Review of Savage Worlds

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

June 7, 2004

by: Tim Gray

Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

A very workable toolkit for simple, action-oriented games across a range of genres.

Tim Gray has written 18 reviews, with average style of 3.39 and average substance of 3.44 The reviewer's previous review was of HeroQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

This review has been read 7443 times.

Product Summary
Name: Savage Worlds
Publisher: Pinnacle, Great White Games
Line: Savage Worlds
Author: Shane Lacy Hensley
Category: RPG

Cost: $29.95
Pages: 144
Year: 2003

SKU: 10000
ISBN: 1-930855-57-5

Review of Savage Worlds

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Savage Worlds is a 144-page hardback printed in black and white, selling at UKP20, the same as the D&D or Fading Suns core books. (Curse you, economies of scale!) It contains a rules system designed to be used in a variety of settings and genres – no setting or adventure material is included (though sample adventures can be downloaded free from The strapline – repeated maniacally online! – is “Fast! Furious! Fun!”, and indeed that’s the design approach that underpins everything. There are no plans to release rules supplements. The aim is that all you need will be this book and a setting book.

I’ve started using it with the 50 Fathoms fantasy pirates setting book, so this review is based on what we’ve found with the system after a few sessions.

Author Shane Hensley and his colleagues are strong proponents of using miniatures in play. (In fact this system evolved from the Great Rail Wars miniatures skirmish game, and includes rules for minis battles sans roleplaying if that’s your thang.) That can be a bit irksome to folks like me who tend towards non-minis – for instance all distances are described in inches on the tabletop, though it’s easy to convert. On the other hand, it does mean the game pulls in a lot of associated goodies. In the back of the book are copiable pages with circle and cone templates for different sorts of blast effects, the idea being that you cut them out and hold them over the table to see what’s affected. Nice flamey coloured ones can be downloaded. The official settings books also have paper miniatures sets you can buy at I’ve used minis for 50 Fathoms, and preparing and using them did make it feel more like “play”.

Charactery stuff

Attributes and skills exist, as they do in most games. They are measured in die types: d4, d6 (average), d8, d10, d12 (exceptional characters can continue into d12+1, d12+2, etc). You buy the levels with (separate pools of) points at chargen. However, you don’t use them together in play. You pick the skill or, less commonly, attribute that applies and roll that. There are some echoes of Castle Falkenstein, where everything was just an Ability. However, each skill is linked to an attribute - Agility or Smarts, with a couple of exceptions – and raising the skill above the level of its attribute is twice as expensive as raising it up to that level. This forces characters to have a level of coherence - someone with low Agility, for instance, is not likely to be great at Fighting or Stealth – without losing flexibility, so you can break the mould if you focus on it to the exclusion of other things. I quite like this, and it does cut out that little bit of handling time when you’re hunting the character sheet for the different components of a roll. It also cuts out that level of detail where you can combine different attributes with the same skill, e.g. for shooting targets and knowledge of guns, but the SW approach is all about dispensing with that detail for ease and speed.

The basic mechanic is very simple: roll the die for the relevant ability. If you get 4 or higher, you succeed. For each extra 4 (so 8, 12, etc) you get a “raise”, an extra level of success. Dice explode, that is on their highest possible result you roll again and add on, repeating as many times as the highest result comes up. Units of extra ease or difficulty are usually reflected as a bonus or penalty of 2 on the die result, or 4 for something really significant. If a character has no applicable skill but should be able to make an attempt at a task they roll d4-2.

Exploding dice bring energy and unpredictability to a system: even a modest ability will occasionally produce impressive results, and sometimes you get outrageous stuff out of the blue. (This happened to a PC in our first session – he was killed when a fairly bog-standard opponent got about 5 raises on damage.) There’s also a psychological hook for players, who get all excited when their roll explodes. It’s one of the defining features of Earthdawn, for instance.

The above applies to most people, who are known as “extras”, but some special folks like the PCs and main villains are “Wild Cards”. When they roll the die for their trait they also roll a d6 “Wild Die” (which also explodes) and take the higher result. This means that all Wild Cards are effectively generalists who can make a decent attempt at more or less anything, which is a very pulpy idea. They also get “bennies”: 3 tokens per player character at the start of each session, spent to remake a roll or to throw off the effects of an injury. The GM gets some bennies for NPCs too. Unused bennies have a chance of converting to experience points, but the two are essentially separate. The GM gives out extra bennies to reward impressive stuff.

Skills: obviously the list is intended to be generic, and inevitably it’s a particular kind of generic, slanted towards pulp adventure type stuff. There’d be no problem in dropping some and adding new ones to suit your needs. In terms of utility for the points you put in they vary, some being more general than others. “Fighting” covers any kind of melee combat; “Shooting” any ranged; but Swimming is a separate skill from Climbing and Throwing (I tend to lump them under “Athletics”, and that would have fitted here). “Lockpicking” is dealing with locks and traps (no skill for picking pockets, for instance), and Taunt (the most specific of all) is the ability to insult and provoke people which can give you a bonus in combat. All social stuff except Intimidation is done through Persuasion.

Hindrances and Edges are the “special fine-tuning bits” for characters. You can take some Hindrances - which include stuff like Bad Eyes, Delusional, Greedy, Heroic, Poverty and Wanted – and get some points to spend on improving attributes, skills or starting wealth or buying Edges. There’s a whole long list of Edges, and picking these was probably the longest part of character creation. They’re quite similar in some ways to the Feats in D&D, in terms of their nature and scale/impact. You can get a bonus to notice things, or be attractive, or run faster, or inspire troops under your command, or be strong-willed… Most of them just give you a useful advantage in play rather than anything flashy, but they all seem worth having and building them up through experience could make very capable characters. Many have minimum requirements in terms of attribute and skill levels to reflect common sense, such as Agility d6 for the running faster one. In some ways it’s easier to do Edges first and then fill in the rest, rather than having to go back and tweak your point spend for attributes and skills.

Powers are any kind of special ability like magic, psionics, superpowers or weird science. The game handles them by saying that they’re essentially the same, although the “trappings” might change – so the Bolt power might be a ray of magical energy or the discharge of a lightning gun, but it’s still an attack governed by the same rules. Taking an ‘Arcane Background’ Edge gives you access to them, starting you off with a number of powers and power points that you spend to use them (the different arcane “flavours” get slightly different packages). You also need to buy the appropriate skill, such as Spellcasting. Further powers and twiddly bits for their use are done through other Edges. This is all pretty sensible for a generic rules system. Special powers are a prime area that specific settings will need to customise anyway, so you can expect detailed stuff in those books, but if you just want to riff a simple generic adventure out of the rulebook you’ve got enough powers to do it. However, the power points concept does mean everyone is limited in how often they can use this stuff: overdo it in a scene and you’re “empty” for a few hours, which might not suit all genres.

We found that the character creation points don’t go very far, so it’s important to prioritise a few skills. It’s not a good strategy to make a generalist character (or, as one player said, the Wild Die makes all characters generalists). There’s little point buying a single level of skill (d4) at character creation if you’re not really interested in it; but there is if you want to develop it later, because it’s expensive to buy a skill from scratch. There’s some push towards, agile, smart characters because good levels in those attributes will allow you to develop skills more cheaply. As with any game character creation takes a while the first time, although it’s really simple. Most of this time was taken by looking at lists: Hindrances, Edges and equipment. Next time it should be very quick.

Experience: there’s a very clear structure of starting as low-powered characters and steadily improving abilities, which would be quite familiar to D&D players. Most sessions, everybody will get 2 experience points, which accumulate rather than being spent. Each time they hit a multiple of 5 you “level up”, picking one option from a list to improve abilities, e.g. raise an attribute one level, get a new Edge, raise two skills a level each so long as they don’t go over their attributes or one skill if it does. Every 20 XP you also increase a “rank”, so starting Novice characters become Seasoned at 20 XP. Some of the Edges only become available at certain ranks, so you get access to slightly more powerful abilities. Bennies unused at the end of a session have a 1/3 chance of converting to XP – we all agreed that there’s no point hoarding them. So you get the sort of character development ladder that’s a big part of the hook for many players, but in a nice simple form.

Rulesy stuff

Initiative is a bit odd. At the start of a round each PC, Wild Card NPC or group of Extras is dealt a playing card. Actions take place from ace down to deuce (in suit order in case of ties). It takes no account of character abilities, so it’s essentially a random free-for-all each round, except for a couple of Edges that allow you to replace low cards or pick the best of two or three. The chaotic feel is quite nice, and having the cards on the table makes it easy to see what order people go in. However, it’s a strong example of the design assumption that all characters are basically of the same ability level, and if you wanted to break that – for instance for supers – you’d have to invent a more powerful Edge. It would have been quite easy to write the system without initiative, perhaps just going round the table as in Nobilis; there doesn’t seem to be much that requires it. In a round you can take one action and move. Your action can involve doing multiple things at a penalty as long as you could do them simultaneously – e.g. two attacks if you have a knife in each hand, but not if you only have one.

Combat starts with an attack roll against a fixed target number for the opposing character - a bit like Armour Class, rather than a defensive roll. A successful hit causes a separate damage roll, either on modified Strength for a hand weapon (e.g. a Str+2 sword) or a fixed roll for a missile weapon (e.g. a 2d6 pistol). Each raise on the attack gives +2 to damage, so the system bridges the damage disconnect which bedevils games like D&D and Earthdawn, where a really good hit can produce rubbish damage and vice versa, making combats less decisive. The damage is compared to a fixed Toughness threshold for the victim. If you hit or beat that the target is Shaken: they can’t do anything except move at half normal rate till they shrug it off. Any raises become Wounds, which give -1, -2, -3 to all trait rolls and then give various consequences from incapacitated to death. Wounds leave you Shaken as well. That’s for Wild Cards; extras are taken out of a fight by a single Wound.

We found that being Shaken is quite nasty. It leaves you very vulnerable – if someone Shakes you again it becomes a Wound – but perhaps the worst thing is being unable to act. You take an action to make a Spirit attribute roll to unShake, and with a raise can also take a normal action. Because wound penalties apply, you can end up with characters staggering about for a long time. You can spend a benny to automatically unShake, or to roll the Vigor attribute to negate the wounds you just took which will unShake you if you can get rid of them all. Running out of bennies is bad! So Shaken is the least damage result, but it could theoretically leave you unable to act for the rest of the fight if you’re really unlucky on rolls and have no bennies. This seems quite punishing to me, and drops the “light and cinematic” feel a notch. Having wound penalties apply to damage reduction rolls also makes things a bit grittier. We also found that missile weapons (including magical zaps) can be randomly nasty because using 2d6 or even 3d6 gives more chances for dice to explode.

Gear has a chapter giving stats for weapons, armour and vehicles (and a few general bits) from different time periods. The system is interested in the distinctions between different models of the same thing, but abstracts them down to a few fundamental stats. This is complemented by a later section for chases and vehicle combat, which presents rules for playing them out with miniatures and rules for a more abstract version that uses the playing cards to track position. We’ve tried the latter once so far for 50 Fathoms – my impression was that it’s sprung from thinking about car chases in an urban environment and needed a bit of adaptation for sailing ships on the open sea, but the basics are there.

The situational rules chapter also covers stuff like NPC allies, fear, fatigue from hostile circumstances (a parallel track of roll penalties), and hazards like fire and falling. There’s also material on mass battles, and skirmish rules for tabletop miniatures battles. I haven’t used any of this but it looks pretty sound.

The Game Master’s section has advice on running the game and stats for some common beasties (bears, ghosts, orcs, zombies, etc), along with a set of special abilities for monsters that’ll help in statting up others.

Concludy stuff

Overall: a very workable toolkit for games where you just want to get on and play action without things getting slow or confusing, suited to people who like fairly traditional systems and value simplicity. It has clear goals and achieves them pretty well. It’s probably not suitable if you want to delve into detail of metaphysics or character abilities. I’ve described it as suitable for “pulp experts”: characters in the high-functioning normal range, defined by proficiency and luck rather than extreme powers.

I have two main reservations.

Pitch. It claims to be generic, and indeed includes lots of toolkit stuff to deliver on multiple genres, but it wouldn’t fit all styles. At one end of the scale I suspect it wouldn’t quite do grim/gritty/realistic, because of that pulpy air, the extra-competent PCs (and, to be honest, incompetent Extras), emphasis on movie-like combat, etc. I don’t think it will quite do the other end of the scale, with high-octane or high-powered action (like supers or super-kung-fu), because there’s too little differentiation between character abilities and characters can die too easily by sheer chance. The basic dice mechanics and damage systems are at the root of these things. The exploding dice give an unpredictability that puts it in the realm of fantasy action, but can lead to results completely out of proportion to the ability that sired them and (for damage) beyond any character’s ability to cope. It also makes it harder to judge the threat level of encounters. Of course future setting books might have specific rules that bring the system closer to these game styles.

Editing. This is not surprising: most RPG books have some degree of trouble with it. (Actually, the 50 Fathoms book has more of an editing problem than the rulebook.) I have found, though, that SW keeps giving me instances where the writer clearly knew what they meant but just failed to set it down unambiguously, so that you have to be on their wavelength to extract the right meaning. For instance, an unskilled attempt at a task is rolled as d4-2; Wild Cards roll the d4 and their d6 Wild Die and subtract 2 from the better result. That might seem obvious to some readers, but it wasn’t to me (I thought the d4-2 was treated as a die type in itself, so using either that or the Wild Die) – I wish they’d just say it. I’ve got plenty of helpful responses from the forums at the Pinnacle site, but it’d be nice to have an official FAQ/errata too.

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