How One Rabbi Uses Roleplaying Games to Build Community

Spirituality is only one tool in this community leader’s toolkit for bringing people closer together. Character sheets are another. WIRED, 01.21.2021.

AT HIS BAR Mitzvah in his Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue, Rabbi Menachem Cohen hoped to be saved. “I was waiting for God to plunk me on the head and take me on a spiritual trip. A spiritual acid trip, without ever taking acid,” he says.

It never happened. Many of us, especially in our pandemic-induced exiles, hope to be pulled away on a hero’s journey, the term coined and explored by the literary scholar Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The arc fits into many media, from books to popular films. According to Campbell, the myth is that the “hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

We all want to be the person elected to go out and slay the dragon. Unfortunately, we are relegated to our humdrum work lives.

Cohen started playing Dungeons & Dragons at age 10. After his coming of age ceremony, Cohen was hoping to be called away the same way a hero would. “I was playing D&D and was interested in Big Magic. Fireballs, teleporting, flying, psychedelic spiritual journeys.” But his coming of age ceremony was less than magical. “I read from the Torah and made mistakes and no one noticed.” The ritual consisted of parties and monetary gifts.

He strayed somewhat from Judaism after that, seeking but not finding in religion the magic he found instead in role-playing games.

After years away from home, he returned to his home city of Chicago in 1994, pulling up to his mother’s house on the night of Rosh Hashanah, brought back by a job as a sign language interpreter at a temple for the hearing impaired. Soon thereafter, he was introduced to The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz, a Jewish Buddhist. The bestselling book captured the ongoing relationship between Jews and Buddhists. “I saw that the esoterica I was longing for in the world was in my backyard,” Cohen said.

The magic he sought he discovered in the every day, in prayers and rituals. It was not Big Magic, but small magic. The wonders in the ordinary. He got more involved in the Jewish Renewal movement, attending retreats and week-long gatherings. Cohen eventually took a 4-week intensive on Jewish shamanism, and soon started blending games with his religious practice.

In one of our Zoom calls, Cohen told me the Old Testament story of Bathsheba and David: The Ancient Jewish king saw Bathsheba bathing and desired her so much that he ordered her husband to the front lines of battle, where the man died. David then took his widow for himself. Nathan, the prophet, reached out to David and told him a story about a poor man with only one sheep who he loved like a child, and a rich man had a huge flock of sheep. The rich man then took the impoverished man’s sheep to serve a guest he cared little for. When asked for his reaction, David says the rich man should be punished. 

“Nathan, I always imagine trying not to smile, says, ‘You are the man.’” From this allegory, the king realizes his mistake. “The fictional distance of the story lets David not throw up his ego and defenses and see the truth. And Nathan keeps his head.” This biblical anecdote sets up a framework that leaders and therapists could use when playing role-playing games.

In academic game design theory, there is a theory called “alibi.” According to a paper by Sebasian Deterding, a researcher at the University of York in England, “Adults routinely provide alternative, adult-appropriate motives to account for their play, such as child care, professional duties, creative expression, or health. Once legitimized, the norms and rules of play themselves then provide an alibi for behavior that would risk being embarrassing outside play.” These adult-appropriate motives allow us the separation we need to tackle important issues, or explore ourselves in a way that we’d normally be too defensive to do so objectively.

As Cohen puts it, “It’s not me. It’s just my character looking into, say, my dead parents.” Cohen uses stories to help people get over personal blocks. Someone who is going through a crisis can explore fictitious storylines to explore questions from a healthy distance. Then, they might discover things and learn about themselves along the way. “You can build neural pathways to help release your issues with imposter syndrome.”

Since playing D&D as a child, he explored independent games that offer more flexibility in character creation. He discovered a group game called Dreamchaser, created by Pete Petrusha, and Cohen is adapting it for one on one use. “As soon as I saw this game, I saw how I could use it for personal, spiritual issues.”

At the beginning of the game, each player gets a bunch of notecards. To start, they each write a goal, or dream, on a card. For example, Overthrow the Empire, Befriend a Dragon, Live in the Woods. Then the group votes and picks one to be the Dream for the game. Let’s say they pick Befriend a Dragon. It goes in the middle of the Dream Map. Then each person picks a role, let’s say Hunter/Tracker, Linguist, and Astronaut. Now I know there are an astronaut and dragon in the game. After this, they pick Milestones that would make the game interesting for them. No one gets to veto these, but the group discusses what order to put them on the Dream Map around the Dream. The Milestones and Dream make up the map for the adventure. Players then finish their characters, giving them skills, strategies, health points, etc. Then we set out!

Cohen contacted Petrusha and started beta testing the game with small groups and at board game conventions. Cohen and Petrusha fielded questions from social workers and therapists on how to use the game in their work. Eventually, Petrusha hired Cohen as lead designer, to adapt the game for one-on-one use in short one-hour sessions. Patients can make the dream or goal a central issue—something they are personally working on. Players can play as themselves or play as fantastical charters, like a wizard or a fighter pilot.

“They can use play as metaphor,” Cohen says. There are also similar tactics to help clients on the autism spectrum.

His goal, in his rabbinate, is to help people one on one with their spiritual and emotional journeys. He also works on himself using games. “As a rabbi, the question of serving comes up a lot. What does it mean to serve?” He creates and then plays characters that serve their deity without any questions just to see what that feels like. He also plays characters who have no gender and were gender non-conforming. “I’ve explored myself and who I am in this world in numbers of ways through the characters I have created. I learned I could be a man without limit, without society’s constraints.”

There are also ways of exploring community-building and growth. Cohen mentioned two games, Dream Askew and Dream Apart. Askew is about a queer enclave trying to survive amid an apocalypse. According to the game’s site, players have to find a “place to live, sleep, and hopefully heal. More than ever before, each of us is responsible for the survival and fate of our community.”

A part is about a shtetl—a village of Jews—in 19th century Europe. According to a 2018 Tablet magazine review, “A ragtag bunch of shtetl-dwellers (who seemed to all have a lot of tsuris, from a runaway daughter to a failing marriage) discovered the body of a gentile in the Jewish part of town and feared suspicion would fall on the heads of the Jews. And so, we set out to find who the man was, and who had killed him (and to hide the body, of course).”

As we enter yet another month of our own slow-moving, personal, isolated apocalypse, we too can use games to explore our journeys and build communities, hopefully leaving our exile, eventually, more complete people.

Eli Reiter is a consultant, writer, and educator. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Esquire, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. Read more at elireiter.com.

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 Menachem Cohen (he/his, they/them)
Spiritual Director, Rabbi, Tabletop Game Designer www.whatmakesyoucomealive.net

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