Jewish Role Playing Games, Take 2

Hanukkah sameach!

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.

Continue reading “Jewish Role Playing Games, Take 2”

Disability in Season 3 of the BBC’s Musketeers

Promotional poster for season three of The Musketeers. The four main characters stand in the foreground. They are from left to right: Athos (Tom Burke), Aramis (Santiago Cabrera), D'Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino), and Porthos (Howard Charles)

So I’ve been watching a lot of Musketeers recently, specifically season three. It’s a good season, and I’m a particular fan of the primary antagonist of the season, Lucien Grimaud (Matthew McNulty). However, I have noticed a repeating trend with the other antagonists of the season that is rather troubling, namely, many of them are disabled and play heavily into the “Evil Cripple” trope, which is described by TV Tropes as “rooted in eugenics-based ideas linking disability or other physical deformities with a ‘natural’ predisposition toward madness, criminality, vice, etc.” This is most apparent in the character of the Marquis de Feron (Rupert Everett). 

The half brother of King Louis XIII (Ryan Gage), Feron suffers from what appears to be some sort of degenerative bone disease, and is frequently seen using a cane and having difficulty walking. For the first six episodes of the season, Feron is a co-lead antagonist alongside Grimaud, devising plans and using Grimaud and the Red Guard to carry them out. He’s also portrayed as addicted to opium, which he takes to manage the pain of his chronic illness; in debt and constantly after money; and perfectly willing to commit murder and bear gleeful witness to wanton violence. He is portrayed as wholly unsympathetic, whereas the narrative goes out of its way to let us in on Grimaud’s tragic backstory, which in turn, garners sympathy for the character. Feron is given none of this, and even his crisis of conscious at the end does not come with a full change of heart.

Another antagonist, a one off character named Bastien (Harry Melling) in episode seven, “Fool’s Gold,” plays into both the “Evil Cripple” trope and the trope of a character pretending to be disabled to be perceived as helpless and unassuming. Bastien is a criminal who was recruited into the French army, but then deserted. He and a group of others had stashed gold in the area where a group of women had built up a small settlement in an effort to escape the brutality of the soldiers passing through their old village. He plays the part of a man with a leg injury in need of rescue to be brought into the women’s village and uses his position from the inside to allow his friends to come in and raid the camp. When we see him on his own and after he’s been exposed, he does not have the limp that we see him with initially. 

Even more insidious is the treatment of the character Borel (Stephen Walters) in episode five, “To Play the King.” Borel is a prisoner in the Chatelet who is severely mentally ill. Borel has what is likely meant to be dissociative identity disorder or some other form of psychosis that leads to delusions of grandeur. As you may be able to guess from the title, Borel believes himself to be the King. There is an attempt made at a “this man is ill, he should not be in a prison”  story line, but it falls flat because, ultimately, Borel is the subplot antagonist of the episode and we are told under no uncertain terms that while Borel may seem helpless, he is also very dangerous and a murderer.

D’Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino), not wanting to send an ill man back to prison, leaves Borel at a convent, which leads to the murder of several nuns, a guard and ultimately an attack on Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling). While the episode does fit into the season’s overarching theme of tension between the royal duties of the musketeers and their duties to the people of Paris, with D’Artagnan saying at the end “Why do I feel like I’m fighting for the wrong side?” the whole subplot leaves a sour taste in my mouth. 

Frankly, it almost feels worse that they teased the potential for the trope to be subverted. If they had let the Borel plot line end with D’Artagnan helping him and leaving him at the convent and with something good coming out of that, it could have been really good, and they could have put additional focus on the primary plot of the episode, which I do think could have used more time instead of trying to balance it equally with the Borel plot. I was actually really exciting the first time I  watched “To Play the King,” because it seemed that the mental illness plot line was going to be resolved well, which made it even more of a gut punch when they turned it right back around and ran head first into to the mentally ill murderer trope. 

As comes up time and time again with the way mental illness is portrayed in the media, people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. A 2017 post on gun violence and mental health from Joel Miller of the American Mental Health Counselors Association notes that, “rates of violent crime victimization are 12 times higher among the population of persons with serious mental illness than among the overall U.S. population.” So no, I really don’t care what the show runners tried to do with that plot line, they used a tired and harmful trope and if they were trying to subvert it they failed. 

Lastly I want to talk about Annabelle (Naomi Radcliffe). She is not an antagonist, but she is another disabled character who gets treated rather poorly. Also in episode five, “To Play the King,” she is involved in the primary plot; a riot has been incited within the prison and the prisoners allowed to escape because Grimaud and Feron have plotted to break into the King’s gold reserves in the vault under the prison. Her husband Joubert (Ian McKee) was the locksmith who designed the vault door and is now in prison because he fell into debt. Annabelle, who is blind, is taken as hostage motivation for Joubert to break into the vault he designed. 

Despite the fact that the plot hinges on Annabelle telling Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) and Constance (Tamla Kari) that she believes they went after her because of her husband, which leads to them realizing that there is a plot to do with the royal vault, Annabelle is given very little agency. It is indicated briefly that she is good at identifying her surroundings; she recognizes Constance by the smell of her clothes and can tell Constance and Aramis confidently that the man who took her was not an escaped convict, but was well off because he had fur cuffs and rings on his hands. So I have to ask myself, why was she written blind? A seeing character could have filled that role to much the same effect. Was it necessary for this character, who’s only function in the show was to be a victim, to be blind? Or was it done just to add another layer of perceived helplessness to an already victimized character?

Now, I enjoy Musketeers. Its overall a fun show, bolstered by the fact that three of the four leads are men of color and there are some really strong, multi-faceted female characters, but it’s hardly perfect, and the things I’ve mentioned above can be deal breakers for many, many people. I have friends who I know would say, “No I won’t watch this show at all” because of the mental illness subplot in “To Play a King.” Media does not exist in a vacuum, and it’s important to recognize, even in media you enjoy, where things go wrong.

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Role Playing Games with Dreidels

Six d20 dice, with Hebrew letters, gimmel, nun, hay and shin. Three a  blue green mix with gold lettering and three white with black lettering.

Coming up on this past Hanukkah, I purchased some lovely dreidels from Ritualwell. Well, they are dreidels in the sense that they have all the proper Hebrew characters on them, but instead of the spinning top that we all know and love, they took the shape of a d20.

As a nerd, I fell in love as soon as I saw these beauties. Unfortunately, they were out of stock when I placed my order and the store said they were unlikely to arrive by Hanukkah, but then a miracle occurred and they were back in stock sooner than expected. I would be able to spend my Hanukkah playing dreidel with my roommate… using all of my other dice in place of gelt. 

After I received my purchase I was immediately struck by a thought. “In d20 form or in top form, I bet you could make a really cool role playing game using a dreidel. They’re basically just sexier d4s after all.” So off I went to search the internet for dreidel based RPGs.

From The Contemporary Quioxtist, we have a very simple easy to play game that is open ended in it’s story telling. Your character has skill ratings between 1 and 3, which dictates how many dreidel’s they will spin/dice they will roll and a pool of coins to dictate actions. The traditional rules are slightly modified to allow for game mechanics. Shin(add a coin to the pot), a total failure and you lose something; nun (you take nothing) a marginal failure, you fail, but lose nothing; hay (take half) is a moderate success; and gimmel (take everything), naturally is a complete success. 

Next, from Dan Siskin, we have “Maccabees,” a board game centered on the historic event behind Hanukkah. The goal is to lead a band of Maccabees to acquire the oil to light the hanukkiah, while fighting back the remaining foes. This one does cost money, but it certainly looks like a fun game.

Another specifically holiday themed game is “Maccabees and Menorahs.” The rules for rolling/spinning are very similar to the game by the Quioxtist, but this game includes characters created from a set of Jewish values and eight specific sessions that take you through the game, one session for each night of Hanukkah. This has the added advantage of being free and the rules are readily available online.

Image of the Macabees and Menorah's rules. Not high enough quality to read most of the text.

I’m sure there are other games that exist, but these were the first three I found in my searches. There’s also nothing to say you can’t make your own dreidel based RPG, especially if you’re like me and constantly hungry for new RPGs to try. Maybe I’ll make that a project for myself this year, design a dreidel based RPG by next Hanukkah. 

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Fusion FanFiction: Combining Two Canons

Two book covers placed next to each other "Solaris" by Stanislaw Lem and "Hunter x Hunter Volume 1" by Yoshihiro Togari.

Fusion when it comes to fanfiction, isn’t quite the same as an alternate universe fanfiction. There is definitely overlap, but what makes fusion different from a run of the mill alternate universe fic, be it a mermaid AU or a canon divergence everybody lives AU, is that it’s combining more than one canon. The case I want to discuss below, combines the canons of “Hunter x Hunter” by Yoshihiro Togashi and “Solaris” by Stanislaw Lem. 

“Solaris” is a science fiction novel that takes place on an alien planet, where there is this “living ocean” that is baffling scientists exists. This setting has been taken and fused into the world of Hunter x Hunter in the fanfiction “At the End of Everything” by patxaran on Archive of Our Own. 

Now it’s important to note that fusion doesn’t necessarily mean crossover. A crossover is a kind of fusion, but it’s not the kind of fusion employed in “At the End of Everything.” In “At the End of Everything,” it is the setting and elements of the plot that have been transposed onto the characters of Kurapika and Leorio. The setting, an alien planet and ocean in “Solaris,” becomes an isolated basin with a Lake Solaris in the fanfiction. There is a research base, with similarly odd and stressed scientists. There are unknown beings that have been created by the environment of the lake.

There is also no fictional science dumping in “At the End of Everything.” As I listened to the audiobook of “Solaris,” I kept getting distracted and missing things when it came to the long discussions of the fictional science surrounding the mysteries of the ocean. It’s something I found very reminiscent of “The Martian.” However, Kurapika is not a scientist and as he is the primary protagonist we don’t get the same science dumping that we get in the canon of “Solaris.” 

“At the End of Everything” is not finished as of my writing this and I don’t know how “Solaris” is going to end either as I haven’t finished it yet, but I am curious as to how both will pan out and how similar and different they are going to be.

However, “At the End of Everything” is perfectly enjoyable without any prior knowledge of “Solaris.” I had not even heard of “Solaris” until I began reading the fanfiction and it wasn’t until roughly 13/14 chapters that I sought out an English translation of “Solaris” to read. 

“Solaris” is certainly a bit dated and heterosexual, if you’d like to avoid that maybe just stick with “At the End of Everything.” At the same time, if you’re not into Hunter x Hunter, but like science fiction, “Solaris” is very fascinating. 

“At the End of Everything” can be found on Ao3 and the new English translation of “Solaris” can be found on Amazon. I would recommend either the ebook or audiobook as there is no hard copy of the new translation, and I have heard that the old English translation is subpar.

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Approaching Judaism as a Queer Trans Man

A Rainbow Thread by Noam Sienna

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with religions. One that has been inherently distrustful even before I realized I was a queer trans man. Yet something about a higher power and the magic of religion has always fascinated me. I wasn’t raised religious, except in the vague Christian-normative way most secular families are. Christmas might not have been a “religious” holiday for my family, but it’s still a religious holiday underneath. You’d be hard pressed to find a wholly secular “Christmas” holiday, though the McElroys’ Candlenights does try its best, it’s ultimately pan-religious rather than secular.

Despite the fact that I wasn’t raised religious, religion was always an option. My mom, an ex-Catholic and religious history and comparative religion double major, made it very clear that religion was an option, should I ever want to pursue it. As a result, I had Hanukkah books and Kwanza books alongside my Christmas books, ate latkes and knew how to play dreidel, but also sang Christmas carols and got a new Christmas ornament every year. I also remember spending at least one holiday with a Jewish friend when I was in kindergarten or first grade, though I could not for the life of me tell you what holiday it was.

Torah Queeries edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser and David Shneer

After briefly looking into what conversion would mean when I was in college, I didn’t actually make the decision to look into converting formally until I moved away from home. Approaching Judaism is not easy, it’s a journey, but it’s one I feel prepared to make, due to the fact I’ve made a similarly massive transition before with my gender. Just like with gender transition, converting to Judaism isn’t a massive change in my worldview, it’s just a change in how I approach the world. 

That said, just because Judaism is what feels right to me doesn’t mean that it’s still not easy to grapple with the historical stigma that chases queer and trans people wherever they go. Noam Sienna’s “A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” presents an incredible historical record, but it’s also one that isn’t wholly happy. In between loving homoerotic poems and stories, you also have first hand records documenting the persecution of queer people in history. While court or arrest records are sometimes the only historical documents that remain of queer presence, it doesn’t make it any less challenging to read them, especially when they come from a religion you are looking to join.

Balancing on the Mechitza edited by Noach Dzmura

However, the way Judaism has evolved into it’s various branches means that the Judaism of then is not the Judaism of now and there is absolutely space in Judaism for queer people. This is made apparent through the existence of books like “A Rainbow Thread” and “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible,” as well as through the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which is a congregation in New York City that is explicitly for the LGBTQ community.

One other book that I have found particularly important in twining my conversion and gender together is “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community,” edited by Noach Dzmura. It’s designed with a readership of transgender people in mind and as a result is an indescribably cathartic read. Some might find the terminology dated, because the book is almost ten years old at this point and many of the authors writing are older, but that doesn’t detract from the messages that the book brings.

If you’re interested in pursuing something that isn’t Judaism. Some other books I would recommend are:

  1. “Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality & Black Magic in Brazil” by Kelley E. Hayes, which “examines the intersections of social marginality, morality, and magic in contemporary Brazil by analyzing the beliefs and religious practices related to the Afro-Brazilian spirit entity Pomba Gira.” Pomba Gira being a figure who has been linked with trans women and gay men, which if memory serves is either talked about on in the book or in the accompanying DVD, “Slaves of the Saints.” 
  2. “In from the Wilderness – Sherman: She-r-man” by David E. Weekly. “In from the Wilderness” is a memoir, that details Weekly’s life as a transgender man holding religious office in the Methodist Church. 
  3. “Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach” by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. I haven’t read this myself, but I have heard very good things about it. It seems to be a more Christian approach, but I can’t tell if it’s geared toward any one specific denomination.

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Introducing Earring Magic Ken! He’s wearing a what as a necklace?

Last month, after a week of bidding I acquired one Earring Magic Ken doll. Mattel’s best selling Ken doll.


I know what you might be thinking. Thomas you are an adult, why on earth are you buying a Ken doll? And moreover why is that relevant to your blog?

Disregarding the fact, that I still have several Barbies from when I was a young lass. Earring Magic Ken is special, because he was inadvertently designed off of queer rave fashion of the early 1990s. Specifically, he’s wearing a cock ring as a necklace, which was a known queer fashion statement at the time.

Earring Magic Ken

After reaching out to their audience of young children Mattel learned they would like a new Ken doll to be cooler and more hip. So they went out looking for what was cool and as it happened the queer fashion worming its way into the mainstream was what they picked up as cool. Columnist Dan Savage wrote an article in 1993, the year the doll came out, detailing a really excellent explanation of what was going on. I would highly recommend it as reading for anyone interested in learning more. 

“Cock rings exploded (ouch!)—as vest zipper pulls, as key rings, as bracelets; rubber ones, leather ones, chain ones. But the thick chrome variety, the Classic Coke of cock rings, was and is most often worn as a pendant,” (Savage).

In 2017, Savage said in an article by Bryan Young, that he thought the “Earring Magic Ken incident [was] more of an amusing cultural blip than some kind of important moment, noting that neither the doll nor the hubbub is well-known today,” and that he didn’t think that a gay man under 40 would know about it. Well, it’s 2019 and I’m 25, so here we are. 

Now I’m a queer historian so I am well aware that I’m an outlier here, because I seek out this kind of stuff. However, I discovered Earring Magic Ken through a decently popular post on Tumblr. A post which currently has over 270,000 notes. That’s no small amount of people and I’m sure many of them, like myself, are on the younger side of things. With projects like Making Queer History and books like “Queer, There and Everywhere” emerging, younger members of the LGBTQ community are getting more and more access to their history. As a result, fascinating tidbits like Earring Magic Ken are resurfacing. 

The Tumblr post does admittedly have some misinformation attached to it. There’s a reblog that says that there was no corresponding Barbie for Earring Magic Ken. There were two actually, a blonde and a brunette Barbie as well as a Midge doll, they just didn’t sell particularly well opposite Ken, who flew off the shelves. 

Below, I have linked two different iterations of the Tumblr post, as well as a link to the Dan Savage article, the Bryan Young article and a few others. 

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Tumblr Post:

Tumblr Post (the one with the bit of misinformation): 

Dan Savage article:

Bryan Young article:

Pride article:

The Man Behind the Doll article: