Posted on February 14, 2007 by Flames
The author of Dog Town (Jonathan Ridd) is a British policeman and, as such, he has a great handle on street crime in Great Britain — the problem is that Dog Town largely models American street crime and it’s glaringly obvious that the Mr. Ridd’s primary exposure to this aspect of American culture has been through entertainment media. The last sentence of the foreword is a dead giveaway:
“The book is written in a street dialect so words like “yo”, “wit” and “jou” are not typos.”
If you’re an American, you no doubt recognize such “street dialect” from poor characterizations of Italian-Americans on film and such intentionally satirical video games as Grand Theft Auto. The fact is that, outside of entertainment media, much of what Dog Town passes off as “real” is remarkably. . . well. . . not. Even in criminal circles. Even in New York city. It’s bad Hollywood stereotyping at its best.
Now, that said, this wouldn’t be a problem if Dog Town was intended to be a work of pure cinematic simulation — in fact, it would arguably be a huge benefit. The problem arises specifically because the author tries to reconcile this cinematic sensibility with real crime. And that dog won’t hunt — you can have the over-the-top action of Shaft and Vice City or or you can have real life crime where the vast majority of people die unceremoniously or spend their lives constantly rotating in and out of prison.
You can’t have both.
Sadly, the author of Dog Town couldn’t come down on one side of the line or the other and, as a result, Dog Town suffers all the way around — as a cinematic game it suffers from extremely lethal combat and lack of plot immunity for protagonists, while as a game of real crime, it suffers from the worst stereotypes of Hollywood exploitation flicks and the satirical extremes of Grand Theft Auto style violence. Which brings us to the system. . .
It might be great. The problem is that it isn’t explained very clearly, thus, I can’t really say for certain — I can certainly say that the content editing is horrible. For example, negative numbers are referred to as such during character creation, but in the “Doing a Lil Somin” section (i.e., the section dedicated to action resolution) there are only references to “minus numbers” — such language substitution is a frequent occurrence in Dog Town and makes processing the rules a real headache.
Other explanation adds nothing to the rules, often complicating it — case in point, the explanation of the basic task resolution rules. Why lead in with (amd, yes, this the following is an actual quote from the game):
“A ratio is determined by matching your criminal’s competence in a given ability against either an assessed difficulty or another criminal’s ability. When setting out to do something like jumping over a low wall a criminal makes an attempt using his move skill at it’s difficulty. In this case the difficulty is the height of the wall and this opposes the attempt to some degree or other. The difference in abilities or ability and difficulty is added on to the median 10 vs 10 to form the ratio on a 1d20.”
When you could skip right to something like:
Cross reference the acting character’s attribute rating with the assigned difficulty rating or opposing attribute rating on the table below, to determine the number that one must roll greater than on 1d20 to succeed at the action.
Incidentally, Dog Town does get around to this kind of cut and dried version eventually, though usually not until the attempts to explain how things work behind the scenes (i.e., how the math and/or logic underlying the design functions) are exhausted. These things are of little relevance to the typical gamer and serve only to complicate what would otherwise appear to be a simple system.
Ultimately, the Dog Town system seems as though it could be very simple, unfortunately the explanation is confused and overly wordy (perhaps even purposefully intellectualized) to the point that it obfuscates, rather than elucidates, the mechanical components of the game. The rule explanations in Dog Town need a serious overhaul — less jargon, less “behind the scenes” exposition, and more black and white explanation. Dog Town needs to keep it simple, trimming some serious fat.
Finally, as much as I hate to mention it, there is a problem with the premise. Playing criminals in and of itself is a great idea. That’s not the problem. The problem is that playing criminals can be done in any system and, more importantly, has been done in many systems. What does Dog Town bring to the table in terms of playing criminals that games like Shadowrun or generic systems like GURPS don’t? Nothing. That is the problem. For all of the love and devotion that very obviously got poured into Dog Town, it doesn’t do anything that dozens of other systems don’t (or can’t) do for the premise.
It is possible that this pitfall stems from Dog Town’s aforementioned identity crisis — in failing to cleave exclusively to the genre tenets of cinematic crime drama or the less fantastic realities of true crime, a largely generic system was, perhaps, inevitable (after all, what other option allows one product to cover two radically different extremes?).
Any of these three issues in and of themselves wouldn’t necessarily deplete the commercial appeal of Dog Town, but when taken together, they mean that Dog Town lacks a strong sense of self-identity, an easy to grasp system, and compelling reason to exist (aside from showcasing the author’s vision). Billed as “The Ultimate Crime Experience”, Dog Town is ultimately a disappointment. In the end, I think that Dog Town would have made a much better supplement to an existing system than it does a standalone game.
Unless a future revision tightens up the thematic focus, cleans up the technical writing, and brings some truly unique crunchy bits to the table, I think that you’ll be better off picking up a subject-appropriate history book and your favorite generic system of choice to sate your hunger for crime-oriented roleplay in New York City.
[Note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I have had a business affiliation with the publisher of Dog Town in the past. This past affiliation had no bearing on the content of this review, nor did it influence my opinion of the product in any way.]
Reviewer: James D. Hargrove
Look for Dog Town eBooks at RPGNow.com.