This week I’m reposting a review that I published a while ago for the game Coyote & Crow, a game written and inspired by Indigenous peoples. This week being American Thanksgiving, a holiday which is about family and food as well as rosy visions of a fraught national legacy, it seemed like an excellent time for another signal boost for this great game.
There is a lot of value in challenging your own misconceptions and this game makes that process very easy. If you, like me, don’t have a lot of direct contact with Native communities then you might have difficulty thinking of anything but the unflattering depictions in high school text books and Disney films. Coyote & Crow has been an exciting way for me to change that and the stories I’ve been able to explore have been fulfilling in many ways. I’m planning on picking up on a previous story thread this weekend to make sure I’m not lulled into turkey stupor. This review ended up with a second half so check that out as well, and enjoy!
The reductionist answer for “what is the world of Coyote & Crow?” is that it’s a version of North America where a massive meteor impact changed the world’s climate and derailed European expansionism so that European nations never came to this continent in the 15th century. The longer answer is that it is a science-fiction world impacted with a meteorite whose radiation changed plants and animals so that humans consuming them gained different powers. At the same time, it’s a vision how Indigenous nations in what we call North America might have continued to change and grow without European influence.
The book focuses on Makasing (what we call North America) nearly seven centuries after the impact event called the Awis, also called the Darkest Night or the Darkening Land. This post-impact period (starting around 1400 CE) when a triggered Ice Age shattered the ecosystems that Indigenous peoples relied on. All around Makasing (and the rest of the world) communities wandered in search of food and shelter until eventually things calmed down a bit. They rationalized this period as something arriving which chased away the Great Spirit (a common benevolent figure in the legends of many Indigenous cultures) but as the Awis began to clear they noticed purple stains on plants and animals and the people who consumed them. This is called the Adanadi, the Gift, which led to physiological changes and a rapid advancement in technology, in some of the ways that our world has seem advancements but also many different ways.
Over the course of these seven hundred years, things have changed in countless ways but they are still reminiscent of the cultures of pre-colonial North America. Many game terms, for instance, are words from actual Indigenous languages, though a fictional language called Chahi is used as a common language for the people of Makasing. In these lands, with a massive ice sheet to the north and an expansionist empire to the south, there are the Five Nations that divide up the land between them with the Free Lands in the center of the continent. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a collection of nation-states in the northeastern, the original five nations as well as conquered vassal states and groups of refugees offered citizenship. The Ti’Swaq Alliance is on the continent’s northwestern coast is ruled by hereditary lines of spiritual, military, and political figures. The Keetoowagi Federation is south of the Haudenosaunee and east of the Free Lands, a nation going through some socio-economic transformations that produce both opportunity and strife. In the southeast is the last of the Five Nations, the Diné Republic which occupies the dry lands and canyons on the border between Makasing and the lands to the south.
Just south of Makasing is Abazang (in the real world referred to as Mesoamerica or Central America) where the expansionist Ezcan Empire has been growing its borders for centuries and was only checked by the All Tribes War of ninety years ago. The Ezcan Empire initially was fighting with the Diné Republic but eventually it pulled in peoples from across Makasing as well as the other peoples further south beyond the Empire. In the long continent of Abayang (South America in the real world) the nation of Tewantin extends along the Andes Mountains, the Confederacy of Bocatá e Hunza is in the mountains of the northern coast, Cambaba is the collection of peoples in the Amazon Mountains, the United Tupi States is in the higher pampas south of the Amazon, and the small nation of Aniil at the very southern point of Abayang is a mercantile powerhouse. All of these nations were also pulled into the All Tribes War making it a truly devastating event that set up the decades leading up to the game’s present.
A major site of the setting is the city of Cahokia, a sprawling city of two million at the confluence of two of the major rivers in Makasing, the Mizizbi and the Minishoshi. The real world site of Cahokia and the Mound Builder culture it is associated with is a really cool place and pretty near to where I live and work so I’m very excited to see this as a lynchpin of the setting. Part of this is because of the devastating All Tribes War which brought economic crashes to all the nations involved but putting Cahokia in a unique position to grow during the economic rebound. As a big part of Coyote & Crow, Cahokia has a two-page map spread and pages of description of its layout, culture, and history. While you can (and should!) explore anywhere in Makasing (and, eventually, other parts of the world) there is an awesome starting point in the city of Cahokia that should give you both a detailed base of operations and a place that the players will come to legitimately care about and develop.
One last thing I want to say about this awesome setting is the role of technology. Obviously the historical divergences from our real world are interesting and the strange powers of the Adanadi Gift, but the technology of Coyote & Crow are not just a footnote to those things. Unlike the sort of near-future settings you might be more familiar with, there aren’t really corporations or industrialization in the world of Coyote & Crow. There are science-fiction-level items in the setting, and readily for sale at that, but they are individually produced, often uniquely assembled, and so are more like the items you might see in fantasy settings. In Shadowrun you might lay out three pistols and even their owners would be hard-pressed to see which is theirs; in Coyote & Crow you would know immediately since your weapon looks different from all the others out there.
The other thing that’s really interesting is the rejection of the idea that spirituality and technology need to be at odds. The people of Makasing are very spiritual and conscious of tradition, and at the same time they are constantly innovating to create a fascinating worldview. There is solar and wind power, “yutsu” hover-technology, “second eye” AR goggles, “gat” 3D printers, “niisi” computers strapped to forearms, and localized wireless networks called “dasos.” Environmental changes from the Adanadi impact and cultural pressures have limited other things, notably sea exploration and spaceflight, so some technology branches are far more rudimentary in this world than in ours. It’s a trade-off that makes for a really awesome and unique setting.
Messages to Players
With a clear idea of what the world of Coyote & Crow is like, it’s time to address an important part of this game. Actually, the game authors put this first in their book which indicates just how important they think it is. As a game written by Indigenous authors about Indigenous cultures of North America, Coyote & Crow is a really fantastic creation that improves and expands our hobby. But for non-Native players (like whitebread me) how do they engage with this product? And should they even play it or is that gaming brownface?
This is a perennial question for modern gamers (and I encourage you to check out Jason Mendez Hoades’ awesome article about it) but the authors of Coyote & Crow actually begin with the flipside of it. In the first page following an introductory fiction this book has A Message to Native American Players that effectively says “this game is for you and you should make it even more so.” Indigenous players are encouraged to change up the setting and switch around rules if they want to include their family’s culture in the game. There is also advice about playing with non-Native players that seems to come from a lot of personal experience. “Do not ever feel like you have to educate non-Native players at the table,” it wisely says. “It’s their responsibility to play respectfully within the rules or to learn more outside of their time spent at the game table.”
And this brings us to the second section, A Message to non-Native American Players. It says very explicitly at the start that “if you do not have heritage Indigenous to the Americas, we ask you not to incorporate any of your knowledge or ideas of real world Native Americans into the game.” This is some sound advice and boils down to outsiders being far more influenced by pop-culture depictions of Native Americans than any real world details, and the book furthers this by giving very practical advice. If you aren’t from a Native American culture then untwisting your misconceptions, caricatures, and taught prejudices is next to impossible. Leave it to the experts, this book’s authors, and start with a blank slate that includes only what they have offered to you. This goes along with a Coyote & Crow Kickstarter update that I’ve read so many times, one that details appropriation versus participation. The Indigenous creators have worked hard to create a science-fiction world that includes the cultural touchstones and histories of their people, then worked even harder to make that world accessible even to outsiders like me. Don’t insult all of that hard work by adding in something you saw on Deadwood that you’re pretty sure is true and an assumption you’ve had since you were a kid watching racist 90s cartoons. Use what’s in this setting and try to learn something.
The game system used for Coyote & Crow is called the D12 System which relies, unsurprisingly, on d12s and you’ll need two different colors of them. The book says that a “standard set” is 9 white dice and 3 black dice (the best colors for visual impairments but any two colors work) and ideally you have a set for each player and the Story Guide. You can also share, though.
Dice checks in Coyote & Crow are made against Success Numbers which are 8 by default but can be adjusted. This might be from a specific rule that gives a different Success Number, the modification of a skill, gear, or something else, or just nebulous environmental factors. You assemble a dice pool of d12s which are typically made of a number of dice equal to one of your stats (Strength, Agility, Endurance, Intelligence, Perception, Wisdom, Spirit, Charisma, and Will) plus a skill rating. Each of these is rated 1 to 5 (though most folks have 2 or 3) so your dice pool is typically going to be around five dice (sometimes other stats factor in too, but not as often).
You roll your d12s and look for the Success Number or higher as successes. With a 5d12 pool and a Success Number of 8 you have just a 6.75% chance of getting no successes and are most likely (34.46%) to get two successes. Thanks to anydice.com for the calculations, by the way (the exact formulation is here). However, you also have about a one-third chance of rolling a 1 and every 1 that you roll subtracts a success so having multiple successes is recommended just in case. End with at least one success (unless more are called for) and you do the thing.
However, there are three ways to continue to affect the results. First off if you have one or more Legendary Ranks (something you get at the end of a Story which is a chapter in a longer Saga) then you can adjust a die by one, including adjusting the same die multiple times but not changing a 1. You can also use Focus which is a game term for taking your time and mechanically spending points from a derived stat called Mind, adjusting the results as above. You also get Critical Dice if you roll any 12s (or adjust dice to 12 with Legendary Ranks or Focus) which are the second color of dice described above. For every 12 you rolled you grab a black (or whatever) Critical Die and roll that for more successes. Those Critical Dice that roll below the Success Number (even a 1) that’s a bonus success and those that roll above are two successes… plus any Critical Dice that roll 12 generate even more Critical Dice!
This system starts off pretty simply (especially for veteran roleplayers) but these complicating factors give players a feeling of control over the situation even if the situation is a true longshot. It also translates neatly into all sorts of different situations with tactically crunchy options in each whether you’re negotiating passage through someone’s borders, combatting a disease ravaging a community, or trading blows with an enemy or creature. To that point your character will also have different sorts of damage that can happen inflicting physical, mental, and spiritual damage which will add damage and sometimes impact your stats directly. There are also states (like conditions in other systems) which can be Sleeping, Altered (some sort of altered consciousness from prayer, drugs, or spiritual influence), Panic ,and Unconsciousness.
A Growing Game
If you enjoyed this review, again make sure you read the second half for the rest of the game. The authors also wrote an adventure anthology called Stories of the Free Lands, so check that out as well. Their online store also has a dice game called Naasi (haven’t played so I can’t say how it is), a screen, Roll20 resources, custom dice, and definitely more coming soon.
I’m thrilled to see this game and company growing. While there are a lot of authors out there with a lot of diverse viewpoints, I think it’s worth pointing out that Coyote & Crow is fairly traditional as an RPG for about 60% of it’s make-up. It’s got a fantastical setting, bands of diverse folk working together, strange creatures, magical threats, and a neutral ground between several nations that sometimes cooperate but have the potential for conflict too. This happens to be Makasing but could just as easily describe Faerun, Khorvaire, Middle-earth, or other familiar locations. The mechanics are not D&D but they are definitely going to be familiar enough to grasp easily for anyone who’s played a d20-based system. The other 40%, of course, is excitingly and refreshingly new with a lot of ideas that just never appeared in RPGs before. When there is a conscious effort to demarginalize communities and listen, the results are really fun and exciting and they don’t have to shred RPGs as we know them to do so. I’m personally looking forward to everything that Coyote & Crow is doing and if you are too then sound off in the comments!