Did you see that?

What do I see/hear/find?

A very common question in gaming.  Whether the player is trying to discover something, or the ref needs to know how much their characters are aware of, this mechanic is probably the second most used mechanic in just about any RPG, (the first of course are combat rolls.)  But how should it work?  If a player makes a roll, and it come up poorly, the character is unaware of whatever it is, but is the character?  If it is very successful, should they always find the well hidden murder weapon?  Should a ref roll it secretly and just tell the players what their characters see/hear/taste…

In the last post, we talked about drama and conflict.  This mechanic seems to work against that.  I have heard of refs that have everyone roll several Perceptions/Notice checks before game starts, and he then uses these as the players rolls as things come up.  I have seen referees use notice checks simply to create tension, allowing them to roll and tell them that they have determined nothing to be going on, or if they fail, then lead them astray.  I have also seen Refs create, or games with, a passive perception mechanic that will inform what the character espies even without searching.  Of course, any application of the perception mechanic must be played without Player Knowledge, only using the Characters Knowledge in-game.  So, lets talk about its use.  Does it take a player out of “immersion” to roll and fail?  Does it lead to meta-gaming no matter the result?

As far as immersion or meta-game, I don’t see its use as anymore than any other dice roll.  The player knows there is a randomization mechanic that informs the characters play.  So, a perception roll is no different from a Shoot M-16 roll, in that respect.  But the simple fact that the ref called for a perception check informs something about the situation, doesn’t it?  By telling the players which ones are allowed a perception and which ones aren’t may as well.  So, why doesn’t the ref always roll the checks for all the players?  Well, doesn’t that interfere with the players choice?  What if they wanted to roll different dice?  What if there is a re-roll mechanic?  How does that work, when the ref rolls, or for that matter, when the players all roll a set of Pre-perception checks?  What about when this check is being used to solve a mystery and look for clues?  Does the roll presuppose that the character has checked everything they can thing of?  What about when the player thinks of someplace/thing that the ref did not?  Can they force a re-roll because they are checking under the carpet beneath the desk?

Let me make some suggestions based on how this mechanic might be used.  Sometimes it might be a simple opposition mechanic; one character hides with whatever bonuses and penalties due, and the other person tries to find them.  Perhaps it is a simple “My roll is better, so I win this!” system.  But what if they both roll horribly?  One tries to hide by rolling around in a pile of leaves, but the other looks around by seeing why the dead trees are rustling.  Obviously they both failed?  Does success, in this case go to the one who failed the least?  Fortunately, this particular mechanic is usually well covered in whatever rule set you are using, so we don’t really need to break it down anymore.  What about the ref calling for a notice as people walk into a bar?  Well, this question, like in previous discussions, is Why?  Is the intent just to notice some particular detail?  Is the detail important to the ongoing story, or just add color or flavor?  If it’s not important, leave it out, unless someone asks about it.  If it’s important, is it important like they game stalls if they don’t see it?  Let them see it!  OR, have an in-play trigger that will allow them to find it.  “We know that our contact reported that he saw a bloody hand print on a Vase in here, last night, so I am looking at each of the visible vases, as well as in them to see what I see,”  AHA!  A knife…a very particular knife is found in one of the vases by the stairs…

What about treating the players as the omniscient audience?  Let them know what is coming up, with the realization that if the dice fail them, the characters will suffer the consequences!  This is a decent technique that could be used in a system with a re-roll mechanic.  The player can make a meta-game decision, based on the Meta-mechanic of dice and rerolls!  Is the fact of not noting what ever it is worth the resource to either automatically notice or the chance of still failing to note, depending on the mechanic.  RefMentor!!!  You can’t tell the players about an ambush!  It ruins the character involvement!  I hear your plea’s on this, and it took me a long while to wrap my head around the concept.  So, let me provide an example from a system that you know I love; Savage worlds:  The players have been tracking down a mobster, but have failed a number of streetwise tests, so now the mobster is aware that they are on his trail.  So, he sets up an ambush outside of one of the players house.  A car full of 6 guys with Tommy-guns.  The players return from an evening of revelry, which the mobster knew they were at, and upon arriving at home, they are given a notice roll, but with them slightly tipsy, and the darkness, and the nondescript car, none of them pass, so they fail to notice and the thugs open up full auto, given them about no chance of survival.  They have benny’s to re-roll, but maybe I am just going to tell them that the neighbors cat is out again, so they may forego spending the last of this resource.  But if they are told, when you arrive at home, there is an ambush by 6 thugs armed with sub-machine guns.  If you fail to notice, they will open up with surprise and other bonuses.  If you notice them, then they lose surprise…Now they know the value of expending that resource!  Keep in mind that this is no different than any other Player vs Character knowledge situation.  And like any of these other situations, like knowing a target number to roll, or the identity of the masked man…The Players AND the Ref need to make certain that this meta-knowledge is not used!

Perception checks are sometimes used to give a player additional information about something.  For instance, everyone sees there is mud on the step just outside where the man was killed.  But a notice will provide more information, depending on how good their result was.  So, what can they learn from this mud.  Maybe a shoe size or type, maybe it is unique to a specific location nearby or maybe something about the gait can be seen.  So the ref might assign value levels; a good success can determine the shoe size, and excellent success will determine the mud comes from a nearby coal mine, and a truly outstanding success shows that the prints were made by a person with a noticeably shorter leg, or perhaps club foot!  This is a pretty good system if you are not short-changing the person who took local soil as a skill!

As I stated in the beginning, this is a mechanic that is much over used, to the point that very few characters will forgo some expertise in it.  However, this discussion has granted a few problems with this over use.  What is the fix?  Simple!  Make the roll count!  Like so many of the rolls that players make it should make a difference.  If they have the time to examine things in detail, give them whatever information is available.  Decide if there is complimentary, but not required, information that might be discovered with a roll.  If the roll is failed, the players and their characters still have a way forward, but it won’t be as easy as it could have been.  If the information is required for them to go forward, give it to them.  But if you wish to, make a failed roll get them into other trouble rather than not finding the required information.  Perhaps, just as they find it, a trio of guards walks by and challenges them to put their hands up and back away from the safe, or the failure triggers a cohort getting the information back to the bad guy that the characters now have it!  Or perhaps they only got a copy of the front side of the headpiece, rather than both so that when they start their dig, they are in the wrong place (of course, you will need to come up with a way to get them back to the right place…probably just as their food is running out!  Don’t make a notice/perception/hearing roll result in them noticing that the fire is going out…unless there is no reason it should!  But, as in the last example above, don’t use a notice in place of another, more appropriate skill.  If your game does not have myriad skills, a perception check might always be the best way to find out information that is hidden.  But if you have many skills at your disposal, use the perception, with these presented caveats, and whatever analysis skills to determine their import!

Now, credit where credit is due:  The whole idea of giving the players the information that their characters don’t know for the purpose of the meta-mechanic is not my idea.  I first heard it on the Savage Worlds GM podcast.  Check them out, if you are playing or interested in playing Savage Worlds!

RefMentor wishing you only better games!

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!