Carolina Death Crawl

carolinadeathCarolina Death Crawl is a tabletop storygame (one-shot, light mechanics, no prep, no GM) set in the American Civil War, and made by Jason Morningstar / Bully Pulpit Games, better-known for storygames-bestriding giant Fiasco. (The rules are available as a free PDF download, but to play you need a set of custom cards.)

Players take on the role of a small band of Union soldiers, detached from their unit after a raid and struggling back through the creepy, war-torn swamps of coastal North Carolina. There is a distinct risk of bad Southern accents. As with Fiasco, the characters are a desperate, guilty bunch; they’re locals, Southerners fighting for the North, and probably know a lot of the people they’re raiding. Players are mandated, four times in the intro and then in each of their own scenes, to either kill someone, shame themselves or their unit, or destroy something valuable or important. The plot arc is an ever-tightening screw, a descent into hell.

The card-drawing mechanic makes it clear that these are not characters with one or two transgressions under their belt; they are soaked in the guilt of war. By the end of the intro, each character will have done four awful things (kill, disgrace, destroy), and each must commit at least one more in each of the three acts. Assuming they survive that long.

Only one of the group will make it out alive: the others die one by one and become swamp ghosts, creating uncanny situations and punishing their former comrades for their crimes. There’s a mildly competitive element here; introducing story content from drawn cards gives you points, which are kept hidden until the end of each round, at which point the player with the fewest points dies somehow. Dead characters aren’t allowed to sit at the table; they stand, hovering over shoulders, sneaking off to confer.

I’m in two minds about this mechanic, really. It’s cool that you’re offered an incentive to push certain elements into the story, and the hidden-information and conflict matches up well with the distrust of the scenario; but it can produce some decidedly sub-optimal results. Our group had two players who were really enthusiastic about the prospect of playing swamp ghosts, but the first death ended up going to someone decidedly less comfortable with the role.

The group I played with contained a couple of novice storygamers, and they struggled quite a bit; I would not classify this as an intro storygame at all. There are a lot of demands on the player without a great deal of corresponding structure. The swamp ghost role, for instance, is an antagonist, a role which appears in a lot of storygames and can be really narratively powerful when used effectively. Many of those games, however, offer rather more concrete methods for how antagonism should work; Polaris in particular is very good for training the skills of a good antagonist. Carolina Death Crawl sort of assumes that you’re already pretty familiar with how this works:

The job of the Swamp Ghosts is to compel the
survivors to reflect on the horrors and atrocities in their
past and guide them into an unspeakable future.

Cool objective, yes, but as guidance it’s a bit vague; there’s a big difference between ‘here’s the effect you should accomplish’ and ‘here’s how to get that effect,’ and a lot of RPG design tends to overlook this.

Again, the game says that you don’t need any historical knowledge, but I got the distinct sense that the players would have been more confident if they’d had a firmer grounding either in Civil War history or Southern Gothic fiction. The content is almost entirely delivered on cards, which are terse and evocative but – in some cases – didn’t really seem to give the players enough to feel confident about their situation.

Our game ran a little long, and we had to condense the second and third acts; it seems likely that the setup would go a little quicker if I was more familiar with the rules, but my guess is that it would take some really efficient players to finish this in the advertised three hours. One problem was that scenes often got kind of bogged down: there’s no clear mechanic for when a scene should end. I suspect that a big reason why Microscope and Fiasco produce relatively consistent games is that they have simple, decisive mechanics for this.

This still feels like a potentially awesome game, and one I’d like to try again – but I’d caution novices against it.

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4 Responses to Carolina Death Crawl

  1. matt w says:

    Scalawag Yankees committing atrocities against the noble Rebels, though? Really? Haven’t we had enough of that?

    • You’re not playing Yankees; you’re Carolinans fighting for the Union, except that you’re at risk of being classified as deserters, so you may really be neither.

      This is the brother-against-brother, war-is-a-dirty-ignoble-business-and-civil-war-doubly-so narrative, both of which have overlapped with the woe-to-the-mistreated-noble-South narrative, but aren’t necessarily the same thing. This is very much in the vein of Fiasco, where the basic perspective is that anybody with a few desperate sins and overambitions to their name can be turned into an irredeemable monster given the right circumstances.

      So… I think that if you really wanted to play this as Scalawag Yankees vs. noble Rebels you probably could; you’d have to perform some narrative gymnastics in the parts where escaped slaves show up, but Confederate apologists are accustomed to such. But you could as easily play it as an all-black regiment; it’d fit with the hated-by-both-sides motif.

      • matt w says:

        Hmmyeah, it might be different if I got a look at the cards–I read the manual and there definitely seemed to be a lot of poor mistreated noble South there, particularly in the scene where the player murders the governor after threatening to rape his daughter (and when a player says, “Hey, it didn’t go down like that” he is told “no history geeking!”) But I could see there being a sort of trap sprung on a player who was inclined to take the noble South view who then had to deal with the reality of slavery (and the Carolina unionists weren’t super sympathetic to the slaves here). On the other other hand, never underestimate so-inclined American’s ability not to deal with the reality of slavery.

        It does seem to me that if one is going to make a game or other story that illustrates how war makes monsters of us all even if we’re fighting on the right side, one would have a less fine line to walk if one chose protagonists who were not a) fighting on unequivocally the right side b) in a war that has given birth to a massive, ongoing, and incredibly pernicious movement to obscure fact a).

  2. Jason M says:

    Matt, thanks for your thoughts – I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by the game’s fictional prompts. I’m certainly not an apologist for the Confederacy, and was drawn to the situation because of the ambiguity it forces on the players. There’s nothing beyond social contract and the bounds of propriety to prevent you from playing a deeply racist monster, but there’s really no way to play it as a Noble Lost Cause narrative unless you deliberately ignore the prompts – and the game then self-regulates, because you will be out after the first act, transformed into a muttering swamp ghost.

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