Filipino indie tabletop roleplaying games worth checking out

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The tabletop RPG Karanduun is about "worthless heroes dismantling God, whatever cycle of oppression that must be." Photo from ITCH.IO

What do you get when you put a half-sireno, two aswangs, and three humans together to complete a common goal?

These are the personas assumed by artist-musician Eunice Gatdula and her friends for their ongoing campaign of Karanduun: Make God Bleed. As a tabletop role-playing game, it follows the blueprint set by Dungeons & Dragons, where a cast of characters (created and played by the participants) must work together to achieve a common goal. For Karanduun, it’s to make god (or whatever oppressive system there is) bleed.

Created by game designer Joaquin Saavedra, Karanduun is just one of many emerging tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) inspired by Filipino mythology and culture, and a popular choice among those who stumble upon the #RPGSEA hashtag on social media.

The game system of Karanduun features "Alamat chanter" who describes and facilitates the game and the rest play as heroes "who yet have no names and legends and must etch their being into the world to change it." Photo from ITCH.IO

The TTRPG scene in the Philippines has experienced steady growth in the past few years, with Facebook groups like Philippine Table-Top RPGs and Tabletop Philippines boasting between 2,000-4,000 members since they were founded five to seven years ago. In the groups, members share posts related to their favorite games, which include D&D, Pathfinder, World of Darkness-Vampire, and a number of local indie releases.

The fantasy-driven Dungeons & Dragons is touted as the gateway to TTRPGs, mostly due to its prevalence in pop culture. Depictions of D&D games in shows like “Stranger Things” and “Community” are accurate in that the game forgoes a board in favor of dice and sheets of paper.

A typical setup would have players seated around a table while a Dungeon Master moderates the story based on decisions made by other players. They do this by rolling dice, and verbalizing prompts from the game’s playbook to describe characters and move the story forward. With TTRPGs, players have the freedom to create their own characters and storyline as they work together towards a common goal.

Expanding storylines with Filipino mythology

But while Dungeons & Dragons is still a popular choice within the Filipino TTRPG community, geek journalist and game designer Pam Punzalan observes that many players “hunger to see more of [them]selves in our games.”

Games like D&D are modeled after Western fantasy and bound by rules. While you have freedom to create a character, the classifications are still restricted to your traditional elves, wizards, tieflings, and other characters that originated from the Western fantasy genre. There are also several barriers for getting into the hobby, which includes the language barrier (dialogue is primarily in English) and the high price and limited local availability of books and dice.

D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast has even announced and promised to amend the presence of racial stereotypes in the game’s 50-year history. They specified orcs and drow as two of the prime examples of peoples whose characterizations were painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.

This is why the concept of homebrew, or the practice of incorporating details not mentioned in an official D&D rulebook is also common within Filipino D&D parties. Other players like to take it a step further. One such development is the release of The Islands of Sina Una, a campaign setting for D&D’s fifth edition. Headed by Lucia Versprille and Joshua Mendenhall, the project was meant to introduce pre-colonial Filipino elements to the D&D universe.

The Islands of Sina Una is a fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons compatible campaign setting inspired by Filipino myths. Photo from ISLANDS OF SINA UNA/INDIEGOGO

Punzalan served as writer, designer, editor, and sensitivity consultant for Sina Una, which is a product of collaboration between Filipino game designers, writers, and researchers. It’s common practice for TTRPGs that use elements from a specific culture to have a consultant on the team, especially given the ease with which one can cause harm to misrepresent or exclude marginalized groups despite having the best intentions.

The PTRPG gamer population has long been thought of to be majority male, cishet, abled, and neurotypical. But Punzalan stresses that there have always been women, LGBTQIA+, disabled, and neurodivergent folks in PTRPG spaces. What’s changing is their visibility and the fact that more people are fighting for inclusive, safe spaces.

Also known on Twitter as The Dovetailor, Punzalan has been active on the scene as the admin of the Philippine Table-Top RPGs group and founder of Play Without Apology.

“I was, for a very long time, the only woman on the admin team, and — with the support of some of the men among the moderators — had to fight to be respected, and be "allowed" to introduce some positive change,” she says. “They insist that all we marginalized folks have to do — for I count as one, being a queer woman — is speak up if there's a problem. But they often forget that this is silencing. You have to actively push for a better place for all your friends, and even people you don't know who happen to be different from you.”

When asked about the audit process, Punzalan mentions what she considers to be the ideal: “that the consultants/readers were involved from ground up, starting with conceptualization down to the drafts right before final printing.” She adds, “A lot of Sina Una's success has to do with the fact that our project heads kept in close communications first with our researchers, then with me.”

As a result, the campaign setting’s heavily-researched playbook can also serve as a resource on pre-colonial Filipino mythology, featuring monsters like the bakunawa, a serpent-like dragon believed to be the cause of eclipses, earthquakes, rains, and wind, as well as other celestial beings.

In the past two years, the scene has also been seeing a rise in independent games and game designers. Local indie game development has birthed a plethora of interesting titles, and Punzalan notes that the lack of a trend is what’s amazing about Philippine tabletop game design.

“You have folks who do small, interesting, artsy games, but you also have folks doing huge, sprawling lore-heavy games that would rival D&D in its complexity,” she explains. “What makes us beautiful as a scene is our diversity, and our refusal to be defined by anyone but ourselves.”

Examples include Balikbayan: Returning Home by Sword Queen Games, set in a Cyberpunk universe that melds Filipino elementals with technology. Other titles create their own genres, like Punzalan and Sin Posadas’s Public Utility Mechs, which imagines ‘talyerpunk’, that brings together aliens, public transportation, and mechas in a dystopian Philippines. Both games are available on itch.io, a website that’s been a great help in bringing indie RPGs to the public.

"Balikbayan" is inspired by supernatural Filipino folklore but is set in a dystopic, post-Cyberpunk world. Photo from BALIKBAYAN/ITCH.IO

#RPGSEA and the growing TTRPG community

This expansion isn’t limited to stories from the Philippines. In response to the gaps in the community’s visibility despite the increasing number of game releases, the hashtag #RPGSEA (Roleplaying Gamers of Southeast Asia) is meant to showcase games made by designers from the region and hopefully open up opportunities for them worldwide. Game designer BJ Recio calls it an "online beacon of sorts.”

“We decided to create the #RPGSEA (Roleplaying Gamers of Southeast Asia) to function as an online beacon of sorts,” says Recio. The hashtag is meant to showcase games made by designers from the region and hopefully open up opportunities for them worldwide.

So far, Recio says that it’s been pretty successful in increasing visibility, “not just to other Southeast Asians, but also to our peers in the West. As 2020 projects become actual products in 2021, I think we'll see more and more Filipino names revealed in RPG credits (and yes, more Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans, and other Southeast Asians as well).”

But for someone like Gatdula who was born and raised in the Philippines, the representation she sees in local TTRPGs is more than enough to keep her invested in the hobby. After all, it was the very familiar setting of Karanduun that got her back into playing TTRPGs after a year-long hiatus.

“There’s terms like “Aswang” and “Gahum” to describe power and characters (which other western RPGs would otherwise refer to simply as monsters, or mana),” she says of the familiar references and nonexistent language barrier. The game even swaps the term “Game Master” for the more apt “Alamat Chanter”.”

After that experience, Gatdula couldn’t go back to the same old Western narrative-centered stories and has since branched out to other Filipino TTRPGs. “The moment I played Karanduun, everything clicked. It fit like a glove,” she adds.

Since her first game in July 2020, Gatdula’s been consistently streaming their campaign, called Hiraya, on her YouTube channel.

On the design front, Punzalan explains that while all mythology and folklore from around the world is compatible with TTRPGs, many game designers tend to be hesitant about drawing from their own culture.

“There is a lot of angst about ‘doing things right’ as if your own heritage is something you can fail at,” says Punzalan about this hesitation. As a Filipina who lives in Manila but spent eight and a half years of her childhood in Vancouver, she attributes this thinking with “purity.” “As though ‘Filipino’ is a badge of honor that we must work towards even if we are born and bred in the country,” she adds.

Sure, research plays a large part in making a game authentic — even Sina Una used information from the book “Barangay: 16th Century Philippine Culture and Society” by William Henry Scott and the Philippine Folk Literature series by Damania Eugenio — but as Punzalan says, budding designers shouldn’t let the fear of getting something wrong hinder them. “If you are Pinoy and want to make a Filipino folklore and mythology inspired thing, just do the thing. It's already 100% Filipino because YOU are Filipino.”

Meanwhile, Recio only sees #RPGSEA growing in the next few years. The group recently held Session Zero Online, an event that used the “pixel-RPG, Pokemon-like Ui of gather.town” to simulate a convention feel and introduce Southeast Asian game designers to publishers from the US and UK. It was a way to bring people together for RPGs, “whether it's for professional reasons, or finding interesting indie projects, or even just coming together with new friends from around the world to play RPGs.

And while both Punzalan and Recio admit that the scene is not mainstream in the conventional sense, they remain optimistic for the future of designers and players alike.

“No single Filipino game can encapsulate who we are as a people. The Islands of Sina Una is just one perspective of many,” says Punzalan. “I continue to be honored over the fact that I was able to bring this to life, but I also look forward to seeing more projects like this — and even projects that are Filipino, but entirely different from how Sina Una did things! We have so much to offer.”