Wednesday, January 26, 2011

RPG Review - Savage Worlds

If I have one serious pet peeve in RPGs, it's when people feel a need to separate the game from the setting. Maybe it's just me, but I want my rules to be integrated into a setting. I want different rules for a spaceship game than you find in a superhero game. And it takes all the fun out of reading a game book if there's no crazy world to explore, no trip to unreal worlds that I can visit in my mind's eye. Most of the fun of an RPG is discovering the wild corners of your imagination, and when the rules are all about how to shoot stuff and not the story those rules are meant to tell, I think it drains some of the soul out of a game. Reading a game without a setting is just work, and a setting without rules is not a game at all, it's a movie set.

So I was a little skeptical about Savage Worlds. It's supposed to be fast, furious and fun, but there's no indication of where you go to have all this fast, furious fun. It's a good-sized book of rules that you use to play a game, but with no playground, I was worried it would be as dry and lifeless as a college term paper.

I was about half right. The Savage Worlds rules are kind of a dull read. There are rules for spells, but none of the spells have cool names - you're supposed to add those yourself. There are a bunch of monsters in the back, but it seems odd to have stats for dragons and mechs in the same bestiary. I know it's meant to be a generic set of rules, but I'm not a big fan of generic. I like flavor.

Happily, the rules for Savage Worlds are just a stripped down version of the Deadlands rules. The Deadlands rules were complicated, certainly, but they were cool and worked really well, especially for an Old West game with monsters in it. You had cards for initiative, a bunch of dice, and poker chips you could discard for rerolls and what-not. They were perfectly married to Deadlands, because cards and poker chips are about as reminiscent of the Old West as you can get without bringing firearms and saloon girls to the table.

Savage Worlds dispenses with many of the finer subtleties of the Deadlands system. Instead of drawing a poker hand when you want to cast a spell, Savage Worlds has you spend a couple power points and roll some dice. Instead of dealing a dozen cards that you use for character creation, you just assign some points. And instead of fate chips, Savage Worlds has bennies, which everyone at our table agreed was a stupid name and we immediately decided to call them fate chips instead.

I liked the Deadlands rules. I didn't mind rolling piles of dice, because it felt like you had a better chance to shoot something when you could throw five dice at it. I liked dealing out cards based on Quickness rolls, because it meant the bad-ass gunslingers and fleet-footed kung-fu assassins got to act more than everyone else. I especially loved how so many things in the game required you to build a poker hand, and you could roll some dice to see if you could draw more cards. But I'll be the first to admit that where I enjoyed many of these elements, they sure did slow down a game. You could walk into a saloon, start a gun fight, and not finish for forty-five minutes. Halfway through, someone would have to pee, and then we would all discuss nerdy movies while we waited for our weak-bladdered friend to return.

Savage Worlds gets rid of a lot of that flavor, which is probably best in a game that could be about anything from stabbing orcs to shooting Nazis. After all, what are the odds that poker is a serious pastime in Cimmeria? Low, I would think. Without that flavor, the rules are not as interesting, but compared to Deadlands, they're like greased amphetamines. If you're looking for a game where the fights don't last all night, Savage Worlds can seriously deliver.

I tested Savage Worlds with a little mocked-up Deadlands adventure I made myself (with no setting in the rules, I had to improvise). We had one battle where five heroes faced off against twenty monsters. We finished in twenty minutes. It was quite a bit more rollicking than rolling initiative, dealing out half a deck of cards, rolling for the first guy to hit, rolling for hit location, rolling for damage, rolling for chips spent to reroll the damage, then figuring out that the attack didn't do enough damage to count and subtracting a bunch of wind before moving on to that same guy's second action. Instead, each player gets one card, and can shoot once. There's an attack roll and a damage roll, and wounds are marked right on the table with chunky colored beads I gathered just for this occasion (not really, I used to use them as sex toys, so I had a few laying around).

While I did miss all the flavor of the Deadlands rules, I didn't miss how long it used to take us to kill one bad guy and a couple minions. A small fracas against zombies was finished in five minutes, and even the final boss fight was over in less time than it takes to get a pizza delivered. The rules are easy to grasp, and yet flexible enough to handle lots of different eventualities. It didn't take long before everyone knew how to play, and where many RPGs reward players for thinking in terms of maximizing die rolls, Savage Worlds allowed us to reward smart thinking and acts of heroism without getting bogged down in five-foot moves and improved dice pools.

In fact, while I continue to be underwhelmed by systems without settings, I have to admit that Savage Worlds does a good job of letting you play a game without getting hung up on rules. And there are a hell of a lot of settings available for Savage Worlds, from pulp fiction to fantasy, space opera to superheroes. Plus the publisher wants you to give it a whirl, so a quick-start version of the rules is available on their site, along with pregenerated characters and sample adventures. If you just want to try Savage Worlds, you can get everything you need for your first game for the price of a couple sheets of printer paper.

Yet, with all those wild settings available, and all kinds of expansions, I know the next one we're getting. If you've been paying any attention at all, you probably do, too. Look for my review of Deadlands Reloaded in the next month or two.


Fast rules
Accommodates anything from huge battles to quick scrapes
Easy to learn, but with plenty of flexibility
Lots of choices in character creation mean you can make whoever you want
A whole lot of cool setting material to support the game

No setting
Generic rules are short on flavor

Basically a miniatures game with a few rules for calling people names

Noble Knight Games has Savage Worlds, plus a bunch of the settings and other support material. Plus it's really cheap:


StephenAvery said...

Pretty good system for a ultra light ruleset. It doesn't work for everything though.

We're running a modern Zombiepocolypse campaign and it is very well suited for that. However in a fantasy setting there was a bit of power creep that made some tweaked characters completely dominate the game. All in all though it is a great game for a very low price.


Jolo said...

I have played a lot of Savage Worlds lately, primarily with this guy:

My time has been cut back lately but we have done, Cthulhu, Pulp, WWII, Vietnam and Victorian England(that I can think of). I find it fast and fun to play.