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Jeff's Gameblog
Monday, 28 June 2004
In Criticism of Good Games
Topic: RPGs
I've had plenty of nice things to say about some pretty poor RPGs in my "In Praise of Bad Games" series. For a balanced view I thought I should maybe take some well-loved games and lay into them with the ol' Stick of Pain. I want to start with the system that I am currently playing and have fallen in love with, Savage Worlds.

I would describe Shane Hensley's Savage Worlds as a rules-medium generic system with a decidedly pulpy bent. The system seems to be a development from Mr. Hensley's earlier work, the horror/steampunk western Deadlands. Most stats and skills are rated with a single die, much like Jadeclaw/Ironclaw, the Window, and Dave Hoover's unfinished Dicebag. The range of possible dice is d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. Thus my puny friar character Rondoo has a Strength of d4 but his education gives him a Smarts of d8. I like it. Its very simple and has the advantage of using lotsa different dice. Not enough games use multiple polyhedral types. Character generation is a pretty simple points-based affair, with a merits and flaws system. The math is very simple, with low numbers, so there's no half point shaving exercises or other sorts of tom foolery one finds in GURPS or HERO games. The merit system (called Edges) looks a lot like the 3E feat system. Although feats in 3E make me crazy, I actually like the implementation in SW. I think the difference is that I don't like the feats married to the older class/level technology. Savage Worlds doesn't have to contend with any earlier design baggage in the way that 3E does. The combat system I would also describe as "like 3E, but I actually enjoy it", the main difference being the lack of AoO (unless one has the appropriate Edge). Areas of Opportunity make me crazy. Not "look at me, I'm Andy Kaufman" crazy. More like "climb the bell tower and shoot people at random" crazy.

All in all, I find that Savage Worlds lives up to its tagline of "Fast! Furious! Fun!" But like most any RPG, Savage Worlds still has its share of flaws. I'm still very new to the game, but here are the four problem areas I've encountered so far:

Statistical Weirdness In SW the baseline target number for most rolls is 4. Each interval of four gets you a bonus called a "raise". Raises are very important. For example, one or more raises on your to-hit roll increases the damage done to the opponent. The problem here is that these target numbers interact with SW's exploding dice system. Rolling max on your die means you get to reroll and add the two dice together. I generally like exploding dice but this system has an odd breakpoint. It's actually easier to get that first raise (at target number 8) with a d6 in a stat rather than a d8. The math to back this claim up is simple. On the d8, you have a 1 in 8 chance of getting that first raise, if you roll an 8. One divided by eight is .125. That means on a d8 you have a 12.5% chance of getting the raise. Getting to an 8 on the d6 is a two step process. First you have to get an exploding result. That only happens on a 6. Then you need to get any number but a 1 on your second roll. That makes your chances of getting an 8 or better equal to 1/6 multiplied by 5/6. That works out to a 13.8% chance of hitting that first raise. This flaw only amounts to a 1.3% discrepancy from the intentions of the design, so I'm not exactly forming a peasant mob to storm Mr. Hensley's castle. Still, these are the sort of things I kinda expect a professional game designer to address before publishing rules. The probabilities of the Savage Worlds dice mechanics aren't as opaque as things like the Storyteller system. If I can find this flaw, why didn't the author?

Wound System Clunky Most of the mechanics in Savage Worlds are pretty smooth. The wound system is one of the places where this seems to break down. I can't quite wrap my head around it. At first I thought I was just being a lazy player and not learning all the rules because so many people at the table already knew them, but I'm not the only one with this same experience. RPG.netter and fellow retrogamer Grubman also hits a rough patch when it comes to the wound mechanics. Grubman got his hands on SW because it had some good cred among the old school crowd. And I can see why. Savage Worlds is very combat friendly, very minis friendly, and lacks the artsy-fartsiness of the post-Vampire rpg world. Grubman reports that he doesn't not play SW pretty much only because the wound mechanics are so darn non-intuitive in an otherwise simple system. (I may still be a lazy player though.)

Too many bad guys, too many bennies A bennie is a device, usually in the form of a glass stone, that the players may turn in for opportunities to reroll poor rolls or to reduce the effects of wounds. Although not always embraced by mainstream gaming, bennie type mechanics have a long history in the hobby, from 1st edition Top Secret to James Bond 007 to the original Marvel Superheroes to Over the Edge to QAGS. In general, bennies represent an acknowledgement by the system that the players are the protagonists of the game and as such deserve special treatment. I think Robin Laws put this attitude most succintly when in Rune he notes that only monsters, not PCs, can lose limbs in combat "because monsters don't buy rulebooks". But seriously, most players like having a 'get out of jail free' card for when the going gets especially tough. The problem in SW is that sometimes the forces o' evil seem to have plenty of bennies to go around. The game explicitly allocates bennies to the bad guys, but I'm surprised at how often they come up in play. The general pulpishness of the game led me to assume that only the Master Villain and Kickass Lieutenant would have their own supply of bennies. Yet in the campaign I'm in we seem to be encountering ordinary monsters with these script-bending resources. Maybe this is a peculiarity to the game I'm in, but I think that this issue would not be coming up if the rules explicitly said to only give bennies to the big bad, his key henchman, dragons, uberninjas, etc.

Bennies as XPs Most PCs get 3 bennies at the start of the session. At the end of the session you are required to surrender any remaining bennies. For each bennie turned in at the end of the night you get to roll a d6. On a 5 or 6 your character gets an experience point. In Savage Worlds it only takes 5 experience to buy a new goodie for your character (a new Edge, an increase in die type of a stat, etc), so every xp counts. A character who holds their bennies rather than uses them will eventually be buffer than the PC who burns through their bennies. I assume that this fact explains why so many fellow players at my Wednesday game try to hold onto their bennies as long as possible. At the end of the night a lot of bennies get turned in. I've seen the exact same problem in Marvel Superhero campaigns. In MSH the stat called Karma is both your pool for manipulating dice rolls and your XP total for purchasing new powers. Most MSH games I've seen involved almost no Karma expenditures in play. Everyone was saving up for more or better superpowers. To be fair to the other players, I would probably turtle down and horde bennies myself if it weren't for my long-standing membership in the "smoke 'em if you got 'em" school of rpg resource management. I first encountered this theory in an old Dragon article devoted to strategies for AD&D tournament play. The basic argument was that players should not hold back the expendables (spells and device charges) early in the game in case they are needed later in the adventure. If you don't survive to the end of the adventure, what good does that extra healing spell do you? Although playing fast and loose with the resources has sometimes backfired for me, I've never had cause to regret it. While other players are miserly rationing their spells, I have been having a wahoo time flinging fireballs with the wild abandon of a monkey hurling poop at zoo patrons. Not everybody sees it this way though, and the rules for turning bennies into XPs actively discourages the sort of zany PC antics that bennies were designed to promote in the first place.

Despite these flaws, I still give Savage Worlds high marks. It's a great game.

Posted by jrients at 1:00 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, 30 June 2004 10:56 AM CDT

Tuesday, 29 June 2004 - 2:40 PM CDT

Name: Rich Sample


Interesting to see comments on Savage Worlds. Ever since playing in a SW game at Winter War, I've wanted to run a Traveller game using the SW rulebook (and Jon Woodwards Savage Traveller), but some of these issues you mention I've also seen and it was only my first time playing.

Some niggles of mine:

1. This goes with (or adds to) your statistical weirdness comments: Doesn't the wild die also add to the statistical wonky-ness? I mean, if I'm a PC, I'm also a Wild Card, which means I get the Wild Die (d6) to throw with my normal roll. You make the arguement that it's easier to hit the first raise with a d6 vs. a d8. If you're a wild card, why not go with a d4 stat instead of a d6 stat...you still get the Wild Die which is essentially the same as always having a d6 skill...plus you have a greater chance of getting a roll again on a d4 vs. a d6 (although I'm not sure how that figures in). There may be something I'm not seeing and I didn't crunch the numbers very hard...which boils down to I could be wrong.

2. High Toughness levels. I don't think this is a problem with SW, per se, but is probably due to GM incorrectly estimating power level, ability, etc. I was playing an obese guy (str d4) and I was fighting a alien lizard dude (toughness 7) so basically I needed to beat or match a 7 with a d4 to do a hit with no raise...This was no fun, as I pretty much was trying for a 4 on my d4 and a 6 on my d6 Wild Die...wheeeee! Round after round...Ohhhh, the pain....

3. Initiative. While I thought the initiative/combat round in Deadlands was slower than a granny with a walker going backwards in molassses, I did like how the cards were used and how you could go multiple times/round. In SW, you draw a card, that's the order you go in...Needs something else...kinda bland to me...

On the other hand, I like that me and my buds could probably whip up characters quickly and combat does flow pretty fast...so I'm undecided...

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