Paradigm Shift

Posted: 21 March 2012 in Reflections

The responses to my recent player survey suggest that some of them haven’t fully made the mental shift from D&D. I’ve played and enjoyed D&D for decades; but SW works better with a different play style. I wanted to explain the differences, and after some forum surfing, and reflection, this is what I came up with. Other insights welcome!


Ablative hit points vs sudden death: D&D characters are worn down gradually, over 4-5 encounters. In Savage Worlds, any blow in any fight can be lethal, and there’s no resurrection spell to bring you back.

Death spiral: D&D characters stay fully capable until they lose the last hit point. SW PCs see their capabilities degrade rapidly, wound by wound.

The GM effort per enemy to run an encounter is lower in SW than D&D, because of the simpler damage and condition rules, and because players control their allies, whether or not their characters do. This encourages bigger fights.


D&D characters start off weak, and improve dramatically as they level up. SW characters are more capable to begin with, but don’t improve as much later; arguably, they level off at the equivalent of 6th-8th level. There is thus no need for the monsters to get bigger and more dangerous as PCs level up, because even goblins remain a viable threat at all levels. Therefore, the multi-level range of monsters in D&D is unnecessary in Savage Worlds.

Savage Worlds isn’t very sensitive to differences in level between party members. This means new or intermittent players don’t get left behind.

Savage Worlds has no niche protection. In D&D, only a wizard can do wizardly things, only a thief can do thievish things, and only a fighter can fight well. In SW, there is no reason why a wizard can’t also be a competent fighter, stealthy, and able to pick locks. This means that effective parties can be smaller than in D&D, and as the party grows, it becomes harder for each character to have its own unique role in the group.

Update: As Umberto Pignatelli points out in the comments trail for this post, SW PCs tend to grow horizontally (broadening their niche and overlapping into other niches, but not getting overpoweringly good at any one skill or trait) while D&D ones grow vertically (getting much better at what their niche does).


Random encounters and traps in D&D provide experience and treasure for level grinding, and act as a “hit point tax” for entering parts of a scenario. Those are neither necessary nor desirable in Savage Worlds, as SW PCs don’t get experience for killing monsters, and don’t have hit points in the traditional sense.

  1. Umberto Pignatelli says:

    Interesting analysis. I’ll add another thing on advancement: in D&D it is vertical. Your hero becomes increasingly good in his very specific role. A fighter fights better, a thief is more stealthy and so on. In SW, despite some vertical advancement is certainly present, going up the experience ladder, the main advancement is horizontal.
    Your character learns new things expanding his capacities: a fighter can learn something on stealth (or new different approaches to combat), a priest can become also a decent leader, a mage can be a skillfull orator to complement his charms and so on.

    • andyslack says:

      That’s a very good point, Umberto – I wish I’d thought of it! I agree completely.

      I wonder if, over time, that would mean PCs in a party became more, or less, alike? If they spread horizontally into each other’s niches, it becomes harder to give each player their time in the spotlight. Perhaps that is the reason Background and Professional edges were limited to new characters only in earlier editions?

      • Umberto Pignatelli says:

        Mmm… I’ll say both “no” and “yes”.
        “No” because there are lots of Edges and different “paths” to choose from, so overlapping can be avoided in good part.
        “Yes” because players tend to be reactive: they advance their heroes in the manner they find more useful in the game: if you, as game Master, puts a lot of Notice rolls, be sure many heroes will end with Alertness, Notice 10+ and/or Danger Sense. If you are a fan of large numbers fights, your heroes will likely take Sweep and similar.
        I found that the “right” way to encourage your players to differentiate is be non-linear: create different type of stories with different types of threats, encouraging them to put some points in disregarded skills (as Gambling, Climbing and so on…).

      • andyslack says:

        One of the things that the B&B adventures made me realise was that I’d drifted into creating adventures where PCs only needed a few skills to create an optimum build. The wider range of skills and edges needed in (say) Death of a Tyrant or Citadel of the Winged God are broadening them out.

        In hindsight, I should have noticed this once I saw how many of them had d12 Fighting or d10 in Faith or Spellcasting.

        That said, several of them with similar builds (warriors with d12 Fighting) differentiate themselves by Hindrances, and they’re having a ball. The one player who was wondering what she brought to the party has started taking Leadership Edges, which they’ve all ignored so far despite playing combat-heavy sessions. I welcome this because her command radius should stop them splitting up quite so much, once they realise sticking close to her gives them bonuses.

  2. thetailrace says:

    A friend of mine had the opinion that role playing games could do one particular ‘genre’ well,and the further away you went from that genre, the less well it would perform’. He first opined this when GURPS first came out, as he felt that as a system it was good for the fantasy ‘late-dark-age-early-medieval-but-with-elves-dwarves-dragons-and-magic’ genre, but not so good for modern spy type genre or space opera, for example.
    Of course the original D&D was designed well before anyone had any idea about multi genre game systems, obviously it was largely designed before there were any systems at all. However the current d20 ogl system has been developed from it and can be ‘shoehorned’ into just about any genre you fancy,with some effort.
    Effort being the important thing here of course

    • thetailrace says:

      The fact is with the Savage Worlds system, it is a lot easier to get a feel of a particular ‘world-genre-plot point’ simply with the judicious use of common knowledge, Edges and Hindrances. Where d20 systems for a Star Spanning Sci-Fi extravaganza might have an Astrogation skill that has varying costs to acquire during the character creation and levelling up processes, A Savage World take on the same thing would just use a knowledge roll. (At least it does in mine 🙂 )

    • andyslack says:

      I agree – some systems are better suited to particular types of stories than others. GURPS slows down dramatically once you introduce gunpowder, but a GM who thoroughly loves and understands it can make that work. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those, and I gave up on it when it moved into 4th Edition.

      Even in the original little brown books, D&D mentioned that other genres would work just fine, but recommended that groups thoroughly explore the mediaeval option first.

      IMHO, Savage Worlds works best in a pulp setting, including Swords & Sorcery. That suits my group and I because of time pressure, and my own preference for emulating action-adventure movies. One of the things I like about best about it is Common Knowledge; a viable character only needs a handful of skills, with CK rolls covering everything else.

  3. thetailrace says:

    There’s nothing wrong with complexity of course, particularly if your players are looking to get a feel of what motivates their characters and what hidden talents they may have. If however they want to triumph over perilous situation after perilous situation with as little downtime in between…..

  4. […] can sometimes be difficult, but I’ve not seen any articles (until now) on some of the issues. Andy Slack @ Halfway Station came up with a list of the differences between D&D and Savage World… and it’s quite enlightening. I’d like to see this sort of thing discussed for other […]

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