I grew up in a time where it was unfortunately common to see various real-world cultures added to a fantasy setting, written by white men. In fantasy worlds where reality was formed around the myths and folklore of Europe, there were some unfortunately common tendencies when adding cultures that didn’t share that origin. Often, these other cultures were presented in a manner that was overly dismissive of real cultural differences that existed. They were often presented as being somehow deficient in comparison to the baseline, European-derived cultures of the setting.
Weapons and armor? We need rules to show how deficient their technology was. Magic? We need to make a caricature of their beliefs to create a magic system that may be real but is clearly inferior to the cultures we used as a baseline for this setting. Beliefs about the supernatural? In a world where wizards, dragons, and elves are real, we need to make sure that somehow their metaphysical belief system is presented as being superstitious and demonstrably wrong compared to the baseline we established.
In the end, not only did these supplements misrepresent the cultures that they were stereotyping, they also tended to make them boring and dry compared to the baseline cultures that had European roots. All too often, these cultures were also framed as being subject to the same colonialism in the fantasy world as they were in the real world. Nations based on ancient Greece, dark ages England, and renaissance era France could all co-exist at the same time, but once the culture of a colonized people appeared in the game, they couldn’t be framed by themselves, but only in contrast to their colonizers.
There are still mistakes made today, with white game developers taking on the task of telling the stories of cultures they only know from stories and media, but there are also a growing number of settings that are being approached by marginalized people, bringing a unique and invested perspective in reframing these settings through a lens other than that of the retrospective gaze of white descendants of colonizers. That brings us to today’s review, The Islands of Sina Una, a fifth edition OGL supplement for Dungeons & Dragons featuring the pre-colonial legends and cultures of the Philippines.
I picked up this copy of The Islands of Sina Una on my own and was not provided with a review copy. I have not had the opportunity to use any of the material in this book, but I have extensively played and run games of Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition.
Some sections of this book contain descriptions of harm being done to animals, including using them in fighting sports against one another or being sacrificed as part of rituals. Various monsters engage in acts of cannibalism, and some have graphic descriptions of their appearances, which include exposed internal organs. Some monsters include body horror elements of transformation, and there are also monsters based on unborn children.
Approaching The Island of Sina Una
This review is based on the PDF version of the product. The PDF is 337 pages long, and includes a credits page, a table of contents, a page of dedications, a glossary, a pronunciation guide, and a full-page OGL statement. The book itself has similar formatting to other Dungeons & Dragons products when it comes to the use of headers, sidebars, tables, and stat blocks, although the color scheme and font is unique to this book. The edge of each page has its own decorative border as well. This book is in full color.
There are a lot of talented artists working in RPG circles today, and often I don’t know what to say about the art in a book, even when it is well done. The artwork in this book is stunning. There are a variety of artists and styles, but the overall variety doesn’t feel discordant. The art matches the topics and provides more detail and depth to what is being presented. In addition to quarter and half page images, there are several full-page images, including the depictions of various deities.
Geography (Of the Book)
The book is broken up into four chapters and appendices. Those sections cover the following:
- Chapter One (People, history, adventuring, animism, the afterlife, and the gods)
- Chapter Two (The world, details on the seven islands in the setting, the ocean, and beyond the horizon)
- Chapter Three (Character ancestries, classes, subclasses, backgrounds, feats, equipment, magic items, and spells)
- Chapter Four (Monsters, including The Celestial Eaters, which exist beyond statistics)
- Appendices (The creation process, glossary, and pronunciation guide)
Cosmology and the Supernatural
The supernatural world in The Islands of Sina Una is predicated on animism, that all things have spirits associated with them. Those spirits aren’t just associated with things, but are the spiritual, supernatural side of the physical thing. The greatest, ascended spirits are the gods, but in many places the line between powerful spirit and god is blurred.
In this cosmology, the god of the sky has two families. His original wife remarried after they ended their relationship, and his second wife was a mortal woman, from which his children, the sun and the moon, were born. The younger siblings take turns impersonating their sibling, the Moon, as the various Celestial Eaters wish to devour the moon and bring about the end of the world.
The Goddess of Lost Things, the original wife of the sky god, married the God of Mountains, and their children include the gods of lovers and childbirth, death and mortality, harvest and fertility, and the transition between life and death. Outside of these families, there are the gods of soil, forests, waves, fire, volcanoes, storms, lightning and thunder, and hunters.
Mortal spirits travel down the Black River to the afterlife, which is the flip side of the mortal “half” of the cosmological shell. Some ancestors are allowed to return during very specific festivals, often inhabiting the bodies of reptiles in order to observe and interact with those they have left behind. Spirits that don’t want to make the journey can be dangerous, but those that swim upriver against the flow might be reincarnated as dragonborn, which in this setting look more crocodilian or serpentine in nature.
Various other spirits are more focused on locations, and often interact with mortals, asking tasks from them and bargaining with them to help with local matters, or to live in harmony when they are in proximity with one another. While many of these spirits don’t quite reach the full grandeur of gods, they can be massive sea serpents, giant turtles, or towering spirits of individual volcanoes.
The Celestial Eaters include the following apocalyptic creatures:
- Arimaonga (The lion, who has no malice for the gods, but only playfully wants to eat the moon)
- Bakunawa (The serpent, jealous of the gods of the sky and hungry to devour their beauty)
- Minokawa (The eagle, who like Arimaonga, hunts the moon by nature, and not animosity)
- Tambanokano (The crab, abandoned child of the moon seeking revenge)
- Tambanokua (The spider, that wishes to see what will happen when the moon is gone)
In addition to the spirits and the Celestial Eaters, there are also several named giants who had a hand at forming, intentionally or not, the shape of the islands early on. These giants were tasked with helping to protect mortals from the aswangs in the earliest of days, but Angngalo, the patriarch of these giants, failed in his duties, and the giants are often solitary and sullen.
The aswangs are monsters born of cursed families. They embody various aspects of life that should not be performed by mortals, one of the worst examples being cannibalism, but also representing excesses and repudiation of other important aspects of society. There are many kinds of aswangs, but most of them are supernaturally powerful and resistant to harm from anything other than salt.
In the appendices, there is a discussion of how certain decisions were made in the creation of the book. This includes how certain similar myths from different cultures on the island were consolidated into a single myth, and under what circumstances that happened. There is also some discussion on how reconstructing different myths was complicated by records that were discarded or altered by colonizers.
What Is This World?
The book presents the setting in a manner where you can use just the setting, with minimal connection to a greater world, or as part of an existing campaign world. Each of the islands is introduced by a narrator that is traveling to each of the islands, and within the individual chapters, the passages are often directed specifically towards the reader, telling the reader what they should and shouldn’t avoid and why.
Each one of the islands has entries for demographics, geography, climate and lifestyle, major settlements, and spirits. Demographics will let you know what ancestries are most likely to be found here (from the standard D&D offerings, with a few twists). Geography, climate, and lifestyle work together to give a broader picture of the islands, and how different the weather and environment can make each island from one another. Geography also often introduces some of the more wondrous or supernatural locations on each island. Settlements provide more detail on who lives on the island and what they do, and often provides more context on the history of the island. The section on spirits doesn’t just explain what general types of spirits are present, but the unique spirits on the island, and whatever bargains might have been made with them to promote peace and coexistence. Often, festivals that are associated with the spirit are listed here as well.
The story of these spirits will vary. In some cases, the spirits have long ago grown accustomed to mortals living on their island. In other cases, there is ongoing strife. For example, on Adlawadto, the termite spirits and the people of the island are in conflict due to a misunderstood historical event. The people of Kotabalon rely on Dalagan Balaon to keep the great spider Tambanokua from rising from the pit, and in doing so, they promise not to harm any spiders on the island. The Stone Spirit of Pagtuga is invoked in the Ritual of Forgiveness to help people from Talunan to forget their regrets.
The cosmology of the setting presents the world as a sort of clamshell. The domain of the gods and the sky is the top, and the ocean is the bottom. Where the two join is the horizon. At the horizon, the Black River, which takes the spirits of the dead to the afterlife, terminates, but there is something beyond the edge, which leads to another place, the eyrie of one of the Celestial Eaters, the great eagle.
There are also those that are born on ships and only ever live on the ocean. Parts of the ocean, near the grave of an ancient sea serpent, allow surface dwellers to breathe, but with the danger that they might become poisoned by the anger of the fallen serpent. In addition to these aspects of the ocean floor, another of the Celestial Eaters, the giant crab Tambanokano, lives in a massive basin here.
As with those elements of folklore and mythology, the appendices talk about the decision-making process that went into detailing the islands, and how it was important that individual islands felt different from one another, and had different cultural aspects, so that the pre-colonial islands were not treated as a monoculture that all conformed to the same general standards.
While the larger aspects of the setting, such as the family of gods, underwent some streamlining, the importance of local spirits still makes each island unique in terms of their ceremonies and interactions with the supernatural, beyond just the geography and realities of living on islands with different requirements for day-to-day survival.
Gamification, Part One, Player Options
Anyone that knows me knows that I love to dive into player options like classes and subclasses, and when it comes to reviewing a larger work like this, it takes an incredible act of will to not write hundreds of words on each and every option, so I’m going to dive in and hope I can walk that line between useful analysis and explosive wordcount.
While there isn’t a strong tradition including all the D&D races to the cultures being explored, there have been some changes made to include all the Player’s Handbook races in the setting. While this section applies standard ability score increases to specific abilities in these write-ups, they also reference newer game design that allows for ability score bonuses to be assigned to any score as an option as well.
Humans are unchanged in the setting, mechanically, and elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes get unique subraces. Elves are spirits incarnated in mortal form, tied to balete trees, trees that have a natural connection to the afterlife. Half-elves are not human and elf children, but incarnate spirits that come from the flowers of the islands. The dwarf subrace presented are volcano dwarves, with the ability to form molten armor for themselves. Gold gnomes can give equipment gilded with gold special properties, and halflings are incarnate spirits that come from mangroves, and bear the same markings as those trees.
Tieflings are not associated with fiends but have family ties to fire spirits. Half-orcs are not the children of orcs and humans, but descended from those touched by the deity Haliya, who possesses a tusked mask. Dragonborn, as mentioned in the cosmology section, are ancestral spirits that attempted to swim upstream against the Black River and have been reincarnated as albino humanoid crocodiles or serpents.
The Babaylan has a full spellcasting progression and its own specific spell list. The spells run towards what might be more divine or nature based. Their abayan, or spirit guide, is their spellcasting focus, and a spellcasting “node” that can deliver touch spells or serve as the origin point of spells that would normally originate from the caster. They gain a pool of spirit dice, which are d4s that can be added to the spell attack roll, difficulty, damage, or healing of a spell. There are three subclasses, referred to as callings. One focuses on divination, one on healing, and one on boosting melee combat abilities.
Multiple editions of D&D have attempted a spirit-based spellcaster, with varying results. I really like this one, with a few reservations. The spirit guide can communicate telepathically with the caster, and has truesight, from 1st level. Not only is this effectively access to a 6th level spell from the start of the game, but a later ability of one of the subclasses lets the spirit guide merge with the babaylan and share its truesight. That ability doesn’t bother me, but unless the DM just rules that the spirit guide is cagey about what it sees with truesight, this might subvert some low-level gameplay assumptions. Since save-based spells often have very dramatic effects, and 5e is very concerned with bounded accuracy, I’m also a little concerned with adding spirit dice to the DC of a spell. Hitting a creature or adding damage or healing to a spell effect feels within the range of other boons that character classes hand out, but we don’t often see easily accessed boosts to save DCs.
With all of that said, I really like the feel of this class, from having an NPC to interact with to playing with extra resources like dice, to having a “divine” intelligence caster. This all seems like a lot of fun. From reading it, it feels like it would provide a unique spellcasting experience while still allowing for the typical spellcasting competencies.
The Headhunter is a class that is all about delivering judgment. When someone is wronged, or when someone goes against the natural order, it’s the headhunter’s job to serve judgment on the wrongdoer. In some ways, it’s an amalgam of paladin and ranger, but with the focus of the “oath” being offenses that call for death. Unlike the paladin or the ranger, however, it’s not a half-caster class. Only one of its subclasses grants a spellcasting progression, like the Eldritch Knight or Arcane Trickster.
The core concept of the class is that you can call on your ancestors to provide you extra conviction damage, no more than once per round (so no double-dipping on an attack of opportunity, the way rogues can). You eventually gain the ability to call on your ancestors to ask questions about your quarry, and you gain the standard martial class ability to gain a fighting style. One of those styles, pursuant, gives you a bonus based on the quarry you pick with Rite of Ancestors, which feels like a fighting style that rangers would have liked to have had, if only they had the proper class feature with which to associate it.
At third level, the Headhunter’s subclass is the Hunter’s Omen, which can be either the Omen of Knowledge, the Omen of Strife, or the Omen of Swiftness (which grants spellcasting). Each of these subclasses keys on a different non-physical ability score, which means you will probably want to have an idea of your subclass from level one, even if you don’t take it until level three.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a headhunter class, but I really like what the “story” of the class is, and that it does create a unique playstyle. It feels less explosive than the ability to smite, and it’s also less substantive than the rogue’s sneak attack, but less situational as well. I like having a warrior option that can commune with their ancestors for help, and while it gets access to the cleric spell list with its spellcasting subclass, it feels like the same paradigm of paladin to cleric, and ranger to druid, with this being the “spirit-based” association of a martial class with babaylan.
The other subclasses presented for existing classes are the following:
- Path of the Black River (Barbarian subclass that tracks down renegade souls)
- College of Siday (Bard class that inspires with stories of ancestors)
- Volcano Domain (Cleric)
- Circle of Tides (Druid)
- Kawal (Fighter, a solid bodyguard subclass)
- Way of Kaluluwa (Monk subclass that lets you spend ki to manifest a spirit form that helps you)
- Oath of Blood (Paladin subclass about protecting those in danger)
- Manganwayaw (Ranger subclass about mobility and wearing down an opponent)
- Graverobber (Rogue subclass about learning to use a curse gained while robbing a grave)
- Diwata Bloodline (Sorcerer subclass that is not unlike a druidic version of Divine Soul)
- Moon Eater Patron (Warlock subclass that has one of the Celestial Eaters as a patron)
- Mentala (Wizard subclass that carves scrolls from bamboo and creates expendable scrolls to modify effects of magic on opponents)
I could spend as much time on these as I have the entire review so far, but I’ll summarize with this: these all have fun toys for players to use that are distinct from other core D&D options, and the majority of them do exactly what I want a subclass to do . . . establish a unique story for the subclass with its earliest features.
Other Character Features
I’m not sure if I’ve seen this enough outside of third-party D&D books to say it’s a trend, but this book does something with backgrounds that I prefer to earlier examples. Background features technically (according to the DMG) shouldn’t give specific mechanical benefits, but that vagueness also means that PCs are less likely to reference that feature. These backgrounds present several examples of “in this very specific case you get advantage,” or “once per day, you can do this thing,” and I think that’s easier for a player to reference and interject into gameplay.
There are five new feats. One is the “dip into babaylan abilities” feat, allowing others to gain a babaylan cantrip, a bump to intelligence, and access to spirit dice. Cannoneer lets you learn how to use the setting’s native gunpowder weapons. Headhunting master gives you some extra abilities with a signature weapon. Oceanborn warrior gives you the ability to fight underwater unhindered by giving you a swim speed, and unrelenting hunter gives you a physical boost and the ability to apply a substance to your weapon as a bonus action. The last one dovetails with the poisoner feat from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, but swaps out an ASI for ignoring resistance, and swaps out the tool proficiency and guaranteed poison supply.
Gear and Equipment
Equipment-wise, I’m not sure there is a ton to dwell on. There isn’t much heavy armor in the setting, so if you love your heavy armor, learn to love chain mail. There are a lot of interesting new weapons, and not a few of them include features that let you disassemble them to be used as smaller weapons for less damage in certain circumstances.
There are several pages devoted to boats of different sizes, as you might expect from a setting that takes place among several different islands. The statistics for these boats match how vehicles are presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide but doesn’t reverse engineer the presentation used in Ghosts of Saltmarsh in the same way that, for example, Seas of Vodari did.
What The Islands of Sina Una does that is unique, however, is to create some modular properties for boats that can be applied to a base stat block to customize a boat. For example, a combat-ready boat lets you ignore the loading property of certain weapons mounted on the boat, and the shelter’s rest boat lets you remove two levels of exhaustion when you rest on a boat designed to be used as a home.
There are six pages of setting specific magic items, many of which are tied to the gods, spirits, and monsters already mentioned in other parts of the book. Other items are tied to the class abilities of the newly introduced classes of the setting. My favorite is the golden death mask, which can be placed on the body of someone that has passed away and will transmit 1d4 of the person’s most powerful memories to a living person that wears the mask after is has been placed on the deceased’s face.
There are also six pages of new spells. Many of these are about summoning spirits or the powers of spirits. There are spells to adapt characters to moving in the water, and for various lava-based attacks. There are also spells to utilize moonlight, coral, or colors for different uses. One of my favorites (I’m a simple creature) is celestial chaos, which is a 9th level spell that causes cataclysmic solar flares and moonbeams to erupt all over the place. It’s like giving clerics and druids their very own scary version of meteor swarm that will also convince people the world may be ending. On the other hand, tropical paradise sounds nice, and is a cheaper, more relaxing, slightly less over-the-top version of heroes’ feast.
Gamification Part Two, The Monsters
While you can do a lot of adventuring by exploring the wilds and poking around lost ships on the ocean floor, monsters do say a lot about a setting. Some of these stat blocks quantify creatures mentioned elsewhere in the book. From a D&D standpoint, while these are unique creatures that have their own place in the setting in context, you can still expect to see plant creatures, amalgams of multiple animals, undead, shapeshifters, hags, giants, dragons, merfolk, fey, magical versions of normal animals, and also flying sharks.
|Coconut Crab, Giant||Beast||N/A||3|
|Red Headed Centipede||Beast||N/A||0|
|Spirit, Aspect of Desire||Celestial||Unique||Special (CR 18)|
|Spirit, Aspect of Poison||Fey||Unique||Special (CR 18)|
|Spirit, Aspect of War||Fiend||Unique||Special (CR 18)|
There are so many new creatures presented in this section, but I specifically wanted to point out that all the spirits are given a trait, ideal, bond, and flaw. I really like this, as it reinforces the idea that the spirits are creatures that can be petitioned, bargained with, or otherwise interacted with, and that their desires and personality will make an encounter unique. I like that this informs at least part of the expected play in the setting.
Cautious Reflection I love exploring the design process and having such an open and transparent part of the book that breaks down the decisions made. It was a joy to read.
I love a lot of the mechanical options in this book, and there are great monsters, spells, and magic items. Often when I look at D&D 5e material, I’m looking at what I can borrow for other settings as much as the setting itself. In this case, however, I would ask people to be really careful how you borrow material from a book like this. Taking something out of context goes a long way towards appropriating a culture, and at the very least, understanding the context and introducing as much of that as possible when using this in another campaign is called for.
I had a lot of fun with this review. The book is gorgeous, the setting is engaging, and the mechanics for 5e are fun. I liked the new widgets that got introduced with the babaylan, and I liked how the game rules reinforced story with things like the subclasses or the presentation of the spirits in the monster section. My absolute favorite part of this review, however, was reading through Appendix A: Research, History, and Our Adaptation. I love exploring the design process and having such an open and transparent part of the book that breaks down the decisions made. It was a joy to read.
While I liked the uniform entries in the setting section, and I think they covered all the important bases, from a usability at the table standpoint, I would have loved to have had a separate story hook/adventure outline section for each of the islands. Given some of the paradigm shifts for adventurers from baseline D&D, this is also the kind of setting where I would love to see a full example adventure, and even a broad campaign outline. If there is ever a follow-up adventure for the setting, I will be picking it up.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
There are a lot of reasons to recommend this product. It looks great. It has fun D&D 5e mechanics in it. It has engaging cultural information in it. It has an appendix that fills in any of the gaps in your curiosity by explaining the process by which the book was made. If you are interested in D&D as a game, D&D from a design perspective, or pre-colonial Filipino legends, you aren’t going to be disappointed with this book.
What are some of the cultures you would most like to see envisioned through the eyes of people from that culture, and for what games and genres? What are the games and supplements currently in production from marginalized communities that you are most excited about? We want to hear from you in the comments below!