Review of Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition by Pinnacle Entertainment Group

It occurred to me that while I’ve reviewed several settings for Savage Worlds, I have yet to review the game itself – so let’s fix that. You can download the trial version here. Initially I started down the fast and furious route for play by email games, where simple, elegant rules work better; but I liked SW so much that it has now replaced everything else in my RPG stable, bar occasional games of D&D 4E by audience request. It did this mainly because of the speed with which I can convert items from other games for use with SW.

In a nutshell: Multi-genre roleplaying game with elegant mechanics, fast and simple to setup or play.

Format: 160-page perfect-bound softback book, or PDF file. PDF edition has both print-friendly and full-colour versions. You’ll also need a deck of playing cards, some counters to represent “bennies” and several sets of polyhedral dice – d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12 are used frequently, and d20 from time to time. The game is intended to be played with figures on a battlemat or tabletop, but works equally well without.

The rules are divided into an introduction, seven chapters and an example scenario: Characters (34 pages), Gear (14 pages), Game Rules (24 pages), Arcane Backgrounds (14 pages), Situational Rules (27 pages), Game Mastering (14 pages), Villains & Monsters (18 pages). I add the page counts so that you can see the rough proportion of the book taken up with each topic, which I find shows what the system emphasises for any game. In this case it tells me that the main focus is on character creation and development, which is what one would expect for an RPG.

Characters: Character creation follows a point build approach rather than random generation. There are five attributes, 15 skills, and dozens of Edges and Hindrances. All of the attributes and skills are rated in die types (“My character has d8 Strength”, for instance). Edges grant your character some sort of advantage, such as adding two to your die roll for some tasks, and Hindrances make life more difficult for him, such as reducing his chances of persuading people; for this reason Edges cost points, and Hindrances grant you more points. A “typical” character, assuming there is such a thing, would have d6 in all five attributes and in 6-8 skills, a couple of Edges, and probably three Hindrances. Derived attributes are Pace, Parry, and Charisma, which are calculated from the attributes and skills you purchased. Pace is your movement, Parry is how hard you are to hit in melee, and Charisma is a modifier to NPC reaction rolls.

Edges allow you to customise your character’s abilities so that (say) not all fighters are the same; hindrances are what shape the character’s motivations, and are generally the first thing other players or the GM remember about your PC.

The game uses few, but broad, skills. The Shooting skill, for example, covers everything from slings to starship blaster turrets; your shooter is assumed to be practiced with any ranged weapon the setting has available. Some like this approach, including me; some don’t. The rules also rely on the concept of “common knowledge”; local history, geography and key NPCs, for example, are common knowledge – any character can know about them with a Smarts roll, much like the GURPS Area Knowledge skill. Divisions within a skill are approximated by Edges like Trademark Weapon, which grants bonuses if you use a specific, nominated weapon.

The core rules assume that either all PCs are human, or that the GM will create appropriate other races. Published settings and the free download Wizards & Warriors provide more races if you want them – in fact, Wizards & Warriors is a good bridge from D&D to SW in general.

Characters earn experience points during play which can be used to improve skills or attributes, or to buy new skills, powers, or edges. Wounds or terror can permanently mark your PC with new hindrances, or reduce attributes.

Gear: This section follows the time-honoured RPG tradition of a heavy focus on weapons and armour, with items ranging from cured hides and spears to powered armour and lasers. Basic statistics plus a few special rules. These are the usual tools of the adventurer’s trade, so I won’t spend a lot of time on them. There is nothing in the way of magic items, but you can create them simply enough (“The magic sword is a longsword imbued with the Smite power.”)

Game Rules: To succeed at a task, you need to roll the target’s Parry score (when rolling to hit someone in melee), or the target’s Toughness (when trying to wound them), or a 4+ (for anything else). More experienced characters roll dice with more sides, giving them a better chance of success. If you beat the required roll by 4 or more (called a “raise”), you get a better result. Any die which rolls its maximum (an “ace”) allows you to keep that score, reroll the die, and add the new result to your total. PCs and major NPCs roll a d6 as well as the die for their skill or attribute when they roll; you can choose to use the result from the normal die, or the d6. PCs also start each session with three “bennies”. You can use a benny to reroll any one die, or to try to recover from wounds. PCs and major NPCs have 3 wounds, NPC “Extras” have one.

The combat system encourages swashbuckling and teamwork. You can attempt any number of actions per turn, although the more you try, the worse the penalties to your die rolls. Skills like Taunt and Intimidation, and tricks based on Smarts (“Look behind you!”) or Agility (throwing sand in faces) make it easier for you and your friends to damage enemies. I’ve noticed two big impacts in play here; first, characters besides the combat monsters can really make a difference in a fight by setting up enemies for their friends with tricks; and second, the very existence of tricks seems to encourage swashbuckling play – even players who would normally just stand around hacking at foes are running up girders, throwing ale kegs at opponents, jumping on the backs of monsters, and having a hell of a time.

There are no “hit points”; characters are “up” (fully functional, although PCs may have penalties from earlier wounds), “down” (laid on their sides to indicate Shaken status, which means they move at half speed and can’t attack), or off the table (incapacitated, dead, or otherwise out of the fight).

Arcane Backgrounds: This is where we start to see Trappings, one of the key philosophies of the game. Your spellcaster’s Bolt power can be a scorching ray of light, a conjured arrow, a swarm of enraged bees, the Finger of Death, or anything else – how you describe it varies, but the game effect does not. Likewise, your skaven, your goblins, your brigands can all have the same stats. you can do that in any game system, of course, but few rules sets embrace and encourage the concept as much as SW. There are five options for a character with supernatural powers: Magic, Miracles, Psionics, Super Powers and Weird Science – not every setting will use them all, and they each have their pros and cons, differing in the skills used to operate them, the number of powers initially known, and the effects of failure. However, they all use the same list of powers (read: spells).

Situational Rules: The core rules are aimed at up-close-and-personal skirmishes; the situational rules cover things like fire, drowning, vehicle operation, animal and vehicle combat, stock NPCs and riding animals, fear effects, fatigue, poison, mass battles, and so forth. I generally don’t need these in a typical scenario, but they do come in useful at times.

Game Mastering: This covers how to set up a SW campaign – concept, recruiting, the game night, campaign types and how to match them to players; running the game, focussing on the approach of minimising setup and prep time; awarding experience points and bennies; NPCs and allies; world creation and how to customise the rules for your killer campaign; creating or converting adventures. Note that one of the core assumptions of SW is that the GM offloads some work to the players by having them control some of the NPCs, whether or not their characters are in charge of those people.

Villains and Monsters: A range of old favourites. There are enough orcs, trolls, elementals, wild animals and undead provided to play pulp, horror or high fantasy right away, and SF too if you use Trappings on them; setting books offer more. Note that this is a game which deliberately does not have the Sorting Algorithm of Evil; your characters meet what they meet, and fights are not necessarily fair. (If you want encounters to be fair, set the opposition’s Toughness to be roughly equal to the PCs’ average damage roll, and count one PC as worth one Wild Card villain or two Extras.)

The Good: You can generate characters and a scenario in five minutes, dive in, and play; I’ve found I can convert and run any published adventure “on the fly”, with no preparation at all; and I found the Trappings concept very liberating once I got used to it. I carry a set of the rules (either hard copy or PDF) with me now at all times to take advantage of ad hoc gaming opportunities, say while travelling. With the complete rules costing $10, I found myself able to buy my players a couple of extra copies so we could all look things up at the same time – and it was still cheaper than just one D&D Player’s Handbook. Mind you, I’ve spent a fair amount on setting books and toolkits since.

The Bad: Considering one of the main design goals of the system is to minimise book-keeping, it puzzles me that power points are retained for spells. Something like the Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing system of failures and critical failures might work better – and indeed I think the Hellfrost setting has something like that; more on this if Hellfrost makes it onto my shelves. (I could make the same argument about money or ammo, but it’s very rare for those to be a big part of my games; more on that another time, perhaps.) It would also have been useful to have some guidance on how to balance encounters, but that is easily available on the Pinnacle internet forum.

Highly recommended; my default choice for every RPG situation because it is – as it says on the cover – Fast! Furious! Fun!

Review of Dogs of Hades by Savage Mojo

As I mentioned in my review of Savage Suzerain, I recently bought Dogs of Hades without realising it was a Savage Suzerain setting book; this isn’t clear from the cover or the RPGNow page, where I can see I need Savage Worlds for it, but not Savage Suzerain. That didn’t bother me, as Savage Suzerain was itself on my wishlist, but if it would bother you, you are now warned.

In a nutshell: Ancient Greeks in Spa-a-a-a-ce!

The book is divided into the standard sections for a Savage Worlds plot point setting…

  • For Players: A short player’s introduction explaining what you need to play, and a soundbite description of the setting – Greek epics meet Frank Herbert’s Dune. One page.
  • Athena’s Garden: History and cultures of the setting are painted with a broad brush in a couple of pages; my feeling is that we’re looking at a parallel universe analogous to Greece and the Mediterranean in about the 5th century BC. Except with Earthlike worlds (“Gardens”) replacing islands, and starships replacing biremes. And then the Imperium of Dune slathered over the top. Nothing wrong with that.
  • Characters: Character creation for this setting. About 18 pages. This covers the archetypes of the milieu, including the usual fighters and spies as well as Logicians, this setting’s answer to Mentats; characters’ cultural backgrounds; everyday life; new and modified skills, hindrances and edges. A departure from the normal RPG tropes here is that female characters are second-class citizens, rather than equal to their male counterparts; since my players are about 50/50 male and female, I might tweak that a bit. I always find a character’s hindrances more entertaining than the edges, and there are some nice new ones – Easily Distracted, for example, which forces you to draw two initiative cards and play the lower of them. The Fatal Beauty edge is also nice, allowing the character to Stun an opponent with his or her sheer good looks. Logicians (a variant of the Savage Suzerain Perfected “race”) have a nice pack of edges and powers all their own, balanced by not being much use outside of their speciality.
  • Realm Rules: Setting-specific rules. You have already layered Savage Suzerain over Savage Worlds to get this far, but there are some additional tweaks too; it is possible sometimes to Fatigue one’s opponent rather than Shaking them; groups of four or more characters working in formation get combat advantages; the specifics of divine aid and divine wrath for each of the gods (who are real in this setting, and can be influenced, although they get grumpy if you don’t keep your end of the bargain) – I particularly like that Dionysus gives you more help if you’re drunk. 6 pages.
  • Athens Gazetteer: The history, politics, geography, technology, military organisation and so forth of Athens, the capital world of the region and probable PC homeworld. This is a balkanised world, dotted with city-states of one or two million citizens each, constantly jostling for power and prestige. Glaring at the Athenian Hegemony (Athens and colonies on barbarian worlds) across a handful of buffer states is Sakalid space, the Sakalids being Athens’ main enemy in an extensive and bloody war some 30 years before the game starts, and (to my mind anyway) filling the role of the Persians in this version of Greek history. Athenian technology was granted to their ancestors by the gods, notably Athena, who saved and nurtured them after humanity’s near-destruction several thousand years before the game begins; in essence, they look like ancient Greek weapons, armour and so forth, but function like higher-tech equipment; force shields, energy lances and so on. The section ends with equipment lists. 22 pages.
  • For GMs: 6 pages. I was quite prepared to accept “These guys are ancient Greeks in space. Deal with it and get on with the game.” However, this section gives a deeper layer of explanatory backstory. I doubt I’m giving much away there, there is always something like that in the GM’s section.
  • Dogs of Hades and Savage Tales: A plot point campaign in ten “verses”, with 20 shorter scenarios, intended to take the characters from Novice to Heroic rank, after which Suzerain proper would cut in. It’s a suitably mythic tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge and seafood. No, seriously, seafood. Between them, these take up about 70 pages. I could get about a year’s worth of play out of them at one session per week, and longer at my current reduced pace.
  • Men and Monsters: NPC and creature statistics. 15 pages, include key NPCs for the PCs’ probable home city-state, generic NPCs, and nonhumans.
  • Maps: 10 pages of pretty maps, zooming in from interstellar to regional level.

So, reflections having read the game but not played it…

  • It’s a violent setting, and there is no magic healing to speak of. Somebody in the group better tool up with healing edges, and remember to pray to the healer god while using them.
  • Logicians are fun.
  • It could be run just as a Savage Worlds campaign, without bringing Suzerain into play at all; I’m very tempted to try that.

This one goes into the “play someday” pile rather than the “mine for ideas then discard” pile.

Review of Savage Suzerain by Savage Mojo

I’ve had my eye on Savage Suzerain for a while now, and bought it as part of the GM’s Day Sale at RPGNow. (Admittedly, only because I bought Dogs of Hades and then realised I needed Savage Suzerain to use it; be aware of that if you’re doing likewise. However, since Suzerain was on my wish list anyway, I’m not upset about it.)

In a nutshell: Savage Suzerain expands and extends Savage Worlds so that your characters can progress beyond Legendary status to demigodhood. As an example, picture your fighter PC growing into Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion and you’re about there. Your PC’s time up to Heroic rank is only the prelude; Savage Suzerain takes you beyond, into the realms of saga and myth.

Format: Two 196 page PDF files in my case, one with full-on artwork and page backgrounds, and one print-friendly version. I applaud the print-friendly version, as ever, but a minor niggle is that this has been done by chopping out the pictures, so there is a lot of blank space in it. Still, paper is cheaper than coloured ink.

Disclaimer: This review is based on reading through the product; given its scope, it will be some time (if ever) before I have played it thoroughly.

Still with me? Good. Off we go. Beware, there are some spoilers below.

The book is split into a Player Section (about 50 pages) and a GM Section (the rest). The Player Section gives a capsule summary of the Suzerain multiverse, and an extended discussion of the way Savage Worlds rules change to better describe it. The central conceit of the game is that the PCs are demigods in training, who have that touch of greatness which attracts the attention of the gods. This doesn’t make much difference while the PCs are at Novice, Seasoned or Veteran rank, during which the gods give them missions and support covertly; but once they reach Heroic rank, they have proved themselves, and the source of both assignments and benefits becomes overt. By default, the PCs are working for a coalition of gods, so they are not constrained to work which suits only one.

The main changes between vanilla SW and Suzerain are:

  • A new rank, Demigod, which cuts in above Legendary at 120 experience. (Suzerain suggests that at 180 experience, the GM considers raising the PCs to full godhood, and retiring them from play, with the players starting new characters.)
  • Dozens of new edges and hindrances which reflect the PCs’ destiny as gods. I probably won’t use these, since I think they start to chip away at the SW philosophy of “Fast – Furious – Fun” by increasing character complexity.
  • Races redefined as being a background edge. I didn’t like this idea much to start with, but I am warming to it.
  • Expanded uses for Bennies (renamed Karma), including the ability to take a little narrative control from the GM (a common house rule), change reality to adjust the current situation, and cheat death – however, some of these uses expend Karma permanently.
  • Everybody has Power Points – renamed Pulse – and everyone can use them to do certain things, for example power the use of one of the new edges; however, one of four background edges are required to use them for Powers. These background edges replace the normal SW Arcane Background, which along with its associated edges is banished from the Suzerain campaign.

The thing which really caught my eye was the Telesma – think of the Lens from E E ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman stories. Each demigod-in-training acquires one of these small gems somehow, and it guides and supports him unobtrusively through his career – up until Heroic rank, when the veil is pulled aside to reveal what is really going on. When several heroes gather, their Telesmae network and begin to create a team base. I particularly like the way this is meant to build up as a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences – I can see myself having huge fun with that. It’s also easy to introduce into an existing campaign, and I think I shall.

The GM Section then lifts the hood on the spirit world, which is the matrix in which individual universes float like bubbles. How to get there; what you might encounter when you do; where the edge of the multiverse is, and what lies beyond. In this I sensed similarities to Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, with the Maelstrom beyond as being much like elemental Chaos, with pockets of relative sanity carved out by various pantheons of gods. If you like D&D planar adventures, you’ll be at home here.

Next, the book explores time travel and alternate realities. Suzerain is intended as a framework within which the same characters can adventure through both time and space, and eventually, into parallel universes as well. I’ve run a couple of campaigns where this idea worked really well, and would underscore one of the pieces of advice from the author: It’s a great way to try out a new campaign setting – if the players don’t like it, drive on to the next. There are many options here, but one of the key aspects of the framework is that while unimportant events and people are easily changed, key nexus points are both resistant to change and guarded by other agents of the gods, who would rather the timeline stays as it is, within limits – changing a key nexus point is not to be undertaken lightly, and is the sort of thing which forms the central story arc for a campaign.

After a brief discourse on what the gods want, and why they use the PCs to achieve it, Savage Suzerain explores different types of campaign. Single vs multiple settings; single vs multiple GMs; creating scenarios to challenge PCs with godlike abilities. For the multiple-setting approach, Savage Mojo is releasing individual setting books such as Dogs of Hades and Noir Knights.

Finally, as is now traditional in Savage Worlds settings, there is a plot point campaign set in a more-or-less traditional fantasy world. For those unfamiliar with the concept, this is a ready-to-use campaign, with an overall story arc, a number of key adventures which occur in a specific sequence to advance that arc, and a collection of scenarios (“Savage Tales”) which can slot into the storyline at more or less any point. Unusually, this one starts at Seasoned rank rather than Novice. This book has a long campaign, with six key adventures and a couple of dozen Savage Tales.

What will I do with this now I have it? I’m not sure. I can see myself mining it for ideas – Telesmae, the overall metaplot, some of the scenarios. I would probably not introduce many of the rules changes, because I think they shift SW from being a fast, simple system towards something more complex than I have time or inclination to run. I’m also not sure that I have the mental stamina to run a Suzerain campaign from Novice to godhood, because I expect something else bright and shiny will have caught my attention before I can finish it – at an average of two experience per session, it’d take a couple of years if I ran one session per week, and at the current rate of 2-3 sessions per year I could well die before the story was complete. On the other hand, it would be easy to flip from one genre to the other, and incorporate all those bright shiny settings into one overarching metaplot; and if I ignore the extra edges and rules changes, I can slip it in as an extra layer of my existing campaigns, and eventually use it as a reason for the PCs in those games to meet and work together.

I’ve got time to mull it over; the most experienced PC in my SW games is only Veteran. Next up for review: Dogs of Hades.