Thursday, July 22, 2021

REVIEW: Savage Worlds: Pathfinder (Part 2 of 2)

 Here's the second half of my review for Savage Worlds: Pathfinder

This follows on from my introductory comments, which you can find here, in part 1. As noted before, this review reflects running the game, not just reading it (gasp!). The game materials were provided as free .pdfs in exchange for a fair, thorough review here on the blog. 

Worth noting: as of early today, the July sale is on at, and now you can get this game for a few bucks off: HERE for the Core Rules and HERE for the Bestiary (please note those, and any other DTRPG links below, are affiliate links - which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to you. Thanks!). 

Alright! Let's get this review out the gate. In today's post:

+ How does the game handle magic?

+ What else comes in the Core Rules?

+ How's the Bestiary?

+ What were my reflections after RUNNING the game?

+ How does SW: Pathfinder compare to other fantasy-genre SW products?

+ What are my overall thoughts? Final recommendation? 


Quite nicely! 

First, there's lots of it. As the rules state (p. 167), "magic is everywhere in Savage Worlds: Pathfinder," as befits "the magically-charged world of Golarion." Of the 11 class archetypes offered for characters, only 3 don't have (or gain through advances) some sort of arcane or mystic powers (the 3 are Barbarians, Fighters, and Rogues). When you consider how easy multi-classing or extra arcane edges are to pick up over a character's career, you can expect plenty of fighty-sneaky characters to end up with some magic, anyway. 

So, magic is important. But how does it work? 

By my read, the game treats magic as narratively somewhat Vancian (mages squish spells into their brains through arcane study, but casting the spells exhausts the magic words from the caster's mind). Ok, fine...but in practice, mechanically, magic does NOT follow Vancian assumptions (which is music to my ears). I think I prefer this game's mechanics for magic to most iterations in D&D. 

You can get a bit of a deep-dive into the game's wizards here, but I'll offer a quick synopsis. Instead of a massive library of spells divided by class/archetype, there is a core group of Powers (about 60, I believe?). These are about as robust as a semi-grognard like myself might be used to in a lighter OSR ruleset, though of course it's peanuts compared to a full-fleshed magic system in one of the leading modern games. The beauty of SW: Pathfinder's system comes in the way the Powers get built out. 

See, that list of ca. 60 powers just offers some core templates, on top of which your players can build easily. 

Powers are modified, first by Trappings. What the game calls "Bolt" might stand-in for a traditional Magic Missile or Lightning Bolt; "Blast" could be Fireball, Prismatic Spray, or many others. When you first choose a Power, you assign it a default Trapping that fits your character's concept. So, my "Blast" might involve fire, but yours might involve a hailstorm of sharp ice fragments. On the one hand these just provide narrative color - until that color becomes meaningful. Are we fighting a troll? It's going to suffer more from my fire trapping, but your hailstorm damage will get regenerated. On the other hand, are we fighting some kind of fire-mephit? I'm probably out of luck. Each Power in the game comes with a small menu of optional, suggested Trappings, but the sky (and GM permission) is the limit (in our trial game, for example, a mage's spells allowed him to cause giant sticky goo-globs to burst out of the ground to entangle foes, whereas some other caster might have used accelerated-growth vines, ice, or who knows what for a similar effect). In short: Trappings offer customization and color, and they get out of the way completely until they are directly relevant. Well done. 

Second, Powers can be modified using a one-page menu of extensions and adjustments. Each caster has a pool of Power Points, which are expended to cast Powers (they recharge a little bit like hit points, except that this game has no hit points) ;-). You can spend extra Power Points to modify your Power on the fly at the moment you cast it. This includes things like adjusting the Trapping, expanding or limiting the normal scope, range, or duration of the spell, adding extra damage, adding armor-piercing to damage effects, etc. 

Finally, you can choose to cast more than one Power per turn (even the same Power - non-Vancian, remember!) so long as you have enough Power Points. In fact, you can even 'short' a spell, attempting to cast it under its normal cost, if you risk negative consequences should this fail (to be honest, the negative consequences are seriously tame - nothing like Dungeon Crawl Classic's failed magic results here!). You do have to 'ante up' 1 Power Point to attempt to cast a spell, which you'll lose even if you fail the attempt. 

In play, this all worked really nicely. Magic was a useful utility tool and a fun way to express a specific character, with reasonably minimal bookkeeping. 

The game also offers rules for crafting magic items - there's a short-term system, in which a caster 'deposits' some of their Power Points in an item, and a longer-term, slower system, for crafting in a way that doesn't burn through your Power. 

Thumbs up on the magic stuff. 


There's a fair bit of other content. This is a pretty packed core rulebook. A few highlights:

+ Quick Encounters, Social Encounters, Mass Combat, Interludes, etc.: sections dealing with sub-systems for these. The Quick Encounters system offers (for example) a way to handle a random encounter along the road that might have minimally negative or positive consequences. Not the kind of thing you necessarily just want to hand-wave, but you don't necessarily want to spend half a session playing through these sideshows, either. This offers a little mini-game to sort them out. 'Interludes' offers a little mini-game for adding narrative depth to 'what we were all doing on that journey, or between sessions, or in downtime, etc.' Mass Combat is ALSO kind of a mini-game. It's a pretty decent system, though for some reason (I think based on comments on SW forums) I was expecting something a bit more integrated into the normal play procedures. Don't get me wrong - this mass combat system does reflect the core rules, and it allows players an integral role in shaping how battles go, without sacrificing a core emphasis on which side thrashes the other (the characters are important, but they support the army, not the other way 'round). All in all, these look like decent sub-systems. I didn't try them out in our playtest game. 

+ Some other cool combat elements: unlike the items just referenced, these aren't separate mini-games, but optional tweaks for the game's central rules. There's an intriguing random-roll tale for incapacitation effects (Injury Table, p. 126) when a hero gets taken out. Depending on how well you roll at this critical juncture, you might end up dead, you might be permanently scarred by one of these effects, or you might be debilitated by one until you've had time to heal. They're not pulling punches here, which delighted my evil old-school GM heart. Possible results include brain damage, "Guts - broken," "Guts - busted," "Guts - Battered" (each with different mechanical effects), or the most squirm-worthy: an injury to the "Unmentionables." There's ALSO a fun little table for 'creative combat.' No, we don't need a table of pre-generated results to be creative in combat, but these are some useful ways to spice things up. One of the game's key concepts in combat is the Support or Test roll - instead of making an attack, you do something narratively suitable to help a friend or distract/hinder a foe, and then roll to see whether you earned a mechanical benefit. This short table offers some colorful bonus effects for when a character pulls off a Support/Test roll. The intent, I think, is to encourage this kind of colorful and tactically nuanced behavior (and, aargh, I forgot to use this table during our playtest. But we did a bunch of Support rolls). Using this would make those characters who aren't great at fighting, per se, even more useful as they help their allies (and share a little bit more of the combat spotlight with them). It also adds to the dynamism of the combat system and its unexpected results. 

+ All the expected core manual stuff, of course - detailed gear lists, magic items, GM tips, etc. 

+ A mini-Bestiary: ok, so ... sigh. This mostly includes mundane animals and a few basic human types you might encounter. I understand that the base SWADE genre-neutral rulebook offers a very detailed Bestiary toolkit that lets you customize your own things. This isn't really doing that, at least not in any robust way. More to the point, there is a separate Bestiary volume. I am not really sure why this mini-mini-mini Bestiary is here, because it's not really adequate as a Bestiary. Just ... if you want this game, DON'T use this mini-Bestiary as a criterion for the game; you basically need the separate Bestiary

...well, if you want pre-made critters. There is a substantial list of special abilities here, and you can use them to put together your own monsters or convert existing ones from, say, Pathfinder (remember, in Savage Worlds, there's no HP, so you aren't crunching CR numbers and hit dice, you're deciding whether something is an Extra or a Wild Card, and then adding special abilities on top to suit the fiction and needed role for your adventure). 


It works fine. For a separate purchase, you get a 132-page .pdf file with plenty of color art. The table of contents lists (I'm estimating) about 150 different monster entries, which doesn't include the various sub-entries as well. You get all the special abilities for monsters listed again (if I'm not mistaken, this time that content is just a little, little bit longer, suggesting that there might be a few new abilities wrapped into the Bestiary volume). 

Many monster entries include sub-entries for variants. In the picture above, the two centaur variants at the end of that creature's main entry show what a LESS-DETAILED variant would look like; other entries offer more detail for some critters' variants. 

I used several Bestiary monsters in prep (and a couple in play) for our playtest. The entries were fairly easy to run. The file is layered, so you can manipulate the .pdf to make it much more printer-friendly if you just want to print directly the pages you need. 

I only had a few quibbles with the Bestiary. I happened to notice that one of the Spectre's notes (on p. 112) refers instead to the Shadow, but I know PEG has been soliciting Errata on forums, and it wouldn't surprise me to see this tiny error vanish in a near-future update. The organizational choices didn't always agree with me; I first thought that the Bestiary lacked an entry for that classic,staple of D&D combats: the giant rat! It turns out that "Rat, Dire" is on p. 84, in the "Lycanthrope" section, as an adjunct to the "Wererat" entry - even though it isn't listed with other "Giant Animals" (pages 61-65), like the "Giant Stag Beetle," "Giant Leech," or "Giant Spider." On Ye Interwebs, there has been a little snarky howling that the Bestiary cover includes a Marilith ... but the book doesn't have an entry for that creature.

Ok, those quibbles aside, I found the Bestiary perfectly functional and a decent, probably even necessary resource for getting much play out of this game, unless you want to create/convert most monsters. If you DO want to do monster conversion, the Abilities described here and the attendant Size chart should let you sort through that without too much trouble. 


I ran one quick combat scene with my kids, and then ran a proper full session with my adult gaming group. For that full session, I heavily expanded on a recent One-Page Dungeon contest entry (thanks, reddit user u/derekvanzarovich2 !!!), adding my own monsters, extra rooms and plot elements, etc. In my version, the PCs were sent to break up an assassination-and-abduction ring that had sway over a local governor. The bad guys ran a murder-for-hire racket with a deluxe option for customers: for an extra fee, they'd kidnap the victim, and make them fight to the death in an underground slave fight pen - while the person who paid to hire the 'hit' could come watch or even gamble on the outcome. The catch is that the ringleader was secretly a Doppelganger, who had magically gained the surprising cooperation of an undead serial-killer revenant, a Mohrg, making it willing to sometimes abduct victims to increase their net personal suffering as gladiator pit-slaves, instead of just killing them. Ok, weird premise, but it worked to pull a session together. The underground lair was under an abandoned abbey; the PCs were a paladin, a monk (battle nun!), and an elderly wizard (all with only 3 advances). They had the option of bluffing their way in as 'customers' for an evening fight at the ring, or staking the place out and trying to infiltrate it earlier. The players chose the latter option. 

Here is a shotgun-array of various impressions from different moments running the game.

+ Hindrances are awesome! SW: Pathfinder characters can take on a few of these drawbacks or vulnerabilities at character generation. As you Advance, you can buy them off, but I think I'd strongly advise AGAINST getting rid of hindrances - they're that useful for the story and characterization! Don't use that knife! Hindrances. Our three characters included a martial Paladin who is literally afraid of the dark (Phobia: Minor), which meant that he had to muster his courage and face his own fears before going off to smite real foes in the darkness. The wizard had the "elderly" hindrance, with its attending penalties to many physical actions. The monk had taken vows never to touch money (thanks, St. Francis of Assisi!) and never to wield a weapon. Why were these useful? Well, for one thing, they immediately reveal interesting sides of these 'archetypal' characters. Moreover, these problems became directly relevant in play ... which meant that they helped earn the players new BENNIES (basically re-roll tokens on steroids). 
    For example: the heroes found the outline of a secret door in the ruined abbey, but the door obviously opened outward, and had no handle facing them. They tried to pry it open. The wizard used a dagger as a crowbar. The quite strong monk offered to help the weak wizard with a Support roll ... Now, why wasn't the quite able Monk the one attempting to pry open the door? Because she had taken a vow never to wield a weapon, and was therefore unwilling to use a dagger, even as a tool for ingress. So she just tried to tug at the door with her bare fingertips (penalty on the Support roll). Unsurprisingly, she failed to Support her ally adequately. Making things worse, the wizard rolled a critical fail (double 1s) on his roll to pry open the door ... so his dagger snapped. A bitter argument ensued between the characters (just in roleplay...the players are married to each other quite happily) :-). That was a bit of small drama mid-game that perfectly fit the characters but wouldn't have happened without their Hindrances - and the Bennies-for-hindrances system actively rewarded them for playing into it. 

+ "Can I use Stealth to climb down the well?" "No, you can't. You can use a rope to climb down the well. I'll tell you if you need to roll for anything." After failing to enter through the secret door, the players instead descended an old well-shaft. Just before, the conversation above occurred between a player and me. I noticed a recurring temptation for a player to see MECHANICAL SKILLS as the answer to in-game problems, rather than imaginative thinking about the fictional situation being described in-game. This is a problem (well, I see it as a problem) that I usually push against actively when running games. Here, again, you can see an artifact of my old-school/rules-light style of running games. 
    That being said, I was chatting with a local friend who GMs 5e games, and we agreed that this could just be a symptom of a player adjusting to a new, unfamiliar ruleset. I think that with further play, a GM could wean players of SW: Pathfinder away from seeing the Skills list as the actions menu, but a game like this, with Skills and Edges up-front, may require care if that is an approach you want players to avoid. 

+ Yes, the dice will explode! As I noted in Part 1, Savage Worlds uses exploding dice (a 6 on d6 is kept and re-rolled, over and over again if you keep rolling the max #, so you can potentially roll a very high number on a low die). Some of the most memorable moments in our game involved exploding dice. First, the monk blew a Stealth check out of the water via exploding dice (yeah, that time I did call for the Stealth roll!). Faced with a really spectacular success, I allowed the player character to accomplish quite a lot of active infiltration around several corners while 'riding the high' of that one roll. Later, the same player rolled a melee attack against the villain, and ... exploded a d8 with 3 rolls of 8 in a row. JAW DROP. I think the mathematical odds of that happening are 1:512! Well, it happened. This gave a result that was technically enough to earn 10 Wounds against the BBEG in a single hit. Now, the game actually says that no single attack can cause more than 4 Wounds, so this is capped. Even with that cap, this was enough to kill off the villain in a single hit. But...

+ To soak, or not to soak? The GM gets a few Bennies too, and 'wild card' (significant/powerful) NPCs have their own mini-pool as well. This allows the GM to roll to 'soak' (basically, nullify) Wounds for a BBEG, just like a player with Bennies can for their PC. Well, I've seen recommendations online that GMs should use their Bennies to re-roll missed hits, etc., etc., doing what they can to keep up pressure on the PCs, but NOT pay Bennies to Soak Wounds - in order to prevent fights from dragging on forever. In light of that recommendation, and because our spunky monk had just dished out UBERDAMAGE on the villain, I faced a little dilemma. At that moment, I had about 5 Bennie tokens available to spend on the villain's behalf. 
    I decided to soak just enough to leave the villain standing, but unable to take more than one further hit (the monk hit him again when he tried to run away, and killed him). 
    All good, and pretty easy to adjudicate, but this did leave room for a lot of subjective interpretation of the best strategy to take as GM. That's probably a net positive, in the end - had this been earlier in the session (if the PCs had made it initially through the secret door and dropped right into the villain's bedroom, for example), then I probably would have Soak, Soak, Soaked away. 

+ More on Bennies...I was apprehensive, before our game, about the Bennies economy. Would I give out enough? Would I be too stingy? Bennies are often described as the real currency driving the action in a Savage Worlds game. I think I agree. Again, this is something that will reward GMs who want to keep a finger on a game's pulse and adapt to changing situations, but it might frustrate GMs who only want a really by-the-book, rigid way to run. In my case, I found that the Benny economy just kind of fell into place in the game, though (as noted above) this was a lot easier because of the Hindrances. 

+ Multi-action turns are sweet - PCs can push beyond their normal action limit, performing up to three actions per turn if they accept dice penalties to ALL rolled actions that turn. This opens the door to some pretty frantic action now and then. Right after our elderly flubbed an Athletics roll to jump over a pressure plate (when I say 'flubbed,' I mean 'rolled a critical failure'), he face-planted right onto the pressure-plate, opening a hidden cabinet with a vicious undead killer waiting inside. Melee time! As the other two players got busy fighting, the wizard pulled off a really sweet 3-action turn...he successfully rolled to cast a spell weakening the monster, then successfully rolled to cast a spell that damaged the monster, and then he calmly stood back up. Nice turn, but good thing he made those rolls. 

+ Player reflections - we did a little debrief at session's end. Overall, all three players said they enjoyed playing SW: Pathfinder, and expressed interest in trying it again (with more advanced characters next time). One thing that really struck me about their comments was how they echoed a lot of the overall vision (hype?) for Savage Worlds: fast, furious, fun ... my players really felt that this is a game system for pulpy, unpredictable action. Memorably, one player said, "I feel like if we wanted to run a 'space cowboys' kind of game, this would be perfect for it." The flipside, of course, is that they weren't sure this is ideal for a more subdued, deliberate kind of play. 
    They commented on the importance of exploding dice and swingy results. "Because you can't really predict how things will turn out," one player said, "you kind of just have to 'go for it' with your actions, and see what happens."

I'll come back to those reflections in my final wrap-up below. But first: 


Note that I haven't played the other options described below, I've just read a bit about them. 

When you dive into SW: Pathfinder, you aren't just choosing to play fantasy Savage Worlds; you're choosing one particular approach to fantasy in Savage Worlds. The core SWADE system is, again, genre-neutral (aside from that general suitability for big, pulpy action), and is designed explicitly for customization to whatever type of game you're running at the moment. There is a Fantasy Companion that offers genre-specific options, but 1) the current one dates back to the edition before SWADE, and 2) PEG is at work right now on a follow-up Fantasy Companion for the new edition. Additionally, there are several setting-and-game packages for running fantasy SW of different flavors ... to cite some leading examples:

+ Beasts & Barbarians - Conan-esque sword-and-sorcery, heavy on the loincloth art. 

+ Gold & Glory - tips and tweaks for running old-school-flavored dungeon-crawls in SW

+ Tyrnador - a high fantasy setting and campaign, tonally somewhere between Mystara and Dragonlance.

I can't speak to those others, but the point should be clear: again, SW: Pathfinder offers a specific kind of fantasy for Savage Worlds. Relatively high fantasy; class-based archetypes dominate; magic items are plentiful (though I'll say 'when you want them' - you don't really need to load your characters up with them in this the way you might in normal Pathfinder). And, to put it frankly, it's mid-edition D&D as Savage Worlds, with all the pros and cons that might entail in your mind. 


So where does all that leave us? Is this a good product? Who will most appreciate it? 

In short, I think this is a very good game, with a growing list of resources (PEG is at work on a bunch of things from the Kickstarter that are pending release, apparently soon!). 

The catch is that this may or may not be the right game for you, or for this moment

If you don't want to play a game that puts classes front-and-center (though they can be tweaked easily), don't get this. 

If you don't want a high fantasy, D&D-style system, don't get this. 

If you don't want a game that will surprise you frequently with BIG plays by heroes and villains alike, don't get this. 

And the flip side:

If you want a game that feels like 3-ish ed. D&D but is much simpler, check this out. For that matter, if you actually want to play some Pathfinder material, but you want to finish a combat before real-world humankind achieves insterstellar flight, try this out. 

If you want D&D classes front-and-center, but you'd like easy room for fast character customization, this is a great option.

If you want to run something that fits a dynamic, pulpy style, this is a great fit (I've seen comments online that some prefer running D&D's fantasy pulp setting, Eberron, in Savage Worlds instead of D&D!). 

If you like having competent characters who have cool abilities, check this out. SW: Pathfinder produces characters who are marginally more competent than regular SWADE characters, but it doesn't require you to produce 'superheroic' characters (unless you're trying to). 

In fact, I think that if you really want to 'play D&D' but in the Savage Worlds 'fast, furious, fun' style, and if you'd like to take solid resources off the shelf and not have to invent everything yourself, then you're likely better off with SW: Pathfinder than with other SW fantasy options, or even with SWADE. If you prioritize your own content customization or other approaches to fantasy, look afield. 

Finally, for myself? 

There is some chance this will become my next ongoing campaign system, though it faces steep competition. The fact that this one system builds player familiarity with simple rules for many genres is a big plus, since we switch stories and even systems...oftener than I'd care to admit. :-) 

When I want to run something 'fast, furious, fun,' I will probably still reach first for Dungeon World or another light game, especially for one-shots, but will reach for this instead if I want that dynamism with more mechanical crunch. 

And, surprisingly, this might fill in on those rare occasions when I feel like busting out 4th edition D&D for some precise fantasy skirmish boardgaming, because underneath everything, Savage Worlds remains an evolution from a skirmish wargame, perfectly capable of running gridded movement, counting squares, etc. But by avoiding the hamster-wheel of slow hit point ablation, and by dropping a lot of unnecessary administrative encumbrance, SW: Pathfinder makes possible that kind of fantasy battle, with unique and memorable characters and foes - but fast. And, yep, furious. And fun. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

[REVIEW] Savage Worlds: Pathfinder - a Rules-Light GM's Perspective (Part One)

Not too long ago I had one of those "wait...what?" moments, as my feed showed an unexpected but intriguing new product: the Savage Worlds: Pathfinder core ruleset. 

I was only familiar with each of those systems from a distance, but I knew enough to find the mixture surprising. That being said ... my ongoing Iron-Age Mystara campaign has just wrapped up a long trek across the Isle of Dread, using an OSR-influenced hack of PbtA rules like Freebooters on the Frontier, Dungeon World, etc. ... and as we consider the possibility of continuing our main campaign with higher-level characters, I'm pondering whether an alternate system might be better for handling such advanced-level play. And so, as I thought about various options, I wondered about Savage Worlds...and the new kid on the block, Savage Worlds: Pathfinder

So I asked the folks at the Savage Worlds subreddit whether this, or 'generic' Savage Worlds (the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, or SWADE) would best suit me. They stressed SWADE's flexibility, and I initially leaned toward that. But ... but... SW: Pathfinder just looked so neat and shiny, and - as I'll discuss below - it really did offer some interesting bennies (that's a Savage Worlds in-joke, yo). I wrote to the folks at Pinnacle Entertainment Group (PEG), and they kindly agreed to send free review materials (core book, bestiary, and some other accessories in digital form) in exchange for a fair, thorough review here. Et voici

Although this product is pretty new, I'm sure the interwebs will soon be awash in discussions of this ruleset. This particular review should offer two more specialized contributions. First, I was able to get a group together to try this game in action, so I can talk about how the game plays, not just how it reads. Second, as regular readers of my blog know, I dabble in a lot of different game systems, but I tend to favor running quite light systems that rely on GM rulings over 'crunch' (in the early years of grad school for ancient history, as my day-job routine came to involve excruciating amounts of analytical activity, my gaming tastes rapidly turned away from highly complex rulesets). But every rule is made for its exceptions, right? I also enjoy running the occasional skirmish encounter in 4e D&D (played as tactical wargame rather than story-telling RPG). So I can hang with the big dogs when needed! Most of the time, though, I'm running OSR, PbtA, narrative, or even free-form games. 

So ... what does a rules-light GM like me think of this new SW: Pathfinder ruleset? Does it have anything to offer in my world? Short answer: yep, and my players want to play it again! Long answer: please read on! 


I'm reviewing a 260-page .pdf of the Core Rules. The file is large (a bit slow to open), but works fine once open. It's bookmarked, indexed with hyperlinks, and has layers, so you can make it more printer-friendly. With the layers visible, the book is visually appealing and extensively illustrated (with existing Pathfinder artwork, as far as I can tell). Printed copies will be available. Currently, you can buy the .pdf rules from PEG, or on It costs USD $24.99 for the .pdf, which - let's be honest - will give some customers sticker shock. Whether it's worth it is part of what I'll be reviewing, of course! (Advance notice: I do think the cost is a real issue, but I am going to offer an overall positive verdict on these rules). The Bestiary is a separate volume, available in .pdf for USD $14.99

[NOTE: links to in this post are affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to customers. Thank you for any support!]. 


Guilty confession: Pathfinder was sort of responsible for my adult re-entry to the RPG hobby. Well, actually, it was the Wayne Reynolds art that drew me in;  reading up on the actual game system turned me off really quickly (so I went and discovered Dungeon World instead, and then later found OSR games; the rest is history...)! Pathfinder, by Paizo, is actually an adapted version of old 3.5 edition D&D, and was long the giant behemoth dominating the RPG industry (until WotC clawed their way back on top, I believe, with 5e). Anyway. As a game, Pathfinder itself (not the SW: Pathfinder under review here) is profoundly crunchy, offering a simulationist focus and enormous scope for character customization ... at a cost of wildly bloated rules and a character-generation process that takes more time than carving the Grand Canyon or naturalizing as a citizen of a new country. 

The game's default setting is the kitchen-sink fantasy world of Golarion. In my understanding, Golarion (compared to, say, WotC's Forgotten Realms) offers a wide-open canvas for whatever kind of adventure you want to run, tinged by elements of both mundane and cosmic horror, in which player characters - i.e., NOT ELMINSTER!!! - can decide the fate of nations. All that being said, Paizo's "adventure path" campaign super-modules offer interesting premises, but they take heat (in my parts of the internet) for tendencies toward railroady narratives and filler fights that serve no purpose beyond grinding for XP (they also get some love, if under severe constraints). 

Savage Worlds was released back in 2003, building on earlier foundations. That date is worth noting: SW's motto is "Fast! Furious! Fun!" but the median game complexity back in 2003 was a lot higher than is the case today. The SWADE edition is a much more recent update, and the game certainly still produces "fast, furious, fun" play right now in 2021, but it isn't rules-light by modern standards; it's a more complex and 'crunchy' game than the lighter end of the spectrum, even if it's light-years more simple, still, than Pathfinder. If you want a quick intro to the rules concepts across SW, I'm not going to re-invent the wheel here: just go read this two-page comic-strip summary. Boom. That being said, the game has some significant differences from any version of D&D, differences that involve more than just a sliding scale of complexity. Some of these differences were summed up very nicely in a recent text interview with the design team behind SW: Pathfinder. One of the most notable differences is that characters have no Hit Points. "Wild Cards" - PCs and the most significant NPCs - can take 3 wounds before they're incapacitated; most 'extras' can only take 1 before being knocked out of action. Dice used in combat and task resolution may also explode, which means that you can get some very unpredictable, but easy-to-administer, outcomes during combat. In effect it means that a bandit with a short sword is still, potentially, a threat to a high-leveled character (I really like that! I hate the 'that peasant aiming at my face can only do 6 hp damage, so who cares...' phenomenon that often pops up in D&D). Overall, I'd say that Savage Worlds offers more precision, crunch, customization, and explicit tactical options than the lighter games I tend to play, but without too high a cost; it also offers a much looser, more flexible, and more dynamic approach than the big crunchy games. The game is often hailed as a great choice for pulpy, swashbuckling games with big action. [Interestingly, I've seen several comments in forums from people who consider Savage Worlds a superior system to D&D for adventures set in Eberron, WotC's pulp-noir fantasy setting].  After our playtest, my players agreed that the game is a great fit for that pulpy playstyle. 

So, the idea with SW: Pathfinder was apparently to make it easier to run Pathfinder adventure paths using the SW rules framework. Personally, I don't have a ton of interest in running those APs...but I am very interested in new ways to play D&D that don't over-burden the GM, but offer a bit more rules content for players to engage with. And this is definitely a full, coherent ruleset. After reading the rules and running this game, my initial take is quite positive. In various online forums of yesteryear, many Savage Worlds fans have recommended against shifting D&D veterans to a fantasy game on your first outing with Savage Worlds, since they say going in with expectations shaped by D&D can lead to trouble. Well, no more...this version of the SWADE toolkit is designed explicitly, from the ground up, to evoke a mid-edition D&D 'feel' without the associated simulationist baggage. That's a real plus in my book. Reading and running SW: Pathfinder, I keep feeling reminded, oddly enough, of a modernized, streamlined AD&D - a big expanded toolkit ready to support you with a million little special rules (that nobody fully utilizes all at once), but perfectly capable of collapsing smoothly down to the very basics when you don't want all that cruft to get in the way. 

Hmm, I guess that was a bit of a TL;DR already! Lots more though ... in what follows, I'll more closely address some aspects of the game that stood out to me. 

Art from the Core Rulebook (this one by Wayne Reynolds, I believe). I'm not crazy about ALL the art in the book, but some pieces - like this one - really make me want to go run a game right now. The Savage Worlds ruleset is a good fit for this sort of small-party-vs.-hordes-of-thugs action!


Character generation uses a point-buy process for Traits (Attributes and Skills) supplemented by Edges (like Traits) and Hindrances (which may have mechanical effects, and can also earn you bennies, or re-roll tokens, when your hindrance makes life rough for you). SW:PF lets you build the kind of characters you'd expect in a mid-edition D&D game: humans and the leading 'demi-human' ancestries are present (dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings). You also get (as a free Edge) one of eleven archetypal classes (barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, or wizard). It sounds like PEG may more of the other Pathfinder classes in future, too. You aren't FORCED to play one of these classes, actually - if you really want a fully customized character, you can get a bonus Background or Professional Edge in lieu of a Class - but the archetypal classes are really one of the important things this version of Savage Worlds contributes. Don't think, however, that you are being pigeonholed into a narrow archetypal box. It's also really easy to get a couple of other Edges, which means that your free Class Edge isn't cutting too much into your personalization options. You've got room here to min/max toward a special design vision, but it's quite easy instead to make characters who feel unique and colorful. For example, when designing sample characters, I whipped up a Paladin on the run from powerful enemies, who has the Streetwise Edge thanks to a life hiding in the shadows (so, Batman, kinda...). In the game I ran last weekend, one player ran another Paladin who is literally afraid of the dark (a phobia Hindrance), who had to challenge his fear of unlit environments in order to go destroy the evil within them (using his cool Paladin Edge abilities). You could make a Barbarian who happens to be something of a scholar, etc. Character design feels very customizable, without too much work. 

Every few Advances, you're going to go up in Rank (from Novice to Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, and then Legendary). Most of these Rank advances grant a new little package of powers to each Class archetype. This means that over a PC's career they will keep getting more powerful in their chosen archetype (duh!) while still having tons of room during most of the advances between Ranks to round out the particular, i.e. 'non-archetypal', vision the player has for this character (like boosting skills, buying a new Edge, removing a Hindrance, etc. - though I find many of the Hindrances quite helpful for play, ironically, and might discourage players from dropping them). 

I found that designing a new character from scratch currently takes me about 20 minutes. That's longer than I'd like, but not too long. I think that greater system familiarity would speed this up quite a bit. Additionally, the game comes with a sample 'iconic' character for each Class archetype, showing a suggested advancement scheme for their full career. That means that if you just want to play NOW and you aren't worried about customization, you can pick an archetype, pick a number of Advances/Rank, print, and go (PEG has also released some archetype cards with further options for quick character pregens). Each class archetype takes up just 1 page of the rules, plus 1 more page for the sample character (with a few, justifiable, exceptions, like extra information on sorcerer backgrounds). 

How about those class designs, anyway? 

Each of the Class Edges offers a compact, evocative distillation of a D&D class vision, emphasizing cool stuff you can do in-game, without a lot of needless chaff to clog it up. Let's talk about the classes that made me sit up and take notice ... usually, but not always, in a positive way. 

BARBARIANS are fast, hit hard, and rage. If things go poorly, they might hit their friends by mistake, or run out of steam prematurely. A solid combat build; certainly a functional and evocative design that fits current tropes. That being said, I'm glad SW:PF makes it easy to round out a character with extra flavor through other Edges. 

BARDS gain power points, the way Clerics and Wizards do, (more on that, later) along with 3 starting powers -- but they choose from a more limited menu of powers. Upon advancing a little, they gain 'inspiration tokens' that grant re-rolls to friends and allies in a fight. The Bard seems like a flavorful but mostly combat-centered class, albeit one that favors a supporting role. 

CLERICS: They all get Healing for free, and then choose other powers from a limited menu supplemented by a chosen Domain. Note that in Savage Worlds, you don't really need to have a cleric or designated healer to the extent that you do in most D&D games - you can spend Bennies to try to Soak/prevent Wounds in combat. Letting EVERY cleric get Healing for free is a nice boon on top of this, but clerics also retain good room for customization beyond being the 'adventure ambulance.' 

FIGHTERS: Hmmm. Hmmm. I really like Fighters, usually, but I had a very bittersweet reaction to this Class. The Fighter's base ability lets them activate any one of the Combat Edges in an encounter, even if the Fighter doesn't have that as one of their assigned edges. In other words, the Fighter has full access to the game's menu of Combat Edges ... that's a 4-page menu! (about 1.5 pages in the abbreviated summary list). This means that a Fighter is really good at adapting on the fly to each new encounter's tactical situation, better than any other kind of character at having just the right trick available to excel in combat. The downside is that this calls for extensive player system-mastery (did I mention '4-page menu'?). It only happens once per encounter, but I imagine this could lead to players spending most of an encounter delaying their choice, thumbing through the list looking for juuuuuust the right Edge to employ...If this were a boardgame, I would love, love, love this design choice. However, in RPGs, I (personally) am firmly in that school that encourages players to think about the fictional reality emerging in play MORE than the list of mechanical options available. This is kind of a staple of OSR approaches to gaming, spawning the dictum, "the answer isn't on your character sheet." What I'd really value would be a Fighter that enables cool combat maneuvers and makes characters really good at them ... without requiring that character's player to break narrative immersion in order to thumb through pages of rules options. Not saying it's a bad choice, but it's the one choice that most disappointed my own play-style preferences. 

I'll note, though, that Savage Worlds lets you custom-build Fighters on your own, already. If I run any Fighters, I may just offer them an extra 2 (or even 3?) Combat Edges instead of the book's base ability. 

PALADINS look really fun to play and aren't complicated. They are good at identifying whether someone/something is evil, they are good at smiting things that are evil, and they can encourage their friends when they face fear (at higher levels, they gain a loyal steed, mystic powers, etc.). One of my players ran a paladin in our trial game and seemed to have fun. As noted above, customizable Edges make it easy to escape the cardboard-cutout stereotypes typical of many paladins in simpler systems - if you want to. 

RANGERS are likewise cool and straightforward. Notably, they aren't primarily wilderness warriors; they're hunters and stalkers of *some* specific environment. They pick a favored enemy from a list of 13 broad categories (like 'undead' or 'humanoid' or 'aberration,' so you don't have to worry about those 'Oh no, I hate orcs but not hobgoblin' moments). Fighting a favored enemy, the Ranger gets a free reroll on combat attacks; fighting on favored terrain, the Ranger gets an extra initiative card (Savage Worlds uses cards dealt each round to determine initiative order, and some abilities/edges key into these cards). I will confess that I wasn't sure whether this extra card grants an extra activation, or just another chance to go earlier in the round. Like Paladins and several other classes, Rangers end up with a limited range of mystic powers once they've advanced a few times. Here is the note I made to myself upon initially studying the Ranger archetype's advancement benefits: "The advancement structure here remains quite simple, but really tracks a progression not unlike that of a classic OSR or 1e D&D character - but maybe feels even simpler. Or maybe simple isn't the right's more focused on stuff that's actually cool."

ROGUES have a dirt-simple base ability: extra chance to cause Wounds on sneak attacks (Ye Olde Backstab). Later advances involve Notice rolls for spotting traps, and then it's all Agility, Agility, Agility, for dodging Area of Effect attacks or making better opportunity attacks against retreating foes. The SW:PF Rogue struck me as a bit flat as a starting character, but later in the advancement they look more like a balanced 4e D&D Slayer Rogue.

SORCERERS and WIZARDS look really fun! Sorcerers have fewer powers but more Power Points; Wizards, the opposite (so, depth vs. breadth). Wizards can be generalists or specialists, and there are simple rules for familiars and bonded magic objects, like a wizard's staff, which grant a +1 to spellcasting attempts. The player who ran in a wizard in our playtest had a good time. 

MULTI-CLASSING looks really easy, at least on paper! IIRC, you can take another class Edge once per Rank (not once per Advance). I've seen on forums, however, that this can cause some issues with conflicting class Armor restrictions in weird, unexpected ways. 


This is a sizeable book, and it's giving me plenty to say. I'm going to break this into a couple of posts, rather than try readers' patience too much at once. I'll aim to have the rest of the review up within the next week, or sooner. 

Still to come: 

+ How does the game handle Magic? (It's pretty cool!)

+ What else is in the Core Rules?

+ How's the Bestiary?

+ What were my reflections after RUNNING the game? What feedback did my players offer?

+ How does SW: Pathfinder compare to other Savage Worlds fantasy options? 

+ What are my overall thoughts and final recommendations? 

MEANWHILE...if you have questions based on what I've written so far, or if I need to clarify anything, comment away! 

Happy gaming. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

GMing Knacks: some tricks that save me time & headaches when I run games

 When running RPG sessions, almost regardless of the system I'm using, I've found that several little tricks save time or hassle and increase the fun at the table. These aren't original to me - I've picked them up from a variety of sources - and experienced GMs might not learn anything here. Still, I thought I'd share these ideas as useful bits to slot into your mental toolkit on game night if you haven't encountered them before. 


Many games and/or hacks of games include simple rules for 'mooks,' minions, and the cannon fodder players love to mow down on their way to the BBEG. Some kind of category of 'one-hit wonder' foes are common in simple games, and in not-so-simple games, too: 4e D&D, for example, included rules for minion versions of monsters that were identical to normal monsters, but had only 1 hit point. Such rules allow for foes who pose a threat to PCs, but die quickly and with minimal book-keeping. All good. Yet I've found that stacking up your 1-HP goblin next to your 1-HP peasant, 1-HP orc, and 1-HP ogre can get a little flat. 

The way I typically handle minions now is to treat them as killable in a single hit, still, but varying by how strong that single hit needs to be. So I'll throw down some truly puny cannon fodder, like kobold minions with 1 HP, that can be killed by any hit. Elsewhere I might present a gang of 3-HP orc minions that only take 1 hit to slay, but shrug off any hits that do only 1 or 2 damage. In my most recent sessions, my players faced a sinister group of fanatical, agile fighters who were just the gatekeepers for the really scary monsters. I wanted to highlight that the fanatics were no pushovers, but leave the number-crunching and bookkeeping for the monsters themselves. Solution? I made the fanatical fighters 6 HP minions. Any hit that did 6 or more damage took them out in one blow; weaker hits just inflicted flesh wounds as the agile fighters danced away. And I could throw hordes of them at my players without breaking a sweat over the math.

Note that an intermediate option exists, too: use these rules, but treat any minion that takes a hit too weak to kill it as Wounded. Any hit, no matter how weak, kills a Wounded minion. 

[EDIT: perhaps obviously, variable Armor Class offers another way to distinguish between minions, even at just 1 HP. The method I use is particularly helpful for games like Into the Odd or Dungeon World, where armor levels are less variable and tend to involve damage reduction instead of a statted Armor Class. In these cases, I factor armor into the Minion HP level and then ignore armor completely in the combat itself.]


I think I first saw this in John Harper's World of Dungeons. On first sight, I was like, "um, what's the big deal?" - but now I use this CONSTANTLY. 

Ready? It's super-complicated.

When a player asks you a question about the game world and you don't have an answer prepped, or when something unexpected happens and you're not sure how well things should go from there, just roll 1d6 and interpret high rolls as answers favorable to the player. 

For example: in our ongoing campaign, one PC has a magic sword that allows him to see through the eyes of a nearby creature. Recently, the party was traveling overland and noticed a dust column rising from a distant party of travelers, coming from a direction that was of concern to the party. The player with the magic-sword-wielding PC very cleverly asked whether there were any birds of prey flying overhead at the moment. I rolled a d6, got a high result, and confirmed that there was indeed an eagle overhead. The PC was able to get an eagle's-eye view of the approaching travelers. 

Don't get me wrong - I constantly make my own yes/no decisions throughout each game sessions. But there come times when I want to let go - 'disclaim decision making,' in the words of Dungeon World - and let something other than my own whims or preferences shape the options. Regular use of the oracle die trains my players to think creatively, without requiring me to nay-say or approve all their ideas. 

It also makes things a bit more fun for me as GM, because I'm genuinely more surprised at the stories that emerge in play. 


Of the three, this is perhaps the trickiest, but it really helps me. 

When I run PbtA games like World of Dungeons or Dungeon World, I appreciate the system's baked-in dynamism and the way it enables me to cut through a lot of things to grab a coherent narrative outcome. However, there are times when setting up the classic PbtA 3-fold "Success, Success with a Consequence, or just Failure and Something Bad Happens" scheme does feel a bit forced. In other words, there are times when I just want to know whether something worked, and I really don't want to be bothered to come up with some new, edgy, 7-9 mixed-results consequence.

On the other hand...when I run a more traditional game with a binary task-resolution system (like pretty much any form of D&D), I find myself appreciating the system's greater mechanical precision, but sometimes I really start to miss the dynamism of the PbtA approach. 

So...what? Just switch back and forth between systems all the time? 

Well, yeah, that works, but there's another way to handle this too. 

At some point over the past few years, I had a really empowering insight: since I know how to run games in multiple systems, and I have some understanding of the consequences of fiddling with pieces of said systems, there is no reason not to carefully jump back and forth as needed. 

To put that more simply: just because I'm running a PbtA game, the U.N. Game Police aren't going to kick in my door if I occasionally call for a straight up-or-down task resolution roll. And if I'm running some vanilla OSR game with traditional mechanics, nothing stops me from whipping in a more complex and dynamic roll when it seems appropriate.

As I thought over my options, I realized that at different times when I call for a roll from players I'm actually interested in answering different questions. 

A lot of times, I really do just want to know: so...did it work? In those cases, a traditional, binary pass/fail roll is called for (the normal kind of D&D roll). 

At other times, I'm interested in a more holistic sense, asking: so...when you tried that thing, how did it all work out for you? PbtA pros will normally talk about task resolution vs. conflict resolution. To be honest, I'm not fully convinced by this approach; for some reason, I've found it much more helpful to just ask myself, "am I asking whether it worked, or how well it worked out?" When that subjective, looser, qualitative element is important to me, then I need some kind of variable-results roll. 

All this theory stuff aside, it's actually pretty easy to mix these elements within a single game. 

In my PbtA games, I sometimes just tell players to roll a save, 2d6 + STAT as usual, but treating an 8+ result as a Pass and anything lower as a failure. For example, in the Isle of Dread campaign we just finished, I wound up treating rolls to test for tropical diseases while traveling overland as pass/fail affairs. I just wasn't interested in messing around with intermediate results when all I really cared about then and there was "did you get sick, or not?" Who cares whether my system really said that was called for? I'm running the table, not the game's author. 

In more traditional games with binary task resolutions, it is trivially easy to adopt a PbtA-style mixed-results tests instead, so long as your roll only requires a single die. If your player is rolling a single d20 (or other die), make them roll twice. Two successes = a full success, one success = success with a consequence (or 'partial success,' depending how you're thinking about that), and no successes = failure and something bad happens. [If you're running something with a dice pool, this probably gets trickier, but dice pool systems often have variable levels of success built in, anyway].

To sum up this third point: a GM is free to ask what they want to determine at each point in a game, and it really won't break the game to swap in some unusual approaches when they're better suited for the moment.


I hope these tips prove helpful to somebody out there. They have saved me time and hassle, and made me feel more empowered and capable at the games table. What tricks save you time and enliven the GM experience?