Native American-built tabletop RPG Coyote & Crow is a well-designed and fascinating look into an alternate history where colonialism never occurred. In that fictional interim, indigenous Americans bloomed into a technologically and spiritually miraculous society, blending mysticism, tradition and science into a fantastical setting backed by some genuinely fun mechanics.
Players take on the role of inhabitants of the territory of Makasing, which sits across North America. Makasing is home to a society that began recreating itself after the Awsi, or Darkest Night, in which a meteor struck the Earth and caused catastrophic climate change.
Thanks to a mysterious force - perhaps brought by the meteor - called Adanadi, indigenous Americans survived the initially harsh, long winters and eventually thrived, making massive advancements in technology and creating new nations.
Coyote & Crow’s worldbuilding section gives prospective game masters - called “Story Guides” in this instance - plenty to work with, but focuses primarily on the city of Cahokia, a central hub of trade and culture amid Makasing’s five collective nations. Players are invited to build their own legend in a post-scarcity world rooted in Indigenous tradition. (In a particularly inspired bit of worldbuilding, the game’s currency, Nizi, is made from corn-based synthetic strips.)
The game is a breath of fresh air in a hobby where the closest I get to representation usually ends up being whatever cultural slurry writers have used to create their setting’s orcs. By imagining a world where colonisation never occurred, Coyote & Crow doesn’t treat indigenous Americans as victims or fodder for cultural analogues, but rather the heroes of their own stories.
Moreover, Coyote & Crow bolts all this to a solid mechanical structure that reminds me of a gentler Shadowrun - in more ways than one, given that setting’s use of Native American mysticism as a catalyst for the return of magic. The game utilises a d12 dice pool system to reconcile its various skill and stat checks, and echoes of Shadowrun’s character building can be found in Coyote & Crow’s method of creating derived stats and garnering extra points for those stats.
The game is a breath of fresh air in a hobby where the closest I get to representation usually ends up being whatever cultural slurry writers have used to create their setting’s orcs.
Take, for example, the Gifts and Burdens system. During character creation, players are given five points to spend on gifts - mutable, story-focused benefits for your character that might give them access to resources, contacts or wealth. The game broadly ranks these gifts from level 1 - minor, trivial things such as an acquaintance in a government position that might grant you a small favour - to level 3, which might be easy access to flying machines through a cousin’s mechanic shop.
If five points isn’t sufficient, characters can take on burdens, which rank on a similar scale from level 1 (a mild aversion to a particular kind of animal) to level 3 (a massive organisation after the character’s head). Burdens affect the story in the same way as gifts, but give the character points to spend on further gifts. Importantly, spare points left over after accepting gifts and burdens can be used on stat distribution.
Speaking of distribution, Coyote & Crow features a suite of nine major character abilities and uses a point-buy system to derive their initial values: strength, intelligence, spirit, agility, perception, charisma, endurance, wisdom and will. Each of those stats can range from 1 to 5, and while figuring out how the game translated your initial 42 points into a starting array was a bit finicky, things clicked quickly for me when building my first character.
The RPG stands at a really lovely intersection between crunchy mechanics and broad, rules-light storytelling.
Players use a similar process for their skills, but even here there’s a neat design twist in skill specialisation; specialising in a particular weapon, vehicle or lore costs fewer points than more general skill ranks, encouraging players to further flesh out their characters by finding particular niches for them.
As in-depth as that aspect of character creation can be, the game also puts a focus on characters’ backstories, tying progression to characters’ short and long-term goals as well as sessions played, rather than direct reward of experience points.
The RPG stands at a really lovely intersection between crunchy mechanics and broad, rules-light storytelling. On the one hand, character creation gives players loads of meaningful choices while, on the other, encounters and exploration use broadly-defined actions to govern a range of possible approaches, leaving room for players to flavour and innovate during play. Rather than dictating specific numbers for movement ranges, for example, those ranges are defined as “short, medium and long,” and rounds are described in the book as “amorphous,” taking varying lengths of time depending on the narrative.
This blend of philosophies - somewhere between the hyper-crunch of more intensive systems like Shadowrun and the rules-light, narrative-focused nature of Powered by the Apocalypse - works in Coyote & Crow’s favour. As someone who has previously bounced off the above systems, I found creating a character and rolling through some of the hypothetical situations in the included adventure both intuitive and fun. There was enough mechanical structure to keep me engaged without getting so far in the proverbial weeds that I got lost in the process.
It doesn’t hurt matters that the book itself is gorgeous, featuring an easy-to-parse layout and friendly instructions, complete with examples throughout. Of particular note are included instructions for both Native players and non-Native players; Native players are frequently asked to include portions of their own heritage in their characters, such as their names or tribal affiliations, while non-Native players are given advice on how to lean into the game’s message of cultural celebration and respect. (i.e. Don’t come up with a fictional tribal affiliation, or appropriate real-world tribal cultures for your character.)
The hundreds of indigenous tribes across the Americas represent a broad and impossibly complex mix of traditions, values and stories, but Coyote & Crow takes a shot at finding core values that it can represent in a unique exploration of these people’s cooperation and perseverance. Native Americans have always been storytellers, and this game celebrates that in a wonderful, clever way.
Coyote & Crow's core rulebook is available as a PDF from Coyote & Crow.