Today’s guest article is by Haggai Elkayam and is a reworking of an article originally published in Hebrew on Play in Theory. It talks about a style of play found in the Israeli RPG scene. – John
In the last year, the Israeli RPG scene has started to define a unique, local genre of one-shots, which we have come to call “Israeli Tabletop” (by analogy with Nordic LARP or American Freeform). Although the genre started developing almost twenty years ago, and dominated our conventions for many years, we have only recently started defining it and what makes it unique compared to more conventional one-shots.
The definition is still a work in progress, but thus far we’ve defined Israeli Tabletop games as:
- Designed entirely around a specific, well-defined emotional experience.
- Involving a high level of GM authority and control around the table, which extends to every part of running the game – from the choice of words in the teaser and the rhythm of speech during descriptions to the arrangement of the players’ chairs around the table (we call this “Total GMing”).
- Avoiding the use of established systems, preferring either complete freeform with GM fiat or tailor-made systems.
The easiest way to demonstrate what makes Israeli Tabletop unique is by comparison, and here, I’ll compare top-notch, widely acclaimed Delta Green scenarios with a widely known and celebrated Israeli Delta Green one-shot.
The games are Dennis Detwiller’s Night Floors (1999, now freely available online), Greg Stolze’s The Star Chamber (2016, available for purchase), and the Israeli Tabletop game The Killing Times, written by Yossi Gurvitz in 1998 and later reworked by Gil Ran (still not available in English, forthcoming in Hebrew as part of “The Classics Collection, Volume 2” in 2017). Warning: I am going to spoil Night Floors and The Killing Times in a major way, but I’ll try to keep the more recent Star Chamber mostly spoiler-free for those of you who haven’t tried it yet.
Dennis Detwiller’s Night Floors – The Facts Speak for Themselves
In this scenario, the investigators are trying to locate a missing artist, an investigation which takes them into a building overtaken by the King in Yellow, and involves conversations with other residents, gathering physical evidence, and exploration of the building by day and by night.
This is a very intriguing scenario. The background is interesting and creepy, the characters are well-written and fully developed, and the evidence is complex – all of which make for a scenario that will easily draw players into the case. However, the game isn’t written with a set ending in mind. The scenario does not have a defined structure; it is built as a case file – a detailed list of facts, people and locations for the characters to interact with. This means the game’s development and ending will vary wildly from game to game – in one the investigators may end up burning down the entire building and covering it up, while in another they may run away to preserve their own sanity and try to pretend nothing happened.
This is not necessarily a downside; it is the way that many investigation games, including most of the best Delta Green scenarios, are written. As far as investigation scenarios go, this one is tighter and more interesting than most. But the GM’s control of the game, and his ability to create a focused experience, is limited by this lack of structure.
The GM in this game is the classic “participant playing the world and everyone besides the PCs”. The players will say where their characters are going, and the GM will describe what they see; they’ll say what they are doing, and the GM will describe what happens in response. Around the table, much of the interaction will be a mix of in-character and out-of-character conversation about how the various puzzle pieces fit together – a pattern I encountered many times when listening to actual play recordings of Delta Green. In other words, Night Floors is an exemplary implementation of the classic investigation scenario.
Now, let’s take a look at another common way to write investigation scenarios, which creates a more streamlined one-shot, with a clear beginning, middle and ending.
Greg Stolze’s The Star Chamber – A Succession of Scenes
The Star Chamber is described as a scenario in which “Delta Green agents must untangle conflicting narratives from a mission that went very wrong”, with Greg Stolze calling it “Delta Green meets Rashomon”. I was excited to try out this scenario since the day I heard about it, and luckily managed to take part in its playtest process. Since it has been less than six months since its release, I will try not to spoil any details and instead talk about the structure of the game.
This scenario is very different from Detwiller’s. There is no list of facts, NPCs, or locations. Instead, we get a fully-structured list of nine scenes. In addition, this is not exactly an investigation – the players play both the debriefing team trying to figure out what happened in a failed operation and the team being debriefed, alternating between the two perspectives.
This is a fascinating scenario: it has well-developed characters, involved in interesting events, creating a story of a botched operation. And, importantly for our comparison, it has a clear beginning and ending. However, when running the game, I found that I had expected a very different scenario from the one I got. I expected a game in which the players work through an unreliable narrative with different points of view, trying to separate truth from fiction. What I got was a scenario in which the characters do so, but the players experience no uncertainty as to what actually happened.
This is a distinction we make a lot in Israeli Tabletop – it is the theoretical basis of the genre, and, we believe, of all roleplaying games. The most essential part of a roleplaying game is not what the characters are experiencing – but rather what the players are experiencing. So the fundamental question in one-shot design for us is “what do the players do in the game”. In The Star Chamber, the players are basically reenacting an operation gone wrong – and since they are playing the events the debriefing team is investigating, they don’t experience any uncertainty. The debriefing team is uncertain about what happened – but the players are not.
This isn’t a fault in the game, of course. It was a little disappointing for me, in a way, because of my own expectations, but the game doesn’t attempt to instill a feeling of uncertainty in the players – it successfully focuses on creating an interesting story about how different people can experience similar events very differently.
So, how do we approach this sort of scenario design differently in Israeli Tabletop? Let’s look the The Killing Times.
Yossi Gurvitz and Gil Ran’s The Killing Times
This is an Israeli classic, running in local conventions for more than 15 years now. It is a game about soldiers from GRU-SV8 – Soviet Russia’s equivalent of Delta Green – during the purges of 1938. The written scenario specifies its goals at the beginning of the text as producing (1) a strong sense of social stratification, and (2) a feeling of paranoia.
These goals are defined in terms of how the players are meant to feel while playing the game, and much of the game’s text is focused on GM actions which are designed to achieve this goal. Let’s see some examples:
- The text instructs the GM to “never portray any NPC in the same social status as the PCs”, in order to focus the experience on social stratification, despite the fact that the characters are interacting with these NPCs in some scenes.
- The GM is instructed to establish secrecy (and thus promote paranoia) by creating a norm which dictates that the players use secret notes to communicate with the GM and each other – even, in some cases, when dealing with information the characters will not necessarily hide.
- When dealing characters, the GM is instructed to find out whether there are two players interested in playing the operation’s commander. If this is the case, one of them should be assigned to play the commander, and the other assigned to play the mole. This turns a conflict between the characters into a conflict between the players.
These sort of instructions for the GM make up almost a third of the written text. The game still presents scenes and events, but the focus in each event is not on the things that actually happen – but on the way these things are meant to make the players feel, and how the GM should run the game in order to make it work.
One scene which makes a great example is a scene on a train from Moscow to Archangelsk – the operation’s destination. The GM is told how to use the scene in order to make the players feel what it’s like to be in the Stalinist USSR, using, among other things, the NPCs’ reactions to the PCs: all NPCs of lower social status obey completely, all those of higher status are intimidating. This scene does not drive the narrative forward; it has no effect on the outcome of the operation; in most games the GM would be advised to skip it (especially when facing a time limit of 4 or so hours in a convention game). But it is critical to the game – if the GM fails to make it work, it might make the whole game ineffective, since the focus of the game is not on the facts or on the story, but on the emotional experience of the players.
My experience as a player in The Killing Times was completely different from any of the other Delta Green games I have played, GMed, or even listened to on various podcasts – and different from most other one-shots I’ve played. It was more intense and more engaging, regardless of the narrative of the game. This difference stems from the way the scenario instructs the GM to act and to manipulate the players (in the positive sense of word) – instructions that relate more to the real world and the players around the table than to the fictional world and the characters in it.
Conclusion: How Israeli Tabletop Is Different
I hope I managed to demonstrate what makes Israeli Tabletop unique. The Killing Times is a great scenario, but many other well known Israeli Tabletop games work the same way:
- In Somewhere in the Jungle by Michael Pevzner, the GM’s goal is to drive the players to conflict with each other, and he is instructed to pay close attention to any conflicts and arguments that occur around the table and to the players’ relative social status, and build upon that to bring the conflict – in-character, of course – to a peak.
- In Game for Five GMs and Cello by Michael Gorodin, the GM delegates his authority to describe the world to the players, limiting himself to playing a single NPC. Yet, despite giving away his control of the world, the written game supplies him with the tools to remain in complete control of the game through that single NPC, thus making the players feel the conflict between control (in being able to decide what the game world looks like) and lack of it (in being unable to change the fate of their characters).
I hope the Israeli scene will be able to make these games, along with the theory behind them, available for English-speaking audiences. For now, I just wanted to show people abroad how our theory and practice may differ from what happens in other countries. Of course, we in the Israeli scene would love to hear back from you – so tell us what you think, in the comments below or by email. And if you want to to try Israeli Tabletop, you are welcome to attend the Israeli Bigor convention, held on April 5-6.
(The article was originally published in Hebrew on Play in Theory, and was translated and edited with the assistance of several Israeli Tabletop authors and theorists: Yotam Ben Moshe, Michael Pevzner, Amit Wertheimer, Michael Gorodin, Gil Ran, and Adi Elkin.)