Review and AP: God’s Gonna Cut You Down

I’ve been slowly working through a big stack of really great looking little zine-sized games that all arrived at once. Finally got to play my buddy Keith Stetson’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down, a solo journaling game about the inevitability of misery in the old west. I’ve come to really enjoy solo games like this, particularly on evenings when the rest of my family is occupied with something and I just cannot bring myself to boot up some Steam game.

God’s Gonna Cut You Down

PDF is available on DriveThru

The premise of the game (based on this horror of a folk song) is that your character starts with some inciting problem, which they then face through a series of scenes inspired by various Biblical passages. The passages are a mix of impossible morals and gloomy omens, of course. I’m not sure if it’s pro-Christian or deeply cynical! In any case, raised as a white American mutt, anything Biblical comes preloaded with heaviness.

The Setup

You start the game by coming up with the faintest sketch of a character. Mine was Josiah Kane, a rancher with a wife and teen son. There’s an oracle to generate inspiration for your inciting problem. Keith repeatedly tells us to not feel beholden to the oracles but I say that’s quitter talk! I love a good challenge.

I rolled “too early” and “justice” and just…wow. What the hell could it mean? Okay.

Josiah Kane’s problem is this: his teen son, Joshua, is in trouble with the law. Marshal Fulgham is coming to arrest the boy, and is a family friend, but needs to take him right when Josiah needs him for the cattle drive. He’s on the edge of broke and this drive will keep his family fed through the winter.

The Dice, Such As They Are

The way the game works is this: you have a d6, called your Temptation die, that you tick up each time you roll 3d6 to find a passage from the collection that makes up most of the book. You then shape up a scene or situation around the passage: living up to a difficult lesson, mostly.

If none of your dice beats the Temptation die, that’s the end of the chapter. You lose one of the 3d6, reset the counter die, and move the situation ahead in time and intensity. When you lose the last d6, God has cut you down.

This is most definitely play-to-lose, Cormac McCarthy territory so fair warning! Let’s play the game, but content warnings for self-harm, children in peril, and some really unpleasant murder.

Vengeance Is Mine

So my thing is that I’ve actually read the Bible, cover to cover, and have attended many services from many denominations. Heck, I went to a Baptist college! But it’s been a long darned time and I’m not Christian. Each time I rolled a passage, I pulled up an interpretation or explanation of what it could mean. If you haven’t read the Good Book in a while, it’s full of a lot of very strange language.

Chapter 1 starts with me rolling Romans 12:19. It’s a banger! “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”

Faith Is Hard

Here’s what I came up with: Joshua, the rancher’s teen son, was tempted into crime by a friend. The friend got away, but Joshua was left taking the blame. It’s a bad crime – murder! The boys went to rob another rancher’s home but the old guy was there, and they killed him. Was it an accident? Who can say?

Josiah wants to turn the other boy in to save his son, but he also knows Joshua took part and is also guilty. So I roll, and it all comes up passes. Josiah does not in fact turn the other boy in.

Thou Shalt Not Decline From The Sentence

Next up is Deuteronomy 17:11: “According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.”

Josiah wants to ask his friend Marshal Fulgham to delay taking Joshua just a while, knowing that justice delayed is justice denied to the grieving family. At this point I’ve come up with some more details about the crime: Isaiah Todd, a neighboring rancher, was killed by Joshua. I roll and succeed again, so Josiah keeps that wish to himself. Fulgham understands the desire but takes the boy away.

Slow to Wrath

Next is James 1:19. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” Interesting one! This one I spent some time researching.

The Todds are well liked in the nearby town. Their friends have started bad-mouthing the Kane family around town, spreading various rumors and generally turning public sentiment against Josiah while his son awaits trial. Josiah knows he needs to be open to hearing what they say, and give them grace in the Todds’ loss. Succeeds the roll again, so Josiah doesn’t speak out. By not speaking out, though, he actually paints a worse picture in the townsfolks’ minds. Why won’t he defend himself?

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Chapter 1 went on for a while with some lucky rolls against that up-ticking Temptation die. Deuteronomy 22:1 really turns up the heat: “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt in any case bring them again unto thy brother.”

The Todds’ cattle, watched over by Isaiah’s two surviving sons, have wandered onto Kane’s acreage. Josiah knows he should help return the cattle to the Todds despite the bad feelings they’ve been spreading about him. So Josiah does, but late, and one of the lost cattle turns up too injured to make the walk home. The Todd boys suspect Josiah harmed the cattle on purpose and demand to see the corpse. They’re not persuaded of his innocence despite the broken leg.

Heap Coals of Fire

Finally we ended up on Romans 12:20. “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” That last bit is unsettling, and I never quite got a solid interpretation in my Googling. But it gave me some vibes.

Josiah and his wife Margaret try to mend fences with the Todds, at Margaret’s insistence. The cattle incident has left things even worse between the families. They cook and bake and plan a meal to bring to the Todds. But en route to the Todds’ ranch, Josiah is overcome with spite and resentment and pulls over to make a picnic of the food for himself and Margaret.

At the end of a Chapter, you lose a die and write down all the hanging threads from the first chapter. Then you move the situation ahead a bit. My threads are pretty obvious: the bad relationship with the Todds, the unknown outcome of Joshua’s arrest, and the mysterious missing friend.

A Short Jump Ahead

Chapter 2 starts out after the cattle drive, for which Josiah has spent the last of his savings hiring help and hoping for the best. But another rancher is robbed and murdered, and everyone knows Joshua is in jail.

First up is 1 Corinthians 3:18: “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.” Another interesting, twisty bit of Christian doctrine I had to think a while about.

Josiah gets word from his friend Marshal Fulgham that his son will get very fair treatment in town. Word is, the judge is a believer in rehabilitation, the second murder has made it clear that Joshua didn’t act alone, and the judge owes Fulgham a favor. Josiah doesn’t dare hope. But it turns out to be true, the judge turns out to be (more than) fair. Josiah asks the Marshal to pass along to the judge that his son should face punishment for his crimes like anyone else. He can’t help but think about the worsening feelings around town, too.

Don’t Be A Dick

Next is Leviticus 19:11, an oldie but a goodie. “Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.”

The judge calls Josiah in as a character witness. When he arrives, he sees the Todd boys leaving the courthouse and fears what they’ve said. Josiah wants to tell the truth about his son – easily manipulated, weak of spine – but wants to offset the lies the Todds have surely told. But I passed the roll. Josiah stands firm and tells the judge the unvarnished truth about his disappointing son. All the father can hope is that honesty and a fair judge means his boy won’t suffer overmuch for his mistake.

Treasures Upon Earth

Then we get Matthew 6:19. Interesting! “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.”

Okay, let’s kick this thing into gear.

Josiah finds his son’s friend and accomplice. He’s been hiding out in a cave on Kane’s property, sitting on the money and supplies he’s been stealing from ranch houses. The friend is who Josiah always suspected but could not say: it’s Warren Todd, the youngest of the three Todd boys. He’s been missing for months of course, but the Todds said he’d gone off to school “back east.”

Rather than justice, Josiah considers his own desperate situation. He considers taking Warren’s loot, only fair so he can afford a fancy attorney for his son. But he chooses justice after all, and turns Warren in to Marshal Fulgham. He receives a small reward, not nearly enough for a lawyer but enough to feed himself and his wife this winter.

In Malice

And then we end chapter 2 with 1 Corinthians 14:20. It’s a very clever bit of twisty writing. “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.” I spent a while thinking on this passage.

So cattle have started turning up dead on the Kane acreage. Josiah is certain it’s the oldest Todd boys up to no good. Josiah could exact his own vengeance the next time he catches them on his property, and even be within his right to do so with lethal force. Or he could take his case to the marshal. I roll and it’s all misses. The temptation of vengeance is far too great!

Rather than waiting for the boys to trespass again, Josiah takes his rifle to the Todd property and murders the two eldest sons. Their young sister, Amelia, witnesses Josiahs’ crime but is only 10 and is traumatized into silence. Josiah can’t bring himself to silence the only witness, so leaves Amelia and her mother alive.

The Final Chapter

Oh man. Oh man. Chapter 3 leaves me with my last chapter die and some very juicy threads: the surviving daughter and mother. Joshua’s return after serving his time. What became of Warren.

We jump ahead a decade. Josiah lives; his wife Margaret died some years past. Josiah’s ranch has grown prosperous, largely due to being able to buy the Todd acreage after the bank took it over. His son Joshua is grown, served his time, and is in line to inherit the ranch.

Lay Aside All Evil Speakings

We start at 1 Peter 2:1: “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings.”

Oh yes, oh yes.

The elderly Josiah has been living with the guilt of killing the Todd boys and driving the women into poverty. He can’t live with it any more, so he and his son Joshua go into town to find Mrs. Todd and confess his sins. Josiah never goes into town any more, but his son Joshua has been coming and going for some time while he woos a girl. I roll a miss right out of the gate.

When Josiah seeks out Mrs. Todd, he discovers she died the week before. Her young daughter, Amelia, is now 20 and a young school teacher. Amelia is also who Joshua has been wooing all this time.

Amelia suppressed but has never forgotten what she saw. When she sees old Josiah, she tells her fiance Joshua what his father had done. Now that she understands who Joshua’s father is, she breaks off the engagement.

Joshua is so overcome by the break, and his family’s own sins, that he hangs himself in the barn. Josiah finds his only son the next morning and is alone the rest of his days.

Last Thoughts

What is so interesting to me is the repetitive nature of the passages. It really got me into the head of a devout, but beset, Christian. I’m also a huge fan of western history and I love me a good blood feud. So I went into this game well preloaded to land on something tragic. But I think if you take the time to really work at incorporating these random lessons and soak up the inherent heaviness, you’ll end up with something good.

If you enjoy some grim dark western material, you’ll get that in God’s Gonna Cut You Down. It’s entirely told from the perspective of white (one assumes) settlers and is agnostic about postcolonialism. I’ve got a lot of American West history in my head and could pull together something intersectional involving freed slaves, Native Americans, Chinese laborers and so on. But that material wouldn’t come from the book. It’s also settler-centric because of the core conceit of being pulled between Biblical teachings and the needs of the heart.

What the game is very good for, though, is undermining the American creation myth of the old west. This does not give you a story of heroic rangers singlehandedly saving wagon trains from savage raiders, or card sharps and gunslingers wooing hookers with a heart of gold. God, fate, or destiny: it’s ultimately a force that destroys you. Your destiny is manifest: it always ends up in your misery.

You can run for a long time, sooner or later God’s gonna cut you down.

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