Savage Statistics

Savage Worlds has become one of the mainstays of the Emerald City Gamefeast. It is reasonably crunchy but flexible enough to work with many different games without too much tinkering. However, the game does have a number of quirks and some very odd dice probabilities and so it seems worth taking an in-depth look at the game’s mechanics.

Dice Mechanic

Savage Worlds rates skills and characteristics in terms of dice. The better the skill or characteristic, the more sides the die has, 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10 to 1d12. Very high level characters can increase abilities beyond 1d12, but the result is a bonus to the die roll adding either +1 or +2, depending on how far the skill is increased, to the roll. There are also some “edges” that give bonuses to specific skill rolls regardless of the skill’s die size, but these are discussed in their own section. There is also a penalty for characters that are untrained in a specific skill. The smallest die is a 1d4, and this is the minimum for a characteristic. However, someone completely untrained in a skill rolls 1d4 and subtracts 2 from the final result as a penalty for lacking the skill.

A further wrinkle in the dice mechanic is that the dice “explode”. When a die rolls the maximum for that die size, 4 in the case of 1d4, 6 in the case of 1d6, etc, the die is rolled again and the new roll added to the previous roll. This continues as long as the maximum is rolled. For example, if a 4 is rolled on a 1d4 the die is rolled a second time. If that roll is also a 4 then that 4 is added to the first 4 for a total of 8 and the die rolled again. If the next roll is a 3 then that would be added to the total for a roll of 11. If the third roll was a 4, the player would continue rolling and adding. The exploding die makes the probabilities a bit tricky, for example a 1d6 can never roll any number divisible by six as the die would simply be rolled again. However, the probabilities really become odd when the “wild die” is added.

The Wild Die

Player characters in Savage Worlds, along with some important NPCs, are referred to as “Wild Cards”. One of the big advantages of being a Wild Card is the wild die. This is a 1d6 that is rolled along side the normal dice whenever a Wild Card makes an ability roll. The wild die explodes just like the ability die. The player then uses the best roll. For example, if a Wild Card with 1d8 strength was trying to lift something they would roll 1d8 for the ability and a 1d6 wild die. If the 1d8 came up a 3 and the 1d6 came up a 5 they would use the 5. Note that any bonuses or penalties apply after the die roll. Thus a Wild Card with no pilot skill trying to fly a plane would roll 1d4 for the skill and a 1d6 wild die and take the better roll. They would then subtract 2 from the final roll for the unskilled penalty. To make things a bit more complicated, the wild die is not always a 1d6. Once a character has increased an ability to 1d12 +2 they can increase it a bit further to 1d12 +2 but rolling a 1d10 for the wild die rather than a 1d6. Figure 1 shows the probability of rolling a given number or better for each skill. As can be seen, the probability curves have very odd shapes due to the wild die and the exploding nature of the rolls.

Success

The most common roll needed to succeed in Savage Worlds is a 4. Sometimes characters will roll against each other trying to get the highest roll. Also, some situations use a different target number, most commonly hitting in melee combat. However, most of the time a player needs to roll 4 or better. As can be seen in Figure 1 there is a very large jump in the probability of success from unskilled, 1d4 –2, to the lowest skilled level, 1d4. The increases in the chance of success then get smaller and smaller as the character moves to larger dice, until shooting up again at the 1d12 plus bonus levels only available to high level characters. As a result, for a basic success, skills at 1d10 and 1d12 are not much better than a 1d8. This provides an interesting combination with the skill advancement system.

Skill Advancement

In Savage Worlds every skill is associated with a specific characteristic, for example shooting with agility and repair with smarts. It cost twice as much in terms of original character creation or character advancement to raise a skill above the associated characteristic than it does to raise it to below or equal that characteristic. So for a character with smarts 1d8, raising their repair skill from 1d8 to 1d10 costs twice as much as raising their repair skill from 1d4 to 1d6 or from 1d6 to 1d8. The average starting characteristic is 1d6, so it is relatively rare for a character to start with better than a 1d8 in any characteristic. This means that getting skills above 1d8 becomes very expensive. Combined with the fact that 1d10 and 1d12 skills aren’t much better at most rolls than a 1d8, many people question why anyone would increase a skill above 1d8. This is actually a bonus of the system. For most things characters don’t really need a high skill level and can get several skills at a useful point during character creation. However, there is a reason to have higher skill levels, raises.

Raises

While a 4 or better is all that is usually needed to succeed at a task, if a player rolls 4 better than they need for a success, usually a total of an 8, they get what is called a raise. In some cases raises provide defined bonuses. In combat a raise increases the damage done to an opponent. For spell casting, which also covers weird gadgets, psionics, and super powers, many spells gain extra effectiveness if the character gets a raise. GM’s are also free to assign bonuses to any roll that generates a raise. For example, you don’t just talk your way past the bouncer, but also get told about the private party in back. Looking at Figure 1 shows that the probability of getting a typical raise, rolling an 8 or better, doesn’t improve all that much going from 1d4 to 1d6 and actually goes down moving to 1d8. The big increases start coming with 1d10 and 1d12. The result is a slick little system where being broadly competent is easy but if a player wants to be really good and consistently roll raises then they need to specialize a bit and buy the more expensive larger die skills.

Bonuses: Fantastic, if you can get them

In addition to the straight ability die, characters can also have “edges”, special abilities, some of which give a bonus to certain skill rolls. For example, the edge “Ace” gives a +2 on all boating, driving and piloting rolls. Unlike the legendary level skills of 1d12 +1 and 1d12 +2, these bonuses apply to any appropriate skill roll regardless of die size. In a game where a roll of 4 is usually needed for success and the minimum die roll is a 1, having a +2 on the roll is a huge bonus. This can be seen in Figure 2 which shows comparisons of a 1d4 +2 to 1d6 and 1d8, 2A, and 1d8 +2 to 1d10 and 1d12, 2B.


With the +2 the chance of failing to get a 4 or better becomes very small. A 1d4 +2 is much more likely to succeed on a basic roll than a 1d8. Also, remember Figure 1, 1d10 and 1d12 aren’t much better than a 1d8 for rolling 4 or better. So for a basic success the minimal skill with a +2 bonus is better than the best skill available to most characters. Even for rolling raises 1d4 +2 is better than a 1d8. Edges cost the same as increasing a skill above its characteristic, i.e. twice as much as raising a skill to low levels. So, if the associated characteristic was 1d8 or better it would cost just as much to raise a skill from 1d4 to 1d8 as it would to purchase the bonus edge. Given a choice between increasing the skill or taking the edge, take the edge every time. The situation shown in Figure 2B may not seem as clear-cut because for some of the higher rolls a 1d12 has a somewhat better chance than a 1d8 +2. However, those higher skill levels will likely cost the same, rather than half, of the cost of the edge. But even if the associated characteristic was 1d12 so that the cost of going to a 1d12 skill or getting 1d8 +2 with the edge were the same, the minor increased chance of getting a high roll doesn’t make up for the smaller chance of succeeding at all. Take the edge, every time. This wouldn’t be so bad if every skill could reasonably get that +2 bonus, but one of the most poorly thought out and irritating aspects of Savage Worlds is that no, not every skill can reasonably get that bonus.

Table 1 shows the skills available and the bonuses that can be acquired by purchasing edges.

Table 1 Available Skill Bonuses

Skill Bonus Edges
favored skills
streetwise 10 attractive*, very attractive*, charismatic, investigator, noble*
persuasion 8 attractive*, very attractive*, charismatic, noble*
normal skills
boating 2 ace
climbing 2 thief
driving 2 ace
healing 2 healer
intimidation 2 strong willed
investigation 2 investigator
knowledge 2 scholar
lockpicking 2 thief
piloting 2 ace
shooting$ 2 marksman
stealth 2 thief (woodsman in wilderness)
survival 2 woodsman
taunt 2 strong willed
throwing$ 2 marksman
tracking 2 woodsman
disfavored skills
notice 2 alertness*
repair 2 Mr. fix-it
disowned skills
esoteric skills 0
fighting$ 0
gambling 0
guts 0
riding 0
swimming 0
* only available during character creation
$ signature weapon gives up to +2 with one specific weapon, costs 1 edge per +1 rather than 1 edge for +2

The majority of skills are normal skills, an edge giving a +2 bonus can be reasonably purchased. They are always available and have no or reasonable requirements. For example, Ace has no requirements and gives a +2 to boating, driving and piloting while Scholar requires two knowledge skills at 1d8 or better and gives a +2 to those skills.

There are two favored skills, persuasion and streetwise, were just absurd bonuses can be purchased if desired. Granted, the cost would be high and the utility low unless the GM made good use of raises or had them roll against an opponents roll. Still, the bonuses available for these two skills dwarf those available to others. Sophie suggests that this might be to encourage characters that aren’t just combat machines, though if that were the case some suggestions as to how raises might affect these skills would be useful.

Then there are the disfavored skills, where the edge requirements are obnoxious. Alertness only applies to one skill, notice, and can only be purchased at character creation. If a character doesn’t start with the bonus they can never get it. Mr. fix-it is just ludicrous. It requires that the character have another edge, Weird Science, which is a special power only available at character creation and not present in some campaigns. In addition the character needs smarts 1d10 and repair 1d8. The result is that basically no one can take the +2 to repair, a roll made far less often than driving or piloting.

This is nothing compared to the red-headed stepchildren of the skill set, the disowned skills where a bonus is simply not available. An argument could be made for the esoteric skills that are used to power special abilities, like sorcery or weird science, as they are a case by themselves. And even a big time fan of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan films is unlikely to base a character around the swimming skill. But why can a character get a +2 with boating, driving and piloting but not riding? This is especially strange in a game that started as a Western. And what about gambling? Didn’t they ever see Maverick? Then there is guts, the roll to avoid fear. Apparently amongst all those heroes no one is particularly brave or fearless. The most egregious though is fighting, the skill for any sort of hand-to-hand combat. Why a +2 for shooting but not fighting?

Fighting versus Shooting
Range

In Savage Worlds ranged, though not thrown, weapons use the shooting skill while melee attacks use the fighting skill. Ranged attacks have the great advantage of… range. A character can attack opponents when they might not be able to attack back and doesn’t have to waste time moving up to an opponent to attack them. Occasionally, the fight will be over before melee characters can even close to attack range.

Hitting

At melee range both ranged and melee attacks need to hit the target’s melee defense. This is based on the target’s fighting skill and is at minimum a 4, 2 for completely unskilled characters. The higher the fighting skill the higher the number needed to hit. For example, someone with a 1d10 in fighting has a melee defense of 7. There is also a penalty for being unarmed and fighting an armed opponent. Once beyond melee range melee attacks can’t hit at all, they’re out of range, but ranged attacks need a 4. So unless the opponent is unskilled or unarmed melee attacks usually have to roll higher to hit than ranged attacks. As an added insult, the marksman edge gives a +2 to shooting if the character takes only one ranged attack, often there is no option to take more, and doesn’t move, they don’t need to as they have ranged attacks. This means that typically a marksman needs a 2 or better to hit while a melee fighter needs a 5 or 6. A glance at Figures 1 and 2 will show how significant is this advantage.

Initiative

Savage Worlds uses an unusual initiative system. Most games use a roll plus some modifier representing the character’s penchant for getting the first move. As the dice can rarely be seen across the table and there is math involved, each character’s initiative has to be written down generating a certain amount of bookkeeping. Instead, Savage Worlds uses a deck of playing cards including the jokers. Each character or group is dealt a card and initiative is in order of the card’s value. Jokers allow a character to go at any time and give a +2 bonus to actions that round. See Figure 2 as to why this is so desirable. The deck is not reshuffled until a joker is drawn, forcing a joker to come up on a regular basis. Many people dislike the system as it uses a completely different randomizer than skills, cards instead of dice. However, it works quite well as with decent sized cards they can be seen across the table and don’t require bookkeeping.

It does present an interesting problem for characters with high initiative, though. The system can’t use adds, as that would defeat the purpose. Instead there are several edges that improve a character’s initiative by changing the card draw. Quick allows a character to discard any card lower than a 6 and draw again. Level headed allows a character to draw two cards and take the better card. The advanced version allows for three cards. Also, level headed and quick can be combined. Once again, the probability changes are not necessarily obvious, making it difficult to decide whether to take one of these edges. The chance for drawing certain cards obviously changes as the deck is depleted. However, to get some idea of how useful these edges are Figure 3 shows the likelihood of drawing cards of a value or better from a fresh deck for each of the edges and combinations.

As can be seen, the system works. The edges generally increase the character’s initiative. Interestingly, level headed and quick, which have basically the same cost, are about equally effective, even though the effects are slightly different. Taking two edges, either basic and advanced level headed or quick and level headed, are also about the same. Obviously, having all three gives the biggest initiative boost. It should also be noted that they all increase the likelihood that that character will get the eventual joker draw, gaining the round bonus and causing the reshuffle. There are certain edges that give even more bonuses when the character draws a joker. This results in synergy between the joker edges and the initiative edges, and the joker edges are probably not worth it without some kind of enhanced initiative.

Experience

The experience system is a very simple level system. The game master gives out a small number of experience points (xp) for playing and every five xp causes the character to go up a level. Gaining a level generally lets a character buy one increase in their abilities. However, if the character is raising skills up to or below the controlling characteristic they get two increases. While a level system, there are no classes. Within certain limits a character can buy anything. The main limits are that certain edges can only be purchased if a character has attained a minimum number of levels while others can only be purchased during character creation, primarily representing innate abilities.

The former is a nice use of a level mechanic. For example, only very high level characters can purchase abilities at the 1d12 +1 or better level. This keeps beginning characters from being the best in the world at a skill. Similarly, beginning wizards don’t have access to the most powerful spells, though there is some debate about how much better some of the advanced spells really are. The result is that the general outline of character development is controlled while allowing very broad choices.

Limiting certain edges to character creation does not work as well. The primary reason for the restriction is that some abilities seem more inborn rather than something a character would develop. For instance, while someone might be lucky it is unlikely that someone would become lucky after several adventures. However, this is pretty much an esthetic choice and situations could arise that would explain gaining some of these restricted abilities later on, like say gaining “Noble” if the character were knighted and given a fiefdom. In the case of mystical powers there also seems to be a sort of character balance/ niche protection aspect requiring that a character be dedicated to those powers early on. Given the large amount of character ability that needs to be invested to actually be good at a mystical power, this seems unnecessary. Fortunately, waiving these restrictions is a trivial fix. Older versions of the system had “bennies” also affecting the amount of experience a character gained. However, this has been removed from the Explorer’s Edition.

Bennies

“Bennies”, basically a nickname for benefits, are similar to hero point or fate points from other systems. They are points that a character can spend on things, primarily rerolling a poor dice roll. This allows the GM to easily reward players for exceptional play, just give them an extra benny. It gives players some guard against bad luck killing their character. Importantly, it also gives players input into what rolls they feel are important to their character or the story. If a player feels that their super spy really shouldn’t fail that seduction roll they can spend bennies to help this come about.

Starting with Advanced Characters

Savage Worlds is really set up to start with a starting character and have them advance with time. However, characters can be made at any level of ability by simply creating a starting character and giving them some levels during character creation. Unfortunately, due to level restrictions, limiting characteristics, etc., it has to be done in that order. Make a beginning character and then increase them level by level. Rolfe has an excellent description of why this is a serious pain.

Starting Costs Versus Advancing Costs

One common annoyance in games is having things cost different amounts to purchase during character creation compared to character advancement. This opens the door to some serious optimization abuse for people familiar with the system. Fortunately, Savage Worlds has very little of this. The largest factor is that some edges are only available during character creation and so these have to planned out for a character from the beginning. The other difference between beginning and advancing characters is the cost of new skills. During character creation increasing a skill from non-skilled, 1d4-2, to skilled, 1d4, costs the same as increasing a skill up to or below its governing characteristic, like increasing shooting from 1d4 to 1d6 if the character has 1d6 or better agility. During character advancement new skills cost twice as much. The end result is that one should try to have all the skills the character will really need at the beginning, even if this means that they are only 1d4. For example, giving a character 1d4 stealth and 1d4 climb during character creation will usually cost just as much as giving them 1d6 stealth but no climb skill. However, raising both 1d4 stealth and 1d4 climb to 1d6 later will usually cost less than adding 1d6 climb to the character, even though the final result is the same.

Conclusion

Savage Worlds is a reasonably mechanically heavy system that has more than its fair share of quirks. Both the dice rolling and initiative probabilities are odd and take some getting used to. Certain rules, especially skill edges, seem poorly thought out and it’s a shame that they weren’t tweaked in newer additions. Overall, though, it is a solid, flexible, and enjoyable system that works well for many genres.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent article. Great graphs and analysis in general. Charts 2A, 2B and 3 were real eye-openers for me.

    They sure were smart in picking “4” as the default target number, considering that it’s the only value where a d6 is significantly better than a d4.

    You know the analysis you did on the parry mechanic in Swashbucklers of the 7th Skies? I’d love to see you give that kind of treatment to the Smarts and Agility tricks, if you ever find yourself without a topic to blog about.

  2. […] their defense by 2 is the equivalent of increasing your attack skills by +2. Figures 2 A and B from Savage Statistics show how potent this can be. However, the penalty only applies to their Parry and only until their […]

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