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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Savage Worlds: Explorers Edition

by Ken Newquist / January 13, 2008

The Savage Worlds: Explorer Edition game book is a slim, seductive little tome that promises to deliver “fast, fun, and furious” action for any genre and in hundreds less pages than Dungeons & Dragons takes to recreate just the fantasy genre.  It’s a promise it makes good on … up to a point.

This is the third printing of Savage Worlds, and perhaps the best one yet. The book is printed in folio format (6.5 inches wide by 9 inches high), and numbers 160 pages. It’s a slender book, but it manages to pack its entire game mechanic into those pages; this isn’t a “lite” edition; this is the whole game.

One System, Any Genre

Cover: Savage Worlds Explore EditionThe game’s mechanics are straightforward and should be familiar to anyone whose played role-playing games – particularly Dungeons & Dragons – before.  Characters are defined by five core attributes, Agility, Smarts, Spirit, Strength and Vigor. These attributes assigned a value based on one the traditional role-playing game polyhedral dice: d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12 (a d4 is a four sided die, a d6 is a six sided one, and so on). Characters start with a d4 in each attribute, and have five points to increase their die type one step (e.g. going from a d4 to a d6 costs one point).

Skills are tied to Abilities, and work similarly. Characters have 15 points to spend on talents such as Brawling, Investigation or Notice. The difference is that the first d4 “rank” in a skill costs one point, and skills that have a greater die type then the ability they're tied to cost more.

Rounding out characters are Edges and Hindrances. Edges are advantages – not unlike feats in D&D 3.x – which help the character in some way. They range from “Attractive”, which increases a character’s charisma, “Berserk”, which lets a character reduce his defense in favor of his attacks, and “Florentine”, which lets the character fight with two blades equally well. There are also Power and Weird edges that provide supernatural abilities such as access to spells. They’re purchased by taking Hindrances, such as Vengeful, Poverty, and Obese. Many of these are role-playing, rather than mechanical, drawbacks, but the system provides incentives to encourage their use.

These incentives take the form of bennies. Each character starts with three of these tokens each game, and can earn more through overcoming major challenges, exceptional role-playing, entertaining the group or (preferably) both. The bennies can be used to re-roll attribute and skill checks or to soak damage in battle.

Trait checks in the games are easy – characters roll the appropriate Attribute or Skill die. If the result is better than a four, then the check succeed. If the maximum result on the die is rolled – a six on a six-sided die for example, then the die explodes and players can roll it again.  The second die roll can also explode, as can any subsequent ones. If the result is four more then what was needed, it’s get a raise, which counts as an exceptional result.

Combat is similar, except the target number there is the opposing character’s defense rank. The game’s damage mechanic eschews hit points or any analogous mechanics in favor of a system of wounds. When a character is hit once, it becomes Shaken, which prevents it from taking any action other than moving, and even that’s done at half speed. The round after becoming shaken, characters can attempt to throw off the condition by making a successful Spirit check.

Shaken’s just the first step on the road to death though. If a Shaken character takes more damage, they suffer a wound.  Player characters and important non-player characters are known as Wild Cards, and can take up to three wounds. Regular minions and monsters are less blessed, and can suffer only one wound before they die. In combat, each success counts as a potential wound; get enough successes, and its possible to kill an opponent outright.

Possible … but perhaps not probable thanks to the game’s bennie mechanic. Similar to action dice in d20 Modern or plot points in Serenity’s Cortex System, three bennies are given to characters at the start of each session. They can be spent to re-roll bad rolls, but they can also be used to “soak” damage. When a character spends a bennie after being hit, they immediately make a Vitality roll; each success means they avoid one wound. Lucky characters can avoid all of the damage and even the Shaken condition if they roll well enough.

The core rules include a representative sample of weapons and armor spanning genres from fantasy to modern day to science fiction. They’re supplemented by rules for extraordinary abilities; these abilities can be generically viewed as spells, but with a little flavor text and a tweak of the game mechanics, they can easily represent weird science, psionics, or superhero abilities. Brief guidelines are given for each genre.

Rounding out the book are rules for chases (used for everything from foot races to car chases to starfighter dogfighting), environmental and terrain rules, and advice for aspiring game masters.

Fast, Fun, Furious

Savage Worlds has two great strengths: speed and flexibility.

First, its rules truly are fast and furious – games move quickly and while the “exploding dice” mechanic can occasionally slow things down as players are forced to do math, it gets much easier once people are familiar with the mechanics. The slim rulebook looks like it can’t possibly contain a complete game, especially when compared to Dungeons & Dragons and yet, it does. Not only that, but at no point does the game feel like its missing anything – yes, more skills, edges, hindrances and powers could be added, but its easy to run a game using the rules in this single book.

And that leads to its second great strength: flexibility. Out of the box, Savage Worlds can run games in almost any genre, and with a little work, it can easily support entire campaign worlds. Since discovering Savage Worlds, I’ve played in four separate genres, including the gritty setting of the Savage Worlds of Soloman Kane, the high seas adventures of Pirates of the Spanish Main, the dystopian fantasy apocalypse of Sundered Skies and my own “weird pulp” Hellboy-inspired World War II one shot. In each case, the Savage Worlds rules delivered a light-weight, fast-moving game that kept everyone at the table excited and engaged.

It’s astounding how well the rules transition from genre to genre, and having picked up the Pirates of the Spanish Main source book, I can safely say that the core rules scale up very well to a full-blown campaign setting without becoming cumbersome or clunky. Moreover, the rules in these individual campaign settings remain fundamentally Savage, which makes the Explorer’s Edition all the more attractive. As a game master I can spend $40 on a setting book, share the appropriate edges and hindrances with my players, and then let them rely on the core rulebook for quick rule questions. Even better, at $10 I can afford to buy a few copies of the Explorer’s Edition to share with new players, which overcomes the primary obstacle to getting people to try a new game: the cost of buying the rules.

Savage Worlds shines at engaging players. The exploding die mechanic can turn even mundane checks into something special, or even spectacular as the successes mount up. Conversely, the ability of players to negate the inevitable betrayal of the dice by spending bennies allows them to feel like they have a little more control over the game. Most of the time, they still have to accept the dice where they lay, but occasionally, when its most important, they can challenge fate.  The initiative system, which uses playing cards to determine who goes first, is a nice break from dice-based mechanics, and serves to reinforce the fact that players aren’t playing d20 any more.

The game’s biggest drawback is that its mechanics favor a particular style of play, namely action/adventure. It’s fantastic for pulp adventure, hack’n’slash fantasy, guns-blazing horror, and space opera science fiction, but I think it would be difficult to throttle it back to a low-calibur horror setting like Call of Cthulhu. I can think of a few rule hacks that might help: increasing the Raise threshold from four to six or seven, reducing the number of wounds a player can take, eliminating Raises entirely, but these kinds of hacks start to change the game’s DNA in unpredictable and I expect unsatisfying ways.

Savage World’s exploding dice mechanic can also play havoc on the battlefield – I’ve seen a single gunshot or bolt spell take out the game’s principal villain more than once. Bennies and the Wild Card ability to soak damage mitigates this somewhat, but some people may not like this one-shot, one-kill aspect to the game.

The lack of a direct relationship between abilities and skills  – e.g. having a high intelligence doesn’t directly affect your ability to program a computer – may be problematic for some people, but I found that not having to worry about matching up bonuses helps the game run faster.

I owned the previous edition of Savage Worlds, which was a traditional hard cover, and I greatly prefer this one: it’s small enough to throw into a backpack or a kitbag, and you won’t throw out your back carrying it from game to game. I was concerned that the text might become illegible when moving from the traditional size to the smaller folio, but it’s a very readable 11pt Arial. They’ve cut some content from the previous edition in order to get the core rules into this smaller format – information on variant races like dwarves and elves are gone – but nothing critical has been cut. The book’s lack of a proper index would usually earn a rant from me, but in this case the detailed table of contents is adequate for finding all of the major, and a good number of the minor, rules.

Final Analysis

If you’re tired of hauling a half-dozen books to your gaming sessions, or are looking for a lightweight rule system that can easily be adapted to a wide variety of genres, then Savage Worlds is for you.