Cartel: Back in the Saddle

I felt burned out before we left for vacation, and now I’m feeling super stoked for RPGs again! Tonight is Cartel.

For an ashcan, it’s very well developed. I guess I wasn’t sure what to expect but damn, it’s already quite polished. Intimidating, actually, since I’m working on a couple things here and kind of…don’t want to progress my stuff to layout and whatnot as a baseline for eyeballs. Layout is part of the game I guess; Game Chef certainly taught me that as well.

Anyway! Cartel is very tightly focused in its current form: You’re playing elements of the narcotics business in Durango, Mexico. The ashcan has a subset of six playbooks and they all look pretty cool. I’m semi-skeptical of the cook (El Cocinero) only because I’ve always been skeptical of workshoppy type characters.

Setup defines the familia as well as extra-familial characters, super tight and nasty looking relationship map stuff. I won’t know for sure until we spool it out. I have literally nothing at all planned; figure something will pop out of the map once we’ve doodled it out.

Mechanically, the thing that jumps out at me about Cartel (and Urban Shadows!) is that Team Magpie has what I think is a strong affection for widgets and gewgaws. There are a lot of moves of various flavors: basic moves and playbook moves and stress moves (which you can either go and do to blow off Stress, the main damage/oh-shit economy, or just kind of have happen in the course of normal life as a narcotics trafficker) and policia moves (which tests your Heat, a stat that comes baked into the playbook) and drug moves (which the MC imposes on you if you use your product).

Now I want to read Epyllion more closely, see if it’s as mechanically intense as these other Magpie games.

There are also lots of forced moves, inevitable chains of events that start in a way that feels tighter than AW-standard “snowballing” fiction. Actually I think that’s totally perfect for the genre, the sense of events slipping out of control. I’m curious to see if that feels exciting/”fun” or frustrating or what.

I had a long sidebar with Mark Diaz Truman about the game after I got the book and that was interesting. For me, I think the thing that jumped out as pretty novel about this PbtA iteration is the forced-move thing. Stress is the secret sauce that makes the game tick over, and the stress moves are, like all the other moves, both prescriptive and descriptive. And I think that’s when shit is supposed to fall apart in the fiction: you go beat someone up but invoking violence gives you stress, and then in the course of beating someone up you’re gonna trigger one of those Stress Moves unless you’re a total automaton about it (which is terrible defensive roleplay, don’t do that), then that triggers more moves and so on and so on. 

It feels like this style of hack is gonna take some mastery just to know all the moves. And I feel the same way about Urban Shadows! There are inevitable chains of moves baked into that one as well, and they also feel more tightly triggered than other PbtA games I’ve played. Kind of a heavier cognitive load for everyone involved to keep their eyes peeled for moves firing off, because damn there’s no way I’ll know everyone’s shit right out of the gate.

Pretty stoked. Curious to see if the ashcan can support more than a one-shot as well. I think characters die a lot.

12 thoughts on “Cartel: Back in the Saddle”

  1. I just got this in the bundle of holding, but I have not had a chance to read it over yet. I am a PbtA noob and I am really just trying to figure out how this all works. I hope you post about your game, it would be good to hear how others are playing things.

  2. (Already sick to fucking death)

    Epyllion is not as crunched out. Cartel (at least the iteration I played a year ago) is pretty straightforward in play. Cause and effect, not overwhelming.

  3. I’m especially stoked to here your impressions of Cartel. I just finished watching Breaking Bad, and I’m watching the excellent Narcos on Netflix now, for background on how cartels used to be. And I want to run the game, badly–but I’m not sure how to run it. I’m fine with the moves, it’s creating the proper setting and characters and interactions that I’m worried about.

  4. Brian Wille I had the same anxiety going in but I think it is unfounded – the playbooks and moves really paint the picture well. What I am going to need when I run it is a list of names for people and businesses and a map of Durango.

Leave a Reply