Friday, April 28, 2023

You'll want to try Kuauhtla, a Latin American-inspired setting, in your next RPG session

Latin American culture can provide inexhaustible inspiration for heroic fantasy

The Rainbow Age of speculative fiction is also reaching the tabletop gaming scene. We're seeing a fantastic variety of new settings, lore, and worldbuilding principles, caused by an explosion in diversity among game designers and artists. The most notable recent cases are Pathfinder Second Edition's launch of its African-themed setting The Mwangi Expanse and its South Asian-themed setting Impossible Lands, while the massively acclaimed Coyote & Crow is a standalone game set in a never colonized North America.

So, what about Latin America? As it happens, there's a rich selection of new material being produced. Today I'd like to show you a game setting inspired by the myths and traditions of the many Indigenous cultures that live in this vast land: Jungles of Kuauhtla by Fifth Sun Press. I spoke with one of its designers to learn more about what makes this setting unique.

Arturo Serrano from Nerds of a Feather: How did the original idea for Jungles of Kuauhtla emerge?

Mike Chell from Fifth Sun Press: While I started running out official adventures when I first became a DM, after some messy attempts at learning the rules, I quickly found that modules lacked much of the detail I was looking for. Characters were meant to travel for several days and no direction was given, so not long afterwards I began making my own campaigns.
A habit I had developed as a DM was to open my new campaigns with a monologue, often timed to a music track, where I could set the tone and kickstart my players into character.
Kuauhtla was sort of backwards-engineered from me hearing a song and imagining the campaign to which it could have been an intro, that song being, and I'm being serious, Banana Boat Song by Harry Belafonte. It's very much a workers' anthem to me and I saw in my head an image of some dockworkers loading crates onto a zeppelin at a port in the sky. I'll admit I'm not sure where this technological side came from.
After that, it was a step-by-step process. I was running a Ravenloft horror campaign at the moment, but my mind kept returning to this scene—I built onto the world piece by piece until I noticed my creativity had left that horror project entirely. I had friends in South America and even a long-distance partner in Brazil at the time, jungles and pre-Columbian civilizations fascinated me, so I suppose that's where these cultures first came into the mix.
I sat down and got to writing. Not soon after, my party was buzzing down the Uru'arama in the infinite jungles.

AS: Where did you look for the writers and artists for this project?

MC: The creators of Kuauhtla, at least when it was still only a campaign setting for me and my friends, were always just ourselves. We had a great time with it, and we became really proud of what we had made, so proud that we wanted to share it. As soon as we had this idea, we knew that we'd need to get in contact with more Latin American creators, especially for the illustrations.
One of our writers and translators, Bruno, was already in our circle, but for artists we had to scour the internet. We tried to look for Latin American illustrators who had incorporated some aspects of their culture into their art, and we found many incredibly talented people. Some of our artists expressed interest in joining our team, as in getting more hands-on with the project after seeing what we were up to, which was a major stroke of luck for us.

AS: At what stage of development is the project at this moment?

MC: Right now I suppose we've moved into a marketing stage. The ideas of Kuauhtla were solidified even back before we "went public," so to speak; I can be a quite meticulous worldbuilder when I run a campaign. Everyone on the team is trying to save up as much as we can for any kinds of sponsorships. We're all working long, hard hours to give us the best chance we can get for funding. So far we've been very lucky with the support we're getting from other creators who find the project interesting, and we're incredibly grateful for that.
Trying to get people's eyes on the project takes up most of my time now, but I still write on the book itself when I can; even if we don't get funded, we'll continue to build Kuauhtla for ourselves. After all, we were loving it long before any of this.

AS: Which real-world cultures inspired the world of Kuauhtla?

MC: When we're pressed for time, we say "Latin American," but that's an annoyingly broad term.
We've chosen to view the world of Kuauhtla through the lens of a human civilization called the Cities Above, and as the humans of the setting, they harbor the most direct references to real-world cultures. In their ancient history, they consist of multiple in-game groups seeking refuge from the deadly jungles. They resemble pre-Columbian civilizations like the Aztec and Maya, but also more tribal peoples like the Tupi.
After this point in their history, we ran into something of a dilemma. In reality, these pre-Columbian cultures were not allowed to naturally grow after the horrors of European colonialism spread. The history of Latin America is deeply linked to these atrocities, but we didn't want to inject real tragedies into the history of our setting.
The path we chose was for the Cities Above to independently adapt aspects of modern Latin America, which of course includes hints of European architecture and influence. In the end, Kuauhtla is meant to celebrate Latin America's people, both their past and their present, so we want to include all that this enormous culture has to offer.
To exclude what Latin America becomes post-colonialism or to include some magic conquistadors to spread European influence felt wrong, so we simply chose to imagine a fantasy world which can focus on the beauties and not the horrors. Here the ancient evolved into the semi-modern independently from outside influence over centuries, gaining Mexican-styled pueblos in the scrublands, and dense cities inspired by places like São Paulo and Bogotá with old architecture to match.
Since the Cities Above grow naturally, they retain many parts of the ancient cultures, so even the most modern cities can resemble the old Mayan plazas.
There is one more influence that comes into play for the modern age of Kuauhtla. An industrial revolution is sweeping the Cities Above, and we've chosen the American Art Deco style to represent this new age, with a little of the general industrializing Europe to back it up.
All that being said, we do not want to whitewash the real cultures that still push through immense struggles because of imperialism; we want to make clear that Kuauhtla is a fantasy world which chooses to put the focus elsewhere. In the real world, the tragedies should not be ignored or forgotten. This is partly why we intend to donate to ACT, the Amazon Conservation Team. It's our way of giving back and supporting the communities who carry on the cultures we were inspired by.

AS: How did you ensure a respectful representation of elements from real-world cultures?

MC: We knew the only way to truly represent these cultures was for those of us not linked to them to take a step back. We already have writers from Brazil and Chile, but we're committed to bringing more Latin American creators along so that every culture has had a representative thereof look over our work.
Writing is one thing, it can be looked over and edited more freely, but for our art we ensure that only Latin American artists illustrate these themes. To edit or alter an illustration would almost certainly make it less cohesive, so we ensure it's appropriate from the start.

AS: What game systems is Jungles of Kuauhtla compatible with?

MC: As of right now, only 5th-edition Dungeons and Dragons. For the future, we hope to adapt it to Pathfinder 2e as well, but because of the differences between the two systems, it would almost require a separate book. Of course, we intend to fill our campaign guide with as much lore as possible, so an experienced DM could make easy use of the world in a homebrew campaign of any setting.

AS: What unique rules does Jungles of Kuauhtla introduce for character creation?

MC: There are a plethora of new lineages and subclasses to pick from, along with backgrounds and feats, as well as more specific options like eldritch invocations and fighting styles. Some of these we are particularly happy with would be the Gadgeteer rogue and the Primeval druid. The Gadgeteer rogue uses the new technology of the Cities Above to create things like bombs, listening devices, caltrops, and grappling hooks. It allows a player to take over the battlefield and gives them tons of new options to deceive and spy.
A Primeval druid, on the other hand, learns an ancient art from the jungles, which allows them to transform only part of their bodies into animal tools and weaponry. They become monsters as they mix and match the thick hides of crocodiles with the poison of a dart frog, or perhaps grow the forearm of a fearsome gorilla. It's a generalist among the druids, who can fit well into many roles but not quite master any one discipline except grotesqueness.
Backgrounds aren't the most exciting things, but as a setting with an eye for the little details, we knew we had to let players be ordinary people. The classic lineup of backgrounds is often quite restrictive. Our options, such as the Worker and the Proprietor, allow characters to be farmers, store owners, janitors, or market stall merchants. Anyone can be an adventurer, after all.
Lastly, humans are of course not alone on the mountains. They're joined by elves, gnomes, and so on, as you might expect. But they are also joined by the alien Owa, who claim to have arrived on a meteor made of a magical metal. They possess psychic minds and an inhuman culture, so the Owa's districts within the dense cities are hard to miss.
There are also the semi-nomadic Kolash, living on the snowy peaks. Their bodies are made from a porous blue material similar to aerogel, which makes them weaker, but also allows them to bounce around and even fly for short periods of time thanks to a gas stored beneath their skin.
You'll find the llama-men, the Quchi, shepherds of nature, and its fierce protectors. They wander on a holy mission trying to spread the wisdom of preservation to the humans, but they've had to take drastic measures as industry is born.
The jungle also brings new and unthinkable creatures for the players to choose. For example, the Miktlan, demonic spirits with no corporeal form. Feared by all, but in fact among the only fiends to not be evil, the Miktlan can only live by possessing dead bodies and using the powers and skills their hosts once held—until they break, and a new vessel must be found. Your friends will never die for nothing again.

AS: What unique rules does Jungles of Kuauhtla introduce for spellcasting?

MC: Something new we've come up with that evolved from ideas I'd utilized in my own sessions are Specializations. In Kuauhtla, certain spellcasters can go down a path to learn unique talents—this is not something you choose, like a subclass, but instead something you become when you practice certain spells. These spells have unique rules and limitations, and can only be learned by one or two classes.
For example, one of our Specializations is called Witchcraft, and can only be learned by druids or by warlocks who have chosen a new invocation. Witchcraft allows you to make a limited number of magical items, such as potions that can be drunk or thrown at people, or fetishes that can bind spirits to the witch's will. However, to make these items, you have to find a list of ingredients in the game world that will often require additional effort or maybe even a whole session to get your hands on. Substituting ingredients for similar things may work, or it may put you in grave danger—each spell has listed effects for adequate or poor substitutions.
Specializations are best suited for long-term campaigns where the art can slowly be picked up and grow alongside a character. To strengthen this idea, all Specializations also the change the caster if used frequently, giving both negative and positive permanent effects.
For another short example, clerics may practice Mysticism, communing with forces beyond the understanding of even the gods. Such entities can grant enormous power, but you risk madness, death, or worst of all: their attention.

AS: What unique rules does Jungles of Kuauhtla introduce for combat mechanics?

MC: We had made a whole new system for spellcasters, but we knew that the martial classes really needed more new stuff to keep them fresh. Since the start of D&D 5e, all that's been added to them is a few reworks, one or two fighting styles, and subclasses, of course. To us, that just doesn't match the infinite possibilities of the spell system.
But we came up with a solution. Something I've always thought was a little sad is that most weapons have no reason to be used. The list of options is long, but it all boils down to a handful of optimal choices. To combat this issue, and add more to the martials, we've given these classes new special actions that can only be taken with certain weapons.
For example, if you're an acrobatic monk or rogue, you may use a longsword or spear to perform a plunge attack from above your target, dealing extra damage. Experienced fighters or barbarians might use a war pick to negate metal armor. These options make martials seek out a varied arsenal, and give them a reason not to stand in front of an enemy and trade simple attacks until combat ends.

AS: In terms of the player experience you wish to create, what does it feel like to travel through Kuauhtla?

MC: First and foremost, we wanted a setting that appealed to something important to us as players as DMs: details. In most of your standard settings, how do people live? What do they know about the world? Hell, who even rules the country they stand on? Maybe these things aren't relevant for most sessions, but we believe the stories a party can weave become much more interesting when everyone understands their surroundings. A well-detailed world can allow players to make revelations about lore; it can let their backstories easily intertwine with each other's and with any story the DM wants to tell without them needing to bend over backwards. Whenever you explore Kuauhtla, the details will be there to back you up. You can of course choose to ignore them, but removing things on the go is far easier than adding them.
Our world is defined by its dichotomy. That's not to say you only have two options for your experiences, but every diverse location exists either on the mountains, giving close enough proximity to safety and civilization, or in the jungles, where no place is ever truly out of reach of death's iron grasp. There's an insurmountable disparity between the two areas—the mountains are dangerous and exciting in their own right, but nothing survives permanently in the jungle.
When you wander the Cities Above, you'll pass over beautiful country roads, viewing immaculate horizons and quaint brick villages. For me, it's how I imagine paradise, ripe with history and intrigue, delicious food and fresh air. Centuries isolated on the confined mountains have let thousands of mysteries accumulate in every little town and forest, creating especially dense collections in the bustling cities which give the country its name.
It's the perfect place for lower-stakes games, political games, as well as most of your standard D&D stuff. After all, the mountains are only safe in comparison to the jungles; it's still a fantasy world.
The jungles are another story. Really, they can be thought of as an infinite dungeon. There are temporary safe havens and plenty of loot to be found, but below the canopy the wildlife has entered an evolutionary arms race. Imagine what incredibly specific survival strategies already exist here on Earth, and now turn it up to eleven and inject it with magic and psychic powers. Beasts and plant life like this means every step could be your last. You'll uncover ancient abandoned temples and glorious cities filled with the humans whose society has adapted to such a hostile place. Here the adventures are big and bombastic, high-risk, high-reward sessions where you can claim legendary artifacts and discover the truths of the universe—truly, it's a land of gods, where the most epic stories can be told on a daily basis.
I guess to sum it up, we hope Kuauhtla will make you feel something. Whether you're relaxed as you talk to the owner of an old family business, tense as you speak with a government agent, or frightened as you walk through the jungles, we will take the steps to make sure your sessions are brimming with emotion.

AS: What traditional gaming assumptions should one unlearn when entering the world of Kuauhtla?

MC: Normally, while playing a TTRPG, you might roam around without knowing much of the place around you, even though your characters often live in the same regions. There's nothing wrong with books that give you broad-stroke worlds that can be easily filled by a DM with a lot of time and creativity, but the world of Kuauhtla is a place that doesn't forget the little things. Because of our choice of mostly describing only a single country, albeit a somewhat large one, we're able to tell you at least a little about almost everything the Cities Above have to offer. Just like when playing a game in a setting based on a movie, you'll quickly learn and understand the world of Kuauhtla.
When you walk through it, you can see every little detail as part of the story, both the one your DM might be telling and the story of Kuauhtla itself. The setting can evolve like a book as you move through it, because DMs will be informed of all the little pieces and how they fit together.
This style of worldbuilding allows natural stories to emerge. It's great for DMs who want a solid system of consequences or reactions from the world, and it works wonders for player backstories and motivations.
Another strength this gives our world is engaging cities. Playing through campaigns in the past, I've always found even the most detailed towns quite empty, amounting to little more than shopping sessions. When you're in the Cities Above, every settlement feels different; it becomes its own environment, like a forest or a cavern, with its own unique threats and opportunities. These are places for practicing politics, forging alliances, and going on more roleplay-based adventures. Through cooperation with experienced DMs, we can offer the rules, advice, and resources that make cities fun and exciting places to travel to.
In a more concrete sense, something different about Kuauhtla is how it handles the planes, to use a D&D concept. The divine and otherworldly exists in the mundane world; you can find and touch it, though that may be ill-advised. Other planets far away in space often serve the same roles as planes do in other settings. There are, however, still more unique places that can be reached, which forgo the rules of reality, but they serve as less central to the setting's cosmology.
Building on this, we also decided to have most people not be knowledgeable of the otherworldly. No one knows what happens after death, they don't know of all of the gods and don't really understand them either. There are a lot of answers which will be included in the book that even the great scholars of Kuauhtla don't know of. To help players mimic this, keeping the mysteries mysterious if they want to, sections of our book are color-coded. You can see if a page talks about deep arcane mysteries or technological advancements, and if you don't think your character would know those things, you can avoid those parts. Of course, if you are, for example, a religious expert, you can seek out that knowledge specifically as well.

AS: What interesting locations in Kuauhtla are you particularly proud of?

MC: It's very hard to choose, but as a writer I keep returning to a few places that give me a lot of ideas. There's a city called Yaotlan that once surrounded a great institution of learning in ancient times. The Yaotl people were warriors who weren't keen on a life of study, but they'd found mutual benefits from living near this place.
Over time, more and more of the Yaotl learned magic from this institution and it permeated their culture—they became intertwined with this place and were soon some of the most magically gifted people in the Cities Above. When a rival family took power over their mountain and threatened their sovereignty, a split occurred among the Yaotl. Some would bend the knee, while others refused. As tensions rose, those who wanted freedom used their magical prowess to raise Yaotlan into the sky and jam it into the side of the mountain. It was far enough below the plateau that their rivals dared not travel there for fear of the jungle.
Centuries passed. Unbeknownst to the rest of the Cities Above, Yaotlan flourished, and shifted course from the rest of humanity. More isolated than ever, with a population full of passionate, paranoid, and ambitious mages, it became something new entirely. The people changed themselves by arcane manipulation, strengthening themselves, making them something beyond human. At first they fought to defend themselves against the beasts from below that would come to attack the city for food. Their population dwindled, and those who survived were the strongest, the most reclusive, and the least human.
Everyone in the Cities Above assumes Yaotlan long devoid of life, but no one has been there since it moved down the mountain—or at least no one has returned.
Another location I adore is Tolodo, the City of Streetlights. It's the capital of the Cities Above and has been the seat of power for around 500 years. Modernity was born here, and it is evolving at a pace too quick for the city to keep up. Chaos has overtaken the city and its stability is hanging on by a thread due to all the factions growing inside of it: there's the politics, the technology, gangs and cartels, immigrants fighting to gain power in the system, the poor and the wealthy—it's a melting pot where anything could happen. Thousands of paths and stories emerge from the dense streets and spread out all over the mountains.
As the seat of power, the High Council, a group of seven enigmatic politicians who rule the Cities Above, have the most presence here. They're one of my favorite tools when running campaigns in Kuauhtla. To the public, the Council is mysterious but trusted; they were originally publicly elected and had a member from each of the six mountains, and they were born out of a time when trust in government was at its lowest. Dethroning monarchs and peacefuly uniting the mountains made them public heroes.
But things changed. To learn their full story you'll need to read through the book, but now the public isn't even aware of who the seven members are. Only some among them have ever been seen, but even they are certainly not open books. The High Council frantically collects knowledge in secret and runs the Cities with an iron fist disguised as a gentle hand. Don't be deceived: they are brutal utilitarian rulers who would cross every line to keep the Cities safe, and most of those lines were crossed long ago.
Of the sessions I've run in Kuauhtla, Tolodo has played a part in maybe half of them, whether that means performing a heist, dealing with the government, unraveling cartel plots, or just renting an apartment for your party. While other locations create the perfect environments for certain sessions, anything can happen in Tolodo.

AS: What awesome folk monsters should we expect to meet in Kuauhtla?

MC: The nature of South America is filled with fascinating creatures that, if only described, I'd venture most people wouldn't believe exist. You can imagine what that means for the myths that have sprung out of here. Adding on to the ancient religions of Mesoamerica, and the melting pot of cultures in the Caribbean, I'd say that these regions birth some of the most incredible folk monsters that are criminally underused in fantasy.
A majority of the creatures we've found have been undead, various ghosts and ghouls with unique backstories and abilities. We're certain to include some of these, but we're trying to focus on the more monstrous, since terrifying beasts are a big part of Kuauhtla. One such creature we've found is the Yacumama. It's a Quechua myth of an enormous serpent who is mother of all creatures of the water. There are similar legends from Indigenous cultures in Brazil and North America, and since little has been written down of these legends, we've filled some of the gaps by adding aspects of them as well.
In Kuauhtla, the Yacumama was believed to be an ancient godlike creature who ate the Earth to form all the rivers. It was wide enough to swallow a tree without stretching its jaw, and long enough to encircle a village. It had small lungs for its size, but they were still enormous, and the creature could suck in its prey by drawing breath—or blow them away so hard it could knock them out cold. Moving through water, over the earth, and even into stone, nowhere was safe from the Yacumama.
To scare it away, large horns would be blown that mimicked the battle cry of a now unknown beast. Loud noises made the Yacumama retreat, but in the deadly jungles, making so much noise could mean your end.
Perhaps the most frightening part of the Yacumama is that it is no god at all. The snake was nothing but another one of the billions of beasts that stalked the jungles, each worthy of worship in its own right. On the mountains, monsters were more clever, more human. Worst of the monstrous plagues upon humanity are the creatures that were once mortal. One such demon is the Huay Chivo. In real myth it was a Maya legend, a beast-man who knew sorcery and could turn himself into animals, which is a common power for Mesoamerican creatures. Generally it eats livestock and causes trouble.
We went for a more in-lore backstory that makes all Huay Chivo be cursed mortals influenced by the powers of very mighty and evil gods. This influence has turned them insane, leaving behind all of their humanity except for a creative mind. Huay Chivo are clever, conniving demons who love inflicting pain and misery. Like most monsters on the mountains, they tend to stay out of the cities and instead roam the countryside. There the children all sing nursery rhymes that remind them of how to flee from the demon of blood and shadows.
An encounter with a Huay Chivo is most often a surprise. They set up traps and lures to bat in unsuspecting and innocent folk that they can torment and kill. Due to their curse, they can manipulate shadows into a real substance that can be formed into walls and negate magical powers, as well as conjure a flame made of blood that can deal wildly low or high damage. It is an intimidating demon, and most of the time it will be more focused on causing you misery than actually killing you.

AS: What has been the response from playtesters and buyers?

MC: So far, it's been overwhelmingly positive. We have a version of the book which consists of my notes about the setting before we started this project, which includes much of what we hope to put in the campaign guide. There have been a lot of changes both to our campaigns and our character options—nothing is perfect at first, but over time we've reached some really good points for a lot of our material.
On the setting itself, we've also heard only good things. I'm sure there will be many critics when things are fully open to the public, but even from strangers who have seen Kuauhtla we've heard that it is unique and a refreshing step away from the classical fantasy world. All of us who play it in my campaigns are big fans of attention to detail, in-depth backstories, and things like that. Kuauhtla has certainly filled that gap for us.

AS: What's next for Jungles of Kuauhtla? Are you planning any additional rulebooks in the same world?

MC: We're trying hard not to get our hopes up, but we could write a dozen Kuauhtla books if given the chance. Say we do get funded, the next step after our campaign guide would almost certainly be more modules. There's one or maybe two proper modules that'll be included in the guide, but we want to create something large scale with hundreds of branching paths and locations—that'd be the dream. After that, who knows? Perhaps more player options? Or maybe even something set in a land far away from the Cities Above. One book couldn't possibly include everything we want to share about Kuauhtla.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

P.S. Other Latin American-inspired RPG content you might like to try: Koboa, Boricubos, Ngen Mapu, The Way of the Pukona, Nahual, The Elephant & Macaw Banner, New Fire, Brave Zenith.