Not too long ago I had one of those "wait...what?" moments, as my DTRPG.com 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!
WHAT'S THE ACTUAL PRODUCT, HERE?
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 DTRPG.com. 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 DTRPG.com in this post are affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to customers. Thank you for any support!].
SO, WHAT HATH ATHENS TO DO WITH JERUSALEM? AND WHAT HATH SAVAGE WORLDS TO DO WITH PATHFINDER?
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.
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 word...it'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.
PLEASE STAY TUNED FOR MORE...
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!