I’ll be honest: when I first sat down with the Savage Worlds rulebook, I didn’t think too much of it. At the time I favored strict simulationist realism and Savage Worlds just seemed to be too quick-and-dirty and lacking in granularity but now I think it’s my favorite system. What’s changed? Mostly me. I finally realized that I’m not 14 any more and the prospect of gradually working a new character up from a zero-level peasant (or Savage Worlds equivalent) to a level 50 bazillion soldier-warlock over a period of years is not only unlikely but also undesirable. In the adult world, it’s hard to get everyone together for long campaigns. My average is about 6 months and I’m lead to understand that that’s unusually long for most groups. Additionally, I had real-world accomplishments all the time, be it a math test or the art show at the fair or getting 10 bucks for mowing Old Man Ward’s lawn. None of those are major feats (except maybe for lawn mowing; thing was huge!) but back then every week had something to mark it as different from the week before — so if it took 5 weeks for my character to improve 5% in his skills, I didn’t mind.
Nowadays however, the daily grind is relentless, nobody acknowledges your successes on the job, and even payday has lost the thrill since almost everything gets spent within 48 hours of receiving the money. Anything left over I feel obligated to save in case I fall and break something — or to spend on grown-up stuff like ladders and cleaning supplies. I’m not complaining or claiming that I’ve got it worse than anyone else; it’s like that for everybody. EVERYbody needs to feel like they did something from time to time. Savage Worlds offers that opportunity.
All character attributes (and skills) are represented by a die type — the standard d4, d6, d8, d10, d12. So you might have a d8 Strength or a d10 Spirit attribute or a d4 Shooting skill, meaning there’s only 5 levels to anything (6 if you count d-zero for skills you don’t have) so compared to AD&D (the yardstick by which I measure most games) and it’s -5 to +20 bonuses… it doesn’t seem very nuanced. In principle. In practice, that’s a feature. not a bug.
A group of go-getter players can earn an advance at least every other week (and even unmotivated slackers should be getting enough experience to advance every 3-4 weeks. If you haven’t advanced after 5 weeks, you missed a session). So twice a month you can experience the thrill of going from d6 to d8 () in one or more skills. It’s a bigger jump so it has more emotional impact than… “I’m now 3rd level. I have 3 more hit points (because I’m a wizard) am slightly less pathetic in 4 skills.” A d6 to d8 jump is the difference between high school and college sports. In a few short weeks, you could even go pro with a d10! Naturally, there are a few restrictions, intended to keep you from going from Scabby Poindexter to Rock Hunkmeister overnight (as well there should be) so you can’t rapidly go from d6 to d10 in everything — at least not that quickly, but when your character advances, you feel like they’re markedly better as opposed to slightly less awful.
That addresses my granularity concern. But what about realism and verisimilitude?
The game mechanic is super-simple. Take your skill (or attribute) die in hand and roll a 4 or higher to succeed. You also get to roll a d6 “wild die” at the same time and take the higher of the two dice. If you roll the die’s maximum value, called “acing” you get to roll again and add to the total… so it’s possible to get a 33 on a d4. Unlikely, but possible). Admittedly, the math doesn’t seem like it would represents real-world physics but a fight somehow manages to play like a real-world fight would play out (or at least what I remember of getting my real-world 14 year old butt kicked). After all a semi-competent player character with a d6 Shooting has a 75% chance of hitting a foe (because of the wild die). So two guys blasting it out should always come down to who shoots first, right?
Nope. In Savage Worlds, situational modifiers matter. And boy, do they really matter. A -2 vision (or cover) penalty to hit drops your 75% success rate to ~30.5% so characters have a real motivation to take even partial cover. Hiding behind a fallen log doesn’t just give you a 20% better armor class, it doubles your chances of survival. As a result, even highly skilled characters still miss fairly frequently. Likewise, if you get “the drop” on somebody, the target isn’t just denied his Dexterity bonus to defense (which may or may not even matter), you get a friggin’ +4 to hit AND damage! Talk about a feeling of accomplishment. POW!
Furthermore, for a system that puts a relatively strong emphasis on combat, there’s plenty of things for weenie characters to do in combat, like trick opponents — or to throw them off guard with a Taunt skill roll. In most games, such actions might only give the target a -2 penalty, which only matters at first level. By the time they get a +10 bonus, it’s not so relevant. But in Savage Worlds a -2 penalty is a big big deal (as we’ve seen above). I’ve seen two players take out a heavily armored guard with a loaf of bread in this manner. The first player yelled “catch” and threw the bread at the guard (an Agility-based trick) while the second player stepped up and cold cocked the distracted guard in the face. I have never seen that ploy work so well in any other game (mostly because players know it won’t help, so they don’t try it).
But it’s not all penalties and reduced chance of success. Because all dice can “ace” anyone at any time might get lucky, the weeniest of weenies can get a lucky hit in. I’ve seen an NPC meat shield(with a d6 skill) kill steal a major demon from the player characters because he happened to roll a 23 on an attack roll (which was only intended to give the player characters the “friends in melee” bonus). It was awesome. The player characters carried that unnamed NPC around on their shoulders and threw him a parade, which I guess is a metaphor for my experience with Savage Worlds: It started out as a just another disposable ruleset like the dozen next to it on my shelf. But somehow it scored a critical hit on my heart and now I carry it around everywhere and want to throw it parades. Or develop for it, which is the next best thing.