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!