The Seven-Sided Die

Savage Worlds actual play

Posted Friday November 21, 2008 at 10:32 PM

Our regular Tuesday game had two cancellations, so I ran a Savage Worlds one-shot instead for the two players who could make it. I decided to run the Tomb of Terrors one-sheet adventure that Pinnacle has available on their website. (Spoiler alert.) Overall the session was fun and I think a good demo of Savage Worlds' strengths and weaknesses. In four hours we managed to make characters and play through that short adventure, which is impressive considering none of us had ever played SW before.

Here are some of the highlights and "low"-lights.

Character creation

We started with character creation, which went slower than I hoped but still quicker than I'm used to chargen taking. There was some confusion between points and die sizes for skills, especially since "15 points for skills" looks so much like the skill ranks system in d20. We ended up with Guz, a lead pipe–wielding autonomous flesh golem-thing, and Stillmoon, a shape-changing human shaman. We used Arcane Background (Magic) to substitute for Shamanism. For Guz we decided that he was of a race much like Eberron's [[Warforged]], created for some historical purpose and now free and commonplace.

In general I, and I think my players too, were pleased with how straightforward a Savage Worlds character was. More choices and flexibility in choosing Hindrances would be good, though, since there's only so many character concepts that can fit into "One Legged" or "Blind", effectively shrinking an already-short list.

Interpreting powers

We used the standard magic system since I don't want to tinker until I get more hands-on experience with running the game. There was one point of contention around the Shape Change power: The player wanted to use it to sneak up and attack the necromancer, but I ruled that shifting out of crow form and attacking would be two actions and the Fight roll would suffer the standard -2 multi-action penalty. My reasoning was that drawing a weapon and attacking is considered two actions and the degree of readiness was comparable. I'm not sure that I handled that well at the time—really, I should have just given it to him and moved on—but in hindsight I think that would be the right way to handle it in the future.

Some guidance on this sort of thing might be useful as an aid for GMs who are trying to justify how magic works to players used to highly formal magic systems like d20 has. However, I do think that once everyone is invested in the philosophy of Savage Worlds, it'd be easier to get players to accept rulings like the one I made above. SW is a loose but consistent set of rules, and it's easy to use the rules philosophy of one part of the rules to extend another part. More on that next.

Making sensible rulings

Another notable ruling that needed to be made was how to handle Swarms and the Defense manœuver. Swarms hit automatically, making a +2 to Parry irrelevant. In various places in the rules there are "common sense" substitutions. In particular under Areas Attacks, a target in cover would normally give the attacker a penalty to Shooting, but instead this is made a bonus to the target's Toughness. The philosophy behind exceptions like this seems to be that the mechanics are meant to be flexible and not break in unexpected situations.

With this in mind, I ruled that the +2 from the Defense action applied to Toughness when resolving a Swarm's automatic attack. This satisfied my players, although there was some grumbling that I think I can attribute to familiarity with more rigid systems. Savage Worlds doesn't try to cover every eventuality, so it definitely falls into the old-school paradigm that makes good rulings more important than rigid adherence to a set of comprehensive rules.

The only disadvantage of this ruling is that it makes hits from a Swarm very unlikely for the average hero with even a Toughness of 5 or 6 since the Swarm only rolls 2d4 for damage. At first I thought this was a flaw, but I think that's more sensible. I don't expect a swarm of rats to do the major damage to a prepared hero that a Wound represents, but it would happen by rare bad luck, and the dice reflect that with this ruling.


Our thoughts on the combat system were mixed. The bone golem was hard to take down. It kept being Shaken and then making its Spirit roll to recover. That made the combat seem interminable, and also effectively made it impossible for the golem counter-attack. (In hindsight I should have blew more bennies on instant recoveries, but at the time I didn't want to be a dick GM and erred on the side of letting my baddy get smacked around.) Afterwards my players were a bit concerned that the Shaken status makes things very swingy, which prompted me to think about how I should have used my bennies. The Actual Play account in the RPGnet review of Savage Worlds made me focus on using bennies for Soak rolls, but I think unShaking will be as important a use for them.

That said, the golem took two wounds on Round 4 and failed its Shaken recovery roll, then went down in Round 5 to a solid hit. We kept forgetting about the +1 bonus the PCs should have been getting for Ganging Up on it. On the whole, though, the combat mechanics were well received. Using a deck of cards was really popular despite initial doubt, since it makes the flow of combat easy to see at a glance and never results in ties.

After breaking the bone golem, Guz took one swing at the angry necromancer and hit with two swings of his lead pipe (using Frenzy) and rolled a cumulative damage of 32 (on 1d10 Str + 1d6 lead pipe, once for each hit). That involved two Aces on the pipe die, if I recall correctly. Needless to say, the necromancer and his paltry 4 Toughness went down spectacularly. At this point I entirely failed to remember the Knockout Blow rules, but it was a good place to wrap up for the night.

The one thing we didn't like about combat was that it was easy to devolve into a toe-to-toe fight. The AP report I linked above had the same problem. Partly this was our inexperience—trying to use Tricks didn't go well since we couldn't think of an appropriate trick, and I didn't make the golem do anything more than swing. Partly too this was an uninspiring combat environment (two enemies in a bare dungeon room) and there were few things that could conceivably be turned to one side's advantage. Another part of this was deciding to use a Trick first and then trying to decide on what the fluff was after, which puts the horse before the cart in a fiction-first system like Savage Worlds. In future games I will try to introduce the convention that players first describe what their characters are doing and afterwards decide what kind of combat manœuver it is.

The literal low point

Another gripe was the do-or-die nature of the 13-foot jump at the beginning of the adventure. A Seasoned Wild Card character had a so-so chance of jumping it, but Extras had almost no chance. I had a hard time justifying the rats managing to cross this chasm, since the scenario has them fleeing out of the Tomb and into the sewers but failed to explain how they could cross a 13-foot wide, 30-foot deep trench.

It also slowed down the session considerably as they tried to get across. I had sent two town guards with them in order to try out the Allies rules, but one fell in and nearly died and they had the other take him back to town. The silver lining is I got to try the Aftermath rules for Extras.

In hindsight I think this wasn't so much a flaw in the adventure design as a feature made into a flaw by a lack of other dungeon dressing. Had there been some planking or something in the Excavation Room, the fleet-footed Stillmoon could have gone and grabbed it for a makeshift bridge, and I didn't think to add anything like that on the fly.

Take-home impressions

The initiative system was a hit. Everyone was leery of using cards before we tried it, and now we're converts. Tracking initiative was never a problem and not having to write each number down let combat flow without interruption. The die system of d20 introduced cyclic initiative to get the same advantage, but this has all the advantages of round-by-round initiative without the disadvantage of slowing things down. I would even consider using a deck of cards (pared down to Aces through 10s to maintain scale) for AD&D initiative because it worked so well.

Combats didn't take exceedingly long, especially considering that it was a first time for all of us, including me as the GM. Swarms are interesting, but I'll have to try them in a different environment. We didn't get to try out the much-vaunted ability of the system to handle large numbers of combatants since the guards left at the beginning and the players opted to ignore the zombies unless they attacked first. Although I'm leery of the stupidly-high Toughness on the BFM at the end of The Red Swamp, I'm now leaning more toward running it next time we take SW for a test drive in order to try out its early multi-combatant battle.

Character creation is a bit mixed. It's fast and relatively intuitive. A fairly interesting and varied range of characters is possible with a minimum of fiddly character-sheet things to work out. On the down side there just isn't enough variety in the available Edges and Hindrances to satisfy a heroic or gritty fantasy game, which means that as the GM I am looking at a pile of writing to develop genre- and setting-specific lists of Edges, Hindrances, and Powers. Normally that'd be pleasant work that would just take some time, but with my schedule constraints it presents a daunting obstacle to starting a real campaign. (On the plus side, I hope to have a copy of Shaintar: Immortal Legends in the new year.)

Savage Worlds really, really, needs more Hindrances. There just aren't enough that can be applied to a broad set of character concepts. The result was that Guz had the Enemy Hindrance in a one-shot game where it didn't matter (I decided the necromancer was his enemy, but that didn't make it meaningful). Similarly, Stillmoon had a Vow to take vengeance on someone (which I also made the necromancer). These ended up being just filler on the sheet rather than having an impact on the game, and were picked because there just wasn't anything else that worked.

In the end these two players were pleased with the system and at least one of them has been looking around online for more stuff to make Shamanism work well. I enjoyed running it and my qualms so far were all with the adventure, the limitations of the lists for Eges, Hindrances, and Powers, and the need to get me and my players to think fiction-first before trying to invoke the mechanics.

Next time I'll talk about the astoundingly awesome support I got from Pinnacle when I discovered issues with my copy of the rulebook.

Comments (4)


Monday November 24, 2008 at 03:39 PM

Awesome, thanks for the writeup. Did you use minis for your combats? We've shied away from it in our campaign, but the rules are explicitly written for the battlemat and we've missed things as a result.

PatrickWR’s last blog post: Cautionary Tales from the Sandbox


Tuesday November 25, 2008 at 01:48 AM

What have you missed? Although I know it's written to be very mini-friendly it also seems to be relatively easy to run purely in the imagination.

I started with AD&D 2nd edition, and although everything in it is marked in inches and designed around minis, they were never necessary. I'm approaching Savage Worlds the same way.

I do like that I can pull out the battlemat for a combat if I want to, though.

Mike Sarno

Thursday January 29, 2009 at 02:36 AM

Excellent analysis. I was planning on running this scenario this weekend, and the chasm room was bothering me from the first time I read it. I'm going to skip that room in my layout based on my reservations and your experience.


Thursday January 29, 2009 at 05:41 PM

Glad to help! I'd be interested in hearing how it goes. I'm going to be starting up a megadungeon campaign using Savage Worlds soon, so any insights into dungeoncrawling-style play using it will help.