We spoke with Uri Kurlianchik of D&D Kids about gaming attitudes in Israel, his experience DMing at an after school program for children and his work on a Middle East setting book for Interface Zero. After you read the interview you should check out all of his different projects: Interface Zero, RATS!, and quotes from the kids he works with.
Mark: Tell us a little bit about your history with tabletopping.
Uri: Well, I’ve been interested in tabletop gaming for as long as I can remember. We actually had some Dungeons and Dragons books in kindergarten. I couldn’t read them, but I really loved the pictures. That’s where I started. When I was about 11, I bought my first book, which was Shadowrun, with 2 more friends. We kind of got into a fight about who would actually own the book. So there were, like, serious Machiavellian plots and schemes seeped into the game.
My first experience writing games was in 2005, when I wrote a short adventure, and I’ve been writing as a freelancer ever since. Plus I have two projects that I started on my own, both of which I funded on Indiegogo, which is like Kickstarter, but international. And here we are now.
Mark: What were the two projects you started? I saw on your blog that you had a rat game?
Uri: Yes. One is a roleplaying game where players actually play rats who want to take over the world. The rats are a parody of everything that’s wrong with humanity. It’s a very satirical game. The other project is fiction. It’s basically a series of stories that take place in modern Israel, but where all the folklore and legends are true. You have genies, ghouls, golems and magic carpets. All that. It’s like modern fantasy, but where magic is very widespread. All the locations in the book are real. You can use them as a guidebook.
Mark: We were reading your blog and we saw the write-up about second world fantasy, where you take real cities and give them a fantasy spin. We were really excited since you talked about Miami and that’s where we live.
Uri: Actually, the one who wrote about Miami was my friend Kyrinn. She is from Florida. And everyone contributed one city to that post. I wrote about Acre and Tim Bruhn wrote about Seattle.
Mark: How did you get involved with Interface Zero (IZ)?
Uri: Well, David approached me and asked if I wanted to contribute a part about the Middle East to IZ. It’s something that I’m really excited about. I love cyberpunk. My first RPG was Shadowrun, like I said earlier. I particularly like David’s game because it doesn’t just repeat the old formula, but actually takes the genre forward. He takes everything that’s new in the world and takes it from the 90’s forward instead of repeating the 80’s over and over again.
Mark: Have you begun to write the book? Do you know what features you plan to have?
Uri: Yes. I already started working on it. Basically, a very interesting feature of the Middle East, is that it’s a place where tradition meets technology. On the one hand, the Middle East is very important in world politics and world history, and I don’t think it’s going to change soon. You have a lot of huge powers, very powerful conglomerates and corporations and countries involved locally. On the other hand, you have people who are very detached from the modern world, who try to live a very traditional life. That’s what’s going to be different about the cyberpunk Middle East. On one hand, you have very traditional people with very traditional values, who feel almost medieval. On the other hand, you will have the most advanced technology, the wealthiest people, and the most complicated schemes. It’s very leveled. It’s very much the classical idea of low-life high-tech, but with a slightly mystical twist. Not in the sense of magic existing, but in that many people do take very mystic ideas as consideration for their actions.
Mark: We only played Shadowrun once, but I this setting seems a bit more realistic in the way the world is advancing. It’s interesting to see the different takes on it that everyone has. And it’s cool that everyone lives where they’re working. You live in the Middle East. Stan, who we talked to a few days ago, lived in Japan for a long time. It’s great that experienced people are being used.
Uri: I also served military intelligence, so in my tour I gained a very good taste of the awesome power of modern technology. I’m not talking about weapons, I’m talking about various surveillance and spy technology and stuff like that. It also gives you a very good taste of how real, futuristic technology affects warfare and human interaction.
Mark: Are there going to be wars going on during the game in this region?
Amelia: I know they’re planning an international war for the corebook.
Uri: There was recently a huge war in this part of the setting that was so devastating, it was called “The Death.” It involved nuclear weapons and plagues. The nations are rebuilding right now and licking their wounds, but we’ll have subnational militant movements. You’ll have various jihad movements and various radicals. Corporations, of course, have their power games, which can become violent. So, while you don’t have war within the nations, you do have business related and region related conflicts.
Mark: Since you talked about your service in the IDF, I wanted to ask about a news article that came out around 2005 or 2006. It basically said that if you’re in the IDF and you play D&D, that the military looks down on that. I’m wondering since you work with kids, if you’ve had problem with parents about the stigma that can cause?
Uri: No, actually. I very often get asked about this article by Americans. Very often. The newspaper basically just made it up and people got all concerned about it. In my service, and I had high security clearance, about half of the soldiers played roleplaying games. We had RPG forums on our system. We had roleplaying books in our base libraries. One of the officers was a very respected DM. Roleplaying conventions are full of soldiers who come in uniform. What I think actually happened, is that some officer said that, in his personal opinion, people who play LARPs are slightly detached from reality. I will not comment on that, but roleplaying games don’t have a stigma in Israel. For example, I work in some religious communities and people think it’s cool. It’s very social. They want children to play roleplaying games. In some places, city hall actually encourages us to play in community centers.
Mark: Wow, it’s kind of like the opposite over here.
Amelia: I think that’s why everyone latched on to the article. You have that sort of attitude over here about roleplaying games.
Uri: The idea of having jocks, nerds, all these subgroups that are supposed to hate each other, it’s really a shame. It’s not like that in Israeli schools, though. It’s just a hobby. It doesn’t make you a geek, or cool. It doesn’t make you anything.
Mark: So, you work in an environment where you work with a lot of kids. Do you work for an afterschool program?
Uri: Yes. I’m not sure what you call it in America. We call it Jugim here, or “Circles.” It’s very common for kids to go to various afterschool activities that supplement their education. It’s something privately owned, not something that’s financed by the education system. You have a huge amount of electronic afterschool activity, like you have special activities where they build electronic dinosaurs. You have various sports, judo, martial arts, krav maga, sewing, and painting. You have a lot of these after school activities. D&D is one of them, and it’s quite popular actually. There are miniature groups, Magic: The Gathering groups, even just general board game groups.
Mark: What are the unique challenges you face when gaming with kids that you don’t encounter with older players?
Uri: Well, kids very rarely consider the consequences of their actions. If you play with them like you play with adults, they wouldn’t live for very long. A kid who plays a first level mage will go to the Queen of a huge empire and say, “Ok. You do what I tell you, or I’m going to cast Magic Missile on you.”
And she’s like, “So? That’s nothing. You’re only going to pinch me.”
“Well…I can cast fireball.”
“That’s not going to cut it either.”
So we have a little bit of that. It also takes them a while to remember what their powers do. So, you can have some, “I’m going to attack him with Cure Light Wounds.”
“Um…That’s not an attack…”
“Oh. Then…I’m going to attach him with…what’s this word? Torch!”
And, they’re still children, so you can have a discipline issue. If you have a big group, then children, while waiting for their turn, they get bored. They’ll start writing on the table, stuff like that. It’s still school. You still have the school atmosphere.
Amelia: Are there some ways that kids play better than adults?
Uri: They’re more willing to take risks, which is fun. An experienced player assumes every object is a trap, every patron is going to betray him, and every location has some hidden monster. Children are more naïve in that regard, so as soon as they enter a room they’ll say, “I’m going to look for treasure.”
“In the mess hall?”
“Yep! I’m going to look for treasure.”
“Roll a search.”
So, there are lot of possibilities for improvisation and taking the plot in wild directions. They’re less prejudiced in their approach to the story. That’s pretty fun.
Amelia: What kind of stories really appeal to kids?
Uri: Kids like to be in the center, naturally. On the one hand, you want to give them stories where they get a chance to have a big influence on the world. On the other hand, it should be something they can comprehend. A very epic plot where everyone has 30 different abilities, and 100 different spells, and every round takes 5 hours because you have to calculate the trajectory of your spell, that’s not going to work. You want to keep things simple. Usually I have a small world, with a small community that is in danger for some reason. They have to help this community, maybe they’re even a part of it. The villains are usually very straight villains, very nasty. Sometimes, I will give the players moral choices, but if the entire game is moral choices, they tend to get confused so you don’t want to do that. You want to work with more archetypical stories, and do it on a smaller scale. That’s my opinion, some people do very big games and kids enjoy that too. As a rule, small children usually like fantasy much more than science fiction. Which is a shame, but c’est la vie.
Mark: So… you won’t be running IZ with them?
Uri: Not with small children, but maybe teenagers. The modern world, it’s a very complex world. Before you go visit your grandmother, you have to check her history, send some drones to see if there are assassins around. In certain games you have to think about everything, and kids don’t have the patience for it. They want to go in, kick the orcs butt, get the treasure, and save the day, like that.
Amelia: You have a lot of quotes from children on your website. Do you keep a log?
Uri: Yeah, I do. I’ve been doing it for three years now.
Amelia: You must have some gold.
Uri: Yeah, they’re all on the site actually.
Mark: We’ve been clicking through it for a while and they’re pretty funny. Getting back to Interface Zero for a little bit, what’s your favorite part of the setting?
Uri: Well, there are some things I really like about it. A very unique aspect, is that most people don’t see the world as it is. They have layers upon layers upon layers of artificial reality. The hackers are actually people who try to preserve the old reality, so instead of being a revolutionary force, they are a force of preservation, which is a very ironic twist of fate. It’s interesting in game play, because if you are an advanced character with technology and cybernetics, then most of the time you don’t see the world as it is. You see a lot of different layers of information. It adds a lot of complexity to the game. The other thing I really like, is that despite the fact that it’s a science fiction game, you still have races. You have humans 2.0, which are the advanced humans that wealthy people have bred themselves into. You have androids. You have hybrids, which are humans mixed with animal features. It’s all scientific. It’s not the magic of Shadowrun, but still you have a very diverse world from a genetic and racial point of view. These are two things I really love about the setting.