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How Online Collaboration is Opening a World of Southeast Asian RPGs

Last month, I woke up at 4:40 AM to join a tabletop roleplaying convention half the world away: in one click I logged onto the Session Zero Online convention, where 150 designers, fans, and merchants met from the Philippines, Singapore, Korea, Malaysia, and more to discuss, buy, and playtest games. This year’s Session Zero convention, the first one held online thanks to the pandemic, focused specifically on RPGSEA, the acronym for Southeast Asian RPGs, and no group on the convention hall better summarized the variety and skill of the growing RPGSEA community than the team from Our Shores.

OurShoresArt2-X3.jpg

This compilation of RPGs is currently finishing out its Kickstarter campaign, and just a few days before the Session Zero Online event began, the Our Shore team reached their goal of $26,000. “It really has been more than a little overwhelming to see all the outpouring of support,” designer Sinta Posadas told me.

Kickstarters are one of the main economic drivers of a flourishing indie TTRPG industry, but the website only allows projects from a couple dozen countries, and the only Southeast Asian country is Singapore. Our Shores’ main three games—Navathem’s End, Capitalites, and Maharlika—are Filipino and Malaysian, so the individual designers would normally be locked out of using Kickstarter on their own. They came together through Sandy Pug Games, a US-based design house, to Kickstart all of their games at once and open up this avenue of support available to so many TTRPG designers. “Over the past couple of years, we've seen how designers over here have had to make do with trying their best to make their own materials for their games and hoping that they can afford editing fees, artist commission fees, among many others,” Posadas said. “I strongly believe that things would have been easier had I had easy access to Kickstarter.” Posadas also points to the real lack of full-line game stores in the Philippines, meaning physical copies of RPGs can be hard to market or reach potentially interested people in the area. Gamers and Gaming Meets, the organization behind Session Zero, has been trying to build this physical community for years in the Philippines, and Kickstarters will help this process too, as they guarantee hundreds or thousands of people will be receiving copies of your RPG. “What more if full access to Kickstarter gets granted?” Posadas daydreamed. “I'd love to see the day.”

The three main RPGSEA games compiled in Our Shores span the genres. There’s Posadas and Pam Punzalan’s Navathem’s End, a Powered By The Apocalypse/Forged In the Dark kitbash that takes place in an art-deco-inspired epic fantasy world that spans three megacontinents where not-so-dead Colossals wander the coasts and the Apocalypse is due any minute now.

OurShoresArt1-X3.jpg

Capitalites is nearly the opposite: a GM-less urban slice-of-life game where players take on the role of 20-somethings going to parties, getting in fights, and interning at crappy jobs. “There's still a huge amount of people who want to tell mundane stories and put a melodramatic/comedic spin on it,” Capitalites designer Samuel Mui explains. “Most games of Capitalites have had a blend of funny and tragic elements and I think it's that duality that people seem to be attracted to—like what's the humour in a terrible breakup or the underlying sadness in a fun night out?”

Then there’s Maharlika, a science fantasy RPG equal parts mythological and cyberpunk, where you play as Maharlika, the pilots of Mekas, fighting and exploring across the galaxy. The rulebook is full of wonderful lore and megacorporations to align yourself with, but designer Joaquin Kyle Vincent “Waks” Saavedra knows why you’re here: “To be frank: you probably bought this RPG for the Meka. I’m here to say that you NEED to show awesome meka fighting,” the rules explain. It’s a fantastic system for throwing those mechanized punches and that energy.

Now that their campaign has reached their stretch goal of $30,000, they’ll be expanding Our Shores with an additional zine of smaller games from 9 RPGSEA designers. The variety of regional designers is astounding.

In Session Zero Online convention, that was evident just from walking through the virtual landscape. Since the convention was held in Gather.town instead of Zoom, every person was represented as a Zelda-like pixelated avatars who could wander through the area, with video chatting options appearing and disappearing as avatars walked by each other. Inside the merchant quarters, I found John Harness of Knucklebone Magazine meeting and recruiting new writers to analyze RPGs. Deeper in, I found a man playing a piano to no one in particular, and four explorers journeying into a hidden part of the convention to access a treasure chest. Dozens of attendees took seats in an open-air amphitheater to hear designers discuss how to best write RPGSEA projects in other languages: how could designers translate Malay pronouns into English editions? What about Tagalog loan words, or words with no equivalent? “Most people here do not think in English, so they should not create in English,” a speaker suggested. The entire event was as lively, diverse, and fascinating as any convention I’ve attended.

When the convention had ended, attendees had participated in 40 demonstrations and playtests, from Hindu-Buddhist rural horror adventures to my 5 AM session of Sin Posadas’ Lutong Banwa, a game that revolved around cooking a damn fine chicken adobo. Our Shores designers had loved the experience, meeting more people in their region to finally seeing faces of mutual they’d only interacted with on the RPG Twittersphere. “Online cons can be messy or hard to follow but Gamers and Gaming Meets’ choice to use Gather.Town as a virtual space was a brilliant move that paid off exponentially,” Capitalites’s Sam Mui said. “If you're a convention organizer, hire the Gamers and Gaming Meets folx to help you out. No joke, I feel like the approach has changed the way people are going to approach convention organization in the future.”

Saavedra sees the event more as a Pandora’s box that has opened, showing everyone the potential pros and cons of conventions in virtual space, but also inviting others to learn from Session Zero Online. In the same way, Our Shores is a Pandora’s box, a fresh and exciting example of how designers can bypass Kickstarter’s restrictions and burst onto the scene. Now that Our Shores is a success, how many other international designers will use their techniques to Kickstart their games: Salvadoran designers, Nepali designers, Uzbek designers, Zimbabwean designers? I’m excited to see—and purchase—all of their games.

The Our Shores: An RPG Compilation Kickstarter concludes on Wednesday, February 17th.
 

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Ulfgeir

Adventurer
Interesting article. Don't plan on buying those games, but always interesting to learn what kind of weird games are out there.
 





Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
Interesting article. Don't plan on buying those games, but always interesting to learn what kind of weird games are out there.
There's a lot of non-fantasy and even non-action RPGs mentioned in the article, but . . . . weird? Outside of our Western experience, perhaps. But that's the point.

Not all the games mentioned seem towards my own tastes, but a enough of them have me curious that I'll be exploring them over the next couple of days, and maybe, making a purchase.

I'm super excited to see this sort of thing, designers outside the US and the UK creating games from their own cultural perspectives.
This is awesome. Glad to see RPGs from the Golden Land of yore.
Huh? Land of Yore? Southeast Asia is very much still there and vibrant.
 


dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Yup. CoC is the biggest game in Japan, and apparently they sell more of CoC there than the rest of the world combined...

Link: Dicebreaker

I can't really say why CoC is bigger in Asia, except maybe the idea of medieval rpg's is that in that time, their cultures were not in "dark ages." So that maybe more modern rpg's provide a more dystopian setting where characters can shine? Don't know.
 
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Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
Still very much there and vibrant, though rarely called by its mythical, fantastic name of yore: Suvarṇabhūmi , the Golden Land.
Eh . . . thanks for the link, I got to learn some stuff today and that's always good.

But it seems that Suvarnabhumi, the Golden Land, was a semi-mythical location possibly located in SE Asia . . . not a name that references SE Asia in general. That's probably a bit of a nitpick, but . . . it doesn't seem to have much connection to the RPGSEAs referenced in the article and only serves to exoticize SE Asia.
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
Eh . . . thanks for the link, I got to learn some stuff today and that's always good.

But it seems that Suvarnabhumi, the Golden Land, was a semi-mythical location possibly located in SE Asia . . . not a name that references SE Asia in general. That's probably a bit of a nitpick, but . . . it doesn't seem to have much connection to the RPGSEAs referenced in the article and only serves to exoticize SE Asia.
Wow, yeah I'd say those are nitpicks, and ill-aimed ones at that. Well intentioned, yet ill-aimed. Person from Boise, Idaho implying I'm denigrating SEA RPG culture by mentioning the traditional name. If you're gonna snipe, then education is a legitimate response.

Though I too am from North America, I'm a member of the Malaysian RPG fb group. And I've done a good deal of research and writing about the SEA analogues in D&D (for better or worse, but something!)--the various SEA-inspired cultures of southern Kara-Tur and Malatra, and the SEA-based cultures on the Invisible Moon in the Mystara BECMI setting.

And Suvarnabhumi--the ancient golden age of SEA--underlies much of SEA mythic fantasy, whether or not those three specific RPGs highlighted do or don't tap into the roots of the ancient Indosphere. But even at a quick glance, there are references to that mythic age. The title of the third RPG, Maharlika is a loanword from Sanskrit maharddhika, meaning "man of prowess." The Indonesian/Malay language also uses theword. So even though Maharlika is set in a sci-fi setting, it does draw upon motifs from the Indic age of SEA.

As for whether present-day archeologists posit Suvarnabhumi was a just a location here or there, pretty much every SEA nation-state claims Suvarnabhumi as part of its cultural mythos. For example, the Myanma people officially use the Golden Land as nickname for their entire country, and the name "Suvarnabhumi" was chosen for Thailand's main international airport. Indonesians, Malaysians, and even Filipinos also identify with Suvarnabhumi.

Gee. What we have in common is a love and appreciation for SEA culture and RPGs.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
Wow, yeah I'd say those are nitpicks, and ill-aimed ones at that. Well intentioned, yet ill-aimed. Person from Boise, Idaho implying I'm denigrating SEA RPG culture by mentioning the traditional name. If you're gonna snipe, then education is a legitimate response.

Though I too am from North America, I'm a member of the Malaysian RPG fb group. And I've done a good deal of research and writing about the SEA analogues in D&D (for better or worse, but something!)--the various SEA-inspired cultures of southern Kara-Tur and Malatra, and the SEA-based cultures on the Invisible Moon in the Mystara BECMI setting.

And Suvarnabhumi--the ancient golden age of SEA--underlies much of SEA mythic fantasy, whether or not those three specific RPGs highlighted do or don't tap into the roots of the ancient Indosphere. But even at a quick glance, there are references to that mythic age. The title of the third RPG, Maharlika is a loanword from Sanskrit maharddhika, meaning "man of prowess." The Indonesian/Malay language also uses theword. So even though Maharlika is set in a sci-fi setting, it does draw upon motifs from the Indic age of SEA.

As for whether present-day archeologists posit Suvarnabhumi was a just a location here or there, pretty much every SEA nation-state claims Suvarnabhumi as part of its cultural mythos. For example, the Myanma people officially use the Golden Land as nickname for their entire country, and the name "Suvarnabhumi" was chosen for Thailand's main international airport. Indonesians, Malaysians, and even Filipinos also identify with Suvarnabhumi.

Gee. What we have in common is a love and appreciation for SEA culture and RPGs.
Yeah, I'll take ill-aimed, I apologize. It certainly looks like I leaped without having enough information. I'm certainly not of SE Asian descent myself, nor do I have more than a passing knowledge of its rich history, culture, and mythology.

But what does my location in Boise, Idaho have to do with anything? No SE Asians in Idaho? I know a few, although not gamers unfortunately.

Anyways, it certainly does sound like you have knowledge and appreciation of SE Asian culture and mythology and were not orientalizing or anything like that, just using a term I wasn't familiar with. That's on me, for sure.
 


momatoes

Villager
Wow, yeah I'd say those are nitpicks, and ill-aimed ones at that. Well intentioned, yet ill-aimed. Person from Boise, Idaho implying I'm denigrating SEA RPG culture by mentioning the traditional name. If you're gonna snipe, then education is a legitimate response.

Though I too am from North America, I'm a member of the Malaysian RPG fb group. And I've done a good deal of research and writing about the SEA analogues in D&D (for better or worse, but something!)--the various SEA-inspired cultures of southern Kara-Tur and Malatra, and the SEA-based cultures on the Invisible Moon in the Mystara BECMI setting.

And Suvarnabhumi--the ancient golden age of SEA--underlies much of SEA mythic fantasy, whether or not those three specific RPGs highlighted do or don't tap into the roots of the ancient Indosphere. But even at a quick glance, there are references to that mythic age. The title of the third RPG, Maharlika is a loanword from Sanskrit maharddhika, meaning "man of prowess." The Indonesian/Malay language also uses theword. So even though Maharlika is set in a sci-fi setting, it does draw upon motifs from the Indic age of SEA.

As for whether present-day archeologists posit Suvarnabhumi was a just a location here or there, pretty much every SEA nation-state claims Suvarnabhumi as part of its cultural mythos. For example, the Myanma people officially use the Golden Land as nickname for their entire country, and the name "Suvarnabhumi" was chosen for Thailand's main international airport. Indonesians, Malaysians, and even Filipinos also identify with Suvarnabhumi.

Gee. What we have in common is a love and appreciation for SEA culture and RPGs.

"Suvarnabhumi--the ancient golden age of SEA"
"Indonesians, Malaysians, and even Filipinos also identify with Suvarnabhumi."

no? If you want to use a real kingdom and not a mythic, exotic "land of gold" toponym, Majapahit might be a closer match.
 

beej

Explorer
Suvarnabhumi is more of a toponym than an actual, recognized place, as has already been mentioned. It literally means "land of gold," less a place of myth and more of a tell for how South Asians had an understanding of naturally occurring gold deposits in the region.

Ideas of Suvarnabhumi as a "land of yore" is harmful, because it served as a beacon for our Western colonizers to seek us out as an Asian El Dorado of sorts. They subjugated us, demanded our gold as tax, and then demanded steep amounts of rice when that ran out. Perhaps the Thai and the Myanma look at the term differently, but certainly this is not a catch-all that can be applied to all of SEA.

(I think it's also a mistake to look at Maharlika from a purely etymological standpoint. It is true that it descends from the Sanskrit term for man of prowess, but Filipino cultures tend to diverge loan words from the base idea significantly, especially as geographic distance and centuries of localization come into play. So to say that Maharlika draws from Indic influences based from name value alone is a disservice to both cultures.)

But the point is moot. The very concept of RPGSEA aims to highlight the many, many perspectives of the region. We can't rightly lump them all under the umbrella banner of the Suvarnabhumi, because we are so much more than these mythic roots. Capitalites focuses on the struggles of being a young professional in today's world of hyper-aggressive corp cultures and ever-present social media. Navathem's End is an apocalypse tale that is SEAsian by virtue of the writers, and not necessarily by drawing from the many loci that may define our identity.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
I appreciate and accept. And I admit I'm ignorant about Boise, Idaho. (Probably a very beautiful and humanly diverse place.)
Peace out, in gratitude.
Boise is like a lot of communities in the American West . . . . very white, but it's a mistake to think we lack diversity, a mistake that even locals sometimes make. We have small, but very vibrant, communities of all sorts of folks from all over the world. Even more so in recent years, as Boise is a prime refugee resettlement community . . . or was until Trump put the kibosh on the US accepting refugee immigrants. Hopefully we will be again.

But even the smallest of rural towns in the US can offer surprising diversity in the ethnicity of their residents. They can be pretty white places, for sure, but you can find families from all sorts of cultural backgrounds in the smallest places . . .
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
After sleeping on it, I feel that y'all are, in many ways, right.

I was inconsiderate to focus on the Indosphere era of SEA when the three SEA RPGs which are being Kickstarted are about other genres. Basically, I was off topic and culturally insensitive. I apologize.

I admit I was stretching it by pointing to maharlika's etymological root in Sanskrit. It'd be like me saying: "Hey, medieval European fantasy (and Modern Euro-American fantasy and sci-fi) is rooted in ancient Rome since many of the words used are borrowed from Latin!" Now, that would make an interesting research topic, but it's only slightly relevant to the topic at hand. You're right, beej.

I have never heard anyone speak of the names Suvarṇabhūmi (Golden Land) and Suvarnadvipa (Golden Islands) as derogatory or harmful names. Yet beej, I hear and acknowledge your interpretation of how those names, and the ancient Greco-Roman name, Aurea Regio, fueled the greed of the colonial Western powers. And I acknowledge that the Western nation-states sure as heck did terribly mistreat Southeast Asian Humanity, and did take their gold.

I understand now that calling out Boise, Idaho as an illegitimate home base for defending SEA culture was unfair on my part. Who am I to speak like that, when I live in rural upstate N.Y., and am of mostly Caucasian identity? It was unfair to try to trump you like that, Dire Bare. I grew up in rural West Virginia, and, like you say, even there, there are Asians and other ethno-national diversities. The first human being I touched outside of my mother was the Korean-American obstetrician, Dr. Koh.

For context about my post:
I usually don't post much at ENWorld nowadays. I quickly check the daily news, and that's about it. I got too much going on. But when I see an especially cool article or product review, I'll try to post at least a quick: "That looks cool, thanks." That's all I intended to do when I saw the SEA article. I did go to the Kickstarter page, but only skimmed through, during my workbreak.

Yet as I started to type my little post, I vaguely remember I wanted to also talk about SEA analogues in D&D and other FRPGs. But I then I realized I didn't have time to get into that. But I also love poetic names for lands, so I just quickly typed out: "This is awesome. Glad to see RPGs from the Golden Land of yore." ("Of yore" because hardly anyone calls SEA the "Golden Land" anymore.) The "of yore" came from me slipping into fantasy D&D/Middle-earth speak. I've been singing the Song of Earendil recently, and that phrase "of yore" is in the lyrics.

I understand better now that my use of "Golden Land" was perplexing, peculiar, and off-topic. Yet I still wouldn't say "orientalist." If I'd been like: "This is awesome. Glad to see RPGs from the dreaming East Indies." or something rude like that, that would be orientalism. The combo of using an obscure mythological name (Golden Land) which hardly anyone knows, plus my use of "of yore", was understandably confusing and perplexing. Especially given that the 3 RPGs aren't about ancient SEA mythology.

I get it now. It'd be like seeing a Kickstarter bundling together new RPGs from several Scandinavian countries, and me tossing out:
"So cool to see some new RPGs from Scandza of yore." (Scandza is an ancient name for Scandinavia.) Some people would be like: "WTH?"

And then, if someone says something to me about it, like "Hey, what does Scandza mean? And why are you using an ancient name, when none of these games are even about the ancient Norse genre. They're modern and sci-fi games. And why did you say "of yore"? And we Finnish people don't identify with the word 'Scandza' or 'Scandinavia', since those words came from the Swedish colonizers!"

Then I start arguing and lose my head. When really the original post was just a quickly typed, peculiar blip. I like using archaic, poetic names.

But I understand now how that is pretty off-topic, and I better empathize with how the situation is more intense when speaking of decolonized lands and cultures. I get it.

Then in my later argument with Dire Bare, I defensively tried to put more meaning into it than I'd originally intended. Once an argument starts, it kinda takes on a life of its own. Sorry 'bout that.

A couple of relevant qualifications:

1) I did an art exhibit for which I researched the official poetic names for literally all 194 nation-states in the world. Including all the SEA countries. I spent a year reading Wikipedia pages on this topic, and scouring official histories at each nation's embassy websites and govt. tourism sites, and doing word searches for poetic/traditional monikers in each country's equivalent of the ".gov" domain.

Like momatoes suggested: I did use "Majapahit" for Indonesia. And "Land of the Free" for Thailand, "The Golden Land" for Myanmar, "The Pearl of the East" for the Philippines, "Van Lang" for Vietnam, "Lane Xang" for Laos, "Truly Asia" for Malaysia, "The Abode of Peace" for Brunei, "The Amazon of the Seas" for Timor Leste, and "The City in a Garden" for Singapore. I didn't invent any of these; they all come from official national publications.
Here's a link to the images from the art show.

So I'm kind of one of the world's leading experts on this little field of knowledge. Not that I'm always right. But in this field of study, I've encountered several times that I'm more familiar with the traditional poetic names of a country than are present-day representatives of that nationality.

2) I maintain a research page which tries to document every Real World national-cultural analogue which is present in any of the official TSR/WotC D&D Worlds. Culture Books - Free Culture & Tabletop Roleplay
IIRC, I first wrote the page as 5E (or was it 4E?) was coming out, in hopes that WotC would actually publish Culture Books along these lines. That's why I creatively coined a suggested title for each book too. I ditched the stale, passe word "Oriental Adventures", and instead differentiated East Asia into smaller cultural regions. For the SEA D&D Culture Book, I suggested: Suvarnabhumi Adventures or Golden Land Adventures.

***
Lastly, to share a resource which is in line which how I came to the Golden Land as an acceptable nickname for SEA as whole.

Understanding Southeast Asia, authored by the ASEAN Secretariat (2015):

"Perennially defined by rice, stability and commerce, Southeast Asia has evolved a common trading ethic and morality influenced by China and India long before a short European colonial interlude. Historically known as a Golden Land, the region exudes a resilience founded in millennium-long traditions that are today expressed through local adaptations of world religions."
***
As amends for my mistakes and inconsiderations, I went and backed the Our Shores project. I feel good about it. Thanks to Dire Bare, momatoes, and beej for keeping me honest, on-topic, and culturally attuned. If there's any further amends or tangles which ask for addressing, I'd be grateful to know and understand.

In gratitude,
-Travis H.
 
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momatoes

Villager
Hey, it's always good to learn people are interested in SEA. And I appreciate that you went through efforts of learning more. But there's also a wealth of information available out there, and unfortunately .gov and Wikipedia article don't reflect this depth much. For example, as you may know, in Myanmar/Burma there is a political cloud on the name of the country; UN reflects it as one name, other countries reflect it as another. And governments claim toponyms as political tools. For example, China's nine-dash-line for its claim over the China Sea. So to rely on gov (especially gov!) and Wikipedia as sources can provide a terribly incomplete context.

The issue with the poetic names is that a lot of times colonizers used it to call us. And then gov'ts just thought, hey let's use that for political purposes, for brownie points. Or alternately, it was formed as basis of a PR campaign that didn't have grounded roots in native experience.

And most of the time the citizens themselves, the people, don't consider that as part of their "real" heritage. In fact, your words reveal this too:

I've encountered several times that I'm more familiar with the traditional poetic names of a country than are present-day representatives of that nationality.

Don't you think it's weird that poetic names are applied to a country without its own people knowing or agreeing to it? These names haven't been organically acknowledged by the people, but rather imposed by institutions (and Westerners!) capitalizing on its political value. And these terms get used as a catch-all to "elevate" or "compliment" these countries as if SEA people had any meaningful attachment to the toponyms.

It's like saying you're honoring someone or their true self by calling them by their Twitter handle, which their mom only picked for them because it was the only one left that seemed decently witty enough to gain clout.



Edit: I hope this doesn't stop you pursuing interests in other cultures. If you would like a good book for SEA, Ancient Southeast Asia (Routledge) by John Norman Miksic is recommended by someone I trust and also provides a compelling account of SEA'S rich history beyond taglines. Others may have better recommendations as well.
 
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