Cartel: Ashcan Edition Review

Today I finally have the review that was due out last week! We are going to be taking a look at the PDF of one of Magpie Games’ products. This came out in 2015 and is not a full edition of the game. Well, sort of. This is another of the company’s Powered by the Apocalypse games, but unlike the others it assumes someone knows how to use that system and that they are relatively familiar with it. Magpie Games is working on producing a full version of it and have been hinting at that release quite a bit over the past month and it has featured at their convention game tables along side the games that already have full released versions like Masks and Epyllion. As a fan of their work I am always eager to check out what they have, so when the opportunity arose to check out the Ashcan Edition, I jumped on it.

An Impressive Setting

Cartel isn’t so much a setting as it is a very specific genre that they are placing in a very specific culture. When I read the synopsis I was intrigued by what Cartel would bring to the table and how potentially bad the setting could of gone. For those of you who don’t know Cartel is a narcofiction style game. Most of you would be familiar with Breaking Bad as one of the more recognizable franchises of narcofiction. Already we can see a bit of what we are dealing with just by considering that: a game in which, for whatever reason, you are involved in drug trafficking and all the things that come with that. Needless to say crazy things happen in such stories and it certainly isn’t for the younger RPG audiences. From there, Magpie Games and Mark Truman take the game to a place and culture less familiar to many of us who sit around a table full of dice: Mexico. I was a bit off-put with the language use at first, as there are almost random insertions of Latinx slang. I will tell you right now, though, my worries were not to come true.

The author of Cartel is Latino and the first page after the title page is a dedication to all those who helped him to explore this culture and heritage. It seems that he got a lot of help in producing this game properly and respectfully. It seems that creating Cartel meant a lot more to the author than any game he began the journey for. This changed my attitude in reading it and I am glad, because the way it is written is, like many PbtA games, incredibly narrative. The language and slang is there to get you into the setting. The goal is not to give you the tools for an narcofiction game set in any given place. It is very specifically and carefully designed to get you into a certain mindset. As the writer says, “narcofiction is about a time and place…and the time and place here is Mexico.” As you go through the game you will realize how well it was forged for Durango, the location your game takes place in.

Stats & Moves

For those who are unfamiliar with PbtA there are two things that help define the game without making it a different system. The first are the stats, the numbers that dictate a bonus or penalty to the things you roll. Every PbtA game I have seen has different ones. They all work with the same mechanics, but they define what is important about the setting. For Cartel this is Face, Hustle, Grit, and Savagery. These are what define you and allow you to act within the setting. These are the things that narcofiction is about. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and these do an excellent job of representing the various archetypes you can find in the genre.

Moves are the things that you do, the things you roll dice for. All PbtA games have them, some with overlapping or similar moves, but many unique to the setting and game. Every game has basic moves, that everyone can do, and playbook moves, those usable by certain types of characters. The basic moves for Cartel are well crafted for the types of scenes that will be happening in this kind of game. They include things like pushing your luck, seeking the truth, and justifying what it is you are doing. These stories are intense and violent and there is little in the move set to keep things chill. Even the Stress reducing moves are big plays and include things like drugs, beating someone up, and verbally abusing someone. Like I said, the game is not for a younger audience.

The Playbooks

As I mentioned above there are also different archetypes in PbtA games and these archetypes get special moves. This is, perhaps, one of the most defining features of any game that is Powered by the Apocalypse. Playbooks make the setting distinguishable, recognizable. The things that they allow the characters to do and the ways they encourage role play does a magnificent job in getting a group into the setting and feeling like you are writing your own story. Exactly like it should. As with Magpie Games other setting, Cartel does an amazing job of providing all the playbooks you’d need and doing it well. These include el concinero (the one who cooks up the drugs), el halcón (the young gang member), el narco (the one in charge of things), la esposa (the spouse of someone caught up in the cartel), la polizeta (the corrupt cop), and la sicaria (the cold and dangerous veteran of the cartel). Each of these has moves to chose from. For example la polizeta has a detective move that allows you to pick up extra information from an official interrogation, even on a miss. In addition there are certain beneficial, role-playing, and unique things that each playbook has. Las esposa as la familia and secrets that she must keep while el concinero has a lab that has a few pros and cons that go along with it. These all add up to some really great potential groups and games.

Design & Style

I do not have much to say about the mechanics of PbtA. I have said a good amount about them in my reviews of Masks and Monsterof the Week. If I feel the need to hash out those, I’ll do so in a special article. As for the design and style of the book, I always have something to say. First off, the PDF looks great and, as usual, there are separate 2-sheets for each playbook and a moves page that provide all that you’ll need as a player. I have had some layout problems with PbtA games in the past, but the Ashcan Edition of Cartel seems to eliminate those. It is well laid out and everything about a given subject is contained in one location. However, I think this comes down to two factors. One, the game assumes you know something about PbtA and there isn’t extra in depth explanations about general topics. Two, this game is a little less complicated than others. It is about secrets and connections and drama, but it lacks the more situational and unique rules games like Masks has. There is Heat, but that is a simple stat compared to, say, the way ideals work in Masks. As for the style it is simplistic with black and white art and I absolutely adore it. It is legible and well designed. All in all, I like it so much I kind of wish there were versions like this for some of the other PbtA games.

Final Note

This both is and isn’t a full game. It isn’t because it makes assumptions about your knowledge of the rules and mechanics. The text mentions this, however, and it cannot be held against the product. Still, it has enough here that you could probably get by without having played or without owning any other Powered by the Apocalypse games. It is a fully realized genre / setting with the mechanical twist to go with it. Narcofiction is well represented in the style of game and if you enjoy these things you should definitely check it out. For my two cents, treat the culture with the respect the writer did when you play. As dark as narcofiction can be, be sure your group is okay to handle it. There is a lot of potential here for some interesting games, and while I am not super into the genre, Magpie Games outdoes themselves as usual.