Published by Magpie Games, Cartel is ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’. What this means is that it uses the mechanics first seen in Apocalypse World, the 2010 roleplaying game which won the 2010 Indie RPG Award and 2011 Golden Geek RPG of the year and is from the designer of Dogs in the Vineyard. The core of these mechanics is a roll of two six-sided dice, with results of ten or more counting as a complete success, results of between seven and nine as a partial success—or ‘yes, but’, and results of six or less counting as a failure with consequences—or ‘no, but’. The dice are rolled against actions or ‘Moves’. For example, ‘Propose a Deal’. When ten or more is rolled for this Move, the other person accepts the terms of the proposed deal or suffers Stress, but if seven, eight, or nine are rolled, then the other person either accepts the offer and declaims authority for doing so, accepts and adjusts the price, or suggests another interested party. To this roll is added a stat, which typically ranges in value between -2 and +2. The four stats in Cartel are Face (social influence), Grit (tenacity and good fortune), Hustle (fast talk and persuasion), and Savagery (violence and reading others).
In a game ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’, what a character knows or can do—their Moves—are defined by their archetype or Playbook. Cartel itself gives six Playbooks. These are ‘El Concinero’, who cooks or manufactures the drugs; ‘La Esposa’, the spouse entangled in the lies of their partner; ‘El Halcón’, the ambitious young gang member; ‘El Narco’, the local boss in charge of an area or la plaza; ‘La Polizeta’, the cop corrupted by the cartel as much as he is trying to bring it down; and ‘La Sicaria’, the cartel veteran enforcer or killer who has managed to survive thus far. All six Playbooks have access to a number of basic Moves, including Justify Your Behaviour, Propose a Deal, Push Your Luck, Get the Truth, Pressure Someone, Turn to Violence, Size Someone Up, Strain Your Finances, and Help/Interfere. The majority of the Moves unique to a Playbook provide bonuses or enhancements to other Moves. So for example, La Esposa’s ‘Amor y Matrimonio’ grants them a +1 bonus when persuading a member of la familia to do the right thing. Others work more like the basic Moves, such as ‘Hermano’ for El Halcón. This gets El Halcón’s ‘Pandilla’ or trio of cohorts to follow his lead and do something dangerous. On a roll of ten plus, the Pandilla agrees to go along with El Halcón’s, following his instructions precisely without demanding cash or drugs; on a roll of seven, eight, or nine, they only agree to one of these conditions; and on a miss, the Pandilla simply argues amongst themselves and screws up El Halcón’s plans before they can be acted upon.
Besides Moves, each Playbook has Extras and Llaves—or Keys. Extras represent a Playbook’s connections or resources, essentially their support. So El Concinero has a lab where the drugs are cooked, La Esposa a family and obligations, El Halcón his loyal Pandilla or gang, El Narco a Plaza through which drugs are moved and sold, La Polizeta connections to an anti-cartel taskforce, and La Sicaria his weapons and gear, which represent how they carry out his tasks. Each Key or Llave represents a means of a character gaining Experience Points. Thus El Narco has Dirty Hands, Family, and Paranoia. The first grants him Experience Points when he personally gets involved in a messy situation; the second when he violates the members’ boundaries to protect them; and the third when he gets the truth out of someone about their true loyalties. Earned Experience Points are spent on Advances which range from improved Stats and support options to new Moves and resolving support issues.
Character creation in Cartel is in part a collaborative process. Each player selects a Playbook—ideally Cartel should be played by six roleplayers as well as the Master of Ceremonies (as the Game Master is known)—and works through the options it gives, deciding on a name, look, and gear as well as adjusting a Stat and deciding on Moves, Llaves, and connections or resources. Each player also establishes ‘Los Enlaces’ or links with other characters, ideally other the player characters, but NPCs are acceptable too. Guiding the players through this process is the Master of Ceremonies—as the Game Master is known in ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ Games—who will be asking questions and helping to build the relationships and backgrounds to each of the player characters.
In play, this is the primary role of the Master of Ceremonies, to ask questions, push and prompt the players, and build their characters’ involvement in the setting. For this she has the Moves of the NPCs and for an explanation of those she will need access to a copy of Apocalypse World. The advice in Cartel is short and to the point, covering her role and notably, what each of the Playbooks is looking for in play and providing an example of actual play.
For example, El Coninero, Yolanda, has problem—the shipments she is sending out are arriving short, so she wants to ask El Halcón, Pepe, if he knows anything about this. Having cornered Pepe, Yolanda says to him, “Hey, Pepe, my last shipment came up short. This is isn’t the first time. What do know about it?” The Master of Ceremonies says that this is a ‘Get the Truth’ Move. Yolanda’s player has to roll the dice and add her Hustle, which is +1. Her player rolls six, but the +1 makes it a seven. This is not a complete success, but it is a hit and Yolanda does get to reduce her Stress (well, she is going to get some of the truth after all). The options are that Pepe can not mislead Yolanda with the truth, confuse her with falsehoods, or stonewall her with silence. If Yolanda’s player had rolled ten or more, her player could have selected two of these options, but can only choose one because of the roll. Yolanda’s player opts for Pepe not confusing her with falsehoods, which means that Pepe cannot lie. He responds with, “Look Yolanda, it was me, okay? I’ve been selling it on the streets. I had too though… there’s some dumbass cop taking a bigger cut of my pandillo’s money. He’s not one of ours, so…”Damage in Cartel—and other ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ games—is handled as either Stress or Harm. The first represents mental damage, whilst the second is physical damage. Both are greatly deleterious to a character’s wellbeing. Interestingly, whilst the outcome of the ‘Turn to Violence’ Move will inflict Harm on the intended victim, it also inflicts Stress on the person doing it. Should a character suffer from too much Stress or Harm, then a player can clear by undertaking certain related Moves. For example, ‘Verbally Abuse or Shame’ or ‘Lose Yourself in a Substance’ as Stress Moves and ‘When You Get Fucking Shot’ as a Harm Move. Most damage-related Moves inflict Stress though and when a character suffers enough Stress, a Stress Move is obligatory. Stress Moves invariably have negative consequences as much as they relieve a character of Stress and further add to the drama of the game.
In terms of background, Cartel offers details of the city of Durango in Mexico, located between Mexico City and the US border, near the Pacific coast. This is part of the Sinaloa Cartel’s territory, although there are rival cartels working the area. It is here that the player characters are supplying, working, operating, and protecting a plaza, essentially a personal territory they are responsible for. Both the cartels and the law are covered as well several examples of life living under the cartels.
Physically, Cartel is tightly written with a strong focus on its genre. The artwork available has a slightly cartoon quality, but works nonetheless. Notably, the book is written to represent a Latino view of the drug culture by being set south of the border and so uses a lot of Hispanic slang (which may not be familiar to every reader).
As it currently stands, Cartel is a game with a number of issues. The only versions available are the quick-start and the Ashcan. The former is a full-colour PDF, whilst the latter is a black and white booklet without the art. With either version, Cartel is not complete and the Master of Ceremonies at the very least should have access to a copy of Apocalypse World and some experience in the role. Also, as much as the game is inspired by the television series Breaking Bad—it is actually very easy to map the characters of that series onto the Playbooks of Cartel—it is not written to emulate that series. It is specifically written with Mexico and the Latino experience in mind, and that may well be alien to some of the game’s audience. Plus of course, the subject matter and the dramatic turns which the play of the game is likely to take, mean that Cartel is very much a game for a mature audience.
As written though, Cartel is rich in possibilities and drama. The tensions and obligations leap off the page and beg to be played, the quick-start or ashcan edition providing material enough for a short, if intense campaign.
The full version of Cartel: Mexican Narcofiction Powered by the Apocalypse is currently being funded via Kickstarter.