Some positive advice for Savage Worlds GMs:
- Do Encourage Tricks
- Do Be Generous with Bennies
- Do Be Descriptive With Combat Mechanics
Do Encourage Tricks
Tricks (and Tests of Will) are a great way to get role-playing into combat, so you want to be pretty lenient on what counts. In particular, since the exact mechanical effect of the Trick is precisely defined (-2 on Parry rolls until the next action), I advocate letting the players get fairly wild in their description of what they’re doing. Rolling barrels down the stairs at the oncoming villain, dumping a bucket of soapy water on his head, pulling the tapestry down over him, ducking between the giant’s legs…they’re all perfectly good tricks for a simple Agility or Smarts test, as long as you limit the effect to the -2 Parry. I’d also be inclined to allow things like kicking someone to force them back a step that’s not strictly covered in the rules by handling it as a trick, perhaps with a modifier.
Do Be Generous With Bennies
I know I said I’m not that fond of them, but they’re there and they’re an important part of Savage Worlds, so you want players to be spending them fairly freely. They’re also (as pointed out in the rules) one of the things you can hand out as rewards instead of xp, which is tightly limited. Giving Bennies for good RP and good descriptions of combat livens things up and discourages the hoarding impulse. Bennies also make the players more comfortable going for larger-than-life stunts that might carry significant penalties; in most Savage Worlds settings that’s probably something you want to encourage.
Do Be Descriptive With Combat Mechanics
Savage Worlds is a fairly abstract system, which is great for simplicity, but not so great for excitement. Against a tough opponent it’s entirely possible for several rounds to pass with no mechanical change at all; particularly for players who are conditioned to the D&D mechanic of doing at least some amount of damage against big foes each action even if it might take dozens of actions to finish the fight this can feel like “nothing’s happening.” To make matters worse, with a nasty bad-guy the GM will often spend a Bennie for a chance to negate the effect. It’s not good if the fights are shorter, but it feels like less is happening.
So to spice things up, you want to be descriptive and make the fight memorable. You still, IMO, want to match the description to the mechanics; it’s not like you can fool the players into thinking something significant happened by adding flavor text when the mechanics clearly tell them the situation is unchanged, but I think you can make the combat more interesting by adding story-telling elements. There are five events that almost always deserve narrative attention:
- When an attack is made: this is all potential, so as long as you stop before the result, it’s all good. Try to match the description of the attack with the style of the foe. “With an enormous overhand blow, the Minotaur swings his mighty axe at your head!” beats “The Minotaur attacks.” For a fencer you’d want something more like “His dancing blade slides past yours and leaps for your face!” Follow up with describing the hit or the miss. Try to keep the players the center of the action, and in a way that emphasizes their character’s traits: “You deftly step aside” for an agility-based character vs. “There’s a huge crash and it bounces uselessly off your shield” for a tank.
- To match a Trick or Test of Will. This is actually required by the rules, so not just “The Minotaur tries to Intimidate” by “The Minotaur lets loose a blood-curdling bellow that shakes the cavern.”
- When he’s Shaken. Not “He’s shaken”, but “He reels in pain, the blood dripping in his eyes temporarily blinding him.”
- Spending a Bennie, particularly on a soak. Ok, this one is a bit meta, but you need to save yourself from anti-climax here. The players might be all excited from scoring a good hit, and you go and take it away from them with a successful soak roll…talk about your buzz-kill. I think you can make it go down a bit easier by narrating it so “the event happened but…” instead of relegating it to “it never was.” “Your mighty blow catches him solidly in the belly, but the blade hits the buckle of his oversized belt and skitters to the left, leaving a bloody but shallow furrow.” The point is to emphasize how he lucked out in avoiding the damage, and how he won’t be so lucky next time (true…even the Wild Card NPCs will run out of bennies). Even if he blows the soak roll, I might do something like this, except making it a deep furrow despite the luck of having it hit the buckle, just to emphasize that he’s now down a Bennie besides being hurt.
- Being Wounded or Incapacitated. You don’t get many of these in a fight, and against a tough foe they can be a little while coming, so you want to make the most of them. When you take a Wound in SW you are really hurt: all your trait rolls are at a penalty for the rest of the fight. That deserves some narration as to how bloody and shakey the foe has become, perhaps with some froth at the lips or a hand stuffed in a wound, stanching the flow of blood.
Can you go overboard with this kind of thing? Well, sure… you’re not making things more exciting by stopping the flow of the game to declaim a paragraph with each sword-swing. But I think unless you’re a natural ham, there’s such a strong tendency to underplay it and regress to “he swings. Hit. Roll damage. That’s a raise.” that you have to deliberately aim for over-the-top before you can find a good balance.
Also, don’t neglect the Extras… they may be only a third or less as robust as the Wild Cards, but they are just as good opportunities for description if not better (since the events concerning them are more likely to be final). One suggestion (cribbed from the board) is that you let the players describe exactly what happens when they dispatch an Extra, and with the right group I think that’s a very good idea.
In fact, in general, I think you want to encourage the players to add their descriptive touches to the game. They’re pretty much required to for Tricks and Tests of Will, and they really ought to for Attacks as well. Whether they want to describe themselves being Shaken, Soaking a Wound, or Being Wounded or would rather the GM does it depends on the player (some might object to becoming the narrator when they’re trying to stay firmly in the mind of their character), but if they’re comfortable with it, I’d say go for it.