Thursday, 16 September 2010

Savage Worlds: the perfect blend of RPG and wargame

Savage Worlds is being hailed by some as the best generic RPG rules yet to hit the gaming table, and there is some justification for this. I’ve been using them for three or four years now, and I’ve seen them successfully applied to a number of different settings.

Savage Worlds was originally written by Shane Hensley, the creator of the very successful Deadlands roleplaying game in the 1990s. He also wrote Great Rail Wars, a set of miniatures rules that used the Deadlands ‘weird west’ setting for gunfights between cowboys, werewolves, Chinese tongs, zombies, you name it. While Deadlands was converted over to d20 some years back in the whole post-3rd edition D&D Open Gaming License mania, Hensley himself was increasingly dissatisfied with the way d20 was slowing down his games, and was looking for something different to run them with. He turned to Great Rail Wars.

Savage Worlds is essentially an RPG based on the GRW engine, although it has been tweaked considerably since it first came out. I first woke up to it when it was advertised as a set of rules that could be used as an RPG or as a wargame, something that has always grabbed me (older readers may remember how Rick Priestley’s original Warhammer set out to do this too back in 1982). Great – a game that can be played as a skirmish wargame, but also lets you run an RPG campaign!

Since then, Savage Worlds has graduated further towards an RPG, and away from wargaming, although the generic wargame rules are available online for free as Savage Showdown. I have used this game both as an RPG and as a miniatures game (it can manage a battle with perhaps 15-20 figures per side, but more than this and it will slow down).

Although marketed as a generic set of rules, Savage Worlds has spun off a number of campaign settings, both from its publisher Pinnacle Entertainment Group, like Deadlands and Rippers, as well as from third party publishers, who have churned out some great-looking settings like Runepunk and Necropolis. I have personally used it to run a typical fantasy game and some pulp scenarios very successfully.

I like Savage Worlds because, apart from the fact that it uses all the polyhedral dice you have, including d12s, it manages larger battles convincingly and in a short period of time. I once ran a game where a group of three PCs, in a riverboat, with five henchmen travelling with them, were attacked by 10 bandits. In some games, this would be somewhat of a challenge to run (think Exalted here!) In Savage Worlds we got a resolution of this battle in about 40 minutes flat. Compare this with some games – and I’m looking at you D&D 4e – where a battle can consume an entire night’s play, and that’s without henchmen.

Savage Worlds lets your characters recruit hired swords and then command them in battle. As a GM I like this because: you get to kill off some of the good guys in a bloody fashion without upsetting players too much; players whose characters are not in that scene can still play the mooks; and players end up spending money on their hirelings rather than on themselves. It is also surprising how quickly players get attached to their allies, and will place their own characters in perilous situations to rescue them.

Savage Worlds is also really generic. You can run pure fantasy games, you can run pulp, you can run a pirates campaign (Pirates of the Spanish Main campaign setting, or the 50 Fathoms fantasy pirates crossover), or a horror game (Rippers, Necropolis, Realms of Cthulhu). I’ve not seen it used for a science fiction setting yet, although I did use it for an overly ambitious Star Wars battle. I’ve seen existing campaign settings like Eberron easily converted to Savage Worlds.

And it is easy to teach too. The rules are simple. The primary mechanic is hitting a target number of 4 with a die linked to either a skill or an attribute. The better you are, the higher the die type you use (a weakling might have his strength listed as ‘d4’ while an ogre might have ‘d10’). Someone with Fighting d8 is going to be better at swordplay than someone with d6. But it is here that you can see the simplicity of the system: all melee combat is encapsulated in your Fighting skill, which is used to beat an opponent’s Parry score (one of two derived attributes in Savage Worlds, which dictates how hard you are to hit in hand-to-hand combat). Your ability to resist fear is your Guts skill, to resist poison use your Vigour attribute. The target number is always 4.

Player characters in Savage Worlds, and other important characters in the plot, are called Wild Cards. This means they roll an extra d6 with skill and attribute tests which they can use instead of their main die type if it ends up being better. They can also take Wounds, which bring with them penalties, while most NPCs die quite fast (no need to track how many hit points Kobold #8 has). A mook really only has three status types: normal, shaken, and dead. Nuff said. If he gets damaged once, he’s shaken. If he can’t recover (by making a Spirit roll) and he gets hit again, he’s dead. By contrast, PCs in SW are really hard to kill. Even when they lose all three wounds allotted to them, they can still be revived (albeit potentially with some permanent damage).

There is much more that I could say about this game, like the card-based initiative system, the simple way it deals with magic and weird science, the edges and hindrances, the absence of levels, the bennies, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. Suffice to say, the core rules, now termed the Explorer’s Edition, are available in softback and very competitively priced. If you’re looking for a decent generic system, give it a look.

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