (two slots).

Aimed shot: fire one very well-aimed shot (five slots).

Each option gives you various bonuses and options. The [Something] shot (whose name I now can't remember) gives you the option of specifying which location you hit if you get a full success - so this was the one I went for.

The person who has the most slots gets to take their action first. If they are tied for slots then various skill and attribute values are used as tie-breakers. If you have a lot more slots then you can actually take multiple actions before your opponent gets to go.

Example:

Imagine I'm about to get into a shoot-out with someone in a bar. My gun (which is a bulky pistol with a one slot draw penalty) is in my waistband. However, I do have the quick draw ability (one slot draw bonus), which effectively cancels that out. His gun is already out. I have nine slots in handgun. He has four.

I would go first, because I have more slots than him. To draw is going to cost me two slots, leaving me with seven. This is still more than his five, so I then get to take my second action - like shooting him. I could go for an aimed shot, which would take me down to two slots.

However, I'd want to be sure that would take him down (or at least hurt him - because when you get hurt you lose slots). The reason for this is that if I were to spend five slots aiming, and then miss, he would then have four slots to my two, meaning that he could take at least two snap shots at me, and possibly three, before I could respond.

A better option in this case might be to fire three shots in a rapid fire action, taking me down to five shots to his four, and then fire another rapid fire action, taking me down to three shots to his four. At that point, he would normally get to take an action; however, it's likely that I would have scored at least one major hit having fired six bullets, which would probably have cost him a couple of actions - so the score would actually be my three slots against his two, meaning I could get to go again.

The surprise rules integrate into this system, with a variety of levels of surprise, implemented by various degrees of free actions for the surpriser and slot penalties for the surprisee.

As you can imagine, the system is quite brutal, and rewards those who get their retaliation in first. It also works quite quickly: there wasn't any need for book-keeping when we played, because the Cold Blooded Games guys had bought poker chips for us to use to keep track of slots.

That probably all seemed a bit complicated, so let me explain by telling you what happened in our combat. (Quick note to the Cold Blooded Games guys: feel free to lift the following combat example if you'd like to use it as a rules and flavour example of your game).

To recap: the Puerto Rican had called me gay, and I'd decided that the most appropriate reaction to that was to stop dead, aim, and shoot him in the face.

I had a slot advantage over him (seven to four), so I went first, spending two slots on a [something] shot (because that allows you to specify hit location on a full success or better). My shot hit, entering through his temple and lodging in his brain.

One of the notable features of Dog Town is that it has hit tables that give a detailed description of each hit, much like rolemaster, although unlike rolemaster, every result isn't "Your arrow scores across your opponent's chest!"

Quite frankly, I'd expected him to fall over at that point, but it turned out that he had recently partaken of angel dust in quantities large enough that you he could make Bruce Banner angry and still get the better of him in a fight; so rather than doing the decent thing, and dying, he called me gay again instead.

But I still had a slot advantage (now five to two), so I did a three shot rapid fire at him, which resulted in the first bullet missing, the second hitting him in the abdomen, and the third hitting him in the groin.

"Fuck you!" he cried after the third bullet hit.

"What with?" I asked.

(Groin shot - get it?)

As all this was going on, General Tangent's ex-boxer was using his boxing skills to beat the crap out of the guy who'd been standing by the trunk (getting in a particular good "crushed testicles" blow at one point) while Rocco intercepted the girl, who'd been trying to crawl away.

Me and the Puerto Rican were now on three slots to... well not a lot, so I spent two slots on a [something] shot to the leg, at which point he fell over. He was though, annoyingly conscious, and looking like he was trying to reach down to his waistband to retrieve a gun - although to be fair, he might just have been wanting to audit what was left of his genitals.

I then used my final slot to insult him, and the first few slots of the next round to bend over him and retrieve his pistol from his waistband. Then, leaving General Tangent to practice his boxing on the other guys face, and Rocco to sweet-talk the street girl, I spent the rest of that round and the next going back to the car to retrieve my drill.

When I returned, General Tangent was just finishing his guy off (after knocking the guy unconscious, he held his nose and mouth shut and asphyxiated him). My Puerto Rican, meanwhile, had managed to get to his feet and was standing against the wall, still mouthing obscenities at me.

(You've got to admire a guy who can take bullets to the brain, abdomen, groin and leg, and still be up and defiant, even if it is drug-assisted).

It was at this point that I discovered something that is, quite frankly, a shocking omission from the Dog Town rules (although to be fair, the guys did say they would correct this for the second edition).

There are no weapon-stats or tables for battery-powered portable drills.

However, Jonathan quickly improvised some stats, ruling that we could use the general blade damage table; and so, without much interruption, the game carried on.

My first attack was a good one, a head shot that drilled through the Puerto Rican's cheek and into his tongue.

The second was only a bare success, with the damage tables revealing that I'd drilled straight through his hand.

The third attack drilled through his nipple.

The fourth attack finally finished him off, causing him to slide down the wall leaving a big blood stain behind.

Rocco meanwhile, being the (slightly more) sensitive type, had taken the girl round the corner and questioned her about who the guy was. (I think he was her pimp or something, but to be honest I wasn't really concentrating - I was too busy playing with my drill).

We then searched the car, finding a single shoe.

It was at this point a question occurred to me, a question that I immediately put to Jonathan. "This Tommy O'whatnot? He wasn't Puerto Rican was he?"

The answer, thankfully, was no.

The wallet turned out, not surprisingly, to be Tommy's. Inside was a receipt for some gas he'd bought at a gas station in New Jersey, and a VIP membership card for a club called Supersix.

It was pretty obvious what had happened. Tommy had indeed returned from Jersey to Caeser's for his business meeting, but had been ambushed and kidnapped while out back. He was clearly in terrible danger.

We had to act.

And act we did, heading for a bar/fencing outlet called O'Leary's to flog him the booze, fags, cash and coke we'd manage to accumulate while failing to find Tommy.

(I decided to keep the drill; I rather liked it, and besides, it was kind of used.)

While at O'Leary's, General T decided his character needed a bit of a wash and brush up. I apparently needed not so much a wash and brush up as a shower and full-body forensic scrub (it appears there is a certain "fountain" effect when you drill through someone's chest from a range that could be described as not so much "close" as "intimate").

Luckily, my apartment was just across the road, so I left the guys at O'Leary's alternately cleaning (General T) and haggling over prices (Rocco). It was at this point that Jonathan, the GM, informed me of a couple of rather crucial facts that were missing from the back story printed upon my character sheet.

They were:

  1. Ryan had previously been arrested for a case of assault and battery and bailed with money borrowed from a bail bondsman.

  2. The trial had been the previous week, but Ryan hadn't bothered to turn up.

"So I, what, just switched apartments and carried on then?" I asked Jonathan.

"No, you're still living in the same apartment," he replied.

It was not too altogether surprising, therefore, that as I reached the landing that contained my apartment's front door, I found someone shouting, "Freeze motherfucker! You're under arrest!" in my ear.

What followed was a grisly, confused, violent and at times farcical combat - which probably means that the combat system simulates reality reasonably well.

Mr Shout had achieved a degree of surprise and so went first, attacking me with some form of hand to hand smack-down, and achieving a result that would have damn near squeezed the life out of me. However, Dog Town has a luck system, and Ryan - a naturally lucky person - had shit-loads of luck. (I'd started off with ten luck points, and then got a three point bonus for the panache with which I'd driller-killed the Puerto Rican the way I'd skilfully roleplayed my psycho's encounter with the Puerto Rican).

A whopping eight skill points was enough for me to totally avoid all effects of the attack (Jonathan rationalised this as me managing to wriggle out of his grasp at the last moment), but he still had slots ahead of me and managed to get me in a bear hug.

However, he'd made the mistake of leaving my left hand free, and with my next set of slots I managed to retrieve my gun left-handed from the waistband (one slot penalty because it was facing the wrong way), get it up between us, and shoot him three times in the head from point blank range (spending three luck points to push the result up to the next damage threshold).

This blew his head of in a rather satisfactory manner.

"You just killed my brother you mother-fucker!"

Twins. Identical. Dammit.

I can't quite remember what followed, but I know that I made three three-shot attacks on him (my automatic had a thirteen round-magazine), peppering him with a variety of minor hits but failing to put him down, with him someone managing to miss me. (I think I spent my final luck points to avoid one of his attacks, following which I manage to strip him of nearly all of his slots by repeatedly hitting him).

Finally, we came to the end of the round. He was down on one knee and practically out of it, and still with one slot to go. I was standing in front of him, with one bullet, and one slot.

I took a risk, and opted to carry my slot over to the next round rather than trust my final bullet to a snap shot.

He fired a snap shot, and missed.

He was now so badly fucked up that for the next round I had eight slots to his two, so I calmly spent five rounds aiming and then shot him straight through the head just as his trigger finger was squeezing to shoot me.

It was sometime during the above combat that a slightly worried-looking Jonathan said something along the lines of, "We do encourage a vigilante angle to the game... you know taking out child-molesters and serial killers!" - a quote which I'm repeating here just in case I'm giving the impression to anyone that the game is solely about randomly killing random people in terrifyingly random ways. (That was just the way we were playing it).

I then went down to the pay-phone in the apartment's lobby and phoned O'Leary's, asking him to tell the guys to bring the Caddy round to my place as I needed some stuff taking away. They turned up within a couple of minutes, and handled it pretty well considering that they just found two bodies that differed only in the manner of their death. Anyhow, we rolled them up in a carpet and stuffed them in the back of the car, and then set off to Supersix to see if we could find either Tommy or his mate there.

Supersix turned out to be a place with delusions of grandeur (at least, that's my explanation for the fact that the bouncers wouldn't let us in). I immediately started, much against the wishes of Doyle and Rocco, a fight with the biggest of the bouncers, but then left when I realised that I was much more likely to be able to do what I wanted to him if I was doing it with my MP40.

(I'd been wanting to use it all through the scenario, and I figured that this was my time).

Unfortunately, this did mean that during the two or so rounds it took me to retrieve the submachine-gun, Rocco and Doyle had to face the two enormous bouncers - one of whom was an ex-heavyweight world champion - alone. I felt a bit bad about this, especially in the early stages when they were taking a pasting, but the tide gradually began to turn (with Doyle taking revenge for a long-ago boxing match against the ex-champion) and by time I got back - MP40 in hand - the bastards had just about finished up.

A third bouncer turned up about then, but after I glared at him, showed him the MP40, told him we had no quarrel with him, and suggested that if he wanted to live, letting us in might be a good move - he let us in. We then carved our way across the dance floor to the sound of "Disco Inferno" (it's amazing how easy it is to walk through a crowd when you're holding a submachine-gun) and found the owner of the club.

He was quite cooperative (again, this might have been down to the MP40) and quite quickly pointed out Tommy's mate Eddie. I grabbed said Eddie, and suggested we adjourn to the toilet. That was occupied, but after I waved the MP40 at the occupant and told him to fuck off, he quickly left (so quickly that he peed all down his leg).

I can't remember exactly what went down with Eddie, but I have a feeling it involved a beating and a toilet cubicle.

By now though, we were way out of time, being about five and a half hours into what should have been a three of four hour slot, and I was ravenously hungry - so we agreed to end it there.

Conclusions On The Scenario

In a sense, I have two totally different conclusions about the scenario.

As a scenario for home use, I think it was pretty good, and will serve as a very good introduction to the game.

Unfortunately, it's not at all suitable for a convention game, being far, far too long for a three or four hour slot. It was great that Jonathan and his brother (who were both great guys) were prepared to spend so much time entertaining us, but from (their) commercial point of view I felt a bit guilty, because for them to spend nearly six hours on just three people was a very uneconomic use of their time. (I think we were the only group that they were able to run the game for).

Having said that, it was their first convention as game publishers, and I think they'll now have a much better idea of what kind of scenario they need for conventions. Interestingly enough, the Contested Ground Studios guys, who had the table behind us, had got the convention demo thing down pat, running group after group of six players through a twenty-minute demo scenario. (It was quite funny that while our game went on, and on, and on, they just kept on coming back again and again and again, with a seemingly near infinite supply of players / potential customers).

Conclusions On The Game

I'm tempted to say that Dog Town is Violence without the satire, but that would be unfair (although I think it's a good line). RPGActionFigure described it as "Grand Theft Auto the RPG" which might be fairer, although as I've never played that game I couldn't say.

The rules are intricate and quite complex, and not based on a single extrapolated principle as many systems are now. For my tastes they would perhaps be too complicated. I certainly want to GM it. But then I'm a free-wheeling kind of guy when it comes to systems, and I think it's important to note that while this isn't my kind of system, I still enjoyed playing it and was able to get to grips with it.

And it did deliver wonderfully evocative, descriptive combat.

So I think I can say that if you like crunchy systems, you'll enjoy this one. It's crunch.

But it's good crunch.


What do you think of this article?

It ascended to heaven and walked with the gods.
It was very good.
It was pretty good.
It was okay.
It was a bit bad.
It was very bad.
It sucked, really, really badly.