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Israeli Tabletop: Three Flavors of Delta Green

Today’s guest article is by Haggai Elkayam and is a reworking of an article originally published in Hebrew on Play in Theory [1]. 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:

  1. Designed entirely around a specific, well-defined emotional experience.
  2. 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”).
  3. 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 [2]), Greg Stolze’s The Star Chamber (2016, available for purchase [3]), 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


Cover image from Delta Green: Agent’s Handbook [4], from Arc Dream Publishing

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


Image from The Star Chamber by Greg Stolze. (source) [5]

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:

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

Somewhere in the Jungle

Michael Pevzner running Somewhere in the Jungle inside a tent during the Bigor convention

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:

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 [6], held on April 5-6.

(The article was originally published in Hebrew on Play in Theory [1], 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.)

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Israeli Tabletop: Three Flavors of Delta Green"

#1 Comment By Ziv Wities On January 18, 2017 @ 1:31 pm

Oh, I’m so pleased to see this article translated and posted!

I’ve always felt the Israeli RPG scene is a special one; in the 90’s and the early aughts, we got the *idea* of roleplaying games loud and clear, we just didn’t get most of the *products* (and many of us would have trouble reading them if we did). What we *did* have is a VERY vigorous, creative community, and Israel’s small enough that individual one-shot games and convention GMs got a lot of attention and discussion. The key people in the roleplaying scene kind of built up the idea of roleplaying with zero product or system support, and they’ve creating incredible things that way.

I think this essay’s compare-and-contrast is really effective to try and define what makes Israeli gaming so special. I hope it’s clear to others as well; I hope this post gets some interest and discussion 🙂

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On January 19, 2017 @ 9:46 am

I think that if I wanted to experience the ambiance of Somewhere in the Jungle in the USA, I’d play Fiasco!!!. Generating ill-feeling at the table is usually something I work to avoid because so few RPGers in my neck of the woods want that. Fiasco!!! players know that is on the table from the get-go.

Paranoia and fear is good though. I work hard to get them into my own DG game.

Nice to see an article on The Stew that goes against the tide of perceived wisdom. GS GMs are usually urged to get everyone on the same page and discuss the game before starting so that no-one gets too exercised at the table.

Large world. Room in it for many different game styles.

#3 Comment By Michael Pevzner On February 7, 2017 @ 7:12 am

Fiasco actually does something entirely different. In Fiasco, all participants work together to create a story about characters who fight each other. The players, however, don’t really go against each other. Minimally, maybe, but in the end it’s a collaborative effort.
In SitJ, nothing is collaborative. Players should be as immersed in their characters as possible, and the conflict should certainly exist around the table. I mean, I don’t expect the in-character conflicts to bleed out, but the players should not be thinking about “how do I create a better story”.
A closer comparison is very straight Paranoia.

Another difference, of course, is that SitJ plays everything completely straight and is a very dark game, while Fiasco – and even straight Paranoia, for that matter – are somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

#4 Comment By Silveressa On January 19, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

Thanks for this article, I found it to be a fascinating look into another cultures approach to rpg’s, though I am curious, in the In Somewhere in the Jungle example, with the entire goal being to drive the players to conflict, is this mentioned to the players before they set down at the table?

In many groups I’ve played in, usually intra party conflict is something most people at the table try to avoid if possible, and depending on the group and game, it can occasionally boil over into out of character conflict and even damage or destroy real life friendships depending on the situation.

I’m wondering if this is not as much of an issue with Israeli gaming groups, or if the problem was just not factored into the game during it’s original creation? Unless you’re playing something along the lines of Fiasco! or Paranoia, games with intra party conflict as the main story arc are something of a rarity in Amercian rpg’s, where the focus is generally on the players working as a team to overcome obstacles. (such as the typical Runner team in Shadowrun, or average Pathfinder/D&D adventuring party or super hero group in supers games.)

#5 Comment By Amitw On January 20, 2017 @ 3:35 am

@Silveressa – I think that conflicts between players (and even characters) is something that should be agreed upon in any long-term game, because if you don’t agree on such things early on, people who don’t want this experiece will just get fed up and go. However, in an Israeli tabletop game, we are usually speaking about a game lasting between 3 to 8 hours and in this form, experiencing conflict can be ok. Even so, if I recall correctly (and I might be wrong here), when “somewhere in the jungle” was run at a convention, it was labeled with a warning that was clear enough such that the potential players would know to expect some discomfort without being very specific.

Also, one thing that is not as clear as it should in the article is that the Israeli tabletop genre is not about making the players suffer or experience negative feeling – it’s about providing a distilled experience to the players. This epxerice can be a feeling – and negative feelings are easier to achieve and notice, but I have played a in a game that was all about marvel (the experience, not the comics), and a game I tried to run (and managed to do so by having some great players at the table) was meant to convey the feeling of a childhood adventure.

And lastly, about Fiasco – you won’t get anywhere near the experience of any Israeli tabletop game using Fiasco. Fiasco is about creating a story, and it provides all players with a lot of agency about the same elements. The experience, so to speak, is a by product in Fiasco (and even that is hindered by the mechanic division into “acts”). There are some systems that are less of a hindrance to providing an experience, but as is hinted in the article above – to provide a unique experience, you better steer away from generic systems. By the way, if you play in a system that was designed to provide an experience (such as “Godlike” that runs with the motto “you are larger than life, but the war is bigger than you”), you might be successful in running such a game as long as you stick to experiences to what the system tries to create.

#6 Comment By Ziv Wities On January 20, 2017 @ 4:35 am

I think there’s some different cultural expectations in play here.

First of all, bear in mind we’re *only talking about one-shots here*. Israeli Tabletop comes from one-shots, and *particularly* one-shots at conventions. So you’re rarely talking about taking an *established,* ongoing group and trying to set them at each other’s throats; we’re talking about crafting a limited, well-defined, one-time experience.

Secondly, intra-party conflict is definitely a pretty popular component of Israeli one-shots. Not all of them by any measure — but if you’re planning a four-hour game from absolute scratch, then letting the *players* lead the conflict can be really powerful. (I don’t know how LARPs look elsewhere, but the classic standard LARPs I’ve seen in Israel are “here’s the lot of you; you’ve all got conflicting goals; go bounce off each other.”)

Sometimes it can be extra side goals you’re secretly working towards — I think Pathfinder Society might even have those? — other times, you’re playing characters who explicitly aren’t on the same side; other times, characters who _seem_ to be on the same side but aren’t really. There’s huge variety, really — whatever makes a good game. This is obviously much harder to work in a long-running campaign — it’s harder keeping characters together when they’re in fierce conflict — but for the length of a one-shot, you can come up with all *sorts* of great, short scenarios where the players aren’t entirely cooperative. So, the expectation of cooperation is definitely lower.

Thirdly, it *is* the GM’s job to transition the group into this mode effectively. Sometimes that means signalling intra-party conflict in advance explicitly; other times it’s more subtle than that — indicating distrust and suspicion, implying that there’s reason to be wary. I can’t speak to this much; I don’t know “Somewhere in the Jungle” myself; but if hypothetically a GM is running that, and he gets a bunch of players who’s experience is primarily D&D, etc., and aren’t used to non-cooperative games — well, it’s the GM’s job, *through* the game, to let them feel that this game is different, to make them able to grok it.

Maybe another way to say that is: the game isn’t successful if the players go out think “OMG I *hate* those other players”; only if they go “OMG, all us characters in that game were *such* bastards”. It’s an important distinction. And one-shots give you *lots* of tools for that — for example, if the atmosphere is good enough, and the characters are rich enough, then they players don’t *feel* like they’re being stabbed in the back by another *player*. They feel either like they’ve been stabbed in the back by a *character* — OR, they feel like they’ve just been a part in an awesome drama. Creating a game-reality that really comes to life, stands distinct, is a lot of what the goal here IS, but that also addresses your question – it’s just easier to distinguish between in-play and out-play.

And one last point is: when you look at the Indie arena, there’s actually plenty of indie rpg’s with a strong focus on intra-party conflict. There, too, they often work *specifically* because they’re focused games, focusing on a specific type of conflict, focused on telling a very particular type of story. I don’t *think* our games are dissimilar to that (although hey, I’ve never played outside Israel, I could be dead wrong here…).


And one REALLY last point: sometimes games pushing for conflict can stand out, but of course plenty of Israeli Tabletop games aren’t going for conflict, anger or trauma at all. Those are directions they *can* go — but they can go in pretty much any direction imageinable (*coughcoughcelloscough*).

#7 Comment By Silveressa On January 20, 2017 @ 9:34 am

Thanks for the enlightening replies, I really hope to see more Israeli games translated into other languages and made available on drive-thru rpg and other retailers in the future, the differences (and similarities) in play styles has me quite intrigued. I’m glad this article was posted by the Stew, it’s fun to see how the hobby is enjoyed in different ways by different cultures.