In the 2010 article “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,” Michael Weingrad made the claim that there is no “Jewish fantasy.” While I am sure there was some Jewish fantasy then and there is certainly more now, Weingrad made me wonder what my take on Jewish fantasy would be. How would the world feel different? How would the values differ? What is the core of the Jewish experience I would want to incorporate? Rather than fantasy combat and conquest, could a Jewish approach center other values, such as healing and community?
During the height of the pandemic, I started exploring that question with some wonderful collaborators through Society of Rafa, a tabletop role-playing game. For those who do not know, tabletop role-playing games are essentially ways of collaboratively telling stories around a table or online, with help from some rules and dice to help build suspense. Dungeons & Dragons is the most well-known game in the genre.
So, what would I bring into a Jewish role-playing game? At its very core, Judaism is about tikkun olam, repairing this world. As Jews, we grapple with moral complexity and revel in spirited discussions about how to live well. Our folklore also tends to take place within a community rather than just focus on the hero’s journey.
In Society of Rafa, we found that leveraging Judaism’s unique approach to moral decision-making was our secret recipe for creating an engaging and meaningful game. In Society of Rafa, you play as Rafas, healers, charged with caring for the health of your community and keeping peace with the local spirits.
Each Society of Rafa scenario centers a moral dilemma that players need to solve in collaboration with their patients and/or the local spirits. Playing the game often feels like playing a Jewish folktale. Sometimes there are conflicting needs between villagers and spirits. Other times a patient’s beliefs conflict with their medical needs.
We found that centering open-ended moral dilemmas makes the game deeply satisfying to play. Even after testing the same scenario with multiple groups, I tear up at the end of each session. Each Rafa Circle finds a new and heartfelt way to solve the dilemma.
One Jewish beta tester said the game felt like home. A player in the process of conversion said the game was the wish fulfillment they yearned for. Non-Jewish players also had fun engaging in its freedom and richness.
One beta tester wrote: “[I enjoyed] getting to luxuriate in the world you’ve created: the kindness and simple, human connection within the adventure and between the characters. The kind of specific agency player characters have.”
Often Jewish allegories in fantasy (often written by non-Jews) focus on our exile and persecution or even antisemitic tropes. There are so few depictions in any popular medium of Jewish joy. Our communities care for each other. Our rituals and traditions are methods of coming together, reflecting and improving ourselves. Therefore, we built out a fantasy calendar inspired by Jewish holidays that are different enough that non-Jewish players can fully immerse themselves in the world without worrying about appropriation.
We also broke some stereotypes from the Jewish community, such as de-centering Ashkenazi culture to create a new fantasy culture that combines Jewish cultures from around the world. These include Beta Israel Deberta healers, “Little Jerusalem” in Pitigliano, Italy, shtetl political structures and Sephardi and Mizrachi food culture. As queer creators, we also included the Jewish genders in character creation (we included six instead of eight for simplicity).
The game’s setting correlates to the era of Jewish emancipation, Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) and early- to mid-industrialization. This allows for stories about what it means to be a Jew or other minority in the modern world and environmentalism. We also did not want to skirt from the darkness. The game also incorporates allegories for the darker sides of Jewish history, such as the Spanish Inquisition and pograms.
It was also really fun delving into the oft-forgotten corners of Jewish folklore. While we included dybbuks (ghosts who posess a person), we also brought in lantukhs, demons with long tongues and chicken feet. In fact, we wrote a diegetic “Book of Spirits” for players to reference and add to. It’s written much in the spirit of the Talmud with additional commentary being added over time.
In many ways, Society of Rafa became a philosophical treatise, expression of Jewish pride and, at its core, a fun game we are excited to share.
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