Trick Question

Like many games, Savage Worlds tries to provide some choice during combat by having a number of combat maneuvers that work slightly differently than a regular attack. Some of these are relatively straight forward. For example, Double Tap increases the to-hit and damage of a gun attack at the cost of using up more ammo. However, since most games of Savage Worlds do not actually keep track of ammo, there is pretty much no reason not to use this maneuver at all times. Some maneuvers are less obviously useful, for example Trick.

Tricks represent those stunts we’ve all seen in movies where someone tries to distract their opponent by calling out “Look behind you!” or throwing sand in their eyes. Comparing the effectiveness of Tricks versus a regular attack turns out to be a very difficult problem. It depends on the characteristic used for the trick, the characteristic used for defense, the combat skill that would be used otherwise, the target’s defense against an attack, the damage of the attack, the target’s toughness, the target’s spirit, heck, under certain circumstances initiative affects the utility of a trick. Given this, there is no absolute answer to how useful Tricks are in Savage Worlds. However, this article will try to present a rough estimate.

Mechanics

When someone executes a Trick, they describe the trick they are pulling. “Your shoes are untied!” The GM then decides which characteristic the trick will be based on, either Smarts, “Your shoes are untied!”, or Agility, throwing sand in someone’s eyes. The character using the Trick and the defender then roll their die in the chosen characteristic. For example, an attacker using a Smarts Trick with a Smarts of d6 against a defender with Smarts d8 would roll a d6 while the defender rolled a d8. Wild cards would also get their wild die. If the attacker equals or exceeds the defender’s roll, the defender suffers a -2 penalty to their Parry defense until their next action. Note, this is not a -2 penalty to all defense, just to Parry. If the attacker exceeds the defender’s roll by 4 or more then the defender is Shaken. Well, sort of, see below.

A Trick will almost always be used in place of a regular attack. Attacks are made by rolling the appropriate skill such as Shooting for guns or Fighting for punches. The target number needed to hit is 4 for ranged attacks, potentially modified by range and cover etc, and the target’s Parry for hand-to-hand attacks or any attack, even with a gun, made by someone standing next to the target. If the attacker rolls equal to or better than the target’s defense, the attack hits. If they exceed the defense by 4 or more then they get an extra +1d6 on their damage roll. If the target is hit the attacker rolls their damage based on their weapon and any extra damage they achieved. The total damage is then compared to the target’s Toughness. If the damage equals or exceeds the target’s Toughness, the target is Shaken. For every 4 points by which the damage exceeds their Toughness, the target takes 1 wound.

When a target is Shaken or Wounded on their next action they roll Spirit against a target number of 4. If they fail the roll they cannot act except to defend themselves and can only move at half speed. They can roll to recover again on their next action. If they make the roll without a raise, they are no longer Shaken, but lose their action. If they roll an 8 or better, they are no longer Shaken, and get to act normally. If a character is Shaken and is later Shaken again then they take 1 wound instead. This mechanic allows a target to be whittled to death by many small attacks. However, the conversion of two Shaken results into a wound only occurs if the second Shaken result comes from a potentially damaging attack. Thus a target Shaken by two Tricks in a row would merely be Shaken. A target Shaken by an attack and then Shaken by a Trick would still only be Shaken. However, a target Shaken by a Trick and then Shaken by an attack would end up with 1 wound. Yeah, the system is crunchy.

Damage Comparison

Comparing the utility of reduced Parry defense to damage is less than straightforward. However, Tricks can produce a Shaken result, which, while not quite the same, is a damage result. So, how does this damage potential compare to a regular attack? Table 1 shows the probability of obtaining a Shaken result for different characteristics of the attacker and defender. It should be noted that the table is for Wild Cards as it seems unlikely that anyone will bother trying a Trick on a faceless mook. Table 2 shows the chance of getting a Shaken result or better for attack skills from d4 to d12 against a range of defense and toughness ratings. Damage was set at 2d6 +1, a mid-range choice. Higher damage will favor attacks while lower damage will favor Tricks.

Table 1. Percentage Chance of Shaking an Opponent with a Trick

Defender’s
Characteristic
Attacker’s Characteristic
D6 D8 D10 D12
D4 22 27 34 42
D6 20 24 32 39
D8 18 21 27 35
D10 15 18 24 30
D12 13 16 21 26

Table 2. Percentage Chance of Shaking an Opponent or Better with an Attack

Defender’s Toughness: 4
Defense Attacker’s Characteristic
D4 D6 D8 D10 D12
4 61 75 80 84 86
5 49 55 65 72 77
6 32 30 47 57 64
7 26 30 37 49 57
8 19 25 24 39 49
Defender’s Toughness: 6
Defense Attacker’s Characteristic
D4 D6 D8 D10 D12
4 55 66 71 77 80
5 44 49 59 65 71
6 29 28 43 51 59
7 24 27 33 44 52
8 17 22 22 35 43
Defender’s Toughness: 8
Defense Attacker’s Characteristic
D4 D6 D8 D10 D12
4 43 52 55 62 67
5 34 39 46 52 59
6 23 23 33 40 48
7 19 21 27 34 41
8 13 17 18 27 33

There are a couple of points of note. Given that Shaken from Tricks is slightly less powerful than Shaken from attacks and that Table 2 gives the chance of an attack doing Shaken or better damage, in order for a Trick to compare favorably to an attack as a possible source of damage the Trick really needs a significantly better chance of scoring at all than an attack.

To put the best face on Tricks compare the D12 attacker versus D4 defender from Table 1, 42% chance, to Table 2. It actually compares pretty well to attacks, though only at a combination of higher defense, higher toughness, and/ or lower attack skill. However, I have never seen a Savage Worlds character with a D12 characteristic.

More in keeping with actual characters would be to look at D8 versus a defense of D4, 27%. This compares favorably only at high defense and attack skills lower than D10. While a rather specific set of circumstances they may certainly come up in play, though probably not often. Going down to using a Trick on a more capable opponent, say D6 versus D8 with a chance of 18%, restricts its utility to only high defense and toughness with a low attack skill. So, it is a rare, though possible, instance when a Trick is likely to produce more damage than a regular attack.

Of course, this is all assuming that a character has a reasonable attack option, at least some skill with the attack and an actual weapon worth attacking with. What happens if a character is forced to fight at a massive penalty? For example, the classic gadgeteer character will often have no fighting skill, 1d4 strength, and at least 1d8 smarts. Deprived of their weapons they would be virtually helpless in a fight, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3. Percentage Chance of a Typical Unarmed Gadgeteer Shaking an Opponent or Better

Defense Defender’s Toughness
4 6 8
4 16 12 6
5 12 9 4
6 8 5 3
7 7 5 2
8 5 4 2

As can be seen in Table 1, even against a very smart opponent a disarmed gadgeteer, or equivalent character such as a wizard with no spell power left, is better off trying a stunt than attacking. Of course they are pretty much done for either way but it might keep them alive long enough for another character to bail them out. However, it is unfair to compare Tricks solely on the basis of damage, as their primary effect is to make the distracted opponent easier to hit.

Parry Penalty

A successful Trick reduces the target’s Parry defense by 2 until their next action. Reducing 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 next action. So how useful this is depends on the number of melee range attacks that will be made on the target before their next action. If it’s zero, because everyone is firing from range or the target will go before anyone that will make a melee range attack, then it is useless. The higher the number of effected attacks, the more useful the penalty becomes.

One-On-One Duels

While exploring all the intricacies of a multiple character combat is well beyond the scope of this article, in movies tricks are almost always used in one-on-one duels. The effectiveness of incorporating Tricks into a one-on-one combat was estimated using a Monte Carlo analysis (i.e., thousands of repeated simulations) of two rounds of combat. For pure attacks, two attacks in a row were calculated to determine the average number of wounds that would be inflicted over the two rounds. This is compared to executing a Trick in the first round and then an attack in the second round. Base damage was again assigned as 2d6+1.

Initiative is also important for this comparison. Because the reduced defense only lasts until the target’s next action, in order to take advantage of the reduction the attacker has to be able to execute the Trick and follow it with an attack before the opponent gets another move. This means that in order to use the Trick the attacker has to lose the initiative, execute a successful Trick, and then win the initiative for the next round, going before the opponent’s next move. Assuming that they wait for a lost initiative before trying the Trick, unless the character has an initiative edge they will have a fifty percent chance of winning the initiative in the next round and getting to take advantage of the reduced defense. For the simulation the attacker was assumed to have lost the initiative on the first round and given a 50% chance of retaining the defense reduction for the next round. The resulting table is quite large. Those interested in the full table can find it in the Supplemental material. The highlights are presented here.

Surprisingly, for many of the attacks against high defense and toughness using a Trick increased the average number of wounds inflicted. However, the increase was very low. The largest increase was +23%. This sounds impressive, except that that is a shift from 0.22 wounds every two rounds to 0.27 wounds. Most named opponents require 4 wounds to defeat. So it is a shift from defeating the opponent in an average of 40 rounds to a mere 32 rounds. Savage Worlds combats do not last that long. In any combat that the character had any real chance of winning, Tricks at best produced negligible bonuses. On the other hand, Tricks significantly reduced average damage for higher attack skills and lower toughness and defense. So, while using Tricks in a duel isn’t generally terrible there really is little reason to try.

Note that this is about using Tricks to try to win the fight. A character might use a Trick in an effort to Shake the opponent as a defensive measure before, say, running away. However, that really falls under using Tricks for damage purposes as was discussed above.

Multiple Attackers

As mentioned above, the parry defense penalty generated from a successful Trick lasts until the target’s next action. Against one opponent, that will affect at most one attack. If there are multiple attackers the penalty can affect many attacks, the more attacks the more useful the maneuver. However, there is something of a diminishing return on the penalty because multiple attackers already generate a parry defense penalty. For every opponent adjacent to the target after the first, the target takes a -1 parry defense penalty. So, if three characters were engaged in melee combat with a target that target would already have a -2 parry. A successful Trick could increase that to a -4 until the target’s next move but at the cost of giving up a normal attack, with the defender already at a -2. This is something to think about before using a Trick in conjunction with multiple attackers. Of course, there is nothing in the rules saying that a character can’t use a trick from range. Thus a Trick from range might be a good choice to help a character’s teammates gang up on a target, though at that point the target is probably toast anyway.

Conclusion

As a combat maneuver, how well does Trick hold up? It passes the big test. It is sometimes a better choice than a regular attack and sometimes it isn’t. The mechanics are also in keeping with the maneuver’s intended style. A character in a movie or book wouldn’t use a trick against an opponent that they could handily defeat and the Trick mechanics are such that it is really only useful against opponent’s that are too tough for the character’s ordinary attacks. However, except under seriously adverse conditions, like being an unarmed gadgeteer, the advantage of using a Trick is generally pretty small. Personally, I would only use a Trick when ganging up on an opponent with extremely high defense or as an attempt to distract an opponent before fleeing a completely one-sided fight.

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10 Responses

  1. Erik, thank you very much for the hard work that went into this.

    I now see that there are a couple times where I’ve used a Trick and should have just gone for a normal attack. It’s kind of sad that the game presents this as a tactic to be used by clever or sneaky fighter, when the reality of the mechanics is that they should only be used by people who have a d4 or less in Fighting. It would have been nice if Agility tricks worked better for the master fencer or martial artist type. Instead such cinematic flourishes just cost you an action.

    I linked here from my blog, in a post that is entirely derivative from yours. I hope that’s okay – I credited you as the source of the hard work and discoveries.

  2. That makes me wonder how to fix… or modify Tricks in Savage Worlds. Still, looking at the rules, I noticed that they recommend that you either Taunt or Intimidate first, then use a Trick, and then you attack. If you make your rolls, you could end up with an effective +4 on your opponent (+2 for the Test of Wills for you, and a -2 to the victim’s parry.) If you’re lucky, that’s an effective +4 and a shaken opponent.

    How does that change things?

  3. John,
    Test of Wills is really a variation on Trick. Instead of a characteristic you use a skill, Taunt or Intimidate, though they resist with a characteristic, Smarts or Spirit respectively. If you get a raise they are sort of Shaken, just like Trick. If you succeed at all you, and only you, get a +2 on your next action against them. That means that unlike Trick, initiative doesn’t matter. Also unlike Trick, it can only help you.
    So if you go Taunt then Trick then Attack you can at best Shake them and give yourself a +2 on the Trick. That can at best Shake them, but being non-damaging can’t make the second Shake into a wound, and give them -2 Parry defense until their next move. Notice that the +2 bonus is used up doing the Trick. Finally, you make your attack. That’s 3 combat rounds to finally get around to possibly wounding them with, at best, a -2 on their defense and them being Shaken for your attack.
    Erik

  4. That’s what I thought. It sounded like a good idea, but it takes a bit of work to make it work. Still, a character with Strong Will gets a +2 bonus to his Test of Wills rolls.

    One thought is that instead of trying to fix the Tricks and Test of Wills actions, instead, fix it through Edges.

    Say you had the edge “Expert Fighter” and it let you spend a benny to “improve” the trick and shake the target on a normal success of the Trick roll. On a raise of the Trick roll, you can spend that benny for an immediate attack. Would that be worthwhile?

    Or, you have the edge “Trickster” and you get a +2 to your trick rolls and +2 to your Smarts and Agility rolls to resist a trick.

    Your thoughts on that?

  5. John,
    It would take lots of calculations to find out exactly, but my gut reaction is that you will probably be better off taking a combat edge to improve your normal attack and just whack your opponent instead of messing around with Tricks and Tests of Will.
    Erik

  6. Thanks for your carefully thought-out articles, Erik!

    Suppose a successful Taunt or Intimidate gave a +2 to anyone who acted against the target, not just yourself. What’s your assessment of their utility vs. a standard Trick if such a house rule were in place?

  7. Manu,
    That depends on what you mean. If you mean that next action by anyone gets a +2 it changes it somewhat but doesn’t really make it more powerful.

    If you mean that every action against the target until your next move gets a +2 then it would be like Trick only better. You wouldn’t have to worry about initiative and it would apply to all kinds of things like other tricks or ranged attacks.

    It would have the effect of being much more powerful for a group than for an individual.
    Erik

  8. […] as doing: Whatever the option is described as doing should be what the mechanics actually do. If throwing sand in someone’s eyes is supposed to be an option for a sneaky fighter to gain an advantage, it should actually be a way […]

  9. Interesting analysis, although I don’t necessarily agree with the assumptions.

    Acrobat gives a +2 to all acrobatic Tricks, and is a very common Edge among Agility-based fighter types.

    I’ve GMed a character with a d12 Agility at Seasoned, and most combat types will have a d12 before Legendary.

    A character can Trick a critter with a high Toughness, and then Wild Attack to negate the Multiple Action Penalty, all for a -2 Parry. Very high chance of a Shaken.

    As noted in the description, Tricks can be executed from a range, which is a solid tactic for helping out someone when you’re not in melee with his or her opponent.

    Very creative or appropriate insults or maneuvers will get bonuses that equally creative melee maneuvers won’t get, simply because a melee maneuver won’t get the table laughing or cheering like an insult.

    My ‘take away’ from the analysis is that the game would benefit from Edges that improve one’s chances with Tricks. For instance, an Edge might allow Tricks at a reduced MAP, or give additional penalties to the target of a Trick.

    Like I said, interesting analysis, but I don’t necessarily agree with the assumptions.

  10. Thank you for taking the time to read the article.
    To me the big result was that the utility of tricks went up as the ability to execute the trick increased and the difficulty to hit and damage increased but went down as attack skill and damage increased. Exactly were you are on that continuum is going to depend very heavily on your game.
    We’ve played a large amount of Savage Worlds, but basically as one or two shot sessions. As a result our characters are not designed for long term development. Having a d12 in Agility or Smarts costs, appropriately, a fare amount of the character’s points but is primarily useful for getting several high skills. In the context of one shots the cost of the high stats is far more than the cost of the one possible skill that you might raise to that level and so people just lump the above characteristic penalty so that they can have more of the other characteristics. Hence, I’ve never personally seen a d12 characteristic but that is not necessarily universal.
    Erik

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