If you have listened to our podcast, you know that we’ve been excited about the upcoming release of Savage Rifts. Because the new Savage Rifts is built off of the Savage World RPG engine, it caused us to pull it off our shelf and for the first time in awhile. Since we are probably going to run a Savage Rifts game sooner or later, and people might be looking at the system, we figured it was a good time to review the base Savage Worlds RPG. Also, if we end up reviewing Savage Rifts eventually, and this will save us from having to include stuff about the “base system,” because we can refer you back to this review. Lastly, hello people in the future, welcome to this review from those of us in the past!
What is Savage Worlds
Savage Worlds has a long history. The original game system started life as the Deadlands RPG in the 1990’s. That in turn generated a miniatures game called The Great Rail Wars which used a simplified version of the Deadlands RPG rules. A few years down the road they thought, “The Great Rail Wars would make a better rules-light RPG,” and thus Savage Worlds was born. The game is currently on its third edition, and each revision has further refined the system to make it a good choice if you’re after a generic RPG rules engine.
The adaptability of Savage Worlds has taken the RPG world by storm, resulting in tons of additional settings. Some of the more notable settings include the Victorian horror of Rippers, the retro-future sci-fi of Slipstream, the original “spaghetti western with meat” Deadlands, among many others. If you’d rather play in a setting of your own, or in a setting without an official book, you can pick up a genre “companion” book, which is one of the best features of the system. These books support various generic genres, including the sub-genres within, such as Superheroes, Fantasy, Scifi, Horror, etc. Plus, now they landed the mother of all RPG settings, Rifts, which is every genre you can think of mashed together in one awesome tentacled monster like the alien from The Thing.
Making a character is pretty easy in Savage Worlds. First, you pick a race: Humans, Elves, Aliens, whatever the setting provides. Then, you assign points to your traits, which are Agility, Smarts, Spirit, Strength and Vigor. Then you pick your skills. Stats and Skills in this game are not represented in points but in dice, starting at a d4, and going to d6, d8, d10, and d12, which is the highest. This represents the dice you roll whenever you make a trait or skill test during the game. Next up is buying Edges and Hindrances, which is where your character really starts to take shape. Compared to D&D, this would be like choosing your class, but since it’s a points-based system, you can mix and match edges to create your own unique “class.” Finally, you choose gear and background details.
Edges essentially form the basis of your character class: If you want to be a Wizard you take the Arcane Background. If you want to be a D&D style barbarian, you take Berserk. You’re limited in the number of Edges you can take as a starting character, which has a problem of making starting characters feel too similar, but as you level up, you quickly specialize in your party role. Additionally, some Edges have a “rank” requirement, which is similar to levels in D&D. Starting characters are Novices, and you are a Novice until you earn 19 experience points. From 20 to 39 you are Seasoned, 40 to 59 is Veteran, 60 to 79 is Heroic, and 80 or more is Legendary.
While it’s easy to talk about Edges, Hinderances are just as big a part of making a starting character. Some of them are mechanical in nature, and some won’t come up except during roleplaying. This used to drive me nuts, until I realized they were kinda like the Flaws in 5th edition backgrounds. Some of them are there for RP reasons, so you can keep them in mind, and but they’re also there to get your character in trouble at the GM’s discretion. Additionally, some powerful races that have more than the “standard” amount of racial traits are assigned specific Hindrances to balance them against “normal” races.
Savage Worlds has a very simple rules set: roll a dice based on your stat or skill, is the result greater than 4? That’s it. Sometimes there are situational modifiers than can add or subtract from the roll. Additionally, the system has “exploding” dice, which is if you roll the maximum on a dice, then you can roll again and add to the total. If you roll max again, then you can roll another time, and so on. Though highly improbable, there’s no limit to the number of times a dice can “explode” and you can end up with a ridiculously high total roll. For every 4 points above the difficulty that you roll, you get a raise, which can result in extra damage dealt or other bonus effects.
Player characters also get a special “Wild Card” which is an additional d6 when they roll for a skill or trait. This dice can also explode. Some villains also have this benefit, but they tend to be special villains who have a name and backstory.
One of the other unique things the system has is the combat initiative system, which isn’t rolled like D&D. Instead, you use a deck of cards (with the jokers included) and draw every turn. Players each get a card, but groupings of enemies get a card per grouping. For example, if the players are being attacked by a group of Goblins and Giant Spiders, the GM would draw a card for Goblins and draw another card for the Giant Spiders. If you get a joker, you can go whenever you want, interrupting a turn, and getting +2 to your rolls. Players go in order from highest to lowest card order, with Aces being highest, Deuce being lowest. Ties are resolved in suit order: Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, then Clubs.
I like Savage Worlds, especially since I’ve played it a few times, and I’m probably going to dust off the system again very soon with Savage Rifts. I only have two complaints about the system, the first being that I don’t have system mastery of Savage Worlds yet, which seems necessary to get the most out of the game. The Rules are very simple, but there is a fair amount of nuance, which can be discouraging to a new player and gives a new Game Master a somewhat steep learning curve to have a deep understanding of the game. The second is that the game started life as a miniatures game, so various combat effects use templates and ranges of weapon are given in inches. It always felt like Savage Worlds could never decide if it was a mini game or a rules-light “theater of the mind” game. It’s always felt like it was straddling the middle, and I wish it would figure out what it wanted to be and move that way.
However, these minor points aside, the RPG engine is robust and functions very well for what it wants to do. Plus, there are a TON of awesome settings for this game, which have a huge amount of creativity baked into them. I haven’t even mentioned the pirate fantasy game of 50 Fathoms, the super-villains save the world of Necessary Evil, or the hardboiled supernatural detectives of Deadlands Noir. They are all awesome and worth a read even just to fish for creative and amazing ideas. If there’s a setting you’ve always wanted to play but you don’t know which system to use, you can’t go wrong using Savage Worlds. And chances are, they’ve already published a setting book for it.