How’s your day going? We were incredibly fortunate to have a sit down chat with the cast & crew of the brand new liveplay D&D show, The 4th Culture! Featuring Ramji Venkateswaran as Dungeon Master, veteran performers Sheena Chan, Lisa Yeo, Jo Tan and Edward Choy who play Yrsa, Kie Nao, Barra and Kaman! The 4th Culture is quite possibly the first Singapore based, liveplay D&D show on Twitch!
Without further ado, let’s get to the interview!
Q: Please introduce yourselves and your characters!
Sheena: Hello! My name is Sheena Chan! I play the Goblin Barbarian, Yrsa (YEar-sa) in The Fourth Culture!
Jo: Hi, my name is Jo, and I play Barra the Bard, ‘Bazza’ to his friends, in The Fourth Culture, coincidentally!
Edward: I’m Edward, I play Kaman, who is currently Warlock 3 and Cleric forever (the strangest build). I’m the utility support and nuker-healer in the team…? I’m the mystic tier that no one asked for in 5th Edition.
Lisa: Hi! I’m Lisa, I play Kie Nao the Halfling Monk in The Fourth Culture. I have the Way of Elements and I’m very proud of my acrobatic skills.
Ramji: I’m Ramji and I play the parrot captain! No, I’m the storyteller and DM (Dungeon Master)
Q: When did you all get started playing RPGs in general?
Ramji: Back in the mists of time! I started, I’d like to say, maybe 1987? (Sheena exclaims: Holy Shxt!) When at least half, ok maybe a quarter of this cast wasn’t actually born? And I think I started playing what was then called Advanced D&D so this was after First Edition having come out, back when the company was still called TSR. There were these things called ‘THAC0s’ and there was a lot of interesting ways of calculating stuff but despite all that, very similar mechanics to 5th Edition. Because of the way everyone played AD&D, barring combat and a few bits and pieces, is the way I play D&D which is mostly ignoring the rules and to have a bit of fun! So the rules exist as a framework for us to interpret like a shared way of doing things. Everything else was like ‘what sort of stupid shxt you want to do and let’s figure out how we can do it’. Which 2nd Edition was surprisingly well structured for.
Then I played a bunch of Vampire and a whole bunch of other things. Than I discovered EverQuest and I played A LOT of EverQuest. Like ALL the EverQuest. Beyond that, I took a nice hiatus, had a career, played some Vampire while I was doing that and than got back into D&D a few years back.
Lisa: I got started when Ramji contacted me! And that was a few weeks ago? Yeah I’m like super, super new! I think our first Zoom ‘tuition session’ was like how to read the dice, and I got it wrong the first time because I can’t do math. So this is really my first proper D&D game and I’m really lucky that it’s with this great bunch of people! (everyone: Awwws~) and everyone has guided me very patiently, and Cheryl (the Show Producer) too.
Edward: I started playing my first ever, proto-RPG games in Primary 5 and sort of peaked during university where I was playing 4 games in a week…? And I wrote my thesis. My Honors thesis was on Role-Playing Games and I got published in Scandinavia which allowed me to get my scholarship to do my Masters in Singapore. (Editor’s note: You can read Ed’s amazing thesis here. Tilting at Windmills – The Theatricality of Role-Playing Games)
Jo: I had my first taste of tabletop RPG when I was 17-18 or 19, one of those teenage ages. And I had a friend who played VtM (Vampire: The Masquerade) and went like <cool goth guy accent> ‘Hey, I think you’ll really enjoy this game’. They were this brother and sister pair. The sister was like super-duper popular and her brother was like totally different than her. I met them in a Christian musical so when I met the brother he was like ‘Hey, I think you’ll like this game’ and brought me to like outside Lido McDonalds when it still existed and I was like ‘What is going on?!” and it was VtM.
He wore black all the time and at one point of time wore a cape. Honestly I thought it was really cool because I was still a pretty Emo kid, honestly I shouldn’t mock the guy so much because we were both kind of weirdos. No I really was. And it was so intense and I was trying to do so much crazy crap and his current party member got REALLY PISSED off at me! He was like ‘Kick her out of the game!” and I got kicked out of the game. (everyone: ‘OH NO!!!’) No really, I really was doing a lot of crazy crap and this was after the first session. So that was my first encounter with it.
And I admired geeks from afar. Like geek culture, like Lucasfilm, LucasArts games, Anime, I love it. And than I met my husband (aka Edward) and that pushed up the Geek Cred. And so I watched him do all these geeky things for many years but didn’t actually knuckle down and learn the rules, until THIS YEAR! Covid-19 struck and we were stuck at home and he decided to run a Zoom campaign and he was like ‘Hey, I’d like to get you to play’ We were supposed to have 4 party members and it ended up being 8! From all these people who were like ‘Yeah we watched Stranger Things and we want to play D&D!‘ And that’s my experience with it! (Sheena goes into a slight nerd gripe about the kids in the show fire-balling a demon)
Sheena: So I started when I was 19, it was after JC A Level exams and I had nothing to do. So similar to Jo, I had a friend who was like ‘Hey, do you want to play Vampire?’ She dragged me to what currently is now Games @ PI, but it was the previous incarnation of PI then. This was my first brush with Vampire, pre-Requiem days. Then I started playing D&D as well, this was 3.5 Edition, where I met my now husband actually! (Inspiring for single gamers everywhere! ONE DAY A GIRL COULD WALK INTO A GAME SHOP! No nono.. ) So I had to marry him, he was a very good DM you know? (Ramji asks: ‘did you fail your Charisma saving throw or…’. Sheena says: ‘I think I passed my Charisma saving throw and he failed his Willpower check’)
Q: What do you like best about RPGs?
Sheena: I think it’s the stories, you know? Ed (Edward) and I have know each other for maybe 18 years? Ok maybe 2 decades. But we still have stories we remember from our previous campaigns and we tell them over dinner like it actually happened to us. (Ed adds: ‘We’ve been through a lot’ )
Edward: To share briefly, the idea that White Wolf (the company that made Vampire) introduced the idea of ‘The Theatre of the Mind’s Eye’ which was something that fascinated me as a theatre student because the idea that you could use your imagination, which was crucial for any actor, but you could then, without action, just physically sit at the table but in your mind’s eye, you are transported to another time and place. Normally this only happens when you’re reading but this is a communal experience. This engagement of imagination, which is a solo experience when you’re reading, has now become a communal experience with a group of people and with continuing the shared experience, become a tribe! This is fascinating to me because as an academic; it’s like what theatre does for people. Why do people love live theatre is because they’re in the same space, there’s a certain energy when people are telling a story and presenting it to you. That level of engrossment and level of investment is completely different. So tabletop Role-Playing Games are on a completely different level when it comes to experiences in general! You talk about escapism, yes! It is escapism but games have been such a big part of humanity for so long! And as you can tell.. I wrote papers on this… shtuff. So yeah, Role-Playing Games. Awesome! (Sheena: There were footnotes that appeared as he spoke)
Lisa: I agree with everything that is said. I would have said the same thing but a lot simpler. But not having played any of these kinds of games before, for all the games I’ve played, there’s usually a standard winner and loser, we’re all competing against each other, but I love that this one doesn’t have that same kind of traditional ‘there’s a winner and there’s a loser’ kind of thing? The winning element is that all of us are having fun together? Which I really enjoy and that to me is new! And so far it has been a lot of fun.
Cheryl (the elusive Producer who’s mentioned but never seen on the show): What brings me to D&D. Erm, one day my friend just introduced me to watching it and I was like ‘cool’. And then another friend approached me and said ‘why don’t we do a stream’ and I was like ‘cool!’ I remember the pitch being specifically ‘Are you able to do video editing’ and I was like ‘Yes, in my very limited capacity as a design student’ and than it became more.
Ramji: Along the way we played a D&D game too.
Just to add on to what Ed was saying earlier as I had spent some time thinking. You asked what were the things that you liked and don’t like about RPGs, and one of the big things, as Ed mentioned earlier, is the difference between playing a RPG game , even an online MMO (massive multiplayer online), versus playing a Role-Playing Game physically with friends. To me, a lot of it has to do with the nature of inclusion and exclusion from social groups.
A computer game in a multi-player MMO type scenario, is a tenuously inclusive activity. Yes, you are building relationships with people online, and there are still people I know vaguely from old EverQuest, Warcraft or Eve Online guilds/corps – but those things are because of social relationships that were pre-existing or reinforced out of game more than anything else, right?
Computer gaming doesn’t do that much in terms of helping me as an individual be included into a society – and if anything we see the extremes of personality online, rather than allowing society to mediate troll behaviour.
Around a table, or in a game shop, players interact with other people and build community; they get to know each other through constructed personas (characters) and engage in a shared communal storytelling experience. To me, it’s a hugely significant and substantial thing. Our society these days is not well structured for creating these experiences.
It used to be, we’d sit around the fire and the village elders would tell stories about everyone; about the hunt, the harvest and just foolish and funny tales; all of us would go through the necessary social shaming and be accepted to the community – and we all have stories we could tell of each other , and of those in the community that had gone – so that 30 years on – we would have stories that we could pass on to our children about these other people, places and acts. And through these myths and stories, it would create social cohesion – a culture if you like.
And that acts as a strong counterforce of the reality of our modern world – which is built on exclusion. To a social animal like us, the harshest thing is to be excluded. In Human society, the most terrible punishment to be pushed to the edge of the community and forcibly excluded from it – either to protect the community, or to punish an individual – and yet, modern life creates a lot of this pressure naturally.
We’re in a World where, as Jo particularly mentioned, Covid right; we are experiencing this is incredibly secluding time. Where if you didn’t have friends around you, what would you do?
During the hardest parts of Circuit Breaker – where everyone sat at home in apartments – if you had close family with you, as much of a struggle as it is for some people, at least you have that (though worse for some if you don’t have a good relationship with your family). But if you don’t have that then you’ve got no human contact, how do you maintain your sanity? How do you reach out to people? How do you actually build relationships?
Especially if you’re not particularly good at doing that. Especially If you don’t have the social skills taught to you, if growing up, you’re not encouraged to be vulnerable or you’re not encouraged to be genuine. Let’s be honest: our cultures don’t encourage you to be vulnerable or genuine. Like not with strangers. That makes it hard in this World.
So for me, 20 plus years ago and still to this day, D&D and RPGs provide me a way to offer my unfiltered self – but in a relatively safe way. As an adult, I’m more robust these days, I stopped giving effs a long time ago, that’s because I’ve done a lot, lived a lot and stopped giving effs! But lots of people haven’t! And that’s a remarkable thing that’s happened that RPGs have that computer game RPGs probably will never have. Which is why I like games that focus like we do on narrative storytelling. Yeah, I like loot, I like playing monsters, I like playing stupid voices, but yeah it’s the shared communal story. I like having stories later on that after we turn the lights off at the end for the day, we just giggle for 10 minutes because someone had did something stupid. Or someone did something amazing and like WOW that one is going to be story to tell and it’s going to be a story to tell for years to come! That’s a memory we created together. It’s the intrinsically inclusive memory thing that I think what inspires me.
Jo: As a few of us have come from acting backgrounds, I think it’s great to be able to explore a character, but there’s a divorce between playwriting or script writing and performance and of course directing. There is a limit and boundaries of how much you can explore a character, but for an RPG, it’s great because you’re almost all those roles in one and you get to play different things.
Something that has fascinated me is the playing of gender. I think that in Singapore it’s still difficult to play with a gender that is different to the one that you’re born to? So I think that RPGs are great in the sense that you can do whatever the hell you want! And I find that incredibly liberating. Just continuing beyond the scope of a performance for months or whatever, then you figure out the relationships with the people around you and whether they like, hate you or you become a more bonded party.
Q: So how did The Fourth Culture come about?
Ramji: I became quite interested in this theme in particular, I talked with a bunch of friends and it echoed again and again, the nature of identity. Especially for me, technically you are pigeon-holed into being from 1 culture, but I’ve never been of that culture? Then I grew up somewhere else and I lived somewhere else and my accent is somewhere else. I married someone from somewhere else and than I divorced that person and married someone from somewhere else, and as a result, eff knows where I’m from! And I don’t know what my culture is. But lots of people line up and tell me what it should be all the time!
And as I spoke with people especially in Singapore, there’s a huge resonance of that. Once you get past the ‘no everything is fine, everything is perfect’, Yeah, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Chinese-Peranakan, or Chinese or Malay or Indian from any other countries that people come here on Work-Permits or you’re from the UK and you’re on Employment Pass. Everyone has the same identity struggles in many ways. That’s clearly a theme and that lots of people write a bout it.
It also occurred to me that there are very few stories told from an Asian perspective for a game like D&D, which is intrinsically usually knights, castles, wizards, warlocks. Think about your Harry Potter and everything else, that aren’t pastiche to Asian culture. That aren’t flying through the air with swords, not saying there’s anything wrong at all, they’re all meaningful pieces of works. Like Mulan with Dragons is not the goal. But more like people get to explore back to versions of Asian history that most people don’t learn about in school here. And wander back to a era of pro-typical Khmer Empire and work your way Westward but don’t do it consciously? I was very curious about these ideas and well then, how do I make this happen?
I pitched the idea to my regular Saturday group who looked at me as if saying ‘no I’m not going on the stream, what are you an idiot?’ Ok so that’s not going to work. So I reached out to some friends who put me in touch with Sheena. Sheena had played with Ed and Jo before so I was looking for folks who had acting or improv experience or wouldn’t be camera shy. The goal was not to produce a program based on D&D but was to have a relatively faithful D&D game. But also not to have it be overly handicapped by amateurs like me!
Then practically we had a few practice sessions, played a few games to kind of get acquainted with each other and everyone who kind of liked to tell stories and make jokes kind of showed up! Which is kind of cool.
Q: Do any of you have any Role Playing goals you’d like to try? eg. Learning to DM, try to be more in character, paint miniatures etc.
Sheena: Well, I think I’ve kind of dabbled a bit in a lot of things. I have DMed before, it was a horrible experience, I’ll never try it again. Because it’s like very different when you’re DMing and you’re playing a character. As a DM, you have a much bigger scope that you have to work on and your players have to trust that you know what you’re doing? So they weren’t trusting of what I was doing!! It was bad.
Anyway, I do a bit of painting as well. Usually with the MANY board games my husband buys (especially CMON games). They’re very nice to paint! There’re just SO MANY! I have another D&D campaign I play on a weekly basis so every time we start a new campaign, we start a new batch of HeroForge miniatures. The first few campaigns, I was the official designated painter, than later I was like ENOUGH, Y’ALL PAINTING YOUR OWN. (Ed adds: ‘Sheena is very good at it’ for which Sheena says ‘Ok lah!) So there’s been a bit of dabbling, but the fun thing about games is that you’re welcome to try and there’s nothing to hold you back except maybe money (everyone laughs loudly) and time. You can do it, you can fail and you still can have a good time!
Jo: I’ve always had this unhealthy obsession with, I don’t actually do it but, I admire cosplayers. So maybe the closest things I would like to do is cultivate a set of abs. (Ramji: We’re going to get a stream goal for this!) Because Barra, the character I’m playing, is constantly flashing his abs like everywhere he goes. So I’ve threatened the other players that if I get a set of abs, I’m just going to stand up randomly during the stream and flash them even though my face is cut off and just go UUHHH~ so you can see abs there. So if I have abs, that’s what you’ll see there, just a set of abs talking for the entire game (Sheena: draw a face on them or something) But anyway, if I ever learn to sew, maybe I’ll do something. I’m bad at it, I failed Home Econs. (Sheena adds that she knows how to sew, she went for private classes)
Edward: Ever since I’ve been a teenager, so it’s been over 2 decades now, every time I’ve had a character in an RPG, I’ve been obsessed with it, like non-stop. I would think about it NON-STOP. But I can’t help it! I just love the characters I’ve created! I just love the games, it’s just a thing! Now that I’m able to just share it with people, that’s quite nice too! I wouldn’t call it an unhealthy obsession but as I’ve become professionally as an actor, I bring this to my roles as well. I do a shxt ton of research for my work and I realize, that’s just how I work! If I’m gonna inhabit the skin of another character, I do a shxt ton of research! So I think a lot, so it’s quite nice to DO IT and let others see the fruits of my obsession! (Jo: ‘by the way, not all actors do this, there are different types of training) It’s just MY PROCESS, I actually need to do this. <makes robot noise> PROCESS!
Lisa: I’m still a beginner so I’m still learning the ways of this world? So I don’t have any plans to chase anything as of yet?
Cheryl (the illusive producer) : Erm.. maybe appearing as an anonymous player on the stream? Maybe just speaking from behind the sound booth back here. But actually, more so on the production aspect of things, this is all completely new to me, I definitely don’t know sound design or anything like that, (Ramji: I think you’ve done pretty well thus far!) I just try to make things work.
Ramji: I actually have the world’s largest backlog of Warhammer models to do but I’ll never get round to it since I’ve fallen in love with this project! I’d just like to see how much we can do with this. There’s so much opportunity to explore everybody’s characters and the character dynamics. For me as the Dungeon Master, there’s all the rest of the world to think through and plot and scheme and yeah, there really is a lot to do.
Q: Where do you see The Fourth Culture going in the future?
Ramji: Well it’s rather like Bill and Ted where people look back and it was actually The Fourth Culture that brought peace to humanity! Rather like how God Gave Rock and Roll to us, D&D gave us a sense of meaningful choice! No of course not, but it would be amazing I think for a group of people who get along well enough to spend a day a week playing D&D and to entertain a few thousand people, such that we could continue to do so. To think too much beyond that would be a pipe dream so we’ll start where we can.
Q: What is your most memorable moment on the stream thus far?
Sheena: Mirrors, man. (everyone yells: YEAHH!)
Edward: Somebody worked out that it was less than a 6% chance for Jo to have made those 2 rolls. So to explain, Jo’s character has a Wisdom score of 0, and she passed 2 Wisdom saves rolling 18 and a 19, while everyone else just flunked it. Like EVERYONE and everyone got trapped. Like it would have been a TPK (total party kill) if she failed. But no! The dumbest character, Wisdom wise survived!
Jo: So as far as we can tell, mirrors in this world are quite dangerous. They take you to different places and trap you in things. So far the person who is the most comfortable with his own appearance who loves looking at mirrors, has had no problems with them! The rest of the party however has been transported to all sorts of dangerous places.
Sheena: Barra is like gonna develop like mirror immunity or something. Magic mirrors do nothing to you.
Q: In closing: Could you share a message for the readers as your character!
Sheena: <As Yrsa, in her thick singlish accent> I tell y’all ah, y’all better watch us on The Fourth Culture, ok? We are the best! Some say, in Urtu, and beyond! Ah!
Edward: <as Kaman>I would like to encourage everyone to look pass their immediate reality and open their minds to the possibilities of the metaphysics of the imagination.
Lisa: <as Kie Nao> Trust your team!
Cheryl (the illusive producer): Thanks for watching! Thanks for bearing with sound issues and enjoy what they’ve put up! It’s good stuff!
Ramji: I don’t play any characters (everyone: but you play all of them!) then I would say, don’t be afraid to look like an idiot. This is the most fun you could probably have with a bunch of people who sit around the table, with their clothes on!
Jo: Barra just decides to stare smolderingly into the camera and say nothing. He decides to let his abs do the talking.
Thanks guys for your warmth and hospitality! It was certainly a great time talking with all of you! Catch The Fourth Culture streaming on Twitch on Mondays, 7pm SG Time! Help them hit 1,000 Subscribers! Please cheer them on with your bits! You can also drop them tips on Ko-Fi!
You can also check out the World of Urtu on The Fourth Culture Subreddit! Please join, comment, and chat! Watch the show from the very beginning on YouTube!
You can also get updates from their Instagram and Twitter
Learn more about the performers on their Instagram/ Twitter!
Sheena Chan (@mrschappsmusings) who plays Yrsa
Lisa Yeo (@annapicklelisa) who plays Kie Nao
Jo Tan (@jodecro) who plays Barra
Edward Choy (@choyedward) who plays Kaman
Ramji Venkateswaran (Twitter: @ramjiv) as the DM
Enjoy watching the game? Why not start your own adventures with your friends!
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