• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is coming! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

NEGOCIOS INFERNALES: An Interview with Carlos Hernandez and C.S.E. Cooney

Widely published authors C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez designed a card-based tabletop roleplaying game and story prompt.

Widely published authors C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez designed a card-based tabletop roleplaying game and story prompt. Diceless and GM-less, these cards offer a new system and experience that I wanted to learn more about and the authors agreed to discuss.


EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thanks for talking with me. What is Negocios Infernales?
: Negocios Infernales was my attempt to make my amazing wife Claire love roleplaying games.
C.S.E. COONEY (C.S.E.): TL;DR–it worked! I now LOVE roleplaying games! I am a dice goblin! I love playtesting new games and learning new systems. But in the beforetimes–“Ante-Infernales”--I thought roleplaying games sounded a lot like what I do for a living: write novels and narrate them. I’m an author—
CARLOS: —a World Fantasy Award winning writer! And twice-nominated for the World Fantasy in 2023!
C.S.E.: –LOL, Carlos–and I’m also an audiobook narrator. So a “role-playing game” didn’t actually sound like play. It sounded like work. (Worse: GROUP WORK. I hated that in school.) But the game that changed my mind about games was Negocios Infernales. It’s the RPG that taught me how to RPG.

EGG: Where did the idea behind Negocios Infernales come from?
: The idea was to keep all the things about RPGs that make them unique and awesome—specifically, all the mayhem and wild, hilarious situations they create—but remove the barriers of complicated rule sets and long prep times. One of Claire’s favorite games is Mysterium, in part because the cards that come with the game, in and of themselves, are beautiful and evocative. So what if, instead of dice, we made a custom deck of beautiful, evocative cards that we used both to quickly determine success or failure and to inspire the players?
C.S.E.: Some of the game’s infrastructure comes from me really liking a visible count-down mechanic. It soothes some of my pre-game anxiety about not knowing time parameters. I like lots of room to play and improvise, but I also like a structure that tells me how a thing begins and ends, and a way to move on from one section to another.


EGG: Those are good mechanical decisions. Along those lines, I read the press release for Negocios Infernales, it's interesting and sparked some questions. How does the system work?
: The game centers around the “Deck of Destiny.” It’s a custom deck of 70 Tarot-sized cards: seven suits, ten cards per suit. When you go through character creation, you’ll assign four cards of four different suits to your character, to describe, respectively, your character’s Motivation, the Role that they play in the Court of your nation, the Magic you have bargained for (with… not devils, but aliens!), and the Doom that awaits you like the Sword of Damocles. During the roleplay portion of the game, you check against the cards on your character sheet for success or failure. If the card you drew matches the suit of a card on your sheet, success! Using the card’s text and images to spark your creativity, you narrate exactly how things go your way. If the card you drew doesn’t match the suit of any card on your character sheet: disaster! You narrate how things have just gotten a lot more complicated for you and your fellow wizards. And there will definitely be disasters! At the start of a game with four players, most players will have a little over a 50% chance of drawing a match, depending on how many cards of a given suit you have assigned to your wizard. But those odds start fluctuating pretty wildly as the game goes on. And honestly, the disasters might be even more fun than the successes! We’ve tried to make it so that tragedy is at least as fun as a happy ending.


EGG: The game is GM-less and collaborative. How do the players interface with the cards to drive the fiction? How do the cards push the narrative concept of aliens, powers, and the next step in human evolution?
: For ease of player interface, we actually have two kinds of decks! The “Deck of Destiny” that Carlos mentioned above, and eight “helper decks.” Players read the helper decks collaboratively (à la Alex Roberts’ amazing RPG For the Queen, which we adore) when they move from one section to the next. They’re a bit like a deconstructed rulebook. The eight helper decks of Negocios Infernales are: the Pre-Game deck called Trust and Affirmation, where you set your lines and veils and establish your golden circle of permissible play. After that, the seven parts of the game go in this order: Invocation, Character Creation, Relationships, Worldbuilding, Plot and Prophecy (we offer seven different Adventures, depending on what genre the players are feeling that day), Roleplay (which we’ve been building up to all this time!), and the Alien Epilogue. Every time you finish a section, you clear away that deck. We often split the game into two acts. First, the collaborative set up: parts 0-5. Then a break. And then parts 6-7: Roleplay and Alien Epilogue. Each act works out to about equal lengths. So the game is pretty modular. You can finish up a part and go eat some pizza, then come back and start the next part. Regarding aliens and narrative: During the Invocation, you collaboratively tell the story about how the aliens came to the planet Espada just in time to stop a period of religious persecution. The aliens are super-interested in inviting humanity to join the Cosmic Consciousness–so they strike a deal with the Queen of Espada to give some of her court “infernal” powers, thereby turning them into wizards who will help save Espada against troublesome attacks. Of course, the aliens are totally not the devils these wizards think they are. The “infernal bargain” is a misunderstanding from the beginning! By the time we get to “The Alien Epilogue,” the main action is over. At this point, the players leave their wizard PCs, pull out of Espada, and enter the mothership that’s been witnessing these wizardly shenanigans the entire time! Each player gets to play their own “alien caseworker,” and judge their wizard’s behavior and choices that led to whatever startling conclusion the game ended on. Players always have perfect information about their world and the universe and the aliens. But the fun part is… their wizard PCs have no clue! At least to begin with. Cosmic irony is one of our main narrative mechanics!


EGG: I’m a fan of CAPERS and Magpie Games’ Zombie World, two excellent card based RPGs. However, according to many gamers [probably], without dice, it’s not an RPG. Not knocking your project in any way, but for OnlyDiceFans, how would you position this RPG? Why are cards the right randomizer for this game?
: OnlyDiceFans is probably something people shouldn’t google at work, Egg! [ED NOTE: “OnlyDiceFans” is a joke, but Google it at your own risk]
uses a standard deck of cards (jokers included) and Zombie World has custom cards, but they both function as randomizers that dictate degrees of success. In that sense, they’re like Powered by the Apocalypse games (well, Zombie World is literally one). The medium of randomization is different, but basically, the randomization is the point. In Negocios Infernales, the point is less about the randomization, as there are no degrees of success: you either win big or lose terrifically. After that, what happens is up to the players. The point is what they invent, based on the cards, the context of what’s happening in the game, and whatever malicious streak they’ve been secretly hiding in their ids all this time. To those who love dice, I would say, we love dice too! Really, people should play whatever they like. But the reason to play this game is because the cards’ role as randomizer is almost secondary to the fact that their words and their art will give you a roleplay experience unlike any you’ve had before. This is much less a numbers game, much more a narrative game: but (we think) with just enough luck to keep things out of control.


EGG: That’s a good pitch. Thanks for answering my dice question. Since we’re talking about the cards, this deck can also be used as a story prompt, correct? How does that work?
: Oh, my gosh! We love this so much! Sometimes our writer friends text us out of nowhere and ask us to draw some cards for them to use during their writing day. During the pandemic, Carlos and I would each draw a card for ourselves, but then have the other person ask a question about the card. We generated so much poetry and stories from this method! As we were writing, every time we got stuck on a plot point, or wanted to introduce a new character, we drew a card for that. But our favorite use of the “Deck of Destiny” is running what we call an “Infernal Salon.” We added a whole addendum in the rulebook about how to run your own! Basically, from time to time, we invite a group of writers, poets, playwrights, and sometimes visual artists to an Infernal Salon event. These have been both virtual or in person. Every person gets a draw of 1-3 cards from the Deck of Destiny. We set a timer–usually something between 15-25 minutes, never for very long. Everyone uses their card prompts to write (or draw) something completely new, lightning-urgent, very raw. And then, when the timer dings, everyone who’s comfortable reads from their new work! The explosive creativity and social intimacy of these events are always freshly astonishing. And we’ve done dozens!

EGG: You both have strong creative resumes outside of tabletop gaming, yes? What are some of the highlights?
: I’ve written novels for Disney/Hyperion and comics for Marvel, and a bunch of short stories and poems that have appeared in great SFF venues like Uncanny, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. I’ve been on the New York Times Bestsellers list (thanks to the anthology The Cursed Carnival and Other Calamities), and I won the Pura Belpré Award in 2019 from the American Library Association.
C.S.E.: I’ve written a novel for Solaris BooksSaint Death’s Daughter, (the first of a projected trilogy), and a novella for Tor.comDesdemona and the Deep. I’ve written two collections and a short novel for Mythic Delirium books: Bone Swans: Stories, Dark Breakers, and The Twice-Drowned Saint. I also sometimes write plays and musicals–most recently, a musical collaboration with Carlos, Caitlyn Paxson, and Amal El-Mohtar, called Ballads from a Distant Star. It’s a SciFi folk musical in one act, which we performed at Arts on Site in New York in March of 2023. I’ve also put out two EPs and an album of songs as Brimstone Rhine on Bandcamp. And some poetry. Oh, and I’ve narrated over 120 audiobooks, and multiple short stories on different platforms.
CARLOS: We are both big believers in multiple forms of creative expression!

EGG: I appreciate you answering that. It’s awesome that you’re jumping to tabletop from so much prose. Let’s talk about your partner in this, Rebecca Huston is doing the artwork. Why is Rebecca the right choice for this project?
: I’ve known Bek for almost twenty years. She did the covers for some of my earliest small-press releases–The Big Bah-Ha, Jack o’ the Hills, and my poetry collection How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes. She also designed and did my one and only tattoo! (Bek has been a tattoo artist in the Chicagoland area for as long as I’ve known her. Find her at Tattoo Heathen, and some of her fine art on her artist page on Facebook!) When Carlos and I were collaborating on an early iteration of Negocios Infernales, we heard that Bek broke her non-dominant hand in a horse-riding accident. So she wouldn’t be tattooing for a while–but hot diggity could that lady still draw!
CARLOS: And I recalled watching the completely awesome and mythically-minded sketches she did one Inktober. Before I even had a project in mind, I thought “I really want to hire Bek to do the art for a game I make one day!”
C.S.E.: Bek is fast, brilliant, macabre, super-receptive to edits, totally a cupcake to work with, and, in short, everything we needed.
CARLOS: Everyone, virtually to a person, has mentioned how much they love the card art. That’s all thanks to Bek!


EGG: I believe I read that Outland Entertainment is publishing this, correct? What makes them the right publisher for this project?
: Outland is a publisher not just of games, but of comics and SFF anthologies. One of Outland’s editors, the fabulous Alana Abbott, saw some of our social media posts, back when we were playtesting early Negocios iterations, and asked if we might be interested in being published by Outland once the game was ready. Alana had edited some of Claire’s and my short stories for Outland anthologies in the past, so we already knew we loved working with her. What this means is that Outland has been involved in the gamemaking process for years now, helping us develop and design Negocios into what it is today. As a smaller company, Outland didn’t mind us taking our time to iterate and playtest the game until it was truly ready for primetime: we didn’t labor under artificial deadlines or rushed production schedules. Honestly, I think we were a little spoiled by the care and patience of Outland has shown!
C.S.E.: Outland also provided us the remarkable Shannon Potratz, artist and graphic designer. He designed the rulebook, all the helper decks, character sheets, and so on. And, oh, best of all–the Map of Espada! With a whirlpool and a “here-be-dragons” sea dragon and everything! Carlos had already drafted out the map’s basic design, with all the names of the winds and countries and the beautiful text. And then Shannon made it gorgeous!

EGG: Beyond Negocios Infernales, what else are you working on?
: More novels! More stories! And a narrative mystery game that makes use of Magic Squares to serve as the deduction mechanic. If anyone can give me price quotes re: how much it would cost to make an 8-page pop-up book to serve as the game’s board, please let me know!
C.S.E.: I’m working on the second novel of the Saint Death books for Solaris: Saint Death’s Herald. That’s coming out in spring of 2025. I’m also working on an eight-episode musical podcast with writer Tina Connolly and musician Dr. Mary Crowell called The Devil and Lady Midnight. And with Carlos and my friend Patty Templeton (writer and archivist), we’re working on a shared-world poetry collection called Lamp.

EGG: Thanks for talking with me. Where can fans follow your work and your campaign?
: Thank you, Egg! Social media is, uh, a little weird right now. But we have a contact form at [our shared website] where you can reach out to us! And once every 48 days, I check my Instagram @writeteachplay
C.S.E.: This has been such a pleasure, Egg. Thank you!!! All my links for everything–book, blog, poetry, song, con, and performance–can be found on [my Linktree]. I’ve got a Substack newsletter, which I send out monthly, and I’m “@csecooney” almost everywhere else.

Negocios Infernales from Hernandooney and Outland Entertainment
  • “The Spanish Inquisition INTERRUPTED by aliens! A GM-less, diceless, beginner-friendly RPG from CSE Cooney and Carlos Hernandez”

log in or register to remove this ad

Egg Embry

Egg Embry

Related Articles

Remove ads

Remove ads