Thursday, September 7, 2017

Savage Worlds is NOT Simple

All over the place you hear the Internet evangelising Pinnacle Entertainment's Savage Worlds roleplaying game system. And why shouldn't they?

Savage Worlds is a capable setting-agnostic system that effortlessly handles any adventure you can dream up. A common theme among these evangelical ramblings is that people will tell you that Savage Worlds is simple. This description of the game is, in my view, both reductive and false. The following post is an effort to demonstrate exactly what I mean.

Before I get too deep into explaining just how crunchy Savage Worlds is - let me state that I am unapologetically a complete Savage Worlds fanboy. Full disclosure out of the way - let's begin debunking the rumors that Savage Worlds is "simple."

I work professionally as a software engineer. In my field we would use the term "elegant" to describe a system which demonstrates the properties Savage Worlds does. The system specifies rules for everything you need and nothing you don't. When a rule can't be defined to its fullest in the core book without violating its setting-agnostic nature, Savage Worlds gives a generalization that empowers the GM and player to adjudicate the situation with, well, elegance.

Gunfights and firearms in Savage Worlds are intricate and detailed and often times the rules related to specific weapons and their properties demonstrate their crunch. Here’s an example touching only on the Rate of Fire of a weapon and how it affects character options:

  • Rate of Fire – the system provides a Rate of Fire (RoF) for each gun in the game which represents the number of rounds that can be fired in a round of combat. Independent of this is a property which defines a weapon as Semi-Automatic, Automatic, 3RB (capable of three rounds bursts), or none of these things. These values define whether or not the weapon is capable of participating in certain player maneuvers in combat.

    For instance, a single-action revolver (not semi-automatic) cannot use the Double Tap but may participate in a Rapid Attack or Wild Attack maneuver (both described below).  A Glock 9mm, which is semi-automatic, could be used for any of the three.
  • Double Tap – for those with semi-automatic weapons, a player can expend two rounds of ammunition for added accuracy and damage using this ability. This option is not available for pump shotguns or single-action revolvers.
  • Three Round Burst – like Double Tap on steroids, but only for weapons which have the special 3RB property.
  • Rapid Attack – Combatants with a semi-automatic weapon or a revolver may perform a Rapid Attack in which they fire up to six rounds at a huge accuracy penalty hoping to get some lucky shots in while draining the ammo in their weapon. This works with single action revolvers only when the character is not wielding two weapons because with a free hand a gunslinger can fan the hammer between shots. Rapid Attack cannot be combined with Double Tap, Three Round Burst or certain Edges.

  • Suppressive Fire – Suppressive Fire is an area-of-effect attack where an attacker using a weapon capable of fully-automatic fire (one with the automatic keyword) targets an area populated by enemy characters in hopes of pinning them down or damaging them. This maneuver chews up five times the weapon's RoF in ammunition which, (again) is defined independently of whether or not the gun is capable of automatic fire.
  • Called Shots – this doesn't have anything to do with RoF, but its cool and adds some flavor and combat options. Savage Worlds also supports called shots – where a player character targets the enemies weapon to disarm her, limbs, head, even vital organs – but remember, “The target must actually have vital areas, and the attacker must know where they are to gain this advantage.”

Phew! And that’s just a few things related to weapons and how their rate of fire and Semi-Auto / 3RB / Automatic properties interplay with one another. I didn’t even discuss Armor Piercing rounds, incendiary rounds, weapon caliber, reloading different weapons, shotgun areas of effect or any other cool gun-related rules that you can find in the Gear section of the core book.

Armor in Savage Worlds is actually fairly straightforward. It provides a simple boost to a character’s Toughness – the amount of damage that must be exceeded to actually damage a foe. Armor Piercing rounds ignore a certain number of points of armor. Weapons define this value on an individual basis.

To clarify, AP rounds do not cause you to ignore a certain number of Toughness, just armor. If a character has a Toughness of 7 and 2 points of that are from armor, AP rounds that ignore 4 points of armor don’t reduce the target’s toughness value to 3, they only reduce it to 5. … Unless of course, that Armor is Kevlar armor. Through the magic of woven fibers, Kevlar binds bullets and therefore ignore 4 points of AP rounds. In our previous example if our target was wearing Kevlar then the attacker would gain no benefit from a weapon with AP 4 rounds and would still need to deal more than 7 points of damage to harm his target. Simple, right?

Movement in Savage Worlds is very detailed. There are different speeds defined for standing, crouching, crawling, difficult terrain, and jumping. There is also an amount of movement that is consumed when you get up from prone – which boosts a character’s Cover (see below!).

Cover, Lighting, and Obstacles
Like Movement, Pinnacle didn’t slouch when it comes to providing rules for Cover. There are definitions for Light, Medium, Heavy, and Near-Total cover. These varying levels of cover provide steadily increasing penalties to attack rolls against targets hiding in these levels of cover.

In addition to the accuracy penalties that attackers take when targeting enemies in cover Cover, the type of obstacle the target is hiding behind boosts the target’s armor. Glass windows, interior walls, car doors, heavy wooden doors, cinder block walls, brick walls, stone walls and more grant you varying armor bonuses from +1 to +10 in addition to the benefits of being in cover.

...and don’t forget If targeting an enemy who is in dim light, darkness, or pitch darkness, there are additional penalties to accuracy. Keep this in mind when you are in combat in which cover, darkness, and obstacles are in play!

Cannons, Air to Air Missiles, Surface to Air Missile, and Anti-Missile Systems
I’m not going to say anything about this other than to say that Savage Worlds has sections for all of these things including another section for Anti-Missile Countermeasures.  I think that's pretty awesome.

Airbags, and 4 Wheel Drive
There are a TON of great situational rules for vehicles in Savage Worlds, but I wanted to highlight a couple to show just how deep the system goes.

In the vehicles section of the Gear chapter rules are dictated for what happens to passengers in a vehicle in the event of an accident. That damage is halved if the vehicle is equipped with airbags, so you might want to take a second look at that Volvo station wagon.

Four wheel drive reduces the difficult terrain penalty for vehicle travel. This rule is fairly straightforward (dare I say “simple?”), but like the airbags rule it is specified, simply and clearly for anyone who might need it.

Taunt and Tests of Will
Taunts and Tests of Will are combat options that make combat more interesting. While not inherently complex, these options really add to the already long list of player options in combat that can help an outmatched party to overcome their foes.

Tricks include things like throwing sand in an opponents eyes or feinting left when you really go right. This causes the target of the trick to lose some of their Parry which makes them easier for your allies to hit.

A Test of Wills occurs when a character Taunts or Intimidates an enemy. When such a maneuver is successful, it grants the victor a bonus on follow-up attacks against that enemy, since the target is now intimidated or enraged.

Hindrances and Bennies
Players in Savage Worlds select Hindrances at character creation. These can be nervous ticks, hints at an interesting backstory, physical maladies, vices or any number of other flaws that make your character….well, more of a character. Lots of roleplaying games provide these kinds of options at character creation, and in most of these games this kind of stuff is forgotten before the first session begin and it simple Never.  Comes.  Up.  Again.

Savage Worlds makes them stick. It does so by providing a game mechanic that players will definitely want to use: Bennies. When a player emphasizes their character’s hindrances or makes a sub-optimal decision because of them – the game master flips him or her a benny.

Later when the dice don’t go the player’s way or when a character takes a ridiculous amount of damage they can exchange their bennies to re-roll or soak damage. Because of this “benny economy” the character hindrances come up again and again, which reinforces the roleplaying aspect of the character. It’s truly a win-win for min-maxers and tabletop actors alike.


So there you have it. This article Is not intended to scare anyone away from the system.  Quite the opposite in fact!  Savage Worlds is not simple, its elegant, complete, and detailed.  While I didn't cover the entire rulebook, I hope these few examples helped to demonstrate the depth the game brings to the table.

It can be every bit as crunchy as you want it to be.  There is an incredible amount of information crammed into the small form factor 200 page core book!

The game doesn't feel heavy at the table.  It feels simple!  It feels easy!  It feels like you're doing less bookeeping (because you are)!  Its no wonder so many people (mistakenly) say that it's simple.  Despite its depth the game feels lightweight and easy.

What do you think?  Am I wrong?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Death and Dying Through the Ages

Dungeons and Dragons has undergone a great number of changes over the years - and some rules seem to get attention in each revision (Grapple - we're looking at you).  This blog post is going to explore the rules for death and dying in D&D using only TSR/WotC's printed books as sources.  Why not start with the current edition and work backwards?

Fair warning - I've only played 3.5e, 4e, and 5e personally.  I guess I played a AD&D 2e one-shot, but I can't really count that.  Long story short, I'm hardly a D&D expert, so if I've made an error let me know.  :D  Please remember I'm only using the books as they are published - no errata, no websites, no Dungeon or Dragon magazines.

Fifth Edition (2014)
In 5e, the death and dying rules appear on page 197 of the Player's Handbook.

Instant Death
Instant death occurs when an attack drops you to zero hit points and enough damage remains that equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.  While this may seem harsh - instant death will not occur frequently.  The proper blend of a boneheaded PC and a harsh DM - sometimes combined with an unfortunate case of ghoul-induced paralysis could lead to death - but if you are keeping your wits about you instant death should be avoidable.

Going Unconscious
If by some unfortunate set of circumstances your PC takes enough damage to drop to zero or fewer hit points without killing you outright your character falls unconscious.  If you regain any number of hit points you regain consciousness.  Simple enough.

Death Saving Throws
If your turn begins and you are unconscious you make a death saving throw.  No modifiers apply (unless magic or special character features are at work).  Roll a d20, if you roll a 10 or higher you gain a success and if you roll a 9 or less you gain a failure.  Single successes or failures mean nothing by themselves.  If you collect a total of three failures - you're dead.  :(

An ally can stabilize another creature using his or her Action with a DC10 Wisdom (Medicine) check.

If no ally stabilizes you, all is not lost.  After collecting a total of three successes you become 'Stable' - this means that you no longer have to make death saving throws, however stable creatures do not regain consciousness.  A player who is stabilized but never healed regains one hit point.

Taking Damage at Zero HP
If you take damage while you have 0 hit points, you gain a death saving throw failure - if the hit is a crit you gain two death saving throw failures.  If your PC was stable and then took damage, they are no longer stable.

Fourth Edition (2008)
Fourth editions death and dying rules are found on page 295 of the PHB.

Instant Death
Your character will die instantly in 4e if you take enough damage to reduce your HP to zero and then take enough additional damage equal to your character's bloodied value (1/2 your total hit points), you die.  In 4e unlike in 5e, you continue to track damage to your PC after death.  So if you had 5 hit points and took 8 points of damage you would be at -3 HP.

Death Saving Throws
Saving throws in 4e are a little bit different than they work in fifth edition, and in many ways they are simpler.  When you are unconcscious you must make a death saving throw at the end of each of your turns.  Any value under 10 is a failure, a 10-19 means that nothing has changed, and a 20 means you gain a healing surge (1/4 of your total HP) above zero and regain consciousness.

Its still important to keep track of your failed death saves in 4e.  If a player fails three death saving throws before taking a short or long rest you die.  That means that these failures can come in any order, during different periods of unconcsciousness or even different combat encounters.

Regaining HP
If you are dying and receive healing of any kind - your PC goes to zero hit points and you gain the number of hit points prescribed by the healing effect and regain consciousness.

3.5e (2003)
In 3.5e, the healing rules are found on page 145 of the PHB.

Instant Death

Three-five has the concept of Massive Damage.  If you sustain a hit that deals 50 or more points of damage and somehow you survive this massive blow you have taken......MASSIVE DAMAGE.  You must make a DC 15 fortitude save and if you fail you die - regardless of how many hit points you may have in reserve.

Yep.  Save or die.  Thanks for that 3.5e.  My 14th level Paladin, servant of Pelor, defender of the Realm of the North, protector of the faith and hero to the people of North Coast, a character I have cultivated for three-and-a-half years is dead.  Thank to a single die roll.

Hit Point States
In three-five characters can be in a few hit point states:
  • Disabled:  0 HP.  A disabled character is not unconscious, but is close to passing out.  In this state you may only move or take a standard action per turn, but not both - nor can you take a full-round action.  Move actions carry no penalty  - but take any standard action (or any action the DM declares strenuous) and you to take 1 hit point of damage.   If the action did not heal you you are now at -1 HP and you are dying.
  • Dying:  -1 to -9 HP.  When you are dying you fall unconscious and can no longer take actions.  Each round you are in the Dying state you take 1 HP of damage.  This continues until you die or are stabilized.
  • Dead:  -10 HP or fewer.  Well - that escalated quickly.  And now you're dead.
Stable Characters in 3.5
For each turn after a character transitions into the Dying state the player must roll a d%.  He has a 10% chance of becoming stable.  If he does not, the character takes 1 point of damage.  If this occurs and a PC now has -10 HP, he is dead.

In order to prevent this cycle, a Dying PC can be stabilized using a DC 15 Heal skill check.  This stabilization does not zero out his negative HP bonus, it just prevents him from losing any more points.

Another way to become stable is to heal any amount of HP.  If you also regain enough HP to be at zero hit points, the character is considered to be in the Disabled state and becomes conscious.  If the character is healed to one or more hit points makes the character fully functional again.

There is also a series of rules about recovering from damage with the care of a healer tending to their needs that invovles a bunch of percentage die rolls - while this is interesting I'm not going to cover it in detail here.  Check it out in the 3.5e PHB on page 146.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2e (1989)
In AD&D 2e, the death and dying rules are located on page 137 and 141.  I'm using the second printing from 1995, so your book may be different.

Hit Points
In AD&D, hit points are pretty simple.  When you have hit points you are alive, and when they are gone you are dead.  Page 141 puts it pretty succinctly:  "When a character reaches 0 hit points, that character is slain.  The character is immediately dead and unable to do anything unless some specialized magical effect takes precedence."

Massive Damage
As in 3.5, we see the Massive Damage rule in AD&D 2e.  Again, a single attack dealing 50 or more points of damage causes the player to make a Save vs Death (saves were very different in old timey editions).  If the save vs death is failed, the character dies.  End of story.

Poison is nasty in old school editions.  If a character is killed while poisoned and the poison still exists in his or her system for some period of time beyond his death.  If the poison is not dealt with and the character is revived, they will immediately begin to take damage again from the poison.

Update Aug 13, 2017:  Twitter user @merricb pointed out that a very popular optional rule at many AD&D tables is the 'Hovering on Death's Door' rule which allowed players to go into negative hit points.  I wondered why I hadn't seen this rule and it turns out its in the Dungeon Master's Guide on page 104 of the second printing.  Thanks Merric!  

This rule is similar to the 3.5 rules - when you reach zero or fewer hit points you fall unconscious, and then lose 1 HP each round until you hit -10 HP at which point you die.  Allies could use their round to patch up a fellow party member to stop the bleeding and prevent them from slipping into death's waiting grasp - or "....if a cure spell of some type is cast upon him, the character is immediately restored to 1 hit point - no more."  The Heal spell had its normal effect.  In all cases a caster who went unconscious forgot all of his prepared spells due to the stress of the event.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1e (1978)
 In 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons when you ran out of hit points, you died.

In AD&D, there isn't a section for death or dying, but the 'damage' rules are on page 105. It simply states the following:  "Damage is meted out in hit points.  If any creature reaches 0 or negative hit points, it is dead.  Certain magical means will prevent actual death, particularly a ring of regeneration."

These rules are clear, understandable and unflinchingly rigid....unless you have a magic item that lets you cheat death.  Thats so OSR.

Dungeons and Dragons, White Box (1974)
I am lucky enough to have a copy of the booklets from the White Box.  I have not been lucky enough to have played in a game of White Box D&D.  The title of the booklet that serves to describe what would later be called the Player's Handbook is as follows:

"Dungeons and Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures, Men and Magic, Volume 1 of 3 Booklets."  It took us a while to whittle that mouthful down to what we call it today:  a role-playing game.

On page 18 of this booklet it explains hit dice.  Rather than try to interpret or retell what is written there, I've just typed it in exactly as it appears in this book.

"Dice for Accumulative Hits (Hit Dice):  This indicates the number of dice which are rolled in order to determine how many hit points a character can take.  Plusses are merely the number of pips to add to the total of all dice rolled not to each die.  Thus a Super Hero gets 8 dice + 2; they are rolled and score 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6.  This totals 26 + 2 = 28, 28 being the number of points of damage the character could sustain before death.  Whether sustaining ccumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee."

Simply put - your character gets a number of hit dice.  Those dice are rolled at character creation and  thats how many points of damage you can take before death.  If you take more you are dead.

Dungeons and dragons has certainly taken a few different approaches to how to handle character death.  Each edition seems to make PCs more death-resistant, more durable, and more save-able.  I'd like to think that its because PCs today are more important to us than they were in 1974.  Maybe that's true, but maybe not.  As Dungeon Masters (or referees as we would have been called back in 1974) and players - we stand on the shoulders of those amazing PCs and NPCs that braved actual death in each combat encounter to help shape our game.  Some of them even became parts of the lore that we now think of as canon when at one time they were just characters in someone's home game.

I hope that you've enjoyed my brief synopsis of the death and dying rules through the ages.  Did I miss anything?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The latest version of Campaign Encyclopedia is out now!  Lots of bug fixes centered around the Graphical view of the tool.  Big shout out to Keith DeRuiter for helping with this feature!

You can check out the release notes here.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Map Monday 2 - The Known World of Arim

For #mapmonday, here is what's known of Arim, the world of my current campaign.

Its just a mechanical pencil drawing on graph paper I printed on my laser printer.  Then I scanned the drawing and darkened up some of the lines using photo editing software to give them a bit more contrast.

Have yet to do any ocean detail or color for this map, although its not out of the question for the future.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Map Monday 1 - A Humble temple

For #mapmonday here is a simple map of a humble temple of Ioun, goddess of knowledge, prophecy and skill.  This temple is not vast or especially grand.  The long brown blocks represent shelves jammed full of tomes, scrolls and other recorded history, knowledge and magic.  The Green rectangles are couches, benches, overstuffed chairs and the like.

Up the spiral stairs are three office spaces with desks, (this is starting to sound like a real estate listing).  More shelves hold more tomes and ancient, unreadable texts that Ioun's followers study to attempt to divine their true meaning.

The stairs down descend to a crypt where Ioun's revered are buried - valiant and loyal clerics, priests, and paladins who have served their mistress well.

I ran this map last week, and it worked out really well - the alcoves with the sarcophagi in them provided excellent cover for both my casters and the party's rogue who made good use of hiding.  Thanks to 5th Edition's allowance of mixing up your move with your attack, it made for a great fantasy "gun battle."

Feel free to use this map in your campaigns or plainly rip it off and improve on its design - it is my own work and may be used for any purpose, although I'd appreciate some attribution ;)

I plan to do the occasional #mapmonday post just because maps are so cool and useful.  Its always good to horde a stack of maps, you never know when one might be just what you're looking for.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Literally ANY Distraction Will Do

I simply cannot focus on putting together the D&D session for my group this week.  Why don't I post one of my campaign's maps instead?  That should provide an adequate distraction for about 6 minutes.....

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Shameless Plug for a DM Tool

As expressed in the title, this post is a shameless plug for my DM Tool, Campaign Encyclopedia.  This post hopes to explain its origin and purpose as well as how best to use it.  I'll stop plugging this thing soon, I promise.  :D

Why does it exist?
I always used to draw a bubble and line diagram that showed character / place / thing relationships in my campaigns.  It was a useful tool in my initial campaign plans that helped me to figure out who was who and what they were up to.  As campaigns grow more complex, these drawings can get out of hand and difficult to modify.

Another thing I would do, only slightly more successfully, is create an "encyclopedia" of my campaign.  Where I would write a short blurb about each of the peopleplaces, and things in the game.  This would work out better than the relationship diagram, but would still prove difficult to keep up to date as the game took unexpected turns.

It was clear that if I really cared about such things (and as a recovery world building addict, I do), I would need a digital solution.  Campaign Encyclopedia is that solution.  I put my campaign info into it, and it can generate the relationship graph, the encyclopedia, a timeline and makes it easy to see how the parts of my game worlds fit together.

How NOT to use it?
No post about dungeon masters tools would be complete without including a few quick notes about how to abuse tools like this.  It is the natural tendency of many dungeon masters to over-prepare, over-document, over-specify and over-do everything.  Most dungeon master's tools are enablers of this sort of obsessive behavior - and Campaign Encyclopedia is no different.  

Here are a few rules of thumb - you can probably get away with breaking one of these rules from time to time, but overall they're here to guide you toward the best experience possible when building your world with Campaign Encyclopedia.

  • Do not put EVERY entity (person, place, thing or organization) that exists or may exist in your game world into this tool before you start playing.  Put in only what you need right now and get playing.  Let the game world grow organically.
  • Descriptions for entities should start out simple and grow over time.  A simple sentence or two is more than sufficient for most NPCs and towns.
  • Do not put in EVERY relationship an Entity has into Campaign Encyclopedia.  Only put in relationships that really matter.  Doing so makes for better relationship graphs.
  • Do not let a sparsely populated game world keep you from playing.  It doesn't take much to get started.

How SHOULD you use it?
Now that I've told you how NOT to use Campaign Encyclopedia, let me say that I have a campaign file for the tool that describes a world that I have used in three campaigns stretching back over seven years.  This is a campaign with a TON of lore, history, home brew deities and magic items and over fifteen different player characters over the years.

Over the last six months since I started working on this tool, I've entered nearly all of the notes I have on the world of Arim into this tool.  It has a LOT of entities (over two-hundred), a lot of relationships (over seven hundred), and a lot of timeline entries (75).

So yes.  You CAN use this tool to define a very rich, detailed world - but the advice in the previous section still stands - let that world grow slowly on its own and let those gaps fill in naturally.

Star Wars
In preparation for this post I watched Star Wars: A New Hope and created a campaign for it using CE.  Avid Star Wars fans might feel that I left out some key information - I tried to only use data that was gained from the film and its spoken dialog, not using any of my Star Wars knowledge or expanded universe information.  (You can open the link on the image in a new tab or window in order to see it in better resolution if you wish)

The key thing to notice is just how simple the relationship graph of this epic movie is.  No, I didn't record ALL of the relationships that existed between every entity in the movie, but the most important parts of the story are captured in this graph.

You can download this sample campaign here.  Feel free to check it out in CE.

The Dream
I do have a dream that one day, my players will use this tool to record what they experience in my campaign.  This will, of course, never happen because of the ungrateful and lazy nature of players (love you guys!), but wouldn't it be cool if your PCs gave you a copy of the campaign file they created?  It would be an excellent way for them to show you just what they're taking away from your games.