In 2020, I made a post about role playing games that can be played with dreidels. It came to mind again this year because it started getting a lot of attention as Hanukkah approached, and I realized that I ought to do a follow up. Since that original post, I completed my conversion to Judaism and have become a lot more well versed in table-top role playing games.
Now, there is a history of fantasy games and media not treating Jews the best, when we’re there at all. See Dungeons & Dragons with its undead liches and their phylacteries, how golems are framed as monsters, or this article about Jewish tabletop miniatures from the 1980s, and how some were based on antisemitic stereotypes. I found that article while hunting for Jewish-looking miniatures for a rabbinical student character I play in a Powered by the Apocalypse game. While I didn’t find any that suited my needs, I did find a Maccabean army set designed for war games as well as some cool, non-evil looking golem miniatures on Etsy—a PC (player character) figure of a golem artificer, this guy who gives me delightfully Jewish vibes, and this rock/nature “golem” who’s got an elf friend.
More importantly, and the point of this post, is that I also found a whole slew of wonderful, independent, Jewish-made role playing games. Below the cut I will give you a break down of those games as well as talk about a few more mainstream games and how I incorporate Jewish elements into PCs I make and the games I run.
- Dream Apart by Benjamin Rosenbaum – Dream Apart is a hack of the game Dream Askew by Avery Alder. The game being a “hack” simply means that Dream Apart is using the base system developed by Alder in Dream Askew, a game about a queer, post-apocalyptic commune. Dream Apart, on the other hand, is a game about life in a fantasy 19th-century shtetl. It is published in a duology with Dream Askew and the book also takes you through the steps to build your own game based on the system presented within. While I haven’t played Dream Apart itself, I am familiar with this style of game play, so I have no doubt I will love this game. I would give this game the tags: Beginner Friendly, Community Centric, and Diceless
- Doikayt: A Jewish Tabletop Roleplaying Game Anthology – An anthology of 12 very Jewish role playing games. They come in a variety of styles and I’ll give a short summary of each.
- Ayekah by Riley Rethal – “One of you is a god and one of you is creation.” You move through scenarios and answer questions to tell a story. Freeform, Storytelling
- If You Can’t Take the Heat, Get Out of the Ring by a. fell – You are a wrestler, your opponent is God. Played with a standard deck of cards, you narrate moves and respond to actions indicated by the card meaning table. Funny, Card Game
- Dybbuk Cup by Marn S. – Ideal for a group having a dinner party or festive meal. You play as members of the Roth family who are being haunted by a dybbuk with one person possessed. You have to pass on the possession without being discovered as everyone drinks from the titular cup, which is the countdown to more family members dying untimely deaths. Horror, Roleplay Heavy
- Emet by Evan Saft – This is the game that attracted me to this anthology in the first place. You play as golems, taking care of your community and handling problems as they arise and which increase in severity as time goes on. Storytelling, No GM (Game Master)
- Jewish Inspiration for Worldbuilding and Adventuring by Randy Lubin – More essay than game, this piece provides tools for GMs to use to develop a Jewish game setting/community for whatever system they wish, though it gears toward historical realism/fantasy rather than say, the high fantasy or science fiction. It also has some fun little world and character building mini-games. Versatile, GM Tools, Mini-Games
- The Wise Men of Chelm by Adira Slattery – Based of the the Jewish folktale of the same name, if you don’t know it, the “Wise Men” aren’t wise in the traditional sense, they’re fools, but they take themselves very seriously. This game encourages you to go forth and have discussions and arguments about very silly things. Funny, Improv
- Talmud by Zev Prahl – A role playing game presented in the style of a Talmudic dialectic. It is a game that is just as much about learning the rules as it is playing a game, but it is also about adding your own rules and expanding on what’s already there. Rules Focused, Learning
- The Accounts of Getzel Shlomo by JR Goldberg – The funeral of a secretly pious man who helped many members of the community without their knowledge. You tell the story of how and who in the community he helped. Storytelling, Communal
- The Cantor’s Son is an Orphan Now and We Must Steal Him Lemons by JR Goldberg – Through card based prompts and pulling tokens you must steal a lemon to cheer up Motl the Cantor’s Son, whose father has just died. Card Game, Planning
- Grandma’s Drinking Song by Lucian Kahn – Roleplay prompted scenes and create a drinking song, also there’s an onion. Roleplay, No GM
- Lunch Rush: A Geshmak RPG – The most “classic” feeling role playing game from a game play perspective. There are set skills, special skills based on role, and rolling on tables for events. If you like the structure of Powered by the Apocalypse style games, you might like this. You are working at a Jewish deli though, I cannot emphasize that enough. Funny, Classic Gameplay
- Christmas Day by Eli Seitz – A larp (live action role play) about Jewish family and identity set on Christmas day at a Chinese restaurant (a much beloved Jewish tradition). Freeform, Family
- HONORABLE MENTION: Golem from Cranio Creations – While this isn’t Jewish made, it was made with oversight from Rabbinato Central Milano, which definitely isn’t nothing. A board game, you play as rabbis in 16th century Prague managing golems that work in your community. I do not have this game, but the rulebook is available for viewing online and you can find game reviews on various distributor sites. Overall it seems to be a technically complex, point collecting, tile placement game that, while designed for multiple players, can also be played solo. At a glance, all the Jewish elements do genuinely appear quite well done, so if this is your type of game it might be worth a shot.
But, you might say, I really like D&D/Pathfinder/Powered by the Apocalypse games. Aren’t there ways to incorporate Jewish elements into games in those systems?
Yes, of course. You’re just going to have to do more work, and by work I mean homebrew. This is easier or harder based on what system you plan on using. I’ll use the Jewish PC I mentioned earlier as an example.
Chava bat Eliezer y Miriam aka Eve Rosenthal was built for the Powered by the Apocalypse game The Veil, which has a futuristic, sci-fi setting, and she was built using a modified version of the Onomastic playbook:
“You are the last of your kind. Your order was once an integral part of The Veil and the world; now, though, that time has passed. Hunted and destroyed by the Iconoclasts, you are now the last of your order. The last with the power of True Names and charged with the protection of the last Cybertome.”The Onomastic playbook, The Veil
This is all you get by way of a “racial background,” which means there was a lot of room for me to make it my own as I built the character and chose my move set. There were a couple religiously oriented playbooks, but this one spoke to me strongly as a Jew—a golden age of knowledge becomes persecution leading pogroms, sound familiar? From this blurb I created the following to present to my GM.
The “True Name” power became Jewish study to the extreme, to the point where individuals who reach a certain level of study become able to impact the world at a metaphysical level simply by spoken word/prayer/argument/discussion. Chava became the sole survivor of her Yeshiva following a pogrom, not the sole survivor of the Jewish people. The Iconoclasts aren’t any particular group, they are the embodiment of antisemitism and Jewish scapegoating throughout history. The last Cybertome, is some, as yet undecided, important Jewish artifact. My GM was kind enough to to set up a whole calendar system for me to layer the Jewish calendar against, but it’s on me to develop what the evolution of Judaism in space has been. Queue Mel Brooks’ “Jews in Space” theme.
Things aren’t quite so malleable with something like D&D, especially if you’re not homebrewing everything from scratch. But all is not lost, there’s plenty you can do within the existing framework. Here are my standard changes:
- Golems are now constructs unless you want to to have a campaign specifically involving an actual Jewish golem. This is also just good advice in general, a “flesh golem” isn’t a golem in anyway, that’s a Frankenstein’s monster, excuse me, Mordenheim’s monster.
- Stick that new religious system in there. This will take some homebrewing, but Judaism emerged into a world of pantheistic religions, you can definitely create a fantasy!Judaism the same way I developed my future-space!Judaism.
- Create your own sub-realm/country/village within the D&D world for your campaign to take place in.
I’ve been developing my own Jewish realm using the framework presented in “Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel,” which was released by Wizards of the Coast earlier this year. “Radiant Citadel” is a collection of adventures accompanied by new realms and cultures all written by authors of color. It represented a massive increase of diversity into D&D canon and was also a step in the right direction in apologizing for previously racist depictions of people of color. The new realms are all individual and unconnected to a larger world (and can therefore be inserted anywhere) and come together through the central radiant citadel. Beyond that, there are missing realms, ie, an invitation to create your own, and crystal animal constructs that represent each realm.
What a perfect place to drop a Jewish community. They could be represented by a crystal golem and the realm could be anything from fantasy!Israel to literally any Jewish diaspora community. If you’re looking to really Jew up a D&D game, I would investigate this as a possible jumping off point.
For all of these things, “Jewish Inspiration for Worldbuilding and Adventuring” from Doikayt would probably be an incredibly helpful resource, both for GMs and for players. To players I would say, if you want to incorporate Judaism into your characters talk to your GM, and they can help you incorporate that into the game. My GM in our game of The Veil has been incredibly supportive of my bringing a Jewish character into their world.
To gentiles wanting to play Jewish characters, I would say, tread carefully, learn what makes an antisemitic stereotype, particularly in the realm of fantasy gaming, and above all be respectful. Both “Doikayt” and “Radiant Citadel” have advice for playing characters from cultures other than your own.
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2 thoughts on “Jewish Role Playing Games, Take 2”
[…] The Veil, a cyberpunk world where life has become filtered through a digital “veil,” think constant VR overlay/Google glasses. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing it with a group of friends. I talk a bit about my character building process in my post on Jewish roleplaying games. […]
[…] of color and written by people from those backgrounds. I’ve talked about this book before here, but at the time I had only read the set up and introduction to the book and the citadel itself and […]