Defamiliarising D&D: Playing out Western fantasy in Singapore

I was fortuitously invited by Premeet Sindhu, Marcus Carter, and Jose Zagal to contribute a chapter to 50 Years of D&D, an upcoming book that will be published in early 2024 by MIT Press. In this chapter I sketch out Singapore’s engagement with Western fantasy through playing D&D. Here are some short snippets from my contribution:

This chapter looks at how D&D is being played and being played with in the island-nation of Singapore, a highly urbanised city metropolis home to 6 million individuals, by offering a brief, unavoidably partial history of Singapore’s tabletop role-playing scene. Singapore, briefly: situated in Southeast Asia; an ex-British colony; wealthy, globalised, and highly connected; and home to the largest Chinese majority population in the world outside of China mixed with diverse Indian, Malay and other indigenous Southeast Asian racial identities that are the legacy of Singapore’s long history as a trading entrepot. In Singapore, the experience and making of a white Euro-American world is experienced through a prism of class, gender, and race in a context that strays far from the young American men who played D&D in a police clubhouse in the 1970s (Fine 2002). I pay special attention to sites of play, the influence of actual play shows, the effect of colonial language policies, and nostalgia in the making of imaginary worlds in D&D. I also feature the bespoke tabletop role-playing studios active in Singapore in the 2020s and homebrewed D&D games which incorporate the Chinese genre of wuxia.

The relationship of Southeast Asians to the legacy of empire shimmers through game experiences in ways that are dissimilar from the perspectives and experiences of the Asian diaspora worldwide. Role-playing games, as fleeting and unwitnessed forms of creative authorship, can serve as indexes of social and cultural transformations as everyday sites of emergent narrative-making. Their transient and unrecorded nature also allows subaltern commentaries to take place beyond the public archive. Using ethnography to extend analyses of race beyond the text of the game book, as this research does, permits us to observe the quickly evaporating realities of playing the text as a game. It permits us to understand the disjunctures, fractures and dissonances that characterise Singaporeans’ relationship with D&D and other TTRPGs in ways that play reports and homebrewed materials cannot. Additionally, an emphasis on the material realities of the game coheres with the spatial realities and leisure expectations characteristic of Singapore, emphasising that where we play is also critical to how we play—and also that the game we strive to play rearranges the material constitutions of the conventional “table top” in TTRPGs.


With this in mind, answering the question of how D&D is localised or transformed through an Asian context is difficult. To work through the questions in turn, first, one asks: What constitutes Singaporean fantasy? What is considered canonical and influential in the way that we think about Singaporean imaginings of the non-mimetic, a world of otherwise? How, and should we, excerpt Anglophone Singapore from its position within the Southeast Asian region, keeping in mind the constructed nature of the nation-state—and even the region—as a project of imagined community? In his essay coining the term “spicepunk”, speculative fiction author Ng Yi-Sheng asks the same questions, pointing out the erasure of seafaring Southeast Asia from the world stage in favour of fantastical imaginations of Chinese bureaucratic empires (Ng 2022). Part of the difficulty of establishing Southeast Asian fantasy as a genre is also the marginalisation of non-English languages and the loss of local accounts of history and social life from Southeast Asia as a consequence of colonial violence. The writers of The Islands of Sina Una, a critically acclaimed D&D 5e supplement that offers races, subclasses, and settings based on precolonial Philippines, reflect astutely how historical accounts on the Philippines are “filtered through the colonial machinery and non-Filipino perspectives, which renders the ‘truth’ they present as relative to the authors’ own biases” (The Islands of Sina Una 2020, 323). In short, Southeast Asian fantasy is read and circulated by a niche group of readers, and knowledge of Southeast Asian fantasy is not detailed amongst the gamers that I have met. Even in formal education, students earn qualifications such as the UK-administered GSCE “O” and “A” Levels, which is more likely to centre around British and American literature or Asian realist fiction. So if a D&D player in Singapore wants to play or create an Asian D&D game, where do they look?

Image credit: The amazing Charsiewspace, who offers Southeast Asian RPG art for free usage–thank you and PLEASE check out their work!

“I like the dragon to be there”: Role-playing studio spaces and the delivery of the paid game experience in Singapore

I presented this at the superfun Generation Analog 2022: Space and Materiality, which turned out to be one of my favourite virtual conference experiences ever–there’s nothing quite like nerds fluent in Discord chatting unstoppably on a channel about games. Every talk I listened to was enthralling and fun and inspired lots of continued thinking.

In this paper, I look at how the material environments of TTRPGs extend beyond the domestic environment of the home game by focusing on the sites of TTRPG studios in Singapore, where players pay a premium to enjoy a D&D experience run by professional game masters (GMs). I focus on material elements of the D&D game that are fuzzier, more permeable, and more atmospheric in nature: light and sound. By drawing together these two areas of analysis, I show how the material environments of TTRPG studios are engineered to quickly position players as fateful agents. This is to broaden and solidify their player base as studios seek to make their businesses viable. It also serves a secondary purpose: to scaffold the experience of tabletop roleplaying games for new players interested in the game in the wake of its popular culture resurgence, especially in the context of play-starved Singapore, where gamers must learn how to play.

The slides can be found here and the talk is publicly available, as below, which really covers only a fraction of my paper.

Lateral Ethnographies: Hopeful Tabletop Roleplaying Games as Tools of Collaborative Speculation

I was in good company at the Anthropology, AI and the Future of Human Society conference organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute this year in June where I presented a paper on a panel titled Lateral Ethnographies: Exploratory Knowledge Production, Speculative Fictions, and Alternative Future-Making. The paper looked at how tabletop roleplaying games can and should be part of a renewed focus on multimodal anthropology; games, as a method of knowledge production as well as a tool for research, create open and generative spaces for people to collectively create alternative ways of thinking about the future. Games are a way of inviting others to participate in encounters of knowledge production not as researcher/subject, or even as creator/audience (as implied in mediums such as films, exhibitions or installations), but as players and co-creators, with generative, unexpected and protean outcomes.

Roleplaying games interest me as a speculative tool because they enable not just action but also makes the framing of action visible and changeable: as people do not just do things but understand and negotiate what can and cannot be done. Everyone, therefore, is both social actor and theoretician as they glide between the bracketed game world and the bracketing of the game world. So, for example, in Pride and Extreme Prejudice, I might choose to queer it by undoing its heteronormative expectations, such as by choosing to fall in love with another woman (while recognising that the game is a critique of heteropatriarchal relationships in Victorian England). This of course depends on the community and group in which one plays: while proposing that TTRPGs can be a useful speculative tool to think about and enact hopeful futures, I do not propose that the tables at which we play are havens free of conflict or discrimination. Yet the potential of games is that in games, we act and we try to understand the conditions through which action emerge. Moreover, we act within it and reconcile ourselves with its limitations—while also collectively negotiating these limitations as a group.

The slides for my talk can be found here.

Migrant Workers in Singapore: Lives and Labour in a Transient Migration Regime

A book I’ve been co-editing was finally published this year. In the time since its conception early in the pandemic to the time that it was published, migrant construction workers continued to have their mobility severely restricted as they were subject to strict rules on movement–inviting us to reflect on migrant workers’ access to and experiences of public space in Singapore. I am grateful to the considerable work put in by the contributors and the co-editors to bring this book to life.

This collection looks beyond the immediacy of heightened concerns surrounding the migrant worker population in the time of the COVID-19 crisis. It gives attention to broader questions of migrant lives and labour in a city-state that has thrived on migration since its beginnings as a colonial entrepôt. Serving as a primer for the general and academic reader interested in developing a richer understanding of the structural conditions of migrant construction work, the book draws together key studies on migrant construction work in Singapore.

The chapters in this volume, contributed by a range of academic experts, spotlight the processes of unequal global development, precarious work, and welfare exclusion that have rendered low-waged labour migrants especially vulnerable to the pandemic. They also highlight migrant men’s social identities beyond the sphere of work by attending to their experiences and strategies as members of transnational families and social-cultural communities. Accompanying the chapters are short reflections from the authors that not only summarise the findings but also provide updates on the research context in view of the recent situation.

Waystations to Utopia: Writing a Hopeful Game

I was recently honoured to win the Digital Impact grant from the Association of Southeast Asian Studies (UK) to work on a project titled Waystations to Utopia: Tabletop Roleplaying Games as a Method of Hopeful Speculation. Now I have to shed the modality of academic writing–that thorough, patient, dogged pickaxe-chipping through soil and bedrock and whatever lies buried beneath that to assemble something weighty and fossilised–in lieu of the modality of creative writing, that restless, fragmented feeding through all the things that present themselves as inspiration.

Read more: Waystations to Utopia: Writing a Hopeful Game

This project will develop a roleplaying game that invites players to speculate about climate futures through the ethos of applied hope. Applied hope games draw from a burgeoning creative movement that seeks to imagine utopic futures through genres such as solarpunk and hopepunk in opposition to dystopic worlds founded on apocalypse and despair. These games can conjure a space of playfulness, openness, and potentiality in our relationship to the future; by doing so, they create imaginative latitude for action and change in the present.

A TTRPG is a game where small groups of 5-6 players create a collaborative story together, supported by some form of luck-based mechanic. In a TTRPG, a gamemaster describes an imagined world and players narrate their actions and interactions within that world. These games are bounded by rules that might require players to roll dice to determine their success in conducting particular actions within that world. Because of the flexibility in terms of rules and how they are interpreted by each individual group, TTRPGs can offer a “generative, performative space that is anti-hierarchical, experimental, and process-based, privileging agency and emergent collaboration over a predetermined product or outcome” (Kawitzky, 2020, p. 129).

This grant supports the writing, publication and distribution of an independent game through consultation with local climate change activists and Southeast Asian game writers, researchers, and artists working on speculative futures. It will be:

  • Hopeful: It will challenge dominant game ideologies, for e.g. that progression arises from violence, the accrual of wealth, or the pursuit of power. Instead, the game will focus on imagining a speculative world through a lens of community building and resource redistribution
  • Accessible: It can be run in a single session spanning 3-4 hours with little prior knowledge about what RPGs entail and with few to no additional tools
  • Participatory: As a methodological intervention, the game will explore how anthropologists can create more lateral relationships with local communities as a fellow player
  • Transformative: By modelling strategies of collaboration and community-building, games have potential to intervene in climate doomism and paralysis 

Homebrewing Asia: How D&D in Singapore is remaking Western fantasy

I talked to two DMs of homebrewed worlds in Singapore about how they’re remaking D&D from its Tolkien/American midwest origins. I thought I’d get answers about how we make D&D Asian, but I was spellbound instead as we stalled on questions of what being Asian even means. This article was published on both The Homeground Asia and The Anthropolitan.

“D&D isn’t a history lecture. There’s something magical when things are mundane. Like, it’s not special that there are temples or shrines: it’s just another thing between you and where you’re going. Or it’s not special that everyone in this world is a mongrel, and that very few characters are ‘pure-blooded’. It’s reflective of our world, where we are defined by generation upon generation of migration.”

Ramji Venkateswaran, DM of The 4th Culture

The rise of the professional Dungeon Master in Singapore

Getting paid to run Dungeons & Dragons games! It is a thing, and it is growing fast in Singapore. I love that storytellers and community organisers are being valued in this way, but I also wonder about this shift from hobby to business, and about the understanding of what a Dungeon Master’s skills are (as rule-enforcer, shared-space-maker, world-builder, keeper-of-secrets, and softcore mathematician).

In case you missed the first link above, I talked to professional DMs from Tinker Tales Studios and TableMinis, as well as Melvyn Sin, a freelance DM, here. We discussed safe spaces, the terrors of improv, and D&D for kids, among a thousand other things I wasn’t able to put into the piece but which I hope to transcribe and publish on the internet sometime soon.

Come talk to me on Twitter @KellynnWee or Instagram @braided or email me (kellynn.wee [at] gmail [dot] com) if you have any interest in collaborating or also if you want to discuss favourite D&D classes or recommend good one-shots to run as a DM.

Narrativity, contingency and play in Dungeons and Dragons

I presented on my PhD project for University College London’s Material Culture Presentation Day on June 10. My supervisor thought there was not enough theory, but I felt there were not enough dragons (I am kidding, Danny!).

Slides as follows. There were lots of things I wanted to talk about (like solarpunk and wuxia D&D universes set in Singapore! Folks in New Zealand who take a ferry out to an island to play D&D in a lighthouse DM’d by a teenager!) but I was unable to do so, so it will just have to come out elsewhere.

Ang Mo Kio under lockdown

I’ve shared this widely and had it widely shared by my very supportive and beloved academic and friend community (thank you, thank you, thank you), many of whom read it carefully and wrote to me with their own reflections, but I want to archive it here, too.

Here’s an essay about everyday life during lockdown in Singapore, what walking Chai has taught me about my neighbourhood, and how people challenge surveillance by building new community spaces, published on

I miss smiling at people unmasked; I miss the civil inattention we practise in trains and lifts and bus stops; I miss being alone in a sea of strangers while feeling cosseted and amused and calmed by the very many quirks of a crowd. I miss being an observer of the populated city.