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.