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.