Savage Worlds has a wonderful mechanic in the form of Benefits, generally known as Bennies. All Wild Cards have bennies. Player Characters, as well as main baddies (or other NPCs) that are meant to be tougher than your average mook, are all Wild Cards. Bennies can be spent on a wide variety of stuff, including:
- Rerolling any trait roll
- Rerolling any damage roll
- Soaking any Wounds to reduce or even negate those Wounds
- Removing the Shaken status
- Draw a new Action Card to improve your initiative
- Recover Power Points
- Most uniquely, to influence the story. This can be anything from finding an additional clue, finding a mundane but needed item, or anything else, though this is up to DM discretion
Now the most important thing to understand about bennies, is that they allow the Player to create epic moments for their Character. Savage Worlds really sees Player Characters as heroes (or anti-heroes) within the story of the game. This is a theme that is strongly presenting in the original release of the Eberron Campaign Setting. The setting even introduced Action Points as a mechanical way for Players to create the epic moments that they want so their character can shine as a hero. Bennies in Savage Worlds serve the same purpose within a different game system. Personally, my opinion is that bennies do it for Eberron in a way better way, as it allows the players far more options to create those epic and heroic moments.
The thing about bennies and the Benny Economy is that they only work to create epic moments when then bennies are generously given by the DM. Elly has written a great article from the player side that talks about how she has seen that in play during our campaigns.
So each Wild Card, generally, starts with three bennies each session. They don’t carry over from session to session, so are use or lose. I have personally played Savage Worlds games where the Game Master never gave any bennies during the sessions, or at best just one. I hated that experience. What this creates is a hoarding of bennies by the player for one particular moment. More often then not, this is for a mechanical moment, like a Soak roll or to Unshake. There are no real epic moments, there are just moments of saving your character or doing one, maybe two, things slightly better. So when there is no flow of bennies, there really is no opportunities for epic moments.
As a player this is very frustrating, because I found that the things that I think or want to be important for my character I might not be able to accomplish. I mean come on, players don’t remember a particular stealth roll they make in a given campaign or that Wound they didn’t take very often. They remember those moments where their character shined in a way that they were built for, or in a unique situation, or in that kobayashi maru scenario that they were actually able to beat.
I believe there are two general reasons why DM’s don’t hand out bennies during a game. The first is that they think lot’s of bennies breaks the game. The second that all the work that a DM has to do in a session, and adding one more thing on top of it, and so handing out bennies just gets lost in the shuffle of work by a DM.
Bennies don’t break the game, they enhance it
I make up that a lot of DM’s out there don’t hand out bennies because they think too many might be game breaking.
Savage Worlds is built around this mechanic. So having these available and their effects are built into the system itself. I have been playing Savage Worlds since Kristian Serrano turned me onto it through listening to Manifest Zone and I jumped into the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition (SWADE) kickstarter. I have been running two groups through a couple different campaigns, I was a Marshall on a Deadlands West Marches group, I have run several one shots, a couple multi-session Intro to Savage Eberron, as well as been a player in multiple different adventures/campaigns. I remember multiple sessions where some my players have had up to nine bennies at one point and I can categorically say it is not possible to have too many bennies. There was nothing game breaking about these experiences.
First of all, mechanically speaking, there is no guarantee that spending a Benny will get a success. I am still surprised how often a player will spend three, four, five bennies and still couldn’t roll higher than a 3 or land that raise that they were fishing for. Additionally every new roll increases the chance of rolling a Crit Failure. At one of my tables, we actually refer to spending a benny as “fishing for a crit failure”. It happens that often, and the players know it happens that often.
However the greatest enhancement to the game for generous bennies comes from the effect it has on the players. Every player creates a character that is good at something, fills some sort of niche. There are few things that will take the wind out of the sails of your players then their characters failing at that thing that they built their characters to be good at. I have seen the frustration and disengagement of players when their rogue can’t succeed at a basic stealth check. Or even worse for the player, that moment to shine on a really tough stealth move that their character who is built for it should be able to pass when no one else on the team can, but that one random roll doesn’t allow the character to do that.
This dynamic belies the most important aspect of bennies in Savage Worlds. Players will spend bennies on what they think is important, often for the story of their character. They will do this with bennies more than anything else. So that Legolas archer that one player built, can always have his moment of those impossible shots. This in essence allows the player to have more control over the moments and ways that their character gets to shine in the game. This has a very real effect on the game, the players become even more engaged in the story that is being told at the table. I mean how empowering is it to a player when they know they have the means to create an epic moment for their character, particularly one that let what that character was made for shine. I had a player with a wandslinger, who wanted to create that epic spellcasting moment for his character, by spending a benny just to make more mooks appear so he could cast some dope magic. I mean H.F.C.I.T. (How F&%king Cool Is That). The player loved his moment, he thought it was so cool.
However the player will generally only spend bennies on creating these stories for their character when they regularly get bennies from the DM, and most importantly, they know they will have opportunities in the future to earn more bennies. Otherwise they will just hoard for mechanical benefits that one or two times.
This is also a cycle that creates an incentive to encourage your players to greatness. You are creating incentives for better role playing, more creativity in combat, and more engagement.
This dynamic also plays out in another interesting way mechanically. Since the players spend bennies on what they think is important, I have found they often spend those bennies on things that I think (knowing the bigger story) are silly, or irrelevant, or unnecessary. But they built their swindler to be a smooth talker and even though they got a success (which from my perspective was all they needed) they are fishing really hard for that Raise, but you know, this is their jam. So that unbalancing that you are afraid might happen, actually doesn’t happen.
Handing out Bennies
Man is there a lot of work and things to keep track of as a DM. Not remembering to pass out bennies is a valid thing. It gets lost in all the bookkeeping stuff we have to do in our craft. It is still something that I have to work on myself at all my tables. So first of all, handing out bennies is a habit. The more you do it the easier it gets to do.
So here are some of the things that I do to try and help me create and maintain the habit of being a generous DM.
- Say something really funny in character? Here’s a benny.
- Do something that is totally in character but might be determinant to the party? (And no I don’t mean the Mockery-be-damned moves of lazy roleplaying that usually ends in “Well that is what my character would do…”). I am talking about the Curious character opening the door, the player knows is a bad idea to open, but hey their character is curious after all. Here’s a benny.
- When I ask you in combat how you take out the opponent, if you answer “I cut their head off”, meh no benny. But you say, “I dodge over their swing by stepping up on the wall and kicking off diving forward to drive my blade in a chink in their armor, watch their life slip away I say that was for what you did in Tavick’s Landing.” Well hey here’s a benny. (Incidentally if you notice here, I let my player describe killing blows. One more thing to off load off your plate from having to come up with in the session.)
- Two players engage in a great dialogue with each other, sharing back story and motivation their characters with each other. Here’s a benny.
- You participate in an Interlude sharing a story or something else about your character. Here’s a benny.
- You swing from the chandelier to cross the room to rescue the bar wench that is being threatened by that big bully Throck. Well here’s a benny.
This gives you a basic idea. Reward your player for engagement in the game and the story. Feel free and tailor this to specific players as well. I have a couple heavily introverted players at one of my tables. Their diving into some story about their character doesn’t often have quite the depth of some other players, but for them it was a big leap. So here’s a benny.
There are also a few other tricks that I have picked up that help me hand out more bennies in each session.
At all my tables I also start every session with a question about your characters Backstory. Elly shares all these in her Recaps from Seekers of the Ashen Crown as well as Mourners of Lhazaar. All my players love these questions at all my tables, and honestly I believe all of them would do it even if I didn’t hand out bennies for these backstory opportunities. So I basically have the understanding that at my tables my players start with four bennies, not three.
Lastly I ask for my players help. If my players see another player or even themselves that has done something in character, or epic, or cool, they have my full permission to call it out that it deserves a benny. “That was awesome, they deserve a benny.” Me: “Ok here you go.”
I can’t tell you how much this helps. This generally takes a while for the players to really get into, but when they see that it actually works and I award bennies because of their input, they will start to get into the groove. This trick goes into the good old sneaky DM tool of off-loading your work to the players.
The bottom line is that Savage Worlds in built around and intended to function with the free flow of bennies during a session. This is part of the game design, and in my experience the game clearly works better when this aspect of the game is embraced. If you are still skeptical, just give it a try for a few sessions. Have the experience and see how being more generous with handing out bennies effects the game at your table.