Savage Worlds rulebook cover

Lately I’ve been playing two tabletop RPGs, which partially accounts for the lack of blog posts in about three months. One of my games is, of course, Ars Magica, and the other is the (relatively) new Space 1889: Red Sands setting for Savage Worlds.

I find that over the past three or four years my tastes in gaming have changed quite a bit. I still love Ars Magica of course, but (as I’ve written previously) increasingly I am interested in games where the rules stay out of the way and the players can focus on the story and on role-playing. So Savage Worlds, with its lightweight core rule book (paperback, 160 pages, $9.95 retail), was just the thing to try.

Overall I am very satisfied with the Savage Worlds system. It’s lean, straightforward, and includes features, such as Edges and Hindrances for characters, that encourage role-playing. Character creation was pretty quick and I was able to get my new group of five players to create characters and learn the basics within a couple of hours.

So why is it that, now four sessions into this game, we are still tripping over the combat system?

Simple Does Not Mean Easy

The Savage Worlds rules take a pretty minimalistic approach to resolving most tasks: your character sheet tells you what kind of die you get to roll, you roll it, and if you get a 4 or better, you succeed. If you get an 8 or better, you succeed extra well, and so on. I think the rule book only spends about twice as many words as that to describe the basic mechanics.

As with most games, combat gets its own chapter. Players expect this. Frankly if you are going to use combat rules at all then I expect those rules to cover the many common contingencies one might run into, such as using improvised weapons or trying to fight in the dark. Satisfying that expectation pretty much means that the combat rules are a beefy chapter in that skinny rule book. This is all well and good. The funny thing is, we weren’t using the various esoteric options, hanging upside down from a cliff edge while firing full auto at a moving target and such. We were pretty much running vanilla melees and firefights.

I decided to create a flow chart to help myself and my players learn the decisions involved when playing a battle. It turns out, there are a lot of them! This chart basically covers a single attack, which every player makes every turn, and it’s simplified — most of the optional rules like called shots and so forth are left off. They wouldn’t fit.

Now that I have the chart in front of me, I see why we were having trouble. More so than other games, there are a lot of decisions that get made every round. Now from a playability point of view, decisions are fun. Individually those decisions are all pretty simple. They’re straightforward and quick to make. What takes a bit longer is getting a handle on how those decisions feed into one another and what happens next after the outcome of an earlier die roll. I think this flowchart is really going to help us.

It would be an interesting exercise to make a similar chart for another game, like D&D. But for D&D (Fourth Edition at least) the chart would have to be very abstract, something like “decide what power to use, find your DC, make your attack, modify your roll up the wazoo, and then if it worked read the effects of your power to see what happens.” And when you boil it down to those terms, D&D combat sounds pretty boring: endless variations on the same theme. That is of course less than half the story, because deciding what power to use at a given moment (based on the details of how it works) is where the fun of D&D lies.

So both Savage Worlds and D&D have fun combat systems but they approach it in totally different ways. D&D has a simple pattern that players can re-use in endless variations of different powers; Savage Worlds has a more complex system with lots of little decisions here and there that add up to a deceptively large amount of player control. But I do have to say, D&D combat is easier to learn.