When people of the future look back at RPGs at the turn of the century, I think Savage Worlds is going to be the game they hold up as the example of popular design choices for the time. The most surprising thing about the game (and I’m going to be talking about surprise a lot here) is how unsurprising it is. You’ve seen a lot of what’s in Savage Worlds before, and come to expect it from modern RPG design: the unified mechanic, the point-buy and skill-based character creation, the roll-plus-mods-versus-target-number. Considering the praise this game garners, I suppose I expected a bit more than was reasonable. Or maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at all; it is what people seem to want and expect in an RPG these days. I fully suspect that if you plopped someone down at a table with a pad of paper and pencil and told them to write a basic outline for a rules set in an hour’s time, most folks would come up with something that looks an awful lot like Savage Worlds.
Just so we’re clear, I’m reviewing the Explorer’s Edition based solely on a read-through here. I haven’t played the game so there are likely to be issues and benefits I’m overlooking or glossing that folks who’ve actually clocked some hours with the rules will be a lot more familiar with than me.
Right off the bat, however, Savage Worlds impresses as a gorgeous game. The paperback is done up like a journal from a pulp adventure, complete with a frayed paper graphic all along the edges of each page that make it feel like a prop from an Indiana Jones RPG. It’s printed on heavy, glossy paper in full color, and the art ranges from ok to exceptional. The beauty is more than skin deep; the layout is clean, easy to navigate and read, complete with table-of-contents and an index, plus an overview at the end of most chapters that includes a brief description of roll-modifying rules you’re likely to use frequently. The book is only 160 pages long, measures 6.5 by 9 inches, and will fit easily in a briefcase, satchel, or most purses. The fact that it retails for a measly $10 is just icing on the cake. It almost begs you to pluck it off the shelf due to its simple physical portability.
The rules themselves do have a few intriguing wrinkles. First, your stats are not numbers or even modifiers, as in most games, but dice, ranging from the lowly d4 up to the d12. If you want your character to catch a falling Ming vase and the character’s Agility is d8, you’d roll a d8, add any appropriate modifiers, and try to beat a target number. The default target number is 4. (And because your character is heroic, you also get to roll a d6, and you can take the better of the d8 or the d6.) In most situations, these dice explode, which is to say, if you roll the max roll, you roll again, adding the new die roll to the previous, and repeating if you again roll the max possible on the die. This creates some pretty odd probabilities. For instance, while the d4 is clearly limited in its range, it’s also the most likely to explode. This can actually create (admittedly rare) situations where your chances of success are higher with smaller dice.
The game also uses playing cards for initiative. This is a nice little twist that solves the perennial “whose turn is it?” problem. With everyone having their initiative card face up in front of them, anyone can tell at a glance who is up and who is next.
So far, so good, but when a game has to keep telling me that it’s “fast, furious, and fun” (they even repeat it on the spine for goodness’ sake) I start to doubt it. Especially when it does things which, in the past, have made games anything but fast and furious.
For instance, the game assumes the use of miniatures. Yes, you can play without them, but the book strongly suggests that you use them. (This was a bit of a shock for me, having gamed through the ‘90s with the White Wolfies harping constantly about how D&D is more wargame than RPG and you can tell by the emphasis on using minis.) Now I can certainly understand why. The game does not assume the PCs will be acting alone, but will often be with a group of allied NPCs fighting alongside them. This is certainly part of the pulpy tradition the game is trying to emulate (just think of the final battle of nearly any Bond flick). Minis and battlemats are a great way to keep track of where everyone is and who can do what to whom.
But with nearly all the folks I’ve played with, breaking out the minis puts everyone into wargaming mode and play really starts to drag. Folks whip out their rulers to start comparing different tactical options, and Savage Worlds lists ranges and movement rates in inches to facilitate just this sort of thing. Throw in a dice mechanic that makes figuring the probabilities of most actions extremely difficult, and you’ve got a recipe for hour-long combats. (And then, as counterpoint, you have the mini-free mass combat system. While I appreciate that they included one, I’m not too crazy about the way it reduces such struggles to a simple dice-off. Too far one way and then too far the other, in the same game!)
With all that, though, the game just oozes pulp flavor. If you want a game about two-fisted heroes from the pages of a Louis L’Amour western, Ian Fleming spy yarn, Dashiell Hammett detective story, or Sgt. Rock comic, you could do far worse than reach for Savage Worlds. I think it cares a bit too much about counting bullets and the differences between a 9 mm and a .45 to really fit with the modern genre of over-the-top action flicks, but if the movie stared Bogart or Errol Flynn, it ought to be a good match. And I like its vehicle rules enough that I'd probably use it for a Car Wars or other vehicle-heavy setting.
Otherwise, I’m rather mixed on it. On the one hand, I love me some pulpy action. On the other, I do nearly all my playing online these days, which makes the use of cards and miniatures a bit more of a hassle than I generally want to bother with. I fear the game, while intriguing in a number of respects, is likely to join Earthdawn, Alternity, and Shadowrun as books I keep for inspiration and ideas, but not the sort of thing I’m likely to play often.
Photos by wwarby and Marcin Wichary.