Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cartel: thoughts on prepping for the first session of a crime drama

I ran Cartel last night, a game for telling crime soap operas in the spirit of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Wire. It's set inside the world of Mexican drug cartels.

It was a really successful session -- successful enough that what I thought might be a one-shot is going to turn into at least a two session thing.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make sure this session hit the ground running. I combined Cartel's advice with my experiences running Monsterhearts at conventions and came up with this:

* clearly pitch the genre and set expectations for where the conflict will come from

* identify the fundamental conflicts for each playbook

turn each player's selected playbook moves into a conflict or situation that needs to be dealt with

* enmesh the playbooks' NPCs into problematic situations

* turn the characters' histories with each other into active bits of the game's opening

By doing all of this, I created a list of bangs I could use if I needed to. I also created a list of bangs from the crime fiction I've been reading and watching (The Power of the Dog, Savages, Traffic).
Stuff like a drug shipment being observed by the DEA, a money mule taking off with cash you paid them in advance. That gave me a ready-made supply of bangs to introduce into the game if I needed them.

That took quite a lot of set-up time (maybe an hour?), but paid off brilliantly. When combined with the choices each player made about their characters and the series of botched beginning-of-session moves to set the scen, we had a lot of immediate trouble going on:

* Jolanda, the wife of the cartel boss, had a secret second family, which the DEA decided to use as blackmail to turn her into an informant. Pepa, a dirty cop and Jolanda's former lover, had to decide what to do with this information

* The two least-capable characters (Diego the street kid and Hector the meth cook) found themselves trapped in their underground meth lab as two enforcers from a rival cartel broke in to kill and rob them

In more detail, this is what I did:

When we sat down, I told the players that this is a crime soap opera, in the vein of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Wire. You play the criminals and your lives will inherently be difficult, with competing demands from family, the cartel, and law enforcement.

As a soap opera, you should not play safe. Each playbook has sources of trouble embedded into it: you'll be expected to embrace that trouble.

Then I took a trick from how I like to run Monsterhearts at conventions. During character creation (especially when we're figuring out the histories between characters), I find the moments of crisis. Then I bring them up in play immediately. In Monsterhearts' supernatural romance, that's stuff like being seen watching a neighbour through a window or discovered over a dead body.

In Cartel, the histories are filled with situations like starting to deal with another criminal organisation, forming a plan to make some real money, and suspecting someone is undercover.

(I really hope there's an 'undercover' playbook. If not, I suspect I'll want to write one!)

Anyway, turning the histories into active bits of the game's opening are a great creative support for those initial scenes where everyone's finding their feet and the fiction's still coming alive. There are also a few options that aren't so appropriate for openings, but holding onto them for later created explosive scenes.

* Diego is high on pain-killers after getting shot in the meth lab and from injuring himself racing to get a gas mask when Hector created a toxic gas out of some leaking chemical. That's the worst time for him to meet his cousin Jolanda who wants him out of the business. Slapping, bribery and public screaming ensued in a crowded cafe while cartel enforcers watched the whole thing.

Of course, some of the playbooks have beginning of session moves that destabilise things too. The boss finds out if they're in control of their territory or whether there's trouble brewing. In our session, we had the meth lab break down, the cop fail to find out that the police are moving in on the cartel, and the cartel boss lose control of his territory which triggered a robbery.

The playbooks also contain three other elements it'll be essential to draw on (and these are either directly stated or implied by the rules):

* The basic concept of the playbook: if you've chosen it, you'll want to deal with the conflicts inherent in it. A halcon may have to deal with someone short-counting them, a sicario will have to enforce the jefe's will.

* the moves each player selects: I've started listing those moves out, and finding ways to dramatise them into a conflict or situation that needs to be dealt with

* the NPCs: most of the playbooks have some great NPCs you can enmesh into problematic situations. Making a note of those and then either bringing them into the game or having them make conflict-generating off-screen actions will be essential.

We ended the game with three crises unfolding:

*The street kid with ambitions to move up the chain of command had just gotten together with his gang to snatch one of the military-trained enforcers from the rival cartel

*The hitman had followed the cook who's been kidnapped by enforcers from a rival cartel. He's about to shoot his way into a rescue.

* The cartel boss had just learned (from the dirty cop) that his wife was going to inform on him, just as she had seduced one of his enforcers to let her into the boss' office to search for information.

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How would you prep for a game of Cartel or for a convention session of an Apocalypse World hack?

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