Fantasy Attack

I’ve mentioned the roleplaying I have done with my boys before, particularly the Animal Agents sessions that we played last year. Those sessions were intended to tell stories about the setting and to avoid physical confrontation. They were also using a simplified game system.

Well, the kids are ready for something different: a fantasy roleplaying dungeon crawl.

This has come on because of a couple of things:

  • broader awareness of fantasy elements in culture – they’re both pretty knowledgeable about goings on in The Hobbit and Harry Potter.
  • playing more games with fantasy combat in them – both video games (LEGO Batman, for example) and board games (Castle Panic, and Munchkin)

More about Munchkin another time.

The boys are old enough to deal with more complex rules, especially now that the younger one is reading fluently. Using a full ruleset seems like a plausible thing to do.

That ruleset won’t be D&D though.

Why I Don’t Like D&D

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is by far the most well known roleplaying game – it’s the first one I played, back when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a thing. I loved roleplaying from the start, but I was always uncomfortable with the opacity of the game system: determining whether a blow hit was a table lookup in a table only available to the GM (or Dungeon Master, in D&D parlance).

Then there were the systems of class, race and level: boxes the characters get put in which punish the player who wants to do something different. Want a fighter with some stealth abilities? You might have to multi-class with thief, which makes advancing in either class more expensive.

More recent editions of D&D have addressed some of these concerns, but they are still terrifically complex. When I joined my current roleplaying group we were playing D20 Modern, which is the D&D system with modern trappings. We had to use a computer program to manage the characters because of all the interactions of different class abilities and bonuses.

One of D&D’s great strengths is the combat system – there are rules, it seems, for everything, from charging into combat to firing spells into melee. This betrays D&D’s roots as a skirmish war game, and it’s not for nothing that there are players who will play arena combats using the system.

The problem for me is that all of this faffing about gets in the way of telling the story.

So, not D&D.

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is a much simpler system to learn and to administer. It’s a skill-based system akin to Runequest, but there is a unified mechanic for testing for success: each trait has a die to indicate its level, and you just roll that die type to try and exceed the target difficulty number. Traits are divided into skills and attributes: skills are learned and specific (Drive, Shoot, Persuade) while attributes are innate and general (Smarts, Agility).

Combat is faster and involves less bookkeeping than with D&D. It’s also cruder, but a single combat round* won’t take half an hour** which is the point of the simplification.

The Savage Worlds system itself is generic, that is there is a core rulebook and separate materials for particular settings. The most famous of these (and in fact where the system originated) is Deadlands – a Weird West setting of undead monsters, mad science, and gunslingers. There are many other settings from fantasy to pulp science fiction to horror (including a truly excellent Mythos setting called Realms of Cthulhu).

I now have the Fantasy Companion which includes fantasy races and some specialised rules for suitable magic systems. This should help me build some small dungeons for the boys’ characters to crawl around in.

Next time I will explain what a dungeon is for.

[*] games go to combat rounds whenever there is any activity where timing is important, not just combat. Maybe they should be called action rounds instead?

[**] unless there are a lot of combatants, but scaling combat is one of the harder things to deal with.

One Reply to “Fantasy Attack”

  1. Steve says:

    I love Savage Worlds, enough so I burn scarce vacation time to make my fortnightly Friday Night Deadlands:Reloaded game as long as possible, but for high fantasy I think, after much contact with the system, that the magic system lacks the required oomph.

    I understand the reasons for going the way they did (or I think I do which isn’t the same thing of course) but feel a magic-using character is in for a lackluster time compared with many other HF game systems (where magical oomph is sortakinda the point).

    This lack of oomph can manifest in heavily Weird Sciencified settings like Deadlands:Reloaded and especially Space:1889 in the same four devices being “invented” by every darned player who chooses to push the boundaries of science and Show Those Fools.

    Also, though I don’t find the issues you cite with D&D to be deal breakers (I enjoy completely opaque mechanics sometimes if it means I can do away with dice), I must take minor issue with your thesis that D&D combat takes a long time.

    Assassinate the Druid as the party leaves the inn and combat will once more flow smoothly and quickly, for the player that chooses a druid character will never learn what his/her spells do or how they are cast before he/she actually wants to use them and will require everyone stop while they choose and research a spell when their name is called. This will be a problem no matter what system you mediate the game with. My universal experience over the years has been that Druid players are lazy. 8o)

    Personally I don’t find the combat rules for Pathfinder (my D&D clone of choice) to be hard or difficult (though careful wargamer-style reading is sometimes valuable in avoiding misunderstandings). I use a computer to make the character sheet du jour, but by that I mean I use photoshop to make a legible sheet. Were I GMing that game I’d doubtless use a computer to make NPCs in the same way I use one for my Savage Worlds games.

    Savage Worlds combat can be a pretty complex thing if the players want to use all its richness. There is a player mat extolling the various subtle things that can be done and I as the GM have to keep one handy because I can’t remember diddly these days let alone the once-in-a-blue-moon combat trick someone wants to use this night.

    This is not surprising since Savage Worlds appears to be everything the designer liked about D&D 3.5 and Warhammer 40k with whatever he didn’t like excised, and a GURPS-like disadvantage system added in to taste.

    Savage Worlds also has the “issue” that the published campaigns are heavy on the physical encounters, and once the dice start rolling the essential Hollywood Action/Adventure character of the system moves abruptly to the fore. This can blindside players when they suddenly are out of do-overs but the baddies still have a Fistful O’ Bennies, and combat tends to be an all-then-nothing affair.

    I also am becoming increasingly less enchanted with the damage/wound system as lucky rolls can leave players trying to recover from impossible levels of injury early in the action. I can’t fudge these rolls since I play Savage Worlds games in the round with no screen.

    I’d be interested in hearing how your game is going as time goes on, and whether you encounter the same issues I have and if so, how you dealt with them and if not, what I am doing wrong.

    One irritation with Deluxe Savage Worlds is that they incorporated some *but not all* of the Fantasy Companion into the core, and made minor changes when they did. Good luck finding them before some dispute at-table breaks out. It broke my Character Builder good and proper, and I’m not sure I found all the issues to this day.

    Depending on where you plan to take the game, you may find the Horror Companion of use too. It can be had in PDF form quite reasonably, and adds just enough material to the stuff lifted from previous game additions (like RoC’s Sanity rules) that it still represents good value. More a handbook of how to go about horror gaming than a rule book for the most part.

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