An Introduction to Savage Worlds

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I have no doubt that this will be my most difficult article to write, because I am a fan of this system to the point of religious zealotry.

For a game that has been published less than a decade, Savage Worlds has already established a massive fan base and strong reputation for truly being “Fast!  Furious!  Fun!”  The game is just simple enough that it can be learned in minutes but has enough depth in both the core rule book and supplements that it contains limitless potential.  Before I rant and rave any more, let’s move into the game’s history and a brief description of the system itself.

In 2003 the first copies of Savage Worlds were published and released, but creator Shane Lacy Hensley had been working in the game industries for much longer than that.      Currently attributed with dozens upon dozens of credits as an author, designer, and editor, Shane has incredible experience and dedication in the gaming industry since his first published work in 1992.  From his early gaming work, the Savage Worlds system evolved from its predecessors Deadlands Classic and The Great Rail Wars.  Now the CEO of Pinnacle Entertainment Group Inc, Shane has evolved his unique rules sets into the current Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition released in 2007.

In the past three years the game has picked up tremendous notice from the gaming community, and with good reason; Savage Worlds is the cheapest full system product to get into.  At only 9.99 USD, this little paperback book is PACKED with the information needed to run any setting from Tolkein-esque Fantasy to Far Future Sci-Fi.  For more specific rules, fully fleshed out systems for Super Villains, a strange take on Rune Magic combined with Technology, and late 1800’s alternate history space exploration are available, among many others.  There seems to be no end to the spread this system can encompass.

In fact, the unique nature of the Savage Settings certainly set it apart from the market.  Avoiding cookie-cutter fantasy worlds and setting books, Pinnacle Entertainment has made it very clear to interested writers that they develop worlds with stories in the style of what they call Plot Point Settings.  Almost every Savage Setting comes with a grand campaign arch taking players through several loosely designed adventures that give a tour of the game world.  This has spawned some very peculiar yet fantastic backdrops that GMs can run one campaign in and move on, or stay for years exploring every nook and cranny of the available mythology.

The System

Merging something of a leveling and point buy system, players begin by designing a character without a class.  Instead, special characteristics called Edges are purchased at the beginning of play, and later as the character gains experience, which define powers, advanced skills, and bonuses during game play.  Initially, Edges appear to be similar to Feats from Dungeons and Dragons, but in some ways they are more like purchasing class benefits.  Arcane Edges can establish a character as a Mage while they can still purchase Edges to give powerful melee effects for a completely customized archetype make-up.  The game also uses Hindrances, disadvantages players can purchase to regain points to spend on more Attributes, Skills, or Edges, certainly not a unique concept but one is very effective at making unique characters.

Another immediate stand-out in play is that in spite of being untrained for a task, there is always a reasonable chance of success due to two built-in mechanics.

  • All dice can be rerolled on an Ace, meaning that if the highest number for a die type is rolled, the player may reroll that die and add the second roll to the first.
  • All Players roll their Skill die, as well as a Wild Die for trait tests, and take the better of the two results.

Untrained skills are usually rolled at a d4-2, and typical success requires a 4.  An Ace allows the player to potentially overcome the -2 penalty by rerolling and combining the results.  Similarly, all players roll a d6 for the Wild Die, also applying the -2 if untrained.  Players who roll a 6 can achieve a success by first rerolling and then applying the penalty, for a minimum of 5.  While the odds are still against the untrained character, this system ensures that no roll is a wasted effort; there is an ongoing hope for success no matter the odds.  Characters who are better trained still gain these benefits, making them just that much better.

Players are given another mechanic to help stave off the effects of a failed roll, the Benny.  Bennies are points characters receive at the beginning of a session, usually three, which allow the player to reroll any Trait test.  This allows for an obvious failure to be stricken for a second chance.  Bennies also allow players to potentially soak wounds, ignoring lethal attacks by spending a different resource.  Though they are a metagame concept, Bennies bring players into the strategic planning of a session, knowing that the points reset each play session encourages using them up, but entering the final battle of the night without any can be lethal.

Criticisms

While I do thoroughly enjoy the system, that isn’t to say it is without what I consider to be flaws.

The game touts a massive combat engine that to me falls flat.  The system as described tends to oversimplify army mechanics in a way that I don’t find satisfactory.  However, giving players control of small groups of one hit NPCs called Extras provisions for battles on a larger scale than is typically seen in tabletop RPGs, while maintaining a steady pace.

Villains/NPCs/Monsters at times can often become slightly repetitive, as Savage Worlds is a system with few modifiers, conditions, or stats, every brutish NPC or monster can often end up rolling in very similar ways.  An easy way to remedy this situation is by applying unique abilities to these NPCs or monsters, Savage Worlds is not a system based on balance but on fun.  If it plays fun for the creature, slap it on there.  And of course, description is the key to distinguishing a thug from a charging, salivating, alien on all fours.

A final word of caution, new SWEX Compatible products are sometimes hard to find when buying Savage Worlds books.  I’ve already gotten several older books, simply by accident, because I didn’t realize they were written for the old rules.  Conversions are simple and easy, but just be sure when you buy you’ve taken a look first for a SWEX version.

Afterword

Flaws aside, I cannot say enough good things about Savage Worlds.  I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t done so already to go out and give it a try.  For those unsure of the product, try before you buy with the demo rules offered by Pinnacle Entertainment.

Next Week!

I’ll be interviewing Clint Black, Savage Worlds Core Rules Brand Manager and author of Necessary Evil.  Once again we want your help!  Give us questions in the comments here or on the Reddit link to follow.  To make this effort successful we really need the community’s help, so please post a bunch of good questions!  Please submit all questions by Friday, July 9th 2010.

Reddit Link

SWEX Cover

[tags]Savage Worlds, PEG Inc, rpg, role playing, games, reviews[/tags]

31 thoughts on “An Introduction to Savage Worlds

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  1. I actually have a copy of this rule set that I picked up somewhere. I never played it however. There are just too many rulesets out there and too little time for gaming.

    Your article has piqued my interest in it again. I may give the ruleset a try in a one-off type game idea I have had and see how it plays out!

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  2. Apart from perhaps Solomon Kane, what kind of pop culture icons and stories did you look to for inspiration for the mood, and more particularly for edges and hindrances?

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  3. Great article Nick! I’d really like to play this sometime. I really like the idea of starting without a class and then developing it as the game goes on. I’ll get back to ya soon with a question! Keep up the good work

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  4. Question for Clint – I really enjoyed Necessary Evil and the twist it puts on a supers game. Do you have any other campaign worlds coming up that do something similar for other genres?

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  5. I, too, am a Savage Zealot. Thanks for keeping the Savage name alive.

    I also enjoyed your Realms of Cthulhu actual play audio with Sean Preston.

    We played that scenario the next day after you at Origins, and it is cool to see the similarities and differences that one session to the next can make. We had an excellent time with his game as well!

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  6. My Question: How was the idea of character development through edges initially conceived and what were the hurdles you had to overcome in balancing that type of system?

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  7. Nundahl….I know you’re an IT guy but I really think writing is your calling! Excellent article….again! This review is spot on.

    You mentioned Villains & Monsters which brings me to a point on which I would like to get some feedback from Clint. I understand that Savage Worlds is just that…Savage…and differentiates itself from other systems by making the party decide to stay and die or run and fight another day. However some balance needs to be drawn and I sometimes find it difficult to judge the monster/difficulty rating for the encounters in SW. In other systems…goblins are basically fodder for the heroes to wade through….but in SW all you have to do is put a bow in their hands and have them get the drop and within minutes you can completely wipe a party (LOL….we saw that in our HellFrost game). This definitely adds excitement to the game but it would be awesome if Clint would give some pointers to keep the game Savage but balanced at the same time.

    Jack

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  8. Good overview. I loved the Classic Deadlands for its flavor and character creation options and Savage World has just as much flavor good character creation options.

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  9. Question: Why the change to single die and a wild die as in this system as opposeds to the multiples dice in the Classic Deadlands?

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  10. I have a question for Clint: Does being able to Ace multiple times mean that the “random element” has more bearing on combat than the character’s abilities?

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  11. I have played Deadlands (original), Hell on Earth (original) and Savage Worlds (SWEX). A friend bought that for the whole group since it was just $10 per copy.

    I enjoy the system, but sometimes feel that the dice mechanic does not always work that well. The exploiding die leads to some interesting results and reflects the pulp style very well.

    It seems that a D6 vs D8 vs D10 does not yeild a great deal of differnce. Average rolls are just one point higher as you increase die type. The cost to upgrade seems steep. Was that because character development is not the main objective, but to reflect that story driven character development is often slow, as in the pulps? After all, Conan is Conan in all of the stories and he does not seem to advance in the same style as modern RPG Characters. He never seems to develop some new power or ability. He’s Conan.

    I played a mad scientist in the last game that I played. And I noticed that the character was far less useful then the version from Deadlands. Was the overall power levels decreased to promote a different style of play?

    I like your article. Would like you to go a little more in depth about the system. Will you be posting articles about specific setting in the near future? Does the system still use cards for initative? I’m drawing a blank on that at the moment.

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  12. Question — I’m a newbie in the realm of gaming, so I’m sort of taking an outsider’s look in. I’m intrigued by the idea of a “Core Rules Brand Manager.” Could you give me some insight as to what that entails?

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  13. J Lee Watts – Thanks! Yes, there will definitely be more Savage stuff coming down the line, I’ll try to keep you informed. And yes, it does still use cards for initiative, another really unique element of this system.

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