A Gentle review of a Savage system

A new favorite game!  Could be the only game I’d need, forever, except…

One of the things I had planned to do with this blog was game reviews.  And I have decided it is time to do one, the first one!  My first review is of Savage Worlds, specifically the deluxe edition, but I don’t into to get into the detail that separate the versions I am familiar with.

To start, lets talk about what savage worlds is and what it isn’t.  So, without further ado…

savage-worlds-logo

Savage Worlds

What is it?

Savage Worlds is a setting neutral (or generic) game.  It is hard to call it rules-lite because its core rule book is fairly densely packed with rules.  However, many of the rules are designed to address specific issues that may come up in a variety of settings.  Since the core book is only ten bucks, and you can get the test drive rules for free, it is well worth the investment.  The test drive rules are the rules lite version of the rule set, so the powers and setting rules are very curtailed, but you could acquire the test drive rules and, say the wizards and warriors supplement (also free) and have a pretty good fantasy savage world to try out. 

The rules are not a game setting, but a rule set that allows the playing of any setting you want.  It is very well supported with settings, both licensed and fan made.  These range from standard settings like fantasy,pirate, modern or sci-fi, but they also include a great number of unique and mixed genre settings as well.  The default rules tend to reflect life as an action movie, but it has mechanical adjustments that can make it more realistic or gritty.  

The tag line of the game is Fast! Furious! Fun! and it lives up to it pretty well  It has several separate resolution mechanics, but they all work well together, and are mostly easy to learn.

What it’s not…

Savage worlds is definitely not a simulation type game.  All of the rules tend to be fairly abstract and simplified.    Because is setting neutral, there are few rules dealing with unique situations and those that do, like radiation exposure, can best be read as guidelines.

How does it, uh, work?

The basic mechanic of Savage worlds is: Target Number of 4, if you roll over that number, then you succeed.    What does that mean?  Well, lets dive a little bit deeper.  For this part of the discussion, I am just going to keep to Core rules, but even when using the companions, these mechanics don’t change significantly. Characters are made up of 5 stats rated from a D4 to a D12+2 or higher, with an average human score of D6 in each.  Each character has a number of very broad skills, 23 in the rules, also rated from D4 and up.  Broad as in the Shooting skill covers a bow, a crossbow, a rifle, a laser carbine, or tank gun.  These skills are linked to attributes, so that if the character has only a D4 in Smarts, it will be more difficult, but not impossible, for him to become a world renown scholar in hydrotherapy!  To enhance the characters, there are Hindrances and edges that make further define the character.  A Major hindrance of Stubborn, for instance may make it just about impossible to change the character’s mind even from a bad idea, while an Alertness edge grants a bonus when looking for things or to pick up on subtle clues.  The rules cover separate races as well as define how to make your own by modifying their base stats, skills or edges and hindrances. Dwarves, for instance, are slower, but have low light vision and increased Vigor, while Elves are penalized when working with mechanical items, but have higher Agility and low light vision.

Next, one needs to understand Wild cards and Extras.  Player characters are always wild cards, as are some significant NPCs.  These are main characters of the story.  They have access to “Bennies” as well as an increased damage tolerance.  Bennies are a mechanic to alter mechanical outcomes, such as avoiding a failed die roll or making a deadly wound merely a flesh wound.However, perhaps the most dramatic thing that Wildcards have access to is the Wild Die.  Anytime they roll a test die, they also roll a D6, taking the higher die. Extras do not have access to a wild die, do not usually get bennies, and if they are wounded, they become incapacitated, while a wildcard does not become incapacitated until the 4th wound.

One more thing, the dice in SW explode! (That is, if any dice rolls the max, it is rolled again and added together, without limit, so, yes, it is possible to score over 20 when rolling a D4-2, particularly when a wild card throws a D6-2 as well, using the higher of the two).   As I stated above, the general requirement to perform an action is 4.  So a character rolls the appropriate skill, and wild die if able, and if they score a 4, the task succeeds, and improve their result for every 4 above that.  There are lots of modifiers to that number and to characters rolls, but that is the core mechanic.

The last thing to cover about the mechanics of the system is powers, AKA Arcane Backgrounds.  In the core book, there are 5 types of powers: Magic, Miracles, Psionics, Super Powers and Weird Science.  Their specific mechanics each vary in their implementation, but they all use the same power list, just flavoring them with their own background.  There is a list of many powers in the book and they define the pure mechanics of the thing.  For instance, the power ARMOR increases a persons resistance to wounds.  A mage might flavor it as actual spectral armor, or magic robes.  A priest might be wreathed in holy light. A psionisict might have telekinetic shields around him, while the super power might grant hardened skin, or the weird scientist creates a force field belt.

There are a few mechanic’s in the game: Melee Combat, Missile Combat, Social Combat, Dramatic tasks, Mass Battle’s and even chases and vehicle combat.  While each of these mechanics are abstract, they work very well in the system.  Each one is internally consistent and mechanically quite sound.

What I Love

SW has a lot to love.  The characters are simple but rarely simplistic.  As I said, if you have a character idea, you can pretty much create that character in only a few minutes.  Another aspect of this, and partly as a consequence of the Extras idea, NPCs can be created by the dozens in minutes.  The range of edges and flaws, while extensive, are easily modified with a moments thought.  Everything in Savage can be skinned or altered to meet specific tastes.  Your character is good-looking?  Attractive edge, but what if they exude pheromones that make people comfortable around them?  Attractive edge accomplished that, just call it Friendly Pheromones (Attractive) and done!

This same idea is replete in the powers.  One of the powers is BOLT.  This is a basic attack spell, magic missile, fire bolt, ice dart…just the coat of paint that makes it look like something else changes it.  But SW also has specialized skins, called trappings.  For instance if you skin your bolt as a fire bolt, perhaps it has a chance to actually ignite something it hits.  If you trap it as an electric spark, it may do extra damage to electrical systems. 

Because the game is very modular, pieces can be added or removed without much trouble.  Say you want your setting not to have Psionics, and miracles can only be used to heal, then remove the Psionics background, and limit the miracles background to only healing type spells.

Anytime the game goes to rounds, The Fast! Furious! Fun! mantra comes to life.  First, cards are dealt from a normal card deck, instead of dice being rolled.  Some edges or hindrances may affect which cards a player can use.  Because the system emulates action movie physics, a character can take as many actions as they want, with penalties for the more actions.  This is another thing to love, as it is not the I hit you, you hit me of many other combats.  Wildcards are quite robust, and it is somewhat difficult to kill them.  Not to say they cannot die from a punk kid with a shiv…exploding dice can be a bitch! 

What I Don’t Love

Hard to find too much that falls into this category, except…it is so adaptable.  That’s right, its greatest strength can be its biggest weakness.  If you don’t want to play a game with action movie physics, then you can dig into the innards of the system, and throw a few switches, like setting rules, that might change it.  For instance, if you want any good cut to hinder the victim, then use any variations on Gritty Damage.  A small layer of complexity for a pretty significant change.  You see, you really can play just about anything you want, but…

That very strength can make the game somewhat daunting to someone not familiar or without a lot of experience.  I don’t want to make you think that it really is secretly complicated, but if you want to modify things, the system might crack under your modifications.  How do you handle someone throwing an opponent against a wall?  well…there is no rule…what is it like?  It could be a push…or  maybe it’s a grapple with a throwing trapping.  What about …well, none of those are wrong. But knowing the rules well enough to make that choice quickly.  As I said..it is a rules dense system.

In an earlier post, I talked about how much change a system might need to fit your idea.  Savage Worlds makes those decisions easy, but that sheer simplicity might not fit the idea of what you want.  If you need a system that requires characters to make things, particularly a detailed part, Savage might not cut it.  You could run it as a Dramatic Task!  F!F!F! answer….but does it meet your idea?  If you want a More detailed skill system, maybe a performance and or an oratory or Politics skill.  In Savage, you could just make a Common Knowledge roll, but that may be too abstracted.  If you start adding skills, do you leave characters too weak when starting or do you need more skill points?  Or do you want to make an edge that fills those criteria…see what I mean.  Whatever you want to do you can do!  Will it fit your need?  Maybe.

Let try an example to make this clear; A foot race.  For this example I will compare two favorite systems Savage Worlds and Role Master Standard System(RMSS).  In RMSS, the participants would roll, add their relevant running skill (Sprinting or distance running) and look on the Movement/Maneuver table.  This would then provide a value to multiply by your base speed (ranging from you fall down and break a leg, to 2 times the speed and wow everybody with your prowess).  You would repeat this until one of the runners had completed the established distance.  Very mechanical and precise, making those who are taller (who have a slightly higher base speed) have a slight advantage, but more than made up for by having an appropriate skill.  In SW, you look at it from a plot view.  If it is important, but not overly critical, everybody roll an Agility, with a bonus to someone with the Fleet Footed edge…highest score wins.  Or, to deviate from the F!F!F! aspect, you could have everybody just roll a run die, move the appropriate distance, first one there wins.  If it is a key point of the plot, you might run it as a dramatic task, drawing it out to maybe 5 rounds, and collecting successes.  This raises the tension with the end result of the winner having the most successes.

To Wrap it up

So!  Is Savage Worlds the only system I need ever again?  Almost.  It sets up quickly, plays well, fits with just about any setting.  I can set up an evening game in a matter of minutes.  There are so many settings already made, and it is so easy to create my own.  I have enough practice that the open system is great fun.  On the other hand, as an epic gamer, the system lacks some of the grit needed to deal with some of the story details that I often want to play.  I can completely endorse Savage Worlds, and think it should be on every bodies shelves.  But, I won’t be giving up my other games, even though they have dropped into the minority of game time.   The stories I tell in other games have definite flavors and details that Savage doesn’t emulate that well.

Savage is exceptional for Episodic stories and very good at Epic-sodic, and not bad at epic story style.  It definitely is designed as a collaborative storytelling game, what with bennies (and the Adventure deck if you use that), and I talked about my feelings toward that already.  Savage could bend my feelings a little bit, though.

I hope that as a first review, I gave you something to consider.  Thanks for reading.  Let me know if you have another topic you want me to cover, or game to review!  Talk to you in about a month!

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The Games (and styles) We Play

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about game style…Epic, Episodic, even Epic-sodic, and, since I have not posted an entry for a while, lets try this one out.

In Some Common Ground, I discussed the basic differences in Epic and Episodic.  I have also mentioned Epic-Sodic in Random-like, but let me get deeper into each of these and discuss the pro’s and con’s.

EPIC

Epic is usually my go to game.  However, I have noticed some things only on fairly deep introspection.  Surprisingly, there are some thing that I don’t like about it.  I have often defined an epic role playing style  something like this:  While the player characters are important to a given story line in the game universe, they are not all that important in the universe, overall.  If, and when, they die, only a few people they have interacted with will probably notice their passing.  Of course, if they have performed heroic deeds that saved villages, towns or even kingdoms, that would be different.  But…the universe doesn’t care.  The game will focus on these characters and their life in the world.  It will be about the adventure arc they are following, but if they get in over their heads, the universe (in the guise of the GM) will not make the path easier for them, and if they die…oh well.   Epic games are kind of like the Novels of role playing.  The characters are a bit more detailed, and there is often significantly more character building in them.  But because there is often many story lines going on in the world, I have found myself wrapping story lines pretty matter of factly.   Hurray!  They have beaten Lord Two-Dark and his minions.  But, they didn’t even touch the fact that Yirk the Bloody is gathering slaves for the zanzabarbarians…or the ogres in the Yellow wood in the next kingdom over?  From an Epic  ref’s point of view…a hero’s work is never done.

In these games money is important.  The cost for a healing potion and ammo will be specific, even if it changes slightly due to availability from one place to the next.  It is important for characters to be able to estimate the worth of the things they find and/or be able to haggle for it.  Often the players have a daily routine.  It likely includes study or practice.  Usually, encumbrance is carefully calculated, and wound can be deadly.    Random encounters make the world feel more alive, because they represent things and people that are going about their daily business.   A story can still be on the rails, going from one thing to another, but the details of the between becomes important.  A map, graphic or textual, is a must in the Epic game.  If it is 100 miles to point B from Point A and 300 miles to Point C, from Point B, then Point C is not 50 miles to Point A!

The Epic Style can support Top down or Bottom up, but it is very difficult to run without significant set-up.  It can support any character style, but, because it often integrates daily routine, detailed survival and travel, it usually runs better with detailed characters.  And, because the characters are dealing with the rest of their lives, and not just the “adventuring” part, they tend to build up quite rounded and deep characters.   (Of course, an Epic character can be very shallow as well, but most players who really enjoy Epic style will build appropriate characters).  In an Epic game, when a player is unable to play for a night it is often much better to not play that game, so as to not have another player mis-play him.

This does not mean you can’t play episodically with an epic style.  It is just that playing from key scene to key scene is not very conducive to maintaining all of those details that make a complete and living character in a constant and detailed world.

Episodic

The Episodic game is much more like a television show.  The group of characters often have a three act style of adventure.  There is often an over-arching story about the characters, but many of the games are just “monster of the week” style serials.  There is nothing wrong with episodic play, and is really the only style of play suited for conventions and even the game group that can only infrequently get together, and need to get their story’s told before they (the players) die of old age!

The Episodic style is, as I pointed out, basically the opposite of the Epic.  Usually money is not closely tracked.  The players have what they need, but maybe not everything they want.  Encumbrance is either not an issue, or is just not closely tracked.  The Episodic style is, in the words of the Bard “The Play is the Thing!”  Why worry about the minutia of basic life and upkeep, when you can just get to the adventure?

A map can be notional, as they get where they need when they need to be there.  When Joss Whedon was asked about the speed of ships in Firefly, he allegedly claimed they “Move at the speed of plot!”  (This was actually quite a revelation to me when I was setting up a Savage Worlds game.  I had spent 20 minutes or so scouring the maps to determine where an encounter would take place…a railroad, in the mountains, near a gorge….I was getting frustrated because I wasn’t finding the right place…and then…a bolt out of the blue!  It doesn’t matter where it is on the map…it takes place exactly where it needs to!)

Characters in Episodic games tend to be specialized, because their energies, as well as the needs of the gameplay focus on specialized skill sets.  Not many TV characters are all that broad, skill-wise, but of course they can develop very deep characters as they are played as hooks become background, or vice versa.  Savage Worlds, an excellent candidate for Episodic play, even has a mechanic for expanding a players background during game play, called a Dramatic Interlude.

Many games are really designed to be run Episodically.  Any Mission driven game, such as Shadowrun is really episodic and follows the three act style :Get the mission, research and planning, execution.  And, because of this style, characters tend to be more specialized, as they do not need all of the other skills.  It is assumed their life goes on without major consequence, or it would be an adventure!  And, like before, you can run Epic style games Episodically, but the whole point would kinda be lost, and it would probably be an “Upkeep” scene, perhaps played out as a montage, rather than played through.

Epic-sodic

This is my name for probably a very common  style.  It is basically Episodic gameplay, with Epic support.  You might be able to consider it long form Episodic.  How does it work?  This might be best as an example:

EPIC:

The players wake, and take care of their morning routines. Do they have any particular requests this morning?  OK..the Priest is going to temple for service.  The others  meet for breakfast, when a messenger arrives, and is properly introduced, he is somewhat confused as he was expecting one more person.  They will need to convince him they are who he seeks, and that the lat person will join them after his devotions.  If they cannot convince him, he will leave word where he can be found when they are all together. Knowing that it won’t do to interrupt worship they wait on the priest, and after he has properly broken his fast, the go to meet the messenger.  Check for random encounters on the way, and resolve them.  If any member of the party is incapacitated, then if they go on to the messenger, he will still not release the message.  Once they get the message, it is encrypted, but it is not overly difficult to decode.  It directs them to make contact with “The Green Man”  and explains how to do it.  What actions and or precautions do they take, and do they decide it is worth their action.  Once they are prepared, they travel to the green man, in The Blue Knight Club, in the Rose room, a private room…

EPISODIC

You have received and de-crypted a message to meet the “Green Man.”  You have just arrived at the Blue Knight Club, with instructions to meet him in the Rose Room.  Alibis?

EPIC-SODIC

You have recieved a coded message that directed you to meet the “Green Man” at the Blue Knight Club in the Rose Room.   You have about 6 hours before the meet.  What do you need/want to do?  (Once all prep is done…You may set up a random or preparatory encounter on their way) You have arrived at the3 Blue Knight Club…

I hope, from those descriptions, you can see that the Epic style will obviously take much longer to work through.  The life of the characters between adventures is important.  The Episodic is likely to finish in an evening.  You play out the important (read adventure) scenes. The Epic-sodic will take longer but not near as long as the Epic.  You are focusing on the adventure/story parts, but the supporting background and characters are not necessarily a given.  This has become my favorite style, I think.  I love Epic games…The lives of our characters is interesting, if not fascinating, to me.  But, as real life seems to allow less and less time for it, the development of characters and setting as well as the quickly getting to the adventure appeals.  There is no reason you cant play epic story lines (notice the small e) while playing Episodic.  The story arc just becomes more central to the separate adventures.  However, as discussed earlier, playing an episodic story in an Epic manner kind of defeats the point.  And, as Savage Worlds has become a new favorite, and plays very well in the Epic-Sodic, I guess I need to do a bit of a review for those of you who have never seen and/or played it!  (Next post…whenever I get to it!)

Are these distinctions clear?  I know you, my gentle readers, may have questions for your old Ref Mentor, and I’d be glad to answer them.  And, if your questions require more than just a comment to discuss them, I’d be glad to write a whole Blog Post about it.  So feel free to comment or ask questions.  Remember, my goal here is to offer bits of wisdom from a person who has been playing, and primarily reffing RPGs for almost 40 years.  I don’t claim to be the best, but I do have a lot of experience and have run a lot of things.

Live the adventure, folks!  And be a great Ref!