Anyone who grew up in a traditional home probably feels some sort of disconnect between wanting to talk about their culture in their own words and wanting to do so in an “authentic” way. While it’s always commendable to be careful not to be offensive, sometimes you’ll have to ruffle a few feathers to say what needs to be said.
Pam Punzalan is one of many writers from diverse backgrounds who tell a story in D&D. Journeys through the Radiant Citadel. Her adventure, Beyond Tangled Roots, is a deeply spiritual story rooted in Filipino culture.
With that in mind, she says, Between Tangled Roots offers something that many Eurocentric tabletop players may not be used to dealing with – a side effect of your story being rooted in a culture whose history has been altered by the colonialism. Pam didn’t mince words about it – this adventure was made knowing it would likely alienate a more mainstream D&D audience.
We managed to talk to Pamela about Between Tangled Roots, being of Filipino descent, and the collaborative effort to create D&D’s Radiant Citadel.
In addition to sharing your own culture, are there elements to the adventure that were born out of collaborating with the other writers at the Citadelle Radieuse?
Pam: Truth be told, the version of the adventure you see in the book wouldn’t have been possible without collaboration. Personally, I’ve always thought of myself as a narrative designer rather than a game designer when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games. I say, in theory, which might be nice to do for a playgroup, but I feel like it’s mediocre when it comes to execution. I am above all mediocre when it comes to a system as large as 5E. Consulting directly with my editors and reading my co-writers’ works helped me streamline the mess of ideas I had for “Between Tangled Roots” and helped everything fall into place!
Of course, this part of the answer covers the structural stuff and the tricky stuff. The goal for all of us was to present alternative paths for players of all backgrounds, especially white horizons of life, to engage in a world of high fantasy that has drawn powerful images and ideas from non-white cultures. I wanted to find my own way of approaching a post-colonial dilemma: “how to face the sins of a complicated past, where there is no easy right or wrong?” How players respond to this query with their characters’ actions and words in “Between Tangled Roots” will reveal much about how one engages with imperialism, conquest, and the scars of war.
Does it excite you to know that people could incorporate elements of Filipino culture into their D&D adventures?
Pam: Yeah, although it would be remiss of me to say that it’s not already happening because of so many other projects before this one. Radiant Citadel itself stands on the shoulders of giants, those called upon by countless people of color working from the centers of power in this industry for greater inclusion, representation and diversity.
Additionally, designers and gamers across Southeast Asia have been having an exciting time since 2019. Conventions like Session Zero – first hosted in Manila, then hosted online for a wider international audience – and movements in line like #RPGSEA have helped people in Southeast Asia connect with each other. , and be seen by people beyond the region. The islands of Sina Una are a big love note for Filipinos and by Filipinos to any of our kababayan who want to see themselves in D&D. My adventure is just the latest in an ongoing story of showing depictions of the Philippines in tabletop role-playing games, and I can’t wait to see how it will help introduce my country and its wonders to non-Filipinos.
I think with a lot of traditional culture, there’s sometimes a fear of having to interpret it 1:1 in a new setting or it’s sometimes seen as “disrespectful,” which can often lead to feelings of creative frustration. Did you ever worry about that with Between Tangled Roots?
Pam: I did, and I want to say this to all the future designers in the room: “Fantasy is fantasy; speak your truths, but don’t be weighed down by the need to be “authentic”. “Authenticity” is a concept too often appropriated by terrible people who seek to maintain the status quo and oppress people who do not match the whims and interests of those in power. It’s especially difficult for Filipino designers, because we’ll always get feedback like “if you didn’t include THAT particular thing, or THAT particular idea, or use such a monster from OUR mythology, you’re not not Filipino”.
Fantasy is the playground in which we can, on our small scale, approach the universalities of our lived and anchored experiences. We can dream of what has never happened, what will never happen, the way we WISH things happened in our history and the way we want our FUTURE to be. I decided, in my heart, that no matter what others say, I am a Filipina woman raised in Manila, able to see things about the city where I come from and the people around me as I understand them. There will always be things about my own country and my own people that I won’t understand, and that I won’t see – but that’s the same for all Filipinos, and that’s arrogance for anyone to presume to be an “authority” on what makes the Philippines, the Philippines – or what is Filipino, “Filipino”. No one can deprive me of this.
No designer should ever be deprived of the opportunity to speak truths about themselves and their country. They don’t need to carry the full weight of the nation with every word they write for their work. They just have to wear their hearts and communicate his words as they hear them to other people. Believe me: those who matter will listen. Those who see you will see you.
“They don’t need to carry the full weight of the nation with every word they write for their work. They just have to wear their hearts and communicate his words as they hear them to other people. Believe me: those who matter will listen. Those who see you will see you”.
In your own words, what is your ideal fusion between Filipino culture and typical High Fantasy?
Pam: Honestly, the “ideal” for me would be less about what happens in the actual work, and more about whether the author or designer was happy with the outcome for themselves. The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 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 my standards as to their design and the worlds they wish to represent. If they say it’s “Filipino” to them and they’re able to communicate whatever they wanted to communicate to other people, then I’m happy for them and will support them 100%. The only real exceptions I would have here are if the work perpetuates harmful stereotypes that abuse me and mine 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 plunder and pain. Nor do we need work that tries to revise the truths of our history – like the fact that we were colonized many times, that World War II ruined our country, and that things like martial law have occurred. Explore the “what ifs”, but do as little harm as possible with them. And be careful when designing experiences that are not your own: poverty, war, imperialism, racism, bigotry. These things do not exist for your enjoyment and “self-fulfilment”.
Speaking of culture, are there any specific cultural values that you would like to include in the adventure?
Pam: “Utang ng loob” – a “depth from within” or “debt of the soul” – is a very Filipino thing that I wanted to try to address in design. Our version of a soul debt takes precedence over the individuals involved: it is intergenerational, inherited by its children, who then pass it on to their children’s children, and so on. Whenever I described this to my foreign friends, they found the concept fascinating. A few would be able to articulate their own cultural equivalents, but not enough match what we have here and how it affects the way things go for a Filipino throughout their life, especially if they lived in a predominantly Filipino community.
“Between Tangled Roots” has an antagonist who is defined, from the top of his head to the business end of his weapon, by utang ng loob. It was my first very serious attempt to use this cultural value in one of my creations. I can’t wait to see how people like it!
Between Tangled Roots is just one of many adventures featured in D&D: Journeys Through The Radiant Citadel. The book is available to buy now, allowing you to try out a whole host of new adventures from a veritable treasure trove of writers. Thanks to Pam for answering our questions about the D&D adventure.