Friday, January 09, 2009

House Rule Musings

Recently, I've been considering the types of games and mechanics my playgroup tends to like, and was hoping to apply a few changes to help overcome any reluctance to Savage Worlds on the part of a couple of my player. Here's a start to what I've come up with.

No more ranks. No more advancements every five experience points. My playgroup decided to get rid of them since we never liked them much anyway. You see, we are a picky lot. Picky, and probably a bit spoiled. We’ve been playing a long running HERO system campaign for about six years now, and HERO lets us make what we want, how we want it, with a few very key, core rule dynamics to keep in mind. Have a concept, and BANG! You can make it in HERO system exactly how you want it.

But HERO is by no means flawless. It has some drawbacks – a few are out and out dealbreakers for some folks. It can be slow – too slow – when playing through large combats. The vehicles rules are… well… klunky would be too nice a thing to say. And character creation, especially when building an experienced character, can be time consuming (measured in days, not hours, let alone minutes) and for new players, downright intimidating.

So we decided we wanted a backup system. Not something to replace HERO. No, we’ll be playing HERO for years to come most likely. What we wanted was an alternative, a light system to play when we wanted breaks from HERO or had a taste for something different. About two years ago, that choice settled upon Savage Worlds. We are not alone among the many Savages who’ve come along to find a rules-light alternative to the sheer weight of HERO game-play. But we do seem to be alone in wanting a few very specific alterations to fit our play style.

Firstly, ranks and advancements smack of levels. Some of us dislike – intensely dislike – such relics from older systems. It is bad enough that every computer and console RPG seems to force them down our throats, we don’t want them on the tabletop too. Secondly, characters advance too quickly. In less than a year of weekly play, the average Savage Worlds playgroup is well into “Legendary” in its capabilities. The system as it is written supports short campaigns and “one-shot” adventures exceptionally well. However, it escalates in power too quickly for many longer campaigns.

And recently, we decided that when the Fantasy HERO game ends, we want to switch genres and jump into some Science Fiction. Since the idea of handling dog-fighting starships in HERO makes some of us want to gouge out our eyes, Savage Worlds seemed to be our logical choice, between its simple but solid mechanics, fast action, and seamless integration between tactical and role play. However, the “skimpy” skill system and the aforementioned issues with the experience system made some members of my playgroup hesitate, especially since we figured the Sci-Fi game would become our new, primary game.

Adjusting skills was simple. Add “Sleight of Hand” as a skill – I know some folks say it may be handled using “Stealth”, but I find that notion to be not particularly compelling. Predefine a few Knowledge Skills. Adjust how languages are handled (they no longer have die types – you either have it or do not. Any roll needed is handled by Smarts). And add a handful of edges to round things out. The broad skill “groups” may take some getting used to for a few players, but it does keep things moving fast without sacrificing much of the fun.

The alteration to the experience system was another story. We decided that the experience system itself had to be adjusted from the bottom up – from how experience is given and earned all the way to how it is spent. One common concern with any point-buy system is that experience is earned in a general way and spent on whatever a player wants – despite improving or developing abilities never used or hinted at in actual play. Savage Worlds is not alone in this. Instead, we wanted abilities to improve more organically. If you use a skill, and use it often and well, it will improve. We looked to other systems we have played – most notably R. Talsorian’s Interlock and Chaosium’s Basic Role Play – that have provided a more organic skill advancement system. Of the two, Interlock offered our preferred method. As skills are used or trained in game, they earn improvement points. At certain thresholds of points (generally, 10x the current skill rank), the skill improves. The downside is having to track experience for each skill, and not just in a single pool. None of us considered that to be a problem – it’s only an extra column on the character sheet.

In our Cyberpunk 2020 days playing the Interlock System, skills would often be used in interesting and dramatic ways just to push skill improvement. It may seem silly, but those occasions became some of the most memorable and exciting times in the game. They contributed to the fast, furious fun that is so emblematic of Savage Worlds. We reckoned a mechanic derived from Interlock would work perfectly.

So, we have a framework for skills. What about Characteristics and Edges?

Characteristics improve like skills do in Savage Worlds, so we needed the altered system to keep that essential feel. A couple questions keep popping up:
  • How to address the imbalance between skills and controlling attributes? Agility and Smarts would improve far more often than Strength and Vigor if skill experience can be allocated to characteristic improvement.
  • How does having a characteristic lower than a skill affect that skill’s cost?
  • How slowly should characteristics improve compared to skills? In stock SW, two skills improving is the equivalent of one characteristic increase, unless a skill is rated more highly than the controlling characteristic – at which point they have equal value. We want characteristics to improve slowly enough that they are more difficult to improve than skills, but not so slowly that characters have tons of skills hovering near or surpassing the characteristic continually.

And for Edges? Well, Edges are an interesting case. We decided to retain some of the Rank system as a means of classifying Edges. Unlike HERO where all abilities are built via points of effect, Savage Worlds edges have no metric by which to rate their values individually. Instead, the Rank system allows us a means of assessing relative value. Admittedly, we have to trust the game creators who created the Edges, but the worst that can happen is that two Edges of the same rank are not of similar usefulness. Not a big deal. It is no more a flaw in our mechanic than it is in the stock Savage Worlds system. The only significant question about Edges becomes their relative value compared to other improvable commodities.

Finding answers, though, is somewhat more of a challege...

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