Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Savage Worlds Review

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.


Havard: said...

Great review!

This is my favorite game. As you say there is nothing much revolutionary in it, but it seems to have found a good balance between simple and yet not too rules light. I have played the game with and without miniatures. Both work fine. The advantage with the minis is that this means that you have absolutely no paperwork whatsoever as a GM, whereas without minis you will still need to keep track of who is shaken and who is not.

Another reason why I like SW over some similar systems is that it already has rules for all the major sci fi and fantasy races as well as magic, miracles, weird science, tech etc.

Minor nitpick: 4 is not the default target number, it is the only target number outside of combat.

trollsmyth said...

Havard: Thanks for the feedback. I'm a bit confused on what you said about the miniatures, though. How does using minis mean the GM doesn't need to keep track of who is shaken?

Forever DM said...

Nice review and echoes a lot of my feelings on the game.

I am not a fan of minis, though I see their utility.

Certainly SW is an interesting game, just the whole feeling I was reading the new Deadlands supplement threw me for a loop. Also the naming of stuff like "Guts!" really sort of pigeon holes the theme as well.

Of course I am nitpicking ;)

Havard: said...

If an enemy is shaken, I simply flip the miniature over. Dead opponents are removed from the board. Since those are the only two conditions most NPCs will have its pretty easy.

Playing without minis is easy too, but I agree that it is problematic that the game is written as though you have to use them, particularly because that sometimes gets players frustrated if you rule that they are not to be used.

Anonymous said...

This is a game that the group really, really tried to get into. Most of us had already played, and enjoyed, Deadlands, but for some reason, it never stuck with us, which is a shame. It just didn't click with the group.

Luckily, there is the Barbarians of Lemuria/Dogs of War/Barbarians of the Aftermath combo, which hits that spot for us.

Caleb The Heretic said...

Your review is fragmentary, at best, as you don't even go into detail why you think that SW is pulpy, because it's not, not at all, as it doesn't even come along with a setting!
You attribute faults/errors in people's gaming style ("switching to wargaming mode") being the fault of Savage Worlds, but it's a mindset issue, not a rules issue with Savage Worlds at all.

BTW: The mass combat system is included to handle mass combats or even as a means of simulating the outcome of a court trial or such.
The normal combat system can handle fights of about several hundred combattants on each side.
(Ok, these would take several hours, maybe even days, but these battles would normally be resolved via via the mass battles rules. How do i know? An acquaintance of mine played out a big field battle+ a siege with the normal combat system.)
Savage Worlds has a certain style of play in mind, but it's not the cure for all needs, and it's certainly not "pulpy", that is a misconception created by the artwork and layout of the SWEX edition.
Oh, and p&p RPGs are normally played with real people at a table... ;-)

trollsmyth said...

Caleb: Have you played the game yourself? What sort of style do you think it does best?

It looks pretty pulpy to me, but as I said, I've only driven it around the block once and kicked the tires.

Caleb The Heretic said...

I've been playing some "Necropolis 2350" sessions as a player at cons, i run a Necessary Evil campaign regularly and i am working on a sci-fi-ish setting on my own.
I think SW works best with either a grim&gritty sword&sorcery settings like Solomon Kane (There's even an RPG out there that utilizes the SW mechanics) or with settings&genres that fit a gamistic and action-oriented style of play, yet it can be played in a "pulpy" way, but characters and mechanics need to be adjusted to this style, like letting characters start out at seasoned or even veteran rank and to incorporate additional mechanics like shown in the pulp toolkits or in 3PP products like "Thrilling Tales" (by Adamant Entertainment), which is a kind of suplement that's about how to modify SW to "pulpify" the game to fit the field of "pulp", as "pulp" itself is not a genre but rather a variety of genres from exploration stuff to almost-superhero-like fiction like Doc Savage or such fiction.
Hope i could be helpful.

Best regards from Germany

trollsmyth said...

Caleb: Ok, that surprises me. The incapacitation rules seemed to imply that it was pretty hard to kill a PC. Gamistic doesn't surprise me too much, but I don't know many games that can't support that approach. But the rules seemed a bit too forgiving on the face of them to be called "gritty".

Jonathan Jacobs said...

Nice review. But you MUST play it to get a feel for it. My gaming group of 8 has left the D&D Castle we've built fo rhte last 12 years and there's no telling when we are going back.

Also - it's not pulp. Actually, you can play stock fantasy quite well with SW, or any genre for that matter.

Again.. you must give it a run. Even it its for a one night stand.

Jonathan Jacobs said...

OH.. and this post is definitely up for a retweet, stumble, and a reddit.

Caleb The Heretic said...

Most settings use the "softer" version of the damage&incapacitation rules (I think they're not soft at all, because the chance to die are present and even if the character does not die, he might suffer grave permanent injuries), yes, but there's an optional "gritty" damage rules option in "Crime City", a genre supplement which you can download at PEG's website, which allows NO soaking rolls for damage and which has more serious effects regarding incapacitation.

Tim Jensen said...

I've played with the explorer's edition a few times, in D&D-style fantasy, Deadlands Reloaded, homebrew 4-color supers and homebrew planetary fantasy. We always used minis and a gridded battle mat, and put poker chips under the Shaken figs.

As others have said, SW does fast-paced gritty action adventure the best. Around here there seem to be a lot of former d20 groups playing it.

Since you're coming to GenCon, this is another game you may want to try.

Paul Kasper said...

You actually have to try playing SW before you give it a lukewarm review. It deserves as much.

And, as for online playing, I've been GMing an Evernight campaign for more than 2 years using SW, and it actually shines in a play-by-post setting. The rules and combat are simple enough that it allows everyone to focus on role playing, which is what you want with not only online gaming, but also when you are physically sitting around a table.


OlmanFeelyus said...

While the various elements that make up Savage Worlds have more or less been around in one form or another, what makes the game special is the way they have been put together. This is why everybody says you need to play it and it's really best to play the rules as written, even if some of them may seem a bit arbitrary at first. It's a ruleset that has evolved over time always with the goal of creating a low-prep game that plays fast at the table. They repeat fast, fun and furious partly as a marketing term but also because it really is the fundamental mission of the design. It's what they are aiming for.

We like to refer to the power/reality level as John McClain cinematic. It's not really pulpy, though you could push it in that direction. But it works best with a world of characters who are badasses but take real risks and can get in serious trouble.

Also, miniatures are not necessary, especially for smaller combats, but you lose a bit without them for larger combats. However, it's kind of like minis-lite. You just really need to know distances and number of opponents. Minis are also helpful with states. But you could do it all just as easily with tokens and the playing cards.

Finally, it may be more than you want, but you can play Savage Worlds online using MapTools. Free, open-source, simple at its base.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a fair review for a read over. I myself would never have given it a second look if I hadn't played at a game day demo and been hooked (we were playing a very D&D fantasy setting).

You raised many of the concerns that I had and and a few I still have, but if you get a chance, give the game a whirl as a player. I usually GM, and seeing the rules from the players perspective really sold me on its potential.

It's almost all I'm willing to run anymore.

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Maybe one of the best games i played when I was little kid!