One more tool in the storytelling box.
Something I’ve mentioned quite a few times now in the Behind the Scenes portion of my weekly recaps is the use of bennies. What I haven’t explained is what they are, what they’re good for, and how they keep the story and action flowing. In this article, I take a look at just one more mechanic that makes Savage Worlds great.
Bennies (short for “benefits”) are, esoterically speaking, intended to represent a PC’s luck. Taking the physical form of tokens such as large glass beads or poker chips, three bennies are awarded to each player at the start of a session, with the promise of more to be earned over the course of play. There’s little sense in hoarding bennies; they should flow freely, and they don’t carry over between sessions anyways. Bennies can be spent at any time to:
- Reroll any trait roll that was not a critical failure.,,but if that bennie earns you a crit fail on your quest for success, you’re stuck with it. With my party’s luck, where other players might declare they are using a bennie to fish for a raise, we regularly joke that we’re using it to fish for snake eyes.
- Fight stronger and harder. In combat, you can spend bennies to reroll damage, recover from being Shaken, soak wounds, change your initiative order, or regain power points (D&D players: think spell slots).
- Allow the players to influence the story. At the GM’s discretion, you can trade a bennie for something to happen in a particular scene, in or out of combat. At our table, the first time I saw one used in this way was fairly early on in Seekers of the Ashen Crown when our old friend Lady Demise ejected Lestok – while on fire – from a third-story window. He survived the trip (and the fire), and then offered the GM a bennie to add a trellis to the side of the building so that he could easily climb back into the fray. Later in the campaign, Aruget spent a bennie to buy more time during the changing of the guard for his and Jak’s jailbreak, and in the following session Ivello exchanged one for a scaffolding that he promptly brought down on his opponents heads, controlling the flow of the fight and allowing him and Lestok to make a quick getaway. Of course, declaring you want to spend a bennie in this way does not bind the GM to agreeing to it – they absolutely have the right to refuse if your request is too ridiculous or overpowered. But at a table where everyone understands the limits of the story being told, chances are good that if you want a chandelier to materialize so that you can use it to swing across the room to safety, you’re getting that chandelier.
At our table, bennies are most likely to be spent on the things we most want to see happen. In Seekers of the Ashen Crown, Kayde regularly burnt through his bennies trying to get a good Notice roll to satisfy his suspicion and paranoia. Ivello, the curious scholar, regularly poured his into good Common Knowledge results, while Aruget, ever the party’s protector, often ran himself out while fishing for as many raises as he could get on healing his injured friends. For myself, I have definitely followed this pattern in spending bennies on the outcomes that matter the most to my character – the first time I ran myself out in Seekers, I was trying to convince a very obstinate secretary to let Jak talk to his old captain at the Citadel. I also tend to be a more defensive player who likes to save them for soaking in combat-heavy sessions. Bennies, even when not explicitly used to influence the story, still do influence the story by changing the outcome of a roll or preventing a killing blow.
So, how exactly does one recover bennies now that we’ve spent them all making our deepest desires come true? The hard and fast way of recovering bennies during combat is if someone draws a joker – that awards a bennie to every player in the initiative order. Outside of combat, there are a few different ways to recover bennies, with the responsibility for keeping them flowing falling largely on the GM. The guidelines state that they should be awarded at the GM’s discretion for things like good roleplaying, acts of heroism, and playing to your Hindrances (which is probably where most of mine come from). At our table, we also receive one for answering the backstory question of the week. A good one-liner or making the table break out in laughter is also a reliable source of bennies, and we’re not shy to point out when we think a fellow player deserves one.
Now, you may be thinking, “but Elly, I’m just not that quick on my feet.” That’s okay, neither am I. I regularly think up witty comebacks and cool quips an hour after the session ends, but don’t have much difficulty earning bennies over the course of play through some of the other means described. Knowing your character is, in my opinion, key to earning bennies, and I knew Jak inside-out. I’ll reiterate: bennies, even when spent in combat, are a storytelling device. If you can be a part of your table’s story, you can be rewarded for it. Tell a story, get a bennie, use that bennie to tell a story, and the cycle continues.
One last note about bennies: they aren’t just for the players amusement. The GM starts the session with a pool of bennies equal to the number of players, but to keep things fair, the only way for them to regain bennies is by drawing a joker in combat. The GM can use their bennies for all the same things players can – rerolls, soaking, un-shaking. There are few things that strike fear into my heart like when the GM rolls damage on a PC and then casually says “I’m going to bennie that” – it definitely keeps us on our toes.
As a player, I absolutely love bennies. The story is always my favourite part of any TTRPG, so anything that helps me better tell or participate in that story is a winner. I like being able to spend them, it feels great to get them, and I’m always fascinated by how my fellow players choose to use them. They’re a fun, endlessly versatile mechanic that makes me feel powerful as a character and capable as a storyteller. They’re a really cool way of making you feel like you can take your fate into your own hands, all while remaining at the mercy of the dice. And as an integral part of Savage Worlds, they are just one more reason why I love this system.