Mark Diaz Truman’s Cartel finally arrived. It’s a striking book in many ways: weird square form factor, hot pink cover and ribbon. There’s this absolute scumbag of a Mexican drug dealer right there on the cover. He’s covered in blood, there’s banded blocks of cash and a cut-open key of coke, there’s even a righteous moustache. In this day and age, he’s also the boogeyman that about 70 million voters think represents the immigrant population lurking at our border. What an interesting, tragic, fraught time for this game to finally find its way into our hands.
My first exposure to Cartel was in 2015, at my first NewMexicon in Albuquerque. Magpie Games is headquartered there and they had an outsized impact on the con. Tons of Magpie games were on offer. You bet I signed up for Truman to run his baby. I played a tired, remorseless old narco trying to keep his family safe and his operators in line. My wife loved the lifestyle and pretended to not know where the money was coming from. My most trusted lieutenant was obviously more qualified to run the whole operation. My old guy had nothing but tradition and loyalty protecting him.
That first go was so interesting to engage with as a white dude with enough privilege to safely express my feelings about the game’s morality. Is this fun? Am I supposed to be laughing? What’s the correct response to this game? Cartel didn’t provide me any straight answers.
The pitch has not changed since I played that early demo. The characters are tied up in the complex, tense, brutally dangerous world of the drug cartels that have cursed Mexico for decades. This game specifically is set in 2007 Durango, just before smart phones and right before Obama took office in the United States. George W Bush had been trying and mostly failing to address US immigration policy. As a country, we publicly stood by and watched as Mexico tore itself apart while secretly stopping at nothing to keep the violence from spilling over the border.
The point of Cartel is to explore morality in an impossible, yet entirely real, situation. Can you work for or among the cartels and look at yourself in the mirror? What if you have a family to feed? What if you have loved ones to protect? What if you’d like nothing more than to get away from the drug business but it’s got too many hooks in you? That’s all the real stuff around Cartel. It doesn’t hand you a simple position that stops at “the drug business is bad, m’kay?” There are no white hats. You might think playing a CIA agent fighting the cartels would be the paladin, but in many ways they’re the worst of the bunch.
I think Cartel can be a tough game for white America to engage with. It asks players to identify with the real-world right-now tragedy of the drug trade in Mexico. It asks them to empathize with the Mexicans who find themselves tied up with the cartels, mostly not by their choosing (but maybe!). And then, just to further muddy the waters, it filters the action through the action-adventure lens of Breaking Bad and El Mariachi.
Cartel was also born in a very different time.
In 2015, a dickhead racist rich guy had just started weaponizing American xenophobia toward Mexico to get elected. W-era conservatives mostly forgot that immigration is a good thing that our country had been struggling with. In 2015, Trump came down his golden escalator ranting about Mexican drug dealers and murderers and “some, I assume, … good people.”
Here we are today, an entire presidency into an administration that has doubled and tripled down on Americans’ xenophobia. And here’s Cartel. It’s about Mexican drug dealers and murderers. And, I hope, some people trying to be good.
Should the Mexican drug trade be the subject of a game? That’s the most common take/scold. It comes down to what folks think roleplaying games are for, and what they’re capable of. If RPGs are pure escapism, if an RPG is incapable of any communication or transformative experience beyond the escapism of a D&D session, then I suppose it would be pretty gross to capitalize on drug war violence. I would propose that there are so many counterexamples that it’s pointless and infantilizing to make that argument. Like any other human experience, roleplaying games and gameplay experiences can be art.
Then again, Blades in the Dark is one of the biggest breakout hits of the past several years, and it’s a game about a gang of thieves that asks literally nothing about their motivations, their morality, anything. Like all RPGs, you can bring whatever you want to the game. But the game itself is amoral about crime. Fantasy crime, sure, but is that actually “better?” By contrast, Cartel is deeply moral, with kinetic action pushed by the characters’ Keys (like Lady Blackbird or The Shadow of Yesterday) enticing the players to set that morality aside. Just for a bit. Just until that next advance.
The well-meaning but kiiinda racist pearl-clutching around “glamorizing drug dealers” also misses that this glamorization is already a uniquely Mexican cultural phenomenon: narcocorrido singers have been glamorizing the shit out of drug runners, gunmen, bosses and other assorted bad people for decades. They’re cultural heroes, direct descendants of revolutionaries and other fuck-the-Man characters. Narcofiction is a thing. Drugs and storytelling and melodrama are all tangled up in everything from music to telenovelas to movies to not-trashy novels.
Meanwhile, well north of the border, lots of hand-wringing. Is the harm too recent? Are real people being harmed by sympathetic depictions of these monsters? And make no mistake, the cartels (in real life and as portrayed in the game) are most certainly monstrous.
I think Cartel is a distinctly Mexican-American game. The target is a US audience that largely thinks of real-world cartels only as a crime problem down there, or have been exposed to the costs of drug abuse up here. There’s very little sense, whenever I’ve talked with friends about the drug war, of the very human reasons why things got so bad.
I gotta say, I’m here for it.
There are precious few games that present challenging content to a mainstream audience. Maybe this flavor of challenge is too real, or too relatable to one’s lived experience. That’s legit and I would in no way propose anyone try and tough it out or edgelord their way through this game. But I would submit that a nuanced, faceted look at criminal life is just as legitimate in a well-researched game as it was in, say, The Wire.
As far as game design goes, Cartel is beautifully crafted. It’s been a gut punch of a PbtA every time I’ve played. The moves do exactly what they’re supposed to, largely by leveraging stress as fallout from the moves, and stress moves forcing the characters to lash out and do real damage to those around them. As with Urban Shadows and Masks, the technical breakdown of how to use the moves is unmatched. Nothing else out there comes close to the precision and practicality of advice you get out of Magpie’s games.
Every moment of play may be X-card-worthy, certainly, but you have to know that’s what you’ve signed up for. If you need your roleplaying games to represent only your most woke liberal values, Cartel is a hard sell. It’s not heartwarming, it’s not cozy, it’s about the costs and strains on communities rather than building them. Even if you express your best self in play, the game challenges your commitment to your play at every turn. The point of the exercise is to see how your soul fares when bad people need you to be bad. I mean, you can dial that way, way back. It can be a silly melodramatic romp. But I feel like Cartel loses a lot of its punch if the narcos are loveable rogues and their sicarios only ever take out faceless Zetas.
In a perfect world, the United States might have gone down a different track these past few years. Maybe there was some scenario in which our darkest impulses had remained hidden and (relatively) harmless. But that’s not the world we live in, and it won’t be for some time. And it’s in this world that Cartel has finally appeared.