A Game Per Year: Cartel (Bonus 2020)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of Cartel

It often feels that in the world of American roleplaying games, the idea of portraying something essentially real and meaningful is cause for panic. Genres, story beats and game mechanics are all good subject matter, actual human experience not so much.

Cartel is a genre game too, of sorts, but it explicitly attempts to dig deeper, into the reality of what the drug trade in Mexico actually does to people. It’s a crime game anxious not to glamorize the people who’s lives it depicts, allowing tragedy and terror to emerge as readily as adrenalin-fuelled violence. It’s more about the effects of gun battles than cool shootouts.

Design-wise, the game is based on Apocalypse World. It’s one of the most carefully designed games in this genre I have read, with very well-considered Moves and Playbooks. Characters accumulate Stress, and once they have too much, they have to make Stress Moves, such as “Verbally abuse or shame”. This means that the terrible effects of the drug war on the individuals caught in it are modelled as a game mechanical loop, forcing player characters to lose their cool.

My favorite Playbook is La esposa, the spouse. The game trades on secrets and lies, stories that characters tell to their loved ones to avoid having to reveal the truth about who they are. The presence of this Playbook drives the point home: Dramatic scenes of domestic life are just as essential to what the game is about as the violence perpetrated by another Playbook, La sicaria.

Games based on Apocalypse World tend to operate on cliché. Apocalypse World itself, as well as Monsterhearts, assume that all participants understands the basic tenets of the genres they model and are able to improvise within that framework. Cartel seeks to go beyond a genre exercise into something more real so I wondered how much the participants would have to know about the drug war in Mexico to make it work. How is the experience different if you’re living in Mexico, if you’re living in the U.S. or if you’re a North European like me?

Related Post