This project will only be funded if it reaches its goal by .
Cartel: A Mexican Narcofiction Tabletop Roleplaying Game
Cartel: A Mexican Narcofiction Tabletop Roleplaying Game
Cartel is a tabletop RPG in which players portray bold narcos, naive spouses, and dirty cops caught up in Mexico's eternal drug war.
Cartel is a tabletop RPG in which players portray bold narcos, naive spouses, and dirty cops caught up in Mexico's eternal drug war. Read more
This project will only be funded if it reaches its goal by .
Cartel is a Mexican narcofiction tabletop roleplaying game—designed by me, Mark Diaz Truman!—a version of which I originally published as a 50-page preview for Gen Con 2015.
That preview had the basic materials you needed to play the game, but I’ve spent the last three years honing the game to a razor’s edge. Now, I’m funding a complete version of Cartel as a beautiful, full color, hardbound 8” x 8” book, packed with amazing art and useful tools.
In Cartel, you play bold narcos, naïve spouses, and dirty cops tied to the Sinaloa drug cartel, trying to survive in a dangerous game of drugs, money, and power. Navigate complex and dangerous relationships, make desperate plays for money and power, and discover how far you are willing to go to hold on to what is yours. Buena suerte, cabrón.
Cartel is based on the Powered by the Apocalypse system used in Apocalypse World, Urban Shadows, Bluebeard’s Bride, and more. It’s a simple system: when your character takes an action that fits a move, the move tells you what happens in the story or you roll two six-sided dice to find out. Each move is a tense beat of a narrative, an opportunity for the drama of Cartel to build to a bloody climax that inevitably catches up with your characters.
Cartel creates adult fiction in the vein of Breaking Bad, The Wire, and El Mariachi, making it fun for lovers of crime fiction and Mexican melodramas alike. With the Powered by the Apocalypse system at its heart, Cartel has the mechanical strength and narrative flexibility to create stories that are alternately tragic and darkly humorous, set against the backdrop of an eternal drug war.
Mexico, 2007. The Free and Sovereign State of Durango. Ten hours from the US border. A small but thriving ciudad known for its stunning cathedrals and annual street festivals.
Durango also lies between two of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world: the long-established Sinaloa Cartel and the up-and-coming Los Zetas.
The Sinaloa Cartel: a vast and sprawling network moving drugs from Central America into Los Estados Unidos, China, and Europe. Well-established and ubiquitous, capable of infiltrating city police departments, Mexican state governments...even the DEA.
Los Zetas: formerly the enforcers of the Gulf Cartel, Mexican Special Forces who defected when it looked like Mexico might actually prosecute terror squads for war crimes. Ordinary Mexicans call them La Última Letra (The Last Letter) or “Those who should not be named.”
So here you are. Connected to la plaza in Durango. Maybe you’re just el halcón, and you run errands for the big jefes. Maybe you’re la sicaria, an enforcer, returned from an early retirement in the States. Maybe you’re just married into the cartel, but your esposa means the world to you. Maybe you’re el narco himself, and this plaza is yours to lose.
No matter who you are, not even the Sinaloa Cartel can keep you safe. You’ve got amigos, but you can't trust anyone. Your boss would throw you under the bus to save himself, and your enemigos would do far worse to get ahead. And that's before you start worrying about your familia asking for money or los federales listening in on your every phone call.
And don’t forget Los Zetas. Don’t ever forget Los Zetas, cabrón.
I started working on Cartel around the same time that I wrapped up writing Urban Shadows. I was so proud of the urban politics and community realities that Andrew Medeiros and I had brought to the game, but I wanted to do more to connect my work with my culture.
But when I started working on my "Latino" game, I struggled to connect my distinct perspective to an experience players would love. I couldn't just set a game in Mexico; I had to find a time and a place that would evoke the pain and the promise of my culture while giving players an experience that was worth having again and again.
As I watched Breaking Bad, it clicked for me. Breaking Bad is set in my hometown, Albuquerque, NM, but it’s a story about white people. It explores themes and ideas that are central to my heritage…but with Latinos at the fringes. I realized that the game I wanted to write was right in front of me: the drug war, from the perspective of the Mexican people who live in the middle of it.
For me, Cartel isn’t about glorifying drugs; it’s about finding human moments amidst the sprawling catastrophe known as the War on Drugs. It’s about exploring what it means to live in the supply chain. It’s about connecting across borders, and seeing the people (and their conflicts) on the other side.
Years ago, I asked myself what a Mexican-American RPG looked like: Cartel is my answer.
Cartel is a game for 3-5 players, and it plays a single session in 2-4 hours. Each game may last one session—or a few sessions—depending upon your desires for your story (see below for more information on long-term play).
Cartel is Powered by the Apocalypse: when you trigger one of the game’s moves by taking the appropriate action (like making a deal, justifying your behavior, or turning to violence) you roll two six-sided dice (2d6) and add the appropriate stat, whether it is Face, Grit, Hustle, or Savagery.
- If your total is a 10 or higher, then that’s a full hit, and you’re going to get most of what you want. Most of what you want.
- If your total is a 7-9, that’s a partial hit, and you’re either going to have to pay a cost, suffer a complication, or get a reduced result.
- And if your total is a 6 or less, that’s a miss...and the MC will tell you what happens. You can expect it won’t be pretty.
In Cartel, each player has their own playbook, an archetype and character sheet all rolled into one. Each playbook creates a different kind of character for a Cartel story, packed with their own mechanical and fictional choices.
There are six playbooks in the base game of Cartel, but we might be able to add more to the game through stretch goals. The basic set includes:
- El Cocinero - Clever, resourceful, and lucky. El Cocinero is a vital part of the cartel’s operation: he cooks the drugs that keep everything else moving.
- La Esposa - Responsible, protective, and vulnerable. La Esposa is the spouse of a character caught up in the cartel, an innocent bystander tangled in a web of criminal lies.
- El Halcón - Eager, naïve, and tenacious. El Halcón is “the hawk,” the little bird that runs errands, watches out for trouble, and reports back to his handlers.
- El Narco - Beleaguered, wealthy, and dangerous. El Narco is el jefe, the local Sinaloa head put in charge by the powers-that-be to oversee la plaza.
- La Polizeta - Greedy, two-faced, and corrupt. La Polizeta is an agent for the cartel that’s wormed her way into the heart of the federal anti-cartel task force.
- La Sicaria - Deadly, veteran, and cold. La Sicaria is a hitwoman, an enforcer for the cartels who has survived the streets of Durango long enough to become a living legend.
Cartel is actually about talking much more than it is about shooting. Your pistola is a piece of leverage in a conversation long before you pull the trigger... and money and blackmail might be even more efficient. Gun fights in Cartel end a lot faster than you think—bullets are deadly, güey.
The game puts a heavy emphasis on tense and dramatic conversations, and the vast majority of Cartel’s moves can be triggered just by talking—or texting—with other characters. This is a game about people and how they manipulate each other, and its focus on conversation brings that fiction to the fore.
You might try to get the truth about what really happened to the last cocinero. Or you might pressure someone to go along with a heist that's too perfect to pass up. Or you might need to justify yourself when you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
In Cartel, you play ordinary people subjected to intense, constant pressure. Your world is dangerous and terrible, offering promises of riches and security at a terrible price. But even when you manage to dodge the bullets of rival cartels and the knives of your enemies, that constant stress takes its toll.
Characters in Cartel have a stress track to represent how much pressure they can take, a limited resource that you spend to keep control of yourself. Someone puts pressure on you? You can spend stress to keep control. Someone offers you a hard bargain? You can spend stress to refuse. Someone pokes at your insecurities? You spend stress to keep your cool.
Until...you don’t have any stress to spend. And then you will need to go to extremes to relieve the pressure. Maybe you get blissed out on your drug of choice. Maybe you do something worse. Something you can’t ever forget.
Cartel is perfect for short campaigns. The drama of the game can peak even within a single session, giving you a full and satisfying arc that rivals your favorite crime movies. Character creation is also simplified, crafting dramatic characters quickly while also ensuring that you’ve got strong enlaces (ties) between the characters.
Cartel also includes a key-based advancement system that keeps characters aimed at interesting actions in the long-term. To anyone who has played The Shadow of Yesterday or Lady Blackbird, this system will feel familiar. Each llave (key) gives you a condition that earns you an experience point, and a condition that can earn you a whole advancement, but at the cost of permanently losing the key. Fluctuating keys mean you can change what your character is about by adjusting how you earn experience points.
Thanks to the key-based experience system and gamemaster tools that keep the pot of criminal activity constantly stirred, Cartel can easily facilitate a long-term campaign, just as much as it can handle the rapid burst of a crime movie.
I'm thrilled to match my designs to the art and layout we have planned.
The Cartel corebook is designed to be more than just a gateway to the drug war. It's also an elegant tome that captures the feel and look of Mexican art and culture, thanks to the work of Marissa Kelly (art director), Andrew Thompson (cover artist), Mirco Pagnessi (interior artist), and Miguel Ángel Espinoza (graphic artist and cultural consultant).
Cartel will be a premium 8” x 8” hardcover featuring a Smythe sewn rounded case binding with an embossed, spot gloss, and stamped cover. The 150+ pages will be printed on quality matte paper, and feature full color interiors and all of the playbooks and move sheets. Cartel will also feature full color end papers and a silk bookmark, all adding to the amazing feel and look of this lush book.
Amigos y Enemigos (Friends & Enemies) is a collection of NPCs that you can add to any session of Cartel. Some are friendly figures, but others are monsters and adversaries, the people who will turn Durango to ruins in their pursuit of power and revenge.
Be careful who you love, cabrón. No way to know who not to trust until it's too late.
We are also offering Amigos y Enemigos as a hardcover full-color book. Each character will be fully illustrated, with accompanying text and tools to bring them into your game. Amigos y Enemigos will include approximately 100+ pages and 30 characters, including those unlocked by stretch goals.
Some reward tiers contain a print supplement of your choice. After the campaign closes, you select specific supplements through Backerkit, including Amigos y Enemigos or other supplements we unlock as stretch goals. All supplements will also be available as add-ons.
El Águila y La Serpiente (The Eagle and the Serpent) is a mini-supplement focused on the Central Intelligence Agency.
El Águila y La Serpiente is 26 page PDF, included for any $20+ backer. In addition, anyone who backs at the El Narco tier ($150) or above, will get El Águila y La Serpiente in print as part of their hardcover, special edition Cartel corebook.
Note that you cannot select El Águila y La Serpiente as a printed supplement. It will only be available in print as part of the special edition corebook.
Speaking of the special edition Cartel corebook...
In addition to the regular edition Cartel corebook, we are offering a special edition Cartel corebook that is debossed, embossed, and UV coated. It also contains the CIA supplement (El Águila y La Serpiente) in print! This book is a Kickstarter exclusive; it will not be available in retail stores after the campaign ends. Get it quick, güey, before you miss your chance.
One of the challenges of running Cartel is staying true to the setting of Durango, especially for players who aren't as familiar with Mexico. The Deck of Locations is a game aid designed to bring Durango to life without requiring any extra research before play.
Each card features a Durango location that can serve as a backdrop for a scene in Cartel—a lavandería (laundromat), estación de policía (police station), or catedral (cathedral)—complete with the tools needed for the gamemaster to bring that setting to life. The deck will include 26 cards to start, and we may add more through stretch goals.
The Deck of Locations is available through multiple reward tiers (El Narco, La Barbie, La Reina del Pacifíco, or El Chapo) or as a $20 add-on with any pledge. It's also included as a PDF for all $20+ backers.
The songs of los narcos are called narcocorridos, music that chronicles both narco cultura and the narcos themselves. Each narcocorrido contains a story, often legend and rumor, set to an almost traditional Mexican tune. It's like gangster rap produced by John Philip Sousa.
As part of the Cartel Kickstarter, we're making our own album of narcocorridos:
Each of the songs presented in Corridos de Durango will be an original, composed by myself and my long-time writing partner, Justin Rogers, with help from Miguel Ángel Espinoza. We're starting off with four songs, but we may unlock a few more through stretch goals.
And if you want your own narcocorrido included on the album, cabrón, check out REINA DEL PACÍFICO, a reward tier that includes a custom narcocorrido written just for you...
Corridos de Durango (mp3) is available through multiple reward tiers (El Narco, La Barbie, La Reina del Pacífico, or El Chapo) or as a $10 add-on with any pledge.
Persistent, tricky, and bold. La Rata has betrayed the cartel, hoping to earn her freedom before los narcos catch on to her machinations.
This new playbook will be available to $10+ backers as a PDF, and we'll include it in the print version of the Cartel core rulebook.
We're adding five new characters—la policía—to the Amigos y Enemigos supplement, bringing the book to a total of 80 pages.
Driven, pitiless, lost. El Güero is a CIA operative who's no longer sure which way is up...or who the real villains are anymore.
We're adding El Güero to the CIA mini-supplement (La Águila y La Serpiente) in both PDF and print. Remember that the printed mini-supplement only appears in the special edition of the Cartel core rulebook!
We're adding five new characters—los americanos—to the Amigos y Enemigos supplement, bringing the book to a total of 100 pages.
We're adding 15 location cards to the Deck of Locations—all new places to set scenes and all new moves to use during the game—for a total of 41 cards!
We're creating a custom PDF map of Durango, available for download to $20+ backers. We’ll also put 11” by 17” cloth map in El Narco’s Stash and make the cloth map available to everyone as an Add-on ($20).
We're adding five characters from la comunidad to Amigos y Enemigos, completing the book (roughly 110+ pages) with lawyers, doctors, and priests.
Astute, connected, flexible. El Abogangster is the corrupt lawyer who keeps the money flowing and los federales away from everyone important.
El Abogangster does the real dirty work for the cartel: the paperwork. This new playbook will be available to all $20+ backers as part of the Sin Fronteras PDF!
We're creating two sets of starter prompts for each playbook. All of the cartas will be available to all $20+ backers as part of the Sin Fronteras PDF.
Dogged, oblivious, brave. La Esperanzada is a flicker of hope in the darkness, a cop who hopes to bring the villains of the drug war to justice.
La Esperanzada is a would-be savior, in a war that turns heroes into martyrs. This new playbook will be available to all $20+ backers as part of the Sin Fronteras PDF!
And more to come...
Get ready, amigos. We've got all kinds of rewards for you. Todos los tipos.
Want to pick up another Cartel corebook? Or maybe a Deck of Locations or supplement? Here’s a list of add-ons available during the campaign:
$50 - Cartel Corebook, an 8" by 8" tome, roughly 150 pages, containing all the rules you need to play Cartel.
$30 - Amigos y Enemigos, featuring roughly 100 pages of NPCs for use in your game of Cartel.
$20 - Deck of Locations, featuring at least 26 cards that you can use to set your game in Durango, Mexico.
$10 - Corridos de Durango, a digital soundtrack featuring four original tracks written by myself, Justin, and Miguel, plus more tracks we fund through stretch goals.
We'll make all of these these add-ons available after the campaign ends through our normal channels. Retailers can add these items at retailer discounts through Backerkit, after the campaign.
We also have Kickstarter exclusive add-ons that won't be available in retail stores:
$20 - Cartel Dice, each featuring a sugar skull instead of a 1. The dice feature a red/green mix with a white inscription for the skulls.
$20 - Santos Candles, featuring playbook art from the game (El Narco y La Sicaria). Note that these candles are heavy! Domestic shipping (+$3-5) / International ($15+).
$20 - Candy Meth from The Bad Candy Lady, an Albuquerque candy maker who made meth for Breaking Bad. Walter White's meth was blue; Cartel candy meth is red/green to celebrate New Mexico chiles.
$20 - Temporary Tattoos designed by Miguel Ángel Espinoza, our graphic artist and cultural consultant. Each tattoo is roughly 2" x 2".
$20 - Map of Durango, an 11" x 17" cloth map of Durango, custom made for Cartel.
If you want to add any of these add-ons to your pledge, pick a reward tier and add funds equal to the add-ons you want (or select a tier that comes with a Kickstarter exclusive add-on). We'll collect info from you after the campaign to make sure you get the right add-ons.
El Narco’s Stash is the best way to get Kickstarter exclusive accessories for Cartel. Any reward tier that includes El Narco’s Stash gets you:
- A full set of ten Cartel dice (sugar skulls instead of 1s)
- A collection of temporary tattoos designed by Miguel Ángel Espinoza
- A pouch of "meth" rock candy from the Bad Candy Lady
- An 11" x 17" cloth map of Durango made for Cartel (new!)
Check back as we unlock more stuff for the Stash as the campaign goes on.
We're happy to ship Cartel anywhere in the world! Thanks to our international fulfillment partners, backers in the EU, CA, and AU won't pay any customs or VAT on any of their shipments.
We will be charging shipping as we fulfill each item. YOUR PLEDGE DOES NOT INCLUDE THE COST OF SHIPPING. We will use a pledge manager to collect information and handle add-ons and pre-orders, but we will deliver each physical item by sending you a code you can redeem on our website, paying for shipping when you order the book. Each coupon will be valid for one year.
Estimated Shipping Costs
- Domestic Shipping: For USPS shipping, we expect to charge $5-10 per package. We’ll have upgrade options to USPS Priority, UPS, etc.
- EU/AU/CA Shipping: We work with fulfillment partners in the EU, AU, and CA. The cost to ship a package through these partners is $10-15. We will offer upgrade options that include tracking, priority, and more.
- Everywhere Else: We expect shipping everywhere else to be roughly $15-20 per package. We will offer upgrade options that include tracking, priority shipping, etc., but upgraded shipping will probably start at $50+.
Podcasts - Actual Play and Interviews
- I chat with Matt Bohnhoff on the Shrieker podcast.
- I join the Gauntlet for a discussion on the Gauntlet podcast.
- I discuss the Kickstarter with Zach Benge on Tabletop Radio Hour.
- I join Rich Rogers on +1 Forward for a short Cartel demo.
Blogs y Articles
- Sean Nittner reviews Cartel after a session at Origins 2016:
"Fucking amazing! [...] The tone of the game, as Mark described it, was pretty amazing in its ability to shift from gritty crime fiction to telenovela."
- Fraser Ronald reviews Cartel after a session at Gen Con 2015:
“I give Cartel 4.5 kilos of masterclass meth out of 5. The game is smooth, fun, and really rocks social conflict in a setting that is fascinating as much as it is relevant.”
- Mashugenah reviews Cartel after a session at KapCon 2018:
"I think this is basically the best of roleplaying, the point where it becomes more than just silly make-believe and becomes something like art."
I've run Cartel for 100+ people over the last three years. Here's what a few of them have to say about the experience:
Thanks to the Gauntlet—especially Jason Cordova and Rich Rogers—for the community's enthusiasm and feedback, Carrie Ulrich for her proofing and support, and John Harper for Blades in the Dark, a game that inspires me to do my best work.
Risks and challenges
This is Magpie Games' ninth Kickstarter, and we've got a long history of fulfilling projects, including Urban Shadows, Masks, Bluebeard's Bride and many more for other folks (frex: 7th Sea: 2nd Ed). We've got a good grasp on how to get stuff designed, written, illustrated, shipped, and fulfilled.
The largest problem we've encountered is delays. We've taken all the steps we can to deliver this project on time, including writing and playtesting Cartel since GenCon 2015. We'll keep backers informed at all times about what's happening with the project. Our commitment is always to the quality of our work, but nothing makes us happier than shipping books!Learn about accountability on Kickstarter