The Square Deal

The Square DealTHE SQUARE DEAL started when a friend noticed that many publishers had books based on games but that Tor did not. She sold Tom Doherty, Tor’s publisher, on the idea of books set in the Car Wars universe of Steve Jackson Games; called SJG to get their approval; and then called me.

Because I’m a successful writer, I get asked to do a lot of things. It’s not easy for me to say no to friends–or for that matter, to anybody else–and I’ve been involved with a variety of projects that I wasn’t personally enthusiastic about at the beginning. I’ve always learned something from the experience, but often the major lesson has been that I never want to do that again. (I’ve got pretty good instincts, but I’m also personally conservative. If I did only the things that I immediately wanted to do, I’d be a very narrow and limited person. Well, more limited and narrow.)

The initial proposal was that I create outlines for three books which would then be written by others. I turned this idea down for a variety of reasons, particularly because I’d been really unhappy with the process leading to The War Machine, the last of the Crisis of Empire books I’d plotted.

Further, working for Tor would mean a battle to get my name to follow that of the actual writer on the cover. I’d won that fight with Jim Baen (who wasn’t any happier than the Tor marketing people would be) by saying that otherwise I wouldn’t be involved in the project at all, but I didn’t want to go over the same ground again. (I accept that my decision is unreasonable from a commercial standpoint. I have enough problems with the things that go through my mind at 3 AM, however, that I don’t want to add an instance of me treating newbie writers in a fashion I had refused to be treated when I was a newbie.)

I counteroffered that I (solo) would write the first novel of the series for a lot less money than Tor was paying me for other things; Tor accepted my terms. The series would be called Car Warriors. By terms of the settlement with Lucasfilms, SJG could continue to use Car Wars on the game itself but could not use that name for any other purpose.

I got a packet of material from SJG, game modules and written comments by members of the SJG staff. (This was before I was on e-mail, so it was all hardcopy by mail.) There was even a comic book licensed to Marvel at the same time. I started reading.
I’d been heavily into Avalon Hill board games during the early ‘60s, and a little later I’d done some miniature wargaming. (For an odd echo of that, see I’d never been involved with role playing games like Car Wars, though. That wasn’t a major problem, but some aspects of the background were. Car Wars is an SF game in the sense that motorists in a near-future world shoot it out with one another in armed and armored cars. I could accept the premise in the name of getting a story off the ground, but the details sometimes ignored physics too. I’m a real believer in physics.

It was quite obvious that the game creators hadn’t spent much time in combat. The vehicles were hugely over-weaponed, either ignoring recoil or mounting recoilless weapons (which balance the weight of the shell with a similar weight of powder gas blasting out the back of the gun) in closed turrets. “What do you do about the backblast?” I asked one of the creators. “We didn’t think about that,” he replied.

I had to think about it since I was putting my name on the book: I vented the recoilless rifles. I also dropped the armament to reasonable levels. 3d World technicals often mount guns whose recoil would tip the vehicle over if they were really fired; Car Wars went even farther in that direction.

In addition I came up with ablative armor which would be much more practical than the homogenous plastic sheeting of the game universe. This was stupid and unprofessional of me. My job was to write a story that conformed to the game, and I was instead trying to change one of the basic tenets of that game.

While I needed and accepted SJG direction on the game hardware, I was also getting commentary on my plot and prose. One of the initial suggestions from SJG had been that any story that would work for a western could work for Car Wars. I’m not a big fan of westerns, but when I was 13 I’d picked up (I don’t know why) Justice, My Brother! by James Keene and had really liked it. I reread the book, found it just as well done as I remembered, and adapted the basic plot to my purposes.

I sent the completed plot to SJG as a courtesy. The STG staff responded that it was too downbeat. I ignored them, which was proper, but I also fulminated about having to deal with a gaggle of morons; which wasn’t proper. Games people are used to operating in a collegial setting, much like movie people. They were simply behaving as was proper for them. I’m not a team player. (In fairness to me, a bunch of gamers who were trying to teach me how to plot my hundredth or hundred-and-fiftieth story weren’t showing the best judgment either.)

I wrote the story my way with a couple technical assists from SJG. (One I’m embarrassed about: I had the DU rotor that powers the railgun spinning axially. That would’ve made the car impossible to turn. I knew better than that, but I had it wrong till SJG corrected me.) The book was short, so I went back and added a bit to the middle (the scene of removing the white phosphorous particles in the bathtub and the chapter immediately previous). SJG comments on the finished book included one fellow saying that he hadn’t thought the plot would work, but he’d been wrong.

The Square Deal has some good stuff in it, but it was not a commercial success. I’ll take my share of the blame, but I think the concept was flawed from the start.

I never want to do that again.

Dave Drake

The Square Deal. Car Warriors Series. 1992, New York, NY: Tor. 213 p. 0812519892. $8.99.
————– 1993, New York, NY: Tor. 213 p. 0812530306. $4.99

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