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!


  1. referencing a dictionary definition of simple:

    i'd say it's fair to describe savage worlds as definition 1: "easy to understand, deal with, use, etc." but definition 3 is right out: "not ornate or luxurious; unadorned: "not ornate or luxurious; unadorned" and definition 2 could be argued either way: "not elaborate or artificial; plain"

    words like "elegant" gain use in software development circles 'cos they help avoid that sort of ambiguity. _but_ that effectively makes them jargon. "elegant" really only takes on that meaning among software developers or people working adjacent to software development. we're down to definition number 6 (and arguably definition number 5) for elegant before we reach how we'd use it to describe savage worlds. with "simple" we're talking about definition number 1.

    you're totally on point here. *but* we gotta consider our audience. and often "simple" is a safe way to describe the system to a general audience or someone we don't know well enough to break out more technically correct but potentially alienating jargon-y terms.

  2. i ended up having to split my comment in two 'cos i initially went over the character limit. 0_o

    for me savage worlds strikes a nice balance. there's enough complexity to be interesting. but it's fairly easy to reason about. rules tend to be packages into well organized, concise "modules." for any given scene at my table i usually only need to concern myself with 3 or 4 such modules. and for my players the mental load is even lower. new players (and GMs) can ease into things totally ignoring various modules until they gain experience and comfort with the system for those rules to bring value to their gaming experience. setting rules are like modules specifically _designed_ to be included or excluded on a per-project basis. there are common themes and patterns that crop up again and again in the rules. this helps disparate sections feel familiar. rules, especially setting rules, tend to combine well (like functional composition to tie it back to software jargon). the chase rules and the interlude rules do similar things with the action deck, but both use it in a way pretty well removed from its more common use for tracking combat initiative. this _also_ helps demonstrate "design patterns" to inspire fan works. check out these domain rules:

    i don't know to what extent any of this design inspiration from the software world is intentional vs people like you and me projecting familiar ideas onto it vs these sorts of design choices having benefits for _any_ large scale, collaborative, complex system - be that a rules system or a software system. shane _did_ work in the video game / MMO industry for a while. so it's possible some of it is intentional. but however these things made it into savage worlds,

    i often compare my experiences with savage worlds to D&D 4e. there were *obvious* video game inspirations in that system. and it worked well for a _certain_ type of experience at the table. i usually ended up feeling like i would have been better off playing an actual tactical video game like heroes of might and magic 3 or king's bounty or an action RPG like diablo 2 or torchlight. in other words, i often (but not always!) felt like the experience that system was optimized for was better delivered via a different medium. it seemed to *ignore* the benefits of the table top gaming medium to make taking inspiration from the video game world easier. but it ended up feeling like a table top simulation of playing a great tactical action RPG video game.

    savage worlds favors tactical combat. its roots are in the great rail wars table top war game. but it doesn't _require_ that style of play or limit groups to it. its mindful of the strengths and adaptability of the table top role playing medium and embraces them. the experience at the table is firmly rooted in table top gaming, even if it's a bit more wargame-y than other systems. but thanks to its commonalities with some software development strategies (purposeful or coincidence doesn't really matter) the system ends up feeling like a very well designed software development *framework*. we can use that framework to build whatever experiences we want at our table.

    so anyway, in light of that, when i bring in software development metaphors in discussions of savage worlds with an audience *not* primarily made up of other devs i try to stick to usability metaphors. everyone who regularly uses the web can understand how and why the simplicity (or elegance) of the makes conducting a web search more straight forward than the comparatively "busy" so i can talk about something like character creation or combat in those terms. but where software development metaphors really shine for the savage worlds system gets into stuff we really only run into when _building_ software, not just using it.