Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Point-Based Character Creation

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Edit: There is also a Smallville Pathways-style group character creation method that’s less crunchy, more playtested, and probably more fun at the table here.

I picked up the new Cortex-based Marvel RPG last week (review probably starting next week, after Savage Worlds concludes). One of the immediate oddities of the game that seems to have leaped out at everyone was the lack of a systematic character creation method. It comes down to “pick an existing Marvel character and give him or her whatever stats seem reasonable.” Maybe there’s a plan for a more in-depth system in a later book or maybe Marvel put its foot down that their last system got a lot of flack from people like me about how easy it was to minmax and break the system and that wasn’t to happen again. Either way, the lack is palpable for players (who make up the majority of players that I know) that want to make their own heroes.

The system below is a first tinkering on my part to retrofit points onto the system. Costs for things are largely based on how much system utility a given power or SFX seems to have: that is, if the power die or SFX could conceivably be used more often in dice pools, it’s priced more expensively. Even with the points, you’ll want to have a pretty in-depth discussion between GM and player about each hero and make sure elements are added because they’re thematic to the hero the player wants, not because the player has spare points and wants to pick up something useful. GMs are specifically encouraged to assess additional point cost to “unrelated collection of useful powers” characters and may even provide a few bonus points to characters that take situationally-useful but highly in-theme powers.

All that said, the points below do get within spitting distance of the existing datafiles that I priced. For reference:

  • Local: Armor
  • Regional: Colossus, Cyclops
  • Regional +XP: Human Torch, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Ms. Marvel, Shadowcat, Thing
  • Global: Beast, Black Widow, Invisible Woman, Mister Fantastic
  • Global +XP: Captain America, Daredevil, Iron Man, Spider-Woman
  • Cosmic: Emma Frost, Spider-Man, Storm, Wolverine

Power Level

Starting characters in this system are rated by power level. This is basically the frame of the game that the characters can play from the starting session. If you let experience persist across Events, characters will likely upgrade levels every few Events.

  • Local characters are either just starting out or have profoundly limited powersets. They will most frequently deal with small-time criminals (“Street Heroes”) or be in training for higher-powered teams (e.g., X-Men trainees). Local characters start with 20 points to spend on Power Sets and 4 points to spend on Specialties.
  • Regional characters are entry-level with a pretty good power range, have extensive pre-game training, or are experienced heroes with a limited power range. They will either handle problems all over a major city or may pursue specifically relevant stories all over the world (common for mutants). Regional characters start with 30 points to spend on Power Sets and 6 points to spend on Specialties.
  • Global characters have had pretty extensive experiences before the start of play and commonly have a broad selection of powers to match. They deal with crises all over the world and may periodically go to other worlds or planes. Global characters start with 40 points to spend on Power Sets and 10 points to spend on Specialties.
  • Cosmic characters have reams of backstory, extensive powers, and tons of training. They frequently have to spend substantial amounts of time off-planet to find threats significant enough for them and/or are solo heroes that often deal with threats that would stump whole teams of less experienced characters. Cosmic characters start with 50 points to spend on Power Sets and 16 points to spend on Specialties.

Affiliations and Distinctions

Characters of any power level arrange Affiliations and Distinctions normally (i.e., match d10, d8, and d6 to Solo, Buddy, and Team and then pick three Distinctions). At the group’s discretion, Local and Regional characters may start with fewer Distinctions and the intention of gaining more related to character development in play.

Power Sets

Characters start with one Power Set for free. If the character has a second Power Set, it costs 2 points extra per Power Trait in that set (e.g., a secondary power set with three Power Traits costs +6 points beyond the costs of its traits and SFX).

Each Power Trait has a cost that is multiplied by the die step (d6=2, d8=3, d10=4, and d12=5) to find the cost of adding that Trait. For example, a cost 2 Trait at d8 costs 6 points and a cost 3 trait at d12 costs 15 points.

Special Effects (SFX) have a flat cost to add to the Power Set.

Each Power Set must have at least one Limit. Additional Limits do not generally provide any kind of bonus (other than that the character now has an additional way to recover Plot Points or drain the Doom Pool). If both player and GM agree that a Limit is unusually restrictive or powerful (like Sentry’s “The Void”), the GM may choose to award a small number of bonus points. However, be wary of awarding one player bonus points for a limit that will provide problems for the whole team.

Power Traits

A Local character can only have one Trait at d8, and the rest must be d6. A Regional character can have one Trait at d10, the rest must be d8 or less. A Global character can have one Trait at d12, the rest must be d10 or less. A Cosmic character can have any number of traits at d12. At GM’s discretion, particularly compelling rationales may bypass this restriction.

  • Attack Powers: 1, 2 for a particularly unresisted energy type
  • Durability: 2, 3 with no major weakness
  • Elemental Control: 3, 4 for powerful elements (e.g., Cosmic) at GM’s discretion
  • Intangibility: 1
  • Invisibility: 2
  • Mimic: 2
  • Movement: 1, 2 for flight
  • Psychic Powers: 1 for animal and plant control, 2 for mind control and telepathy
  • Reflexes: 2
  • Resistance: 1
  • Senses: 2
  • Shapeshifting: 2
  • Size-Changing: 1
  • Sorcery: 3
  • Stamina: 2
  • Strength: 1
  • Stretching: 1
  • Teleport: 2
  • Transmutation: 2

Special Effects

  • Absorption: 2, 3 for extremely broad (GM’s discretion)
  • Afflict: 2
  • Area Attack: 3
  • Berserk: 1
  • Boost: 1
  • Burst: 2
  • Constructs: 2
  • Counterattack: 2
  • Dangerous: 2
  • Focus: 1
  • Healing: 1
  • Immunity: 1-3 depending on broadness (GM’s discretion)
  • Invulnerable: 2, 3 if weakness is rare
  • Multipower: 2
  • Second Chance: 1
  • Second Wind: 3
  • Unleashed: 2
  • Versatile: 2

Specialties

Any remainder of points for Powers can be halved and applied as additional points for Specialties. Any remainder of points for Specialties can be spent on Powers directly (but are not multiplied).

A d6 Specialty costs 1 point, a d8 costs 2, and a d10 costs 4. Characters above Local level aren’t encouraged to have d6 Specialties.

A character cannot have more d10 Specialties than d8 Specialties (e.g., if a character wants two d10 Specialties, he must have at least two d8 Specialties as well).

Milestones

GM and player should work together to come up with relevant milestones. In general, all PCs should have milestones that are likely to happen with the same level of frequency (e.g., one character should not have a 1 XP milestone that can easily happen over and over while another has a 1 XP milestone that can happen only once).

An updated way to do this with pathways-style creation is here.

System Review: Savage Worlds, Part 3

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Skills Out of Combat

Let’s be honest here, as a game that’s both a pulp action game and a potential replacement for D&D, Savage Worlds has a lot of pagecount devoted to combat. It’s about a quarter of the explorer’s edition, by my count. And that’s just the stuff that’s directly about actions in combat and combat gear. Many of the spells and edges are combat-related as well, pushing the count further.

But out of 24 skills listed in the book (not counting magic skills), only three are directly related to combat. You also have the standard range of mobility skills like climb, drive, ride, and swim. You have stealth, notice, investigation, and knowledge. You even have a few social skills like intimidation, persuasion, and taunt. And since the game is skill-based, you can pretty easily make a character with lots of non-combat skills and not much for combat.

Around 15 of the skills each have at least one fully detailed use. For the mobility skills, it’s generally a direct link to the chase system (always appropriate to a pulp game). The social skills each have their own rules: persuasion hooks into a D&D-esque friendliness chart and intimidation and taunt have a Test of Wills system that can be used in or out of combat to applied effects to a target. Stealth, survival, guts, and even gambling all have dedicated subsystems.

That’s why it’s glaring that there are a small number of skills that seem to be completely up to GM fiat (or expect their use to be prescribed by a module). In particular, information gathering skills like investigation, knowledge, and notice don’t offer up any guidelines as to setting appropriate difficulties (at least in the Explorer’s Edition). Knowledge is a specific issue because it’s the only skill I’m aware of that players have to buy multiple times for specialties. Not that it’s hard to design a use for those skills in play, but it does require a level of player faith in the GM remembering to support them that isn’t present in the large majority of other skills. If they were going to the trouble of inventing some kind of modular but consistent system for most of the skills, I would have liked to see all of the skills have something like that.

In practice, the standard difficulty of 4 does make it pretty easy to run skills on the fly. Even a bare minimum skill of d4 results in well over a 50% chance of success without modifiers (counting, of course, the wild die). Middle tiers of skill are more likely to get a raise, and high tiers of skill are likely to get two. Anything beyond two raises is generally a fluke of exploding dice (as even max skill will have to Ace to get a 16 or better). So the GM pretty much just has to get an idea of failure/minimal success/moderate success/exceptional success in mind to have a meaningful roll. And that’s a pretty small spectrum for a margin-of-success-based engine.

Combat

A lot of this has already been covered in Harbinger’s player-side review, so allow me to sum up. Combat in Savage Worlds is a pretty interesting limited-wounds system that initially seems like White Wolf but is actually more like Mutants and Masterminds. Too much of a sum up? Allow me to go into more detail.

Initial attacks are made with a standard roll of an appropriate combat skill. Melee attacks are made against a difficulty of a fixed “Parry” number set by the target’s own melee combat skill and gear bonuses. Ranged attacks are made against the standard difficulty 4 with penalties for range and cover. This is a divide my players found a little odd, but does at least create a difference in scope between blades and guns that’s not present in a lot of systems (i.e., if you’re out in the open at range, you’re going to take some serious gun damage no matter how skilled you are). A success allows you to roll damage, and each raise gives you an extra d6 on the damage roll.

Damage is those success d6s plus either Strength+Weapon die for melee or a fixed pair of dice for ranged. This total is all added together, but it’s not applied as a total in a traditional sense. Instead, the sum of all the dice is applied to the target’s Toughness+Armor number as a regular skill check: you’re checking for success and raises. This is the first real oddness of the combat system, and harkens back to one of my issues with CthuluTech: the typical language for skill results is abandoned for damage in that you’re totaling all the dice rather than taking the highest. The result of this is that, especially since the dice all explode, damage rolls can be incredibly swingy. The same set of dice can pretty easily range from missing the threshold entirely to getting several raises. And each raise on the attack roll is going to, on average, result in at least one more raise on the damage roll (because the d6 averages 4; or better with aces). In my playtest, this resulted in a breakpoint around Toughness 10 where the target would spend several rounds not being damaged at all only to suffer several wounds in one hit from a lucky roll.

The next unusual thing about the system is how these successes translate. Minimal success with no raises applies the Shaken condition (which can also be applied by intimidate and taunt via Test of Wills and a few other effects). When a target is Shaken, it’s basically a stun. On the target’s action, he has to pass a Spirit roll to clear it, and without a raise or spending a benny, that was the target’s whole round. If the target of an attack would be Shaken but is already suffering that condition, he instead takes a wound. So, functionally, Shaken serves as an ablative health level: it’s easier to damage you when you’re caught off guard, but you can recover and get back to the fight none the worse for wear if you weren’t tagged again while Shaken.

Unfortunately, Shaken can also lead to a running stunlock where there are just enough attack successes and Spirit successes to keep lots of the combat from doing much else besides applying and then clearing Shaken (and, unless I missed a rule exception, when you do take a wound, the penalty also applies to clearing Shaken, making you stunned longer). The condition doesn’t actually make you any easier to hit or damage (except in that if you get a successful attack past Toughness, you’re guaranteed a wound), so there are cases where a target that can be hit and damaged around half the time basically just spends rounds and rounds locked down with the opponent hoping against hope for some aces on damage rolls. My playtest session ended on a fight that took a ridiculously long time because it featured high-defense enemies with low Spirit; the players couldn’t reliably damage them but could basically keep them locked down through a combination of spells and tests of will. The next time I run the game, I’m giving serious thought to changing Shaken from a stun to a defense penalty that still allows you to act.

However, on the whole, combat in the game is fast and interesting, particularly at defense totals that are within the sweet spot for the group. The damage system doesn’t require a ton of bookkeeping but still provides a meaningful gradation of threats. There are lots of interesting combat options (some of which might have made the last fight go faster if we’d remembered to use them), and the consequence of getting pushed to incapacitated are an interesting mix of simulation and heroism.

Ultimately, I have some reservations, but, just like with character creation, they’re issues that I’m inspired to tinker with rather than allow them to turn me off the system entirely.

Conclusion

Alternate Savage Worlds Attributes

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Based on my general uncertainty of the utility of attributes discussed in last week’s review, here is how I might replace attributes in a Savage Worlds game. This should have the side effect of making characters less likely to exceed expected balances at low rank.

Basics

  • Characters roll 1d6 (unless modified by an Edge) for most miscellaneous rolls formerly covered by attributes. This includes resisting tricks, recovering from Shaken, resisting disease and hunger, and any other attribute roll not mentioned below.
  • Characters roll 1d4 (unless modified by an Edge) for performing tricks and adding to melee weapon damage
  • Toughness for all characters is 4 unless modified by an Edge.
  • At Rank 1, characters cannot purchase skills higher than 1d8 (though they might still benefit from passive bonuses from Edges). At Rank 2 this cap increases to 1d10, 1d12 at Rank 3, 1d12+1 at Rank 4, and 1d12+2 at Rank 5.
  • When making a character, players gain 3 additional Edges (but, of course, no points to spend on attributes). They can be spent on existing Edges or the new Edges below.

New Edges

Each Edge below in the sequence requires the previous Edge as a prerequisite.

Strong: You add 1d6 to melee weapon damage (instead of 1d4) and add +1 to miscellaneous (1d6) tests involving physical might (which previously required a Strength roll).

Mighty: Your bonus from Strong increases to 1d8 and +2. Prereq: Rank 2.

Brutal: Your bonus from Mighty increases to 1d12 and +3. Prereq: Rank 3.

Unstoppable: Your bonus from Brutal increases to 1d12+2 and +4. Prereq: Rank 4.

Tricky: You roll 1d8 to perform and resist Tricks (instead of 1d4 and 1d6).

Clever: You roll 1d10 to perform and resist Tricks. Prereq: Rank 2.

Devious: You roll 1d12 to perform and resist Tricks. Prereq: Rank 3.

Adaptive: You roll 1d8 to recover from Shaken (instead of 1d6) and gain +1 to Guts checks.

Centered: You roll 1d10 to recover from Shaken and gain +2 to Guts checks. Prereq: Rank 2.

Unshakable: You roll 1d12 to recover from Shaken and gain +3 to Guts checks. Prereq: Rank 3.

Tough: Your toughness is 5 (instead of 4) and you add +1 to miscellaneous (1d6) tests involving physical health (which previously required a Vigor roll).

Indomitable: Your toughness is 6 and you add +2 to physical health tests. Prereq: Rank 2.

Invulnerable: Your toughness is 7 and you add +3 to physical health tests. Prereq: Rank 3.

Impervious: Your toughness is 8 and you add +4 to physical health tests. Prereq: Rank 4.

Immortal: Your toughness is 10 and you add +5 to physical health tests. Prereq: Rank 5.

System Review: Savage Worlds, Part 2

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Character Creation

As mentioned last week, Savage Worlds is an interesting hybrid of skill-based and level-based. Characters spend experience on whatever traits they want as they get it (well, they technically turn every five experience into one “advance”), and every 20 experience they increase a level (“rank”). The primary benefit of increased rank is access to more powerful character options (particularly powers and edges). Effectively, rank is a prerequisite in the same way a high attribute or skill would be. This is theoretically a pretty straightforward way of having the more human-scale power levels of a skill-based system while mitigating the ability of a high starting combat skill from letting a new character trounce threats that are intended to be overpowering. Practically, I don’t have enough experience with the game to say whether it works for sure, but having a maxed skill is a huge advantage (and I’ll get into that more next week).

The creation method itself is not likely to have many surprises for players of other skill-based systems. The biggest (and most pleasant) surprise of the whole thing is the elimination of the current level conundrum: advances after character creation are spent in the same way as points during character creation (i.e., with no increasing cost to buy higher levels of a trait). This makes it less of a mathematical advantage to create an idiot-savant character during chargen with no traits that aren’t as high as possible.

However, the game does still try to limit high-end skill creep in a different way. While you don’t roll Attribute + Skill, each skill still has a governing attribute. If a player wants to raise a skill over that attribute, it costs double. While sensible on paper, this method feels slightly punitive when actually making or upgrading a character. This is partly because the game’s suggested starting skill points are not enough to make a very well-rounded character in the first place, and having to pay double to get a reasonable skill rank that disagrees with your attribute choices makes this pool effectively smaller. Additionally, there is no concept of getting a refund if you eventually do raise the attribute, so two identical characters could have different experience totals based on what order they made purchases. Given that, with advances, raising an attribute costs the same as raising a skill over its governing attribute, you can get two attribute increases and two skill increases for the same price as three skill increases. In making pre-gen characters, it felt like making idiot savants was still a good tactic: not because of a penalty for buying high skills after chargen, but just because it pays to max out one attribute and the associated skills that you want before moving on to another.

Part of the problem is that attributes have no consistent system impact, instead being used in often idiosyncratic ways throughout the system. Strength adds to melee damage, Vigor sets Toughness, and Spirit is necessary to recover from the omnipresent Shaken condition (explained next week), and any attribute may be used more or less arbitrarily as a die or defense against certain maneuver types. The importance of none of these are apparent during character creation except Toughness and possibly melee damage (attached to attributes that govern no skills except Climbing). Thus players can get into a position of trying to arrange limited attribute points to make it possible to get the desired skills and then be blindsided when a low attribute turns out to be important in play.

Despite my reservations with the character creation, though, it is very easy to hack to do whatever I feel works better, were I to run the game long term. The game works very hard to establish only two tiers of costs:

  • The value of an attribute level or edge (and the amount gained from a major drawback)
  • Half that value, which can be used to purchase a skill level up to the governing attribute (and the amount gained from a minor drawback)

Edges are like D&D feats or Fate stunts, in that they give a predefined power and can be further balanced with prerequisites. The number of drawbacks that can be taken is limited and they’re on the level of the MURPG‘s drawbacks (i.e., this will actually create frequent, undesirable problems for your character), so players are unlikely to want to try to take too many anyway. So you wind up with a system with only two levels of granularity as far as advancement goes. This probably means that certain things are not as balanced as they could be, but it does mean that you can make major hacks to the traits without too much worry that it will create a drastic imbalance versus the standard game.

And, ultimately, chargen is pretty fast and fun. I was able to churn out stats for five player characters each with four advances in around an hour, without having made a character before, and each had a pretty solid array of traits that fit the character concept. Considering that I was trying to mimic D&D characters fairly closely, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to make characters that fit D&D roles faster than in their original system and, if anything, they were more believably versatile in their capabilities. The system makes me want to tinker with it, rather than ignore it entirely, which is always a good thing.

Part 3

Borrowing from Video Games: Skyrim’s Sandbox

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This is the first is what will probably be an irregular series on lessons for tabletop RPGs that can be learned from CRPGs. Minor spoilers for the game in question should be assumed.

It was around thirty hours into Skyrim that I started deliberately pursuing any of the actual plots in the game. And then, it was only to join the fighter’s guild because I heard that they’d give you your money back for weapon and armor training once you were friends with them. Up to that point, I had done precisely enough of the main plot to unlock the dragon shouts game mechanic, and then had just started wandering to my explorer’s heart’s content. Happen on map node. Explore map node. Kill creatures. Loot. Repeat.

As I was playing, I couldn’t help but notice that this was likely the closest the hexcrawl crowd is going to get in a AAA video game to their preferred tabletop experience: the particular form of sandbox where you explore an open world map. And while I think the players that expect a hexcrawl to be the default model of fantasy gaming are in the minority, pretty much every GM I know has considered running one at some point (or at least a sandbox of a non-world-map variety). The downside, of course, is that what most games can’t borrow from Skyrim is a giant team of writers, scripters, and artists filling in hundreds of unique encounters all over the map. The number of GMs I’ve heard talk about running a hexcrawl is far greater than the number that eventually runs one, due to the sheer amount of work involved in prepping a truly open environment.

But while you probably can’t borrow Skyrim’s dev team, you can take away some tricks to make your sandbox more coherent and engaging.

Major Plots are Global

When I finally started to do the main plot in the game in earnest (probably around hour forty, 2-4 times longer than all the content in many games), I was able to pick it back up with no problem even though it had been at least twenty game hours since I’d messed with it previously. That’s because the overplots of the game concern the return of the dragons and a civil war. Both of these things you see everywhere, even if you’re not on the main plot. Dragon attacks seem to happen with increasing frequency as you play, and you’ll be stumbling across their lairs anyway as you explore. Meanwhile, war camps for each faction are common encounters in the wilderness, and when you’re in town the alliance to one side or the other is a frequent topic of ambient NPC dialogue and features heavily in politics-related missions. You can refuse to do the main questline, but it’s much harder to avoid the related elements of those quests.

This trick is pretty common in tabletop sandboxes, and it’s often even intended that the “main plots” will just be ambiance for a while before the players feel like they’re ready to mess with them. And all it requires is having some world-level plots that could conceivably be visible from anywhere the players visit and then advance them gradually enough that the players take notice.

Powerful Necromancer? Early on the players notice that many villages they visit have problems with graverobbing and several undead-infested tombs appear to have been explored already without disturbing the undead and without taking much besides possibly books. Eventually, undead encounters start increasing in the wilderness and rumors of their source can start building to drive the players into action.

Planar Incursion? Minor creatures from the plane seem to get into weird stuff early on, and areas of the world seem to be strangely fused with another reality. Eventually rifts start opening up and nasty things spill out, getting in the players’ way at the very least.

You don’t even have to destroy your world if the players aren’t interested in getting involved. If they pass on the plot, eventually it dies down because someone else dealt with it and the next major plot gets spun out of the fallout. The players feel like they’re in a living world that will move without them, and that they can choose to involve themselves or not.

Connections Abound

Almost no gameplay in Skyrim is actually limited to a single spot. You can just wander in a direction completing every dungeon/encounter node you see on the map, but all the while the game will be giving you clues and quests to direct you somewhere else. It may be as explicit as a mission added to your log, or just some quest item that you can’t get out of your inventory until you figure out who it belongs to. Inevitably, if you follow up, you’ll find yourself traveling far across the map… generally to places you could pick up even more quests if you were so inclined.

This is harder in tabletop sandboxes because of the lack of a room full of developers to pre-plan these connections. It’s hard enough to detail a whole bunch of encounter sites on your own without having to remember to explicitly link them together non-geographically. But it’s important to try, because these indirect links between sites become the fuel for player-directed play. That is, connections that the players can choose to follow up on or ignore are what actually makes the game into what people are really thinking about when they imagine the fun of a sandbox. With no connections between sites other than geography, your sandbox becomes the opposite, and just as undesirable, extreme of a railroad: players just wander randomly and deal with whatever they happen across with no agenda or impetus.

A simple way to do this with less than total prep is to give each encounter node an undescribed connection to another node or two. And create a few “quest hub” nodes, generally larger towns or cities, where there are a lot of outgoing connections, and try to link many of your encounter nodes to one of these. This can all be accomplished with a flowchart if you’re feeling up to it, or just a couple of small notations on the GM map (e.g, “Hex A6: links to G5 and I8”). Once you’re actually filling in the location, think about what would make sense as a link to the other node, and throw it in. It can be as simple as a treasure map or can be some complex entanglement between the sites.

Culture and Theme are Omnipresent

Even if you completely ignore all context in Skyrim—never doing a mission in your log, never following up on a connection, and just hitting nodes as they appear on your radar—you’re still going to be immersed in the game. One part of that is the context of culture. For example, some dungeons are dwarven and some are human, and they’re very distinctive. You’ll learn a lot about these cultures just by blundering through their dungeons. The second part is thematic links between concepts. For example, daedra princes are jerks. If you happen across an encounter or dungeon that features one of these demonic entities, you will gradually learn that even the most benevolent of them is mean, and the others will go out of their way to make you miserable. You’ve picked up on the cosmology without even trying.

This is probably the hardest thing to do without a huge team of artists and lore writers keeping everything consistent. But it pays off in presenting your world as a whole rather than a disparate set of encounters. In particular, a few strong themes can tie your game together even if the players do nothing else related. For example, if one of your themes is “blasphemy is always followed by swift divine retribution” and a bunch of your dungeons and other encounters are variations on creative divine punishments, the players will eventually get it (explicitly or unconsciously), and enjoy the worldbuilding all the more.

When making your sandbox, this is actually easier than it may seem. In your early notes you can do something like “All ruins are Elven, Orcish, or Dragonkin and all dungeons are Dwarven, Goblin, or Human Tombs” and then come up with a few significant visual and encounter variations for the different types. Immediately, you’ll stop having generic dungeons as players have the ability to compare and contrast. Simultaneously, you can come up with a few overarching themes, like “Never make a deal with a devil” or “The first sin is Oathbreaking,” and try to design any backstory discovered in dungeons or any story encounters to speak to these themes in some way. Even if the players never follow up on any kind of plot or direct connection, the game as a whole should feel consistent.

System Review: Savage Worlds, Part 1

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It’s Like I’m Down on the Floor

I’ve almost played a lot of Deadlands. By which I mean most of my friends have been in love with that game since the late 90s, and talk about running it all the time, but I’ve only actually played in two sessions. I understood why people at least talked a lot about running it. In addition to a pretty cool Western setting, it was doing some pretty innovative, or at least unusual, things systemwise for the 90s. Integrating playing-card-based mechanics to capture the gambling-heavy feel of the setting was particularly noteworthy.

A few years ago I began seeing a lot of RPGnet posts talking about using Savage Worlds for various and sundry game concepts. I wasn’t at all sure what that was until I finally happened across a copy of the Explorer’s Edition version of the rules, which is a thin trade-sized paperback. In a lot of ways, it’s Deadlands broadened to handle a wider array of settings. Specifically, it reads a lot like, “If we broaden the Deadlands mechanics sufficiently to allow easy conversion of D&D characters, it turns out we can do superheroes, pulp, and a bunch of other stuff too!” Obviously, that’s just speculation on my part. It’s not like I was in the room.

So, in effect, Savage Worlds is a mirror image of GURPS: rather than a completely generic and highly granular system designed to be tuned to fit different genres, it’s a highly tuned system originally designed for a specific genre and ultimately expanded to handle others. The flavor of the Western still clings to the system, with your fear-resistance trait being Guts, dice exploding referred to as an Ace, retaining playing cards for initiative, and a lot of other little ways. Given that most of the published settings for the game seem to be in the spectrum of high-action pulp, it seems like the designers are okay with this preservation of flavor. Savage Worlds is functionally positioned, then, as a generic system for running pulp.

Does it live up to this position?

Core Mechanics

Savage Worlds is a skill-based system with a light level-based component: certain powerful advantages and spells require you to hit higher tiers of experience before they can be purchased, but otherwise you can spend your points on anything you want. Skills themselves are a stepped dice progression similar to Cortex or Earthdawn: raising skills means buying a bigger die.

Unlike these other stepped die mechanic games, even though you have attributes, you don’t roll Attribute+Skill. Instead, player characters always roll one die from traits and a d6 “wild die” to mark them as heroes, keeping the die that rolls higher. NPCs often don’t get a wild die, and roll only a single die for their relevant trait. This, of course, means that PCs have a much greater protection against the flat probability of a single die: even if you have a d12 it could still roll low, and hopefully in that case your d6 will roll high to compensate.

This would also mean that the game was on a fairly fixed range of results (the highest die size being a d12 and not adding results together), except for two factors. The first is that the game does use static modifiers to the result for many effects. These are usually small, but could push a result up or down. The second, and more relevant, is that all dice in the game explode (“Ace”): rolling the maximum result allows you to keep it and then add another roll with no upper cap to the number of explosions. It’s, thus, not uncommon for the upper bounds on a decently skilled character’s rolls to be in the mid-teens. And the occasional lucky roll series can allow a character with a very low skill to get an extremely successful result.

All of this is coupled with a semi-standard difficulty and a standardized margin of success system.

Unless otherwise noted, all rolls in the system are made against a target number of 4: if you roll a 4 or better, you’re successful. This means, even with the lowest trained skill of d4, you have over a 60% chance of success (counting the wild die) before modifiers. Of course, modifiers are fairly heavily used for most rolls that hit the standard difficulty; ranged attacks, for example, can quickly accumulate penalties for range, lighting, etc. that make that difficulty 4 remain fairly imposing. A lot of rolls, particularly contested ones, forego the standard difficulty in exchange for the defender rolling an appropriate opposing trait to set a difficulty (which can result is some swingy behavior) or generating a fixed difficulty based on traits (which is mainly only done in combat).

Margin of success in the system is formalized into the concept of a “Raise:” for every 4 points the roll beats the difficulty, it’s expected to have an upgraded result. Due to the size of this margin vs. the size of the dice, for situations where the difficulty or penalties are closely matched to the character’s skill, a single Raise is common for the best possible roll without an Ace, and two or more Raises is increasingly uncommon without exceptional dice luck with Aces. A trait that’s way higher than the difficulty is more likely to get a second Raise without insane dice luck, but not much more. For a lot of situations, the GM really only has to consider the ramifications of failure, basic success, and exceptional success.

All of this, of course, gets even more complicated with combat.

Part 2

Savage Worlds – Ravenloft Adventure

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I put together a short module set in Ravenloft but using the Savage Worlds rules (for the review that starts this week). It’s fairly straightforward, suitable for a demo scenario, and includes pregen characters and a rules summary. You can get it here.

The village of Steinberg has experienced a troublesome last few decades. A quiet farming community, it has become more and more insular. There is no inn, there is no government to speak of, there is just a small hamlet of people that work their fields by day and are careful to lock themselves in their houses by night. They never discuss the strange anemia that seems to afflict those with inferior locks or the events of fifty-three years ago that make them believe that their lot is only what they are owed…

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