Naja Yusoff is a geek who works at Perbadanan Kota Buku, where she promotes the reading and learning culture in Malaysia. Since discovering the world of tabletop roleplaying, Naja has become an advocate for these games, especially roleplaying games, and their benefits in encouraging reading and learning.
Earlier this year, Naja organised a workshop on “Gamification of Storytelling” together with Vivae Boardgame Cafe. At this event, Naja worked with gamemasters from the local RPG community to introduce educators to roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Our Last Best Hope. It was quite the eye-opener for the participants, who were mainly primary school teachers.
We got together with Naja to find out more about her work. What are Future Books? How can RPGs benefit the local book ecosystem? And what hidden truth did D&D reveal in the schoolteachers?
Let’s start by introducing yourself. Who is Naja Yusoff and what do you do?
My full name is Rusnajaa Mohd Yusoff, but everyone calls me Naja. I am a bookworm, game enthusiast, and love learning new things. My occupation is coordinator for Kota Buku Academy and research executive at Perbadanan Kota Buku.
As an academy coordinator, I am responsible for planning out the courses and training workshops for the entire year. I handle almost everything from planning, managing, marketing, and the reporting once it’s over.
Correct me if I’m wrong, Kota Buku was established to be Malaysia’s book centre. So it’s supposed to support the local publishing and writing industry, correct?
Correct. When we were established, the existing agencies that handle the book industry were baffled on how to categorize us. We took it upon ourselves to handle the digital aspect of publishing, since no one was talking about it, and Malaysia sorely lacks expertise in dealing with it.
The biggest challenge for me as the academy coordinator is to provide courses that deal with Future Books, and new ways of dealing with content for the digital economy.
Your courses cover all the different aspects of publishing, and so on, and you’re in charge of determining what programmes to run?
Correct. It is a huge topic to grapple with, so we only focus on Future Books, because we realized that once digital comes into the picture, book publishing takes on a different form, and also highlights a side of content that we have never thought of before.
So how ready are Malaysian authors and publishers for ebooks and digital books?
They are very much aware of ebooks. but when you say ‘digital books’, that’s a very loose term for something quite vast (laughs). The easiest way to understand ebooks is that they are printed books in digital form, and you use them pretty much like normal, printed books. Digital newspapers and magazines also fall under this category. they might have interactive elements such as audio, video and hyperlinks, but that’s pretty much it. It’s very static and straightforward.
Digital books however, take the essence of the book, which we term as “content” and give it a different form. At Kota Buku, we like to call it “Future Book,” the book of the future. This part is difficult to define since there has yet to be an academic definition on digital books and digital reading.
Are there any good examples out there of what an ideal digital book is?
Check out this video:
How would you categorize that product?
So I see this digital book has multimedia content…and you interact it with intuitive touch UI. The windmill thing is kind of gimmicky.
Yup. What kind of traditional book does that? It’s crazy that it came out in 2011, and we’re still talking about the troubles of digitizing ebooks today – at least, here in Malaysia.
Is there a platform that is easy for any creator to get into?
Well, there is one platform where creators can make ebooks in EPUB 3 format. it’s a Malaysian-made platform called eStudio.
This one is a bit of the downgrade from what you saw in the video. But still, Malaysian publishers are not willing to spend on something like this. And the Malaysian market is also slow to respond, so nobody wins…yet.
(eStudio is behind the Malaysian National Library‘s ebook lending system)
So you are also a research executive. What does that mean? Do you seek out these technologies and partners to work with?
Yes. It is a part of our advocacy work to bring awareness of Future Books to not only the book industry, but also other industries as well, like the digital and tech sectors. We help funnel that information to the book industry and its players, like writers, publishers and book associations.
How much do you set the agenda of Kota Buku in deciding what to focus on, what to push, what to teach? Or is that above your head?
I sometimes get over my head on what kinds of training to provide. My senior manager, En. Hasri Hasan, often has to pull me back down! Because more often than not, Malaysian writers and industry players are not willing to invest in something so radical and new (laughs).
Still, it’s good someone is pushing the envelope! So, moving to RPGs…did you discover RPGs because of research for work?
Something like that. I was always into gaming, and my favorite video game genre is RPGs. While looking into it, I guess the Facebook algorithm picked it up and I saw an ad for KotakCon 2016. That’s where I met Gray Ham and got introduced to the RPG scene. I knew about D&D beforehand, but i never experienced it.
Also, I remember there was an event happening at Frankfurt Bookfair 2016 where it highlighted a new video game that was adapted from Ken Follett’s novel, “The Pillars of the Earth.” It was my justification that a good book can be adapted into various forms of media, not just for film. i’m a die-hard Persona fan (the video game) so that’s how it all connected for me. And it was a good example of how something that was inspired by the works of Carl Jung’s work and research (books) gets turned into a video game, and the publishers get creative with the IP. Now there’s merchandise, cosplay, manga adaptations, anime, and guidebooks.
What was your first RPG session? What was it like and what did you enjoy most?
My first RPG session didn’t happen until All Aboard’s Free RPG Day. That’s when i got a taste of rolling dice. It was Pathfinder. Just a short campaign. I think the gamemaster was Tim. I didn’t keep in touch with him after that. Too much was going on for me to keep up with RPGs. But I did keep up to date with RPGs by watching related content on YouTube, like Critical Role, Mann Shorts and such.
What would you say is your favourite thing about RPGs?
It’s the agency that it gives you as part of the story. You determine what action to take, and what choices you make in determining your growth. Once you understand the rules of the world, you either work with it, or get creative. It’s the best example of adapt or die.
Have you tried games that give players more authorial power? Powered by the Apocalypse and other storygames, for example?
I have yet to play other RPGs like the ones you mentioned. I am interested in exploring though, whenever I’m free from other obligations.
I do have plans to introduce RPGs to the writers that we work with. It’s a workshop I call “Gamification of Storytelling” in partnership with Vivae Boardgame Cafe. We held the pilot session last March.
How did it start? Was it your idea, or did Vivae suggest it?
I was the one who suggested it to Vivae, after I attended their Intro to D&D sessions. The owner, Abraham, was more than willing to help. They sponsored the place, and also the instructors. I recruited the participants.
It was attended mostly by primary schoolteachers, and since it was a pilot not everything was perfect, but it did open their eyes to the possibilities of adding a gaming element to storytelling.
How many participants and how many instructors?
Two instructors, Paul and Brian. There were 15 participants, split between two games to learn. Paul’s group learned D&D while Brian’s group played Our Last Best Hope.
What was their reaction to roleplaying?
In the D&D group, it took a while to grasp the rules and what roleplaying is about, but once the dice started rolling, some of them revealed a side that I rarely see in teachers: bloodlust (laughs).
Yes, D&D brings out the violent side sometimes.
In the other game, Brian had to tegur them not to be so uptight and let go of their control (because they’re teachers) and once they got into the spirit of becoming another character, the story progressed a lot more smoothly.
They lamented that the workshop was too short (laughs). That was the best feedback. but being teachers, they were gung-ho about how to implement it in their lessons.
Did many of them keep in touch to ask you for more info?
No, unfortunately. I might have to get in touch with their group leader to arrange a meeting of sorts to follow up and share more info. I’m still inexperienced in creating a mailing list and newsletter.
I understand there was a language barrier too?
Yeah. One of the teachers could not communicate in English very well. And I understand the disparity because RPG players tend to play in English. It’s because the resources are often provided in English.
(I recommended Naja try Savage Flower Kingdom/Kerajaan Bunga Ganas, a free set of rules by Robertson Sondoh, Jr with a Malay-language version).
So besides a follow-up do you have any other plans right now for your theme of Gamification of Storytelling?
I’m planning on running another workshop, but this time for writers. Right now I’m having trouble communicating with the big writer groups.
We talked about digital books earlier…have you seen what D&D Beyond can do for D&D games?
Interesting, but I’m still in the basic noob stage (laughs). These kinds of business models are also what I want to help educate the industry about. Subscriptions, pay on demand and so on. That’s the digital economy that I was talking about.
So what else are you hoping to do in the RPG scene? How can RPGs and tabletop games benefit Malaysian storytellers, educators and other stakeholders?
The simple answer is to help them break the mould and try out new things.
For educators, so that they can use storytelling to engage students in lessons. Let the students become a part of the story using RPG techniques.
For writers and storytellers, it is to help them extend their IP and create a deeper engagement with their readers at the same time.
As for our stakeholders, it is more about educating them about the possibilities out there thanks to digital technology and the Internet.
Also, RPGs have the hallmarks of Future Books. How we define it is that Future Books have 4 qualities:
But when you talk about an RPG being a Future Book, it’s not quite the same in that the RPG doesn’t need a smart gadget, right?
Future Books don’t necessarily need a smart device. It’s the execution of it that makes it smart, which lies in the skill of the DM. Hence why imho, RPGs can be considered Future Books.
Many thanks to Naja for sharing her work with us! To find out more about Kota Buku and all the activities that Naja helps to organise, you can visit the Kota Buku website, or read the Kota Buku blog, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also follow Kota Buku Academy on Facebook.
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