Coyote and Crow gives a New Voice to Native American Legends and Icons

Made by a Native American team, Coyote and Crow is a tabletop role-playing game set in an alternate future of the Americas where colonization never occurred. Creator Connor Alexander retells the Cherokee myth of the Raven Wizard on Making a Monster.

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Mystery and Magic in Coyote & Crow

Connor Alexander:  Your group has ventured off, away from Cahokia away from the bright lights of the city. They’re visiting a remote outpost, this is a science outpost,  and they’ve gone quiet.

There’s no sign of violence but when you enter the building, you find that only one person has left of the science team of three and their wounds don’t look life-threatening. And yet the person seems on the verge of death, there’s something unnatural about their state and it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is.

But night’s falling and it’s getting dark and the characters are starting to worry that, maybe whatever it is that did, this might be coming back.

The soft lights that are lighting up the, uh, computer gear in the room provide just enough light that you should be able to see clearly. And yet there are shadows there where there shouldn’t be. And that’s when he sees it. A shadow in the corner towering about six feet tall, hunched over and flowing like a, almost like a cloud of smoke off of his shoulders, his long black shimmering. Feathers like a massive raven’s wing, all laid out like a blanket and it’s hovering in the corner. It’s not moving, but it’s, keenly attuned to the injured scientists on the ground.

It raises up and it has to go through the scout because there’s only one exit out of this room attached to its hands. Our six inch long bony fingertips that have old dried flesh on the tips. Let’s do initiative.

Lucas: Hello, and welcome to Making a Monster, the bite-sized podcast where game designers show you their favorite monster and we discover how it works, why it works, and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers.

Most role-playing games operate in Euro-centric fantasy worlds inspired by the works of authors like JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, but there’s an exciting new trend in literature that draws its inspiration from other continents and cultural mythos as in the Afrofuturist works of Tade Thompson and Namina Forna. I am so excited to show you a game as far removed from medieval fantasy as it is possible to be: Coyote and Crow, a tabletop role-playing game set in an alternate future of the Americas where colonization never occurred. The Coyote and Crow Kickstarter was fully funded in 45 minutes and has at the time of this recording raised more than half a million dollars with around two weeks still to go.

Native Representation in RPGs

Lead designer Connor Alexander is a games industry veteran and a member of the Cherokee nation who wanted to bring his heritage into an industry sorely lacking in representation of Native Americans.

Connor Alexander: About 2016, I was starting a fledgling blog, and I did an interview with this group called the Indian Players who are native representation consultants up here in the Pacific Northwest. And something one of them said just really stuck with me. Even when gaming gets representation accurate, when it comes to native Americans, it’s almost always through a colonial lens.

Even if the facts are accurate, it’s Indians in relation to Cowboys or Indians in relation to colonialism, there’s very rarely a game that focuses entirely on native culture. Let alone one that is built by natives themselves. It’s usually a white developer that’s come in and just decided to put a, a native skin onto a game – often an inaccurate one.

The first thing I started do was I started to world build. I started to think about what kind of world would I want to play in if I was a native and how could I bring that to life? And inevitably  I had to come up with a background and a story where colonialism was entirely stripped out.

Coyote and Crow’s alternate history

And so the basis for Coyote and Crow is the idea that these folks had a slightly different history starting about seven, eight or 800 years back where, meteor struck the other side of the earth and caused a massive climate shift.

That was absolutely devastating at the time. Scroll forward 700 years and you’ve completely interfered with the entire course of modern colonial history. and at the start of the game, when the characters step out their front door, they are entering into this world that is going through a rebirth, and it’s a chance for, the characters to have a sci-fi feel to the game and at the same time tackle issues like native myths and legends and exploring.

Even though the starting city in the game, Cahokia is an advanced metropolis there’s opportunities for these, characters to leave that metropolis behind and go exploring into what they perceive as the wilderness, and that’s where the mythological meets the scientific at that point.

Coyote and Crow world map

The northern continent of Makasing.

I think more than anything, the thing that I come back to often when I’m telling folks about this game is that I don’t want to describe what did happen to real natives here. Instead, I want to create a sandbox kind of atmosphere that allows real-world natives to tell me what happened to their tribes in this world. Where people can come back and say, Oh,  what you wrote here really excited me. And I would like to take my tribal history and express it through this alternate history.

A team of Native Americans

We’re up to about 13 or 14 different, native contributors from all over the country who’ve put their various stamps on this game, whether it’s graphic design or writing or art, Specifically one of them I’m super excited about, Nico Albert. She is an award-winning chef, and she’s actually written my entire section on food.

Lucas: That’s very exciting.

Connor Alexander: Yeah. We have a whole breakdown in the book of how food would work in this world. Not only how food would work, but she actually came up with a fictional restaurant menu. So a fictional restaurant in the city of Cahokia, what you would eat if you went there? So super excited about her.

We have somebody who’s handling our language. Travis Roberts. He is amazing. He’s handling our fictional language that we’re developing, which is based on real languages. Rather than to pick a real, specific language and transfer that real language into the game, we decided that, probably pretty realistically, there would be a trade language, similar to plains sign language that allowed for trade to prosper. So this language called Kag Chahi is a mix of a whole bunch of different plains-area languages. That also allows us to bring non-natives in, in a way that they don’t feel like they’re having to have pronunciation troubles the way that Kag Chahi is written out on the text, it’s accessible to them as well.

And then we’ll, we don’t also have to worry about, appropriation or anybody stepping on anybody’s real languages.

Lucas: That’s a huge undertaking, developing an entire constructed language for this game. You do not have low ambitions for this. Do you?

For more on constructed languages, or “conlangs”, check out this episode from like-minded podcast “Imaginary Worlds”:

Connor Alexander: No, no, I, and that’s, that’s something I really wanted to call out was that, uh, I’m not knocking anybody, but I think there’s a lot of RPGs out there

It still hungers. Art by Jeffrey Veregge. Photo courtesy Coyote and Crow

that are content with either being a digital download only or, a five by eight,  softcover 50 -page paperback.

I think part of the reason that I, I set the goals as high as I did for this game is, is that with as little representation as natives get, I didn’t want this game to come out and then have, non-natives go, Oh, that’s that one native game. I want this to live in the same places that you see games like Shadowrun and D and D That’s why this game is going to be a $50 hardback book and we’re going to have it hobby stores. I want this to live in that same space.

The Core Mechanic of Coyote and Crow

Lucas: My understanding of RPGs is that they all have three pieces: the setting, which we’ve talked about already; the chance operator, which for D and D is a D20 and Shadowrun is a pool of d6; and then mechanics that let you change the result of that random number generator.  What are those other two pieces when it comes to Coyote and Crow?

Connor Alexander: Yeah. So, first of all, and this was purely based on my own preferences. I have a love of the D 12. It’s kind of the black sheep of the basic role-playing game dice. And so I set out to, build the RPG system entirely based on.  On only a D12.  I’m also a fan of dice pools, small dice pools.

I don’t like shadow run levels of dice pools, anything, where you’re having to roll with two hands and then come back for more, is probably too much. Um, but, um,  yeah, So it’s a pool of 12-sided dice that a character is rolling. And then they want a success number. Usually it’s eight or higher. It’s not a binary pass or fail.  One success is only a degree of success. So you might get three or four successes along the way and accomplish your task either better or faster.

There are two other things that can change that.  One is an exploding die. So, if you roll a 12, you get to pick up a second black, a critical die, and, , potentially not only add to your number of total overall successes but activate certain special effect mechanics.

Like if it’s a weapon and it has a critical effect, things like that. And then the other is your character themselves. They have a, an ability called focus. It’s a point pool they can pull from, and they can literally change the pip value on the die. If they rolled a seven and they needed an eight, they can spend a point of focus and change that seven to an eight.

So it gives the characters, a degree of control over their outcome. And over their fate that I think speaks to thematically to the game. in a way that I felt was really important.  This game is about. Telling the stories that are later told generations down the line around fires.

So the characters, while they might be grounded in the actions of their moment are trying to create stories that are larger than life. And so I want them to have that feel like, this is the swing that I need to hit, or this is the thing that I need to accomplish right now and it’s important and I can control that.

Monsters in Coyote and Crow: Legends and Icons

Lucas: I’ve had enough other systems on this podcast to know that not every game comes with a monster manual. in fact, for some of them, it’s kind of a point of pride that they don’t, having a monster manual implies a certain attitude toward monsters in the game. do you have one and why or why not?

Connor Alexander: We have an analogue to one,  it’s called legends and icons. Those are two very specific categories. So, legends are written in long form and they’re intentionally written like a mystery there’s no stats given. The icons, however, are specific beings, individual beings with stats.

I think what differentiates Cahokia specifically from the typical fantasy world, is, is that both legends and icons in this world? None of them are canonical. They’re all optional. They all start out as rumors in your campaign, in your story. And the story guide can then amplify those and bring them into this world as they see fit. I felt like it was important that especially native story guides could decide, this is where I want to tweak this legend, or this is where I want to bring in my own version of this.

The writers that we have, including me for the icons in this, are very much about taking concepts that are real in native mythology and then going, “How can we bring this to a non-native audience in a way that’s respectful to native culture, but then also a fun, new twist on it?” It doesn’t have to be a specific retelling of that old legend. At the heart of all those legends, there was almost always some nugget of, I don’t want to say the truth, but there was a nugget of meaning behind them. There was a reason for telling the story. And so I think if you can parse that reasoning out and then put it into a modern, sci-fi fantasy setting. You can come up with some really fun stuff.

Lucas: I think you hit the nail on the head.  It’s the understanding that I only came to. About six episodes in, of what monsters are and how we use them.

The Raven Wizard

Lucas: It always takes about this long with a game that isn’t Dungeons and Dragons. But we’re only now at the point where we can ask, uh, the core question of the podcast. And that is, of the monsters that you’ve written for Coyote and Crow, what’s your favorite and why?

Connor Alexander: My favorite is, based on a real Cherokee myth. And I’m not going to get into that myth here. I’d rather focus specifically on the game version.  In Coyote and Crow, his name Kalu Kayeki. And, uh, that translates in Kag Chahi to the Raven Wizard.  Like a lot of my, favorite monster stories there’s always an air  of tragedy to them underneath fear is always that, the initial response to the unknown and, to the idea of a being that isn’t human. But if you dig far enough, most of the time you’ll find there’s something sad about them underneath

we don’t have anything like alignment in the game or anything that delineates something as evil or good. It’s just not in our game. but what I hope is that players can see beyond the initial behaviors of a Raven Wizard and look a little deeper and even if it’s not a friendly relationship necessarily they can at least have a deeper understanding of that relationship.

It has some abilities that mimic character-based abilities, like Hawkseye,  which is the ability to have senses that extend beyond normal human perception.  It also has Farsight, so it can see places that it’s away from its own body.

Or it can also have other senses as well. It can hear or taste or in this case smell, and very specifically the Kalu Kayeki is attracted to the smell of death. It in itself doesn’t really tend to injure people. It’s not there to, harm someone in its own right. Instead, it feeds off of the injuries of someone else. So its core damage component outside of the clawed hands is actually something called Essence Feeding. It’s sort of a passive ability that takes place when a character receives damage otherwise.

of its abilities called the Chameleon’s Shine is close to a traditional either superhero or, or a spellcasting like invisibility. It allows the Kalu Kayeki to blend into shadows or darkness really easily and it’s very hard to spot.  It will sit there and feed sometimes for weeks off of a single person.

I think one of my favorite things about it is that it is just feeding. And it doesn’t want to be seen. And if it is seen, it will try to escape and it generally only tries to fight physically if it can’t get away.

But it also develops a taste for the person that it’s feeding off of and it wants to keep feeding on that person. So it, it inherently generates this conflict that I really think is interesting in gaming. It’s not just about how much damage can this creature dish out in a single round and how much can you dish out back and how many rounds will it take you to kill it?

I think there’s a lot more going on with this creature. It leaves a lot of room for story guides to play around, too.  I can easily see this being, something that stalks a group of characters for weeks, and they’re not even aware of it. And they just know that one of their characters isn’t quite healing the way they should.

Lucas: I think I know from how you made me feel, how you want your players to feel when this is in the game.

Connor Alexander: I hope so. I hope so.

Lucas: Ah, I’ve got the heebie-jeebies I tell you what is the other reason I love doing this podcast is I feel like I’ve heard this story somewhere before.

Connor Alexander: Oh, yeah. What I’m hoping for, from folks like you and from all the non-native players out there, and even folks from other tribes is that there is that sense of both familiarity and unfamiliarity.  For folks, from my tribe, what I hope for is, is them looking at it and going, ah, you know, it’s like a wink and a nod.

I know what that is. I don’t even know need to, to, to, to read the, the Kag Chahi definition or look at Raven Wizard. I know what this is just by reading the description. Um, that’s, that’s kinda my hope for all of our entries from all of our writers on this,

Lucas: Story-wise, what’s the role you want this creature to fill when people are playing Coyote and Crow?

Connor Alexander:  So we have a thing in the story guide section is called, the three road concept. And it’s this idea for story guides. This concept that,  at each important point during the story that you’re telling you want to give your players three options, and they should be radically different from each other in a way that like, maybe one’s combat, but maybe another one is negotiation and another one is making something your friend, I guess that’s probably as simplified as I could make it as an example.

But I think one of the problems that I’ve seen with a lot of, of role-playing games,  is that most of the things that fall under what would be called the Monster Manual are simply things to defeat. And I think one of the things that is different than a lot of other mythologies or cultures is that in, in native American.

Um, and I’m speaking very broadly when I say native American in a lot of native American cultures,  beings like the Kalu Kayeki are almost like a force of nature. You can defeat one, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to walk right into another one, five minutes later.  The core message that I’ve always taken from the story of the Raven Wizard is, it’s a story about sickness and it’s a story about invisible pain.

What I want for the characters is to see that there are things that they can’t swing at that will harm them and that they almost need to take other paths. I don’t want my characters to just,  shoot at stuff, you know, I guess that’s the core message. It was a long, long way to get back to that.

Lucas: At the risk of pushing the analogy too far, um, what issues or questions does encountering the Kalu Kayeki  ask your players to grapple with,  or allow them to grapple with?

Connor Alexander: I think the core question is, is something. Surviving off of the death of another, that is already going to die, a bad thing? If someone is,  dying of cancer and is on their death bed, is it wrong for the Kalu Kayeki to feed on that person?

if it’s receiving its sustenance and that’s how it receives its sustenance, do you interfere, do you take steps? is the Kalu Kayeki part of nature or is it outside of nature? And I think I have my own answer and I think I know how a lot of other Cherokees would answer. I don’t know how non-natives are going to answer that. And that’s actually one of the things that I, I really kind of want to observe from afar as the game comes out and people start playing. I really want to hear stories about how they interact with this.

Lucas: Are there any answers here? is there anything that the Kalu Kayeki tells us about how to live as people in 2021 that we might not have otherwise known?

Connor Alexander: Ooh, that’s a, Oh wow. That’s a good one. Man, I don’t even, uh, this is a bit of a downer. Uh, I still want to answer though.

Um, I think that there are forces at work behind everything, and often they, they act as multipliers and those negative multipliers, you can’t always do anything about them.  They often act invisibly and they often take a heavy toll. And I think that’s, that’s a lot a lot of what the Kalu Kayeki represents and, uh, and that’s, that’s unfortunate. Um, yeah, I don’t have a better answer for you than that.

Lucas: Well, this is how I know we’ve done it. Usually when I start hearing words like everything, or it’s always this way, um, that’s what I know. We’ve kind of hit the bottom,

Connor Alexander: Yeah.

Lucas: And it’s, it’s why I’m doing this show because I think it’s worth getting to that point.  What I’m hoping is that I’m giving people the ability to go that deep with strangers faster than they ever would have. I think it’s really beautiful and that’s why I keep doing it.

Connor Alexander: well, I really appreciate the invite to this. I mean, this is, it was a really unique, uh, a unique offer and I jumped at it immediately because I could tell there was something interesting here.

Lucas: Thanks!

Coyote and Crow online

Lucas: To learn more about Coyote and Crow and explore the storytelling space that only this game offers, you can find a link to the game’s website in the show notes, as well as a link to the game’s Kickstarter page.

Connor Alexander: Our Kickstarter is going to go live on March 2nd. We’re hoping for a late, end-of-this-year delivery of product to backers. And then after that, it will be available on hobby stores,  you can also find me on Twitter at Coyote and Crow RPG. And we also have a Facebook Kickstarter page right now. We’ll have a regular group after the game comes out, but for now it’s just a Kickstarter page on Facebook.


Lucas: Thank you for listening to Making a Monster. If you like what you’ve heard and you want to support the show, please share it with the people you play games with. Your recommendation lets people know they can trust me with their time and attention, and it’s a real gift to me and the creators I feature.

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Next Episode: The Monsters Know What They’re Doing

Keith Ammann, author of Monsters Know What They’re Doing, shows us how to decode a monster’s game mechanics to discover its intended use. We also get into how culture makes monsters, both in game and out.

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