In the Suggestion Pot, BryanB wrote:  I was wondering if any of the gnomes have played Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition and what your thoughts about the system are. Also, what setting books have you used and which ones are your favorites?

Since I’m pretty much the Savage-in-Residence (“Call me SIR”), I’ll field this one…  But I have to thank the Savage Worlds Yahoo Group for their assistance in pointing out some of the many gems in this system.

Savage Worlds is my favorite game, and has been for well over a year now. I first played it as Deadlands:Reloaded in January 2007, and took a liking to it. Then I played a few ‘con games’ at Gen Con 2007, and completely fell in love with the system, primarily because of its versatility. In the games I played at Gen Con, Savage Worlds effortlessly handled a broad range of situations, from western horror to classic fantasy to modern-day pulp. I honestly don’t think there’s another system out there with versatility and intuitive simplicity of Savage Worlds.

Although ‘simple’ isn’t really the right word. In the “rules lite vs. rules heavy’” debate, Savage Worlds should properly be described as “rules elegant”.  There is crunch, but only where it needs to be, and it really doesn’t get in the way of the game. The core rules are incredibly versatile, and scale both up and down, depending on where you take them.

The Good

I could get into the rules here, but you’d be better off downloading the free Test Drive directly from Pinnacle.  While you’re at it, you might want the Combat Survival Guide and the Basic Character Sheet or the Training Wheels Character Sheet.

Instead, I’ll cover what I like best about the game.  In no particular order…

  • Cost. The Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition is $10. This 160 page book contains everything needed to play or run a game. I say again: Ten bucks covers everything you needed to play or run the game. You can’t beat that with a stick. As Savage Worlds is a universal rules system, there is little ‘fluff’ in the book, so you can either create your own world, use one of the many free conversions at Savage Heroes, or buy a campaign setting from one of the many Savage Worlds Licensees.
  • Campaign Settings. Pinnacle has taken an entirely different approach than the coastal wizards. The license to write material for Savage Worlds is free, but you have to meet some quality standards first. The result is a huge number of campaign settings, from Superheroes, to Weird War, to Classic High Fantasy, to Pulpy Sci-Fi, to Modern Horror, to whatever the hell this is. Most of these settings add to the core rules, such as how Necessary Evil provides the material to run a high-powered ‘supers’ game, or how Shaintar adds different races and systems of magic.
  • Plot Points. Many Savage Worlds campaign settings are written with the Plot Point approach. This provides the flexibility of an unscripted campaign with the driving backstory of a traditional campaign. The GM can take whichever path he or she (or the players) wants to.
  • Resources. If you want to ‘roll your own’, there’s plenty of assistance, from the excellent Toolkits to the Fantasy Companion to fan-sites such as Savagepedia and the e-zine Shark Bytes. And if that’s not enough, the forums at Pinnacle are friendly and eager to help. Heck, if you just want to jump from D&D to Savage Worlds, get the free Wizards & Warriors supplement, and game on…
  • System. Okay, enough with the links and licensees. My favorite part of the game has got to be the core system. It’s simple, flexible, makes sense, and gives the players quite a bit of room to maneuver in. For instance, my non-gamer wife grokked the system in under 20 minutes, and she’s never understood d20. But when I play D&D (any edition), I constantly find myself thinking “If this were Savage Worlds, I could do this.” 
  • Learning Curve. Speaking of novices, I find that Savage Worlds does a great job of allowing newbie players to explain what they want to do, and then to have someone fit it into the game lingo. There’s no “standard/move/minor” action, and you can easily step out from cover, fire a shot, and step back to cover, all in the same round (kinda like you can in say, reality).
  • Randomness. The mechanics in Savage Worlds can be wildly variable, so there is a very strong random element to the game. A lowly Goblin mook can conceivably ‘one shot’ Our Hero. There are ways around this (see below), but it is definitely one example of how random the game can be. This is definitely not for everyone, but I prefer some randomness in my games.
  • Bennies. Randomness is countered by the Benny. Bennies are like Action Points, except they allow you to reroll almost any roll in the game (talk about narrative control!). They allow characters to soak or recover from damage, and can be spent to activate certain Edges (like Feats). Depending on the group, additional Bennies can be earned for bringing food to the game, for excellent roleplay or creative approaches to problems, or for playing up to your Hindrances.
  • Hindrances. Have you noticed that most characters in theater and literature are defined by their weaknesses? I was originally a bit hesitant to embrace the idea, but Hindrances create tension and opportunity for adventure, provide the GM with plot hooks, and reward the player with more points to build a character, as well as opportunities to earn Bennies.
  • Speed. Savage Worlds’ tagline is “Fast! Furious! Fun!”, and the game definitely lives up to it. Combats are quick and exciting, and can turn on a dime. I’ve fought in battles with over 30 combatants in just over an hour. I’ve seen ‘five on five’ combats take under 20 minutes, complete with creative tactics. And Sean Patrick Fannon (and a half-dozen assistants) ran a thirty-plus player (and hundreds-plus NPC) epic session at Gen Con 2008 that actually wrote canon for his Shaintar setting.

The Bad

I would be remiss if I didn’t cover what I consider to be the weak points of the system. Like most games, the weak points are usually handled by house rules or setting-specific approaches, but we are talking about the core rules here…

  • Incapacitation.  In the middle of an intense battle, when all the players are standing up and the energy level is like a craps table on a hot streak, you have to consult a chart to see what happens to your character. Ugh. I think I’d rather just die and get it over with.
  • “The War of the Bennies” NPCs have their own Bennies to attack and defend with. GMs also have a pool of Bennies to drive the story and make interesting things happen, which includes using them to supplement NPC Bennies. A GM can get aggressive and throw all of his GM Bennies against the PCs (basically, ‘supercharging’ an NPC or critter). The difference is subtle, but you’ll know it when you see it. This situation can get very frustrating for the players, although it mostly happens when a ‘confrontational’ GM starts running a Savage Worlds game. Mostly…
  • Really Tough Opponents. (Technical rules discussion follows.) When you have a d12 in an Ability or Skill (such as Vigor), your next jump is to a d12+1, etc. The ‘Hard to Kill’ Edge allows a character to ignore Wound penalties on Vigor rolls. Incapacitation is handled by rolling one’s Vigor; a Raise (8 or higher) means that you’re only Stunned. So when the entire party has finally Incapacitated a tough and dangerous critter like an Elder Dragon, but it keeps surviving by rolling an 8 or higher on its d12+3 Vigor (66.7% chance of success), it gets frustrating. Yes, the critter should be Hard to Kill, but it starts to feel like the “Hit Point Grind” as you go through the cycle of roll attack, roll damage, compare, roll Vigor, succeed, roll attack again, etc.
  • Shaken. The rules regarding damage, the Shaken condition, and the Soak roll are pretty simple, but they are not necessarily intuitive, and tend to be the most misinterpreted rules in the book. I’m not going to get into them here, but if you play Savage Worlds, re-read the sections or talk to someone familiar with the system until it’s crystal clear.
  • “The Healing Power of the Bullet” There is a potential situation in Savage Worlds where a character can actually end up better off after getting wounded. (Shaken — wounded — soak the wound — not shaken anymore). This is jarring to some people, but it makes sense if you see it as “Dang, that almost hit me; I’d better get my ass in gear and do something!”

The Ugly

Savage Worlds is an excellent and popular game, but it’s not the 800 lb gorilla that D&D is. Finding good players can be a difficult job in any system, much less one that’s not The Most Popular RPG In The World. And because Savage Worlds leaves quite a bit of interpretation and game control to the GM, it can be a bit more of a crapshoot when it comes to GM quality.

But perhaps because Savage Worlds isn’t The Most Popular, and perhaps because it is somewhat dependent on the GM, I’ve found that most Savage GMs and players are a cut above the average. (This is not to disparage any other gaming systems, but it is my experience.) If you get a chance to play in a Savage Worlds game, even a one-shot or a convention game, I strongly advise you to take it. 

Well, I guess that wasn’t so ugly after all, was it?

BryanB — I haven’t personally run any of the setting books, so I don’t have a necessarily valid opinion of them.  From what I have read, Necessary Evil is critical to utilizing Savage Worlds with a supers game, 50 Fathoms and Evernight are excellent “genre with a twist” interpretations, Slipstream really captures the 1930s pulp serial feel (like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon). Pirates of the Spanish Main looks like a blast, and is actually a self-contained rulebook as well (i.e. no need for the Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition).

Obviously, I’ve left out quite a bit (such as the brilliant Mass Battle rules, the versatility that is Powers and Trappings, the fun-for-the-players-and-GMs Allies and Leadership rules, etc). Have I missed your favorite aspect? Do you have another opinion of Savage Worlds? Got a favorite campaign setting? Sound off in the comments and let us know!