Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Car Wars in 1984: Characters and Role Playing

The original 1981 rule set does not include any character generation system at all. Everyone just starts at base level in Driver, Gunner, and Cyclist. The only way to improve is by playing out battles. That’s it! This is an odd artifact of the rules in retrospect, but there is no Handgunner skill at all in the original game. When Sunday Drivers came out in 1982, it was probably designed to be played with just the default characters. When gamers picked it up in the mid-eighties and dove in, they would have taken it for granted that the MONDOs were all Handgunner-2!

If there is any doubt about the nature of the original skill system for the game, the Magic article in Space Gamer number 51 should clear it up: “Each wizard character has a Magic Ability skill. Like the other skills, it starts at zero and improves with practice.” You score skill points for Magic skill in much the same way as it’s done with Driver and Gunner (ie, one point for entering combat and one more for scoring a kill), but you’ll get an additional skill point in any combat where you burn through your entire energy reserve. Given that it is harder to cast spells as your reserves go down, getting that bonus point is not necessarily a sure thing unless you’re particularly reckless. While magic in Car Wars is really not something that’s been played all that much, I have to say that the thinking behind the skill mechanic here is particularly diabolical in the context of a continuing campaign.

Truck Stop’s release in 1983 would change all of this, though. It opens up with this odd line from Steve Jackson: “This is not just a combat game, but a role-playing adventure. Your character is just as important as his vehicle… so your first step should be to create him and his abilities.” I’m only speculating, but it could be that players were role playing more with the game and maybe Steve Jackson was trying to adapt to player demand? Or maybe the game would have to be reworked to include more role playing elements if it was going to support an expanded line of supplements and an ongoing magazine? I don’t know which it was, but one thing that is odd here is that the rules for improving your mechanic skill allow you to earn money by dropping out of autodueling and doing Mechanic work instead. In the original rules, you could only earn money by going into the arena or else salvaging kills from fights you’d picked on the road. This isn’t just a single outlier, either… a driver or gunner could make a comfortable living in the trucking business as well. With this set, the tone of the future history got a lot less hungry! In the original game, if you couldn’t pay your weekly expenses and you were unwilling to go into the arena… you were done: “A character with no money and no car is obviously afraid to enter the arena, so his prestige drops to zero and he is out of the game.”

Autoduel Champions was also released in 1983, but it’s rules were largely ignored in subsequent editions except for the helicopter design sequence. With the exception of a fiction article by John M. Ford, I can’t recall ever hearing of the supers rules really being used in Car Wars. Often overlooked , however, is the 150 point “talented normals” characters outlined here. Martial Arts skill costs 30 points a level and used the same damage scale as the super powers. The to-hit bonus for that ability was bought through the equally expensive Dexterity characteristic. Meanwhile, extra hit points (aka “Damage”) could be bout for ten points each– and without the extra weight penalties that are associated with the later “Body Building” skill that was added late in the the Compendium era of the game. Autoduel Champions included several skills that made it in to later editions of the game– Paramedic, Handgunner, Climbing– but it also included one really off the wall skill. A successful roll against “Find Weakness” would let your next attack ignore half the armor of your target!

Something like the Autoduel Champions rules could have gone a long way toward personalizing individual characters in the game. Even so, typical rags-to-riches characters in modern games are unlikely to start with anything other than Driver-0, Gunner-0, Hangunner-0. One hundred point corporate duelists are unlikely to start with anything too different from Driver-2, Gunner-2, Handgunner-1, Paramedic, and Mechanic. There just wasn’t much call for investing in the non-combat skills in the game as it tends to be played. In 1984, though, one more method for starting characters was presented: the sixty point builds demonstrated in the sample characters for Steve Jackson’s programmed adventure “Convoy.” Making Trucker and Mechanic skills essential just made it more important to pump up the starting point funds. Sixty points each in six characters is the about the minimum you’d need in order to get a well-rounded group. But do note that even with the that many points and even after the release of Autoduel Champions, those characters were all assumed to have an innate and umimprovable ability to use pedestrian weapons.

At any rate, a new default campaign system was never developed to sort all of this out. As usual, it’s up to the game master to figure out what’s best for his campaign. Even so, I think the “everyone can do everything” and “you can only improve by playing” approach of the earliest rules were let go a bit too easily. A more elaborate economic system for these roving truckers and drop-out mechanics could have really added a lot to the game as well. And some way to make the non-combat skills worth bothering with has never really been developed. I can’t help but wonder what might have been had the Autoduel Champions “Talented Normals” approach been embraced and incorporated into the main game. The focus and overall thrust of the game shifted rapidly in the early years of the system; there’s no telling how things might have developed had a different set of choices been made when the Deluxe edition was first compiled.

1981: Car Wars released to the general public. The default character is essentially Diver-0, Cyclist-0, Gunner-0, and Handgunner-0… but is unable to improve in Handgunner skill.

1982: Sunday Drivers released [I’m not sure if there are any character rules additions or changes here.] “Magic in Car Wars” published in Space Gamer #51.

1983: Truck stop introduces the 30-point build system, the Mechanic skill, and the Trucker skill. Autoduel Champions introduces a lot of essentially “unofficial” character-related rules.

1984: Convoy demonstrates that decent role playing characters require about 60 points each even with Handgunner skill being given by default.

1985: Deluxe Car Wars released, incorporating a few of the new skills from Autoduel Champions into the main game. By making Handgunner into a real skill, the default character became that much less competent and dedicated pedestrians became a lot more dangerous. The “General Skill Point” system allows for much faster advancement.

1986: “The Corporate Approach to Car Wars” is published in ADQ Vol. 4, No. 4. The original default campaign is more or less replaced with a system where each player runs 18 100-point characters and starts with $250,000 cash.

Note: “Convoy” was donated to the Space Gaming Historical Archives by MattV.

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5 responses to “Car Wars in 1984: Characters and Role Playing

  1. MishaBurnett September 16, 2013 at 6:19 am

    I don’t recall exactly which rules were used in the campaign, but I remember making up a medic character in Car Wars with a modified ambulance. I was basing my concept on the tried and true “everyone protects the cleric” rule from D&D.

    Wrong. In order to make a character who could actually preform as a combat medic I basically had no combat skills or equipment, and the wound rules were so forgiving that my character wasn’t worth protecting–the other characters healed naturally before the next battle anyway.

    This was a long time, and I don’t recall the specifics, I just remember being disappointed that my genius strategy turn out to be such a non-starter.

    • jeffro September 16, 2013 at 6:28 am

      I think that the high-level mechanic is the Car Wars analog to the cleric. Also… when you wreck your car and then come back next session in a secondhand station wagon… that’s reincarnation. (Pun not intended.)

      That’s a really cool character concept, though.

  2. Robert Eaglestone September 16, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I might suggest that Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2), in tandem with the flowering of the RPG scene, helped set the stage for updates to Car Wars.

    • jeffro September 16, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Traveller came out in tandem with Star Wars in 1977. Car Wars was likewise released the same year as Road Warrior– in 1981.

      This means that the signature game for these respective genres was out of sync with their dominant media counterparts. (Battletech was similarly out of step: it was developed and released a full year before the Robotech franchise hit American TV.)

  3. Pingback: Car Wars Review Roundup | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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