Cadillacs & Dinosaurs: The Roleplaying Game by Frank Chadwick (1990)

CDrpgNote: This is a review I wrote for RPG.net back in 2009. Since my thoughts on the game haven’t changed, I’m simply republishing it here – complete with the corny jokes. (What was I drinking at the time?)

Chances are you’ve never heard of the Xenozoic, that as-yet-to-come geologic era when every creature that ever existed once again roams the Earth, and when what’s left of mankind cruises the countryside in retrofitted 1940s and ’50s Cadillacs. But if it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the setting of a comic book series you might have heard of: Cadillacs & Dinosaurs.

Technically, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (abbreviated hereafter as “C&D”) is the nickname for a short-lived comics series titled Xenozoic Tales. It was the brainchild of Mark Schultz, who both wrote and provided most of the artwork for each of the series’ 14 issues. C&D was the catchier title so it’s the one that stuck.

The series may have only lasted 14 issues and ended mid-story, but it enjoyed a surprising amount of marketing success for an alternative comic. It was the basis for a beat-’em-up arcade game; a Sega CD shooter; a few toys; a sharply animated, if dumbed-down, Saturday morning cartoon; and even a music album with 1950s-ish songs. (The album is decent, if you can get past the corny lyrics: “We make love with fang and claw! Fa-a-ang and claw-w-w!”)

Then, of course, there was C&D: The Roleplaying Game, written by none other than Frank Chadwick of Space: 1889 fame.

C&D is a 144-page, magazine-sized paperback published in 1990. Despite its age, it’s still relatively easy to find on sites such as Ebay or Amazon.com, and I’ve spotted it a few times while browsing through comic and hobby shops. It uses the rules from another CDW post-apocalyptic game, Twilight: 2000, and that’s its major downfall. The Twilight: 2000 system is a relatively tactics-heavy system, but C&D at its heart is a fast-paced, pulp adventure, and the two don’t mesh.

Still, C&D provides a wealth of information about its setting, making it invaluable for anyone who wants to adapt their favorite system to the world of the comics.

Setting

C&D is set 450 years in the future after a planet-wide disaster destroyed most of civilization. While details of the disaster were only hinted at in the comics, Chadwick gives a very thorough and plausible-sounding explanation of what happened. (Chadwick will never be accused of slouching on his science.) The world after the apocalypse isn’t a desert wasteland, but rather a lush, jungle world where dinosaurs, mammoths, sabertooth cats, terror birds, and every prehistoric animal you can think of live side-by-side. How it got that way is one of the central mysteries of the series.

In tone, the setting is a mix of The Lost World, Indiana Jones, and An Inconvenient Truth, with a dash of Mad Max thrown in. Schultz drew his inspiration, and his art style, from many classic comic strips, such as Tarzan and Prince Valiant.

Humanity is scattered into tribes that live on scraps of old world technology. Most of the action takes place around the ruins of New York City, which has become an archipelago of skyscrapers named “The City in the Sea.” One of the main characters is Jack Tenrec, an “Old Blood Mechanic” who restores antique Cadillacs and preaches a form of environmentalism so unyielding it would leave Al Gore shell shocked. Sexual tension comes in the form of Hannah Dundee, the voluptuous ambassador (and spy) from the neighboring Wassoon tribe. Add to the mix a dozen colorful characters, from marauding poachers to a muscle-bound female villain who could bully Hulk Hogan into crying uncle.

The conflict between environmental stewardship and technological progress is a central theme of the series, with some characters trying to prevent the ecologic mishaps that led to the earlier disaster and others pushing for mankind to once again reign over nature. A healthy black market exists for dinosaur body parts, and the tribes repeatedly send expeditions into the interior in search of natural resources and old world technology. Those expeditions often don’t return.

There also is plenty of political intrigue. Various factions in the City in the Sea vie for control of the tribe while the Wassoon jealously eye the vast hoard of old world relics their neighbor possesses.

And don’t forget the Grith, an intelligent race of humanoid dinosaurs whose thought processes are so alien that no humans can understand them… unless they play Scrabble.

Content

C&D may be only 144 pages long but it is a densely packed 144 pages, with two columns of small-type text on most pages.

Black-and-white illustrations coming almost exclusively from the comics make up the bulk of art. Schultz himself evolved as an artist over the course of the series, so some of his early work lacked the attention for detail that later issues possessed. Also, some of his best work appeared in the comic’s final issues, which were published after C&D was released. The result is the art in the book is a mixed bag, although much of it is of higher quality than what you would find in most other roleplaying products. A disappointing exception is a bestiary that features several full-page renditions of silly-looking prehistoric animals. These images largely came from Schultz’s early work, when he portrayed dinosaurs as tail-dragging behemoths.

As far as written content, Chadwick begins with a history of the disaster and how mankind managed to survive hidden underground. After the routine “what is roleplaying” introduction, he delves right into character creation (discussed below). A lengthy and nicely illustrated equipment section is next, with helpful pricing guidelines for various items. Next comes a section about GMing (here called the “referee”) that contains many of the system rules. Rules for combat follow, and after that the relatively short bestiary. Then there is “The Known World,” a guide to the world of the Xenozoic and the many characters who inhabit it.

Unfortunately, a rather boring adventure ends the book. The characters are ordered by the ruling council to journey to a research station to solve a mystery and then journey back to report their findings. It’s about as prosaic as it sounds.

While the adventure itself is not up to snuff, much of the content is. Chadwick goes into great detail about equipping and launching expeditions, traveling overland, keeping equipment in tiptop shape, and encountering creatures in the wilderness. Yes, C&D makes much use of random encounter tables, but here they’re put to good use given this is a setting heavy on wilderness exploration.

There also are rules for creating your own tribe as well as a nifty table that allows GMs — I mean, referees – to randomly generate NPC motivations using a deck of poker cards.

While most rules are straight forward, at times Chadwick goes overboard on emphasizing planning and resource management. C&D, in my mind, really is a story-driven setting with its roots in adventure literature, but Chadwick aims for a simulationist approach: He seems to think that roleplaying in the fantasy world of the Xenozoic should be treated as realistically as exploring the American frontier of the 18th century. My guess is most players will just want to fight dinosaurs and uncover pre-cataclysm secrets, not spend a lot of time figuring out how much food and equipment they will need on their expedition.

System

C&D uses only two types of dice: d6s and d10s. The system at first seems blissfully simple, but once you get into the details of combat, it bogs down.

Characters have six attributes: Strength, Constitution, Agility, Education, Charisma, and Intelligence. All work pretty much as you expect them to. In addition, there are a number of skills linked to each attribute. Attribute levels are determined by rolling dice for random numbers or by assigning points. Skill levels are determined by choosing a background profession and by assigning bonus points to those skills you want to beef up.

Each attribute and skill is ranked from 1 to 10. A player must roll equal to or less than the governing attribute or skill on a d10 for an action to be successful. Say your character needs to repair a car and has a mechanic skill of 5. He or she must roll 5 or less to succeed. Some tasks require characters to use two skills or attributes, so they add the two together, divide by half, and then round down to get the target number.

Tasks can be easy, average, or hard. An easy task is twice the governing attribute or skill level. An average task is equal to the level. A hard task is half the level, rounded down. I rather like the simplicity of assigning difficulty, finding it infinitely more user-friendly for referees than picking arbitrary target numbers.

Simple is not how I would describe combat.

Combat basically uses the same task resolution rules as above. However, there are so many situation-specific rules for attacks, damage, and healing that require you to add, subtract, multiply, divide, or get the square root that they quickly become overwhelming. Keeping track of damage is a headache, given different body parts have different hit point values. Then there is a funky initiative system allowing some characters to take from two to five times the number of actions as others in a single turn, which really unbalances gameplay.

You also can be required to roll a lot of dice, particularly if you’re using automatic weapons. One example given in the book has a character rolling 25 d6s in a single turn!

The combat system really defeats the overall pulp tone of the setting. Again, C&D is about two-fisted adventure, gun fights, and facing prehistoric monsters. Combat should be quick and light, allowing players to move from one scene to the other in relatively rapid succession. But the rules system here is unnecessarily complex and, at least when involving automatic weapons, potentially very deadly. It may be a great system for a gritty military game (such as Twilight: 2000), but here it’s just out of place.

Conclusions

I’m a big fan of the comics, so I was happy as a Domo-kun chasing a kitten to find a roleplaying game based on them. I even bought two copies of the book. (They’re pretty cheap these days.) I don’t consider my money wasted because there is a wealth of information about the Xenozoic world, plus several helpful tables, maps, and rules for exploring that world. But it all comes attached to a combat system I really don’t want to play and isn’t a good fit for the types of adventures the setting lends itself to.

My suggestion is C&D is best used for background for building your own Xenozoic adventures using a pulp-friendly system. The first to comes to mind is Savage Worlds. (And given a Space: 1889 campaign is in the works for the SW system, is there any possibility Pinnacle will come out with its own C&D rulebook in the future, provided it gets the publishing rights?) Another good fit would be the Ubiquity system that powers Hollow Earth Expedition. Heck, move HEX up 500 years, tweak some of the character classes and weapons, and get rid of the hollow earth concept, and you essentially have C&D.

If another company ever acquires the rights to publish another version of C&D, all I ask is for a 50s-style pin-up of Hannah in a fur bikini to be included with the book. Qua-hoon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s