Anyone who’s grown up in a traditional household probably feels some kind of disconnect between the desire to talk about their culture in their own words, versus doing so in an “authentic” way. While taking care not to be offensive is always commendable, sometimes you’re going to have to ruffle a few feathers to say what needs to be said.
Pam Punzalan is one of many writers from diverse walks of life telling a story in D&D ‘s Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel. Her adventure, Beyond Tangled Roots, is a deeply spiritual story with its roots in Filipino culture.
With that in mind, she says Between Tangled Roots offers something many eurocentric tabletop gamers might not be used to facing- a side effect of your story being rooted in a culture whose history was changed from colonialism. Pam didn’t mince her words on the matter- this adventure was made knowing that it would likely alienate more traditional D&D audiences.
We managed to speak to Pamela about Between Tangled Roots, being of Filipino heritage and the collaborative effort of putting together D&D’s Radiant Citadel.
Aside from sharing your own culture, are there any elements in the adventure that came about from collaborating with the other writers in the Radiant Citadel?
Pam: Truth be told, the version of the adventure you see in the book would not have been possible without collaboration. Personally, I’ve always considered myself a narrative designer more than a game designer with respect to tabletop roleplaying games. I know, in theory, what might be interesting for a play group to do, but I feel like I’m poor when it comes to execution. I’m especially poor when it’s a system that’s as extensive as 5E. Direct consultation with my editors and reading the works of my co-writers helped me streamline the mess of ideas I had for “Between Tangled Roots” and helped everything come together!
Of course, that part of the response covers the structural things and fiddly bits. The goal for all of us was to present alternative ways for players from all walks of life, especially white walks of life, to engage with a high fantasy world that drew powerful imagery and ideas from non-white cultures. I wanted to find my own way to tackle a post-colonial dilemma: “how does one confront the sins of a complicated past, where there is no easy Right or Wrong?” How players respond to this query with the actions and words of their characters in “Between Tangled Roots” will reveal plenty about how one engages with imperialism, conquest, and the scars of war.
Does it excite you to know people might be incorporating elements of The Philippines’ culture into their D&D adventures?
Pam: Yeah, although it would be remiss of me to say that this isn’t already happening because of so many other projects before this one. Radiant Citadel itself stands on the shoulders of giants, ones summoned by countless people of color working from the centers of power of this industry for better inclusion, representation, and diversity.
Furthermore, it’s been exciting times for Southeast Asian designers and players since 2019. Conventions like Session Zero – hosted in Manila first, then hosted online for a wider international audience – and online movements like #RPGSEA helped Southeast Asian folks in tabletop connect with each other, and be seen by people beyond the region. The Islands of Sina Una is one big love note for Filipinos and by Filipinos to anyone of our kababayan who want to see themselves in D&D. My adventure is just the latest in a continuing story of showing representations of the Philippines in tabletop roleplaying games, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it contributes to introducing my country and its wonders to non-Filipinos.
I think with a lot of traditional culture, there’s sometimes a fear that you have to interpret it 1:1 in a new setting or it’s sometimes seen as “disrespectful”, which often can lead to feeling creative frustration. Did you ever worry about that with Between Tangled Roots?
Pam: I did, and I want to tell any future designers in the room this: “Fantasy is fantasy; speak your truths, but do not let it be burdened by the need to be “authentic”. “Authenticity” is a concept that is too often appropriated by terrible people seeking to uphold the status quo, and oppress people who do not fit in with whims and interests of those in power. It is especially hard for Filipino designers, for we will always get comments like “if you didn’t include THIS particular thing, or THAT particular idea, or use so-and-so monster from OUR mythology, you’re not Filipino”.
Fantasy is the playground in which we can, in our own small ways, tackle universalities about our grounded, lived experiences. We can dream about what never happened, what never will be, how we WISH things went in our history, and how we want our FUTURE to be. I settled, in my heart, that no matter what others say, I am a Filipino woman raised in Manila, capable of seeing things about the city I come from and the people I am surrounded by as I understand it. There will always be things about my own country and my own people that I will not understand, and not see – but that is the same for every Filipino, and it is arrogance for anyone to presume to be an “authority” on what makes the Philippines, the Philippines – or that which is Filipino, “Filipino”. No one can rob me of that.
No designer should ever be robbed of the opportunity to speak truths about themselves and their country. They don’t need to carry the full weight of nationhood with every word they put down for their work. They only need to carry their heart, and communicate its words as they hear them to other people. Trust me: those who matter will listen. Those who see you, will see you.
“They don’t need to carry the full weight of nationhood with every word they put down for their work. They only need to carry their heart, and communicate its words as they hear them to other people. Trust me: those who matter will listen. Those who see you, will see you”.
In your own words, what’s your ideal fusion of the Philippines culture and typical High Fantasy?
Pam: Honestly, “ideal” for me would be less about what goes into the actual work, and more about whether the author or designer was happy with the result for themselves. The Philippines is an archipelago with over 7,000 islands, multiple ethnic groups, multiple religious groups, and multiple realities. “High Fantasy” is too often a monolith with the same tired, often Western-inspired tropes.
I don’t want current and future Filipino designers to be beholden to my standards when it comes to their design and the worlds they wish to portray. If they say it is “Filipino” for them, and is able to communicate everything they wanted to communicate to other people, then I’m happy for them, and will support them 100% of the way. The only real exceptions I’d have here is if the work perpetuates harmful stereotypes that do violence upon me and my own, as a queer person and a woman.
We don’t need more violence for violence’s sake, more pro-colonial/pro-imperialist agendas, and more sensationalist stories that glorify pillaging and pain. We also don’t need work that attempts to revise the truths of our history – like the fact that we were colonized several times, that World War II ruined our country, and that things like Martial Law happened. Explore the “what ifs”, but do as minimal harm as you can with them. And tread carefully when you are designing experiences that are not your own: poverty, war, imperialism, racism, bigotry. These things do not exist for your pleasure and “personal growth”.
Speaking of the culture, are there any specific cultural values you wanted included in the adventure?
Pam: “Utang ng loob” – a “depth of the inside” or “debt of the soul” – is a very Filipino thing that I wanted to try and tackle in design. Our version of a soul debt supercedes the individuals involved: it is inter-generational, inherited by one’s children, who then pass it to their children’s children, and so on so forth. Every time I used to describe this to my foreign friends, they’d find the concept riveting. A few would be able to articulate their own cultural equivalents, but not quite match what we have going down here, and how it effects the way things are for a Filipino throughout their life, especially if they were living in a predominantly Filipino community.
“Between Tangled Roots” has an antagonist who is defined, from the top of his head down to the business end of his weapon, by utang ng loob. He was my first very serious attempt at using this cultural value in one of my designs. I’m excited to see how people take to him!
Between Tangled Roots is just one of many adventures featured in D&D: Journeys Through The Radiant Citadel. The book is available for purchase now, letting you try out a whole host of new adventures from a veritable treasury of writers. Our thanks to Pam for answering our questions about the D&D adventure.