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Savage Worlds: The System I Wish I’d Discovered Years Ago

One of the real high points of the various lockdowns over the past year and a bit has been the fact that it’s freed up more time for gaming. With that extra helping of gaming has come the opportunity to try new systems. One such system has been Deadlands: Weird West, which we’ve played as a group on the off weeks from our fortnightly D&D 5e campaign.

Deadlands is not a standalone system though. Instead it’s a campaign setting and ruleset for Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s phenomenal Savage Worlds system.

I have to admit, my appetite for generic systems has never been great. I purchased a copy of F.A.T.E. and promptly didn’t play it. I couldn’t get into it. Back in the 80s and 90s, I also looked into GURPS, but the complexity was a complete turnoff. I eventually played GURPS a few years ago at a convention in the form of the Discworld roleplaying game. As much as I love the setting, GURPS/Discworld was a yawnfest that felt like an RPG with a maths prelim bolted on to the back of it.

The first Savage Worlds rulebook I picked up was the “Deluxe Edition” – the edition previous to the current “Adventure Edition”. Confused? Yeah, so was I. Savage Worlds doesn’t use numbers to differentiate between their editions. The Deluxe edition was ridiculous value at £9 for the core rulebook. After realising that this was not the current edition, I forked out a few more quid for the Adventure Edition core rulebook. I’m glad I did because the Adventure Edition is a huge jump in rules clarity and publication quality.

Savage Worlds is a system that will be easy enough to understand for anyone who has played something like 5e or other similar games. In general you roll a dice, add modifiers and try to beat a target number. You have attributes and skills just like D&D. Unlike D&D though, these attributes aren’t numbers but they are dice. So instead of having an attribute score of 16, you might have a “Spirit” attribute of d8 or a “Healing” skill of d10.

Furthermore, the target number for these rolls is (with the exception of combat) usually a 4. Oh, and the d20 doesn’t feature in Savage Worlds at all. Instead, it is the turn of all the other polyhedrals to shine. It certainly takes a bit of getting used to. With a target number of 4, obviously your chance of success increases the higher the die type is. In Savage Worlds though dice explode, or “Ace” in Savage Worlds parlance. If you roll the maximum number on a die, then you save that total and roll the die again, adding that new roll to your existing total. If your new roll is the maximum number then the die explodes again and you add that and roll again. You keep doing this until the dice stop exploding.

For every 4 points over the target number, the player gets what’s called a “raise”. Something good happens. That could be more damage in the case of an attack, or it could be a greater level of success on a skill check. It’s quite a clever mechanic.

Character creation is fairly straightforward. The entire concept of character classes doesn’t exist. Instead you start with a d4 in each of the core five attributes and you have a number of points to spend on improving them. Each point you spend increases the dice type by one. e.g. from a d4 to a d6.

Skills are the same. You start with a core set of skills that everyone has. You can then spend a set number of points to improve them or to add other skills.

Characters also can take “Edges” and “Hindrances”. Characters start with one “Edge” – something about their character that benefits them. For each “Hindrance” they take, they can essentially gain more points which they can then spend on increasing core attributes or on taking additional beneficial Edges.

Generally, game play follows a fairly similar pattern to games like D&D 5e – the story advances and throughout play, players make skill checks to see whether they can successfully perform certain activities. Combat may break out, and when it does , players are assigned an initiative order based on drawing cards from a standard deck of playing cards. Combat then follows a familiar pattern with rolls to hit and for damage.

Combat is where the main difference in the target number mechanism come in. Instead of aiming for 4 or better to be successful, when rolling to attack, players try to equal or better their opponents “Parry” attribute. Again, each multiple of 4 over that target number results in a “Raise”. In combat, this usually manifests itself as an extra damage die.

Damage is handled slightly differently. Damage dice are rolled and the result compared to a “Toughness” score. Equalling the toughness score, or equalling it with a raise (or more than one raise) inflicts firstly the “Shaken” condition and then wounds. All player characters and beefier monsters/NPCs are considered “Wildcards” and can withstand 3 wounds. Standard monsters/NPCs can only take 1 wound before expiring.

There’s a fair bit to get used to in Savage Worlds. The concept of fixed target numbers and raises takes a bit of getting used to as does the absence of the otherwise ubiquitous d20. However there’s a lot to like. It’s a structured ruleset with rules for most situations, so it won’t be quite as intimidating to a novice GM, certainly not compared to some narrative RPGs anyway, and the rulebook is clear, concise and beautifully laid out and illustrated.

There are a number of settings for Savage Worlds, from classic Fantasy (including a new Pathfinder edition for Savage Worlds), Science Fiction such as Rifts and even a Flash Gordon RPG. I note with interest that Space 1889 has also been converted to use the Savage Worlds rules.

For my group though, it was all about Deadlands. We’ve been fans of Pinnacle’s Weird West setting for a while. The world of Deadlands is an alternate history of the Wild West and is set in 1884. However the world of Deadlands is very different from the real America in that time period. America is fractured into a number of states, including Deseret (the Mormon lands in what is now Utah) and Native American territories such as The Sioux Nations and the Coyote Confederation. Other places of interest include The Free City of Lost Angels with it’s Great Maze loaded with the mysterious “Ghost Rock”.

I’m increasingly finding that I’m branching out from the usual suspects in my gaming library and as such, Savage Worlds has been a revelation. It’s a hugely enjoyable system even in it’s generic form. Once you add an incredible setting like Deadlands on top, it’s out of this (Savage) world.

Return of the DM View All

I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.

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