Matchmakers & Midwives, Klezmers & Kabbalists: A Game of the Shtetl in 3 Acts

  • 14 Replies
So I'm hoping to move this to a dedicated forum, but I'm impatient, so I thought I'd just start posting here in a thread.

Okay, I'm working on this hack, Shtetl World. It's wandered somewhat far afield from Apocalypse World, because the fundamental dice mechanic is different, so I'm not sure it even qualifies as a hack anymore. But the basic skeleton of agenda, principles, stats, moves, the conversation, play to find out what happens, is the same, more or less. Certainly it starts from AW. (It owes something to Dogs in the Vineyard and Storming the Tower too, as well as to Sagas of the Icelanders, Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, and Fiasco).

Shtetl World aims to recreate fantasy roleplaying as if its ur-text was Isaac Bashevis Singer rather than Tolkein. What does magical adventure fantasy look like if told from the point of view of European history's losers, rather than its winners? We weren't all knights, and we weren't THAT kind of cleric, either.

It's also a game with three Acts. They're sort of like Monsterhearts' Seasons, but with more structure; almost as much structure as Fiasco's Acts. I'll get to that in a bit.

Please feel free to chime in.

« Last Edit: December 27, 2013, 09:44:58 PM by plausiblefabulist »

The Dice Mechanic
« Reply #1 on: December 27, 2013, 09:12:17 PM »
This isn't a game of badasses... at least not in the First Act. It's a game whose heroes are relatively underpowered, who have to rely on trickery, tenacity, and/or faith (which often goes unrewarded). It's a game set in a milieu in which people regard any spoken compliment or prediction of good fortune as an invitation to disaster -- a world in which mischevious, devious evil spirits are constantly ready to seize any opportunity to cause misfortunes -- as colorfully varied misfortunes as possible. It's a small-town world in which acting big and bold is a sure road to trouble. So the dice mechanic encourages the characters to get themselves into trouble -- to provoke innumerable complications in exchange for success.

As in Apocalypse World, you have stats, in this case: Deep, Kind, Daring, Learned, Charming, and Daring.

When you try to do something, you spin dreidels (spinning actually takes too long, so really you roll them like dice, but "spin" sounds cool). You can always spin as many dreidels as you like, from one to, let's say, ten. You'll need ten dreidels to play.

You know what dreidels are? They're tops, with four letters on them: gimel, hay, nun, and shin. Gimels are successes, hays are neutral, nuns are failure, shins are complications.

After spinning, you ignore hays; each nun you have showing, will cancel out a gimel. If you have any gimels left after the nuns cancel them out, that's how many successes you got. In addition, you have as many complications as you have shins.

Your stat allows you to REMOVE that number of dreidels, after spinning and before summing up the results.

So: Let's say you decide to spin four dreidels and get two gimels, a nun, and a shin. GGNS => one success, one complication. If you had a stat of 1, you could remove the nun to make it two successes and one complication, or remove the shin to make it one success, no complications. If you had a stat of 2, you could remove NS, leaving GG, two successes.

If you fail, you endure the logical consequences of failure: the bad outcome predictable from the situation. Complications, on the other hand, are NEW problems, not predictable from the initial situation. New woes, new tsuris that comes to plague you, because it's hard out there for a yid.

So: if you're trying to climb a wall, and you fail, you fall off the wall and (if the wall's high enough) hurt yourself. That's not complication, that's just failure. If you fail with complications, you fall off the wall and a rabid dog shows up. If you succeed with complications, you get over the wall and there's a rabid dog on THAT side.

Obviously, the more desperately you need successes, the more dreidels you're going to have to toss, and the more complications you're going to have to deal with. Conservative play and modest horizons avoid troubles; great ambitious daring is always possible, and will make your life very complicated.

Moves are designed with a list of success effects for between one and three successes, what happens in case of failure, and a list of possible complications (to which the GM will add more based on the situation).

Generally speaking, complications do not do direct physical damage to health in mechanical terms, though they may set up fictional positioning for damage. So your wound getting infected, your leg getting caught in a trap, straining your back so you can't stand up, falling off a bridge into a river -- all are great complications. "Take 5 damage to health", on the other hand, is not.

In addition: The Evil One loves to see you fail, but he loves new messy troubles even more. If you sweeten the deal with a tiny piece of your future, he is always willing to make a trade. Therefore, you may spend one xp at any time to turn a nun into a shin, trading failure for complication.

(This is the game's source of "protagonist protection". Unlike AW or Dungeon World, protagonists in Shtetl World are not badass. But they can usually turn lethal, simple situations into nonlethal, diabolically complicated ones...)

Re:Matchmakers&Midwives, Klezmers & Kabbalists: A Game of the Shtetl in 3 Acts
« Reply #2 on: December 27, 2013, 09:17:06 PM »
So, I should add: I'm really pleased with the dice mechanic, and am designing the game around it. I don't mind that it's more complicated, and I really, really want to make you all have to buy dreidels, because that would be awesome (though obviously, you can wimp out and play with D4s or D8s or D12s or D20s, if you insist -- anything divisible by 4.)

I am a little concerned whether it will work, though. For one thing, I've run the numbers, and the granularity of stats isn't as great as in AW. 2D6:10+/7-9/6- gives you effective stats ranging from -3 to +3, that is, 7 possible stat values. Shtetl World will necessarily have many fewer possible values: 0, 1, 2, and 3 are all possible, after that it starts to break. Hopefully that, with a diversity of moves, will provide enough character diversity.

If the dice mechanic totally breaks in playtesting, I'm willing to fall back to standard AW dice structure and retool the moves to collapse complication + success into 7-9 and complication + failure into 6-. But I hope I don't have to...
« Last Edit: December 27, 2013, 09:44:35 PM by plausiblefabulist »

The Three Act Structure
« Reply #3 on: December 27, 2013, 09:43:49 PM »
The PCs are all of the same generation, from the same shtetl, all Jews, none of them rich. That's the game's frame.

The game has three Acts, each of which can take place over one or many sessions. In each act, there's a social matter at stake, as well as external threats, including one major existential threat to the shtetl and its inhabitants (that's the piece that's from Storming the Tower; a town, where the characters all belong, and a threat to it that will drive them to action). The social stake and the major threat work together to form the Act's countdown clock.

In the First Act, the characters are 14-18 years old, and the social stake is: will they marry? And if so, whom will they marry? This is (as per the other thread) a milieu in which arranged marriage is common, so the PCs have some, but not total, agency regarding who they marry.

Characters start with a First Act playbook, which is called a Nature. The Natures aren't professions or collections of badass skills. Their moves include how you get experience, what gives you or deprives you of emotional sustenance, as well as a couple of cool things you can do.  The PCs are kids at this point, so the Natures have to do more with "who are you?" than with "what can you do?"

The Natures are: The Dreamer, The Charmer, The Studious One, The Enterprising One, The Rascal, and The Dutiful Child.

When the external threat is resolved -- either averted, altered, or the doom comes to pass -- and the social stake is also resolved, the act ends. In the case of the First Act, I think it's something like: as soon as one PC is betrothed, we enter some kind of now-or-never marriage resolution session (like Monsterhearts' Season Finale)  following which the act comes to an end. Or, if the characters have all decisively avoided marriage, that would end the act too. In any event, their fates are clear.

Between the First and Second act, twenty-some years pass. A series of inter-act mechanics -- which work like love letters or the Operator's gigs and Hardholder's "how's your hardhold doing?" start-of-session moves, but on a grand scale -- summarize the intervening years. So now you're in your mid-thirties, early forties.

You get a Second Act playbook, added onto your First Act playbook. It's called a Calling. In Dungeon World terms, it's a compendium class. But there's a twist: what Calling you get depends on what you did in the First Act. So if you killed someone, for whatever reason, in the First Act, you may not be able to avoid becoming the Soldier. If you made peace between rivals, that may set you up to be the Matchmaker. So you end up, in the Second Act, with a Nature and a Calling.

The Callings I've got so far are: The Midwife, The Matchmaker, The Soldier, The Gonef (criminal), The Klezmer (traveling musician), The Sorcerer, The Villager, The Soldier, and The Talmudist.

Max one PC for each, except for the Villager, which is the catchall if nothing else triggers for you.

(The first two are reserved for PCs with female gender roles, the last two for PCs with male gender roles. But note that you can potentially change your gender role -- after all, Yentl is one of our source texts. There's a special move for "when someone who saw you naked would likely conclude that you were [the other gender]" -- basically, this puts you at great risk but is also an xp factory, when you're in situations requiring you to manage your secret).

In the Second Act, there's another external major threat, dissimilar to the first (so if the First Act's problem was a dybbuk, the Second's might be a Cossack uprising). The social stake is arranging your children's marriages (obviously some PCs won't have had children, but their social stake is still based on the same set of cultural expectations; you have no children, so who will say Kaddish for you?)

I'm a little fuzzier about the Third Act, when the PCs are in their sixties. It may have Third Act playbooks, which may be called Destinies and might include Kabbalist, Tzaddik, Matriarch, Gvir (wealthy person)...? Its external threat may echo or unite the threats from the first two acts. It may be about facing death, in terms of the social stake. (If it doesnt' come together, in the end, two acts would be okay, but three seems better). Again, between the Second and Third acts there would be a set of summary moves for the intervening twenty-odd years.

Joy, Reputation, Wronged/Resented/Secrets, and Prospects
« Reply #4 on: December 27, 2013, 10:01:15 PM »
So you've got stats: Deep, Kind, Daring, Learned, Charming, and Daring. You start out with either 1, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0 or 2, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, subject to a little experimentation about balance.

You've got moves and xp.

You've got three tracks that work like hit points or the harm clock. Each has seven possible states.

Health -- begins at the max (seven). Corresponds to harm. If your health is at zero, you're unconscious and about to die without immediate intervention.

Joy -- begins at the max (seven). A measure of psychological well-being, with its own economy of moves. If your joy goes to zero, you lose it, and do something you'll very much regret (exactly what, depends on your Nature);  think of this as similar to the Darkest Self in Monsterhearts.

Reputation -- begins somewhere between two and five, depending on your background (higher starting rep will come with more communal pressure on you, e.g. to marry). A measure of the shtetl's opinion of you. If your Reputation goes to zero, you are ostracized, forced out of the community. For most purposes, this takes the place of barter; reputation is far more important than ready cash in the shtetl, though acquiring wealth is certainly one way of acquiring reputation.

In addition, there are a bunch of "lists of people" you manage, as well as Secrets  -- these are doing some of the jobs that Strings do in Monsterhearts:

People who've offended you go on Resented
People who you have sinned against (by your own standards) go on Wronged
Secrets are things that, if they become known to the shtetl, will have consequences for your Joy or Reputation; you track who knows them (those people have leverage over you)
And then there's a set of countdown clocks representing your Marriage Prospects (in the First Act, anyway)

Other PCs, as well as NPCs, can go on any of these lists.

(This may all be too much; I expect to see what's actually fun, and chuck the rest, in playtesting, Also, I don't think there's really an equivalent of Hx, or maybe these lists take the place of that....)

I think there are also certain tags you can have, specifically, the Pious and Lax tags, which have effects. Pious enables a potentially higher reptuation, but means that you are held to a higher standard, so being publicly seen to sin is far less damaging for a Lax character...

I think that's enough for starters! If there's interest, I'll post the Basic Moves and Natures....



  • 417
You have Daring listed as a stat twice.  I assume this is an error and there are only 5 stats?  Or should one of them be something else?

And the dreidl mechanic cracks me up.  True story: one of the dreidls my wife has is naturally loaded, but in a bad way.  If you spin it clockwise it always comes out a nun, if you spin it counterclockwise it always comes out a shin.  Something with the interior center of mass of the wood or some imperceptible flaw in the faces, I guess.  Either way, remind me not to use it for this game.  :)

Corrected Stats
« Reply #7 on: December 28, 2013, 05:54:00 AM »
Oops! You're right. The stats are:

Deep  - emotional resilience in the face of tribulations, insight into the spiritual world
Kind - consoling and forgiving, emotional healing
Daring - physical feats and bold acts
Learned - steeped in the tradition and in discursive logic and rhetoric
Charming - winning people over, persuasion, collecting admirers
Canny - common sense, wiliness, practical intelligence, and good management of details

thanks for the catch!

Re: The Dice Mechanic
« Reply #8 on: January 02, 2014, 06:49:24 AM »
When you try to do something, you spin dreidels (spinning actually takes too long, so really you roll them like dice, but "spin" sounds cool). You can always spin as many dreidels as you like, from one to, let's say, ten. You'll need ten dreidels to play.

You know what dreidels are? They're tops, with four letters on them: gimel, hay, nun, and shin. Gimels are successes, hays are neutral, nuns are failure, shins are complications.

After spinning, you ignore hays; each nun you have showing, will cancel out a gimel. If you have any gimels left after the nuns cancel them out, that's how many successes you got. In addition, you have as many complications as you have shins.

Your stat allows you to REMOVE that number of dreidels, after spinning and before summing up the results.

So assuming a zero stat - adding additional dreidels actually reduces your chance of success (1 in 4 being the highest probability of success you will ever see), but increases the probability of complications fast.  Probability of complications (Pc) = 1-(0.75^n) where n is the number of number of diedels. Hence with a zero stat you would always spin one dreidel.

With a stat of 1 you'd be silly not to roll at least two dreidels  (43% chance of success with and only 6% chance of complication), but 3 dreidels might be more tempting even though it increases the chance of complication. And often you'll have the choice of failing, or succeeding with consequences.

I love the system, although would question how quickly a large number of dreidels can be read? One of the issues with Star Wars Edge of Empire is the length of time interpreting a roll - and lots of dreidels will have the same issue.



  • 417
Yeah, my mind went immediately to Edge of the Empire as well.  I love that mechanic, but I think the biggest problem with it is that there are like 8 possible symbols, which can make it a little tough to sum up/interpret.  Fortunately, Fantasy Flight's dice roller app does it for you.  But then again, rolling physical dice is part of the charm of gaming, so I'm not sure where I stand on all that.

For this system, I assume that you have to let at least one dreidel stand, yes?  So if you have a skill of 1 and you only roll 1 dreidel, you can't actually take one away (because then there's no way to determine whether your attempt was a success or a failure).  OK, cool, but what if you have a skill of 0, roll one die, and it comes up HAY?  How is that result interpreted?  Or if it's a SHIN?

So for instance, I'm at the bar mitvah of Moishe's little brother and I've decided to try to steal a kiss from the rebbe's daughter.  I have a Charming of 2 and I choose to roll 3 dreidels.  They come up HHH.  Or SSS? Or HHS?  What happens?  Do I succeed?  Do I fail?  How does the fiction change based on the rolls above?

The rule is, you need one gimel to succeed; more than one counts as more than one success: usually there are rules for one success, then two, then three, nonlinearly better.

Anything less than one gimel is failure. Failure is just failure; more failures doesn't matter. More complications do.

You can take away all the dreidels. Then you have simple failure. If you want to completely avoid complications, don't roll dreidels than your stat.

If you have a charming of 2 and roll HHH, you fail. If they come up HHS, you take a way the S and fail. If you roll SSS, you can take away two shins, but you're left with one, so you get failure with complications. So she slaps you either way, but in the third option she slaps you and you stumble into her big brother.

If you get GSS, with a stat of 2 you can simply succeed. If you decided to roll 4, though, and got GNSS, you have a choice: take a way two SS and fail simply, or take away NS and succeed with complications. So either she slaps you -- or she DOESN'T slap you, no sir, not by a mile -- until her brother hauls you off.

I think a large number of dreidels can be read quickly, because you can physically just tug gimels and nuns together to see canceled out pairs, and then see how many shins are left as complications. Then you can pluck out nuns to get more success, or shins to reduce complication.

In practice I expect people will roll one or two dreidels with a low stat or wanting to avoid complicaitons, six or seven dreidels with a high stat and a lot at stake, and occasionally twelve if they are toast without a miracle (some moves essentially -- or literally -- provide a miracle with three successes). Even twelve shouldn't take very long to parse -- throw out hays, match gimels and nuns, and the picture ought to be clear.

I have run the numbers, and am trying to weigh how many successes you need for what based on approximate equivalent probabilites to AW 10+, 7-9, and 6- for different stats. If you'd like I can show you the calculations ... I gave up trying to do it analytically, and brute-forced it in Javascript...

Dreidel App (Re: Matchmakers & Midwives, Klezmers & Kabbalists)
« Reply #11 on: January 08, 2014, 02:52:38 PM »
Okay, so if you want to play around with the dreidel mechanic and see how it works for you, try this link:

Let me know what you think.

I'm working on the rules in a google doc... I'm thinking I'll post it here when it's ready for critique & early playtesting...? (Any recommendations on when is too early or too late to get feedback?)

I really like where this is going. You're right that the dreidl mechanic reduces differentiation, but I don't think it will cripple the system.

In terms of feedback, earlier seems better as long as you're willing to accept what people provide.

I look forward to seeing more.

Shtetl World character sheet
« Reply #13 on: March 13, 2014, 10:58:35 AM »
Hey all

I've been working on this game, and I just made a character sheet, in Scribus. It's here:

It's a basic character sheet that all PCs use -- haven't yet formatted the Natures, which are the specific per-PC playbooks for the First Act (then you get additional playbooks, Callings and Destinies, in acts 2 & 3).

Delighted to get comments, though I realize you're seeing this without the rules, so it's a bit lacking in context... more to come, later...

(added a couple of Natures...)