“Leveling” in Savage Worlds

Mourners of Lhazaar is heading towards their first advancement and so I thought I would talk about advancing your characters. This article builds on the Character Creation article, since it is the next step of your Savage Worlds character.

The title of this article is a bit of a misnomer. In Savage Worlds you don’t level in the way that you might be used to in other d20 systems. You take Advancements, and each 4 advancements are organized into a Rank. You start in the Rank of Novice, then move to Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, and finally Legendary. I kinda think that the names of the ranks really convey the types of adventures and tales that are engaged with by the characters. With Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, the whole system moved to just milestone advancements. So advancements happen when the GM feels it fits with the story. Which has already been my long standing method of leveling. I prefer the players chase the story, not XP.

But with each advance, you as the player can do one of the following with your character:

  • Bump one of your Attributes up one die type per Rank. An important distinction is that this can only happen once per Rank, not once per advancement. 
  • Bump two skills lower than their attached Attribute by one die type. For example; Athletics and Fighting are tied to Agility. I could bump a Fighting and Athletics from a d6 to a d8, if my Agility is a d8.
  • Bump one skill that is equal or higher than the attached Attribute by one die type. Using the above example, for my next advance I would only be able to bump my Fighting to a d10 since my Agility is still a d8.
  • Take a new Edge
  • Remove a Minor Hindrance, or change a Major Hindrance to a Minor one (if there is a Minor available.) You can also save up two advances to remove a Major Hindrance completely if there is no Minor version. Generally it is encouraged that this is done with a strong story component to make sense.

So I wanted to present this as a background to get to my main point. One of the best things about Savage Worlds characters is the sandbox of options for advancement. You can truly create whatever you want for a character. Any path is truly available for your character to take. This is one of the best strengths about Savage Worlds. I mean any path. You can have a master swordsman magic blasting wizard, or commander of the guard that is a great fighter but better at directing the group and allies tactically, or that tinkerer who is a parkour pickpocket on the side. The options are truly endless. 

There is no right or wrong in making you character. There are even multiple paths towards the same direction. I have made a barbarian type character that is a drunken dwarven berserker, one that is a shifting pugilist, to one that is a focused warforged juggernaut killing machine. These were all different takes on the classic berserker that looked nothing like each other, all taking different paths towards the same general goal.

This level of choice and openness, while amazing, creates a problem when advancing. The problem being, there are too many choices.

The main point I want to present is that planning the advancement of your character is hugely important. Whenever I create a character, I definitely start with the concept that I am looking to play for the campaign, then I hop into https://savaged.us/ and plan my character out to 14-16 advances. I don’t go fully up to 20 as not all campaigns go that length, and to leave room for new ideas based on how my character grows and interacts with the campaign. I have NEVER been able to create a character plan that has all the advances that I want to take. 

I have witnessed more than one player stay into a campaign with no plan of where they want to take their character. What happens is that the player generally picks advances that solve the most recent pain point in a campaign. Then towards the end of the campaign the player is not having as much fun as their character doesn’t really do anything well in the way they would have hoped. One of the other things that I have seen happens is that a player suddenly wants a particular edge to deal with a certain pain point, but they do not meet the requirements of the edge because they did not plan to be able to take it. Often when this happens, they will then even abandon trying to get that edge or path in the future through planning further advances. Overall this lack of planning reduces the enjoyment of the campaign by the player in question.

I never see a character plan as a hard path. I will often tweak the path, taking a different advancement as the character grows in personality and develops a role in the party. Or maybe the campaign takes a different direction than I anticipated, and I will tweak my path based on that. It is easier to make tweaks to an existing path than to wander down a path with no direction.

There is no right or wrong in what advance to take, or when (outside of requirements for a particular advance). While an attribute bump can only be taken once per rank, with a plan I find that some ranks I will skip the attribute bump because I find something else more important. You can not make these kinds of decisions on what is really important for your character arc, if you are just now picking the latest advancement.

My main goal in this article was to first explore the importance of having a vision for your character in Savage Worlds, and then explore how to help make sure that vision will play out in a satisfying way over the course of your campaign. I hope this helps you enjoy the Savage Worlds system even more by increasing the enjoyment you have playing your character.

Anatomy of a Build: Character Creation in Savage Worlds

It’s finally time for that new campaign I’ve been talking up for weeks, which means it’s time for a fresh cast of characters. As we prepare to take to the high seas of the Lhazaar Principalities, I want to take a look at the single biggest aspect of Savage Worlds that vexed me the most as a new player: building a character.

My TTRPG experience prior to taking up Savage Worlds was largely one of what I like to call “plug and play” character creation. Powered by the Apocalypse uses “playbooks”, pre-built archetypes that the player selects a small set of abilities from but are otherwise clearly defined in terms of a characters build and purpose and even include guidance on how to roleplay each archetype. Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition provides players with more flexibility in the form of subclasses, feats, etc., but still holds to some hard and fast truths. All paladins can smite, all rogues get Sneak Attack, and all characters across all classes have the exact same set of skills, albeit with varying degrees of proficiency. Bards have access to different spells than wizards, wizards can swap out their prepared spells after a long rest, and if your table allows feats, that’s a whole other area to explore. But my point is that, at the end of the day, the bard can’t ever smite, the wizard can’t ever make a sneak attack, and the rogue is getting Uncanny Dodge at level 5 no matter what. Even with considerably more flexibility than the afore-mentioned Powered by the Apocalypse, 5e is still at its core built around archetypal character classes designed to stay in very particular lanes. And I have no problem with that; it’s a good and valid way to approach tabletop gaming that many players (this is an understatement) enjoy and have lots of fun with (I personally love a good game of Masks, in which I’ve been using the Delinquent’s playbook). But Savage Worlds has a different appeal.

Savage Worlds doesn’t so much ask the player what role they want to fill as it asks them who they want to be. With a point buy system that allows and encourages players to invest in a wide variety of skills, edges, and powers, everyone begins with a d4 (basic training) in five core skills, but from there the world is your oyster. If your dream is to play as a traveling storyteller who is adept at navigating the seedier parts of town and might not be the best fighter but knows how to control the flow of battle so that their companions can more effectively dispatch the bad guys, there is absolutely nothing baked into Savage Worlds that is stopping you from doing that and being supported by the mechanics while doing it. How you play your character depends heavily on how you choose to customize them.

With that in mind, there are certain guidelines for character creation that are encouraged by both the core rules and my GM. Let’s take them from the top!

Who do you think you are, anyways?

With so many choices in play, where does one start to figure out what their character is going to look like? The recommended answer is to first determine your race (human, elven, dwarf, etc.) and hindrances. You can take as many hindrances as you like, though you can only use up to four points worth of hindrances to trade for an attribute increase, more skill points, or an edge. Choosing hindrances early on will help you narrow down what skills and edges matter to your character, and when it comes to edges, there are quite a few that can actually compliment hindrances! A character who is Hesitant is required to draw two Action Cards and choose the lower of the two…but if she is also Calculating, she receives an advantage if her Action Card is five or less. Not only do that hindrance and that edge feed each other mechanically, they also tell a great story.

Next up is to determine how to distribute your attribute points. Your Agility, Smarts, Strength, Spirit, and Vigor all start at d4 and serve as a baseline for how costly it will be to increase their linked skills, and there are attribute prerequisites for many edges. With the Multiple Languages setting rule in play, the size of your Smarts die will also determine how many languages you can start the game with at no additional points cost.

Then comes choosing and increasing your skills. Every player character begins with a d4 in five core skills: Athletics, Common Knowledge, Notice, Persuasion, and Stealth. Depending on what setting your game is using, you could find yourself choosing from a pool of two dozen more skills — or more, or less, depending on the game world. While it’s possible to overdo it by spreading yourself too thin, I would suggest that Savage Worlds rewards diversifying your build as opposed to pumping points into maximizing a small number of skills. Core rules allocate twelve points for skills at character creation, with the possibility of an optional setting rule that allocates fifteen points to start, and the option of using hindrances to buy more.

Next come edges. Edges are special abilities that confer bonuses like improving skill checks, the ability to take actions that you wouldn’t normally be able to, penalty reductions, improved resistances, better outcomes from certain roleplaying scenarios, and more. As per the core rules, if you purchased points through hindrances (up to four points total), you can use those points to take up to two edges at character creation. Typically, that means that you can only take Novice edges, and will still need to meet any attribute or skill requirements as well (e.g. the Charismatic edge can be taken at Novice rank, but requires a d8 in Spirit). I say “typically” because my GM is partial to the setting rule Born a Hero, which waives the rank requirements for starting edges, opening up even more ways to tell your story from the beginning.

Edges are, in my opinion, the best argument for a practice my GM strongly encourages: planning your advances ahead of time, to the tune of ten advances or more. While this plan will almost certainly change over time as your role in the story evolves, having it in place will help ensure that are largely able to meet all the skill and attribute prerequisites in order to take the edges you want, when you want, and will also save you a lot of frustration and (if you’re anything like me) decision paralysis. Take it from someone who knows.

The last thing to do is purchase your starting gear. At my Savage Eberron table, everyone starts with 300 galifars (gold pieces) to use at their discretion. You can immediately spend as much or as little of those starting funds as you like, on whatever you like. What does it make sense for your character to have on their person when they join the party? What sort of eventualities are they prepared for? What matters to them? Answering those questions will help you decide how to spend — or hoard — your starting funds.

Introducing Daina ir’Lizani: Soldier, Sailor, Leader.

Daina at sea by Wade Johnson

So what does all this jargon look like in practice? Glad you asked! My new character, Daina ir’Lizani, is a human war deserter from the dead nation of Cyre who has found a new purpose as a champion for her fellow survivors, and now seeks to carve out a piece of land in the Lhazaar Principalities that the good people of Cyre can call their own. Pre-emptively elected as the future captain of the ship the party will inevitably commandeer, Daina is built for leading, commanding, and supporting Extras and Wild Cards alike in and out of battle. Her Code of Honor (major hindrance) compels her to keep her word, treat prisoners fairly, and behave according to her beliefs of what a gentlewoman should be. Her Vow (minor hindrance) is to her friends and her crew, to put their needs first and keep them safe and prosperous and seek to help them achieve their own goals and purposes. And because everyone has a “tell”, when Daina is concentrating or focusing on something, her Quirk (minor) leads her to idly play with the hilt of her tago knife — a ceremonial dagger used in the traditional Cyran courtship dance, a gift from her late husband, and a gesture that could be easily misinterpreted as a threat if whomever she’s speaking with does not recognize the knife’s innocent purpose. Here’s what all that looks like as a Novice:

First of all, you may have noticed that the base math for attribute points doesn’t line up here. As a human, Daina’s Adaptability gives her the choice of starting with a d6 in the attribute of her choice (as opposed to the standard d4), and she used two points from hindrances to get that second d8. So that’s how she is able to start with a d8 in two attributes.

The skills are business as usual, using the optional setting rule that allocates fifteen points instead of twelve. With five new skills in addition to the core set, plus the three additional language choices granted by Multiple Languages, this distribution takes into account the edges she wants to gain within the next two ranks and how to get there without feeling like she’s just treading water while getting set up. This particular assortment of skills also reflects her military background and experience as a sailor.

Next up are her starting edges:

Alright, this one’s gonna take some explaining.

First things first: a staple of my GMs games is everyone getting Hard to Kill as a free edge at character creation. Hard to Kill removes wound penalties from the Vigor roll needed to determine whether or not an incapacitated Wild Card lives or dies (and, if they live, how badly injured they’ll be as a result) and gives players a fighting chance against what is otherwise a very ugly death spiral.

For this campaign, we were each also given a free class, background, or professional edge. For Daina, that’s Savage Pathfinder’s Fighter edge…with a few changes. There’s been a lot of debate in the community about the balance of class edges, and this is one of several which my GM adjusted for our table. With that caveat, Martial Flexibility and Combat Training are both benefits of this customized version of Fighter (the original design only grants Martial Flexibility). Two Weapon-Fighting and Command round out the group thanks to the other benefit of Adaptablity (all humans receive a free edge at character creation), and my remaining hindrance points.

Finally, we have all the gear an itinerant sailor needs:

Daina’s starting inventory tells a story. The rapier with its +1 parry bonus seemed like a natural choice for an accomplished swordfighter. The grappling hook, rope, tinderbox, whetstone, and whistle are all handy things to have at sea, and the navigator’s tools give a +1 to Survival checks used to read maps and charts and determine a sense of direction. Since I will be making all those checks at an Untrained d4-2, navigator’s tools were an easy choice for this ship’s captain to have in her arsenal. The flute is a nod to the famous Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light”, but without any training in Performance, I suspect that playing the flute will be something Daina enjoys but does very poorly.

You may have noticed a glaring lack of any sort of armour. That is a conscious decision on my part at the moment, with the campaign expectation that we’ll be spending a lot of time at sea. An armoured character falling overboard is probably going to have a really bad day, and to help support the story of it being rather impractical for a sailor to wear anything that could drown them, the setting rule Unarmored Hero is in play (+2 on soak rolls when not wearing any armour).

The lion’s share of my starting funds went towards Daina’s tago knife and locket. Both items with profound personal significance, the tago knife’s handle is quite ornate and the locket contains a minor illusion. You’ll be learning more about that locket as the campaign progresses.

Everyone has a story to tell.

When people ask me why Savage Worlds has become my preferred TTRPG system, I have one consistent answer: for me, it hits the sweet spot between the mechanics supporting the story and the story supporting the mechanics. I think this is particularly evident in how characters are created and built, the customization available to all characters, and the flexibility and diversity the system provides and encourages. It can take some doing to figure out exactly how to arrange the mechanics of it all in order to match your story, but it’s worth it in the end.

If you are interested in how advancing (or “leveling”) your character might look, check out our latest article from DM Freewolf.

Interested in experimenting with building a Savage Worlds character? It’s easy to get started on savaged.us! The Savage Worlds Aventure Edition and Savage Pathfinder core books are available on peginc.com and DriveThruRpg. (Note: Savage Pathfinder includes the Adventure Edition core rules, so you do not need to purchase both books in order to get all the content.)