[PbtA] Cartel: A Mexican Narcofiction

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Voros

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Cartel is a Powered by the Apocalypse game by Mark Diaz Truman who was one of the designers of the excellent Urban Shadows, one of the best PbtA games.

Cartel is a tabletop RPG in which players portray bold narcos, naive spouses, and dirty cops caught up in Mexico's eternal drug war.

Quickstart rules are free and available for download here. I like the artwork. It is being Kickstarted right now but the core ruleset seems pretty much complete already. I've read it over and it looks good.

Diaz Truman has been working on this for a long time but with the popularity of Narcos and Sicario it seems the best time to release this.

ffa8812c4fe54d35c92c90e13372d860_original.jpg





 

Dumarest

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Interesting, but I hope they're careful not to glamorize drug trafficking personalities. "Bold narcos" doesn't bode well.
 

Voros

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I listened to the designer on a podcast and he did speak about his attempt to walk that line.
 

noman

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Cartel is a Powered by the Apocalypse game by Mark Diaz Truman who was one of the designers of the excellent Urban Shadows, one of the best PbtA games.

Cartel is a tabletop RPG in which players portray bold narcos, naive spouses, and dirty cops caught up in Mexico's eternal drug war.

Quickstart rules are free and available for download here. I like the artwork. It is being Kickstarted right now but the core ruleset seems pretty much complete already. I've read it over and it looks good.

Diaz Truman has been working on this for a long time but with the popularity of Narcos and Sicario it seems the best time to release this

I think this is an interesting concept. Certainly it's different from most RPG fare. But I'd never run or play it, even if it was offered by a good GM.
 

Necrozius

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I'm excited about this, as it might be great reference for other games set in modern times.

In it's defence, I think that we already "glamorize" or game-ify several concepts that were down right terrible in real life: WW2, the Mafia, medieval warfare... So, while the Cartel is more current and awful to us, it is already the subject of the media in other forms (films, tv) for our entertainment. I'd give this one a break, but that's just my opinion, man.
 

K_Peterson

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What's the lethality level for this game? It sounds like the body count could really pile up.
Or does this PbtA-variant use a form of script immunity for major characters (players, top-tier antagonists, etc.), and there's just widespread mook-carnage?

I could see it being entertaining to play a mini-campaign of this, even though I know next to nothing about PbtA.
 

3rik

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Interesting, but I hope they're careful not to glamorize drug trafficking personalities. "Bold narcos" doesn't bode well.
That was my first thought as well. It may be a more touchy subject for me than it is for others, what with my wife being Mexican. On the other hand, we enjoy watching stuff like El Mariachi, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul just fine, so why would a similarly themed RPG be any different.

The game being addressed as "Art" in a quote from a review somewhere on the KS campaign page does send my pretentiousness alarm bells ringing though. I'm also not too fond of what I've seen, read and heard of the PbtA-system.
 

noman

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In it's defence, I think that we already "glamorize" or game-ify several concepts that were down right terrible in real life: WW2, the Mafia, medieval warfare... So, while the Cartel is more current and awful to us, it is already the subject of the media in other forms (films, tv) for our entertainment. I'd give this one a break, but that's just my opinion, man.

And your opinion is perfectly sound, reasonable, and I respect it. :smile:

I've got nothing against the game, the devs, or anyone who wants to play it. It would make for some interesting role-playing. I'm not going to get all judgey at somebody who wants to play this. Have at it! :thumbsup:

But it's not for me. Not even a little. :thumbsdown::sick::sick:
 

Dumarest

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Still looking for a good, rules-light/medium luchador "superhero" game...
This one is fairly light, though also very limited.
b35714c7ff1b3b381c9597726b21d47bd2b93ef72cacab3fb2d6c5e012993ffe.jpeg
This one can be held down to medium if you don't incorporate too much from Hero's other products and stick mainly with the packages and pre-built powers. It's much better written and packed with ideas.
HERDOJHERO401E_500.jpeg
 
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Ladybird

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Still looking for a good, rules-light/medium luchador "superhero" game...
Silent Legions has optional stuff in the back for "Luchadores Against Cthulhu", with a special class and rules modifications you'd need for high-flying mythos adventures.
I think if you combine it with the entities from Pandemonio, you might be on to something.

---

re : this : I'm not keen; I already find it difficult to play WW2-set games because I'm conscious of the fact we're playing a game about real people, shooting real people, who are still (Just) within living memory, and I find that uncomfortable. Playing a game directly about real-world situations and real-world people would be a hard no for me.
 

Necrozius

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I can wholly understand. I am usually uncomfortable with most "misery tourism" RPGs and story games. I had challenging discussions about those back in the day.

And the more I think about it, the less I'm reading this game as a Tarantino-Rodriguez type of thing. It has style but it's more grounded in reality. It's very strange.
 

Dumarest

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I should mention also that unlike other Hero System books, Lucha Libra Hero includes all the rules needed and is a standalone game.
 

Edgewise

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But it's not for me. Not even a little.
I don't feel quite as strongly, but I do feel weird about playing as a game something that is currently causing a tremendous amount of human misery. I'm not bothered by the glorification aspect, but I am bothered by the trivialization of tragedy.

Also, I'm not confident that I could do the setting justice. I don't speak a lick of Spanish and I have only a vague familiarity with Mexican culture. This aint Jorune.

That being said, I saw this last week and I think the art looks fucking beautiful and it seems like a very gameable setting. If someone else was running it, I'd at least give it a try out of curiosity.
 

Voros

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I know that the designer said that as a Mexican-American he was concerned about glamorization as well. Not sure how he’s decided to address that in the rest of the game. One option would be to offer a range of styles/approaches to the game, from grim and realistic to more telenova or action movie treatment.
 
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noman

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My objection is a matter of personal taste, not a repudiation of the game or those who'd want to play it. If I were to reject the game as being objectively bad, due to its content, then I'm engaging in BadWrongFun, and that's not gong to happen. :thumbsdown:

People should play what the want to play, and I respect that. :smile:

Necrozius Necrozius made the point upthread that we routinely engage in entertainments that portray or glorify the darker elements of human life, in this case organized crime dramas. So what's the big deal?"

I would counter that by pointing out there's a bit of a difference between passively watching such a drama, and actively role-playing it out at a gaming table. The assumption being that passive observation is acceptable, while active emulation is not. This argument is bullshit.

Any one of you would correctly point to the last say, 30-40 years of gaming and remind me that many of the game concepts we've played are based on the idea of a bunch of well-armed assholes conducting a racially-based home invasion on a 'lesser' race in order to steal their crap, gain renown, and get free drinks and wenches at the local tavern. :shock::drink:

That's not even accounting for games where players play genuinely evil characters, or monsters such as vampire, werewolves, drow, or whatnot. Nor does it account for the twenty-something years of me running Amber games where I encouraged players to be as ruthless, Machiavellian, and evil as they felt comfortable. :evil:

I don't see a reasonable argument why the game should be scorned for its own sake.

For me it comes down to three things:

First, I play RPGs, in part, to escape some of the more egregious elements of our modern world. There are simply some things I don't want to play, as they strike a little too close to home. Fantasy versus reality.

Second, this kind of thing is a little too personal for me. I wouldn't want to play a cartel hitman anymore than I'd want to play a drug dealer, a pimp, or a corrupt cop.

Third, the Central and South American Drug Cartels are the Canadian Geese of modern organized crime. The Italian mob, outlaw biker gangs, and even the Yakusa, Tong, and Russian mobs have at least a few redeeming qualities. Not so the Cartels; they're the Platonic ideal of organized assholery feeding off human suffering and death. :fu:
 
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Endless Flight

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That art at the top reminds me of Grand Theft Auto V.
 

Necrozius

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I would counter that by pointing out there's a bit of a difference between passively watching such a drama, and actively role-playing it out at a gaming table. The assumption being that passive observation is acceptable, while active emulation is not. This argument is bullshit.

That's an interesting point. One wonders, then, why certain genres are more socially acceptable to role-play in a game while others are not. Where is the line crossed?

I thought that the Wraith campaign setting a few years back about the Charnel Houses of Europe was crossing it. I also have some issue with misery tourism in general. As in, I'll voice my opinion that they're in bad taste, and that I'll never use or play them. But that's about it.

I may actually pass on Cartel, in the end, for my ethical dilemma around its themes.
 

Voros

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Third, the Central and South American Drug Cartels are the Canadian Geese of modern organized crime. The Italian mob, outlaw biker gangs, and even the Yakusa, Tong, and Russian mobs have at least a few redeeming qualities. Not so the Cartels; they're the Platonic ideal of organized assholery feeding off human suffering and death. :fu:

Don’t know, I’ve read a lot on the Italian mob and Russian mob and I don’t see any redeeming qualities about them at all.

The Italian mob in Italy is involved in the murder of Italian cops, judges and their families.

The Russian mob are about as close to Evil as you can get in the real world.

The Angels put up a public front but are murderous and engage in sexual violence regularly. The last btw I know not just from Hunter S. Thompson but because I went to school with a girl whose Dad was in the Hell’s Angels. Her story is free of any ‘redeeming qualities.’

As that last statement from myself shows, I think the key here may be how close personally one is to the reality of these things. We’re all going to draw different lines at different places.

I personally find it distasteful how many video games are set in WWII (and now even WWI) as our grandfathers and grandmothers died in that war. Making it a ‘Yeehaw!’ shoot ‘em up kinda turns my stomach. But then I enjoyed the ridiculous Wolfenstein reboots.

As for ‘misery tourism’ it is a phrase I only seem to hear in reference to RPGs and I don’t think it is a useful concept. It doesn’t differeniate enough between something successful and something unsuccessful, something true and something untrue.

I recently watched the amazing Hungarian film Son of Saul and that some could weaponize the term ‘misery tourism’ against it concerns me on several levels. Is Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen or McCarthy’s Blood Meridian ‘misery tourism’?

There are certainly questions about what kind of subject matter can a RPG handle properly, but theoretically I can’t see why the medium can’t deal with any subject. As noman noman says the participatory nature of RPGs brings up certain ethical issues but other forms like film and video games don’t avoid that conundrum completely either. How best to handle it is a open question that even film hasn’t quite figured out yet.

People use to claim that film or comic books or video games couldn’t deal with serious subject matter, and in each case they’ve been wrong. I doubt they’re right about RPGs, which partially grew out of role-playing exercises that were developed for political and psychological purposes.
 
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noman

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Don’t know, I’ve read a lot on the Italian mob and Russian mob and I don’t see any redeeming qualities about them at all.

The Italian mob in Italy is involved in the murder of Italian cops, judges and their families.

The Russian mob are about as close to Evil as you can get in the real world.

...Snip...

They're all terrible, yes. I agree. But in terms of scale of influence and scale of direct and indirect deaths, within the drug trade, weapons, and white slavery markets in North America (to say nothing of the damage these assholes do to their home countries and own people), no other organized crime faction comes even close.

By 'redeeming qualities', what I'm referring to is the ability to negotiate. Because not every street encounter resulted in guns being drawn. :wink: Sometime we'd talk, size each other up, and exchange useful information. You could do that to a certain extent, with different groups, if everybody followed certain rules and you had street respect. Couldn't do that with Cartel assets. Talking took time away from their murdering plans.

There are certainly questions about what kind of subject matter can an RPG handle properly, but theoretically I can’t see why the medium can’t deal with any subject. People use to claim that film or comic books or video games couldn’t deal with serious subject matter, and in each case they’ve been wrong. I doubt they’re right about RPGs, which partially grew out of role-playing exercises that were developed for political and psychological purposes.

I completely agree. I think designers should build the games they want, and players should play the games they like, even if it's something I might find unpleasant. Let people do what they want, and let the Market sort it out. :wink:
 

noman

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That's an interesting point. One wonders, then, why certain genres are more socially acceptable to role-play in a game while others are not. Where is the line crossed?

IMO, we project our biases upon our entertainments. Remember some of the controversy that came out with Game of Thrones regarding a few of the rape scenes? Some people swore off the show and and others thought it was high art. Different people like and dislike different things in different ways for different reasons.

I may actually pass on Cartel, in the end, for my ethical dilemma around its themes.

I don't see it as an ethical dilemma. I mean, how is this game worse than playing an ultra-violent video game? A fiction isn't a reality (very dangerous ground here), but ethically, an object (such as a RPG) can't, by definition, have agency.

What it really comes down to is one's tolerance level. I can't stand the Saw movies; other people love them. Some players won't tolerate vivid rape and torture in their games; others don't mind it. What do people want, and how do they want it presented? I think it just comes down to that.

It's just how I see it. My 2 cents, as it were.
 
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Voros

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I agree, I have no interest in a table that includes a lot of sexuality and even sexual assault as a part of play, but Monsterhearts does just that and is a fine game (which can be easily played without those elements).

And most of those who love Monsterhearts are about as far from the FATAL crowd (if such a ‘crowd’ exists) as you can get.
 

Ladybird

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I don't see a reasonable argument why the game should be scorned for its own sake.
I agree; games of various kinds are the best of the artforms, because they can put people into all of these situations in a safe way, so people can see them from the inside in a way that a book or other similar media can't. I don't like the concept of saying "games should be allowed to convey these ideas and no more".
In addition, any form of "games shouldn't touch on these topics" is also explicitly saying to some communities who may want to tell their stories "what you're living through is meaningless and not something anyone else should care about"; it's basic shitty gatekeeping.
I also don't think that just because something is called a "game" means it should always be "fun". Serious stories need to be told too, and if games are a good medium to tell them, so be it. "Serious" and "silly" can coexist within any medium; wallpaper and oil paintings coexist, A Brief History of Time and Being Jordan : An Autobiography coexist, Super Mario Bros and Six Days In Fallujah can coexist.

(As an aside, Six Days is exactly the sort of game that I could never, ever play. But I am incredibly sad that it never came out, because it's a side of the story that doesn't get told; Call of Duty makes war look fun because it's designed as a gun-themed thrill ride nowadays, but games that show the terror of combat are few and far between. Even, say, Spec Ops : The Line wasn't telling that sort of story.)

So I'm fully in favour of this game and the entire "misery tourism" genre existing; even if many people play them ironically or don't take them seriously, maybe someone will learn something from them, and that makes the concept worthwhile. I just don't necessarily want to play them myself.
 

Dammit Viktor

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Still looking for a good, rules-light/medium luchador "superhero" game...

I will second the fuck out of Dumarest's recommendation for Luchador: Way of the Mask. Own it, ran it a couple of times, it's a blast.

Just not supernatural enough for my tastes, but it's the reason my Cascade City setting as the Lucha Civil War.
 

Edgewise

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The Italian mob, outlaw biker gangs, and even the Yakusa, Tong, and Russian mobs have at least a few redeeming qualities.
I'm with Voros on this. I think you vastly overestimate the ethical qualities of these organizations. They are all scum.
 

Necrozius

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Yeah I ended up cancelling my pledge. I wish the project all the best (I know it will do super well regardless).

I have a feeling that I could look elsewhere for reference on Mexico for RPGs.
 

3rik

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I'm with Voros on this. I think you vastly overestimate the ethical qualities of these organizations. They are all scum.

Seconded. Do not be fooled by the veneer of "charm" overlaying the sheer evil of these fuckers.

Even the narcos manage to fool people, being hailed as Robin Hood-like folk heroes by some ignorants. There's narco music, narco films, narco comics, etc.
 

Dumarest

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I will second the fuck out of Dumarest's recommendation for Luchador: Way of the Mask. Own it, ran it a couple of times, it's a blast.

Just not supernatural enough for my tastes, but it's the reason my Cascade City setting as the Lucha Civil War.

Yes...but for anyone planning to actually play a long-term luchador game, I'd recommend the Hero System game as it has greater depth and breadth and tons of background material, in fact the background material rivals or exceeds the sort you'd find in those old 3rd edition GURPS sourcebooks.

I would play it in a heartbeat except I'd probably want to make SPD limits lower across the board, with a maximum of maybe 3, and look into either eliminating or reducing END tracking and have REC occur less frequently as those are all things that slow down combat for me in Hero System, and the last thing you want in a luchador game is slow fight sequences. Limiting the number of opponents to reflect the movies would speed it up as well, say Santo and Blue Demon versus 5 thugs or Dracula and the Wolfman, not like super hero team fights with 5 or 6 on each side.
 

CRKrueger

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Well, it's a PbtA game, it lends itself easily to meta-narrative constructs. I think the game is meant to operate on a couple levels.
On the one end, you have the Telenovela/Sicario/Rodriguez/Narcos angle, essentially creating one of those stories of sex, drugs, violence, and corruption - which can be extremely entertaining.
On the other end, you have the roleplaying of real people caught up in the reality and tragedy of the world of the narcotrafficantes.

A lot of PCs in games are thieves and killers, and Pirates and Vikings weren't exactly nice to the people they preyed upon.

As these characters are a modern and current scourge as opposed to a historic or futuristic one, I can definitely see the lack of distance giving people pause as to whether they would have fun playing it or not.

As to the discussion of whether it is exploitation, glamorization, whatever, I'm not going to address the social stuff, I see it as more of an exploration. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of a real situation.
 

Voros

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I'm with Voros on this. I think you vastly overestimate the ethical qualities of these organizations. They are all scum.

noman noman was talking in a narrow sense from his viewpoint in law enforcement.

Certainly the Russian mob's effect on Russian society has been devasting, where it has become something of a 'gangster state.'
 

Voros

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Well, it's a PbtA game, it lends itself easily to meta-narrative constructs. I think the game is meant to operate on a couple levels.

And the game can be played however you want, so for instance there's nothing preventing you from playing an honest cop or DEA agent.
 

noman

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Well, it's a PbtA game, it lends itself easily to meta-narrative constructs. I think the game is meant to operate on a couple levels.
On the one end, you have the Telenovela/Sicario/Rodriguez/Narcos angle, essentially creating one of those stories of sex, drugs, violence, and corruption - which can be extremely entertaining.
On the other end, you have the roleplaying of real people caught up in the reality and tragedy of the world of the narcotrafficantes.

A lot of PCs in games are thieves and killers, and Pirates and Vikings weren't exactly nice to the people they preyed upon.

As these characters are a modern and current scourge as opposed to a historic or futuristic one, I can definitely see the lack of distance giving people pause as to whether they would have fun playing it or not.

As to the discussion of whether it is exploitation, glamorization, whatever, I'm not going to address the social stuff, I see it as more of an exploration. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of a real situation.

^ This. Very similar to my POV on the subject.
 

noman

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I'm with Voros on this. I think you vastly overestimate the ethical qualities of these organizations. They are all scum.

Seconded. Do not be fooled by the veneer of "charm" overlaying the sheer evil of these fuckers.

Even the narcos manage to fool people, being hailed as Robin Hood-like folk heroes by some ignorants. There's narco music, narco films, narco comics, etc.

Emphasis mine.

Gentlemen, respectfully, you're misunderstanding both my perspective as well as the point I was trying to make. Pull up a chair, pour yourselves a drink, and let's go though this line by line. :smile:

My original assertion was that the Cartels are worse than other organized crime groups. I've already made a case for why I believe that to be true, so we'll skip it unless it somehow becomes an issue*.

I then added that compared to Cartel assets, criminal assets from other organized crime groups "have at least some redeeming qualities."

It was this phrasing that seems to be the point of contention. You've incorrectly assumed I'm offering some kind of endorsement of the ethical character of both the organizations in question and the assets that serve their interests, presumably from a position of ignorance.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I thought I made it fairly clear that organized crime groups are, one and all, a collective of s-class assholes** who's industrial byproduct of their black market activities is suffering and death.

I'm not referring to ethics or character when I say "redeeming qualities."

What I'm referring to is an individual asset's ability to communicate in a non-violent manner, to negotiate, and to exchange intelligence, both with law enforcement and with other criminal assets. To put it simply, can you talk to a guy or not without having to beat the shit out of him.

A surprisingly large part of what I did as a cop was intelligence gathering. This is important even for front-line patrol officers and even jailers. In the course of your duties, you're constantly looking for information about changes within the local criminal ecology. You take that information and pass it upstream to the detectives and undercover guys. And it matters; it matters a lot.

The thing you need to understand is that drug interdiction isn't as simple as arresting and beating up the bad guys. Intelligence was key. The more you knew, the more you could do, and the better the chances of finding the weak links in the criminal chains. To do that you had to talk to people, to talk to the enemy.

I quickly learned that there were two types of criminals: the ones you could talk to and the ones you had to fight straight at the beginning. The former were usually pros, and most of them wanted to talk to you because they're tying to do the same thing to you you're trying to do to them. It was all a big game.

I also had a surprisingly large amount of contact with a few organised crime assets: gangbanger satellite operations from out of LA and Chicano, 1% biker gangs, local white crime factions, Russian mob, and of course, some prospectors from the Cartels. I could deal with most of them, even the ones I was terrified of and with whom I knew I was out of my depth. Not so with the Cartel guys. They had only one setting: murder. That's it. Might as well try to negotiate with a raging psychotic. Even the Russians hated their stuipd asses.

So the point I was trying to make was with regard to tactics, not ethics. :grin:

Looping back to the OT, this is a large part of the reason why I'm not enthusiastic about playing a game like this. I'm not fond of cop or criminal dramas for the same reason: the subject matter hits too close to home.

But as I've stated repeatedly, and others have said as well, this isn't an ethical issue; it's merely a matter of personal presence. The game has merit, and people who want to play it should play it, without worrying about non-existent ethical issues, gatekeepers, or BadWrongFun. :smile:

* This point was made in the context of understanding why I'm not enthusiastic about playing such a character in a RPG (I could probably be roped into playing a Mafia or Yakuza hitman, maybe, but not a Cartel assassin). I want to avoid getting into an argument about which organized crime group is worse, as this takes us too far of topic and begins to breech into the No Current Events and No Politics rules.

** Modern American law enforcement is a giant, complex, mess. Things are not simple. If all criminals are scum, then all cops are heroes, and I can tell you that's not remotely true. By the time I left that profession, there were convicted felons I trusted more than many of the cops I worked with. It's not all black and white.
 

Voros

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Anyone read this? It is supposed to be excellent and is on my ever-growing 'to read' pile. Probably a good resource for this game.

23602561.jpg

And then there's this nonfiction book by Charles Bowden. Probably one of the most depressing reads I've ever had, although the bravery and the humanity of the Mexican journalist and few others in the book are moving and heart-breaking at the same time.

51vD6NNYglL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
 
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Dumarest

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No, but here is a classic.
1673987.jpg 51NfeYQQhEL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
There was also a TV version but I haven't seen it.
 

Voros

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I haven't read those although I recognize the author's name. I read this one by Laura Restrepo, a Columbian author, in translation I found it wonderfully purple and melodramatic. It is an epic about two crime families engaged in a hopeless war over a spontaneous act of violence. A pulp Marquez if you will.

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CRKrueger

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Noman, The way you are describing the Cartels sounds a lot like the early days of the Russian Mob, the Vor v Zakone, who tolerated no cooperation with the law in the Soviet system and in the gulags. In places where the Cartels don’t actually run the cops and prisons, Mexican Law Enforcement and prisons are pretty brutal.

That ‘home country’ LEO relationship probably has a lot to do with how they operate here. Also with all the bosses pretty much staying in Mexico, there’s little chance for the culture to ‘Americanize’ and become the type of organization you can play that game with.
 
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