Thursday, December 14, 2023

Savage Worlds Combat


I'm pretty happy with Savage Worlds as a system and I am glad that it seems to be more popular than ever now. One area I do see people questioning online is combat - particularly initiative and the damage system. Typically these people are coming over from D&D and don't really grasp that there are other ways of doing things but let's talk about these two things:

Initiative is done in Savage Worlds with cards. The GM deals out a card to each player and the high cards go before the low cards. This is a holdover from original Deadlands and Rail Wars but it just works. It's a physical reminder of when you go - once you go you toss in your card. Want to delay? Just hold onto it until you want to go. The game supports this mechanically through related edges - want to be faster? There's an edge that lets you take 2 or even 3 cards when initiative is dealt and you keep the best. For a level-headed character you can take an edge that lets you trade in your card if it's below a certain value. 

And yes, initiative is dealt every round. No it's not a big delay and yes, we played D&D for at least 20 years this way until 3E changed it to static initiative so it's not some radical new idea.

Finally the cards are another physical object that can help enforce the genre for your game. I've posted about it before but there is almost always some kind of card deck out there that is thematically related to whatever your running - pirates, cowboys, soldiers, superheroes, well-known space setting IP's ...

As an example of the impact this approach has on play I typically had 5-6 players per session in the Deadlands campaign I just finished. One started off with the Level-Headed edge, then pretty soon another one had it, and by the end one had the basic edge while two had the improved version and one of them had Quick as well. This means on a combat round with only 5 of them I am dealing out 10 cards for the players, plus (typically) 1-3 for the opposition, with one player possibly re-drawing several more cards. Jokers are an important card in Savage Worlds and this approach let my players mill the action deck by 10-15 cards per round from a 54 card deck. This is double what a normal party would be doing and it meant those Jokers popped up very quickly. Every Joker drawn is a package of "go first", "+2 for all actions that round", and a bennie for everyone on top of that! Towards the end there were combats where both Jokers were drawn in the same round - and that was not a good round for the bad guys. The existence of these mechanics opens up an interesting set of options for a player to explore that you don't see in other games. 

Damage in Savage Worlds is the other "rough spot" I see - mainly because it's not like D&D and does not use hit points. There is not a direct "wearing down over time mechanic" like that really. A deliberate design goal was that combatants would be up, down, or off of the table with no tracking of hit points or health. Most opponents are taken out by a single wound. Only Wild Cards, a status reserved for the PC's and major opponents, can take up to 3 wounds and still be standing. There is a "Shaken" status to indicate some kind of degraded status and there are optional rules for an intermediate type of opponent that can take multiple wounds but is not a wild card but that's it. 

Attacks involve a hit roll which, if successful, will generate a damage roll - so far just like D&D right? The next step though is to compare that roll to the target's Toughness. Meeting it or exceeding it = Shaken, exceeding it by 4 or more = a Wound for each increment of 4. It's that second part that really throws people at first. There are some nuances to it but it's really not -that- complicated.  

However this sometimes freaks people out as they bang away on an opponent and seemingly do nothing for several rounds. You might Shake them, or inflict some kind of condition with a power, but it bothers some people that there's no counter ticking down with every hit. This despite the truth that in D&D those hit points flying off have no impact on most NPCs or Monsters either - until the last one. In Savage Worlds if you are fighting an opponent who can take multiple wounds then each one of those will inflict a penalty on actions that creature takes. There are edges to offset these penalties, and powers that can do the same thing  -"Numb" was a regular player in our campaign - but again that's another way to flavor a character or monster. 

The closest thing to hit points in a Savage Worlds game are bennies. When someone takes damage they can spend a bennie to try and soak the damage - it's not a sure thing - and the supply of bennies is limited. Over the course of this campaign  I was reminded again and again that the GM's bennies are effectively the big bad's supply of hit points as once those ran out the bad guys tended to drop fairly quickly. There is always the temptation to use them as "rage bennies" to reroll an attack or damage roll, but most of the time you want to keep your opposition around for another round of troubling the party. 

This just seems to be a hard thing for people coming in from D&D in particular to get over. Shadowrun and Mutants & Masterminds have some similarities to this approach where you are comparing damage to another number and then generating results based on the comparison. It's different from D&D for sure but it works just fine and is a lot of fun.

So in my opinion combat in Savage Worlds does live up to the Fast, Furious, and Fun tagline. 

  • I don't think I had a fight last more than 7 rounds in my entire campaign and once players have a little bit of experience the pace of those rounds is pretty quick. D&D 3E and Pathfinder in particular tended to have long combats made up of long rounds where players might get bored waiting for their next chance to act. That was never a problem here. Also, in spite of this faster flow, combat is still rewarding as many different approaches and tactics can be tried - it's not a static regimen of "hitting for X damage" round after round as you whittle away at the dragon.
  • Furious comes into it when characters are doing things every round - there's not a lot of need for multi-round actions. Also, the rules allow for multiple actions beyond the basic move + act as much as a player wants to push things by imposing a -2 cumulative penalty to additional actions with no actual cap on how much one can try.
  • Fun is a factor with interesting abilities from Edges and Powers plus mechanical things like manipulating the cards and facing tough choices on how to spend those bennies when things hit the fan. Also, exploding dice - particularly damage dice -  add some excitement and occasionally some despair, depending on which side of the roll you are on. 
It's just a really strong system that runs smoothly and is fun to play. I've run it many times over the years and I expect I will be running it again fairly soon. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Savage Worlds - Post-Campaign Thoughts on Characters


I wanted to write this post because I was expecting that after running Deadlands for two years - and having played in a 50 Fathoms campaign before that one - well, I was expecting to be feeling some system burnout. That feeling when the mechanics of a game system start to grate, characters and monsters start to feel samey, and the game's possibilities narrow down to what you've already done. It's a feeling that means it's time to change games for a while. This has happened to me with various versions of D&D, Pathfinder, and Traveller, among other games. Often it comes up near the end of a long campaign.

Unexpectedly though I do not feel this way about Savage Worlds. I've run or played a lot of Deadlands, a little Hell on Earth, quite a bit of Necessary Evil and 50 Fathoms, and a fair amount of Rifts - and that's just the published campaign stuff. There is a bunch more that I want to run from books on the shelf to homebrew ideas that demand attention. The system really does hit a sweet spot for me between playability and flexibility and having characters that are just detailed enough to feel unique. A lot of lighter systems are either OSR where one low level fighter looks a whole lot like another low level fighter or else they use such light mechanics that some kind of trait or tag system is the only differentiator between characters and mechanically they tend to all do the same thing. There's a place for all of these of course but a lot of times I end up wanting a little more crunch to build on for both my players and my NPC's and creatures. Savage Worlds apparently hits that just right for me. 

That said it's not a skinny rulebook anymore. The current Adventure Edition is 200 pages long BUT the biggest section is for building or advancing characters at about 60 pages. The gear section is about 15 pages and that covers from medieval weapons to guns to vehicles to armor. Combat is 10 pages. The powers section is about 30 pages and that's where a lot of the chrome is for certain character types and monsters too. There's a whole section called the Adventure Tool Kit which covers special cases - chases, mass combat, travel, wealth rules - stuff that won't come up every session but is useful to have.  So around half of the book is character-focused rules and the rest is running the game - I think that's a solid balance. Earlier thoughts on it here

The main thing for me is that it just runs well - the playability factor is high. Characters have a lot of options but you typically do not need to consult a long list or a long chapter just to do what your character does. Despite being simpler in a lot of ways characters still manage to feel unique. My Deadlands party has a Shaman, a Martial Artist, a Mad Scientist, a Hexslinger, and 3 non-magic using gunslinger types that have each specialized in an area: one is the "put a lot of bullets in the air" guy, one is a sniper (and a bounty hunter), and one is a pistol-focused gunfighter (and a Texas Ranger). That means three of my players could be stepping on each other's toes constantly yet they don't. There is some occasional friendly competition between them and comments when the dice are just not with someone but no one has complained about a lack of options or a lack of mechanical individuality.

The only time there was some mention of a lack of options was at Legendary as there were not a ton of Legendary-specific edges. To be fair though this is where most games will spend the least amount of time - in my experience, anyway - so it's not nearly the problem it could be. Still, there's an area that could be improved. I would especially like to see setting-specific Legendary edges as that would give players something to aim for within a specific  campaign and show what the heavy hitters in a campaign world are supposed to look like. It would also help with flavoring them at the higher tiers.

The way characters are structured and advancement is handled is also a part of this. There is a rough level type structure in that there are 5 character tiers from "Novice" to "Legendary" which are based on the number of advancements the characters have received and stat advancement and certain edges are gated by tier. So while it is pretty open and loose it is possible to gauge a group's power level this way. Also, while there are definite Archetypes in most of the published settings there is nothing as formal as the way classes are handled in most class and level games. There are benefits to specializing in certain skills and combining certain edges to enhance whatever area you want to excel in, but there is nothing mechanically making you do this. The closest thing you see to 3E-style Feat trees are that some edges may have a prerequisite and there may be an "improved" version of a particular edge so you're looking at a string of 3 edges at the most to really dig into something. This means that your character can be good at more than one thing or in one area! Not all games accommodate this. 

The one area the game does restrict to a notable degree is Arcane Backgrounds. This is the magic/psychic/super option where you can have special powers and you can only take one. So your Mad Scientist cannot also be Blessed or a Huckster. I have no problem with this as it serves as both a balancing control (no getting around the particular trappings or restrictions of on AB by taking another), a playability control (no having to figure out any weird interactions between spells or magic items when you're both a wizard and a cleric), and it also enforces some niche protection in a game that is pretty open otherwise. It's one of the absolutes in the system and I've never had a player complain about it. Considering that there are typically few or no restrictions on the kinds of powers you can take with each one, it's not terribly restrictive mechanics-wise. Flavor counts for a lot so under these rules a Blessed doesn't have to be the party healer- he can throw holy fire or turn invisible or whatever else he wants to do.

So throughout this campaign my players never felt constrained in their options and neither did I when it came to NPCs and critters both. Edges, Hindrances, and Powers all provided enough variety, when skinned the right way, that there was plenty of flavor to go around. 

More on some other aspects of the game tomorrow. 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Deadlands: The Flood - Our Finale


The City of Lost Angels ... up until Saturday night anyway ...

This weekend we managed to wrap up our Deadlands campaign with an epic finish that I believe left everyone satisfied. The only thing left for the party to do was to shed some blood on the doorstep of Reverend Grimme's grand cathedral in Lost Angels and that's exactly what they did ... eventually. 

If you've read or played the adventure the final piece is presented as a bit of a set run - once the party drops the blood in the right spot Grimme and his 13 ghouls and some fallen angels all rush out of the cathedral and start a fight that has a 13-round timer ticking away before the flood finally hits the place. 

This is not how it went at all ...

My crew was very concerned with trying to survive the earthquake and flood they were about to start and spent quite a bit of time running through various plans to achieve this. Boats were purchased, ironclad acquisitions were contemplated, a ridiculous amount of math was done to calculate how much weight the shapeshifting Indian shaman could carry in his most extreme form - and for how long, and at what speed. I joked that he had turned into a Vulcan at one point because he was "communing with the spirits" quite a bit in this effort. 

There was a whole lot of recon in and around the city too looking for "safe ways in and routes to help them keep a low profile along the way. I emphasized that this was a city open to land and sea trade and not a tightly guarded fortress and eventually they calmed down about it.

In the end they decided they had done all of the planning they could do and said "well we have to go in" and did so.

The Approach ...

To summarize, they used the quiet, stealthy approach to get to the cathedral and then obliterated the exterior guards in two rounds of gunfire, magic and dragon flame - more on that in a minute. Smashing open the front gates they moved through the main space of the church and broke open the rear doors to the inner sanctum where Grimme and his allies were having their annual feast. This is where the fight broke out and where it stayed for about 9 rounds as they blew away the ghouls, the summoned demons, and eventually beat down the Reverend himself ... 

"Sir, there is a dragon in the cathedral ..."

Then they went outside, spilled the blood, flew off towards Perdition, and watched the mighty power of the ocean wash away the center of Grimme's power. 

Yeah it was seriously flipped from the projected finale but it still felt epic and it still worked out. They had no idea what the expected approach was so they did it their way and I loved it.

Grimme's Last Stand (upper left part of the map)

A few points of explanation:

  • Unfortunately for the reverend my posse was a couple of advances into Legendary by the end and were both ridiculously powerful and damn versatile. "Only hurt by magic" on the demons didn't mean much when my shootists were using magic bullets (Smite from the Mad Scientist) from a .50 cal rifle and the Hexslinger was throwing her usual ammo-whammy'd shots. 

  • The party had discovered Grimme's original walking stick in the course of their travels and this started off in the hands of the martial artist with his ridiculous skills and super-boosted 30" of movement. This was not super-effective given Grimme's toughness so it was handed over to the dragon during the fight.

  • The dragon ... sigh ... yes my Indian Shaman had the shape change power and at Legendary you can turn into any living creature up to size 10 ... and dragons are size 8. This seems like at least a bit of a limitation but he realized this during on of the last rune-marking efforts where they encountered an undead dragon - which I had placed as it seemed like a wild opponent for one of their last challenges. However, once I had established that dragons could be a thing in Deadlands he immediately jumped on that and I had a PC dragon for at least a little while in each of their last 3 fights. I could have blocked it but it felt a little heavy-handed and they were "legendary" and this was the thing that had wiped out the rest of his tribe so I allowed it. The player loved it and that's rarely the wrong call.

    Effectively this meant that the party had a second decent melee combatant as thus far only Wu the martial artist had been filling that role and as the finale approached I thought it wouldn't hurt to have another HTH fighter available. 

    Something I did not foresee at the time was that the Reverend's Strength + 1d4 walking stick - the only thing that can actually hurt Grimme as he is immune to physical and magical damage - would end up being wielded by a Strength d12+8  dragon in this final encounter! That said, it was still very much a challenge for even the dragonized shaman to land real wounds on him for a while. Managing to score a single wound meant I would just bennie it away. I eventually ran out of bennies and then the concentrated attention of six legendary characters was more than even the Servitor of Famine could withstand.

  • I had a total of seven players during the run of the game and six of them were present at the end. That was very satisfying. Everyone was on time, in a good mood, and invested in the challenge as they knew this was, one way or another, the end of the campaign - that's how you finish a campaign! We may revisit these characters a little way down the road for a coda but this was the big finish.

  • We managed 33 sessions from September of 2021 through December of 2023. There was a six month gap in there while I packed up, moved, and then unpacked, plus the annual convention crew pause this year, but it works out to about two sessions a month during that time otherwise. That's a nice, sustainable pace I find. Knowing we run 5-6 hours per night that's 150-200 hours of Deadlands and I am not tired of it yet!

    This also gave me time to run some other games in between when I had free off-weekends and interested players and that keeps the GM's wandering game-eye satisfied - in this case with d6 Star Wars, FFG Star Wars, WFRP 2E, the Sentinel Comics RPG, the new Marvel game, and ICONS.

  • No PC deaths! I do not think I've ever run a campaign approaching this length without at least one character buying the farm. And I don't mean they were raised from the dead - no one got to the point of needing it in this campaign. The downside is that this denied us the chance to explore the Harrowed rules - ah well, maybe next time.

    I chalk this extraordinary resilience up to a group of very experienced Savage Worlds players in this case - there was a Deadlands Japan game one of them was running on a different night that started before and was wrapped up during the run of this game. Plus there was a 50 Fathoms campaign that ran from 2018-2021 that many of us played in as well. I have also run multiple games going back 10+ years from other Deadlands runs to Necessary Evil. System mastery is still a thing and knowing how to make a mechanically effective character in a limited number of advances can be a game-changer.
The Aftermath ...

Over the course of the campaign they fought bandits, undead, corrupted religious fanatics, maze dragons, and some transformed mages ... helped a ghost, ran into Big Trouble in Little Shan Fan, came in second in a martial arts tournament, survived a train crash, blew up an ironclad, and even ran an election for mayor in a small town - that was a first for any campaign I have run!

So there it is - this is the first campaign I have run in quite a while that had a definite end point and it feels good. This is not always my style but I do like having the option and I still think Pinnacle's Plot Point approach is the best way I have found to set these up. 

I have some more things to say in other posts about the system and the setting and some things I could do better if I was running it again but those are for later in the week - for now it was a blast and I am very happy with the whole thing.