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

Posted: 14 March 2010 in Reviews

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!

  1. […] Review of Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition by Pinnacle Entertainment Group March 2010 4 […]

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