Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

CWQ&A: Suggestions for Continuing Car Wars Campaigns

Scott Kellogg writes, “I’m starting a CW game, having not played since 1988. I’d like to have some light role playing in this campaign, and have some continuity from session to session. Do you have any suggestions? Traps I may wish to avoid? A heads-up? Thanks, and keep the old-school faith.”

Welcome, Scott! Thanks for sending in your question.

One of the best things about running a campaign for continuing Car Wars characters is just how easy it is. As role playing games go, it is about as unpretentious as it gets. Even if you aren’t a hard core Dungeon Master type, it is easy enough to keep one going. Just run a loose-knit series of whatever of the classic scenarios happen to strike your fancy and you’re pretty much good to go. Even old standbys like “Road Duel” and “Pack Attack” can become surprisingly entertaining if they’re given a little context. And if you only have one or two players, these sort of sessions can give a much better return on your investment than the large team events you might otherwise end up playing. (There’s also liable to be far fewer heated arguments about some of the more ambiguous rules in the Compendium….)

Now… as to traps that you might wish to avoid…. One thing I’d watch out for is giving out too many rewards too quickly. For some reason, the old role playing adventures that appeared in Autoduel Quarterly tend to have a prize at the end of $100,000 cash. If your players complete a couple of those, they’ll be in a financial position to purchase a frightening 18-wheeler… or even start a “corporation” of their own and have other people fight for them. Now… other referees that have described their campaigns on the web seem to have no problem adapting– either shifting up to some kind of crazy gonzo campaign, or else finding all kinds of stuff for them to spend their money on. To me, though… Car Wars is at its best when it is focused on up-and-coming amateur duelists that gradually work their way up from a Stinger to a Moose. The risks and rewards should be tuned such that… maybe just one in six amateur night entrants come out with any sort of vehicle at all. Then at most one in six of those guys would become an ace with Driver-1, Gunner-1 skills. Everybody else would crash and burn. Those odds could be totally different depending on the rules you use, the scenarios you set up, and the way you choose to flesh out the game world.

Now I have to admit… this sort of obsession with the low-end of the game and running continuing characters… I’ve just never heard anyone else playing that way. Probably the main thing going for it is that it really is the default campaign. I really enjoy it because it was right there all along and no one seemed to do it. (My young eighties self just never could have taken it seriously.) Plus… I’m convinced now that Steve Jackson knew exactly what he was doing when he set it up– for instance, the stock car list from the first edition is finely tuned to maximize the fun for when they battle each other. Don’t be afraid to allow a total party wipe to happen, either– death in a glorious battle with twenty cycles will be more fun than quietly retiring your campaign anyway. Fortunately, you don’t have to figure out the perfect campaign structure up in advance. With a series of short campaigns, you can gradually pin down what works best for you.

I guess the one thing I would pay attention to is to make sure the rules you use jive with your campaign goals. If you have really fast character development like what you get under Deluxe edition and later, then you might not want to houserule some hospitalization rules or have saving throws versus death. If you really want to start your characters from wealth zero, then you’ll really want to look at opening up the events to allow for more expensive cars than just the Killer Karts. (It wasn’t until Armadillo Autoduel Arena came out that the Killer Kart became the signature amateur night vehicle.)

Oh… one last thing I want to point out is that you will be tempted to come up with a fancier skill system or else trick out ways for the characters to start out with some of the weirder skills that were added with the Compendium. I wouldn’t recommend that. Starting with just 30 points, adventuring characters end up being able to fight and not much else. The guys with the professional skills– they never leave the fortress towns and aren’t desperate enough to enter the arena. If you need some of them along for a job… ha! they’re practically cargo and are useless in a fight. The implied setting of the rules highlights the huge gap between the rich and the poor right out of the box. (Player characters a more like Jack Burton than MacGyver.)

So don’t be afraid to embrace the game more or less as it is and then see where it leads. It’s okay to run role playing games that don’t stat out every last thing. It’s okay to focus on just one or two aspects of the setting instead of trying to allow for every last character concept. Two paragraphs of background description can provide just as much adventure ideas as an elaborate point-buy breakdown. But “real” Car Wars characters are defined more by their in-game accomplishments than anything else. And cobbling together a car from bits and pieces of the guys you blew off the road is far more interesting than anybody’s unbeatable design.

Sure… this isn’t the only way to play the game, but hopefully these remarks can get you on track to setting up a campaign that will work for you. Regardless of what you do, though… drive offensively!

Note: This post marks my ninth anniversary of blogging about Car Wars. Check out my very first post here. (Of course… technically it was on another site originally.) Yeah… at the start I did not know how to write in a hyperlink… and it looks like I was off by one year as to the original Car Wars release date. For shame!


6 responses to “CWQ&A: Suggestions for Continuing Car Wars Campaigns

  1. RogerBW December 3, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Yeah, if someone tells me his PC has Mechanic+3, I want to know why that PC is out getting shot at. I’m not saying there are no valid answers, but it’s going to be something more than the “beats starving” that I’d expect to be where your typical duellist starts.

    • jeffro December 4, 2012 at 9:49 am

      Speaking of mechanics… what is the deal with those skill rules let you earn money by dropping out of the game to work as a full time mechanic? Weird. Hmm…. I guess it’s one way you can retire a moderately successful (ie, alive but not rich) character after you’ve dueled enough to net ten “general” skill points….

      • RogerBW December 6, 2012 at 3:57 pm

        I assume the objective is to make sure PCs can’t be duellist-mechanics, by making it the only way to become competent enough to be useful.

  2. earlburt December 7, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    I think it would be fun in any kind of mobile group– convoy, bandits, etc.– to have the Mechanic be a highly prized NPC, needing care and protection. A Mech could be paid, get a share of earnings, or even be compelled (by kidnapping or threat). But he should be valuable, and his loss should hurt.

    Good movie versions that come to mind are the Firefly Episode where Doc Simon gets kidnapped on that cattle run. Or The Book, from Soylent Green, who is a rare repositor of knowledge.

  3. Scott Kellogg September 3, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    Holy crap, this is my question! I have only now found the answer. Thank you!

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