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.
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 visibleand 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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.