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.
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.