I’ve noticed that most of my reviews tend to come across as if I hate every roleplaying game I’ve ever played. I don’t, as a rule, but I have to be honest when pointing out flaws I find, even if the overall gaming system is pretty solid.
Savage Worlds is one of these cases. I bought it because Shane, the author, seems to want the same kind of things out of a roleplay that I do, for the most part. In short, we both want a game that plays like a Robert E Howard yarn. I have to say I really like the Savage Worlds approach; the system is unified, flexible and fast. The problem is, for me, that a lot of the mechanics and much of the general play style is incredibly Dungeons and Dragons inspired, and although the approach taken is different, it often feels like the rules were written to fix the shortcomings of D&D rather than to create something radical. We all have to admit our gratitude to Dungeons and Dragons for inventing the roleplaying game, but that doesn’t mean it was a good system. Dungeons and Dragons was, and is, pretty terrible.
I’m probably being a bit hard on it. After all, Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide clearly states that the game was inspired by the same sort of literature that inspired Savage Worlds — namely, Robert E Howard’s writings — so perhaps the similar approach is simply a product of having similar roots. In that case, the cringe I feel every time I see a D&D-inspired mechanic may well be just age-old prejudice. Savage Worlds is the Dungeons and Dragons style done right.
I’m going to start off talking about skills. The layout of the book takes a little bit of getting used to. Rather than have a table of skills in the skills sections, it’s bundled into a “Summaries” section at the end of character creation along with tables of everything else. This is nice and neat, but it threw me off, but not in a bad way. It just reminds me of the time I cried when Playstation games stopped using the D-pad and started making more and more use of analogue sticks so that my gaming ability plummeted back to noob level; an innovation for the better, in the end, but frustrating at first.
Now, skills. Savage Worlds totes itself as a generic system, using the rather clever, I think, idea that the whole point of the game is playing larger-than-life heroes. For this reason, the books describes skills as very broad, but their breadth varies to the point that some skills are incredibly specific. Fighting and Shooting, as examples of skills that actually are broad, encompass, respectively, all of close and ranged combat. But then we have skills like Climbing, Gambling, Repair, Swimming, Survival, Taunt, Tracking and Throwing, all of which allow you to perform one specific task. Climbing and Swimming are both tasks that tend to occur relatively rarely in games, and when they do, the majority of players who didn’t spend skill points in such a uselessly uncommon activity drag the game to its knees and the game very usually requires some fudging after the millionth failure, and it’s generally not very fun. I actually think Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition got this one right by merging all such acts into Athletics. As for Throwing, I’d either bung it in there too or use the Shooting skill.
The only thing we learn about Survival is that it should be used to make an arbitrary, passive roll to make sure the characters forage enough food. Its usefulness as an interactive skill is completely ruined by the existence of a Tracking skill.
Gambling is incredibly specific and is used for playing games within a game. If I wanted to play poker, I’d play poker, not simulate it with dice rolls. In either case, I’d have thrown such a specific skill into something like Streetwise.
Taunt is a specific act used in combat. If you tell someone you had sexual intercourse with their mother, you roll dice, and on a success you leave them Shaken, which in game terms leaves them stunned. Literally. That’s it. A hole skill dedicated to your tremendous ability to tell people which member of their family you’ve done what to, which has the effect of leaving them completely and utterly awe-struck.
Finally, there’s Repair, which leaves me wondering what happens when I want to actually build something from scratch, or alter a working mechanism rather than repair it.
Conspicuously lacking is any sort of computer skill. It’s made clear that if I specifically want to bypass an electronic lock, I should use the Lockpicking skill, but there’s absolutely nothing on the skill of using electronic devices and doing clever things with them.
There is mention in passing, later in the book, about characters using a Knowledge (Computers) skill, but I think that’s a damn cop-out. The Knowledge skill itself mentions a few small examples of knowledge people might have, but makes no mention that it should be used for any skill not present in the system that’s relevant to your setting, and doesn’t talk about computers at all. The whole book is littered with similar examples of players using their “Knowledge (X)” skill, but if it’s not there spelled out in character creation, how is anyone meant to think to include it in their repertoire? I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to include a skill as universal as Computers in your generic system, you may as well not bother listing any skills at all and just have everyone select various iterations of Knowledge (something-I-thought-of). Players may as well be making up skills on the spot, like Knowledge (Fighting) and Knowledge (Gambling) and hell, any skill specifically listed could just be a Knowledge specialisation.
Sorry, I ranted on a bit there. What I was trying to say is that I don’t think the right approach for creating a generic system is basically telling the GM to make up any skills that are missing, rather than making sure those skills are included. I think it’s pretty clear from this, though, that the game wasn’t really designed with modern technology in mind and would need a little but of tweaking to work as a sci-fi game. I guess that’s one of the holdovers from Dungeons and Dragons I was talking about.
I haven’t mentioned attributes yet, and probably should have. All I’ve really got to say is that no skill uses Vigor and only a single skill uses Strength, and this stood out to me. They’re used in other important ways, though — Strength for dealing damage and Vigor for taking it — so I assume the reason they aren’t merged and why they’re not very skill-oriented has to do with game balance. If your damage resistance, Fighting skill and weapon damage were all determined by one attribute, it would be stupidly easy to make an unstoppable killing machine.
A final note on skills is that I came to realise that playing a monk-style character is far less desirable when you have a Fighting skill that includes unarmed combat. It’s nice and simple, but if you wanted to make monks playable you’d have to add an Unarmed skill to the game. The good news is that the game is designed to be moulded as the DM wishes, so you can do this if you want more complexity to combat.
Many things that we commonly associate with attributes or derived from them in other games are completely unrelated in Savage Worlds, and rely instead of feats, known as “Edges”. Charisma and Initiative, for example, only come into effect if you take an Edge that grants you a bonus to them. I never liked D&D feats because they were always too generic and lacked flavour, but I think Savage Worlds gives them enough character that they really add a lot to the game.
Next we have Gear. What stands out to me here is that the weapons jump straight from black powder muzzle-loaders to cartridge-firing revolvers. Considering that Savage Worlds is meant to be generic and is derived from the weird western Deadlands, I can’t comprehend why they’ve left a gaping hole where cap-and-ball revolvers ought to be. I like cap-and-ball weapons in my westerns because, firstly, it’s authentic, and secondly it’s a nice balance between a hectic bullet-hell slug-fest and a slow, musketeer-type affair.
On the other hand, anything about 50 years either side of World War II is listed exhaustively, with there being twice as many WWII vehicles as modern ones. There’s very little in the way of sci-fi equipment, with what there is being cliched — hover tanks and laser guns being about the whole of it.
There’s a good range of medieval weapons, but your armour is limited to leather, chainmail and plate. Oddly for a game that tends towards quickness over realism, armour has hit locations. This feels very much in contrast with the rest of the game’s style.
After we’ve learned how to create and equip our heroes, we learn about the rules. The game focuses on the idea that your characters are larger-than-life heroes fighting villains of the same stock, giving both an advantage over common people, known as “Extras”. Extras only get one wound, while Wild Cards — yourself and the villains — get 3. Whether or not you take a wound is determined by your Toughness. It gives basically the same effect as a hit points system, but with less book-keeping and arbitrary subtraction; you take damage greater than your Toughness, you take a wound. Done.
The die mechanics are simple; roll a die equal to your relevant Trait and beat a target number. Dice can explode, or “Ace”, which lets you roll them again and add the result. This has the odd effect of making it more likely to roll an even number with the next die down; for example, if your target number is 6, rolling a d4 and exploding produces about a 1/5 chance of success, as opposed to a 1/6 on a d6. I recall reading either somewhere in the book or somewhere else a defence of this hiccup by the author, but I can’t find it now. Either way, it reminds me of AD&D, where Gary Gygax spent about half of every book defending his rules from criticism.
If you roll 4 or more over the target number, you get a critical, called a “Raise”. These have varying effects depending on what you’re doing, such as dealing more wounds. You deal one point of wounds for every Raise.
I was a little confused at first about the Shaken rule, but it’s simple enough, really. The first time you take damage, you’re Shaken. If you’re Shaken again by a “damaging attack”, you take more damage. But if the attack gets a Raise and causes actual wounds while you’re already Shaken, you only count to wounds, so getting one Raise on a Shaken opponent isn’t any better than just getting a success, but getting multiple Raises is.
Initiative is standard D&D-style with a small twist: instead of rolling, you draw cards. That’s the only difference. The rules state that this makes initiative easier because it means the DM just has to glance at the cards to know the combat order, and I believe them, but I don’t own a deck of cards, so I wish they’d left the alternate dice-rolling rules in for old-times sake.
I like that the rules put a lot of effort into gun combat. Many other games just don’t get it right, but Savage Worlds seems to. For one, cover bonuses are actually meaningful, giving you a much higher target number than standing out in the open.
One thing I don’t like is how miniatures-centric the game is. The rules state that this is because it’s easier to right rules for miniatures and then abandon them than the other way around, but I’m calling bullshit on that. It clearly wants you to use miniatures. Miniatures are great if you’ve got them, but otherwise they’re restrictive. For a game that describes itself as reducing preparation time for the DM, putting in the added cost of miniatures, a Chessex matt, a deck of cards and some poker chips doesn’t make too much sense to me.
The poker chips, by the way, are for “Bennies”. Characters and DMs get to spend them to improve rolls and use certain abilities, and DM gets to award them for pretty much whatever he feel like. In most games, this type of mechanism comes across as an afterthought, but in Savage Worlds it’s clearly part of the design.
I mentioned how damage is done. After the battle is over, a wounded character rolls on the injury table, and is then given an hour of in-game time to heal it, otherwise they have to heal naturally. I found it jaunting that the healing rules are then several pages further on in a completely random place, when I really needed them right next to the damage rules.
You’re also presented with a load of Setting Rules, which are rules variants designed to add a specific flavour to various settings. One I particularly found a problem with was Skill Specialisations, where characters have to pick which aspect of a skill they are trained in, and get penalties in other uses of it. Firstly, it’s problematic because it only gives a few examples. Secondly, it doesn’t explain how you’re meant to display it for the Knowledge skill; is it Knowledge (Things (Specific Thing))? Thirdly, the example adventure at the back of the book that clearly states it uses this variant, doesn’t — the sample characters don’t have specialisations in their skills list — so the one place where I expected to find a demonstration just completely abandoned the concept.
I’m not going to lie, I haven’t touched on the magic system. This is because I’m going to be running a sci-fi campaign with it, so I don’t see much point. All I do know from my quick glance is that spells are archtypes designed to mechanically resemble a certain effect that the DM can add description to. Also, there are 5 different magic systems ranging from low-level sorcery to over-the-top superpowers and psionics.
However, I did look at the Bestiary there I hoped to find some example Extras, but found only non-human creatures. I suppose that’s what to expect from a section with Beast in the title, but I was hoping for something I could quickly pluck out where I needed some bad guys; all that talk about reducing preparation for the DM and all. However, the sample adventures do provide some good example NPCs.
I know it looks like I’ve just been ripping the shit out of this game all the way through, but the truth is I’ve come out loving it. Although I’m going to house-rule it chronically, this game is the system. It’s flexible, fast and doesn’t get in the way of a good roleplay or action sequence. The rules are designed to give the players options, and not the AD&D kind that actually just shoehorns them into another restrictive set of rules, but genuine creativity-inspiring options.
The reason it looks like I’ve been ripping that game apart is because it does so much right that it’s only worth mentioning the things I find exceptionally original or frustrating. It’s like how you only ever hear news like people climbing Everest or killing each other, but Mrs Marshal’s lovely day doesn’t tend to make the headlines. Also, somehow WordPress lost my review the first time and I’m pretty much writing it up from memory, so I’m missing anything that didn’t stick in my mind. I’m just going to press Publish now and hope for the best, so excuse any typoes.
But seriously, buy this game and fuck around with it. It’s made to be messed with. I promise you won’t regret it.