Savage Angels, Conversion Rules

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I’ve been running the No Soul Left Behind campaign for Better Angels for several months now. While the campaign is great and the setting of the core RPG is awesome, we couldn’t really wrap our heads around using the trait system effectively. I’ll probably get around to doing a system review one of these days, but the upshot is that the translation of abstract vices and virtues into concrete rolls to accomplish something never gelled, and my players finally asked me to convert to a system with a more traditional trait system.

I wound up choosing Savage Worlds, for a few reasons: it seems pretty resilient to hacking, I already have the Super Powers Companion for a game that never wound up happening, and it’s pretty easy to grok (plus one of the players already has a lot of Deadlands experience and was one of my review playtesters when I originally tried Savage Worlds).

My goal was to keep the central struggle of Better Angels, which is that the more powerful you become, the closer you are to getting dragged to hell. So the main change to Savage Worlds supers proper is the bolting on of a translation of Better Angels‘ vices and how they relate to powers, sinning, and damnation. This conversion also takes a lot of inspiration from Smallville, insofar as the vice you pick to roll is based on your agenda for the conflict.

The below assumes familiarity with Better Angels and Savage Worlds (and its Super Powers Companion).

Vices

Your wild die (a d6 in standard Savage Worlds) is replaced by a die for whatever vice is your primary motivation for the conflict/scene (e.g., if you have Greed d8, Espionage d10, and Breaking and Entering d6, you’d roll d8+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to steal something but d10+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to get information).

  • Greed: Your motivation in the conflict is to gain something for yourself (typically of permanent value): this is generally something that you feel will be useful to you, particularly in the long term (short-term gains may actually be another motivation). If no other value seems appropriate, Greed can also be used for crime- and economics-related challenges.
  • Espionage (with elements of Gluttony): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your physical needs (anything that makes you feel good physically, including getting into a fight not because you’re angry, but just because you enjoy the thrill) or to discover something secret. If no other value seems appropriate, Espionage can also be used for academics- and perception-related challenges.
  • Cruelty (with elements of Wrath): Your motivation in the conflict is anger: you are pissed off in general and that’s driving your behavior or you specifically hate the opponent. If no other value seems appropriate, Cruelty can also be used for violence-related challenges.
  • Cowardice (with elements of Sloth): Your motivation in the conflict is to not be involved in the conflict: you have no other agenda beyond not submitting to the opponent’s agenda or not being bothered in the first place. If no other value seems appropriate, Cowardice can also be used for athletics-related challenges.
  • Corruption (with elements of Lust): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your psychological needs: generally this is an urge to be loved or otherwise appreciated, but it may involve going after something that will make you feel good emotionally in the short term. If no other value seems appropriate, Corruption can also be used for seduction- and impression-related challenges.
  • Deceit (with elements of Envy): Your motivation in the conflict is to try to exceed the qualities of someone you feel is better then you, to spite someone who has something you don’t have, or to pull one over on a sucker. If no other value seems appropriate, Deceit can also be used for stealth- and deception-related challenges.
  • Pride (Special, See Below): Your motivation in the conflict is to prove your superiority over someone else and prove that you’re the better person (or villain); since this could theoretically apply to almost anything for prideful characters, any other appropriate value should be considered as motivation first before pure pride is the dominant value. If no other value seems appropriate, Pride can also be used for diplomacy- and leadership-related challenges.

Raising Vices

In any scene in which you used a vice (or a power keyed to a vice) and your demon is active, the rating of your vice can go up by one die step. You must have both used the vice and accomplished one of the following things (as argued by the Screwtape):

  • Greed: Stole something you didn’t need (double bump for something priceless you didn’t even want)
  • Espionage: Gloated in victory or consumed something bigger than your head (double bump for totally suborning someone with illicit knowledge or consuming something so big you shouldn’t be able to do so)
  • Cruelty: Killed or permanently maimed a person/lovable animal or destroyed something of real value (double bump for a massacre or mass property damage)
  • Cowardice: Humiliated someone or sat by idly while something awful happened that you could have easily stopped (double bump for killing someone with a death trap or permanently maiming someone through torture)
  • Corruption: Made someone your minion or seduced someone that should know better (double bump for getting lots of minions all at once or completely suborning a hero’s ally through your charm and wiles)
  • Deceit: Betrayed and mocked someone that trusted you or seriously hurt someone because you were jealous of them (double bump for killing an ally or ruining someone out of jealousy)
  • Pride: Claimed that you were invincible and proved to your enemies that you were right; also special:
    • Whenever a vice would be raised over d12, it resets to d8 and your Pride goes up by one die step. (If you get a double bump while at d12, your Pride goes up by one die step and your vice resets to d10.)
    • If your Pride would exceed d12, this begins the process of dragging you to hell (it goeth before a fall… needless to say, don’t claim you’re invincible unless you’re planning to job it and get beaten).

Repenting

In order to lower a vice, you must forego a wild die for the whole scene (rather than using a vice-based wild die), succeed on at least one test where the outcome matters, and accomplish something opposed to the vice you want to lower:

  • Greed: Help someone with no expected gain or give away something of high value to yourself
  • Espionage: Learn something new and important through above-board means or deny yourself something physical you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Cruelty: Demonstrate mercy when it would be much safer and more expedient not to or protect someone at actual risk to yourself
  • Cowardice: Lose a conflict that costs you substantially (rather than running away) or go out of your way to accomplish something the right way when there was a much easier way to do it wrong
  • Corruption: Admit that you did something wrong and work to make up for it or deny yourself something emotional you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Deceit: Tell a truth that is injurious to you or your interests or help out someone you hate at cost to yourself because you know your hatred is irrational

In order to lower Pride by one step:

  • You must lower a vice below d4 (it resets to d8).
  • You must simultaneously humiliate yourself in a lasting way that will have huge consequences for your reputation.
  • If Pride would go below d4, instead reduce another vice by one step (the dominant vice still resets to d8).
  • If all of your vices are d4, you can attempt Exorcism.

Skills

The normal Savage Worlds skills are replaced with:

  • Pretending to Be What You Ain’t (Acting/Deception)*
  • Playing Sports and Shit (Athletics)
  • Hacking, Cracking, and Social Media (Computers)
  • Grand Theft Auto (Driving/Piloting/Boating)
  • The Old Ultraviolence (Fighting)
  • Taking Slugs Out of Your Buddy (Healing)
  • Scaring the Hell out of Someone (Intimidation)*
  • Digging up Dirt, Looking for Clues (Investigation/Tracking)
  • That Shit You Learned in School (Knowledge)**
  • Breaking and Entering (Lockpicking/Security)
  • Good Looking Out (Notice)
  • Getting People to Do What You Want (Persuasion)*
  • Making Shit and Fixing It (Repair/Crafts)
  • Downrange Violence (Shooting/Throwing)
  • Lurking, Prowling, and Generally Skulking (Stealth)
  • Being Down With the Street (Streetwise/Gambling)*
  • Camping and Outdoorsy Shit (Survival/Riding)
  • Being a Mean Girl (Taunt)*

* Uses Charisma bonus
** Not required to be bought as individual skills (unlike normal Savage Worlds)

Powers and Aspects

Powers and Aspects are rebuilt using the rules from the Super Powers Companion as a guideline. In general:

  • Powers scale in effect pegged to the associated vice die (roughly equal to the value of the die; e.g., at a d6, it’s got 6 power points worth of effect, and at d12 it’s got 12 points worth of effect).
  • Aspects scale in effect pegged the higher of the two associated vice dice (roughly equal to twice the value of the die; e.g., Darkness-Shrouded was Devious, so it’s now pegged to Corruption + Deceit, and if your Deceit is d10, it’s got 20 points worth of effect).
  • I’ll give you little summary blocks to show where the power is at at each rating.

For how they work:

  • You can always use powers, but if you use them your demon is active and raising the associated vice is on the table for the scene (even if you didn’t roll that sin’s die at all).
  • To turn on an aspect, roll the dice for the two vices associated with the aspect:
    • If the demon is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step down the value of the vice).
    • If the mortal is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step up the value of the vice).

Example Power, That Hideous Strength (Cruelty):

  • d4: Super Strength (p. 43) +2
  • d6: Super Strength (p. 43) +2, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d8: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d10: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)
  • d12: Super Strength (p. 43) +4, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)

(For example, if your Cruelty is currently rated d8, you have the Super Strength power from page 43 of the SPC at +3 steps, and the Attack, Melee power from page 22 at the first rank.)

Other Demonic Abilities

  • Sinful Perfection: Step down the vice the player is rolling before the roll is made, but add +4 to the roll’s result.
  • Demonic Endurance: Death is not usually on the table for a hellbinder when Incapacitated. If there’s an easy way for you to escape, when Incapacitated you escape (possibly in a no-body, no-kill kind of way). If your opponents have you in a situation where that’s impossible, they’ll find themselves compelled to arrest/capture you rather than killing you. You’re only in danger of dying past Incapacitated when dark magic is on the table in the hands of someone at the end of her rope (i.e., usually, only other hellbinders can actually kill you, or a mortal that’s been pushed way too far).
  • Devilish Creativity: Use the system in the book and replace the virtue costs with Resource units. You can break one big money unit from crimes into 4 Resources. You also accumulate 1 Resource each per scenario to represent your legitimate income. When you want to make a device/improve the lair, spend Resources equal to the book’s costs (in Generosity and Knowledge) and step up a meaningfully related Vice by one. Boom, you have the device.

Advantages

Secrets and surprises from Better Angels work as special-use Bennies: you can expend them to reroll a test for which they’re specifically relevant.

Character Conversion

  • Make characters normally for Savage Worlds. You don’t have to take an arcane background to get your powers (as per SPC). Edges that don’t make sense may be off the table (most of the supernatural ones, anything that makes you rich, etc.).
  • Award Savage Worlds XP based on how far you are into the campaign.
  • Convert your current Generosity to spare Resources, and your various vice ratings to the new vice rating (1 dot is a d4 up to 5 dots is a d12; if you’ve zeroed out a vice, it’s at an X and no powers associated with it function).

Savage Star Wars Notes

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It looks like I’ll be running the Alternate Clone Wars game I outlined earlier this year, which requires finalizing the game system. I’ve chosen to go with Savage Worlds. I’ve looked into work others have done online, particularly this one, but I found them overly thorough for the pulpier game I want to run, and I would have had to change rules to fit my personal conception of the setting and desires anyway. However, I did find that the official Science Fiction Companion covers just about everything needed (with some minor hacks). So all the information below assumes you’re using the Savage Worlds Deluxe Core and Science Fiction Companion, and may not make a lot of sense if you don’t have those as a basis.

Setting Rules

For Star Wars, I suggest the following setting rules (from page 94 of the core book):

  • Heroes Never Die
  • High Adventure
  • Joker’s Wild
  • Multiple Languages

For Multiple Languages, I suggest charging the player for all languages out of the free ones (e.g., an alien with Smarts d4 spends the two languages on Basic and the cultural language of the race; essentially, you really only get bonus languages for higher than minimum Smarts). See also the Monolingual hindrance and Languages focus of Knowledge, below.

Races

The race-building options in the core and sci-fi companion books should be adequate to build pretty much any alien race your player desires. As examples:

  • Human: Gains the usual bonus Edge
  • Wookie: Strength Increase (2), Size +1 (1), Reach (1), Cannot Speak (-1), Hindrance: Outsider (-1)
  • Droid: As per the construct race, but see Droid Mods, below, and droids cannot be Force Sensitive nor can they be affected by mind-altering Force abilities

Most characters are assumed to be insensitive to the Force. They cannot buy the Force skill, but they get to use their full Spirit die to defend against any Force abilities that allow such a defense. For 0 points, any non-droid character can instead add the following racial option:

Force Sensitive (0):

  • Bonus Edge: Arcane Background (The Force)
  • Hindrance: You are more open to the Force than others. You may only use your Force skill die to defend against attacks that insensitives could use their full Spirit die against. You may find yourself targeted by effects and enemies that are drawn to Force users.

Edges and Hindrances

Most Edges and Hindrances from the core book are probably appropriate, except for those reliant on Arcane Backgrounds other than The Force. You may wish to allow Champion, Holy Warrior, and Wizard based on Arcane Background (The Force) and the Force skill, instead of their existing background and skill.

From the sci-fi companion, most of the new Edges and Hindrances seem designed for harder science fiction; Star Wars never seems to care enough about gravity and atmosphere to justify traits that affect interacting with them. Of the additions in that book, I’d only suggest using Low Tech/High Tech and Outsider as Hindrances and Cyber Tolerant, Cyborg, and Rocket Jock as Edges (you could also allow Geared Up, but it seems like a much worse long-term investment than the core Rich edge).

The following are additional for Star Wars:

Edges

Arcane Background (The Force)

Arcane Skill: Force (Spirit)

Starting Power Points: 10

Starting Powers: Special (see Force Powers, below)

Sensitive: The character sometimes receives visions and intuitions with a raw Spirit Roll

Jedi

Requirements: Arcane Background (The Force), Force d4+

You gain a lightsaber that does not count against your starting funds. Attackers must defeat your Parry score when firing blasters (instead of the normal base ranged difficulty) if you are using a lightsaber. You gain any allies and enemies of the Jedi order.

Additional Force Trick

Requirements: Force d8+, must be trained personally by the inventor of the trick

You gain an additional Force Trick (see Force Powers, below).

Additional Mods

Requirements: Droid

Gain an additional two points of Mods (see Droid Mods, below). This edge can be taken multiple times to gain further mods.

Hindrances

Monolingual (Minor)

You only speak Basic. You gain no additional languages for the Multiple Languages setting rule, and cannot buy the Languages focus of Knowledge until you have bought off this Hindrance.

Skills

Uncommon Skills

There are several skills that are unlikely to be used often in Star Wars (particularly in my conception of the alternate Clone Wars). Players should likely not take them at all, and should pay half cost for them if they do purchase them:

  • Boating (Agility)
  • Driving (Agility)
  • Lockpicking (Agility) (use Knowledge (Computers) instead)

Suggested Knowledge Focuses

The following are suggested focuses for the Knowledge skill:

  • Battle
  • Computers
  • Electronics
  • History
  • Language*
  • Planets
  • Science

* While using the Multiple Languages setting rule, this is taken as a single skill instead of one per language. Gain additional fluent languages equal to the die size, and roll the skill to interpret languages in which you are not fluent.

Etiquette (Smarts)

This skill works very similarly to Streetwise, but for the complicated politics of high society and Republic bureaucracy.

Force (Spirit)

Roll this skill to activate your Force powers and to defend against such attacks. At d8+, you originate your own Force Trick (see below).

Force Powers

For simplicity, I’ve chosen to frame all Force powers as modifications of existing powers in the core rulebook. They have the same costs and statistics unless otherwise noted. As a global change, any power that uses the caster’s Spirit or Smarts to set a variable (such as range) instead uses the caster’s Force skill die. Force powers do not generally have specific trappings (though their activation may be obvious to nearby Force sensitives).

Basic Powers

All Force sensitives can activate the following six powers:

  • Boost Trait (core page 110): This can be used on the caster only, and can only be used for Boost (not Lower). It cannot be used to boost the Spirit attribute or Force skill. It can only boost skills that the GM agrees are suitably athletic or intuition-based that relying on the Force for guidance would help. This power is essentially a catch-all for minor Force-user advantages, and a way to use up power points in combat other than Telekinesis.
  • Detect Arcana (core page 111): This can be used to Detect only, not Conceal (though adding in Conceal would be a good Force Trick).
  • Divination (core page 112): This requires a whole meditation period rather than just a minute. Answers are presented as a cryptic vision. Trying to learn something useful about an enemy or otherwise unwilling target may be opposed by that target’s Force defense (Spirit if insensitive, Force if sensitive).
  • Mind Reading (core page 115): This is opposed by an unwilling target’s Force defense.
  • Puppet (core page 115): This is opposed by an unwilling target’s Force defense (and may be hard-stopped if the target’s defense die is equal to or higher than the caster Force die, if you want to make the Mind Trick reliably ineffective against certain targets like in the films). It can only be used to convince the target of a fact, or compel them to take a simple series of actions, not to take combat control (as per the normal Puppet power).
  • Telekinesis (core page 118): The Telekinetic Weapon option can only be used for a single attack (i.e., saber throw) rather than an ongoing floating weapon. Damage of dropping/throwing objects is based on the caster’s Force instead of Spirit. To better reflect the movies, you might want to put the weight limits on an exponential scale rather than a linear one based on Force die size (such as die size squared, rounded down to the nearest 10 pounds, so the progression is d4 (10), d6 (30), d8 (60), d10 (100), d12 (140)); a raise still multiplies the allowed weight by five.

Force Trick

Once a Force Sensitive raises the Force skill to d8, he or she invents a unique Force Trick, and can train others in this trick if they take the Additional Force Trick edge. See the original post for more information on the logic behind this. In general, the player and GM should work together to come up with something that either expands an existing power’s capabilities, or adds a whole new power (likely based on unused Savage Worlds powers). Force Tricks that modify an existing power stack with one another; the caster can always choose to activate all relevant tricks.

Recovering Power Points

Force sensitives can recover power points in two ways:

  • Light Side: After a protracted meditation, recover all power points to full. The length of this meditation is whatever makes sense to the GM, and may require a Force roll to tune out distractions. As per the original post linked above, dabbling with the dark side should extend the time required to benefit from meditation. Jedi can, rarely, achieve this level of calm during conflict; if the GM and player agree that it makes sense due to roleplaying, the player can take an action to make a Force roll and recover two power points on success plus two per raise.
  • Dark Side: The character may choose to channel strong emotions into power, including anger, fear, and pain. Doing this is considered using the dark side, and affects time to meditate. The character may do this reflexively on any round he or she attempts to remove Shaken, and by taking an action otherwise. Wound penalties are flipped and become wound bonuses to this roll. The character rolls Force and regains one power point, plus one per raise. The GM may adjust the difficulty higher or lower based on interpreting how strong the emotion seems to be (stronger emotions have lower difficulties).

Gear

Lots of the gear in the sci-fi companion makes sense for Star Wars. Use your judgement as to what fits and what doesn’t. In general, the pricing for most items seems relatively close to the pricing in other Star Wars sources like Edge of the Empire, such that you can take the Savage Worlds dollar values and use them as credits. One specific exception is starship prices: Star Wars tends to think of them as costing tens or hundreds of thousands, while Savage Worlds prices them at millions or billions. The Savage Worlds prices are probably more realistic: a starship includes lots of expensive components, such that it should probably cost more than 100 times the cost of a blaster. On the other hand, starships in Star Wars aren’t really starships, they’re boats that haul the player characters between adventures. It makes sense to price them more like cargo trucks or luxury cars, so a player team can reasonably own and maintain one.

I would suggest coming up with a consistent monetary theory that makes everyone happy, and sticking with it. This is easier if you just give the players a ship, rather than making them purchase one, and include enough economics to drive interesting play (e.g., very little for traditional pulp heroics, more if your PCs are smugglers trying to save up enough money to get out from under a crime lord’s sluglike thumb). If you’re going to be more loose with available funds, pay careful attention to the prices of some of the items in the sci-fi companion, as they may be game breaking if they’re too affordable. In particular, if you use the basic robot rules you could purchase some pretty nasty combat droids for your party with only a few hundred thousand credits (see Droid Mods, below).

The following are my suggestions for specific Star Wars combat gear:

  • Lightsaber: Treat this as a Katana with the Energy Weapon template. It does Str+d12 damage, has AP 6, and its AP should probably counter the Parry of someone with a physical melee weapon (e.g., against someone with Parry 4 and a physical weapon, attack against Parry 0, break the weapon, and deal damage at AP 2 against any remaining armor on the target). The Savage Worlds pricing places it at 1,500, but you might increase that for the ability to chop through weapons, and just flat out make them only available with the Jedi edge during A New Hope era games.
  • Lightbayonet: A useful addition to Clone Wars era games where lightsabers are more common, treat this as a module that allows a blaster rifle to emit a short lightsaber from its barrel in order to defend against lightsaber-wielders cutting up your firing line. It takes an action to switch the weapon from bayonet mode to blaster mode. While in bayonet mode, it’s a melee weapon that does Str+d8 damage, AP 4, Reach 1, requires two hands, and can parry lightsabers (that’s applying the Energy Weapon template to the Bayonet stats; it may be too good with those stats, and might need to be reduced accordingly). Savage Worlds pricing places it at 525.
  • Blasters: A New Hope era blasters should use the Particle Accelerators (Blasters) stats on page 21 of the sci-fi companion. For Clone Wars era blasters, if you’re using my suggestion that they should be much more primitive, I would start out with drastically lowered range (or slightly lowered range and an inherent inaccuracy penalty), reduce the damage by a die size or two, and drastically lower the shots per clip.
  • Ion Weapons: These can probably just be statted as blasters that deal electricity damage, and have a die size lower damage. This means they’ll be less effective than a blaster against organic targets, and more effective against droids (since they take +4 damage from electricity).

Droid Mods

If you’re allowing droids as characters, I think the rules in the sci-fi companion (and the Savage Star Wars PDF linked at the top of the post) that link robot options to purchases and maintenance costs are very risky. It means the GM has to be very careful handing out monetary rewards to make sure that the party’s droids aren’t much better or worse than the other party members. So I’d instead suggest just handling droid modifications as customizable racial features. Each mod has a cost comparable to racial mod costs, and you can take them until you get your droid set up the way that makes sense to you and the GM.

Each droid starts off with one point of mods, and can gain two additional points for each time he or she purchases the Additional Mods edge. The following are the allowable mods from the sci-fi companion, with their mod cost in parenthesis (this may be different from the mod cost in the book, as it takes price into account, and any mod that normally grants more mod slots does not for these purposes):

  • Android (2)
  • Aquatic (1)
  • Armor (1)
  • Data Jack (1)
  • Flight (2)
  • Immobile (-1)
  • Magnetic Pads (1)
  • Pace (1)
  • Power Pack (1)
  • Sensor Suite (1)
  • Size Increase (2)
  • Size Reduction (-1) (also reduces Toughness by -1 as per the racial)
  • Stealth System (4)
  • Targeting System (1)
  • Trait Bonus (2)
  • Wall Walker (1)
  • Wheeled or Tracked (0)

The following are additional mod options (either taken from the other racial mods or invented for Star Wars):

  • Binary Communicator (-1): The droid can only speak in the binary language
  • Environmental Hardening (1): +4 to resist a single environmental effect (heat, cold, etc.)
  • Frail (-1): Flimsy construction imposes -1 Toughness
  • High-Speed Processing (3): Gain one extra non-movement action without a multi-action penalty
  • Integrated Equipment (*): Can have reasonable integrated weapons or tools; costs 1 mod slot per 500 cost of the items, and includes the purchase of the item
  • Noncombat (-2): The droid cannot buy the Fighting or Shooting skills
  • Restraining Bolt (0): The droid is disabled if it exceeds a designated range from the controller, or the controller is activated
  • Slow (-1): -1 Pace and d4 running die (cannot buy the Pace mod).
  • Specialized Appendages (-1): The droid has no generic manipulation appendages (like hands), and must use other mods (integrated equipment, data jack, etc.) to manipulate most physical items

Example droid configurations:

  • R2 Unit: Binary Communicator (-1), Data Jack (1), Frail (-1), Integrated Equipment (3; 1,500 credits worth of misc tools), Magnetic Pads (1), Noncombat (-2), Sensor Suite (1), Size Reduction (-1), Specialized Appendages (-1), Tracked (0), Trait Bonus (2; Repair)
  • Protocol Droid: Frail (-2), Integrated Equipment (4; Language Translator from sfc p. 15), Noncombat (-2), Slow (-1), Trait Bonus (2; Etiquette)

System Review: Savage Worlds, Conclusion

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And I Don’t Know What I’m in For

On inspection, it seems that Savage Worlds was first published in 2003, so it’s weird that I’m finally getting around to it now. Sadly, it came out too late for the “let’s convert these games to our own systems” phase my friends and I had in college, or it might have been really useful to us. Instead, it came out right in the middle of the “D20! All the time! For everything!” phase that I think a lot of groups went through a decade ago, and mine certainly did. So that’s my excuse for not really being aware of it earlier.

Overall, it’s a pretty slick little game engine that’s quickly crept up alongside Fate in my brain as an option for “I could just run [random game idea I just had] in…” As noted in the previous posts, I doubt I would actually run it without some significant alterations… but there are almost no games that I run without significant alterations. Savage Worlds has that special combination of modularity and simplicity, but with enough granularity to hook in a variety of ideas, that makes a good generic system. It’s tuned just enough toward high-action pulp that it makes itself obvious as a system for any game ideas within that spectrum without being so specific as to rule out particular concepts as too difficult to implement.

So, I’d heartily recommend the system to groups that aren’t afraid to seriously tinker with the rules. It does some things you might not be a fan of, but those things are pretty easy to replace with something more to your liking without breaking the whole thing. And if you suddenly find yourself struck by an idea for a campaign that you just need something lightweight, fast, and actiony to run, you’ll have another collection of tools to make that happen.

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

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

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