Design Journal: Ma Nishtana: Why is this Night Different? - A Passover Rpg

Ma Nishtana: Why is this Night Different? is a story game modeled on a Passover Seder, a ritual meal and collaborative re-telling of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. There are opportunities to eat all of the ritual foods or perform more abstract (and remote play-friendly) rituals.

We explore what Passover has to teach us: the weight of sacrifice, the strength of community, and the responsibility we have to those who seek a place called home.

If you would like to check out the rules development or run a session yourself here is the dedicated itch page:

This game explores new territory and is a great case study in exploring:

  1. Ritualized ceremonies with a storytelling component.
  2. Reimagining myths and tales we are already familiar with.
  3. Sinking deep into untold stories that are not common knowledge.
  4. Exploring relationships among “minor” or unvoiced figures from history.

I’ll comment irregular journal updates as Gabrielle and I explore deeper and begin to market the game.

This tread is inspired by brownorama’s Packing Heat thread. Design Journal: Packing Heat

(Image: Israel in Egypt by Edward Poynter, 1867)



My co-designer (and cousin) Gabrielle and I are using a system inspired by Questlandia 2’s rules.

In our current rules the player in charge of setting up a scene (the Ritual Guide) proposes some “basic” scene components and some “details”.

However in player feedback and in our experience of play we found that this cognitive load is too much for one player, even in a form of a “guided discussion” as we suggest.

Here is one example:

“Make an Example of Them”

Ritual Guide (RG): “In this scene a cruel decree is handed down to the Hebrew people. We play to find out what harsh order is carried out on the characters in the scene.”

The RG guides a discussion:

The Basics: Who is in the scene? What are they doing? When does it take place?

The Details: What scene of daily life is interrupted by the new order?

We are going to try and structure this discussion a bit more.

Instead of “Basics” and “Details” we are going to use “Propose” and “Ask” respectively. This would break up the weight of creative decision making more clearly. The Ritual Guide would propose scene settings and then ask a key question of the players.

"Propose: Who is in the scene? What are they doing? When does it take place?

Ask: What scene of daily life is interrupted by the new order?"

However, now that the RG asks a key question while scene setting, we are struck by how this resembles “painting the scene” by Jason Cordova.

I of course wanted to try and dive in to make every ritual begin with a painting the scene question, but we realized this might restrict the story too much.

The tradeoff with paint the scene is that the immersion and vividness of world it lends at the same time limits the possibililty of play when the components of the scene haven’t been decided yet.

I am now considering adding potential “paint the scene” questions in the complicating questions players may answer in each scene.

For example:

"Anyone may answer one of the complicating questions:

  • Who refuses the order?
  • (Painting the scene) What games do the children play that foreshadow their future revolt against their oppressors?"
  • What other complications arise? (Up stakes, create obstacles, reveal depths)

Nice. Not having a chance to dig in right now (work, etc.) but consider freezing the first 2 rows in the character keeper on the Playbooks tab. Since each character column is the same color (and I’m not advocating you change that), freezing the top two rows means I can scroll down for info without loosing which character I’m looking at, since it’ll always show the char-name at the top. (You can also consider freezing the few columns with the lines and veils, but that can be a pain if someone is Zoomed in or on a small screen, since it’ll prevent them from seeing their character info.)

Love the Run of Show tab and suggestions… more games should provide for different timeframes.


Hey Tomes!

Thank you so much for the great suggestion. It was easy and actionable. I have frozen those rows in the character keeper. Thanks for helping this project bloom. :cherry_blossom:

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PLAYTEST TO FIND OUT: How to frame hyper-focussed drama in a GMless game?

At this point Ma Nishtana has had 45 playtesters give feedback. Every time we take their feedback and refine the game. People have consistently rated “add complications” as the least useful game mechanic. They have also noted that the phrasing of rituals is too ungainly.

Gabrielle and I disagree about this but I think that it behooves us to have ready-made complications in the game. This is game built for those who have never played a roleplaying game. As a “Passover RPG”, half of our intended audience are aunts and uncles who have never played an RPG before. But unlike BoB games this is not dreamlike; the narrative is hyper-focused.

Too this end, at first we tried to have complications be scene-specific. For example as the Hebrew people fled Egypt, one complication was the classic trap. We thought that by posing a complication as a question that could be answered by a player or asked of the table this made it more approachable.

However people often do not feel empowered to use them or, if their game is running without needing them (in the case of a confident table) find them an obstacle to immersion. Our current solution is to fit them at the end of the playbooks so players can feel some ownership of complications - use them when players feel inspired. This reinforces the idea they are mere suggestions. The current solution:

Use the Safety Tools, or:

Call (or signal)“Wait Wait Wait!” and ask a question or make a suggestion.
Choose one of the following:
Clarify: make clear something about gameplay, the scene, or anything else.
Argue: Take issue with established narrative. Change elements.

Call (or signal)“Wait Wait Wait!” and introduce a complication.
Consider the Ritual Action. Choose from the following or make your own.

Up the stakes. Ask the table or answer yourself:

Who overhears the conversation?
Those in power have mystical displays of their own. What threat do they pose?
Who is captured? Who do you blame?
What do you hear that lets you know that danger is at your heels?

Create obstacles. Ask the table or answer yourself:

What debt is called in?
Who discovers the secret?
What other obligation conflicts with the commandment?
The Egyptians have set a trap. Why is it inescapable?
The deal you make has a loophole. What is it?

Reveal unexpected depths. Ask the table or answer yourself:

What in the streets foreshadows revolt?
What keeps you from leaving?
What song do you sing? Why does it make it harder to let go?
You are thrust into a memory. Who is with you?
G-d demands a show of faith. What must you do?

Secondly, to frame more character drama we have now added a list of lures at the end of the book that players can pick up if they feel they want more intimate play. Jammi suggested these are best used for repeat play. We tried to just have them in character playbooks but there was too much information in them already and were seldom used. By separating them into a document that each player has a copy of, rather than in the playbooks, we hope they will be used.


Introduce these moves for a more intimate story. Make a copy for each player.


Choose one:

  • Share one of your visions.
  • Ask: “What resonates?”
  • Ask: “Whose silence resists us?”


Choose one:

  • Ask: What blessing do we stumble upon?
  • Ask: What about the path we tread makes it nearly unbearable?
  • Whisper. Share why you are one step away from shattering.


Choose one:

  • Ask: “What are you eating? Who will not partake and why?”
  • Ask: “What smells like home here?”
  • Share your concerns about Moses or another family member.


Choose one:

  • Ask: “What do you smell that makes our work harder?”
  • Ask: “What stunt that we pulled before does this remind you of?”
  • Reveal what they have not taken from you.


Choose one:

  • Ask: “What is here that you cannot find anywhere else?”
  • Ask: “What do you feel that lets you know you are safe? Why is this a lie?”
  • Express your anxieties about losing the paradise you have built for yourself.


Choose one:

  • Ask: “How do you know the tales of my cruelties are true?”
  • Ask: “You once earned my trust. What gift did I bestow then?”
  • In rage or despair, let slip your deepest fears.
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2/23 Ma Nishtana just had its first play test without designers present.

Jammi was very gracious to host it, despite the rules still in a workshopping state. Just as there are two nights of Passover, Jammi just ran the full game of Ma Nishtana over two nights. They are a rockstar. :star2::guitar:Their actual play is truly great. There is laughter and tears. (T . T)

Play-tests run by other people are so valuable because they truly bring out any hiccups in the game’s function without a designer’s direct input there to paint over any holes. :paintbrush:

Here are the links to their playtest:

Part 1/2:
Part 2/2:


We have made a number of changes to the game since last week.

We have streamlined the Rituals by getting rid of scene specific “complications”. Instead we put these complicating establish questions in a once page optional player aid at the end of the book called “Sparks”. Now the story has more room to breathe.

At the same time we have redone character creation. At the end of the creation is are optional gender questions for a group that is more comfortable veering from the established narrative of Exodus.

Below are two documents to highlight these changes:

  1. Character creation for “Pharaoh - A Tyrant”
  2. Sparks: Questions to Guide Us (an optional play aid of establishing questions)

Pharaoh’s character-creation prompts

Describe your look and your throne:
(select or make up your own)

Dry lips
Full lips
Cruel lips
Sealed lips
Painted lips
Untouched lips

A military tent
A moonlit tea house
A mound of cushions
A blood-drenched altar
A teetering stack of books
Your father’s chair

What fear do you hide behind your cruelty?
(select one or make up your own)

Your gods
The prophecy
Your mundanity
Failing your daughter
Disappointing them (who?)
The unknown

How do you control your image?

If your group is comfortable, select or make up your own:

What are your pronouns? She/her, He/him, They/them, Royal “We”, no pronouns
Describe yourself: a lonely mountain, black lightning, smoke and mirrors, a preening cat, a cracked whip, an eclipsed sun"

A player aid of establishing questions - these are directly inspired by Questlandia 2

Introduce these questions to serve as inspiration. Make a copy for each player.

Call “Wait Wait Wait!” and then ask the table or answer yourself one of the following.
If ever you feel lost, use these questions to light the way.

When You Must Part
You are thrust into a memory. Who is with you?
What song do you sing? Why does it make it harder to let go?

When You Are in Doubt
Who do you blame?
G-d demands a show of faith. What must you do?

When You Save Someone
What debt is called in?
You make a deal, but there is a loophole. What is it?

When You Show Your Strength
You find yourself in a trap. Why is it inescapable?
Those in power have mystical displays of their own. What threat do they pose?

When Someone Issues a Command
Who refuses the order?
What other obligation conflicts with the commandment?

When You Have Something to Hide
Who discovers the secret?
What do you hear that lets you know that danger is near?

When Someone is Not Where they Should Be
Who is captured?
What keeps you from leaving?

Write your own___________________________________________________________
Write your own___________________________________________________________
Write your own___________________________________________________________

I like the complications sheet. Does it mean the players don’t have them on their character sheets ?

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Correct. They aren’t. They are an optional play aid that would be printed separately for each player. I have played the game without them a few times and they are not necessary. Half the target audience for the game is my aunt who has never played RPG’s before. They are intended for players who need a little light in the dark.

Ma Nishtana was featured in the gauntlet podcast!

As the game’s main form has settled down, one of the main issues that still underly the system is something that @swordqueen Jammi touched on during the episode. One of their worries was that in each scene, players had to do double duty: first scene setting and then roleplay. This is a big cognitive load to manage. One of the goals we have been thinking about is getting scene settings written by other designers for the kickstarter next year. We have already playtested “E-shipt: a Gig Economy Uprising”.

Here is a write-up I did of a gay conversion summer camp setting last night. It is a collection of inspiration answers to the scene setting questions - a spring board for players to play with and against.

Inspired by But I’m a Cheerleader & The Inheritance of Shame by Peter Gajdics
Author: Ben Bisogno | Rating: Three tears. :droplet::droplet::droplet:

Notes on setting: In reality, gay conversion programs are horror shows that are capable of harming participants for the rest of their lives. This camp setting is not so traumatic. We focus on moments of rebellion and sexual freedom. Fuck eachother and the Man.

In the car you first taught me to hot box in. The radio playing NPR.
The fire pit. Your marshmallow was too burned for consumption.
At the organ. As you played for the service, I hid other ideas.
At the lighthouse where the birds make magical geometry.
In the camp director’s office closet. She had locked me in.
On the roof. Everything was always clear up there.
On the dock before I pushed you in full dressed.

The talent show. Answer: What act did we ironically perform?
Watching the stars. Answer: What patterns did you see?
Skipping rocks. Answer: what did you accidentally hit?
Catching snails. Answer: What did they remind you of?
Crossing the river. Answer: What was the plan?
Laughing. Answer: what game were we playing?
Saying goodbye. Answer: For how long?

During the welcome ceremony
When you were first punished
During a unpermitted party
During conversion therapy
When you first snuck out
During our first kiss
During lights out

A moment. A day. All night. All week. All summer. All year. Too long.

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This is a strong turn in the development of the game. Or rather, a new phase. I think it changes its clothes for a new audience. I am surprised that you don’t show first the expected Biblical setting. How come ?! Was it too obvious ?

Hi DeReel. Great question!

The first few Rituals of the game establish the connection. The first describes briefly the scenes of the game and what type of setting and tone players want. The second has the players hold a collective reading of the Exodus story, much as players who played Bluebeard’s Bride might have done. Then, finally, the characters, Moses, Aaron, Zipporah, Bityah, Pharaoh do not change. Simply their settings do. The reason this works is that the game is about making the Passover story your own and engaging in traditions as it makes sense for you. This is YOUR story. As such changing set dressing and reinterpreting gender speaks to the argument at the heart of the game.

The key point is read aloud at the end of the reading of the Tale of Exodus:

Ritual Guide reads aloud: “Consider the relevance of ritual, the terror of asymmetrical power structures, the search for a home of one’s own. These themes will hold true in our story as they have for every telling of the tale.”


This is super cool ! This announcement makes it all fall into place : you managed to make your original intent a keystone of the game. More coherent than that ? Maybe the candies on my great aunt’s coffee table.

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I just heard about this game today thanks to the Gauntlet Podcast. It sounds and looks amazing. Thank you for working on this game and sharing it with others.

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This really means a lot David! If you would like to playtest we would be honored.

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DeReel! Thank you. Can you explain a little further about the connection between Ma Nishtana and your aunt’s candies XD?

I would be happy to playtest the game. Is there a Discord channel for recruiting as well?

A far fetched pun : coherent design // the block of old candies is coherent - cohesive. Nevermind.