Pasión de las Pasiones

Brandon Leon-Gambetta
Magpie Games
Release Date: 2018

Sidequest was provided with a copy of the Pasión de las Pasiones tabletop RPG in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

Growing up in a Cuban household, one of my earliest memories involves watching telenovelas—those Latinx soap operas full of dramatics and plot twists—in the evenings with my parents. I remember gathering around to watch Luz Clarita, a story about a plucky orphan girl who made everyone’s life better, and the story of the cunning and beautiful Rubi, who did the exact opposite. Mujeres de Arena and La Usurpadora with their twin-based storylines, and more amnesia plots than even any American soap opera would ever dare to do. The people in the stories were smart, brash, passionate, calculating, and I never quite knew what was going to happen from one episode to the next, or even from one second to the next. Was Ernesto going to confess his love or push Marisol off the balcony? Would Elena find out her she was secretly the heiress of the very family she worked as a servant for? I loved every second of these incredibly compelling stories.

As the American mainstream became more aware of the existence of telenovelas, however, I noticed that often the ones that crossed over into the consciousness via memes and YouTube videos were the worst of the worst. The badly written ones with the most outrageous acting were always the ones getting picked apart and laughed at, or turned into reaction gifs. Now, I’ll admit that not all telenovelas are gems, but when a culture known for racism and anti-Latinx sentiment hones in on your own culture and picks it apart for their amusement, you get a little testy.

A gif of a zooming in shot of a woman gasping, with the text "gasps in Spanish."

When I heard that a team of Latinx creators were putting out a tabletop roleplaying game powered by the Apocalypse World Engine based on Latin American soap operas, I grew intensely curious. Could this, perhaps, help fix some of the misconceptions of telenovelas? My experience with tabletop games is limited and I’ve never used the Apocalypse system before, but, nonetheless, I gathered a group of my whitest friends (I live in a small town in the rural south, I literally had no choice) and set off to see just what sort of adventures could be had.

Pasión de las Pasiones, a game created by Brandon Leon-Gambetta and published by Magpie Games, aims to have players step into the roles of not only Latinx soap opera characters, but the audience gathered together to watch the soap opera play out as well. The Ashcan Edition is very barebones: you have the rules explaining the mechanics of the game, short examples of game scenarios sprinkled throughout the book (not enough to really help you come up with a full story of your own, however), and the playbooks, which are basically character sheets and moves.

The mechanics are easy to grasp, if a bit tricky to deploy if you’ve never played an Apocalypse World Engine game before, and leave a lot of room for the group to focus more on storytelling than in “Okay, roll for x.” The flipside to that is we spent quite a lot of time going “Wait, can I roll for something here?” and kept having to consult the guide to figure out if something our character was saying required a dice roll.

Basic moves include things like “express your love passionately,” in which you ask two questions of your character which decide whether you add a bonus to your roll. On a high enough roll, the target of your confession chooses a response from the list of options. For example, if I’m playing “La Belleza,” whom I’ve named Marcela, and I decide to confess my love to Hernesto, I first have to ask myself the questions, “Are you dressed to impress?” and “Do they (Hernesto) believe that you are single?” If the answer is “yes”, then I add a +1 to my roll for each “yes.” If my roll is successful, the player controlling Hernesto can choose from a list of options as a reaction, such as “Give themselves to you” and “Reveal a secret they probably shouldn’t.” The Ashcan edition does a good job of giving you many basic moves to choose from at any given points in the story, and makes it easy for novice DMs to jump into it quickly. I was never really confused by any of the moves or instructions as we played through.

Pasión de las Pasiones, Brandon Leon-Gambetta, Magpie Games, 2018

A move description from Pasión de las Pasiones

So, I mentioned that not only do you play as character types usually found in Latinx soap operas, you also play as the audience watching “the show.” By this I mean that the way this game grants experience is through the reaction of players who are not in a particular scene, during which they portray family members. For example, there’s an instruction for “The Beauty,” one of the character archetypes the game provides, to mark experience any time a family member whistles in appreciation of her beauty. It’s an interesting element to add to a tabletop game, but one that my friends and I didn’t really find ourselves inclined to use.

Looking over the character sheets, descriptions, and moves with my (again, very White) friends, we immediately ran into the first problem with this game. Aside from The Beauty, the Playbooks contain the sheets for the characters of El Caballero (The Gentleman), La Doña (“The Matriarch”), La Empleada (The Servant), El Gemelo (The Twin), and El Jefe (The Boss).

All of the above characters are tropes you’ll often find within Latinx telenovelas, played by Latinx actors. However, when you take those tropes and give them to non-Latinx players, and in our case explicitly White players to work with, there’s a strong possibility for it to go immediately and horribly awry.

Pasión de las Pasiones, Brandon Leon-Gambetta, Magpie Games, 2018

You don’t play as both twins, you only play as one, and then have the option of either making up an NPC to be your twin, or talking one of the players into making their character your twin instead.

Take for example the playbook for “El Jefe.” Each character sheet has you choose from a list of names, figure out their personality, pick items that are considered “props”, and choose the moves you’ll use during the game. Under the section of “This Time On” you’ll also find ideas for sticky situations your character might be in during whatever story you’re playing. For “El Jefe.” name options include Ernesto, Roberto, and “El Generalisimo”, which translates to “The Supreme General.” As my friends and I looked over the options, we thought “The General” an odd choice for a name, but brushed past it and moved on.

Looking at the “Props” options is where we started to realize that the game has a very specific idea for who “El Jefe” is. You can choose three props from among items like “a crazy large pistol,” “a truck full of drugs,” and “an old style military uniform,” to name a few. Right around that last one is when White Friend #1 (WF1 from here on) looked at me and said, “So he could be a Banana Republic Dictator or a Drug Lord,” and immediately set the character aside as a non-option.

Pasión de las Pasiones, Brandon Leon-Gambetta, Magpie Games, 2018

The props you can choose from for “El Jefe”. I’m still side-eyeing this.

My friend instantly recognized that although these might be tropes found in Latinx telenovelas, there was something incredibly off-putting and racist in being a White person playing a character constructed of negative Latinx stereotypes still commonly found in American media. Likewise, as drug lords and military dictatorships still have a heavy presence in the lives of many inhabitants of Latin America, the option to play as these characters felt highly insensitive.

We found similar issues in approaching the character sheet for “La Empleada” (“She’s basically ‘The Help?'” said White Friend #2 in bewilderment), and decided to also set that one aside. Finally, we settled on characters and props. I chose “The Gentleman” with “a gun you hate to use” and “a horse or motorcycle,” while my friends chose “The Matriarch” and “The Beauty.” I both DMed and played a character, primarily because we were short one more player and it didn’t feel like we could do much with only two characters.

Pasión de las Pasiones, Brandon Leon-Gambetta, Magpie Games, 2018

For some reason, their example of “The Gentleman” is… this guy?

I whipped up a very short scene set in a hotel lobby, in which The Matriarch (played by WF1 as a rich old lady with a fortune to give away) and The Beauty (played by WF2 as a male Instagrammer) conspire against the character I created, a private investigator. We had a couple of laughs, some confusion over whether or not we needed to roll for a particular action, and then our pizza arrived and we all sighed with relief.

We played for exactly ten minutes, and they were the most uncomfortable and awkward ten minutes of our lives.

WF1 asked, “Do we have to keep playing, or do you think you have enough for your piece?” with visible discomfort at the idea of having to continue. I mercifully freed us all from our precarious situation, because I just could not do it for another minute.

Now here’s the thing. The creators of Pasión de las Pasiones clearly had good intentions when they made the game. The Dedication and Thanks page demonstrates the creator’s love for their Latinx heritage, and their belief that this game could be a “meaningful contribution to Latinidad in the roleplaying industry.” I genuinely admire the love that must have gone into a project like this, and I don’t ever want to discourage Latinx creators from using their voices to try and create a place for our cultures within industries that routinely try to exclude people like us.

But. But. This game absolutely, completely, horrifically failed to take into account its audience.

Its major mistake was in forgetting that a large majority of the RPG community consists of White people. The “archetypes” provided in the Playbook are archetypes that appear in telenovelas, yes, but they’re also stereotypes that appear frequently in American portrayals of Latinxs. You have the vapid, passionate, fiery “Beauty,” the “Latinx Lover” in the form of “The Gentleman,” the maid, the drug lord… All stereotypes that Latinxs have been attempting to disprove in American culture for decades. And Pasión de las Pasiones asks players to literally embody those stereotypes through the explicitly Latinx characters they play, and to play those characters dramatically and outrageously.

A character photo for Rubi., 2014

There’s no better example for “La Belleza” than Rubi, the notoriously conniving beauty from the novela of the same name.

My White friends were immediately uncomfortable with the idea of playing any of these characters with their pre-determined traits because, to them, it felt like an extension of putting on brownface and going to a Halloween party dressed in a sombrero and a serape, wearing a mustache. And these are socially conscious people! But consider what happens when a group of players with less regard for the plight of Latinxs gets their hands on this game.

We discussed the very real possibilities of people putting on offensive Latinx accents as they play, of dressing up in offensive costumes, of, instead of finding ways to subvert tropes, playing right into them and reinforcing them in their minds. This game gives oppressors a very sharp tool with which to further dehumanize those from Latinx cultures, and the more we discussed how this game could be played by a non-Latinx American audience, the more horrified I felt at its existence.

Under the absolute best circumstances, in the hands of a group of Latinx players who are aware of stereotypes and interested in playing with subversions and deconstructions, this game could (and I say this hesitantly) be an interesting experience. However, racism is still a huge problem within Latinx communities, and it’s not difficult to imagine that a character like “La Empleada” might often end up being from poorer countries and/or having darker skin, even within a group of Latinxs playing the game.

Either way, while Latinxs might be part of its target audience, they won’t be its only audience. I can’t help but picture some guy named Trevor gleefully playing El Jefe as a ruthless drug lord cutting down anyone in his way with a machete., 2018

Pictured: Some guy named Trevor.

Furthermore, this game, made by Latinx creators, diminishes the argument many of us have against the use of stereotypes within media by allowing racist creators to go, “Well, that game made by Latinxs has characters just like mine! So what I’m doing isn’t racist!”

These “archetypes” within the world of telenovelas, where many Latinx characters have personalities that are varied and nuanced, while still questionable, are not as an immediate problem as when these stereotypes are put into use with singular Latinx characters over and over again in American media. And that really is the crucial difference here: what can be considered an “archetype” within one culture can often be considered a “stereotype” when removed from that context.

So, while I understand Brandon Leon-Gambetta’s desire to create an RPG that shares a major part of Latinx culture with the rest of the world, the potential ramifications of such a game have me convinced that this is not the path he should have gone with. Pasión de las Pasiones is a perfect example of someone failing to ask themselves, “How could my creation be exploited by someone acting in bad faith?” This game serves as a reminder that, as creators, we need to always consider not just what our creations are putting out into the world, but what those who interact with them might eventually contribute to the world themselves using the tools we’ve provided.

I want to make it clear that the problem isn’t that there will be people roleplaying Latinx characters; the problem is that they’ll be playing them using the tools and framework provided by this game, which are built on common racist stereotypes within American culture.

To demonstrate that this was not just a one-off misstep but possibly the beginning of an unfortunate trend, Magpie Games recently ran a Kickstarter campaign for another tabletop RPG called Cartel, in which you play as explicitly Latinx drug traffickers, corrupt cops, and “naive spouses.” Incidentally, Cartel was created by one of the editors for Pasión de las Pasiones, Mark Diaz Truman. When I voiced my apprehension on Twitter in terms of how this could affect perceptions of the Latinx community within the U.S. during a time when anti-Latinx sentiment is high, creator Mark Diaz Truman responded that he “[wanted] to capture what The Wire did for Baltimore,” a response that I found to be lacking.

First of all, I’d sure hope the person who wrote this game would at minimum be Latinx. Not that that makes it any better, and I’ve found that creators will often use their identity to deny culpability with ease: “I can’t be racist! I’m Latinx!”

Second, comparing a television show to a tabletop RPG is a bad analogy.

There is a huge, huge difference between television and tabletop games as mediums. Show creators typically have control over how the audience perceives a character or plot, choosing when to make the audience sympathize and when to make them disengage. Ideally, most non-Latinx show creators will consult Latinxs in order to make the writing as authentic as possible and avoid common pitfalls. Ideally, but that doesn’t often happen. The main point is that the audience consumes, it doesn’t participate.

Within a tabletop RPG, the players and GM are each essentially handed control of their characters and how they play them. The audience both consumes and participates. They choose what their character looks like, how they speak, what they say, and how they behave, and interact with other people’s characters. Their own experiences and mindsets will inform this process, and those who are not Latinx will often simply draw ideas from the media they have consumed, which is again, not exemplary! When the framework provided for character creation pushes those people towards tropes that are common stereotypes within media, problems arise and racist mentalities can be reinforced.

The Wire, while an influential show, would have made a terrible and very racist tabletop RPG if made in the style of Pasión de las Pasiones. Players might have been asked to, for example, choose a list of props for an explicitly Black character that included “a truck full of drugs,” “a crazily large pistol,” and “a huge amount of cash.”

Furthermore, my experience playtesting Pasión de las Pasiones only went as well as it did because I was there the entire time monitoring and managing the situation, injecting my perspective as a Latinx as needed to keep the game from potentially spiraling into a racist mess. But what might happen if a group of White people attempt to embody the nuances and life experiences of Latinx characters, with nothing to go on but the stereotypes within the game guide, a few episodes of Breaking Bad, and some video clips of Soraya Montenegro gasping in Spanish?

As I played Pasión de las Pasiones, I kept asking myself, “Would I still be playing if, instead of Latinx telenovelas, the central focus was Black 90s comedy tv shows? If it was Korean Dramas instead? If it was Bollywood movies?” I could not, in good conscience, say “yes,” which only tells me how badly this game failed in what it set out to do.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article erroneously attributed the caption of the Twins image to the Pasión de las Pasiones sourcebook, but was in fact written by the author of the piece. The text has been corrected.