Dev Notes 5 - Why Savage Worlds?

When creating a new roleplaying setting, there is a moment of freedom when anything is possible. The game exists solely as an idea - an image in the mind of players happily describing how their characters interact with your deeply constructed, richly detailed world. Then from that image arises a question - what are those players actually doing? Are they rolling dice? What sort of dice? A moment of panic: will I try to create a whole new system from scratch? No, of course not. Focus on the story. Use mechanics that already exist. Just choose a generic system. But...which one? 

For us, the answer was clear from the beginning. Savage Worlds was an obvious fit for the mood, setting, and playstyle we wanted to achieve. But because that match may not be as clear to everyone, I thought it might be appropriate to take some time explaining what's so great about Savage Worlds and how it lines up so well with Steamscapes. Allow me to outline some of the major points:


#1 - The Big Sandbox

 In creating the Steamscapes world, two things that were absolutely critical were the concepts of multiple entry points and no "good guy" nations. All of the factions needed to be viable alternatives as homes AND as adversaries for the players. Steamscapes needed to be a sandbox rather than an adventure path for us to be satisfied with its potential as a persistent world.

 Now, you might be wondering: what does sandbox-style play have to do with mechanics? Can't you have an open world using any system? This is somewhat true, but mechanics play a part in encouraging play style. Mechanics can serve to remind the player that the world is open. The most clear example has to do with the distinction between class-based systems and point-buy systems. Class-based systems tend to encourage players to create characters that are fully fleshed but ultimately very narrowly defined. Although such systems have occasionally experimented with multi-classing (to greater and lesser success), most players stick to a very linear progression. Some players even have their character's entire future mapped out from level 1 to level 30 (or whatever).

 Savage Worlds, as a point-buy system, encourages players to create characters that react to their experiences, learning whatever seems most relevant and necessary at the time. Sure, some characters may be more focused and driven in their studies, but many times in a Savage Worlds game I have seen players ask the question, "Who wants to pick up skill x?" The fact that there isn't one obvious answer to this question (e.g. - "I'm the cleric, so I do all the healing.") means that players think of their characters in a more dynamic fashion. This flexibility of character reinforces the openness of the world.

 Even the Professions that we have added in Steamscapes are not like classes at all. They are something that any given character can learn at any time - you need not start with one, and you need not limit yourself to just one. Certainly characters that do one thing their whole lives are going to be generally better at it, but that doesn't prevent others from dabbling.


#2 - Stuff Happens

 This section gets down to the nitty-gritty of gameplay - specifically dice rolling - but one important thing to understand about such mechanics is that they are not just math. They are also psychology. For example, a d20 is clearly designed to separate probability into 5% chunks. A roll of 3d6 has a more curved probability progression, but each point along that curve is still fixed. Players may feel like rolling more dice is more fair, largely because they believe in the bell curve, but the chances of hitting a certain percentage in either system are still fixed when you come down to a single roll. Players may believe in probability trends over time, but ultimately they are stuck in small samples, where it's easy to get a few bad rolls and feel like your luck is completely out of whack.

 The difference with Savage Worlds comes from the Wild Die. In other systems, the ability to reroll is a powerful and often expensive advantage. In Savage Worlds, it happens every time. Every single roll a player makes is actually two rolls, either of which can lead to success. The wild die makes possible a lot of lower-skill rolls, and it saves the occasional bad luck high-skill roll. This doesn't just "feel" more fair because the player is rolling more dice, it actually leads to more success overall.

 What this means to Steamscapes is that there is less of a tendency to get bogged down in rolling dice, waiting round after round for the right number to appear. The motto of Savage Worlds is "Fast! Furious! Fun!" Steamscapes aspires to that as well. It heightens the importance of storytelling and lessens the importance of chance. And that brings us to the final point:


#3 - Cinematic Roleplaying

 One of the big adjustments that new Savage Worlds players have to make comes during the choosing of Hindrances. There are quite a few Hindrances that characters can take that have absolutely no game effect whatsoever. They are merely descriptive roleplaying cues. I appreciate the suggestion that some Savage GMs have made of giving out Bennies only when players roleplay their Hindrances, but I don't think it's necessary. I just appreciate the idea that players can put things on their character sheet that have no math or mechanic associated with them but are merely reminders of who their character is.

 Combat in Savage Worlds is likewise much less obsessed with numbers. There are no hit points to keep track of, and Extras in particular are knocked out of the fight quickly. This puts the focus on the Wild Cards, the big bad bosses, and raises the tension when Wild Cards are in play. This is as it should be to serve the story. Combat in general does not occupy as large a portion of the session time as in other systems. And even within combat there is more time for trying more interesting things instead of always just swinging your sword one more time.This means there is more time for story both in and out of combat.


All three of these points add up to a substantial focus on character and setting and the experience of telling a story. This is what we want when people play Steamscapes.

-Fairman Rogers