The Nagual Roleplaying Game (Nagual)
The Nagual RPG clocks in at 125 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, ¾ of a page blank, leaving us with 121 ¼ pages, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue because I’ve been waiting for the game for a pretty long time.
All right, after a brief introduction, we begin with the setting information – and this is actually smart, because Nagual’s rules are strongly-founded within the context of the world, which is called “Cali” – meaning “home.” The premise is pretty awesome and not something I’ve seen done before – in Cali, the Mesoamerican cultures succeeded in becoming the dominant cultural hegemony due to their spiritual practices; as such, counting is done in base 20, vertically, with dots on lines. This is reflected in the calendar as well, which knows BC and AC – Before and After Contact, which marks the point where spirits were contacted by mortals. Spirits exist on a higher place and interact with us somewhat akin to how we’d perceive beings in Flatland. Experiencing our world may be desirable to spirits, as there are plenty that seem to enjoy being part of a relic, most commonly, a mask.
These masks are housed in the so-called Nagual (pronounced na’wal), which is also the term applied to the pilots of Nagual – and, as you could glean from the cover, those would be mechas! The mask that houses the spirit reads the pilot’s nerve impulses to control the well-armed suits. This, obviously, radically changes a lot – and it is further complicated by the relatively recent arrival of the Centzon Huitznahua. These are aliens that once exploited spirits and thus have lost the ability to invite them – they attempted to enslave the spirits. These aliens range between 20 – 30 feet and forcibly mutate spirits into themselves. If this sounds like a great set-up to you, then you’d be right. With resonance of Gundam, NGE, Code Geass etc., this had my ole’ otaku heart rejoice.
The book then proceeds to explain the major and minor powers that are present in the world of Cali, and much to my pleasant surprise, all of the notions and movements do receive their own flags! Values, pronunciation, government styles, affluence, landmass and taglines are presented for these nations, which include the Xibalban State, the Toltec Autonomous Region, to the anti-nagual El Mirador, there are plenty of interesting nations here – in fact, I found myself wanting to learn more about all of them.
The world out of the way, we are introduced to a series of cultural leitmotifs – a pilot’s synchronization to the relic is known as harmonizing, and losing harmony below a critical threshold will have it shut down – once again, providing a better in-game justification for the like than most mecha-anime feature. There is, similarly, a brief time where the “eyes are open” and performance goes off the chart, again providing a classic trope of the genre in this context. Another crucial difference is that, in the absence of dominant Christianity or Abrahamic religions, another ethic has developed; one not as likely to think in matters of absolutes or black and whites; however, this also means that sacrifices are considered to be a part of daily life. Human sacrifices, while taboo, are favorites of some spirits, so they do happen – and if your players start balking at some forms of sacrifice, remind them that, in a way, every religion and cultural order features the like.
Relics can be created or found – clever here: Since spirits are from the Nth dimension, artificially created masks are called “syNthetic” – it’s a small thing, but it’s clever and pretty damn cool! Of course, these realities create mask hunters, specialized gladiator games, military altercations – and then, there are the Huitzilopochtli, the global defense against the Centzon threat after ace pilots Hunahpu and Xbalanque defeated the Centzon in the first Centzon War in the planet of Popol Vuh. If you even remotely are familiar with mythology, then this got a beaming smile out of you. It’s small touches like this that suffuse, constantly, this massive tome. Of course, there are bound to be collaborators, and most sub-chapters presented here tend to mention legendary individuals.
It may just be around 25 pages, but Nagual’s basic premise and world-building is absolutely amazing and novel.
But what kind of GAME are we looking at? Well, let us check out the mechanics. We begin with a golden rule – “Whenever rules come into conflict with ‘what is fun’, ‘what is fair’, or ‘what makes sense’ (in that order), the rules should always be regarded as subservient and may be disregarded or altered (either temporarily or permanently). That is to say that the spirit of the rules and the story being told always triumphs over any rules.”
Every player has a deck of playing cards – 52 standard playing cards. When you take an action, you place a card on the table, and anyone affected by the action can attempt to put a card with a higher value atop it – this is called a “response”; lower values or no values mean that the target is affected. Cards used to attack or defend are put in the discard pile. If the deck is empty, you shuffle the discard pile back into the deck, but don’t draw new cards – new cards are drawn at the start of the turn. All characters also have statistics – if the card value played is less than the relevant statistic, you raise the card’s number to that statistic. Essentially, your statistics provide a minimum cap for your cards for specific tasks. If you don’t have a card on your hand, but still want to respond, you’re overwhelmed and draw from the deck, but don’t benefit from this minimum cap.
Cards are ranked from King in a descending order – king beats queen, queen beats jack, etc. – however, ace, while otherwise behaving as a “1”, actually does beat King! In the case of a tie, suit values are compared. Spades are worth most, followed by Heart, then clubs, and finally, diamonds. Very cool for Europeans like yours truly – we get suit-equivalents for German, Swiss-German, French and Italian/Spanish decks! Kudos for going the extra mile here!
The game knows three different statistics – Physical, Drama and Wit. The latter is used for the classic Intelligence-related things, where Drama deals with emotional or logical change. All characters start with 2 in their statistics, and they cap at a maximum of 10. During character creation or advancement, statistics may be improved. Bonuses denote temporary change in a statistic, and they stack with each other. You can always choose to play a card as a lower value than what your card denotes, allowing you to change any card into an ace – however, a non-ace card changed into an ace does NOT trump a king!
Standard hand-size is 5, and you redraw up to this maximum each turn. An ante can be used by a character with great skill in something – it is an extra card you play face down, taken from the top of the deck. After EVERYONE plays their cards, you flip all antes to see if your cards beat the current conundrum. This may sound simple, but it can generate serious tension. Antes gained in abilities stack with one another. The main source of antes btw. are “kudos” if some one does something cool, a player can grant the player a kudos, which means that the receiving player gets an ante.
If both cards played are the same, a “push” happens – both players put a card face down, and the card with the lower result (no antes!) loses. NPcs draw from the NPC deck, and there are rules for mooks to mow them down quickly.
The assumes a GM, but can potentially be run without a GM – this requires a specific group to do properly, and personally, I love being the GM, so that’s not a route I’d take, but I figured it’d be worth mentioning. The game has a focus on cooperative storytelling, and as such suggests relegating some of the administrative duties to players – 4 roles are assumed, the fist of which would be the Mind – this person generates the game’s story, establishes the world, etc. – basically, the most classic GM. The Mouth roleplays non-essential NPCs and provides on the spot descriptions; the Heart is the managerial leader allocating spoils of war, settling disagreements, etc., and the Hand controls NPCs in combat – as noted, I can see this work well. Personally, I prefer being the GM and having executive control. 3 additional roles for larger groups are provided as well, but yeah, let’s move on.
The characters are defined by so-called “Ties that Bind” or TTBs – 4 of them; these represent things important for you; once you lose one, you replace it with a ToV – a “tie of vengeance”; if you have no TTBs left, you become “consumed by vengeance” – once more, look no further than e.g. Lelouch Vi Britannia or a plethora of other traumatized pilots from the mecha-genre to check out what happens. Initiative is determined by drawing cards. The game does similarly have rules for redemption-arcs, in case you were wondering.
Distances are grouped in 4 categories – close, nearby, far and out of range; terrain is grouped in zones, and moving from zone to zone requires the discarding of a fixed number of cards, with some qualities influencing this – moving makes you thus more vulnerable, as you have less cards left to attack, and more importantly, defend. Sky, space, etc. are zones, and getting out of a zone that you’re stuck in (like space) costs cards if unimpeded – so yeah, you can end up in dangerous zones. Actions, cover and interaction with the environment are all pretty simple and easy to grasp. Opposed and unopposed actions are simple – in contests, you could, for example, oppose a Wit-based disassembly of your world-view with Drama. Actions do NOT have fixed statistics assigned to them – while defined and featuring a suggested statistic, there may be contexts where social actions work via Physical instead of the Drama standard. It should also be noted that you can discard a card to help an ally during the ally’s turn, meaning that there actually is a combo-engine here!
How does damage work? When you’re hit and take damage, you reduce your hand size by 1. Very few weapons deal more than this 1 damage to your hand. Some things can grant you resistance, which acts as a kind of damage reduction – this is only applied once per point, though. Say you have an awesome armor, 6 resistance points. The armor will negate the first 6 points of damage you’d take – after that, it’s destroyed and must be replenished. You, of course, still have your defense tricks as alternatives.
The game presents a wide array of different weapons, with AoE-damage, suppressed, semi-automatic, penetration and similar properties adding a surprising depth to the loot aspect, one that does not solely extend to the weaponry, with active camouflage, being seaworthy etc. all covered.
I mentioned harmony before, and it actually is roleplaying based – you have a 20% base harmony, and roleplaying in accordance with the nagual’s spirit, you increase harmony by +5% – at 100%, you get the “eyes wide open”-overdrive, which provides vast boosts, but consumes your harmony until you drop to 75%. Additionally, once per scene, the players as a whole may decide for a dramatic break –this costs 20% harmony from all naguals, but they get to play with full maximum handsize, regardless of damage taken; they also recover either 3 damage, add damage, treat statistics temporarily as 8 or get a harmony-boost (yeah, the interaction with the cost is worded in an unambiguous manner.
There’s more: if you choose to, you can wear a mask without a massive mecha attached, becoming essentially more of a Persona-esque character than a mecha pilot – this is basically its own subset of playing options.
Character advancement is handled by EP – equivalency points, which can be used to purchase talents or access to talent trees or to improve statistics. The latter becomes progressively more expensive in a linear manner. Nagual strength is grouped in 5 tiers, and getting a higher tier nagual also costs EP – a LOT of them, in fact; weaponry and the like also costs EP, so from character to gear upgrades, we have EP as a simple and easy to track resource. Rough EP-cost guidelines for the GM/group are provided, allowing for an informed design decision when dealing with them.
EP also determines the intended power level of play by presenting the point-buy budget at the start of the game. In short: There is a surprising depth regarding customization options to be found here.
Talent trees? Yeah, you see, there are 4 classes of sorts – types of pilot. Soldiers get +2 Physical and may reach a maximum of Queen in that statistic. Mavericks get 2 Joker cards, which may be treated as Ace or King; Shamans have 1 + Wit improvements that they may apply to a nagual per day, each of which takes 30 minutes. 4 sample improvements are provided. Finally, there are the Chosen – who get +30% base harmony with the favored unit type. Each character also chooses one favored nagual unit type, and each of these 4 classes of sorts has their own massive talent trees, which feature 3 tiers – tier 2 requires having 3 talents in the tree, tier 3 requires having 7 talents in the tree. Wait, plural? Yep, each of them has actually several talent trees to choose from, to unlock, etc. – these could be easily expanded further, but even as presented, they provide a ton of replay value and differentiation options!
After some GMing advice for the system, we then come to the gear – the nagual. Approximately 35 pages are devoted to them, and alongside stats, we get pretty neat full-color artworks for them. I am pretty fond of the Camazotz design, with its stone-like head atop a bat-winged mecha and the steel-winged Quetzalcoatl, for example. The aesthetic of the mechas is pretty unique because it’s so different. The contrast of stone-like faces and metal bodies is something that took me a while to get accustomed to, mainly because it’s so different, but it does lend a truly unique visual identity to the game. Unless I have miscounted, 13 illustrated base nagual are included, with variants provided for further quick differentiation if simple customizing won’t do.
The game comes with a handy cheat-sheet (3 pages), premade characters for your convenience (18 page pdf) and a simple 3-page character sheet.
Editing and formatting on a formal level are good – I noticed a few typos, but not many. On a rules-language level, the game is precise and does a really good job explaining the game; it strikes a nice balance between basics and details, the sequence of presentation never left me wondering about concepts, and the game constantly uses brief summaries if you just want to get the gist of it – reading them suffices to understand the details. In short: The information is presented in a smart and engaging manner. Layout adheres to a full-color two-column standard and the game features unique full-color artworks that adhere to a unified and distinct aesthetic. The pdf comes with detailed, nested bookmarks for quick and easy navigation.
Scott Gladstein and Ian Sisson have provided something I very rarely get to see – a jamais-vu experience. I have literally never before seen the angle, and I love it to bits. The world of Cali is exciting and novel, and as someone truly fascinated with Mesoamerican cultures, I am smitten indeed. The level of research that went into this is apparent on all sides – regarding myth and culture, and fandom. If you’re saying that mecha-genre tropes and these myths don’t blend, then consider this book to be the sterling refutation of this claim. This book shows a genuine love for culture, world and concept, as well as for the narrative tropes associated with mecha games. Moreover, it lands in this exciting sweet spot. The game is quick and easy to learn and make characters for, and simple enough to explain it to newbies quickly, yet does have a serious depth to it – talent trees, nagual, equipment…you don’t have to engage in in-depth customization and the like, but the options, the mechanical chassis? It’s here, and sooner or later, you will want to take a look.
Unlike many storytelling-focused games, this very much knows that is has to offer some sort of meat on its bones to engage some people out there for e.g. campaign-length play, and Nagual has just that. We have a synthesis of mecha and Mesoamerica, of a storygame that still provides serious mechanical depth – and for that, I love this game. It’s novel and daring, and frankly, I’d love to see videogames, an anime and the like in the world; I’d love to see expansions – just more of it! Nagual is a novel and fun experience I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone who is tired of the same of stories, and to mecha-fans looking for something more than the tropes of an angsty teenager. This is daring and innovative in all the right ways, and for now, I am left with the honor f bestowing upon this 5 stars, my seal of approval, and designate it as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2019. I’m excited to seeing how long-term play with the system turns out, but so far, I’m very much loving this as a change of pace!
You can get this genuinely novel and exciting RPG here on OBS!
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