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?
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.