I’m back today with the second half of my review of Coyote & Crow, the awesome sci-fi RPG written by and inspired by Native Americans. Following up on my first part where I covered the mechanics and setting, today I’m launching into the characters and stories of the game.
The first step in making a character in Coyote & Crow is to pick a motivation, “the core of a hero’s behavior.” A motivation could be really anything, than an example list of motivations is provided including things like curiosity, family, and honor as well as thornier motivations like power (physical power or mastery of some skill), revenge, and nihilism. Mostly a motivation is a roleplaying prompt but the Story Guide can use it to adjust Success Numbers as well.
After this you select an archetype, which the book describes as “very roughly… a Character’s careers, aspirations, jobs, and personality.” This is similar to a class in other systems but with a few important differences. There are six archetypes and they each provide bonuses to one stat and one skill, as well as a key role of how they fit into the community. Warriors are Strength- and fighting-based (obviously) and sometimes work as trail defenders patrolling routes to protect travelers. Scouts are Agility-focused and sneaky and sometimes work as seed keepers finding and preserving rare plants. Tinkerers are focused on Intelligence and have crafting knowledge and sometimes star finder roles as astronomers. Seekers are observant and can be mystics, investigators, sociologists, etc with their focus on Perception and observation skills. Healers are self-explanatory and focus on Spirit and medical skills with a key role as death doula easing the suffering the bereaved. Lastly the Whisperers are Charismatic and have performance skills and a role as storytellers.
After choosing age and other identifiers like your tribe, gender, sexuality, and so on you next you a path which is your character’s aptitudes. In the world of Coyote & Crow, the widespread practice of ceremonies marking the passage to adulthood have lasting impressions on your character’s abilities. Families and communities consult on your path (so you might feel conflicted about it) and you are spiritually joined to a type of animal as your path through life. You’re also biologically joined: part of the ceremony involves the introduction of that animal’s blood and the Adanadi (that purple-colored “Gift”) into your body. You gain abilities and changes from that bond, though there are many questions remaining as to how tangible it is outside your body. While there are “many Paths in many cultures,” the core rulebook focuses here on the city of Cahokia just like it does with its setting chapter. In Cahokia the most common fifteen paths are the eagle, bison, beaver, coyote, fox, owl, badger, deer, spider, falcon, snake, crow, salmon, bear, and raccoon. Each one gives you a bonus in two different stats (which also means it’s very easy to make new one’s for a different culture).
You get some starting character points to differentiate your character’s mechanics. You get five points for Gifts and Burdens as well as forty-two points each for stats and skills. The stats and skills we’ve already discussed (though it’s worth noting that you have three points in stats already from archetype and path, and one point in skills from archetype) so we’ll move on to the Gifts and Burdens. These are flipsides of the same coins and represent the forces in your life that tie you to other people and places such as your family, allies, opponents, financial concerns, Spirit World connections, animals, secrets, quirks, curses, blessings, addictions, notoriety, and companions. These are numerical and add directly to your Success Numbers when appropriate. So if you had a Gift of Young Children (Level 1) and a Burden of Sworn Enemy (Level 2) then hiding your children from your sworn enemy would have a Success Number of 8 – 1 + 2 = 9. There are narrative effects too but I really like the simplicity of including this in the story.
There are a few derived stats at this point such as your initiative score (which allows you to pick first and place yourself in action order), defense values for physical, mental, and mystical attacks, and your health numbers of Body, Mind, and Soul for the different types of damage. The last big mechanical choice is picking an ability, a special thing that you can do that increases your options somehow whether using a strong stat to influence a weaker one, healing yourself or others, or doing something mystical. To tie things all together you pick out some equipment and to write a background for your character. This includes determine some goals (short- and long-term) as an initial set of plans for the game. You also need to pick a name (the publishers have a name generator for you), goals, equipment, etc. By and large, though, everything you need for making a character.
For the Story Guide
A lot of the guidance for Story Guides is going to be familiar to veteran roleplayers, although there’s a lot of advice on connecting with other players if you don’t have a local group that’s interested in playing. Gameplay is broken down into storytelling guidance, rules advice, NPCs, and an example adventure.
For one thing, I love that this book makes a point of laying out what a Story Guide does in Coyote & Crow. This is something that often gets skipped over in RPG books since the people writing these books have often done it for so long that the concept of GMing is second nature. It’s not obvious to newcomers, though, so it’s great that Coyote & Crow is not only detailed in laying it out but the authors are encouraging and warm about it. “While it may seem daunting,” the book states, “if you care enough about being a Story Guide that you bought this book and are reading this Chapter, you can do it.” What a breath of fresh air.
Play in Coyote & Crow is broken down into the familiar sessions and encounters but also stories (complete plot arcs or “chapters” of the overall game, “adventures” or “missions” in other games) and sagas (an alternative to “campaign” without the military and colonial trappings). Out of the box the book discusses the characters who are part of the Suyata (the peacekeeping force of the ruling Council of Twelve in Cahokia), a group protecting a place or people or ideal, exploration sagas understanding the land, political espionage sagas, war sagas with tons of physical conflict, or horror sagas getting into the alien influence of the spirits and creatures of Makasing.
The framework that stories in Coyote & Crow follow is the Three Paths, a non-linear plan for stories similar to the iceberg case template for City of Mist or the conspiracy pyramid for Night’s Black Agents. When using the Three Paths, consider three possible ways through a conflict as end cases for Story creation. If you have the idea of PCs taking much-needed supplies to a remote settlement with a hostile group of raiders in this middle they could handle it in a few ways. Maybe they charge through and fight any raiders that get in the way. Maybe instead they approach the raiders and barter safe passage. Lastly, they might use technology or their connections to bypass the raiders entirely using a river or flying or whatever.
None of these are necessarily harder than others, they are just different approaches for different thoughts. Even if the characters seem geared towards one path over the others, or the players have a history of one type of approach in the past, indicating different options can open up the story and help players to consider different options. They can also move between these Story extremes and find middle paths through, taking the river to flank the raiders and then attacking them or negotiating with the raiders to help them establish a safe river route. Story Guides can also use the Gifts and Burdens and other mechanical elements to lead players to expanding their play and concept of the world.
I don’t want to spoil the NPCs in the book for any potential playing groups out there so I will generally outline them as being Legends (general story prompts or groups like the Unshadowed cult or the strange obelisks called the Wards of Paraa), Icons (unique and specific beings like the eerie Dosadaag child-spirits or the twisted predatory creatures called the Purple Cancer), and Fifth Worlders (humans and animals of Makasing such as the resourceful Cahokian fixer Akwoni Nosiya Gasahtiitii or the scarred, swaggering mercenary named Goliga). Within each of these, entries are divided up as humans, spirits, and creatures to let you know what sort of being you are encountering.
Lastly, the book presents a sample story called Encounter at Station 54, an adventure designed for starting characters that starts in Cahokia and goes to the edge of the Permanent Ice Zone in the north. On the way are side opportunities like a suspicious group in the countryside and a vulnerable town that presents a moral quandary. Six pregenerated characters with a wide variety of ability and background follow the story. Also excitingly, there’s a document called “First Steps to Adventure” that I want to talk about in our final section…
First Steps to Adventure
In another effort to promote and encourage players of all different levels, the Coyote & Crow authors created a “rules lite” version of the game with an introductory story. This is not a quickstart of the game, it is a stripped-down version that really gets at the core mechanics without a lot of the extra noise that comes along with roleplaying games. This includes long lists of skills and complicated tactical options but also some stuff that experienced players take for granted but are a barrier for newcomers. For instance, this version of the rules uses two 6-sided dice instead of a d12 since it’s more likely that starting players/groups will have access to the normal, cubic dice instead of polyhedra.
Three pregenerated characters are provided (a protective warrior named Chakag, a legacy scientist named Nipini, and a pacificist healer named Wakaho) as well as a story that takes this team of Suyata to visit Nipini’s home of Tinatipas where they stumble on a problem to solve. It’s a great introduction where adventure and purpose is in the forefront but provides a chance to see the culture and landscape of Makasing with a variety of challenges available.
There’s a lot resting on the shoulders of this game, both a window into indigenous cultures and an opportunity to bring a different population into the empowering hobby of tabletop roleplaying. It would be easy and forgivable if one of these purposes overshadowed the others but amazingly the authors have managed to do both very well. Coyote & Crow is a fun and engaging roleplaying game with interesting crunch and a solid set of rules options and story frameworks. It presents a world that is at once very different from classic RPGs like D&D or Call of Cthulhu but also has handholds that give veterans a way to rapidly orient themselves. It’s also built very obviously and very comprehensively with new players and new readers in mind and is full of advice, guidance, and onramps for people who have never tried to navigate a book like this.
I’m so happy that Coyote & Crow has been released and encourage everyone interested in the game to go out and get yourself a copy. I’m also so excited to see what the team has in store and I look forward to seeing the lands of Makasing get even more detailed and rich in storytelling options.