Thursday, June 9, 2016

Discovering the Hill Cantons: Some Questions for Chris Kutalik

As any reader of my blog knows, setting creation is an interest of mine. With Misty Isles of the Eld out, it seemed like a good time to pique the brain of a consummate rpg world-builder, Chris Kutalik.

Some things you’ve said have given me the impression that the Hill Cantons evolved from earlier settings of yours or at least revisions of earlier setting ideas. Is that the case? What relationship does the current setting bare to the ur-Cantons?

I had played a couple months of 3.5 (my only exposure) in an Austin's friends immediately before launching the Hill Cantons in early 2009—but it was the first time that I had played a tabletop rpg after an almost 25-year break. I had fallen back into my first love, historical miniature wargaming, three years before (mostly for the zen of painting miniatures over frigid Detroit winters).

Starting to think about actually running a campaign just opened up the flood gates of my imagination, but the first rush of things was heavily influenced by the hobby-driven reading of periods I was painting armies for. The pike and shot era (16th-17th century) was pretty high on that list and it just clicked with my deep impressions of the whitewashed Slovak towns I lived in with their baroque chapels and museums to forgotten wars against the Turks. And my brain was on fire with Henryk Sienkiewicz's trilogy (With Fire and Sword, the Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe),  a series set in the anarchic steppe wilderness of the then immense Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. I just knew that my game had to have broad-mustachioed, fierce (but noble) cossacks, feathered hussars and the great sweep of a vast, hotly-contested borderlands. That vision melded in my mind with my own personal obsession  with the heretic-driven battles and social upheaval of Bohemia of the Hussite Wars. So the ur-Cantons was something much more of a thinnly-skinned, mush up of a real world time and place—very much the setting of a historical wargamer in other words.

But a funny thing happened as I got closer to the game and had to design adventure sites.  I revisited on the fiction front old fantasy favorites like Jack Vance. Lyonesse in particular swept me away and the tone and flavor started seeping in. But even more so in the first year was the gonzo spirit of Holmes basic (my first brush with the game). So you had sleestaks sharing hill tops with wandering, puffy-shirted and slash-hosed landsknechts trading bits of repartee.

In other words all this shit got thrown into a stew that was still pretty distinct at first but increasingly just became its own thing with its own peculiar dynamics.

One thing I love about the published Cantons stuff is the mix of “serious” world-building, pulp fantasy color world-building, and some outright farce (much of which seems drawn from personal experience)? Is that all accidental or do you have a clear idea when you write something whether it feels like the Cantons or doesn’t?

Hmm that's a surprisingly difficult question. I think you hit some of the Big Three in the Hill Cantons, a mixture of: a. my love intellectual exploration of our pre-industrial world (so I will geek out reading an in-depth study of weird-seeming currencies like spiral snail shells and coral cones in Africa that gets translated into a whole giant snail hunting economy inside a ruined, time-shifted city); b.There is a layer of the Hill Cantons that is for sure accidental in that it evolves straight out of the unpredicatibility of play in a long campaign with beautifully anarchic players. So you have on-the-spot creation and co-creation that come straight out of the whimsy of the moment. Like when Cole (who plays the murderous clown Taurus) asked me in the middle of a session, “how do you have half orcs but no vanilla humanoids in your world?” Which led to a whole somewhat hilarious narrative between the two of us about how orc slave-lovers were a hotly-fought over population in the decadent Hyperborean civilization yadda yadda.

But most of it is not purely accidental, yet also not totally intentional in the strictest sense of the word. Mostly when I am writing or just ruminating on the setting there is a huge amount of free association involved and it's occasionally quirky ass stuff well out what I normally draw on when thinking about D&D and rpgs. So the usual wells are books or personal experiences.

The humor often comes out of the particular dry, pessimistic strain of  Czech humor with its two souls of low humor farce and absurd, subtle satire (put together in some of the Czech classics like Hasek's Good Corporal Svejk) and that's as much or more about my upbringing as its my reading. Like you can hear the dark humor of my dad channeled into a lot of those places in the Cantons.

I think it explains my attraction to Vance's picaresque writing and how his tone and thematic attention to the absurdity of human social and religious mores show up a lot in the world. (You know, when it's not just killing creatures and taking their shit in a dungeon.)

So you know the players run into a buzz-saw-wielding Human Resources bot repeating “downsizing” or hear rumors of the Isle of Bureaucrats and its troubles with the neighboring Isle of Cannibals. Or encountering (and freeing) the chained and dying Slavic Pagan god, Veles, under a lake near their holding.

Your players (at least on G+) have contributed elements to the Cantons that have appeared in publications? I would think there would have to be something a player has come up with at some point that just didn’t fit with your conception or you just didn’t like. Do you have a canonical Cantons in your read and another at the table (like Barker’s “real Tekumel”) or do you just let it go where it goes?

They have indeed, especially Fever-Dreaming Marlinko which has probably more than a healthy amount of easter eggs and campaign in-jokes. Co-creation has always been something I enjoy in the running of the campaign (you know like that half-orc joke above). I bent the stick back a bit in the published version of Misty Isles, a campaign area that the players have never actually reached. It's for the best perhaps as Marlinko did get some constructive criticism over the in-jokey Church of the Blood Jesus, a syncretistic marriage between the medieval church and local dionsyiac rites founded by a drunk Irish priest player-character. In retrospect I would have cut the entire section. It worked well enough an organic evolving humor bit in the campaign, but it's thematically jarring and perhaps borderline puerile in translation.

That last question is well-timed. I had the good fortune in playing in a Jakallan underworld game at North Texas RPG Con a few days ago with Victor Raymond, a former player in MAR Barker's Thursday Night group. Chatting with him the next day he relayed how often when Barker was asked if such and such NPC created by a EPT gamemaster would fit into his Tekumel, the professor would more often than not say something like “oh yes such and such, I know him well” and then launch into a long discursion about his or her personality and position in the empire. I love to death that embrace of others creativity alongside the absolute confidence, the real sense of weight and reality in your own mindspace world (also what a wonderful bit of showmanship, really).

I'm not there (yet at least). I will freely admit to spending stressful hours at work or late insomnia nights ruminating and day-dreaming about totally non-game related parts of the setting like what a typical day is like in the streets of Marlinko, but really it's much more of a place that evolves with the needs and events of the game. It's very much still just a place to sustain D&D like things in other words.

Well mostly.

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