Savage Worlds: Three Good Things

Since Savage Worlds is my current favorite system, I thought I’d post about things that I like about the specifics of the SW rules. After all, there are lots of generic systems, lots of relatively simple systems (not actually “rules light”, but still on the simple end of things), lots of systems with good support and an active fan-base…so why Savage Worlds in particular?  There are lots of little bits I like, so I arbitrarily decided to talk about just my three favorites:

  1. The Wounds System
  2. Tricks and Tests of Will
  3. The Shaken Mechanic

The Wounds System

SW’s handling of damage is based on the simple idea of replacing frequent small steps with rarer larger ones. When you take damage that exceeds your Toughness by 4, or you take damage that at least matches your Toughness and you’re already Shaken, you take a Wound.  PCs and significant NPCs can take 3 Wounds before they’re incapacitated, non-significant NPCs can take 1.

It’s far from the first system to go that route, but to my mind it’s one of the simplest and most elegant.  While there’s a downside in that players can feel that they’re not “making progress” against a difficult (hard to hit or hard to damage) opponent, there’s a huge upside in reducing book-keeping and making combat feel less like an exercise in accounting.  Plus, the nuances of the combat system give the players strong tactical options to directly deal with the part of hurting the opponent they’re having difficulty with, which I find much more interesting to play out than a straight attrition race.

Tricks and Tests of Will

Tricks are opposed Agility or Smarts rolls to impose a -2 Parry on an opponent, Tests of Will are a Intimidate or Taunt skill roll against Spirit or Smarts to gain a +2 on your next action against that opponent; all require that you describe in RP terms what you’re doing that justifies the test.  Because of the nuances of the system, the two aren’t completely equivalent; in particular Tricks are much better when you want to help somebody else against that opponent.

I really like how these give non-combat optimized characters a chance to make significant contributions in combat.  Yes, regardless of the system the GM can always allow players to come up with ad hoc ways of doing that, but I think the point of a system is to streamline and regularize things to reduce the need for multiple ad hoc rulings every combat.  With Tricks and Tests of Will SW has two simple, flexible, yet significant ways non-combatants can aid in combat through role-play, not just dispensing buffs or healing.

The Shaken Mechanic

Shaken is a morale-related status-effect that occurs when you’ve taken damage, but not enough to wound you, or your focus is lost because of something like fear, intimidation, taunting, or being tricked.  When you’re shaken you’re easier to wound, and you can’t take any action except to move and try to get your composure back.  Frankly, I think this is brilliant.  It does have the downside of having the flavor of a compulsory personality mechanic, and some players just can’t stand those, but the SW gives you a number of different ways to beef your character up against being Shaken or to recover more quickly if your character conception is that you’re unflappable, with nerves of steel and ice-water in your veins.   Also, it doesn’t completely remove the character from your control; it just limits your options. The upside is that not only is it both more realistic (fighting to the death is really rare in the real-world, even in warfare) and more true to most adventure genres (where heroes do dive for cover when bullets fly, or get temporarily dazed by a good punch or nearby explosion) while opening the possibility for things to be more creepy when they are relentless murder machines instead of having that be the norm (SW has various ways of representing that, depending on whether they are merely immune to fear but can be shaken by damage, whether being shaken doesn’t make them easier to wound, if they recover faster, etc.) but it makes for a much more tactically interesting battle.  A lot of SW tactics revolve around trying to shake opponents or take advantage of their shaken condition, or preventing opponents from taking advantage of your being shaken until you recover.  It’s also nice and simple, not requiring the GM to litter the battle mat or his notes with sticky notes and annotations about what status effects are on which characters and what round they’ll wear off.  For a small extra complication it gives a lot of bang for the buck.

There’s lots more to like about Savage Worlds, but those three are the things that stand out enough that I’d probably steal them to apply to my home-brew if I (or my players) get tired of Savage Worlds.

5 thoughts on “Savage Worlds: Three Good Things

  1. Thanks for a very informative post. I’m going to start my own SW fantasy game soon, so I’m actively collecting GM tips for this unique system.

    You sound like you know SW pretty well; any chance I could get you to write up a “Three Things To Avoid” post about common SW mishaps? It would be much appreciated…

  2. I actually haven’t run Savage Worlds that often yet, but I’ll see what I can come up with. There’s lots of good advice on the Savage Worlds Forum.

  3. Actually, the Wound System and Shaken are some of my favorite things too but.. Once again the gaming group frowns. On Wounds, they are too scared that a PC will get taken down with one hit. It did happen during one of the few games we’ve played.
    Shaken has been really frustrating. I explain it. I show them the book. And they still give me a blank look. “So if I trick or hit him, he’s shaken. What’s the difference?” Grumble. Smash. Repeat explanation.

  4. A Wild Card PC getting taken out in one hit can happen, but it’s really rare. The attacker would need 3 raises with no Wild Die and no Bennies, and the PC would have to fail three soak rolls at no penalty in a row, assuming that he hadn’t spent any of his Bennies from the session yet and was willing to spend them all (which he should be to avoid getting creamed). It would be a shame if they let such a blue-moon event put them off of the system.

    I suppose if it really was a deal-breaker for them you could just House Rule no one-hit kills on PCs.

    The difference between Shaking somebody with a hit and Shaking somebody with a Trick is just that if they’re already Shaken the hit causes a Wound, while the Trick doesn’t. Another way of explaining it is that being Shaken is simply being distracted. Being tricked or taunted while you’re already distracted doesn’t make you more distracted and certainly can’t hurt you; being hit hard enough to distract you when you’re already distracted actually hurts you…you left yourself open so it causes a Wound.

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