AADA Road Atlas: The East Coast

by John Nowak

Cover image

Series: AADA Road Atlas #1
Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Copyright: 1987
ISBN: 1-55634-080-X
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 64

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This is the third in my series of occasional reviews of role-playing game sourcebooks as stand-alone entertainment (rather than as playable games). The AADA Road Atlas and Survival Guide Volume One: The East Coast is a short supplement (and, as one might guess from the title, the first of a series of eventually seven) for either Car Wars or GURPS Autoduel (which is itself a sourcebook for GURPS). All of this probably requires some background if you're not familiar with this corner of role-playing games.

Car Wars is only marginally a role-playing game. It's primarily a tabletop tactical combat game played with counters on graph paper. Nearly all of the Car Wars basic rule set is aimed at the mechanics of combat, which normally involve armored, slightly futuristic cars with heavy weapons attempting to destroy each other in some sort of arena. It was originally distributed in a ziplock bag with pages of counters that one had to cut out and a small 24-page rules booklet. Of that, about a page was spent on the world background, which was mostly a series of random events designed to lead up to a sufficient collapse of law and order for it to make sense for demolition derbies to start mounting military weapons and become the most popular televised sport.

That's how Car Wars started, but as a product of a company that also wrote role-playing games, and marketed to people who tended towards story creation, it didn't stay that way. Supplements added some more mechanics, but also added some more background. The few hints at ongoing campaigns in the original rules were expanded (primarily in Sunday Drivers, later re-issued as Crash City), necessarily adding more world background. That supplement also tried to add some (very minor) gameplay elements to humans outside of cars, which in the original rules were mostly squishy things to run into. And, probably most importantly, the Autoduel Quarterly magazine, which published car designs, scenarios, and new weapons and rules for Car Wars and became a sort of ongoing mini-supplement and source material for further formal supplements, started printing background material, stories, and further world history. It was a popular series of columns in Autoduel Quarterly that developed into the AADA Road Atlas supplements. ("AADA" here is the Americal Autoduel Association, the fictional governing body for the national autodueling sport in the Car Wars future, which also offers services modelled after the American Automobile Association.)

Parallel to all this, Steve Jackson Games also published a generic role-playing game system (akin to the Hero System; the comparative merits have been hotly debated for decades) called GURPS. One of the strengths of GURPS was that nearly every conceivable setting, including some quite specific and licensed ones, got a sourcebook. Once the Car Wars history started being fleshed out, it of course got its own GURPS sourcebook, GURPS Autoduel, so that one could do traditional role-playing in the Car Wars universe. The AADA Road Atlas and Survival Guides were issued as joint supplements for both systems and include writeups in both rule sets.

If you, like I, read role-playing games primarily as entertainment in their own right rather than as playable games, the fleshing out of the world background is probably the most entertaining part. Perhaps because its origins were so simple and subsequent expansions have happened through the creative imagination of players and later writers, the Car Wars universe is delightfully bizarre. It's basically post-apocalyptic, but with a very incomplete apocalpyse, and is entirely US-centric (despite a later Australian supplement). The US government has largely collapsed, replaced by a 2nd Amendment paradise of private warfare and a mishmash of private security companies and wildly varying local political entities. The apocalypse in this case was the near-exhaustion of all oil resources plus a world-wide (except Australia) grain blight that wiped out food supplies and ethanol. The primary oil-producing states have seceded from the United States and formed the Free Oil States; the rest of the country is hanging together by a thread, with federal power remaining strongest on the east coast where this supplement is set. It's the kind of world in which characters die a lot, where discouraging tailgaters with rear-mounted mine droppers is considered great fun, and where long-haul truckers are a heavily-armed and tight-knit political force. It does not take itself at all seriously.

That's a rather long introduction without talking about the specific book I'm reviewing, but that's because The East Coast is fairly typical of the early days of expansion of the Car Wars backstory. The core of the supplement is a state-by-state look at the local politics and the general attitudes of local cites of the eastern seaboard, from New England down to Virginia, and a writeup of an organization called EDSEL, which is a vigilante group that attempts to eliminate duelling on public roads. EDSEL's use of helicopters is a good excuse to add helicopter rules for GURPS Autoduel (previously added to Car Wars proper in the earlier Autoduel Champions supplement and incorporated into the second edition of Car Wars in 1985). A variety of scenario hints, a mix of arena or duel setups (most useful for Car Wars) and adventure seeds (most useful for GURPS), and a full adventure in the nuked ruins of Poughkeepsie for GURPS round out the book.

It's pretty obvious that this was the first AADA Road Atlas supplement; later supplements are definitely better. This one covers a lot of states in not very much detail and a ton of generalities, and local features are rarely given more than a sentence. Later Road Atlas supplements are much better at providing a coherent feel for the region and getting into somewhat more useful detail. The scenarios, similarly, are a huge grab-bag of random stuff, ranging from a simulated VR arena to random duel excuses. The only real meat provided here in terms of world background is the sense of variations in the effectiveness of local government and the wildly varying EDSEL organization (which is something of a running villain in the Car Wars universe, given that most Car Wars players are quite fond of road duels and are rarely interested in a helicopter-focused campaign).

I was always a Car Wars partisan and not horribly interested in the GURPS side of things, so the closing adventure in all of the Road Atlas supplements was usually a bit disappointing. This one is particularly annoying, though, given that it doesn't include cars at all. It's a traditional negotiation and character interaction adventure, it's much lower-tech than most Car Wars scenarios and makes little use of the unique features of the Car Wars universe, and all the areas in the supplement are designed to be done on foot. I'm not sure why they even bother to give rule translations for Car Wars in passing; the whole thing is pointless for a Car Wars campaign, and I've always been mystified as to why it was even in this book.

I've collected the full set of AADA Road Atlas supplements over the years and will probably end up reviewing all of them, but this was one of the later ones I got, and it's not the one that would inspire me to get all of them. Due to their organization (each covering a different part of the US or Australia), you can buy any of the AADA Road Atlases independently. If you're going to give one a miss, you could probably skip this one. EDSEL is mildly diverting, and there are a few interesting tidbits in the state descriptions (I still remember fried birds over the concrete of Dover, and I still wish that's where the adventure had been set), but my memory is that the series gets much better and that the scenarios and adventure are the weakest in this volume.

Followed by Volume Two: The West, which was where I actually started reading when I was first acquiring Car Wars sourcebooks.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-10-21

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21