I got a demo of carry (76-page black-and-white digest, $15) from its designer, Nathan Paoletta, at a convention last year: Origins, I think. At the time, I thought this column was coming back sooner than it did, and I promised him a review, because the demo sold me on the game. It took awhile, but here it is.
In most RPGs, the dice constrain the story; in carry, perhaps appropriately for a game about futility and the Vietnam War, they do so more overtly than normal. The size of the dice you roll depends on your character’s Profile and the Approach he takes (an “Accuser” gets a d12 for Subversive actions and a d6 for Honorable ones; the “Brawler” would get a d8 and d10 for the same choices). Your Profile changes as you burn out; an Accuser can become a Brawler (“fight back”) or a Soldier (“man up”). The GM, also, has a dice pool, which she must expend; the combination of a GM budget and the Vietnam genre points toward very adversarial play. Players pass dice around to each other, driving the story with those actions, as the GM frames conflicts and the players set the stakes. As the action scenes mount up, even “successful” actions cost fallout: wounds and death for PC Grunts and NPC Fodder alike. Your dice pool includes a “Burden,” a die that represents your “major malfunction,” in the words of F. Lee Ermey. Your Burden stays the same, or gets bigger, but it’s the only die you can always roll. Even if you resolve your issue, you just get another one the same size. Eventually, everyone’s Burden is too big, all the Fodder are dead, and there’s nothing left but the final conflict in a last-scene endgame.
This isn’t Recon, in other words. It’s a tragedy of inevitable human failure set not even in the Vietnam War but in our hazy cultural recollections of it. I could see the same engine powering stories of the Civil War or, hell, the Trojan War. But in all cases, the engine drives the story, not the other way around. But it drives it directly, interestingly, and well from a base of recognizable, genuine human concerns. If that sounds like your kind of Approach, carry won’t be a Burden you can easily put down.