Game Day: Savage Worlds, Spectres over Ravenloft, Dragon Countdown

You can always tell how frantic my Fridays are (and thus, how much I really, really need a Game Day) by how long it takes this column to get online. Yesterday I had a working lunch out of the office, and didn’t even sit down at my desk until 3 p.m.

Fortunately though, there was Game Day. Kicking off this week’s gaming goodness was the arrival of my Savage Worlds core rulebook, which I’ve been eagerly anticipating ever since I registered for the Savage World of Solomon Kane and Sundered Skies GenCon events two weeks ago.

Savage Worlds is a fairly-rules light system designed for fast and furious play. Having read through the character creation rules, it strikes me as the bastard love child of Risus and Hackmaster.

Risus because I could throw together a character in about 20 minutes (Risus would probably take more like 5) and Hackmaster because its got a wicked sense of style when it comes to hindrances and feats. It’s no where near as complex as the legendary Hackmaster, which goes so far as to offer suggestions on the best dice rolling techniques, but it’s got that same sense of adventure and fun. It’s the sort of game where you skim through the rules and immediately start rolling up characters in your head because it’s that damned cool.

I’m also thinking that these rules are perfect for the pulp-style “Expedition to Skull Island” one-shot I’ve been kicking around for the last few months. These rules scream out “two fisted adventure!” … and I really want to answer that cry.

If you’re interested in this game, we’ve got a good conversation about Savage Worlds the post-magical-apocolypse campaign setting of Sundered Skies over at the Dire Cafe.

The Spectres over Ravenloft

The Ravenloft campaign continued this week, with our characters arriving back in the town of Barovia to rest, recover … and heal our companions of devastating negative energy attacks that had slammed our stalwart fighter Obergon with six negative levels, effectively making him a first level character.

Nasty stuff. Our stay in the town was not free of undead though — Erilar rolled yet another spectre on the random encounter tables, causing us to fight a pitched battle against the undead in the stables of the inn we were staying at.

The random encounters in Ravenloft have been brutal, but I think they’re the key to horror in a Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition setting. The innately heroic, almost super-powered nature of the characters means that their default attitude (and that of their players) is that they will be able to beat anything they fight. Hell, it’s right there in the rules that each encounter should expend about 1/4 of the party’s resources, possibly with a “boss” battle every four battles that’s more of a challenge … and leads to the ever-popular level dance. This is not Call of Cthulhu where a single bullet from a gun might be enough to put your character down, or where some infinite cosmic horror can slaughter you with a touch. This is D&D, and we’re Big Damn Heroes on a Mission.

It’s hard to put the fear of anything into such characters, and random encounters with spectres, werewolves and other, more powerful horrors are just the thing for keeping the party in check. Trekking through the woods should be dangerous; there should be no such thing as a “simple” expedition — every time we leave the village (and sometimes when we don’t) the risk of death by overwhelming monster needs to be there.

I’m not saying that D&D can’t have moments of psychological horror — I once ran an adventure in which one of the party members was possessed by a shadow demon, and unconsciously used the powers of the demon to run around killing anyone he considered his enemy. While it was nothing like our Delta Green sessions for Cthulhu, I like to think the hunt for this monster — and the ultimate reveal — played out like a decent horror movie.

Ravenloft will certainly have some of those moments (and already has had one, in the form of a battle in the basement of a church with a cadaverous horror built by a mad pries) but I think random encounters provide that sense of apprehension and unknown that keeps player characters on edge … and the edge is what provides the sense of horror.

On the character front, my rouge-turned-wizard-turned-undead-fighter Pierce Haligarth is slowly settling into a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none role. He’s transitioning away from being a confidence man obsessed with his next payday to a rouge in way over his head whose just trying to stay alive. He remains obsessed with the treasure vault within Castle Ravenloft, but his immediate concern is figuring how to destroy the undead and prevent his entrails from being ripped out of his stomach again. That would be his motive for joining the Lightbringers, who offered to teach him how to better attack undead (and allow him to use half of his sneak attack dice against undead monsters while flanking them).

The Dragon Countdown

This Game Day also saw the arrival of one of the last issues of Dragon Magazine #356. I’ve only just started peaking through it, but articles like “Core Beliefs: Hextor” and “Ferrous Dragons” already have me missing it. I didn’t use everything in Dragon when I was actively DMing, but I loved having it as a resource. And I’m really going to miss getting a new issue and say “that’s cool! I’ll have to remember to use that when the party runs into Hextorites again…”

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