When Torah and RPGs Converge

One of the best parts of being a rabbi is working with young people as they approach their B.Mitzvah celebration, which involves taking part in a Shabbat evening and/or morning service (leading one or more parts of the service). What this means is that as part of become a Bar Mitzvah (at age 13 for boys) or Bat Mitzvah (at age 12 for girls), at least when in my congregation, one of the things that young people do is to meet with me every other week beginning about three months before the date of the celebration itself. The main thing that we do together to look at the Torah portion assigned to that particular Saturday morning.

We read those chapters from the Five Books of Moses for that week (usually section between 3-5 chapters long), seek to understand what it says, what it means, and hopefully what it means to them personally. We look at the Torah itself, and then we look at commentaries both classic and modern to see what others have said about the same chapters and verses over the centuries. Then, with my guidance, they take all of this and write what is called a D’var Torah (literally ‘a word of Torah’), a short teaching for the congregation about some aspect of the Torah portion that they can relate to. Most students use a straightforward outline that I have found that works for most kids. It asks them to begin with a personal anecdote that ties into their big idea, moves into a summary of the Torah portion, zooms in on the aspect that they have found personally engaging (or engaging enough), raise questions about that aspect, share insights from commentaries, and then end with their own take on it and put a challenge to the congregation as the finale. This works for most kids.

Then there are occasionally kids who I sense can do something very different. Most of them decline, but every now and then one of them agrees to do something very different.       That something different is bibliodrama, an emergent mode of interpreting the Torah that seeks out moments in the Torah’s narrative, opens them out, and invites people to step in from that perspective for a little while. This method of Torah interpretation was developed by Peter Pitzele several years ago and published in his book Scripture Windows, which you can get on Amazon.com.

Bibliodrama essentially is a kind of improvisational game, with rules and limits like any other game. There is a facilitator who has developed the experience, chosen the biblical texts for the bibliodramatic exercise, and frames the bibliodrama for the gathered crowd. They read the surrounding narrative, identify the moment in the narrative’s drama, identify the role that they want people to step into, ask one or two questions to guide their interpretation, and then…interpretations emerge. The next rule is that stepping into role is voluntary. No one has to raise their hand and step into role. The third rule is that when someone does step into the role, they must stay in the first person perspective of that character, speaking only in I statements. The facilitator’s role is to listen to the people stepping into role, echo back what they hear, guide them to dig a little deeper, see what different understanding of the biblical text emerges from the one person, and then move on to the next person, never staying with one person too long.

I have been learning about this method, practicing it, watching others do it for almost 20 years now. Recently, with my renewed interest in games, I have come to realize that bibliodrama one type of a role playing game (RPG), with a GM (the facilitator), role players (those who chose to step into a role), and an audience (people who are not in role at that moment or who do not choose to step into a role, but may be very engaged in their observation of the game). Bibliodrama asks people to step into a Magic Circle, within the borders of which the game makers perfect sense. One challenge the facilitator often faces is getting people to stay in the first person and not to comment from the outside as it were. Like an RPG, there a scenes, moments in those scenes, a series of scenes that can form one long scenario, and one could even imagine doing this over such a long period of time that a series of bibliodramatic session could even share traits with an RPG campaign, something that I am familiar with from my youth.

When I was in 5-7th grade, I played my shared of Dungeons and Dragons with the other boys from my neighborhood or my school. I loved the fantasy setting, the mythology, the character creation, and so on. But after a while, D&D for whatever reason stopped floating by boat. In the junior high and high school, I dabbled in the Marvel RPG for a while, mostly enjoying the character creation aspect and the collaborative storytelling dimension. And that faded too. Then a couple of weeks ago, I was watching Will Wheaton’s Table Top on YouTube, and they were playing an RPG called Fate Core, which is an RPG system that enables a GM and players to collaboratively create characters, a setting, and a campaign into which they can immerse themselves. I found Fate Core to be a lot less fidgety than D&D was in my memory, and more collaborative as well. I downloaded the PDFs, and began reading. Then I ordered the hard cover book and a set of Fate Dice, and kept on reading. I think that this might be the RPG system that I have been waiting for all my life, but did not know that I was even waiting for.

The first aspect of Fate Core that I find so cool is the way that character are created, which is my defining their aspects (a high concept, an aspect that causes them trouble, etc.), their skills (which vary in ability and strength) and their relationships to the other characters and their world setting. I like that it not at all based on rolling dice and generating a bunch of numbers, but rather far more narrative based. Which leads me back to one of my unusual B.Mitzvah kids.

Yesterday, I was meeting with one such kid, who I knew did role playing games and wrote fan fiction and so on. Not surprisingly, she had agreed to take on the task of doing a bibliodrama based D’var Torah. What does that mean? It means that we found a moment in the Torah portion that contained in it an element of drama, an important choice to be made, an obstacle to be overcome. It means that we created a young person to inhabit that moment and gave my student the task of giving voice to that character in that moment. When we sat down yesterday, she had written just an opening to the longer piece, and then claimed she had writer’s block. Fine. I can work with that. We read through what she had thus far, which was good. It was evocative, engaging, began to establish the character, but needed more. It hit me that Fate Core’s characters creation method was going to help us out.

We had our setting clearly in mind, which was an incident of rebellion during Israel’s time in the Wilderness of Sinai. But who is this young person? What are their aspects? We began to write down more about the character, to get a more three-dimensional sense of them. What are his skills? Which are the stronger skills or the weaker skills? The character came even more clearly into focus. What is the obstacle that this kid is trying to overcome? Now we had the challenge defined. What are the major moments that this character has to deal with for this challenge? Where is this piece going to end?

Drawing upon both the bibliodramatic format and the Fate Core RPG character development method, I was able to help this great kid delve deeply into aspect of her Torah portion, discover the story of a young person in that setting who had a real dilemma in front of him, reveal a more personal understanding of this episode in Israel’s past, and show us that this young person’s challenge reveals so much truth, both universal truth and personal truth, that is blew me away.

This is not the first time that I have found that my interest in games of many kinds has informed my understanding of Judaism, Torah, and specifically Jewish ritual and liturgy. I heard that Steve Jackson has said that all games are role playing games. Role Playing Games are also a form of theater, which is also where you find the category of Liturgy, which means that all religious liturgy and ritual are in a very real sense role playing games. Learning this young person’s Torah portion and bringing into how we were interpreting it our love of games made this even clearer.

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