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How Savage Worlds Works

Updated on May 1, 2012
A limited edition of Savage Worlds
A limited edition of Savage Worlds | Source

This article is intended as the more "nitty gritty" companion to my first article on Savage Worlds. If you want a more general overview without being bogged down in technical terms, I recommend reading that first.

For the rest of you, I'm here to explain some of the finer points of this elegant system, hopefully answering some common questions. It can be a little tricky to learn at first!

D&D 4E tables
D&D 4E tables | Source

A System For All Dice

Since most people understand Dungeons and Dragons, I'll use that as my point of reference. In D&D, almost everything uses a 20-sided die for resolution. If Barbarius wants to bash open a locked door, the GM would ask him to roll a d20 and add his Strength modifier. In this case, lets say it was +6. He rolls the die, getting a 12. He adds his modifier to his roll, resulting in 18. The GM determines that it would take a 15 to successfully break down the door, and so Barbarius succeeds.

It took some easy math to get there, but that's basically how D&D works. You roll, add, compare numbers and see what happens. Combat works in a similar way, except you compare a few other numbers. It's not a bad system, but it was much too slow for the interests of my gaming group.

Savage Worlds is the first RPG system I've seen that uses all of the polyhedral dice except the 20-sided die (or d20). There are five commonly-used dice. They are 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12-sided. When you create a character in SW, your character will begin with an array of stats that will run from d4 to d12.

Unlike D&D, the number needed to successfully hit something rarely fluctuates. The magical number? Four, plus or minus any modifiers.

But wait! It gets better.

Like I mentioned in my original article, SW is based on the idea that it's more fun for players to roll several dice at once. For this reason, all players will actually be rolling their statistic die PLUS a six-sided die. Even if your Strength is as low as it can be (a d4), you'll get to roll the d6 along with it and take the highest of the two. Better still, every die in the game is capable of "exploding." This means that if you roll the highest total on any die (a 4 on a d4, a 6 on a d6, etc.) you get to reroll the die and keep adding. Our group calls this "critting" dice, because we like World of Warcraft terminology.

Statistically speaking, a d4 has the highest chance of "exploding" because it has fewer sides. It also has the lowest chance of standard success. Conversely, the d12 will very rarely explode, but will often succeed. And yes, both the attribute die AND the additional d6 can explode and the player can take the highest of the two.

Darts Champion Marcus Fletcher wants to play a game of darts. He grabs a handful and rolls his Throwing stat, which is a d12. He rolls that plus a d6 and takes the highest of the two. He rolls 7 and 3. He only needs a 4, so he takes the 7, throwing every dart into the bullseye and winning a few hundred dollars.


A System for Roleplayers

One of my favorite parts of SW are the Edges and Hindrances. They are small mechanical or narrative things about your character that will help or hurt you during the game. They're a great tool for helping players figure out who their character is when the game begins, quelling that awful "I'm just playing myself with magic" feeling that first-time gamers feel.

There's a big list of Edges and Hindrances on Pinnacle's website, so I'll just mention some of my favorites here.

As you might expect, Edges are things that give your characters a kind of special ability, usually due to past experiences or training. Things like Very Attractive will give your character a bonus to Charisma (how the game handles Persuasion). The Woodsman Edge will give your character a bonus to Tracking, Survival and Stealth, but only when they're in the wilderness. If you've always wanted to have a lot of money, the Rich edge will give you triple the starting cash, but doesn't really help you during the rest of the game. There's even one called McGuyver, which removes penalties for attempting action while lacking the proper equipment, perfect for improvising bombs or creating computers out of bamboo.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Hindrances are things that come with your character when you make them. You don't HAVE to have them, but you'll be awarded with more points to dump into your stats if you take at least three. They come in two flavors, Major and Minor. Here are some of my favorites:

  • All Thumbs (Minor): -2 to Repair rolls, if you roll a 1 on either die, it causes a critical malfunction (left to the imagination of the GM and players).
  • Pacifist (Major or Minor): With the Minor version of this, the character will only attack in self-defense. With the Major version, they won't attack any living creatures for any reason. This leads to some great roleplaying during, for instance, the zombie apocalypse.
  • Wanted (Minor or Major): With Minor, the character might have a few too many unpaid parking tickets. With Major, they might be an escaped prisoner or have Shoot-On-Sight status from the FBI. This makes interacting with law enforcement a game within a game.

Of course there are many, many more Edges and Hindrances in the base game. If you buy a whole setting book, it'll come with even more.


How to Crit

With D&D it's easy to tell when you've crit something: You roll a 20. That can't happen in SW, so it happens another way: Raises.

A raise is when you roll at least 4 over the target number. If I was trying to roll a 4 and I rolled an 8, that's a raise and cool stuff happens. If I rolled a 12, that'd be two raises, and MORE cool stuff would happen.

Critical failures are also fun. Rolling a 1 on either of your die will result in a simple failure. Rolling snake eyes is a Critical failure, which usually results in some unavoidable disaster (because it's pretty rare when rolling two different polyhedral dice).

Example of Play

Lets put together everything we've learned so far.

Marcus Fletcher, Vampire Hunter wants to shoot a vampire that he's grappling with atop a victorian buggy that is currently speeding through the winding mountains of Transylvania. He wants to use his crossbow to shoot an overhanging oil lamp. Here is how the GM must consider Fletcher's roll:

  • 4 Is the base number needed to hit the lamp.
  • +2 because Fletcher has the Steady Hands edge.
  • -2 because the shaky buggy is making it hard to aim.
  • -2 because Fletcher still needs to draw his crossbow from his hip.

Think of the base number as a negative for the purposes of adding. -4 +2 -2 -2 = -6. Fletcher needs a 6 to succeed.

He rolls his Shooting stat (which is a d12) and a d6. He gets 8 on the d12 and 6 on the d6. The d6 explodes, allowing him to reroll it and keep adding. He rerolls, receiving a 5. 5 + 6 is 11, which is a success with a raise. The lamp explodes at exactly the right moment, showering the vampire in burning oil.

Of course, most of the time there's not this many modifiers on an action. Typically it's plus or minus 1.



While this might not be the most original mechanic in the game, it's a great way to give players the ability to exert control over their fates. Benny is short for "benefit." I'm not really sure who thought of it, but that's what they're called.

During the game, the GM should be awarding players bennies for creating particularly hilarious or amazing moments within the narrative. At our table, this is basically an excuse to make poignant Schwarzenegger-style one-liners. We use a big pile of poker chips as bennies, but you can use anything you want.

The players can then use the bennies in several ways:

  • Rerolling attribute tests. However, they can't reroll damage rolls. You really, really wanted to kick the villain into a nearby pit and cry "THIS IS SPARTA," but you failed your roll! Spend a benny, reroll both dice. Simple.
  • Reducing damage during attacks. When someone attacks you, it might result in a temporary stun called Shaken. This can be very annoying. On your turn you have the chance to roll an attribute and get rid of it. If you fail the roll, use a benny and it's automatically gone AND you get your turn back.

It's still amazing to me when I see how much better the game is when players have the option to reroll things. It leads to better storytelling, better player participation and less stress from the players.

Are there any other parts of SW you'd be interested in learning about?

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    • Eric Mikols profile image

      Eric Mikols 5 years ago from New England

      Glad to see other Savage Worlds player out there! You really summarize the game down. If people aren't won over by this, they've no hope!

      Great Hub!