When the crocodile’s teeth are cast
Waks Saavedra, from the Philippines, talks about Gubat Banwa
Welcome to the latest edition of Global South Shoutout, where we celebrate the creative minds behind innovative projects from around the world. Today, we're thrilled to speak with Waks Saavedra, one of the brilliant creators of Gubat Banwa. Waks is a Filipino author whose writings about folklore, mythology, and precolonial cultures of the Philippines explore violence and its impact on the self and others, as well as colonial angst.
Gubat Banwa is a Post-classic Fantasy Martial Arts TTRPG that draws inspiration from the rich cultures and stories of Southeast Asia. In this fantasy world, martial arts are the backdrop for war drama and violence, with a Philippine-centric perspective.
We're excited to dive deeper into the world of Gubat Banwa with Waks, and learn more about what inspired him to create this incredible game. So without further ado, let's get started!
Gubat Banwa is steeped in Filipino folklore and mythology. Can you tell us more about how you incorporated these elements into the game?
Gubat Banwa goes deeper and incorporates aspects of Filipino culture that can be traced back into its precolonial past, especially during a time that it was more connected culturally with its Southeast Asian siblings. A lot of the game is lore and setting-work explicitly to set up a world that acknowledges diversity and connection between each other, and how water connects instead of divides. A lot of its feel and vibe is centered upon that.
In strictly mechanics, the game has Honor as both social prestige and currency, which also dictates how much Debt you can take. The interweaving of Debt is crucial to how Southeast Asian society complexes worked. Not just that, but the game uses primarily dice that look like “Teeth”: d10s and d8s, strictly because an ancient form of divination was the throwing of boar tusks and crocodile teeth. Of course, every part of it’s Class System (Disciplines) incorporates disparate parts of Southeast Asian cultures and exemplifies them, and puts them front and center, such as warriors who Dance With Death, warriors of large bulk protecting their allies with giant shields, or even great hunters who hunt with trusty hounds.
How do you navigate the tension between writing a game that is specifically for Filipinos and Southeast Asians, while also making it accessible to a wider audience that may not be familiar with their cultures?
That was actually cleanly one of the most difficult aspects of working on Gubat Banwa as a whole. I think the approach I took was not wholly perfect (I don’t think anything will, to be honest) but it was one that our team stuck to. We presented the fantasy setting as a fantasy first and foremost, to soothe any hangups about “getting things wrong”, and then simply respected the reader enough that they will engage with good faith and enthusiasm. I think Gubat Banwa is very anathema against bad faith actors.
How does the game's setting reflect your approach to representing Southeast Asia in a way that celebrates its diversity and interconnectedness, while also avoiding the pitfalls of essentializing or homogenizing the region?
I think this one is easily shown through with the mahamandalas. While we say that there are a thousand thousand polities with a thousand cultures in the Sword Isles, the five mahamandalas are explicitly made to show off the most popular broad strokes of culture in the Sword Isles. Just from the cultures (which a lot of effort went into to try and put them all in the game) you will see Hindu-Buddhist Kingdoms, Islamic Romances, Postcolonial Empires, and indigenous-inspired cultures. Everything in Gubat Banwa was written with multiplicity in mind, which is something that honestly isn’t just limited to the SEAsian region: the very world is diversity incarnate, and even commonly thought homogenous places like Medieval Europe are much more diverse than people think it is.
What does the use of violence in Gubat Banwa signify? How do the war drama narrative mechanics and tactical combat interplay in Gubat Banwa, and how does this make for a unique roleplaying experience?
Violence is one of the cruxes of Gubat Banwa. In the game text, I explain that the Violence in Gubat Banwa isn’t just physical violence, though it is primarily that, but also the strength of emotion and the power of conviction. Its intensity. I think if you want to change the world you have to be violent, in one way or another. Forcing people to think about their preconceptions is a form of violence to their ideologies and their thoughts, isn’t it?
Additionally, Gubat Banwa realizes that in violence, we are more than human. As a martial artist, there’s a state of rapture when you’re sparring, when you’re fighting, wherein the act of inflicting violence, of fighting, of full contact, becomes a pure art, it becomes a channeling of the the gods and those things beyond the pall of reality. That’s also the violence exalted by Gubat Banwa.
Finally Gubat Banwa realizes keenly that not all violences are the same. The violence of the slave can never be the same as the violence of the master, after all. To change the world you must inflict violence upon it. It believes that the adage “violence begets violence” is missing “unrighteous violence begets violence”. There are justified violences, violences that prevent other violences from continuing or proliferating.
Can you elaborate on how the narrative system encourages players to describe or do dangerous and cool things in Gubat Banwa?
I tweeted about this before, but the “narrative system” of Gubat Banwa is heavily carried by the game’s setting, vibes, and genre principles. This is an aspect of designer evolution for me, as I’ve basically made it so that the setting itself is a narrative mechanic. The game describes badass or cool things within it, therefore you should do those things too! It is enforced by the RULE OF THE VAJRA, where if someone describes an action in a cool or badass or dramatic way, they gain a Thunderbolt Token, which they can spend to turn any roll that they rolled a non-Hit or non-Defend into a Hit or Defend. Kadungganan are powerful in the way that they can control their fates like that, and it minimizes bad roll feel.
How does the emphasis on relationships and intense politics in Gubat Banwa affect gameplay and the overall storytelling experience? Can you tell us more about the different factions and cultures within the world of Gubat Banwa, and how they interact with each other in terms of the game's war drama narrative mechanics?
I’ve already spoken about the mahamandalas above, but their interplay is integral into Gubat Banwa. I looked at L5R and thought that I could do something like that, maybe a bit better. I’ve already also mentioned that in Gubat Banwa, the setting is as much a mechanic as the explicit game-y rules. They are baked in together, and they create the fiction: a Virbanwan warrior might do a good thing for an Akai warrior, and the Akai warrior would be indebted to them. This is instant drama, as Virbanwa is pointedly an opposing faction to Akai, and it is unlikely that they are in the best of relations. There: instant drama. Why would an Akai warrior ever do anything in return for the VIrbanwan? But not doing that will destroy your Honor and reputation and turn you into a true villain.
Thanks for reading Global South Shoutout! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.
How does Gubat Banwa approach magic and martial arts differently from Western pop culture?
A lot of Gubat Banwa was written with esoteric Filipino Martial Arts (and of course, the greater SEASian Martial Arts) in mind. A lot of our arts have been kind of co opted by the West strictly for just self-defense. I think that glosses over 50% of martial arts. Martial arts is a performative art, an expression of culture, in the same vein as dances are. I don’t think we should be reducing martial arts into that way, and that’s explicitly how we approach it with Gubat Banwa. Martial arts as an expression of lived experience, culture, of religion, of what you love.
I particularly abhor the correlation of martial arts = kung fu, so Gubat Banwa goes to deconstruct that completely. The game’s “Classes”, the Disciplines, are ALL martial arts. Even the magic ones, even the ones that are based on priesthood.
This follows too that we adopt a more non-Western view on magic. We don’t view magic as a science to be captured, we don’t view it as the physics of a world but rather, the secrets of the world that makes up it. It is the dark matter to the matter of reality. Magic is weird coincidences, divinations, twists of fate. It just so happens that these divinations and manipulations of spiritual power also arises from the practice of martial arts in Gubat Banwa, and thus the ability to chuck lightning bolts and fireballs with the proper mudras and katas and meditations upon envisioned deities.
The artwork is absolutely stunning. How did you go about designing the visual concept for the characters and the game world to enhance the immersion and storytelling in Gubat Banwa?
That’s a question that would be great for Dylan Briones, our art director, to answer (hopefully you can get him into an interview soon as well!) A lot of the work that went into the visual concepts, which of course I contributed to, was based on finding ancient connections between the Philippines to greater Southeast Asia, and then using those connections to craft a mythic retelling of an ancient past that never existed.
When Dylan would work on the Disciplines, he was very mindful to depict martial arts movements properly. Death Dancer is inspired by the Yaw-Yan art here in the PH, and we actually reached out to a Yaw-Yan practitioner for that illustration! A lot of the art has a very violent or somber tone that reflects the vibe Gubat Banwa goes for. Dylan’s direction is impeccable as I am not used to working with visualizations of my work, so he was able to lift a lot of that work.
What's next for Gubat Banwa? Are there any new expansions or projects in the works? What can players expect from future releases of the game?
Gubat Banwa is a very, very long-term project that Dyl and I want to put a lot of work into. I want to be able to work on it full time! It’s the ultimate passion project for me and is a culmination of my interests and passions over the years. There are multiple zines and expansions coming soon, and there is a Gubat Banwa patreon that has early access to the things that you’ll be able to find in these expansions, such as new Disciplines, a sequel to the adventure in the core rulebook, more adventures for people to play, and more balancing updates before we put out a printed edition.
How can fans of Gubat Banwa find you online and stay up to date with your latest projects?
You can find everything Gubat Banwa over in the carrd: playgubatbanwa.carrd.co. I’m at @makapatag on twitter, Dylan is at @Dylbriones on twitter.
Thank you for joining us for this edition of Global South Shoutout and for taking the time to explore the fascinating world of Gubat Banwa with us. We hope this interview with Waks Saavedra has piqued your interest in this unique game and the rich cultures and stories of Southeast Asia that it draws from. Please feel free to share this newsletter with others who might enjoy it, and keep following us for more inspiring stories from the Global South. Until next time!
!!! I'm in Florida, and I was planning to buy a bundle to support trans rights there. i read this article before, so imagine my surprise when i saw this rpg included in the bundle! i'm south asian, but i love learning about other people's cultures, especially their creative work, so i'll be sure to buy the bundle now. florida is deep red now, but it helps to know there's solidarity that exists. i'm gonna rope my friends into playing with me hehehe. they won't escape.