Thursday, May 5, 2011

Savage Worlds - "You Got Miniatures Game in my RPG!"

I've been a tabletop roleplaying gamer for a very long time. From my youth spent playing the classic “red box” D&D and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, through my college years running and playing Shadowrun, learning TORG and coming around full circle back to D&D with 3rd edition and 3.5 with a scattering of other rules systems across a period spanning over 25 years. None of those systems is the one I play or run games in the most now.

Smilin' Jack, The Savage Worlds Mascot.

Savage Worlds has its design goals set out in the tagline for the system: “Fast! Furious! Fun!” The rules manage to do a pretty good job of delivering on that promise. A lot of how and why that works comes from how the ruleset was developed. In the “scattering of other systems” I've played or run as GM, one of them was Deadlands, a Western-themed RPG with magic and monsters in an alternate post Civil War US. The rules used playing cards for initiative, used all the dice like D&D, but had “wound levels” instead of hit points.

Developed along-side of Deadlands as an RPG was a Deadlands-themed miniatures game called The Great Rail Wars, where the Outlaws, Indians, Texas Rangers and Zombies of the setting could fight large-scale battles over clashes with Railroad Companies trying to finish a line from Back East to the California Territory. The miniatures rules were like a stripped-down and streamlined version of the Deadlands RPG rules, with much faster combat and “hero” type figures that almost functioned like characters in a tabletop RPG.

One of the flaws in Classic Deadlands as a system was that combat was slow, due to needing to roll too many dice and go through to many cards to resolve actions. The game also suffered from “must buy every book” and “power creep”, where additional rules were published with every one of dozens of sourcebooks, and characters created before later books were released suffered a disadvantage against those using more powerful options from later books. These factors led to a decline in popularity of the system, and the flaws were apparent to some of the designers, who in some ways said they preferred the cleaner and easier Great Rail Wars rules.

Where it All Began.

The original edition of Savage Worlds took the strengths of the miniatures game, expanded on the powers and systems concerning heroic units, and addressed “too many sourcebooks” from the beginning. The combat system is fast, and designed to be able to handle battles with dozens of participants fighting at the same time at the speed of a game like Warhammer instead of the multi-hour ordeal such a fight would be in D&D. Generic “hit em a few times and they die” units and PCs or Major Villains are categorized as “extras” and “Wild Cards”, with Wild Cards having a full set of wound levels and abilities like a PC in any game. From the outset, Savage Worlds was designed to be used with the core rules, a setting book, and maybe a third book for printed adventures, though more often than not entire campaigns full of adventures are published in the “world books”.

The system was opened to other publishers under a limited license similar to the D20 Open Gaming License, and now there are many different settings available to run campaigns in using the rules. The rulebook is currently in its 3rd incarnation, the “Explorer's Edition”, with a new edition releasing this summer. Certain powers and rules systems are changed and tweaked a bit between rules incarnations for balance and clarity, and in general, the rules have gotten stronger with time. Heroes have five “ranks” to progress through (Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic and Legendary) every twenty experience points, with the ability to “level up” an ability or power (or purchase new ones) every five experience, with typical session rewards being 2-3 XP. Which powers can be chosen is tied to Rank, and most Edges (like Feats in D&D) and other powers (spells, superpowers, psychic talents, etc) have requirements that must be fulfilled to add them to a character.

Preview Cover For the New Edition Releasing This Year.

Initiative uses playing cards, with each Wild Card getting one (or more, based on edges) and every group of extras getting one. Dice are open-ended, so it is possible for even the weakest extra to get a lucky shot in on a powerful Wild Card. Piles of dice are rolled quickly, with Wild Cards using “bennies”, or points representing luck, training, fate, etc... to re-roll dice or to absorb damage by soaking wounds. Extras have 2 conditions, shaken (meaning stunned, set back, etc) and incapacitated (usually knocked out or dead.) Rules are present for vehicle chases, tests of will (in-combat taunts, intimidation attempts and dirty tricks), and even mass battles commanding hosts of hundreds or thousands of troops, and these systems tend to play as quickly as normal “I hit him/shoot him” combat.

The Art For the Oversized Poker Deck (With Jokers) My Group Uses For Initiative.

Over the last few years, I've run or played in quite a few different settings using these rules, and in general, I've been pleased with the results. My favorite was the Fantasy Pirate Epic game 50 Fathoms, which allowed for the greatest degree of player control over the flow of the campaign. Necessary Evil was a Supers setting where the PCs are Supervillains forced to take the role of heroes when an alien invasion takes over the world, killing most of the Superheroes in the process. Evernight was a classic “Swords and Sorcery” campaign, set a little more “on rails” than other Savage Settings, but with twists all its own that made it a good time anyway. Deadlands Reloaded brings the setting from the game which Savage Worlds came from and updates it to use the newer rules, and Rippers is Victorian Horror with monster parts and mad science used to create a sort of demonic “cyberware” set of enhancements for heroes. Rippers reminds me most, ignoring the Shadowrun-like Rippertech, of what a cross between Van Helsing and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would have looked like if either movie was good.

There Are a Lot of Pulp Action Settings, As Well.

One of the things I like most about the system is that the design of the campaign worlds and way the rules are implemented within them lends itself well to the GM who, due to real adult responsibilities or pure laziness doesn't have or take the time to do hours of weekly session preparation. I prefer to improvise and fly by the seat of my pants as a GM, and I've had far fewer disastrous sessions attempting this with these rules than I have in many other RPGs. If I had a complaint about the system, it is that streamlining comes at the cost of abilities sometimes feeling generic between rules, with often little more than cosmetic distinctions between two characters that fight with similar styles or use similar spells in very different worlds.

Anyone else have some experience playing games with these rules? Is there another either miniatures ruleset that could almost pass for an RPG, or set of RPG rules that plays as fast and clean as miniatures wargaming out there? Let me know.
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6 comments:

Moobeat said...

i'll have to check this out

G said...

I'm like you and love just improvising as I go...cool read

Alpha said...

Wow, I'll have to try this one out.

Conspyre said...

Just make for damned sure your players don't get a glance at the back 2/3's of the book... Damned obvious pictures and headings in Necessary Evil.

Going the other way, miniatures gaming with a fair amount of character, I've been tinkering with Ambush Alley. It's designed as a counterinsurgency minis game, but when you've got a squad or two of Marines against an endless horde of tangos, there's definitely some room for proper scenario building- they've done a couple of nifty linked scenarios.

Adam Thomas said...

Print Playing Cards

The Angry Lurker said...

Never got involved in RPGs much as I was stuck in the multitude of miniatures rules sets involving more historical than anything else, but I remember painting miniatures from the Deadlands set but no more than that.

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