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Savage Worlds: Player-Side Review

As one of the test audience for Samhaine's system reviews, I played in a Savage Worlds session this past weekend, set in the classic D&D setting of Ravenloft. (In fact, he's even posted the module!) The GM pregenerated characters and some backstory for each of us. I played Rhys Sulien Llewellyn, a seasoned elderly elven wizard, pretty much min-maxed (as far as I know) for spellcasting: I had a d12 in Spellcasting, 15 power points, and the Wizard edge. I'm pretty sure that's really badass, even though I don't know enough about the system to be sure. When I used something described as magic missiles (really, bolts of force) to utterly annihilate two wolves at once (even if the wolves were extras), for a final cost of one (1) Power Point, I started feeling pretty bold.

But I'm getting ahead of myself slightly. The five of us were swallowed by the Mists of Ravenloft and deposited elsewhere. Before we've even introduced ourselves to one another, we're attacked by a pack of wolves. My positioning is not so great, and for a moment there I have both wolves right up in my face. Now, being elderly means that my Strength and Vigor are both rated d4. This means that my Parry (let's call it my Armor Class, if you only know D&D rules; it's the chance for the enemy to miss you outright) is 2. This is two points below the difficulty of "standard" tests; basically, missing me is very freaking nigh impossible. On top of that, my Toughness (physical resilience; basically my defense against hits causing Wounds) is 4 because of that miserably low Vigor. In brief, a stiff breeze might be a serious issue.

So when there are two wolves all up in my shit, we discuss how I can back away, protect myself, or otherwise just survive their next turn. Much like in D&D 3e and later, threatening enemies get to attack you as you withdraw. I can reasonably guess that they're going to hit me and at the very least impose the Shaken condition - and in this system, that is a Problem. Once I'm Shaken, my turn is over, and next turn I must spend my action attempting a Spirit roll to remove the Shaken condition (well, okay, I can walk at half my Pace instead, but that's really it - a condition bad enough that I might as well not have the option). If I succeed by less than 4 (do not get an extra degree of success, called a Raise), that's it for my turn. If I do get a Raise, I can take my action normally. This Shaken thing is my one towering problem with the system, but it didn't wind up being a problem for me in this fight, because I changed what I was going to do. I Tricked one of the wolves (this is a standard combat maneuver), rolling my Smarts (d12) against the wolf's Smarts (...much lower), describing the maneuver as conjuring a minor illusion of danger behind the wolf. So I get a Raise on this maneuver, and now one of the two wolves threatening me is Shaken and has a penalty to Parry. The party's swashbuckling rogue dashes over and attacks the other wolf, again imposing the Shaken condition.

The shoe is on the other foot now for these wolves. To the best of my recollection, the next round I won initiative by drawing a Joker, at which point I cast the magic missile heard 'round the world. I paid double PP for an extra missile (so I could attack both wolves) and double PP for double damage (going up to 4d6), and then I rolled a whole bunch of Raises on my Spellcasting test to reduce that cost again. Those Raises also meant I did still more damage. Oh, and I think at least one die per missile rolled an Ace (maximum value for the die), and therefore exploded. So, um. The famous mists of Ravenloft were stained a vibrant red as a result. Because this ended the fight (and in a very... colorful fashion), we didn't really get into analyzing what kind of problem Shaken would be - don't worry, I'll be going into a lot more detail about it later.

After the cut, the session recap and analysis continues.

Fight over, we introduce ourselves to one another. The party consists of my character, a remarkably rotund but very badass knight, an elderly cleric of Lathander, a foppish but quite well-educated and groomed scholar, and the aforementioned swashbuckling rogue. We play through the normal first-meeting kind of stuff. Everyone hates the elf. And a couple of us really hate Vistani, which is a problem, given that the Vistani caravan in the area will prove to be one of our only sources of information. The Vistani hate elves, too. It's enough to give a guy a complex. (Which is to say, I had the Outsider Hindrance, so when making Persuasion checks untrained I also had an extra -2 to the roll. I had to roll an Ace and explode the die to get a positive roll.)

Anyway, we get the brush-off from the local villagers, while the Vistani offer absolutely as little help as possible, concluding that the Dark Powers have taken an interest in us, the area is forming a new Domain, we have to do something relating to this, and that's that. Taking stock of our options, we can spend the night in the village's abandoned inn, push on to the next village, go to the cemetery, or go on up to the local lord's manor. We quickly decide that pushing on to the next village is the least obviously suicidal of these options... and run into a wall of mist. We trudge back to town in time to break into the abandoned inn, build a small fire to avoid freezing to death, and eat the rations we bought from the Vistani.

In the middle of the night, the foppish scholar awakens just in time to avoid being bitten by a vampire. The knight springs into action and strikes at her with his sword, at which point we definitively learn that vampires are immune to damage from that sword, and probably from anything that is not specifically one of their weaknesses. The cleric, though, pulls out her holy symbol and with one dawn burst turns her to mist... the kind of mist that flees back to its coffin to make trouble for us again after the next sunset. We panic for a little while, but eventually settle back down to sleep until just before dawn.

We head up to the lord's manor, which is shuttered up nice and tight, with barred doors and the whole nine yards. One breaking and entering charge later, we're inside on the second story. We spend most of the day trying to break down the door to the basement (where we believe the vampires to be resting in their coffins) and going through the diaries in the study. We find out how the master vampire here murdered his evil brother and gradually became decadent and vampiric. All very tragic, I'm sure.

We break for dinner and go to Neo Asia, which chews up something like two hours. This was not ideal. My bad.

In the diaries, we find records of the murdered brother being buried with a blessed sword, so that he will not himself rise as a vampire or other horrible undead. We take the sword, with a firm promise to put it right back once we're done with it. (The Dark Powers find such promises very funny, I am told.) There was theoretically supposed to be an encounter with skeletons and zombies here, but the GM blows it off because it's already late. Back at the manor house, we finish breaking down that door at sunset, conveniently enough, and we all rush down the stairs to meet the master vampire and his two spawn.

The opening rounds of this fight go pretty well for us. The cleric's dawn bursts can be cast multi-target, so she does; this doesn't do the buckets of damage it did the first time around, but they're Shaken and Wounded. The swashbuckler damages one of them with a stake to the heart (a Called Shot). I cast a web to hinder the vampires, since we're pretty sure my magic missiles and fireball won't do a damn thing. Eventually, the master vampire succeeds a Spirit roll to remove Shaken by enough that he takes his normal action, and just about murders the knight on the spot; only his Wound penalties stop him from getting that last Raise he needed. The cleric dumps a bunch of Power Points into healing the knight, who is wielding the blessed sword. The next round, the cleric spends the last of her Power Points on a final dawn burst, and again has miserable dice luck against the vampires' very high Toughness.

This is where things all go awry for us. I don't mean that we lose the fight, though. It's... kind of worse than that. We can't make any progress against the vampires, because we can't seem to hit their Parry and Toughness values with the Raise we'd need to deal a Wound - so they're just getting Shaken over and over again. They have accumulated enough Wound penalties that they can't hit us either, or even reliably pass a Spirit roll to remove Shaken. Also, they're constantly having to break out of the webs I'm casting. We have them effectively stun-locked, but still can't finish any of them off. We honestly went something like five or six rounds without any meaningful change in the situation. After this had gone on beyond the limits of elven endurance, we called an end to it, because there was no possible resolution other than GM fiat. Our GM narrated some denouement, et cetera.

The problem with the game is that improved skill just grants larger dice, which is no guarantee whatsoever of success - and smaller dice explode far more often, so while larger dice are better for you, it doesn't really feel that way. Penalties, expressed as flat numbers subtracted from the final total, can be a significant portion of the overall value of a die if it's not your specialty. These penalties only apply to die rolls, though: attacks, skill tests, attribute tests, and opposed rolls. Static target numbers, such as Parry and Toughness, are not reduced by any amount of Wound penalty. Thus the game has a death spiral, but one that leads to stalemate rather than quick resolution.

Most of the problem, though, boils down to the Shaken condition. On its face, it's a really interesting idea. It works like a kind of temporary Wound level - you're off-guard, rocked back on your heels, or otherwise temporarily vulnerable and stunned. It's not all that difficult to remove the Shaken condition, though it's often going to cost you your turn unless you have a very high Spirit stat. Once you remove Shaken, you have your temporary Wound level back, and the enemy has to render you Shaken again before you start taking Wounds. It could be a great way to represent why a one-punch knockout works only when the hero isn't expecting it. In practice, though, it meant a lot of frustrated rounds of nothing much happening.

There are also a lot of different ways to impose the Shaken condition. Damaging attacks cause an opponent to become Shaken, of course, but so does a Trick or a Test of Wills, if you roll a Raise - and as opposed rolls, it's often easier to score a Raise on those maneuvers than on a normal attack. While we haven't tested this idea, I feel like the fix that would really help the whole system is to change Shaken so that it doesn't stun, but instead opposes a -2 Parry penalty that stacks with the penalty from the Trick maneuver (maybe also a penalty to Toughness if that isn't enough). This means that you'll definitely want to purge the condition soon, but if you're in a desperate situation you can still attack even though you're off-balance.

I suspect that the show-stopping problem of probabilities that we ran into isn't common in most Savage Worlds games, because most things aren't vampires that require magical daylight, holy water, a blessed weapon, or a stake and a Called Shot to the heart. Even given the vampires' defenses, though, the Shaken condition was the thing that got in the way and frustrated players and GM alike. I'd be interested in playing Savage Worlds again in the future, assuming the GM introduced some kind of houserule taking some of the teeth out of the Shaken condition. My other concerns with the rules, such as the aforementioned death spiral, are minor enough.

And, of course, I want to play in Ravenloft again. I don't miss the AD&D 2e rules at all, but the session was a great reminder that 2e was the Golden Age of setting writing within TSR (as another enterprising blogger has observed here).

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