A conversation with Filipino-Algerian Jamila Nedjadi on the development of tabletop game Balikbayan and on the pandemic
Games, like films and books, bring us to new worlds—places and times otherwise impossible for us to reach. It allows us to do unthinkable feats, fighting dragons, meetingthe love of our life, transforming ourselves in ways limited only by imagination. A game is the best escape that brings us home.
Wenow live in a society heavily reliant on technology. We could say it is the golden age of video games. While we have access to super computers, state-of-the art graphics, advanced AI, and more affordable gadgets, the more traditional and tangible pen and paper role-playing games (RPG) and board games are also on the rise. This comes as no surprise considering how gaming, in general, is a great way to escapehumdrum and harsh realities.
Tabletop RPGs or TTRPGs, such as Dungeon and Dragons (D&D), have gone mainstream. The genre is booming with the emergence of titles on par with or even arguably better than D&D, one of which is Balikbayan (Returning Home). This narrative TTRPG transports players into a dystopian post-cyberpunk world under themes of Filipino folklore, magic, and technology.
For those who have never played any TTRPG before, think of it as a decision-based radio drama adventure. Players are put into a fictional setting, where they perform their role by deciding on their character’s actions toward certain challenges, normally presented by a game master (GM) or dungeon master (DM). Nevertheless, Balikbayan can run with or without a moderator.
The story centers on elementals, supernatural beings in Filipino folklore, such as the Tikbalang, Santelmo (St. Elmo’s fire), and Duwende, on the run from an organization called the Corp., abusers who enslave them to exploit their magic. The narrative is also about wielding machine-magic to escape the clutches of or destroy the Corp. Elementals flee to the ruined, abandoned earth to survive, hence the title.
Balikbayan has recently been recognized by the Indie Game Developer Network (IGDN). It was nominated for the Best Setting award this year. Following the success of the game, Manila Bulletin Lifestyle sits down with the game creator Jamila R. Nedjadi, also known in the gaming community as Sword Queen Games.
How did you get interested in table top games?
I had one really bad experience with D&D when I was 14. I played for more than a decade before I even considered making my own games.
AtfirstI created my own game in sort of a vacuum. I wanted to make a post-apocalyptic game that treated technology like magic and featured Philippine mythology and folklore. I made Cursed Children of Bathala for a local mini-convention and, with much hubris, I thought it would be so easy.
Two years later, I was introduced to the community on itch.io and Twitter.I was really inspired, especially with the frequency of game jams that invited folks like me to make games based on specific themes and ideas.
What other things do you do?
I do game design full time. I’m lucky enough that I can get by mostly on the sales from my games and commissions. It takes as much luck as skill, and I was lucky people in the community have helped me grow as a creator. For aspiring game designers, you can create games part time and interact with the community to learn more. The more you create and play, the easier it will be to consistently produce games.
Up until last year I was a full tarot reader and reiki-shaman. These professions helped me immensely in creating games intuitively and trusting my instincts. Before that I was a trainer, and the years of facilitating classes helped me learn how to create games that were easy to learn and focused on fun. Among the skills that helped me arewriting, graphic design, facilitation, communication, collaboration, honing my intuition, and making sure that fun always came first.
How did you start developing Balikbayan?
It was supposed to take place in modern times. Players would create characters that were based on Filipino folklore (Tikbalang, Duwende, Diwata, etc.) and they would try to leave a city that was slowly losing its magic. It was called “balikbayan” because these creatures of folklore would have to find their way home, which has been forgotten. But I couldn’t let go of the idea how much cooler this would be in a cyberpunk setting.
Balikbayan was inspired by Shadowrun, another TTRPG with a lot of moving parts. But I wanted a game that would allow machine and magic to meld beautifully, and a game that would place the Filipino experience at the center of it.
The Filipino aspect was very important to me. When I first ran Cursed Children of Bathala, I realized so many people did not know about our local myths and legends. It’s important for more creators to write from their own experiences and backgrounds, and to be unapologetic about it. We shouldn’t have to accept the Western framework of storytelling and fantasy as the norm. The more diversity we have in our media, the more beautiful stories and experiences we can share.
What is your experience of the pandemic?
I have temporal lobe epilepsy. When I have a seizure, it only lasts for a few seconds, but it leaves me exhausted for hours or days. It also causes me to lose memories. With medication, meditation, and other forms of treatment, it’s usually manageable.
The pandemic has brought with it various complications. I have had more seizures in the past three months than ever before. My memory is extra weak and I find myself unable to focus on complex thoughts for long periods of time. It has also triggered other health issues, the most prevalent being daily migraines and dizzy spells. I’m in almost constant pain on most days, or I feel nauseated and off balance.
You can imagine that being productive is difficult. Fortunately, people have been incredibly understanding and supportive. I still enjoy gaming when I can. I’m grateful for establishments like the Gauntlet, an online gaming club and community. I still play there regularly.
Gaming is fun, yes, but it also gives me a sense of control and catharsis. I’m able to play characters who are healthier and stronger than me, and even those who struggle like I do. I’m able to run the games I’m working on, and find pride and joy in that bit of work.
How is the response to Balikbayan?
Every so often people reach out to me to tell me about how much they enjoy it. I am especially touched by those who are part of the Filipino diaspora. The word “balikbayan” alone holds a special meaning to them, and the themes and cultural touchstones of the game really resonate with them. I partly wrote Balikbayan for myself too. I’m bi-racial. For most of my life, and even to this day, I am not considered Filipino enough. By making a game that is so deeply personal to me, I’ve been able to connect to so many others.
Many have talked about how much the game helps them reconnect to their roots. There’s also a lot of pride in seeing your culture represented, because diversity and representation truly matter. I’m happy to say that I’m not the only Filipino TTRPG creator, and I would love to see even more.
I’ve also heard wonderful stories from non-Filipinos. The game helped them understand colonial violence.But I think more than anything, I love hearing how people have a good time playing.
Watch the actual game play here:
How do you feel about your nomination for Best Setting in the IGDN?
It means the world to me. The Indie Groundbreaker Awards recognizes a lot of indie games. The nomination validates what I have always felt: That the White Experience does not have to be the common denominator on what makes a game fun and enjoyable.
It means a lot to me that the structure I used, the Belonging Outside Belonging system—created by Avery Alder and Benjamin Rosenbaum—is one that focuses on players strongly collaborating together on making the setting their own. Traditionally, TTRPGs are created by people who write hundreds of pages of lore and history that are considered “law” and “canon.”It means that the experiences and perspectives of those who write this lore, often white, cis-het men, are considered more important. But in a Belonging Outside Belonging game like Balikbayan, everyone has an equal say on the setting.