Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: CAR WARS

Should RPG Campaigns Have a Plot?

The question is asked, “What are your favorite ways of coming up with an engaging campaign plot line for role playing games?”

My answer to this is that it’s an inherently wrongheaded question: If your campaign has a plot line, you are not just doing it wrong. You have repudiated the very concept of fantasy role-playing games!

The most common structure in “plot oriented” game sessions is going to be the Pathfinder/Wizards series of combat encounters that are perfectly balanced to the party’s assets such that they can win against a “boss” of some sort with their last hit point. At the campaign level, you would then have a series of these scenarios that are strung together that all culminate into a satisfying climax where something resembling an epic plot is resolved.

This is no doubt a lot of people playing tabletop games in this manner. Is it legitimate or is it intrinsically, morally, and ethically wrong to do it that way? Now, you might think I’m being facetious, unnecessarily bombastic, or just plain silly… but I honestly think that it really is WRONG. And the reason is… it’s boring!

Not that we didn’t have linear adventures in the bad old days before this new type of play became the norm. I just ran the Car Wars adventure “Convoy” for someone this summer and it’s about as linear as it gets. Heck, even the combats are played out on road sections where the average speed of the combatants is sixty miles an hour.

But note that little bit of a fractal-like quality emerging here: road combats like this are intrinsically less interesting than the insane ballet of destruction that goes on in the arenas. The elimination of dimensionality in game-play really is boring. “Convoy” compensates for this by moving the more significant aspects of player choice up to the resource management level. It’s not any one combat that matters. It’s how you pace yourself to get through them all in time that counts.

But what happens at the end? Everything suddenly opens up! The surviving drivers split up their take. Players kick back with an Uncle Albert’s catalog and go shopping for ways to pimp out their rides. They look back on everything that went wrong in the session and start hashing out ways to avoid that stuff the next time around.

This sort of planning is the bread and butter of any rpg session, but the next thing that happens is the best part. When the dust finally settles, the referee turns to the players and asks… “what do you do now?”

And while you may have used somebody else’s convention scenario to get your campaign off the ground, I would argue that you really haven’t started playing until you ask this question. It really is the entire point of this enterprise, and if your game system or campaign system precludes it from ever truly and honestly being asked, you’re not really playing a genuine role-playing game.

(And note that James Streissand’s answer to this question on Quora is predicated on the players having a choice even of which type of campaign to pursue. This is solid… and it mirrors the same type of choices available to players when they’re dropped into even a classic module like B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Ah, and check out his expansion on this over at his blog. I think it’s clear we are pretty well on the same page with this. To be precise, I would say that role-playing games do not have plots. They have situations at the campaign, adventure, and encounter level which the players are free to interact with however they wish– as long as they accept the consequences!)

Old School Car Wars with Convoy

Stayed up late running this one. The hours just melted away, really.

How’s it play? Well… I can’t recommend attempting to run complex Car Wars adventures like this from a solitaire game book. There’s an entry for every ten miles of travel, most of which merely give you the option to turn around and go the other direction. That’s a real drag when you’re trying to keep things moving!

The structure of this one is relevant to adventure designers of today as it is a solid example of a “mostly linear” structure. There are places where it’s a good idea to check for rumors and then go the direction that avoids trouble. The problem is… a savvy player can easily meta-game that from a look at the map: “there’s no way taking the quickest route would just work as that would result in a boring session. Better go the long way if I want to win this thing!” I think the obvious solution to that would be to have the placement and/or intensity of the encounters randomized before the game. This would take some work as the rumor side of the game would have to be adjusted.

With multiple battles taking place on a highway, we have a second way that linearity emerges here. The down side to this is that combat can become very dry: the winner of a battle can come down to the how many weapons each side has facing in a given direction. One of these was very tedious and came down to the bad guys merely running out of ammo. The other had an unexpected twist: the players won by using their vehicles to physically block the npc’s from targeting the trailer. (Which… now that I think of it is kind of silly: that trailer is so big, the bad guys would be able to shoot over the cars. Doh!)

The coolest aspect of this game was the way time and mileage is so critical to it. Every point of power in the power plants end up mattering. The Timeshifter the players had actually couldn’t fire its laser because it would slow the group down too much or else cause the group to have to abandon it on the side of the road. This sort of thing makes Car Wars a fantastic resource management game and I wish there had been more adventures for it where stuff like extra power cells, cargo space, and relief drivers came into play.

At any rate, finding enough players to get a really good arena match together is a bit challenging these days. A role-playing adventure like this is going to be a better fit for smaller game groups. Just be sure to take along enough spare cash for the power plant charges and several spare tires to boot. Those roads are pretty rough!

Christmastime Car Wars

It’s that time of the year again… and for me it means not just new games under the tree, but remembering old times with old friends on past Christmas breaks. This year saw a chance to introduce somebody new to the greatest game of vehicular combat ever made– and the introduction of some new characters into an all-new campaign.

Here’s a brief rundown of the events:

Murdock misses with a potentially game-winning heavy rocket shot! Doh!!!

“Murdoch”  sole survivor of Amateur Night at Brewer’s Cellar!

Four Pisces going in. After a harrowing opening pass, Jose Feliciano and El Cid took each other out in a tragic head on collision leaving little more than the tires on their vehicles and 3 pristine heavy rockets among the wreckage. On Murdoch’s third pass, he just barely missed with a heavy rocket shot at a key moment, but managed to circle around and use the one on the opposite side to finish off Carl Britanalananewsky for the win.

His Pisces is as good as new and he has $525 in his pocket.

Skill points: Two points of Driver, two points of gunner, and four general skill points.

Harry Saladin skids directly in front of Akira Jones just moments before his untimely demise!

Akira Jones Wins Big with Two Kills in his First Outing!

This was played in Amadillo Autoduel Arena with each side coming in with a Pisces and a Joseph Special. The long ranges combined with revised small box speed modifiers mean that driving turned out to be more important than shooting. Akira Jones got on Special Joe’s tail right out of the gate and machine gunned his left-side armor for several seconds straight. Just as Joe fell unconscious and coasted into the arena wall, Harry Saladin blew in at high speed looking for a chance to scoop up a payback kill. Akira turned away, narrowly preventing his being on the receiving end of a t-bone. With Joe on his tail, Akira let loose with his two rear firing heavy rockets and missed with both. He then tapped the breaks and let Joe race back in front of him. Rather than accept being tailed by his nemesis, Joe maneuvered violently in order to attempt setting up another t-bone. Joe lost control, then skidded directly in front of Akira as Akira’s Pisces landed a t-bone of his own, locking down a first-rate win.

Akira Jones — Skill points: three in Driver, three in Gunner and four General Skill points. [Salvage: Pisces with ten points damage left, four points damage back, five shots fired from each MG, both rear HRs fired and left HR fired. Pisces with nine points damage front, no right armor, two shots fired from each MG, three points damage on power plant, and right HR fired. Joseph Special with seven points damage front, no left armor, two shots fired from RL, and five hits on power plant.]

John Renier — Missed out on the action, but has a brand new Joeseph Special that’s fired a single round of ATG ammo for his trouble. Skill points: one in Driver, one in Gunner and one General Skill point.

Special Joe — Free hospital care! Skill points: one in Driver, one in Gunner and one General Skill point.

Campaign notes:

In previous campaigns, I adjusted the speed and range modifiers downward in order to give to-hit targets that were closer to what were typical before the introduction of speed mods. I also ignored the general skill points awards from later editions of the game and made the “free” skill points for entering events harder to pick up.

Now that the small box is back in print, I’ve attempted to play it more or less as is. The results? A new duelist that has survived three Amateur Night events is liable to come away with Gunner-1… which is almost enough to offset a good chunk of the speed modifiers. Anyone that’s Gunner-1 and that owns a targeting computer can probably hit often enough that the speed mods are not so bad.

Also, nobody really wants to play game after game featuring Killer Karts and Stingers– especially when speed modifiers are combined with the -1 to-hit modifier for compacts. Besides, the chance of a character surviving three events straight is so low, the winners really deserve to have something to show for their efforts. $10,000 cars for amateur events are reasonable… and third round contenders deserve to face off in $20,000 vehicles.

If you want to run a continuing campaign with successful duelists taking part in rpg adventures between events… then you basically need to see to it that every Amateur Night event results in at least one character coming away with a decent road vehicle.

Yeah, We Played That Way, Too

Guy Fullerton posted the PrinceCon 1978 D&D variant rules up Google+ the other day and I have to say, it is completely fascinating. Really, go read it. It’s awesome!

Just a few quick observations:

  • Alternate attribute rolling systems are ubiquitous, sure… but custom experience charts? That’s pretty wild, especially for a convention game. (Wait a second. They’re doing this the way I run classic D&D at conventions– where I lay down the ground rules and then have people come and go from my table for the whole weekend and then people can possibly level up and all. Yeah, they would have had several Dungeon Masters that the people could run their characters with, but it’s the same basic attitude.)
  • Note the percentile combat system. That one’s funny because Twilight 2000 started out that way… and then in a later edition dropped back to the d20. If you haven’t designed a completely new combat system because you knew you could do it better, then you’re not old school. (I’m not old school, y’all. Douglas Cole is!)
  • Note also that he lays out an initiative system and combat sequence of play that is extremely detailed. It’s also really easy to understand. Digging this sort of thing out of AD&D was the first order of business for me when I first began looking at running Oriental Adventures a couple weeks ago. It’s funny, but this guy’s rules are perfectly clear. I have no question of how to run them like I do with most “real” D&D rules. (Also… his system does not include the now-iconic phrase, “roll for initiative!” Inconceivable!)

The business of replacing a component of the game with a new system that is named for the guy that did it is my favorite part of this. It is the same thing that is done in Tunnels & Trolls, which has had a “Peters-Mcallister Chart for Creating Manlike Characters and Monsters” from the first edition on! And I have to say… we played Car Wars like this in the last decade. If someone came into our game, we would explain– pretty well like this conbook does– that we ran Compendium Second Edition with the Earlburt-Johnson Speed/Range Chart, pocket box caracter generation, 5th Edition fire rules, and the “you have to do something to earn a skill point” house rule.

So a good chunk of this stuff that that’s referred to as “Old School” nowadays… it never stopped. It’s just how gamers do even if they come into it independently of any given scene. The overall thrust of the attitude is pretty well indistinguishable from, say, the complete run of Autoduel Quarterly. And anyone that comes back to that game decades later will crank up the exact same mentality because that it’s inseparable from it once you get into setting up a campaign of any degree of earnestness.

So the thing about the D&D scene…? The thing that’s weird about it…? This “Old School” approach is exotic in that context for some reason. People playing D&D the way we played Car Wars kicked off a decade long internet flame war. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but I wonder if it might have to do with the ownership of the overall game design and composition being (for all practical purposes) removed from the local referee and transferred to the people that sell books. I can’t imagine someone actually pulling that off with a role-playing game, but something like that must have happened.

A Few Thoughts on Mark Kern’s Space RPG Idea

Mark Kern has been looking for rpg help up on twitter. You can see it here, here, and here… or just read this summation:

Okay, so some of you know I’m doing a tableptop Space Opera RPG. I don’t know the lay of the land in RPG social media. Who to follow…? I’m trying to build an audience of tabletop fans my new space operat RPG. Mine has a big focus on space-craft adventures and battles…with 3D printable minis

Okay, he didn’t really ask my two cents on this. But this sounds a lot like the way we played Car Wars as an rpg… and a lot like how we wanted to play BattleTech.

Just some random observations after countless hours of play:

  • You can take a six hour miniatures battle and prepend a role-playing segment that allows the players to gain intelligence, acquire allies, or influence where, when, and how the big show down will be kicked off. A lot of Car Wars scenarios assumed people would do that. At the end you’d (theoretically) do a bookkeeping phase, retrofit vehicles, collect reward money… and then go on to another big scenario and do it again.
  • This isn’t what people think of as role-playing, but I think it’s valid. If you can get a combat game that plays thrilling scenarios in less than two hours… and then solve the campaign system in such a way that the resulting scenarios are both interesting and take a load of the referee having to plan everything… then I think you have something.
  • Even better (in my mind) would be the chain or web of encounters… some of which can be skipped, some of which players can talk their way out of, some of which can provide information or side-quests. If you can combine several role-playing type encounters with some brief combat situations and maybe one or two epic battles in one session, then you’d got something.
  • GURPS Autoduel really tried to push game masters to get the characters out of their cars. I never knew of anyone that wanted to, really. All the stuff engineered for that line really didn’t see a lot of use. And the existence of that line bled out all the role-playing material out of the rest of the Car Wars line. BEWARE OF THIS FOLLY!
  • It’s perfectly fair to make a game where your vehicle is (in effect) the character. In Car Wars this results in a very different feel to the advancement. You might start out in a cheapo Stinger… graduate to a Joseph Special… salvage some kills and pimp your ride with the stuff people were just using to try to kill you with… and then barely survive a crash and burn, leaving you scraping up what dough you can to maybe get a subcompact or a cycle. THIS IS STUPIDLY FUN.
  • Translating all of this into cool stunt fighters or small spaceships… yeah. Going into startown or whatever in each port… there you go, the players are out of their rides. People have a hard time running the wide open sandbox that, say, Traveller was meant to be. If you can solve this problem– take a load of the game master and work out a campaign format that can practically run itself, again… I think you’ve got something. Computer games have tended to be better at this– because they have to be! (I’m thinking of Elite for example.)
  • For the tabletop you want to be able to leverage the human referee… but you need to watch for where you introduce friction into what he’s doing. Whole swaths of Traveller are used more to interpolate the nature of the Third Imperium than they are to run games. That’s a design failure.

Now, I’m probably crazy. I wouldn’t try to take all of my advice at once. Hopefully something here will inspire you to take something in a completely different direction or else save you from running up against a well known problem.

Besides, if you don’t make this game, I might want to do it myself!