Carry: A Game About War

Posted: 11th February 2013 by Victor Wyatt in Reviews

This is the first role-playing game review I’ve had published. It was posted to The Game Cryer which is now no longer accessible online. Because of this I thought I would post it up here for anyone interested. It is rough but I hope you like it. Any future reviews I do on here won’t be anywhere near as long as this.

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The Vietnam War was dark mark in the history of the United States. Since then several forms of media have tried to capture the flavor, violence and pain everyone involved faced. Carry: A Game About War (http://www.ndpdesign.com/carry-a-game-about-war/) by Nathan D. Paoletta is a roleplaying game built from the ground up to frame the war the way movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket do, not like an historical text but focused on the emotional burdens the soldiers lived and died with. Each character has a burden they must carry. These burdens color everything the characters go through just to survive.

For a long time military based role-playing games turned me off. It wasn’t until I picked Carry up that I realized what turned me off about those previous war related role-playing games. To me, war is not about technical accuracy of field equipment. It’s about
the bond formed between soldiers. It’s about the burdens soldiers carry with them while they do their duty for their homeland. What struck me the most about Carry is how it’s designed to generate this emotional impact. When looking through the game book there is not one detail covering what the muzzle velocity of an M-16 is or what kind of vehicular armor can handle the force of a 50-caliber round. What you’ll find is a squad of grunts who were caught up in the Vietnam War, men who have to deal with being away from home and living with men who they may not get along with all while dealing with the burdens they brought with them. The players get to play these grunts. The GM’s tasked with putting them in situations where their choice is often choosing between bad and worse, and living with the consequences.

Like many role-playing games Carry is designed for a group of players and a Game Master. The players each have a Grunt to play with the GM facilitating scenes the Grunts find themselves in. To help GMs who might not be familiar with the situations that happened during the Vietnam War there is a very brief history of the war and a few lists of scene and location suggestions at the back of the book. This info is helpful to the history novice as much as the GM who’s not on his creative game.

Because the game has such a tight focus there isn’t much room for full character creation. Instead Carry uses a list of sixteen pre-built characters that include their name, rank, months in country and brief descriptions. When the players get together they first come up with burdens that most fascinate them. This could be something like the college application their Grunt didn’t have the guts to fill out for fear of what their father would have said had they been accepted. The burden has to have bite – without it, the Grunt is going to feel flat.

Once they know their initial burden the players then choose a Grunt from the sixteen available that best suits their burden. They read off the description to the other players around the table and then move on to dice pool generation. This pool is made up of four different die types, D6, D8, D10 and D12. Each player builds a dice pool by taking turns from the one with the least number of months in country. Once each has taken a die the process repeats until each player has a dice pool equal in size to their character’s months in, leaving the new recruit with less leverage than the others in conflicts. The GM gets a dice pool that’s based on twice the number of players at the table. An “out of play” pool is then created which the GM uses as they roll their dice during play.

Each Grunt also gets a die for their Burden. This die needs to be a different color or style so it can be pointed out when used in resolving the outcome of scenes. In order to use this die the Grunt must use their Burden. As the game progresses dice will get passed around the table once they are rolled, with one exception: the Burden die does not get passed along to anyone else. To resolve a conflict dice are rolled, one for each player in the conflict. Each die is selected based on The Approach table which will be explained shortly. Once rolled each player passes their die along to another player or the GM. The die the GM rolled gets put into the “out of play” dice pool. By passing the dice around each Grunt’s leverage during conflicts changes. Often future successes are related to how the dice move around the table.

Each Grunt also has a profile. This profile is a definition of how the Grunt handles situations they find themselves in. During play each Grunt’s profile changes due to the outcome of scenes they are in. The profiles are Accuser, Soldier, Companion, Warrior, Invincible and Brawler. As would be expected these profiles are the types of characters you see in war movies.

Once Grunts have been created, play begins. Play takes place as a series of scenes and stakes. Like a war movie, game play is broken down into scenes that don’t necessarily happen one right after the previous. There could be bursts of scenes happening within a short span of time, and then there could be months of time passing from one scene to the next.

The GM sets scenes for the Grunts. There are two types of scenes that can be played out: squad and action scenes. Squad scenes are focused on interactions between the Grunts. These situations arise during daily life in a war zone when fighting an external force is not front and center. Action scenes, however, comprise the rest of a Grunt’s life. The action scenes are what build story tension, putting Grunts in situations that cause fallout in later squad scenes. Action scenes are the violence of the war where the Grunts have a mission they must accomplish.

Unlike many other role-playing games, scenes in Carry have both definite beginnings and endings. They start with the GM defining the scene in terms of what’s happening, where it’s happening and who has to deal with it. Then the players define what their Grunts want from the outcome of the scene. They decide on an approach to attain that goal. Each approach, when taken in the concept of a Grunt’s profile, defines the die size limit players can roll for their Grunts to succeed. This is handled with The Approach Table, a handy, index card-sized chart that can easily lie out on the table during play. The Approach table is a matrix that crosses the Grunts’ profile with one of four approaches they can take in resolving their stakes in a conflict. These are Violent, Subversive, Honorable and Peaceful. What the matrix does is set the limit of how large a die any Grunt can use in a conflict. For example a grunt who is a Brawler could choose to take a Violent approach and get to roll up to a D12, however they could make it interesting and take a Peaceful approach for up to a D6.

Even though I have been describing everything in terms of the players and their Grunts, they are not the only soldiers on the battlefield. The rest of the initial sixteen characters are non-player characters, known as Fodder. The number of these soldiers in the Grunts’ squad will dwindle to the point where the Grunts are the only characters left. The Vietnam War was a meat grinder, and so is Carry.

Also like in the movies, Grunts can gain additional Burdens and possibly resolve Burdens they currently have. If the player feels it’s time, he can opt to have the GM frame a scene in which he deals with the Burden in question. Depending on how the dice land, the Burden could be resolved. It might seem simple for such an important feature of a character but because the size of a Grunt’s dice pool can shrink through play they could end up with more than one additional Burden. No matter whether their Grunt succeeds or not they will add an additional Burden for facing the one they already have. So, why would anyone want to resolve a Burden? If their roll succeeds they get to refill their dice pool back to a level equal to their months in and they may also change their Profile to one more favorable to their Grunt’s new outlook on the war and the other men they are fighting along side. If they fail the only outcome is that their Burden die increases in size (from a D6 to a D8, and so on). They keep the Burden they had as is. In either case they come out of it with one additional Burden to carry.

The game continues until the Grunts have been ground down by the scenes they’ve been through and by the Burdens they carry. When the time is appropriate, or once the Fodder is completely gone, the endgame happens. This is a breaking point that often becomes apparent through play, but can also be chosen by poll when the GM thinks it’s time. When this happens the players match their Grunt with the one they think has the most conflict with them and give their Burden die to that player. Once done all the players roll Burden dice adding in the number of Burdens they currently have for a total. This ranks the Grunts. Each player gets to narrate the denouement of the Grunt from which they received a Burden die. Even though a Burden has weight during the game it has even more in the endgame.

Play concludes by having players each narrate an epilogue for their Grunts. The epilogue is a scene without dice rolls where the player gets to frame what happened to the Grunt after the game scenario. The epilogue is the stark white text that’s seen at the end of a great war movie as it’s fading to black just before the credits roll.

The presentation Paoletta put into Carry makes the book itself an artifact that reinforces the feel of play. It’s designed to be a field manual found in the basic kit every soldier carries. The book is a manual the players can physically hold that has a weight of it’s own. It is filled with grainy, black and white photos from the Vietnam War era. The typeface is a fixed width courier-style that looks like it could have come off a mimeograph if only it were blue. And finally, the examples, of which there are many, look like letters from the field to family members back home.

In addition to the book there is a free PDF on Nathan’s site that’s formatted for Avery brand, punch-out index cards. When printed they look just like something a clerk typed up and stored in an olive drab filing cabinet.

Carry, like it’s title makes abundantly clear, is an intense game about war. It’s a game where Grunts face horrible circumstances, conflicting personalities and awesome responsibilities. If you like games where you know the world is out to do your character harm this might be a game for you, but if you are sensitive to intense circumstances and tough decisions between doing what’s morally gray and what’s only slightly less gray you probably should find something else. Also, if you want a game that’s going to have all the fiddly bits many war role-playing games about war have, like volumes of gun and vehicle charts with ranges and damage types, you won’t find it here. The focus of Carry: A Game About War is the Grunt’s Burden, not how much damage an M-16 will do to the opposition’s cover.

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