Monday, 28 October 2013

Pulp Savage Worlds and lessons learned

I ran a one-shot Savage Worlds pulp adventure on Friday night (as a brief interlude in our WFRP campaign), which seemed to go fairly well. It was a pre-published scenario from Triple Ace Games with pre-generated characters, using 1930s Boston as its backdrop. All the PCs were Seasoned rank. My first observations about this post relate to the game itself, my secondary observations stem from some of the takeaways I had as a GM from the session.

Running Pulp Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is a game that has evolved since I first ran it, back in the days of 1e SW. The game's creators have continued to tinker with it ever since. These changes can become confusing for players and GMs who have played previous iterations of the game.

Savage Worlds is still a fast and furious game, even run using the Deluxe edition, and in an evening you can cover quite a bit of action. The ability to run a combat with five PCs against over a dozen mooks and a Wild Card and still have plenty of time for a car chase and an aerial battle involving a zeppelin, shows you what can be achieved with SW. Unlike d20, the initiative order changes ever round, which injects a level of chaos and unpredictability into the game.

We also saw a LOT of exploding dice in this session, another aspect of SW I like. But there were a number of points in the plot where characters took 20-25 points of damage from a single hit. One NPC was badly injured in a friendly fire incident where a stray bullet detonated a gas tank, forcing the heroes to rescue her immediately (luckily she had two bennies of her own to burn to soak the damage).  I recall playing in a Savage Eberron game where a party of Novice PCs failed to take down a manticore in a lengthy battle because of its high Toughness score, but in this session there were regular massive damage totals being dished out. Characters were using automatic weapons, however, which could have had something to do with the sheer lethality of the scenario.

It was also noticeable how GM Wild Cards could be effectively shut down in fairly short order as wounds or a shaken condition stopped them from really getting into a fight at all. I had this happen to me in a previous scenario where a major villain was not able to get off a single spell in the course of a climactic battle because he kept getting knocked down every time he passed his Spirit roll to un-shake himself.

Having saved a Nazi bruiser for the final encounter, I watched as he effectively had the stuffing knocked out of him throughout the zeppelin battle, and gradually took wounds that reduced his effectiveness. In SW, once a Seasoned character begins to take wounds, they are going to struggle. One PC, using a rocket pack, ended up crashing into a truck full of nerve gas once he was wounded.

I wanted to also use the SW Adventure Deck for the first time in this scenario. I like the idea of the Adventure Deck - it provides the players with a small element of control over the course of the game, including boons and advantages which allow them to seize the moment. I've not sought feedback from the players yet on what they thought of these cards, but I felt they worked well. I gave each player two cards, one of which they could play in the course of the session. This meant there was more chance of them finding an opportunity to play a card.

Arguably the most outrageous was the Send in the Clones card which one player used after his character was incapacitated when he crashed into a truck full of nerve gas. This allowed him to bring the same character back as a new PC, passing off his former self as a clone. It felt somehow appropriate to me that the PC with the weird science background was messing with cloning technology, and if this had been an ongoing campaign, would have ruled that his clone had perished in the truck.


What follows are a few takeaways from the session:

  1. I prefer running one-shots or very short campaigns. I don't think I could really summon the energy and resources at the moment to run more than the odd one-shot here and there. Having said that, I felt a bit rusty, as I've not been in the GM's chair since I ran Hot War in January, which is too long really.
  2. I really liked the Adventure Cards and the way they provided the players with an element of narrative control. I'm toying with a few ideas from Cold City and Shadowrun for a d20 Modern game I'm cooking up called Operation Blue Tempest.
  3. We used miniatures for this game, but in the final chase / battle with the zeppelin, I abstracted quite a bit, as we needed to involve streets, a speeding truck full of nerve agent, a PC with a rocket pack, Boston landmarks, and the crew of the zeppelin itself. Luckily, SW can be switched into more of an abstract mode to facilitate this (I was less impressed with the new chase rules in the Deluxe edition). I still like using miniatures as it helps players to visualise the setting and will be looking to bring more of my miniatures collection into my RPGing.
  4. I worry about my capacity to absorb new game systems and wonder whether I should simply adapt the games I already understand and have played extensively to my ideas of how to improve the narrative element. I'm pretty familiar with d20, Basic Roleplaying (e.g. Call of Cthulhu) and Savage Worlds, and wonder whether that is simply enough for my tired / addled brain to cope with...however, the Gumshoe system from Pelgrane Press continues to tempt me.
  5. Every time I run a pre-published scenario, I end up nipping and tucking it, frequently on the fly. In many ways, I find written adventures often don't gel well with the way I like to present a setting, and the advantage of writing your own scenarios is that you can leave some elements vague and just focus on the detail you really need. That way you can fill in the blanks as you are GMing. I'm hoping to do this with Operation Blue Tempest and have done this in the past with Cold City.


  1. As the beneficiary of the clone card it's no surprise that I liked what they brought to the game; I thought they might be a bit superfluous when we've already got Bennies but they're quite unique and can shake the game up in unexpected ways. The cards get a big thumbs up from me.

    Operation Fallen Angel looks interesting. I hope we get to play it!

  2. Enjoyed the game.

    Plus - with you on the 'can't be arsed to run games in new systems'..... just do not have the time/ interest. d100/variations (eg WFRP); d20/D&D and its iterations (not 4e mind!); and occasionally SW (only for Deadlands).....

    Maybe at some point I will run something from the Iron Kingdoms non-d20 book. It is very pretty....but I suspect it is a wargame masquerading as an rpg....and primarily - it is a new system!! UG!

  3. Adventure cards will be making a return in my Vietnam War one-shot, 90 Days in the Valley. I like the extra veneer they bring, but may reduce it to one card per player.