It all started with a question: “How do you want to do this?” Echoing the words of Matthew Mercer, our DM threw that question at us as our party of three found ourselves surrounded at a goblin camp. Class had just ended and a bunch of us Lit majors decided to play D&D for the first time. None of us knew what the fuck we were doing. But we played along. The session continued on to become a campaign played at the Museum Cafe next to our Department’s building. But then, we graduated. Reality hit us hard. We realized that it becomes harder and harder to retreat into our fantasy worlds when both time and space were against us. And then I met the lovely people over at Gamers and GMs Philippines and Play Without Apology who showed me what else was outside the world of D&D.
We invited veteran Dungeons & Dragons players to close their playbooks and put away their dice, as they explored the multiverse of local independent Tabletop Role Playing Games (TTRPG) with The Dying World written by The Sword Queen, Jammi Nedjadi.
For that night’s session, we were joined by The Sword Queen’s apprentice herself, Maria Mison. Maria is a field artist for PETA that specializes in somatic healing work. But as The Sword Prince, Maria develops her own TTRPGs alongside Jammi. Her profession often bleeds into her passion as demonstrated by her views on gaming. “Games can be catalysts for healing, revolution, political ideas, and a lot of agency, especially for women and queer people in terms of how they model their worlds.” As the World Warden for that night’s game, the task of creating these worlds was a responsibility that Maria shared with the rest of the players.
In contrast to the Dungeon Master, the World Warden functions more as a facilitator rather than authority. The World Warden doesn’t enter the game carrying stacks of guidebooks and pre-made notes. There’s no 12-inch cardboard screen to separate the GM from the players. The list of NPC names don’t have to be Googled and generated beforehand. In The Dying World, the narrative is shared. The premise of the session–what caused the shattering, what tasks the players have to accomplish–all come from the collective ideas from everyone at the table. And with questions like, “would anyone else from the table like to add anything” and “does anyone want to further flesh this out,” The Dying World places a premium on the shared narrative that TTRPGs represent.
Joining us at the table that night was Gabby Tanada. Her three years of playing a Tiefling Cleric started when her boyfriend — who also happens to be her DM — asked her to join his campaign (totally not a pick-up line). For that night’s session, Gabby traded in her horns in exchange for a hooded coat for her character Ashe, a wandering traveller trying to be the very best like no one ever was. Yes, her character was based off of Ash Ketchum but also with a dash of The Witcher.
Ashe came to be when Gabby drew The Hermit and The Moon during character creation. This brooding wanderer who could never stay put was created without the help of any handbook or race-class combination. All Gabby needed was her intuition and her creativity. After a few seconds of examining Maria’s Manga Tarot set, inspiration came. The Hermit gave Ashe her nomadic nature while The Moon gifted her with her power of foresight. In The Dying World, none of the narratives come pre-packaged — even the premise of the game itself. Among the various cards in the Major Arcana, it was The Fool that was drawn as the answer to the cause of The Shattering.
Everyone at the table then took turns reading the card and adding to the story. And thus, Solas, the mischievous deity, the vengeful son, the embodiment of shame across all universes, was born. From character creation, to establishing the premise, and even setting the conflict, the tarot cards are there to guide everyone at the table. And as Gabby aptly put it, “the only limit is your imagination.”
Over on Gabby’s far right sat Patti Ramos. Patti teaches at a progressive school, where she sometimes manages to squeeze in some TTRPGs into her classes. Her thesis–which is a mechanics-heavy Baybayin board game — is a testament to her passion for the hobby. It was also this passion that served as her gateway into the world of D&D. However, D&D’s combat sequences, and the daunting numbers that come with them, never really piqued the interest of this half-elf druid. For Patti, storytelling comes first.
Septimus Ocean was the name of Patti’s character, and flirting was his game. Guided by The World and The Star, Patti created an effortlessly handsome, caring spirit who could make anyone fall in love with him. Just like his namesake, he evoked calm and ease on the surface. But underneath it all lay intensity, (and maybe some questionable predilections). In short, Septimus Ocean was a manwhore. Luckily, The Dying World leaves plenty of space for character development. Throughout the game, the still waters of Septimus Ocean were constantly disturbed. A quest to deliver a true love’s kiss pushed the loverboy into reconsidering his past and his affairs, while a wager against the Moon Goddess left him scarred and powerless. As more and more cards were drawn over the course of the game, layers upon layers of narratives were added to both his past and his present.
“Unlike D&D where you come in with the full backstory, I like it here where I discover these details along the way,” Patti says. What started as a blank slate ended up as a fully fleshed out character thanks to the cards and a little help from some friends.
For Marella Antiporda, the Demogorgon dragged her into the upside down world of D&D. After watching the adventures of Mike, El, and the other kids of Hawkins, Indiana, Marella and her friends decided to start their own adventure as well. Their campaign has been going on for two years and has been through enough trial and tribulation. But none of that ever stopped this Aasimar Warlock-Monk — until The Dying World. During Premise Creation, it was Marella who drew Death as an answer to the question, “How can we save our worlds?” And as if Fate themselves were sitting at the table, it was also Marella’s character, Phoenix, that reached her Shatter Point.
In The Dying World, there are no dice or hit points involved. At the start of the game, the tarot cards guide the players into establishing their Origin and Power. But the cards can easily take these back from them as well. In order for conflict to be resolved, the players must wager either their Origin or Power, and draw a card from the Minor Arcana–which features numbers like any standard deck of cards. Draw high, and the conflict is resolved and the player gets to keep their wager. Draw low, and the conflict remains, and the player shatters their wager and loses it forever. When both Origin and Power have been shattered, the player enters their Shatter Point. Stakes are raised as the player draws one more Major Arcana card and weaves it into the narrative. This becomes their last wager. So just like Famke Janssen (we don’t acknowledge the other film), Phoenix rose from the ashes of her death and continued the fight against Solas.
Over on Marella’s right sat Ika dela Cruz. Ika is no stranger to uncharted territory. Gaining inspiration from “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors who sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons,” she picked up the Player’s Handbook and started on her journey. Marella and Ika have then been crawling through dungeons and slaying dragons side by side for the past two years. However, more recently, Ika has been slowly venturing off into a brand new path. With the Dungeon Master’s Guide in hand, this Tiefling Paladin now runs her own campaigns for her friends.
TTRPGs are fueled by fantasy and imagination. D&D has systems in place in order to curb this, and give structure to its worlds and ground its players. Character Sheets are there to remind you of how many more meters you can run, and how many hit points you have left before you pass out. The Monster Manual lists down the creatures and foes you may encounter along with the damage that they can do. The DM gauges what becomes real and what remains in the realm of impossibility. This is the insight that Ika brought along as she stepped away from being a DM and stepped into the world of Orianna. “Players that are more into the mechanics and structure might have a hard time here,” Ika said echoing the Judgment and Temperance of her character. “But still, it’s a breath of fresh air.”
“Unlike D&D where you come in with the full backstory, I like it here where I discover these details along the way,” Patti says. What started as a blank slate ended up as fully fleshed out characters [and universes] thanks to the cards and a little help from some friends. Perhaps that’s where the magic of the game lies. The Dying World is an invitation to abandon structure, and embrace the endless possibilities of having the fate of the multiverse in your hands. So when you have a multiverse that has reached its shattering point, and all you have to save it is a Tiefling Cleric, a Half-Elf Druid, and Aasimar Warlock-Monk, and a Tiefling Paladin, how would you want to do it?
Photos by Renzo Navarro
Illustrations for player cards by Alexie Laggui and Patricia Ramos
Special thanks to Maria Mison. Check out her TTRPGs here.
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