Friday, February 4, 2011

50 Fathoms Deep

So last night, I went down to the Baranof to hook up with the gaming group after being on a hiatus with the birth of my new, lovely son (ooooh! he's so cute!). The last couple weeks Luke's been running a "weird pirate" game using the Savage Garden rules, one of the current pop RPGs I haven't had a chance to play of late.

Excuse me...Savage Worlds. I was calling it Savage Garden all evening until Josh (also making a first appearance since his new daughter was born) tells me, "Um...I think that's a restaurant."

"No,'re thinking the OLIVE Garden." Oh, right.

Have you ever eaten at the Olive Garden? I have...though not for many years. You see the commercials on television, and you say, hmmm, it sounds like a good idea. And look at all those smiling, happy people being treated like "family." So many options and pastas and sauces to try...and breadsticks!

[all right, all right...I actually have a tendency to believe the opposite of what television commercials tell me. But I can imagine being someone who buys into what the boob-tube tells me. That's just role-playing]

So you sit down at Ye Old Olive Garden with your family or a team of co-workers or your baseball team or fellow cast-members from the play rehearsal you just finished. And there IS a lot of food. And a lot of options. And most of it is pretty tasteless, and some of it is not very good, and your wife with the touchy stomach is going to pay for the evening in hours to come, and at the end it feels like you spent a lot of hours for not much pay-off.

Savage Worlds isn't quite as bad as the Olive Garden...but there are definitely some similarities.

Which doesn't mean I didn't have a good time or that Luke wasn't proficient or that the setting wasn't interesting or imaginative. But the game definitely wasn't to my taste...that's just my honest opinion.

I'm very familiar with Pinnacle's original Deadlands game, considering the Weird West setting probably the best new idea in gaming (at the time it was released) since "Gothic Punk." Unfortunately, the Deadlands system itself had three big strikes against it:

  1. Steep learning curve
  2. Long character creation (though as with Shadowrun, it did include several archetypes for faster start-up)
  3. Excessively fiddly combat (and I like my western gunfights...Weird or be fast and furious affairs).

Savage Worlds has certainly done away with #1...the game is far easier to jump right into and understand (with only single dice rolls, set target numbers, and a "wild die"). While we used pre-gens for the game, I would have to believe that character creation must be radically simplified as well compared to appears to be a simple point/dice allocation system (the original Deadlands combined point allocation with random draws from a deck of cards, making use of both the showing and the suit...a cool idea but, again, not very simple to execute or teach).

And combat has been simplified considerably as well, especially in the damage allocation phase of the game...aaand that's all I'll say about combat for right now.

All in all, the SW system feels a lot like Deadlands Light. Which, I suppose, is great if you liked the original Pinnacle system but found it too hard to teach, too long to make characters, and too fiddly in combat. I don't know if I originally liked the Deadlands system or not...I was never able to run a single session with it, let alone a campaign, and my knowledge of the fiddlyness of chargen and combat comes from making practice characters and running mock combats. I was never able to get past the TEACHING part (none of my players were enthused enough by the setting to bother learning the game).

So having never actually PLAYED Deadlands, I can't say what game play feels like. However, I can say what Savage Worlds feels like.

Kind of bland.

There's a lot of dice rolling. Even though you aren't rolling many dice, you're often trying to set up a dice roll...whether you're in combat or hunting game or sailing a boat or looking for treasure or anything. The game feels like, "hurry up and get to a spot where you can roll a dice." And if you're smart you try to angle the action so that you can roll your bigger dice.

Most of the time, it felt like the target roll was either 4 or some gi-normous number that required blowing the top off the dice (rolling the max and then re-rolling and adding). Since fortune is a fickle bitch, the randomness often lent an overall feeling of lameness...for example, it didn't help to "blow the top off" the roll, when all that was needed was a roll of 4 (I had huge successes rolling every day our ship was at sea...without receiving any benefit from those "huge successes"). And then when one needed to roll high (such as for damage rolls with a tough/armored opponent) those "exploding dice" always seemed a bit more elusive.

There are other pet peeves of flawed design I could list (for example as Hindrances that have mechanical value versus those that do nothing and have no rules for enforcement). But that's just going to get redundant...the fact is, I didn't find the game all that fantastic.

Which, I have to say, kind of surprised me. I especially liked the Weird Pirate idea of 50 Fathoms (though I have to say I much prefer Christian Aldridge's version of the setting in his 1997 game Maelstrom)...hell, I like pirates in general and was looking forward to swashbuckling adventure. Plus, I've seen how popular Savage Worlds is (at the Dragonflight convention last summer, SW was definitely the largest turnout of any game a country mile!). And I know the game won some Gamers Choice award at Origins in 2004.

My question would have to be: why? Why would someone choose to play Savage Worlds? What was its competition that year anyway?

Ah, well...I am a man notorious for being "behind the times" in these things (I only just started listening to Lady Gaga in 2010). There is probably some cool IPhone adaption for the game that elevates the play experience to a whole 'nother level, that I'm just missing.

The point is, it wasn't really to my taste. But it was fun to get back with the guys and play and kabitz and poke fun at each other and consume large amounts of beer. Hopefully I'll get to go back next Thursday...there's nothing on "must-see TV" that beats role-playing, even a semi-bland game like Savage Worlds.
: )


  1. I have Savage Worlds, but i've never actually played it. I like the idea of the "4" target number, but i've grown to like the numerous subsystems and idiosycracies of D&D.

    It's good that you gave it a try, though!

  2. Savage Garden was the name of a rather lame Australian pop act. For your sake, I hope they hadn't penetrated your consciousness long enough to be what you were thinking of.

  3. @ PCB: My brother-in-law LOVED Savage Garden. I am sure that is where the name came from.
    ; )

    @ Pal: I just like playing games, and I'm certainly willing to give SW another shot. Maybe *I* was the one having an "off-night!"
    : )

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  5. Gnome stew has a review of the system

    The Good/Bad mentioned there matches my experience with the game. I particularly like SW for its great balance between simple-to-play and players-have-options.

  6. We have played a fair bit of Savage Worlds -- whose rules are derived from the Boomtown miniatures rules -- and like its fast play, slightly cinematic feel, and rules that allow you to plug into various settings. Plus many of the settings are excellent, like 50 Fathoms that you mention. It is these settings that add the flavour that you are looking for, the point being that generic rules systems like Savage Worlds are not meant to be all flavoursome.

    Nor did we have any issue with the randomness of the mechanics. In fact, we found it no more random than any other game, and to be honest, your GM should telling you when you need roll high. And to be honest, the mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons barely do anything let alone be interesting.

  7. I didn’t have a problem with it, aside from just not knowing the system and how the different types of characters played. If I re-rolled, I probably would have picked one of the amphibious guys.

    Most of the things I don’t care for as much are probably just par for the course in modern RPG design: minis/wargame style of play, slow pace to combat, etc… I guess I consider that more my problem than the game’s. Some of the settings look great.

  8. @ Fumers: Thanks for the link. While I admit I have only played the game once (and would certainly be willing to try it again), I think this particular reviewer is a little too soft on SW. For example, saying the system is easier and simpler than D20? Duh. But there are a lot of games that are simpler...and some of his "good" points (hindrances, speed, randomness) I would have thrown in either "bad" or "ugly." And this little gem:

    "...Like most games, the weak points are usually handled by house rules or setting-specific approaches..."

    is a simple cop-out. That tells me "incomplete game design."

    However, this is something *I* dislike about most "universal systems." I prefer a game that does one specific thing well as opposed to one that does a lot of things mediocre (or crummy, in the case of "D20 Everything"). But I realize that's a matter of my own personal taste.

    @ Pookie: You know, Rifts has a lot of great settings in its gigantic awfulness (Mystic England, Borg Russia, the New West, Atlantis, Wormwood, etc.). Coming up with cool settings in which to put an RPG isn't enough. *I* can come up with cool settings, but if I don't have the system to execute it, it's a lost cause.

    Again, I prefer games that are specific to a setting. I like that the "alignment" and "combat system" of Advanced Recon is very specific to a vietnam wargame...and I also like the completely different mechanics to the indie game Carry which is also set in vietnam but deals with the interior mental state and stress of the soldiers. While the setting is the same for both, each game is about something different...and neither game's rules would 'port to a different setting (unless it were analogous to military/jungle fighting I suppose...maybe a 40K type game). But their RULES provide as much flavor as the setting itself.

    As for D&D not allowing one to do anything interesting...I heartily disagree. But maybe we play different editions...
    ; )

    @ IG You and I are just too old for these new-fangled games, man. I'm not sure being amphibious would have speeded up the combat with the crabs...or helped us hunt for food...or moved our boat any faster. Besides, I like your little Short Round/Avatar dude.
    : )

  9. What made the game semi-bland? Lack of enthusiasm by the DM to impart the setting? Lack of player involvement? The mechanics involved?

    The few times I've played Savage Worlds (Shadowrun conversion, Deadlands Reloaded, Fantasy setting) the dice exploded with some regularity (at least once a combat and a couple times during skill checks). Did anyone get a joker when flipping the cards for Initiative? Getting a joker usually adds to the excitement of the combat!

    The base target number is 4 for range weapons. The parry value for melee attacks. Difficulties add to this base number.

    If you find a target hard to hit, you can try a trick or taunt. If you succeed, then the creature is shaken and it is easier to wound.

    Personally, it is fun but not my favorite. I enjoy hit points and random char gen. Neither is satisfied in SW.

    Truly, Madly, Deeply - A guilty pleasure of mine by Savage Garden.

  10. @ Eric: You know, I'm just listing my first impressions. Maybe I just need to get used to the game. Really.

  11. I'd give it another shot, Jon. I'm kind of curious to see how much things speed up once everyone knows the system and is making more advantageous decisions. I doubt you'll be changing the name of your blog to "SW Blackrazor" anytime soon, but you you might have some fun.

  12. I quite like it myself. It's crunchy enough that there is structure to the play, but light enough that I can run it without getting a headache. I'd put it at around the same complexity as Basic D&D.

    The other side of that is that yes, it can be a bit bland, but you know, so is Basic D&D. You have to do a little work to bring some life to the mechanics, but because the mechanics are unobtrusive, it's easy to do so.

    That's the core of the magic system, really. There are few spells, but variety is gained through description, so a shard of ice and a bolt of energy are the same in terms of mechanics, but would be described differently.

    So yes, you need a bit of confidence to step forward and take control of the narrative around your character's actions, but I don't see that as too different from filling in the gaps in old-school D&D; it's a variation of "rulings not rules".

    One big problem the game has is in clarity of writing and organisation. The chase and injury rules are quite elegant, but the writing does its best to confuse the reader, so you end up exerting more effort than should be needed to understand such simple sub-systems.

    I'm using it to run a game in the Eberron setting, and we're finding it to be a great fit. It is fast, furious and fun, as advertised.

    Of course, I'm talking about Savage Worlds here. I can't stand Olive Garden, although I am fond of their bread sticks.

  13. @JB I never said that you cannot do interesting things with Dungeons & Dragons, oh no. In suggesting that I did, you miss my point. It is that the setting makes a Dungeons & Dragons or a Savage Worlds game interesting, because the mechanics in themselves are anything other than that.

  14. @ IG: I would, of course, change the name of the blog to "Savage Razor;" jeez!
    ; )

    @ Kelvin: I keep waiting to hear flack from Olive Garden they even have Olive Garden in the UK? Wow...why does the US insist on exporting our crassest ideas?

    @ Pookie: Ah, yes...I see I missed that last bit. I actually find many of D&D's mechanics interesting, especially when a) one considers what they actually model, and b) one compares them to contemporary design paradigms.

    But I don't think that's what you're getting at. They don't "stand up and dance;" there's no "exploding dice" or interesting metagame stuff like having to switch character sheets with your neighbor every time you fumble a roll or something. Okay, I get that.

  15. No, no Olive Gardens over here, but I lived in Minnesota for three years, and I had plenty of opportunity to encounter them then!

  16. So, you listen to Lady Gaga? I'm not sure what to say about that...

  17. @ Aplus: I have eclectic tastes...but my BABY really seems to enjoy the dance music.