Review of [Actual Play Week] Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

March 28, 2008


by: Sophie Lagace


Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

Offering superior value for the money, this book is a great choice for quick adaptation of your crazy offbeat setting ideas.

Sophie Lagace has written 16 reviews, with average style of 3.81 and average substance of 3.88. The reviewer's previous review was of The Pirate's Guide to Freeport.

This review has been read 11138 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: [Actual Play Week] Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition
Publisher: Great White Games
Line: Savage Worlds
Author: Shane Lacy Hensley, John Hopler, Zeke Sparkes
Category: RPG

Cost: $9.99
Pages: 160
Year: 2007

SKU: 10010
ISBN: 0-9792455-6-7


Review of [Actual Play Week] Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition


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Style

The latest edition of Savage Worlds is a slim little paperback pocket guide that fits handily in any game bag, at 160 pages in 6" x 9" (150 x 225 mm) format. The cover and graphics are provided by Cheyenne Wright, well known both for his art and for his extravagantly good work in colouring Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius online comic. 

The entire book is printed in full colours and lavishly illustrated with some of the best images gleaned from setting books published by Pinnacle Entertainment Games, such as Pirates of the Spanish Main, Necessary Evil, Tour of Darkness, Evernight, Rippers, Deadlands, and The Savage World of Solomon Kane, and the upcoming Sundered Skies and Slipstream. (PEG changed its name to Great White Games a few years ago, but recently reverted to doing business under its previous name).

The layout is similar to those used in previous editions but has been trimmed down and tightened.  The fonts are the same used before (Arial for the main text, Decotura for titles), nothing very fancy but all very legible and clear.  The page backgrounds have that pale yellowed paper look so beloved of RPG publishers, but are pale enough to keep the text easy to read.

There is no index but the table of content is quite detailed. The book does not include a character sheet, but the publisher's Website offers free ready-to-print resourcessuch as a character sheet, a "training-wheels" character creation worksheet, ready-made sample characters, adventures, and the area effect templates used with certain weapons.

In terms of writing style, this edition is a big improvement over previous ones.  The tone is friendly and enthusiastic, and appears to be aimed at relative newcomers to the hobby, including new Gamemasters. Gone is the annoyingly swaggering mascot "Smilin' Jack",previously known as the Clippy of role-playing games. The authors clearly transmit their love of gaming throughout the text.  This book's enthusiasm is contagious;reading it makes a new GM think, "Yeah!  My campaign is going to be great!" 

Between the infectious up-and-at-'em! quality of the text and the selection of evocative art, this book really communicates a sense of fun.  All this in a handy, no-space-wasted format at an incredibly affordable price earns it a rating of 5 for style. 

Substance

The System

I'm going to give only the barest bones of the system, because (1) Pinnacle Entertainment makes the core rules available as a free PDF online, and (2) the system has not changed very much since other reviewers gave excellent overviews (for example, here and here.)

Character Creation

Attributes.  The base attributes are Agility (how well you hit or shoot; running, jumping, climbing trees), Smarts (governs perception, knowledge, skills), Strength (how hard you hit), Spirit(helps recover from being Shaken), and Vigor (helps resist wounds). Novice player characters start with a d4 in each attribute, and have 5points with which to raise them in die type increments (d4, d6, d8,d10, and d12). Raising an attribute a die type costs 1 point.  A d6 is an average score.

Example. Onyx is a young warrior who just left her clan, so we'll spend 2 points to give her a d8 Strength (d4 to d6, d6 to d8), and the other 3 to give her a d6 each in Agility, Spirit, and Vigor. We'll just have to leave her Smarts at d4 – the dump stat of fighters.

Skills. Novice player characters have 15 points for skills. The rules offer a list of two dozen skills, but more could appear on character sheets, certain specific Knowledges, for example. Each skill is linked to an Attribute; it costs 1 point per die type to raise a skill up to the level of the related attribute, and 2 points per die type increase above that.

Example.  We want Onyx to be good at Fighting (the melee combat skill.)  Onyx has a d6 in Agility, so raising her Fighting score to d8 will cost 4 points: one to buy the first d4, one to raise it to d6, and two to raise it one die type above her Agility score.

Edges and Hindrances. These are special abilities and disadvantages that you can use to customize your character. Characters can take up to one Major Hindrance (worth 2 points) and two Minor Hindrances (worth 1 point each). For 2 points you can gain another attribute point or choose an Edge; for 1 point you can gain another skill point, or increase starting funds by 100%. Humans start with one free Edge.  If there are races in play other than humans, they get other advantages instead.

Task Resolution

Aces. Trait tests and damage rolls can Ace in Savage Worlds: a die "Aces" when it rolls its maximum value. It is then re-rolled and the new value added to the previous total.

Example. When rolling her Smarts, Onyx rolls a "4" on her d4 – she Aces.  She rolls again, a "1" this time, so her total roll on that die is 4 + 1 = 5.

Wild Die. Savage Worlds' signature mechanic is the use of a Wild Die with each trait roll (traits include attributes and skills.) The Wild Die is a single d6 which is rolled along the skill die or, more rarely, the attribute die.  Only Wild Cards – player characters and important GM characters – roll a Wild Die.

Example. Onyx rolls her Fighting when attacking an opponent. Her Fighting score is d8, and she also rolls her Wild Die. She rolls a "3" on the d8, and a "5" on the d6, so she keeps the highest of the two, the "5", as her result.

Bennies. Each player character receives 3 Bennies (represented by counters, beads, or poker chips) at the start of the game. Edges and Hindrances affecting luck can increase or reduce the number of starting Bennies, and more can be earned in play. Bennies can be used to reroll any trait test; players can choose to keep the first result rolled or take the new one.

Initiative. Savage Worlds uses a deck of regular playing cards to determine Initiative, inherited from its roots in the original Deadlands system from the late 1990s. Every character is dealt a single card, though some Edges allow character to get more than one.

The GM then counts down from the Ace to the Deuce. Jokers are wild: the character who received a joker for Initiative can go at any point and receives a 2 to all trait tests and damage rolls this round. Ties are resolved in suit order from Spades to Hearts, to Diamonds, and down to Clubs.

Advancement

Experience.  Every 5 points of experience allows a character to take a new Edge, increase one skill that is currently equal to or greater than its linked attribute, increase two skills that are currently less than their linked attributes, buy a new skill at d4,or raise one Attribute by a die type.  Characters should expect to receive 1 to 3 experience points per game session.

Ranks. Player characters start as Novices, and can advance to Seasoned (at 20 experience points), Veteran (40 points), Heroic (60 points), and Legendary (80 points). These levels are used strictly to control certain improvements; for example, characters can only improve an Attribute by a die type once per level. Several Edges include among their prerequisites that the character reach a certain rank; this prevent certain very powerful Edges from appearing too early in the campaign.

Changes in this Edition

The rules have not changed much since the 2005 hardcover edition. The most significant difference is the way melee combat damage is treated. Other changes include chase rules, Incapacitation rules, and three or four very specific abilities which were clarified or toned down.

Melee Damage. In previous editions, melee weapons used to add a fixed amount of damage to the character's strength, and the Wild Die would be rolled as part of the Strength roll (just like any other Strength roll). This meant that very strong characters were much more lethal than firearms and other ranged weapons, which only rolled the weapon's damage dice and no Wild Die.

In the Explorer's Edition, however, melee weapons add a die rather than a fixed value to the the character's Strength die, and the Wild Die is notrolled. Both ranged and melee weapon dice can Ace, which means that a die that rolls its maximum value is re-rolled and the new score added to the roll. Bennies cannot be spent on damage (either ranged or melee) unless the character has an Edge that allows this.

Example. Onyx is wielding a long sword,which does Strength + d8 (instead of Strength + 3 as it used to.) Onyx's own Strength is also d8, so she'll roll 2d8 and take the total.  She rolls a 2 and an 8, which means she Aced, so she rolls the 8 again and gets a 3, for a total of 2 + 8 + 3 = 11. 

(For comparison: Under the previous rules, a long sword had a Damage rating of Strength + 3, so Onyx would have rolled 1d8, but she would also have rolled her Wild Die, taken the highest of the two results, and added 3 to the total.)

Finally, a character whose Strength die is smaller than the melee weapon's damage die cannot use its special abilities (e.g.,Parry); and that character cannot roll a weapon die higher than her own Strength die. This makes the minimum strength requirements found in the previous edition obsolete.

Example.  Later in the adventure, Onyx breaks her long sword but picks up a great sword from a slain opponent. The great sword has a damage of Strength + d10, but since Onyx's own Strength is only d8, she still rolls only 2d8 for damage. If the player raises Onyx's Strength to d10 with experience later, she will now roll 2d10 with the great sword (or d10 + d8 with a long sword.) 

(For comparison: Under the previous rules, a great sword required a minimum Strength of d10 to use, so Onyx simply could not have used it until she improved her Strength score.)

Bennies. Another minor change is that leftover Bennies at the end of an episode no longer give the character a chance to get additional experience. In my circle, this is no big loss as we did not like that rule; it encouraged players to hoard their Bennies and penalized those who spent them to do cool things. We had already house-ruled it away in favour of a roll for experience on Bennies earned. The new official rules do away with any relationship between Bennies and experience.

Setting Bits

Powers, Gear, and Monsters. Since this game is offered as a system-only book, it doesn't come with a default setting. However, Savage Worlds Explorer's Editionpresents glimpses of settings through the menu of opponents, equipment and abilities it presents.  It makes sure to touch on the staples of gaming: vanilla fantasy and modern horror, with a nod to space opera and western.

Between the examples and illustrations provided, the game suggests dozens of setting medleys that have never been published but make you go, "Yeah! I wanna play that!"

GM Advice.  The book contains a good primer for GMs on constructing a new campaign and some adventures.  It's not very in-depth, but it's sound and comprehensive.  It provides good tips for adapting the system to various settings and genres.

Trappings.  One interesting idea is the use of"trappings" – varied colourful descriptors – to customize the basic powers to different settings and genres and provide texture.  For example, samples of trappings provided for the Blast power include balls of fire, ice, light, darkness, coloured bolts, and swarms of insects.

This is a nice idea, but the book goes one step further to suggest, very logically, that the effectof powers can be limited based on the trappings.  For example, Bolt taking the form of a swarm of bees might be ineffective against a completely sealed suit.  While this does provide colour, it also opens the door to well-meaning GMs rendering some powers useless by putting caveats that destroy the balance.  Use with caution.

Sample Adventure. A two-page adventure is offered, "The Wreck of the Solarah." It's a simple pirate story that would have its place in Pirates of the Spanish Main: treasure map, wrecked ship, cannibals, kidnapped belle, etc. 

Rating

If it was merely a question of how good the system is, I would rate it a 3: something I think of as "quite nice", "OK", "fine", or "very playable". What bumps it to a 4 is that, despite the fact that they sell numerous setting books, Pinnacle actually offers a product that really does support statting almost any crazy setting idea you have,and even makes it extremely easy.  And this for a mere $10!  More on this in the next section.

Actual Play

Setting Jam

GMs in my gaming circle have used Savage Worlds to run games in a variety of universes, from Pinnacle's published settings like the excellent Low Life (which I really need to review separately) or Necessary Evil, to conversions of settings published under other systems such as Spellslinger, Nyambe, The Village of Hommlet, Incursion, Freeport and Xcrawl, to completely unpublished settings ripped off from movies (Mystery Men), children's books (Savage Lorax), or made from scratch but inspired by pop culture (Air Marshals and Sky Pirates).

I played in all the series listed above. Not all of these were played using the Explorer's Edition, but that gave us a good chance to form an opinion on the whether the rules changes were justified.

The big strengths of Savage Worlds regarding settings are its ease in allowing GMs to stat up a wide range of settings, and in converting from other systems and particularly from d20 games.  The system best fits settings that don't require very specific and unusual rule sub-sets.  For example, it would not be very appropriate to use with Skyrealms of Jorune, which has very distinctive magic.  But the game is fantastic for quickly statting most crazy ideas GMs wake up with at 3AM.

Character Creation

Quick and Easy. It's definitely quick and painless to create a character.  The most time-consuming step is to select the Edges and Hindrances, weighing the possible combinations.  Powers also take a bit more time. Nevertheless, it's easy to make several characters in one afternoon. Your first character might take an hour to make; experienced players can whip one out in minutes.

This quick character creation is even easier for GM characters,since there is no need to worry about a point budget; the GM can just create characters on-the-fly by selecting a few useful skills.

Send In the Clones. One weakness of such a simple system that uses fixed skills, attributes, etc. (as opposed to simple but open-ended skills like Over The Edge or PDQ) is that certain combinations tend to appear more than others; and because there are few parameters, selected from short lists, this means many starting characters can look very similar.

For example, the skills Fighting (which directly affects your Parry score and therefore how hard it is to hit you), Notice (for perception checks), and Guts (used to roll against Fear effects) are so useful that it's usually a bad idea to omit them.

I'm Oliver Puny, Superhero! As the book clearly explains, Novice characters are wet-behind-the-ears rookies, just a bit better than the average person.  It's not possible to create some one well above average as a Novice; you can't play an Olympic athlete, or the Three Musketeers, or 007, or Easy Company of the U.S. 101st Airborne. If you want to play those settings, player characters should probably start with some experience.

As an example, the first SW game I ever played in, the Spellslinger mini-series, ended up in a TPK.  Novice characters are just not up to tackling Orcus.

In Action

The Bennies Must Flow.  Bennies are essential to the game.  Some GMs have a hard time with this sort of element, thinking of it as a "gimme" unearned by the players. But Bennies are explicitly introduced as a key part of the system, and must be awarded sufficiently often or the play balance is wrecked.

Is it Fast, Furious, and Fun? Yes. We played a number of games that I have found excruciating in other systems, including The Village of Hommlet, Nyambe, and Xcrawl, and the entire group had a fun time every episode. Combats are not the crazy wild ride of Wushu or Feng Shui, but for my money, they beat the pants off "Attack of opportunity."

All We Have to fear is Fear Itself. Unchanged from the previous editions, the Fear rules are probably the part of the system which has caused me the most annoyance. Some creatures cause Fear or Terror (the distinction is up to the GM). Upon failing (for Terror) or botching(simple Fear) a Guts check – not a rare occurrence – a player character has to roll a d20 on the Fear Effects table.

This usually means that bad things happen to your character strictly from fear, in addition to the other bad things the critter can do. There's few things I find quite so frustrating as arriving at the game table ready for a good epic battle, and ending up sitting out most of it because my character rolled poorly on the Fear table. Consequently, I always end up bumping my characters' Guts skill as far as I can afford.

The New Tweaks. I heartily approve of the changes in melee combat damage.  In previous editions, melee damage grossly outstripped ranged damage, making strength more important than guns,etc.  The new version treats the two in comparable ways, yet allows the Strength attribute to start being useful at lower levels.

I also approve of disconnecting the Bennies from character advancement. I think Bennies are the "coolness here and now" dial,while experience is the "growth" dial; they do different things.

Second Best at Everything, Comes in First. As mentioned earlier in this review, if we were merely talking about how exciting or clever the system feels in play, it probably would earn a 3: nothing to be ashamed of, quite acceptable, but not any better (or worse) than many others. I can't think of a single time I've ever thought, "You know what would capture the feeling of this setting perfectly? Savage Worlds!"

Yet because it's easy, flexible, and well supported by PEG, and because this new edition is distilled, condensed goodness – improving the rules, getting rid of superfluous bits (like Smilin' Jack), and packaging it tightly and beautifully at an unbeatable price – Savage Worlds: Explorer's Expedition raises itself to a different level.

Summary

Who is it a good game for? GMs looking for a quick and easy system to turn their setting ideas into a campaign, or a painless conversion from other systems. This is also a very good game for players who have only known one other system before and feel daunted by the idea of learning a new one.

Who is it not a good game for? Those who like detailed skill and power lists, have a precise idea of how game realism should be implemented in a system, or prefer a very flavourful system that is closely married to the setting may not be satisfied.

For my part, I'm looking forward to playing an upcoming Savage Cereal game in a few weeks, based on the cartoon Breakfast of the Gods!

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