What’s Going on With Savage Worlds?

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I’ll talk more about this at length in Episode 20, but I wanted to write it here as well…

Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds first pinged my radar when I heard a review about the Explorers Edition and it’s uncharacteristically cheap price of $9.99 for the core rule book. A month ago, when I was looking for reasonably priced prizes for our monster haiku contest, I picked up a copy as one of the prizes.

During the weeks that the book sat on my recording desk before the contest winner was announced, I’d idly page through it. I was intrigued by what little I read.

Then I got a review copy of Weird War II from Drivethrurpg.com. I read through it a little bit, and I became more interested in learning more about the system.

My curiosity hit critical mass, so I announced to my gaming friends that I was thinking about running a one- or two-shot adventure in Savage Worlds. Then I purchased the .pdf from Drivethrurpg.com and the physical book from my local game store, Game Empire in Pasadena. I started preparing the adventure materials while simultaneously reading the book and learning the system.

Additionally, I turned to the interwebs and looked for blogs and podcasts about the game. Not much in the way of blogs, but I did find one podcast, Smiling Jack’s Bar and Grill, which is devoted solely to Savage Worlds.

Having not played the game yet, I do have three early impression that I want to talk about:

1. The System

I was surprised, intrigued and delighted to see that Pinnacle threw out two conventions in role-playing games. Firstly, they PC’s stats are not described in numerical terms (ie, I have a 16 Strength, a 12 Agility, etc.). Stats are described by a die (as in, I have a d8 in Strength and a d6 in Agility, etc.). During the game, tests of these attributes (as well as their related skills) consist of rolling that die against a number (commonly a 4, with modifiers).

Secondly, Savage worlds doesn’t use hit points in the traditional way. PCs, when damaged are “shaken” and can receive up to three injuries before they are incapacitated. It works the same for “important” NPCs; however, less important NPCs become incapacitated after a single injury.

Both of these changes in RPG conventions get rid of a great deal of bookkeeping and have the potential to create the fast and furious combat the game advertises.

Additionally, they’ve come up with an innovative way to weight the probability of die rolls. In DnD (and all D20-based systems) you have a flat probability line. You have exactly the same chance of rolling a 1 as you do any other number. Whereas in Hero and GURPS, you use 3d6 to determine attacks and other skill checks, giving you a bell curve heavily weighted around a result of 10 and 11. This means your chance of success goes up exponentially when your skill level increases from 11 to 12 to 13 and so on. The latter system are weighted for success.

Savage Worlds uses something like this with the “wild card” concept. PC and plot-critical NPCs are considered “wild cards,” and as such they roll an additional d6 along with their normal attribute or skill die, giving the player two chances at success, rather than one. While I don’t have the maths to explain it, I do know that this second chance meliorates the flatness of single die probability.

The gist of it is that in Savage Worlds, like Hero and GURPS, the system is weighted for success.

In the event this weighting isn’t enough, the game system also incorporates “bennies,” or second chances at critical die rolls (many gamers house rule such things, but it’s integrated into the Savage Worlds system. A trend I hope other publishers will follow).

As I prepare my adventure, working on the NPCs and the plot twists, I’m very much looking forward to the game and trying out the system.

The game prep for the GM seems to be a breeze. I’ve become somewhat spoiled by WotC’s DDI tool set, as it make game prep very quick and easy. And I’ve had a similar experience with Savage Worlds, but without the automated tools. The system itself is just that simple.

2. Support from Pinnacle.

One of the first things I noticed is that Pinnacle provides numerous freebies to players of the game.

There are their one-sheet adventures, which include plot hooks, some background and NPCs and monster stats. There are two dozen or so of them available for free download on their site. I’ve perused a few of them and their damn good.

Additionally, they’ve provided numerous free .pdfs for card-stock miniatures (a la Steven Jackson’s Cardboard Heroes). Simply download the .pdf, print it on card-stock, cut ’em out and you have a whole set of genre-specific miniatures. This stands in remarkable contrast to WotC’s collectible miniature scheme for DnD4E, which I’ve discussed more than once on the podcast.

WotC in many ways pioneered the concept of “crowd-sourcing” with regards to system-supporting content with the advent of the Open Gaming License. Pinnacle seems to understand this concept at their very core. In fact, they’ve improved upon it with a two-tiered license for third-party publishers. There is a “fan” license that allows people to produce materials for non-commercial use, and there’s a commercial license that they grant only after ensuring that prospective publishers will produce quality product in both content and design.

This gives them the control to ensure that any Savage Worlds product someone might spend their hard-earned money on will meet a certain level of quality. This is something WotC doesn’t do, though changes to the 4th Edition license allow for after-the-fact action (in the event something embarrassingly terrible is published under the OGL).

Again, this speaks to their commitment to their gaming fans. Which brings me to my last, less favorable impression…

3. The Savage Worlds Community

First, a caveat: I’ve never personally met a Savage Worlds player, though I’m about to become one myself. But that being said, I have some impressions since exploring the Savage Worlds community.

The word “evangelical” comes to mind, and I’ve been there. I was (and to some extent still consider myself) a GURPS guy. In my heyday, I would proselytize for GURPS. “Why are you playing DnD,” I’d ask, “when GURPS has a perfectly good Fantasy supplement?” “Oh, you’re playing Shadowrun? Why not just adapt it to GURPS.” Hero System guys are the same way. I understand it. That’s what happens when you embrace a universal/generic RPG system.

Savage Worlds folks seem to do this in spades. When I listened to the first two episodes of Smiling Jack’s Bar and Grill, I found the evangelism a little off-putting.

Now, I should say, I don’t like to criticize other folks’ creative efforts, but I feel that my criticism is both constructive and important.

When listening to the second episode of the show, one of the hosts said that I shouldn’t listen to the podcast if I’m not playing Savage Worlds. That’s just stupid. To be fair, one of the hosts shut this down the moment it was said, but I think the comment is indicative of a sort of fanaticism that won’t help the Savage Worlds community or Pinnacle.

It smacks of the Scientologist desperately trying to convince me to take a personality test. Desperation is not attractive — ask all the women who shot me down when I asked them out in college.

As someone who is considering trying Savage Worlds and took the time to seek out and listen to the podcast, I would think that I’m just the sort of person they’re looking for.

Maybe it was because that particular show was recorded in a bar. God knows I’ve said some stupid things whilst in the warm, fuzzy embraces of one-to-many Sierra Nevada Pale Ales.

That being said, don’t insult potential converts! I get that you love the game. Hell, I love the hobby. But no one will knowingly join what they suspect is a cult, and you’re acting very cult like when you say stuff like that.

Now I realize I don’t know who their prospective audience is. And maybe that question needs to be asked: is it a show for fanboys or a show to grow the fan base? This is important, because quite frankly, I don’t think you can be both — not effectively at least.

It reminds me of that wonderful exchange between Anton Ego and Mustafa in Ratatouille:

Ego: Yes, I think I do. After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?
Mustafa: With what, sir?
Ego: Perspective. Fresh out, I take it?
Mustafa: I am, uh…
Ego: Very well. Since you’re all out of perspective and no one else seems to have it in this BLOODY TOWN, I’ll make you a deal. You provide the food, I’ll provide the perspective, which would go nicely with a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947.

When the brand VP from Pinnacle shows more perspective than the hosts, warning bells go off for me.

I get the impression that the Savage Worlds community it trying too hard to convince the rest of the larger RPG community that their game is “the way.”

Stop it. Let me assure you that the rest of the RPG community is not a mass of poor, pathetic lost souls looking for salvation. Savage Worlds is just a game — one of many.

Don’t get me wrong: the show is good. The content is good. The hosts are funny and the audio is well produced. It’s just a little “inside baseball.”

To Conclude…

There have been some people who question Pinnacle’s business mode (some of whom are invested in WotC’s prolific and pricey production schedule). Can they be viable with a single core rule book that cost less than ten dollars? I hope so. Pinnacle’s done more to foster the sense of community than any other game company I know of. And in the internet age, that’s a very smart and effective strategy. I’d like to seem them grow and prosper.

We’re going to try a Savage Worlds game in the next few weeks, and we’ll let you know what we think when we’re done with it. The system certainly looks good. And considering the speed and simplicity of the combat system, it should prove to be a nice break from the DnD4E campaign I’m currently running. Of all my criticisms of DnD4E (and there are many) the biggest, and apparently most universal, is the fact that combat is slow — painfully so.

Who knows, maybe after running a Savage Worlds game, my eyes will get all watery (much like Anton Ego’s) and I’ll hearken back to the day when mademoiselle Venable server her little boy a warm plate of ratatouille after skinning his knee while riding his bicycle.

Probably not. I would have been meatloaf, anyway.