What I have learned about Savage Worlds

This one was long overdue. When I decided to give a chance to recent game systems that I knew squat about, Fate and Savage Worlds were the obvious choices. As readers (yes sir, I have a couple!) might have noticed, I ended up being unexpectedly intrigued (if not entirely convinced) by Fate Core. I read the Deluxe rulebook of Savage Worlds pretty much at the same time as Fate Core, but for some reason I could not bring myself to review it. In fact, this post will not be a proper review either.

I am conflicted about Savage Worlds. First, let me make clear that I am very glad that SW as a game even exists. Put yourself in my shoes: a long retired RPG lover, fan of generic systems, with a preference for a moderate level of crunchiness. SW as a system does seem a bless. And yet, in reading the core book and skimming through the vast catalogue, I realized that some cultural (aesthetic?) obstacles bugged me slightly.

First, I strongly dislike the fact that the use of miniatures and gameboard is taken for granted. The relation between RPGs and wargames is old and well known, but for my generation that was always an option, never the default assumption. In SW the possibility of playing without miniatures is merely acknowledged and left at that: “We’re giving length in inches because we assume you are using miniatures, if you don’t, try handwaving it.” Fair enough, but to me it feels backward.

Second, I cannot say a single good word on the use of poker cards. In SW, for no particular reason, combat initiative must be determined by picking one card each from one large deck of playing cards. Basically, that is it: other uses of cards in the system are entirely occasional and ad hoc. In a game that uses all your usual polyhedral dice (except for d20s) there is no good reason to force the use of an extraneous method of randomization. As it is (ad hoc and underused) it strikes me as gratuitous and inelegant. You know why we should use it, says the author? “Because it’s fun!!!”.

And now I come to the most general problem. The style of the book is so self-promotional and euphoric that it becomes irritating very fast. SW reiterates obsessively that the game is “fast, fun and furious!!!” (Exclamation marks are always in the way, and if not, they are suggested). Well, is that true? Not necessarily. I cannot think of one reason why the game should play especially fast. SW is no super abstract, free form game: it is a very traditional game with many detailed mechanics and a good number of factors to take into account. So why insisting on being fast? Marketing, apparently. SW is often marketed as ideally suited for one shot adventures (called “one sheet adventures”, because they can be presented in two pages at most). I am sure these work great, but apart from character creation (which is actually comparatively fast), I am not sure that the game plays any faster than Tri-Stat, Basic RPG or the D&D editions I am most acquainted with. Is it fun? Well, fun is the eye of the player. I can imagine of having plenty of fun with SW, but I have fun with GURPS also, so maybe I am not the author’s target.

Ok, now the good things. I must admit that (style aside) the Deluxe rulebook is a great piece of gaming literature. It has everything a generic system should have. The situational rules are complete enough to run most of your classic staple adventures. The combat rules, in terms of crunch level, are somewhere in between D&D 5e and GURPS: that is, medium crunchy. The character generation system makes sense, even though its granularity is very low. The very rudimentary “power design” system, for instance, cannot hold a candle to Tri-Stat/BESM, let alone GURPS or (God forbid!) Hero. It is just enough to have one or two nifty supernatural tricks under your character’s belt. Racial and professional templates for most run-of-the-mill settings are included, and so is a reasonably complete monster bestiary. With its low page count and its exceptionally cheap price, the SW paperback rulebook worth the buy even if you are not sold on the game yet: it might always come in handy.

From a strictly mechanical point of view, the game seems satisfactory, even though some of its quirks might not be to everybody’s liking.

The basic notion that attributes or skills are rated as dice type (1d4, 1d6, 1d8 etc.) is nice enough. It is is worth emphasizing, though, that because the difficulty for most tasks is set at 4, characters with low ratings have pretty meager chances of success: keep it in mind, when you think of letting your goofy wizard climb that rope! On the other hand, dice can Ace (explode): a roll of N on a dN dice lets you roll again and add the result.

One of the very few mechanics that Savage Worlds shares with Fate is the difference between Wild Cards (PCs, main NPCs) and Extras (unnamed NPCs, in Fate parlance). Wild Cards have two main benefits. First, they get to use an extra Wild d6 Dice, which can be used instead of your regular dice whenever it rolls better. Second, Wild Cards can take up to two three wounds before being incapacited and, potentially, die. Extras can only take one wound, then they are incapacitated or dead. Obviously, this  is conducive to a style of game that is antithetic to the Old School ethos, where the death of PCs happened all the time.

One aspect that I liked is the compromise between development based on leveling and on skill improvement. SW does not have levels as such, but it has a bunch of power layers, the first one being Novice. Experience points let you upgrade your layer every now and then, and this unlock more powerful Edges (think Feats, Advantages) and Powers (Magic, Psionics etc.). This makes it possibile to distinguish between a young hero and semi-god without introducing the metagaming pedantry related to levels.

All considered, I am glad this game exists, but there is something about its selling strategy which does not appeal to me very much. The biggest selling point, to me, is how much you can get out of this core book alone: most classic genres can be at least attempted without buying anything else. The big exception, I think, would be games which rely heavily on gear, especially science fictional technology. Being curious about it, I have just bought the Science Fiction Companion for the game and I am likely to review it soon.

[EDIT 02 Nov 2015: I noticed that I forgot to mention the Wild Die. This mechanic, which is exclusive of PC and main NPC, change the chances of success of any task pretty dramatically. Our goofy wizard, provided he is a PC, should manage to climb that rope pretty well in spite of his low Agility, because he always roll a Wild d6 together with his d4 attribute, and gets to choose the best result of the two.]

Again on Fate Accelerated

This prominent Fate author has one suggestion for how to handle the abuse of Approaches, which I discussed here on the blog. The idea is that the GM should always allow for the use of an Approach inappropriate for a given action, but make clear that it could have unwanted consequences. It is sensible, and it is worth considering, but (a) never is this mechanic mentioned in RAW, (b) it does nothing for the more general problem of the over reliance on your best Approach, and (c), more rule-internally, it seems to change all successes with abusive Approaches into successes “at a cost”, which in RAW are deliberately and crucially kept separated. In general, I think, this is a problem in which the hostility of games like Fate towards GM adjudication is clearer than ever.