Dragonmarks in Savage Eberron

So let’s talk about the Eberron Campaign Setting, and how I do my Dragonmarks in my Savage Eberron. I know this is something of great interest to anyone who is moving to using Savage Worlds in their Eberron campaign, or playing in a Savage Eberron game.

First let’s talk about a little history and context. My first implementation of Dragonmarks was in a method that was very similar to what Kristian Serrano has in his Eberron for Savage Worlds document. Where the Dragonmarks were arcane backgrounds. These provided access to a few specific powers and a skill bonus to a skill relevant to the dragonmark.

While this worked, I still was not quite happy with the implementation. During my Seekers of the Ashen Crown campaign, both Ivello and Kayde had dragonmarks. The main thing that I really had a problem with was that it was possible for the characters to fail to activate their dragonmarks. I remember a couple instances where Kayde failed to activate his mark, and definitely a few cases where both players needed to spend a few bennies to activate their mark. Now, considering all the lore about dragonmarks it is pretty clear that the powers of the mark are an innate ability to cast the magic that is part of the mark. So this was disappointing. Additionally, the powers list available for this very short and couldn’t be expanded. There was the need to advance a completely separate skill for casting. Ultimately, these only seem an attractive edge to take if you knew the lore of Eberron.

Then Pathfinder for Savage Worlds (SPF) came out. Personally I have very little issues with conversion/implementation of SPF. Eberron came out originally in the 3 and 3.5 D&D days which was soon succeeded by Pathfinder. So in so many ways I see the original Eberron Campaign Setting as built in mostly what would be the Pathfinder system. So having a Savage Worlds conversion of it, to me is the obvious choice for the game base of how I play my Savage Eberron. I saw in the Mystics Powers edges for the core “magical” abilities of Paladins, Monks, and Rangers as a means to implement the powers abilities of various dragonmark

Lore and Edition Changes

When the Eberron Campaign Setting first came out, there were different “levels” of dragonmarks, with the Least, Lesser, Greater, and Siberys marks. While 4E had paths of growth for dragonmarks, it seemed to do away with this concept. In Keith Baker’s independent release of Wayfinders Guide to Eberron, he brought back these ideas. But this was again left out in Rising from the Last War. I personally loved the scaling aspect of the dragonmarks and wanted to bring it back into my implementation of dragonmarks.

Another lore change that Keith Baker has been very vocal about is that the spell abilities of the dragonmarks are actually one of the least interesting aspects of the marks themselves. It’s been brought up in his blog and the Manifest Zone podcast, as well as how dragonmarks evolved in Rising from the Last War. The dragonmarks give you access to focus items as well as some skill that just makes you better at certain things. So these two points do come out in how I implement my dragonmarks.

One side note that I added to my Eberron, is that full blooded orcs can manifest the Mark of Finding. I was always disappointed in how they were excluded.

Basic Implementation of Dragonmarks

I created two core dragonmark edges for each mark. A dragonmarked skills edge and a dragonmark powers edge. Additionally there are some core powers edges that could be taken after the dragonmark powers edge to improve the use of those powers. It is in this that I created the different kinds of dragonmarks.

Least Mark

  • Dragonmark Powers Edge or
  • Dragonmark Skills Edge

Lesser Mark

  • Dragonmark Powers Edge and additional Powers Edge (like Power Points or Concentration)
  • Dragonmark Powers Edge and Dragonmark Skills Edge

Greater Mark

  • Dragonmark Skills Edge and Dragonmark Powers Edge and additional Powers Edge (like Power Points or Concentration)

While I would love to have a Siberys dragonmark edge, I have not figured out how to implement that yet. One thought that I had was to make the accessing of Epic Power Modifiers (see Pathfinder for Savage Worlds) as a means to get a Siberys mark. However not all the marks has powers that have access to Epic Power Modifiers. So if any of you have ideas let me know or I figure out something in the future, I will share it.

Dragonmarked Skills Edges

I will start off with the Dragonmarked Skills Edges since these all follow the same format and are pretty simple to get out of the way. For balance in Savage Worlds, edges that give a bonus to skill rolls generally either allow a free reroll to one skill, or give up to a +2 bonus to a skill. I didn’t want to go with a straight free reroll, as that would create some edges that would be almost exact duplicates of existing edges.

What I decided to do was to give a list of possible skills that are relevant to the mark/house. The player can choose two of the skills and get a+1 bonus to those skills. Then as an added cool flavor for the dragonmarks the heir can also get one free reroll to either of those skills once per session. Adds a nice flavor without seriously changing the game balance of the edge.

The following are the skill choices available to each mark. Please note: I made some tweaks to the core skills. Academics has been renamed to Lore, Occult has been renamed to Arcana, Repair encompasses healing warforged, Piloting is specifically used in manning elemental powered vessels. I have added the skills Animal Handling (which I consider very different from Riding) and Deception (I did not like making Persuasion an uber skill encompassing both deception and regular persuasion).

Mark of Detection
Requirements: Novice, half-elf
Skills: Common Knowledge, Fighting, Survival, or Thievery

Mark of Finding
Requirements: Novice, half-orc, Human, or Orc
Skills: Athletics, Notice, Survival, or Thievery

Mark of Handling
Requirements: Novice, human
Skills: Animal Handling, Athletics, Riding, or Survival

Mark of Healing
Requirements: Novice, halfling
Skills: Common Knowledge, Healing, or Science

Mark of Hospitality
Requirements: Novice, halfling
Skills: Common Knowledge, Notice, Persuasion, or Survival

Mark of Making
Requirements: Novice, human
Skills: Arcana, Lore, Repair, or Science

Mark of Passage
Requirements: Novice, human
Skills: Athletics, Common Knowledge, or Riding

Mark of Scribing
Requirements: Novice, gnome
Skills: Common Knowledge, Lore, Language, or Persuasion

Mark of Sentinel
Requirements: Novice, human
Skills: Athletics, Battle, Fighting, or Shooting

Mark of Shadow
Requirements: Novice, elf
Skills: Athletics, Deception, Performance, or Stealth

Mark of Storm
Requirements: Novice, half-elf
Skills: Athletics, Boating, Piloting, or Survival

Mark of Warding
Requirements: Novice, dwarf
Skills: Arcana, Notice, Stealth, or Thievery

Dragonmarked Powers Edges

SPF implemented core “magical” abilities by Paladins, Monks, and Rangers through the use of an edge called Mystic Powers. These are edges that give the character access to a short list of thematic powers (often with some kind of power limitation built in) that are activated simply by spending power points. No roll was needed. No additional skill was needed to be advanced for a limited arcane background. It was in these edges that I clearly saw as the means to create dragonmark edges that really fit the lore of the world in a meaningful way. I gave each edge access to five different powers using the model from the Class Mystic Edges, but a number of them have specific limitations based on the theme of the dragonmark.

Now a note regarding the powers and the skills. I have added a few more powers to my Savage Eberron. Some of these are from other Savage Worlds setting books, while some are to really create some of the signature spells that were core to the idea of a particular dragonmark.

These are Dragonmark Edges as I have them in my Savage Eberron.

Mark of Detection
Requirements: Novice, Half-elf
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Augury, boost Trait (Agility, Smarts, Fighting, Notice, Thievery, and any “knowledge” based skill only), detect arcana (no Identify), locate (can only locate traps), mind reading, and scrying.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. He automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for an additional 2 Power Points. He may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Detection doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Detection (and vice-versa).

Mark of Finding
Requirements: Novice, half-orc, human, or orc
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Analyze foe, detect arcana (Identify only), darksight, farsight, and locate. Darksight and farsight have the range of touch only, but the heir gains no benefit from the Limitation.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. She automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. She may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Finding doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Finding (and vice-versa).

Mark of Handling
Requirements: Novice, human
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Beast friend, boost Trait (animals only), empathy (animals only), speak language (Beasts for the power only), and summon beast. Boost Trait and speak language have the range of touch only, but the heir gains no benefit from the Limitation.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. He automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. He may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Handling doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Handling (and vice-versa).

Mark of Healing
Requirements: Novice, halfling
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Accelerate healing, boost Trait ( healing, survival, and Vigor only), healing (not Mass Healing), relief, and resurrection. All powers are touch only, but the heir gains no benefit from the Limitation.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. He automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Point. He may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Healing doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Healing (and vice-versa).

Mark of Hospitality
Requirements: Novice, halfling
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Conjure item, empathy (humanoids only), elemental manipulation, plane shift (Extra-dimensional space for the power only), and slumber.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. She automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. She may use applicable Power Modifiers if desired.

The Mark of Hospitality doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Hospitality (and vice-versa).

Mark of Making
Requirements: Novice, human
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Conjure item (not including Create Food and Water), detect/conceal arcana (not including Alignment Sense), object reading, repair, and smite. Smite have the range of touch only, but the heir gains no benefit from the Limitation.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. She automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. She may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Making doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Making (and vice-versa).

Mark of Passage
Requirements: Novice, human
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Fly, leaping, speed, summon beast (mount only), teleport (not including Teleport Foe). All powers (except summon beast) have a range of touch only, but the heir gains no benefit from the Limitation.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. He automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. He may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Passage doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Passage (and vice-versa).

Mark of Scribing
Requirements: Novice, gnome
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Confusion (spoken or written words trapping only), magic mark, message, secret writing, and speak language.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. She automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. She may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Scribing doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Scribing (and vice-versa).

Mark of Sentinel
Requirements: Novice, human
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Arcane protection, deflection, gift of battle, protection, and warrior’s gift. All powers have the range of touch only, but the heir gains no benefit from the Limitation.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. He automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. He may use applicable Power Modifiers and any Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Sentinel doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Sentinel (and vice-versa).

Mark of Shadow
Requirements: Novice, elf
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Darkness, disguise, illusion (excluding Deadly), intangibility, and scrying. Disguise and intangibility are self only, but the heir gains no benefit from the Limitation.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. She automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. She may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Shadow doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Shadow (and vice-versa).

Mark of Storm
Requirements: Novice, half-elf
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Barrier (air and water trapping only, not including Damage or Deadly), darkness (air and water trapping only), elemental manipulation (air and water trappings only), havoc, and telekinesis (air and water trappings only).

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. She automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for 2 additional Power Points. She may use applicable Power Modifiers and Epic Powers if desired.

The Mark of Storm doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Storm (and vice-versa).

Mark of Warding
Requirements: Novice, dwarf
As a limited free action the dragonmarked heir can cast one of the following spells: Arcane protection (including Epic Powers), barrier (not including Damage), glyph, lock/unlock, and sentry.

The heir has 10 dedicated Power Points that recharge normally. She automatically activates the power with success for its regular cost, or with a raise for an additional Power Point. She may use applicable Power Modifiers if desired.

The Mark of Warding doesn’t grant access to Edges requiring an Arcane Background. If the heir also has an Arcane Background, none of its Edges, abilities, or Power Points can be used with the Mark of Warding (and vice-versa).

Savage Worlds and Bennies: The Bennies must flow!!

Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Bennies

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.

Conclusion

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.

I Love It When A Plan Falls Apart: Critical Failure in Savage Worlds

Let’s just get this out of the way: everyone likes to win.  Whether you’re on the soccer pitch, knee-deep in a Halo multiplayer match, or rolling the dice in a tabletop session, we all play to win, and we all want to come out on top.

But that doesn’t always happen, does it?  We don’t win every soccer game.  There’s always someone in Halo with a better K/D.  And sometimes — perhaps more often than you’d anticipate — the dice don’t work in your favour.  That’s life, and that’s also Savage Worlds.  Savage Worlds Adventure Edition (SWADE) has two failure conditions: what I’ll call “soft” failure (missing the Target Number), and critical failure: rolling a 1 on both your trait die and Wild Die at the same time.  The use of critical failure is often a huge and thorny point of contention in tabletop communities, but it’s something that’s baked into SWADE…and as a player, I’ve learned to stop fearing it.  It can even be, dare I say it, fun.

First, let’s take a look at failure in Savage Worlds in general.  Due to edges that provide free rerolls on specific traits, and the existence of bennies (which I explain the function and economy of in more detail here), soft failure is not something you have to live with unless you either a) are out of bennies or b) choose to let the failure stand.  The standard Target Number for trait checks is a 4, and while rolling a 3 and keeping it due to choice or circumstance won’t get you quite the result you were hoping for, it won’t cause you any serious trouble either.  However, if you come up snake eyes —  with a 1 on both your trait die and Wild Die — that is called a critical failure, and according to the rules of Savage Worlds, you are stuck with it.  Critical failures cannot be rerolled, which also adds an extra layer of risk and reward to taking advantage of rerolls or fishing for a raise.  A critical failure incurred while chasing a raise has happened at our table on more than one occasion.  So with soft failure being largely avoidable, it makes perfect sense to me that there should be one failure condition you can’t roll your way out of.  

But even in that case, failure isn’t the end.  Or at least, it shouldn’t be.  At our table, Phillip treats critical failures as just another storytelling device.  They never bring the story screeching to a halt; rather, they are used to move it forward in ways none of us including him expect. In a recent episode of Mourners of Lhazaar, a critical failure — on a roll Kevin had a Joker for, no less — changed a Dramatic Task that was going very well and basically resolved to one in which 3/4 of the party wound up in the sea during a nasty winter squall as Michael and I made decisions on how our characters would respond to the outcome of that failure. There were also more than a few memorable critical failures in our last campaign, Seekers of the Ashen Crown.  There was the time that two PCs simultaneously critically failed their stealth rolls to sneak out of a city in which they were wanted for a crime they didn’t commit, resulting in an encounter with the guards that tested the players ingenuity as one of them used a bennie to help him create an environmental hazard that ultimately won the day in a non-lethal fashion.  A few sessions before that, an enemy critically failed a roll that resulted in them failing to steal a piece of the Ashen Crown from us, which wound up shaping the endgame significantly as we played cat and mouse keeping that final artifact out of the archvillain’s hands and found ourselves in a very different position than we would have been had we lost that item.

One of the main arguments I have seen against using critical failure rules in tabletop gaming is the loss of player agency, and that the players wind up feeling like incompetent fools.  My response to that is, it is largely the GMs responsibility to prevent that from happening.  As I wrote above, Phillip uses our bad dice rolls to present us with new problems to solve, and solving those problems is an incredible use of agency as well a great feeling.  Looking back again at Seekers of the Ashen Crown, there was a turning point in which the party was ambushed and betrayed in the middle of a crowded marketplace.  As we tried to make heads or tails of the aftermath, with the guards beginning to close in and seeing that it was time to run, Aruget (played by Ernesto) badly wanted to put out a fire that we’d accidentally started in one of the tents during the fray.  Phillip called for an Athletics roll, and the result was double 1s.  He then narrated that in the process of attempting to put the fire out, Aruget accidentally fanned sparks and hot ash to the tent beside it, spreading the flames and making things worse.  But, like I said, critical failures should be as much about moving the story forward as successes are, and another player seized this as an opportunity to spend a bennie to alter the scene.  With Phillip’s blessing, he declared that the second tent held a crate of fireworks…and the ensuing chaos made for an interesting getaway.

Continuing on the subject of critical failure and player agency, Phillip also regularly encourages and invites us to narrate our own critical failures.  He will often ask us what we think those failures look like, and as long as it doesn’t completely fly in the face of the rules, established in-game canon, or general reason, the outcome we provide is the outcome that stands.  It’s a fantastic way of helping us own and embrace failure just as much as success, and understanding it as an important storytelling device rather than viewing it as an annoyance or a punishment.

That is another thing I often see pop up in discussions of using critical failure in tabletop games: far too many GMs seem to use it as something very punishing.  If you’ve spent much time in online TTRPG spaces, you’ve probably heard and possibly even personally experienced stories of critical failure resulting in scenarios such as a fighter randomly throwing his sword across the room, stabbing himself in the foot, or even worse, seriously injuring or killing an ally.  I’m going to be very blunt here: that is lazy GMing.  A dice roll being extreme doesn’t mean that the outcome of that roll has to be extreme, and there is no good reason for failure to not be just as creative, interesting, and engaging as success.  One of the best things for me as a player is having a new problem for the party to solve together.  In my above example of Aruget and the fire, had Phillip narrated his critical failure as “you trip and fall into the fire, roll too see how much damage you take” that would have brought things to a screeching halt.  It would have in no way advanced the story or contributed to the scene, and it would also have been a real slap in the face to Ernesto to declare that his character who was built both mechanically and flavour-wise around being incredibly athletic, sure-footed, and graceful suddenly — and for no good reason — tripped and fell into a fire.

The other elephant in the room when talking about critical failure in TTRPGs is probability.  This is something that comes up a lot with regards to D&D, being a d20 system, and the standard example tossed around of why not to use critical failures at the D&D table is that of the high-level fighter who gets multiple attacks per turn and whose chances of critical failure drastically increase while the character is supposed to be growing more powerful.  And that’s a valid concern, and I agree that no particular character should be unfairly subjected to critical failures, but I will also say this: critical failures in Savage Worlds are more common than you might think, because every character can (and at our table, regularly does) make multiple rolls on a single action due to situational edges and the use of bennies.  In 45 sessions of Seekers of the Ashen Crown, we had exactly three weeks in which no one rolled snake eyes.  That’s right: 98% of all sessions played of Seekers of the Ashen Crown contained at least one critical failure.  My point is this: I have about as much use for the odds as Han Solo does.  What matters to me isn’t statistics, but outcomes.  Give your players interesting outcomes for critical failures, and I’ll wager that your table will start viewing them in a better light.

Failure as a storytelling device that provokes characters into meaningful action is a concept much older than Savage Worlds, and regularly used in popular media to great effect.  Indiana Jones failing to properly guess the weight of the golden idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark gave us one of the most memorable film sequences of all time,  Ghostbusters just wouldn’t be the same had Ray been able to resist thinking about the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and to paraphrase Michael Caine’s famous line from Batman Begins, the reason we fall is so that we can learn to pick ourselves up.  So players, take that failure, own it, and solve it.  GMs, give your players problems that they can solve, and let them flex their creative muscles to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation and maybe even come out better for it on the other side.  Failure, even critical failure, isn’t the end.  It’s just another step of the journey, and one I’ve learned to embrace.

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.)

Character art: Big Trouble in Lower Tavicks

Jak aka Jack Fenton by Julio Azevedo

If you’re reading this, this guy probably needs no introduction – but I’ll give him one anyways. This rather perfect likeness of Jak – you know, the character I’ve been playing in Seekers of the Ashen Crown – comes to you courtesy of the immensely talented Julio Azevedo. After some unforeseen delays, Jak is here just in time for our final showdown with Lady Demise when the Seekers reconvene in two weeks! If you’re one of those TTRPG players who has superstitions regarding a correlation between character art and the subject’s untimely doom, I don’t want to hear about it. 😀

As I mentioned at the end of the last recap, if there’s anything you’d like to see tackled in a Table Talk article while we’re on hiatus, drop it in the comments! Maybe you have some unanswered questions about Savage Worlds. Maybe you have some unanswered questions about the assorted twists, turns, and conflicts of this campaign. Maybe you want to know what Arguet’s favourite cheese is. Go ahead and suggest a topic, and I’ll do my best to answer it. Otherwise, I’ll see you with what is sure to be one doozy of a recap on July 7.

You Seem Like a Decent Fellow – I Hate to Kill You! Cinematic Combat in SWADE

The dice tell their own story…but so do you.

After the Seekers of the Ashen Crown regrouped following one of our most epic battles to date — and prepared to take down Lady Demise at last — I thought it might be nice to have a little chat about how to pick a fight in Savage Worlds…and do it in style.

First and foremost, combat in Savage Worlds likes to be cinematic and narrative, and that is going to be the focus of this article.  To make the most out of a combat encounter often means going above and beyond “I swing my sword at the enemy.”  Sure, you could swing that sword – but what if the enemy’s Toughness is 12, and your sword only does 1d6 damage?  You’d be gambling on getting a pretty big dice explosion…or, you could forgo an attack in order to set your fellow adventurers up for their own moment of glory by means of a Test.  Tests are non-lethal actions that, when successful, impose a penalty on your enemies to make them either Distracted (less able to hit you and your allies) or Vulnerable (more susceptible to your and your allies attacks) until the end of their next turn.  An opposed roll, a Test can be conducted with a fairly wide variety of skills.  While you can feint at an enemy with your sword to distract them – making a Fighting roll, just like you would on an attack – other actions like throwing sand in their eyes, delivering a scathing verbal blow to their morale, or yelling “hey, your shoe’s untied!” are equally useful.  In the Seekers of the Ashen Crown’s first meeting with the Emerald Claw, Jak took Lt. Sesko down a peg by spitting in his face, and while face to face with Tik at last in the Traveler’s Rest, Kayde’s suggestion that a henchman wasn’t being paid enough for his trouble wound up being something the man took to heart, an epiphany which quite possibly saved Kayde’s life.

In a similar vein, Support fills in the gaps when a Test isn’t quite the help you’re looking for.  Let’s say my friend wants to catch a group of enemies in an environmental hazard like a sticky web or unstable ground.  In strictly mechanical terms, he wants to cast a utility spell, and the prize he’s chasing is a raise (or two) in order to increase his spell’s effectiveness.  This is an instance where Support actions shine.  I can use my turn to do something like bolster his confidence or point out a weak spot in the environment that he can exploit, rolling the associated Trait (as determined by the GM) to confer a modest bonus to his casting roll.  A +2 in Savage Worlds is nothing to sneeze at – it could very easily be what pushes his roll over the edge from failure to success, or from baseline effectiveness to something better. 

Another contributor to cinematic combat is the Multi-Action, a mechanic which allows you to, as the name might suggest, take more than one action per round.  Declared and defined at the start of your turn, a regular Multi-Action consists of two actions at the cost of a -2 penalty to each roll, or three actions at a -4.  With multiple combat edges available that negate the standard -2 penalty, it can be an incredibly useful tool.  My old character Jak could, in theory, Test and attack an enemy on the same turn – and while he doesn’t have any edges that specifically negate the Multi-Action penalty, he does have Killer Instinct (which grants him a free reroll on Tests) and Frenzy (which adds an extra die to his melee attacks).  With those edges working in tandem, the chances of succeeding on both his Test and attack aren’t half bad, not to mention cool as heck if he can pull it off.

As I’ve already discussed in this space, bennies can go a long way towards cinema and narration in a combat encounter.  While they’re good for straightforward rerolls on attack and damage, they can also be spent to alter the flow of battle as we saw in Graywall, when Ivello traded a bennie for some scaffolding that he was able to pull down onto the heads of the guards pursuing him.  The only limits are your imagination – and the GM’s discretion.  I suspect most GMs (including mine) wouldn’t allow you to casually negate an encounter for one measly bennie, but I also suspect that most GMs in these scenarios will be happy to encourage player creativity and reasonable degrees of the Rule of Cool. After all, there was absolutely no guarantee in the example above that Ivello would succeed at making use of that scaffolding – but allowing him the possibility of doing something awesome and game-changing was very much in line with the Savage Worlds philosophy of “fast, furious, fun.”

That being said, there is one circumstance I can think of in which a combat encounter can be significantly altered in the players favour by a single resource: the play of a well-timed Adventure Card.  From keeping Kayde’s brain safely inside his head to enlisting the help of a giant owl to facilitating Tik’s capture, Adventure Cards add a fantastic layer of twists and turns to even the most pedestrian, seemingly hopeless, or already completely gonzo combat encounters.  And it’s always worth it for the look on the GMs face.

So, there you have it: a small taste of the stories you can tell once initiative is drawn.  As much as the dice determine the outcome, us players have an incredible amount of agency and choice when it comes to resolving combat.  It can be a lot to remember in the heat of battle (and, full disclosure, I am often the first one to forget), but when the narrative and actions line up, it’s incredibly satisfying.  Looking back at this campaign’s most memorable encounters, they all share a common thread: the clever and/or timely use of one or more of the mechanics I’ve explored here.  Picking a fight in Savage Worlds can be dangerous and unpredictable.  The good news is, it can also be a whole lot of fun.

Table Talk: All About the Bennies

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.

Table Talk: Hindrances and You

In which I explore what they are, and why you want some.

In my last recap, I explained in Behind the Scenes that Jak has three Hindrances that made life particularly difficult for him and his friends during the events of that session. What I didn’t explain, for those of you less familiar with Savage Worlds, is what exactly a Hindrance is, and why they matter.

What is a Hindrance, anyways?

On the surface, a Hindrance is exactly what is sounds like: a flaw, a drawback, or something that makes life harder for the hero. In practice, they are largely roleplaying cues that help define and enrich your character. If you’re familiar with Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition, it’s a similar mechanic to Flaws, with a few notable differences. For one thing, a Hindrance can be either physical (elderly, exceptionally large or small, missing an arm) or psychological (suspicious, curious, impulsive). For another thing, not all Hindrances are “bad.” A character with Code of Honor has sworn to act like a gentleman in all things – a noble goal that may make him well-liked by some, but might restrict his actions and behaviour in certain circumstances as he is always bound by his oath. A character who is Curious is not necessarily dangerously or foolishly curious, but they can be. A character whose Quirk is twirling the ends of her hair when she speaks might seem harmless, but perhaps you have flavoured that quirk as being a tell for when she is nervous, distracted, or lying. With a few dozen official Hindrances to choose from in the core rules, there’s something for everyone, and no shortage of stories to explore.

Who wants to be perfect?

Hindrances come in two flavours: Minor and Major. A Minor Hindrance is, typically speaking, purely for character and roleplaying enrichment. While the GM might give you a bennie for playing to it, it serves no larger function in the campaign other than to cause a little trouble here and there. A Major Hindrance is meant to cause actual trouble for your hero over the course of the campaign, and affect or be present in the story in some way. Here are a few in-game examples:

My character in Seekers of the Ashen Crown, Jak, had a Quirk (Minor) and was also Shamed (Major). In a world where prejudice against changelings is entrenched, Jak couldn’t resist mischievously or threateningly revealing himself as a changeling at opportune (or inopportune) times, but for the most part, nothing of note ever came of those antics. With Shamed being a Major Hindrance, however – well, that slowly started blowing up in his face in week 27, came to a head with him being discredited and arrested in week 32, and ended up with his friend being forced to punch him in the head for his own good at the end of the following session. A Major Hindrance (Secret) was also responsible for an assassin coming for Quentin/Ivello in week 25, and its inclusion in the campaign made for what perhaps remains our most exciting, Eberron-esque session yet.

It’s worth noting that both both Shamed and Secret started out at Minor Hindrances, but were transitioned to Major during the course of the campaign due to how Ivello’s player and I were acting them out. Players, don’t be afraid to talk to your GM if you find your Hindrance evolving over time! It’s more fun that way.

While it is mechanically beneficial to players to take Hindrances – you can exchange them for up to two Edges (5e players: think Feats) at character creation, as well as use the points gained from them (one per Minor, two per Major, up to four total) to increase your attribute dice size, buy or increase skills, or double your starting funds – it’s also tons of fun to explore a hero who’s not perfect. I have always been of the opinion that putting guidelines on creative endeavours can be a really good thing, and having these built-in cues for how to encourage and guide roleplaying definitely falls into that category. I can’t imagine how bland Jak’s life would be if he weren’t Shamed, Loyal, and Stubborn, or how dull that airship ride would have been without Ivello’s assassin coming out of the woodwork. Hindrances help us learn more about our characters, give us a solid framework for interacting with the game world, and gosh darn it, they just make things more interesting.

Do you have a favourite Hindrance? A great in-game moment that came about because of one? Drop it in the comments!