To celebrate the upcoming release of Cartel—PDF/Pre-order on Sept 17th and full release on October 29th!—we sat down with designer Mark Diaz Truman to talk to him about the design process. He did a Reddit AMA a few years ago but we thought we’d catch up with him about everything that’s happened since then.
In the process of researching for Cartel, did you find any new pieces of media that changed the way you looked at your game, or provided unexpected inspiration?
The last few years of reading first-hand accounts of the drug war—and watching the narcofiction media that’s arisen like Sicario—has been somewhat harrowing. I feel like I’m constantly seeing the drug war through new eyes, constantly finding new things that shock me. My work on Cartel has affirmed for me that the drug war is perhaps the largest public policy disaster in the history of our country.
As I worked on El Águila y La Serpiente, the first mini-supplement for Cartel that details the relationship between the United States and Mexico—and adds in El Güero, the CIA agent playbook—I read a few books that really drove this home. One was The Dark Arts by Edward Follis, a DEA agent who worked all over the world disrupting the drug trade. His account of the tactics and goals of American law enforcement were a brutal reminder of just how cruel and ineffective our drug policy has been and how that drug policy has shaped life in Mexico.
What’s been the biggest mechanical change in Cartel since the ashcan version? Have there been any tonal changes?
A lot of the biggest changes to the game have been the result of Miguel Ángel Espinoza’s advice and editing. I did a bunch of research for the ashcan—and while working on the corebook—but Miguel’s experiences growing up and living in Mexico are now a huge part of the text of the game. The whole role of the police, for example, has changed from an American view of law enforcement to one that’s much more reflective of how the police actually behave in Mexico.
One other major change from the ashcan has come from the addition of La Rata. Each playbook in Cartel does a lot to bring a new facet of the drug war to light, and the addition of a cartel teniente (lieutenant) who is serving as a mole for los federales has added both more about the cartel’s day-to-day operations and a sharp tension, especially when the corrupt cop, La Polizeta, is in play as well.
Now that the game is done, is there any part of it that you’re most proud of?
Overall, I’m really proud of Cartel’s mechanics. All the rules in the ashcan have gotten tighter, more consistent, and more thoughtful, and I really enjoy every session I run. In many ways, I built this game to be a whirlwind of messy drama, and I’m so happy with how it delivers on that promise.
Whenever I sit down to run a game of Cartel, I have a little moment of hesitation: is this all going to work this time? Are the players going to understand Mexico? Will the drama happen? And every time, I watch players stretch their wings, get into character, and make a huge, melodramatic mess! It’s been wonderful to channel the decade I’ve spent designing games into making this game sing.
But I’m also proud that Cartel is part of a broad tradition of Latinx indie games: Nahual, Pasión de las Pasiones, What's So Cool About Lucha Libre?, and more. Latinx stories are amazingly rich source material, and I'm so hopeful that Cartel is one of the first of many games that tell our stories.
Do you have any favorite stories from playtesting Cartel?
I think one of my absolute favorite moments was during one of the final playtests I ran at Metatopia a few years ago. We were playing multiple sessions of the game to see if it would work to stretch the story out over more than a single one-shot; the players got some time to really get into their characters and understand the setting.
One of my players, Carrie, was playing La Sicaria, a deadly cartel enforcer, who was assigned by her boss to kill another PC, El Halcón, the foolish errand boy who had gotten them all into a lot of trouble. In order to even the odds a bit, La Sicaria’s boss sent another sicario to help out Carrie’s character… but she killed him, fearing that her boss had actually sent him to kill her.
It was so perfect. I wasn’t thinking about backstabbing La Sicaria (yet?), but she was so paranoid, so lost in the drug war, that it seemed perfectly reasonable to her to kill the very people sent to help her. That’s the level of tension and drama that I wanted from the game when I started designing it, and I was so happy to see it come to life in the session.
Having completed Cartel, what’s the next thing you’re looking forward to as a designer?
I joke sometimes I wouldn’t wish a PbtA hack on my worst enemy: what looks like a simple project to start ends up consuming years and years of your life. But now that Cartel is finally done… I’m looking forward to working on the second edition of Urban Shadows!
When I finished working on Urban Shadows back in 2014, I was really looking forward to working on something smaller and more constrained. Cartel was a reaction to the big, broad work that Urban Shadows required because it focused on one community, on a small group of people. I loved designing a game that would get people through character creation, set up, and a whole story in just three to four hours.
But… now I’m really excited about returning to the open design of Urban Shadows, armed with the lessons I’ve learned working on not only Cartel, but also Masks, Bluebeard’s Bride, Epyllion, and more. It’s already been wonderful working on the new basic moves and playbooks, and I can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve been doing when the Kickstarter launches later this year.
¡Órale! Cartel has been a long time coming, and we can't wait to see all the hard work that Mark and his team have put into it! Keep an eye out on the Magpie Games webstore for the release of Cartel (PDF/Pre-order) tomorrow, September 17th, at 10 am Eastern!
-Magpie Games HQ