Pitfalls of GMing Savage Worlds

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Justicar Creed
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Pitfalls of GMing Savage Worlds

#1 Postby Justicar Creed » Sun Aug 04, 2013 3:46 pm

Greetings everyone. I've just been running through the ins and outs of the SW mechanics and so far things are progressing quite swimmingly. Then I ran into a wall, a d20 kind of wall if you know what I mean. I've been DMing/GMing d20 systems (ADnD, DnD, PF) for more than a decade , and being exposed too long to a singular system has made me, well stubborn when it comes to particular concepts. Then I ran into a post some weeks ago, I forgot where, and a comment there really drove the stake through the hambone. "...the SW session turned sour because it was probably (mis)handled by an inexperienced GM...". The topic was about moving forward from a d20 system to SW and of how a new group got burned in their first few SW sessions. The term "inexperienced" equated to a GM not really knowing how to run a SW game properly.

I am enamored by the Savage Worlds rules, and ecstatic about the different settings, but I am quite hesitant to run a SW game for a few friends of mine right now. I do not wish to play a SW game with my d20 approach tripping me is all that I'm saying. So with that may I ask, what are those common pitfalls/mistakes made by noob GMs, or GMs/DMs coming from D20, when running their first Savage Worlds session. Please take note that there are no SW games near my area and the only SW game session I am in right now is on a PbP site, as a player. So telling me that I have to be a player first will probably get me no where.

Many thanks to those who would share their opinion/knowledge. Cheers!

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#2 Postby wmarshal » Sun Aug 04, 2013 4:01 pm

I would say getting an understanding on how often to award bennies can be an issue with a new group. It is something that can even an experienced GM can forget about, and many players, especially new players, tend to look at their stack of 3 bennies as a static resource to be hoarded. These players often won't spend a benny to remove the Shaken affect, and then feel useless as they spend turns doing very little while staying Shaken. To alleviate this scenario I recommend that you play with the Joker's Wild option. That should help keep the flow of bennies going in combat, and gives you time to get used to awarding bennies. Don't worry if some players start looking like they're accumulating a stack of bennies. Sooner or later they will start spending them more freely, or they will take a massive hit and need to use them up either soaking damage or getting a survivable result on the Incapacitation table.
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#3 Postby UmbraLux » Sun Aug 04, 2013 4:07 pm

The two items which transfer worst from d20 are probably magical loot and single BBEG opponents.

Magical items are an issue because SW is already weighted in favor of success but even more so due to the relatively small range between failure and success. A +1 in d20 is five percent of the die and often less than five percent of the target number. In SW that +1 is 25% of the standard target number. Obviously it will have a much greater effect on the game. Consequently, magic items should be rare and situational.

Antagonists are another area where thinking needs to change. A single BBEG may well get killed in one shot if a PC is lucky. If you make them tough enough to make that unlikely you may well end up with a TPK. You're far better off increasing the number of opponents. Give the BBEG a few henchmen and use them to keep the fight interesting.

That said, learning isn't that big a deal...just start small and build up to larger battles. Welcome to SW and have fun! :)

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#4 Postby Zadmar » Sun Aug 04, 2013 4:15 pm

Justicar Creed wrote:So with that may I ask, what are those common pitfalls/mistakes made by noob GMs, or GMs/DMs coming from D20, when running their first Savage Worlds session.

I'd probably say one of the biggest pitfalls is adding house rules before running the system as written. Another would be misleading comparisons with D&D, although that can be greatly reduced by running a non-fantasy setting to get people used to the system - there are some good one-sheets in the back of the rulebook, I'd recommend running a couple of those first before settling on a long-term campaign.

For the players, a common mistake is to carry over the D&D concept of "dump stats". It's not unusual to see someone leave Spirit and/or Vigor at d4, and then blame the system when they do badly in combat.

Make sure you print each player a copy of the Combat Survival Guide - and familiarise yourself with the various maneuvers so that you can use them on the players as well (that's a great way to encourage them to use tactics).

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#5 Postby tigerguy786 » Sun Aug 04, 2013 6:00 pm

Zadmar wrote:For the players, a common mistake is to carry over the D&D concept of "dump stats". It's not unusual to see someone leave Spirit and/or Vigor at d4, and then blame the system when they do badly in combat.


Saw somebody dump BOTH. I haven't played with the group since that guy joined (not because of him, for other unrelated reasons), so I don't know how that turned out for him, but I can't imagine it's going well...
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#6 Postby Volt875 » Sun Aug 04, 2013 8:10 pm

I can think of two thinks I had trouble with when I came over to Savage Worlds from D20. Number one was traps. Mostly because having a dungeon full of traps that deal 3d6 damage is much more threatening in Savage Worlds than to the level ten fighter with a hundred HP. One wound is a much bigger deal than ten or fifteen HP.

Number two was not having to have twenty fights to wear down the PCs so the final boss seems a threat. It just doesn't seem necessary to me. Granted, I haven't had time to fully test number two yet but perhaps the other forum members can chime in on it.
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#7 Postby DGMiller » Sun Aug 04, 2013 8:42 pm

Having made that switch with my group (after a brief sojourn in the World of Darkness setting), I agree with several of the posters upthread.

The "care and maintenance" of Bennies is huge. For the GM in giving them, and for the new-to-SW players in using them. When we first made the switch, nobody wanted to use them. I've gotten much better with letting them flow, and some of the players have actually stopped hoarding them.

On a similar note, since there aren't a large number of interlocking systems that balance the game like there are in d20, the GM serves as the balancing mechanism. Last night, the Novice heroes on their first mission in my Sundered Skies game were up against a pretty tough demon. I honestly could've wiped the floor with them easily. Especially when their front-line melee fighter fell under the demon's control. At that point, I started holding back on spending GM Bennies until the fight had turned back in their favor. Don't get me wrong, it was still a VERY tough fight for them (there are only three players), but a TPK at the beginning of the campaign would've been bad for the story we want to tell together. Had there been a larger party, or if they'd been drawing better Action Cards or rolling better, I might've had to spend all my GM Bennies to keep it challenging.

Characters can't trade blows toe-to-toe with the enemy like they can in d20. When I first started running SW combats, I really felt like I was "doing it wrong" because they were so quick and could turn in one direction or another so abruptly. Tactics, tricks, and other "non-damage" actions can be important in combat. Also in the Sundered Skies game last night, the players were having trouble getting through the toughness of some barnacle apes in combat aboard their ship, so they got the brilliant idea to perform Push maneuvers and send their foes over the railing into the Void. They quickly turned the tide of battle and I gave Bennies all around for thinking of it. When I first started running SW, I had to try hard to remember to have my "bad guys" use Tricks, in order to get the players to use them.

Along the line of tricks, Gang Up bonuses are HUGE! I killed a very experienced PC in my War of the Dead game a few sessions ago because he disregarded the tactics the party had agreed on and didn't fall back when everyone else did. As the zombie horde advanced, he was hung out to dry. He thought, "We've been fighting slow zombies for a year now and they're not even dangerous to us anymore." They surrounded him and, with Gang Up bonuses, absolutely slaughtered him. Have the bad guys Gang Up on your party once, and they will get the hint to use this tactic.

If I think of more, I'll add them.

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#8 Postby Virgobrown72 » Sun Aug 04, 2013 8:49 pm

In all honesty, I had two pitfalls. One was not trusting the simplicity and elegence of the system. I thought I was doing something wrong because everything was so easy to run!!!

The second was, BEING THE GM!!! So much cool stuff was happening in my game, it made me wanna play instead of being a GM!!! This system really can be Fast,Furious, and Fun, but you just have to remember to keep things simple, and trust the system. It works...
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#9 Postby Justicar Creed » Sun Aug 04, 2013 9:05 pm

Whoa! :eek: So many things to learn and so little time to do it in. I am grateful that I brought this matter out here in this forum, great stuff! I'll comment on the posts as soon as I can so please just keep 'em coming. I am definitely all ears right now.

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#10 Postby TheLoremaster » Mon Aug 05, 2013 5:40 am

The one that seems to trip up most d20 players that are new to SW is this:

There Are No Such Things As Attack Of Opportunities!

Seriously, that's the key overriding assumption that new players make. "You mean, that guy can just run right past me." "Yep." "And I can't do anything about it." "Only if he tries to hit you first." "That sucks" "That's why you want First Strike; welcome to Savage Worlds!" :D
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#11 Postby Volt875 » Mon Aug 05, 2013 8:49 am

Oh and one thing to remember as far as spells go. Trappings trappings trappings! One of the most common complaints from new players is how there isn't a lot of spells in comparison to D20. The thing is that all the spells effects are there, you just have to use trappings to create them. Put an acid trapping on bolt BAM Melf's Acid Arrow. Cone of cold? Burst with ice trapping. Lightning bolt? Jet power (it's in the fantasy companion).

Granted they aren't many utility spells but there are a few topics about that on the forums here already. My personal favorite way is to give magical trappings to the skills. Wizard wants cast Lemounds Tiny Hut? Survival roll please.

(As a side note
"Hey squishy Elf fighter mage, did you know your guy can wear armor and cast spells with no penalty in SW?"
"Really?"
"Yup"
"Sweet!")
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#12 Postby Jounichi » Mon Aug 05, 2013 9:10 am

TheLoremaster wrote:The one that seems to trip up most d20 players that are new to SW is this:

There Are No Such Things As Attack Of Opportunities!

Seriously, that's the key overriding assumption that new players make. "You mean, that guy can just run right past me." "Yep." "And I can't do anything about it." "Only if he tries to hit you first." "That sucks" "That's why you want First Strike; welcome to Savage Worlds!" :D

That's not entirely true. First Strike only applies if the opponent is trying to hit you first. Anyone who has an enemy withdraw from melee (including running right past them) gets a free shot, but no special maneuvers or tricks.

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#13 Postby mgtzx » Mon Aug 05, 2013 9:13 am

An issue I ran into when teaching SW early on was creating more confusion by comparing concepts to D&D, which was the main system any of us had played at the time. Part of this was accentuated by playing a swords-and-sorcery type setting. It always feels helpful to compare with concepts from common ground, but be careful with it. As mentioned before, the free Fighting attack from Withdrawing From Combat might be "like" an attack of opportunity (withdrawing grants a free 'basic' attack), but don't ever call it that.

Trappings were something I struggled very much with until recently; they show off the flexibility of the SW rules very much, and they are a great and interesting thing.

Another pit I've seen some of my players fall into is gear. A character was built to wield daggers, and very often the player would ask if they can find new daggers. "You know - better daggers." D&D often turns into a game of Gear - your characters get stronger, but what really sets them apart is the quality of their equipment. In every trip into a dungeon, every trip back to town, and everything in between, the PCs are comparing the loot they "acquire" with the gear they have. Savage worlds is not like this (by default). Armor and weapons are (typically) just armor and weapons. There aren't 'masterwork' items, and relics don't range from +1 to +5. Obviously you can build your setting this way, and Zadmar put together a great toolkit that can accommodate the idea, but the core doesn't work that way. Savage Worlds campaigns are about the characters - they get better instead of their gear, even if their gear improves or becomes part of them.

Unique gear (and magical items) are always exciting to find as a player. Depending on the setting, 'special' items and relics don't have to be rare. A jewel-encrusted dagger has a much different sound to it than a plain-old dagger (and probably enough so for a player to be happy with it), and a Sword that glows when monsters are near sounds pretty cool. A +1 Thing is just boring to me now. Making gear aesthetically unique (or with situational powers) is more interesting, and what's better is that you can let your players design them!

"Can I buy a Better Dagger?"
["secret" GM "roll"] "Sure, you come across a very expensive blade; the merchant very proudly showing it off to justify it's extravagant value."
"Ooooh, what's it look like?"
"I don't know, Player Two, I'm not there. What does it look like?"

What's best is that situations like these can push players into adding great details to the world and story they are helping you put together, which makes for a more exciting game.

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#14 Postby mgtzx » Mon Aug 05, 2013 9:18 am

Jounichi wrote:First Strike only applies if the opponent is trying to hit you first.


First Strike applies to more than just that:

SWD wrote:Once per turn the hero (if not Shaken) gets a free Fighting attack against a single foe who moves adjacent to him[...]


I believe that would apply to anyone moving into a position adjacent to the character with FS.

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#15 Postby herrozerro » Mon Aug 05, 2013 9:33 am

I am still getting used to encounters, I have been using one or two larget enemies instead of groups of smaller ones, my players have voiced out against this and I am quickly learning.

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#16 Postby Zadmar » Mon Aug 05, 2013 9:34 am

Jounichi wrote:That's not entirely true. First Strike only applies if the opponent is trying to hit you first. Anyone who has an enemy withdraw from melee (including running right past them) gets a free shot, but no special maneuvers or tricks.

See here:

Clint wrote:It's up to the GM to determine if characters are in melee or not, but simply moving past someone without stopping to be adjacent to them would not be engaging in melee, unless the character attacks the foe he is moving past or the foe is on Hold or has First Strike with the ability to get an attack as they become adjacent.

So technically, running past someone with First Strike gives them two attacks - one when you move adjacent to them, the other when you move away again (because they engaged in melee with the First Strike).

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#17 Postby amerigoV » Mon Aug 05, 2013 9:56 am

Here is advice I give out based on running a fantasy campaign (which I think has the biggest mental hurtles to playing SW).

http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/savage-ravenloft/wikis/running-savage-worlds

One other item concerns converting material. If you like stuff like APs and mega models, keep in mind that during the 3e and 4e era adventures had a ton of filler encounters to keep up the right amount XP flow. Really step back and look at what adds to the story and chuck the rest.
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#18 Postby islan » Mon Aug 05, 2013 11:22 am

TheLoremaster wrote: "You mean, that guy can just run right past me." "Yep." "And I can't do anything about it." "Only if he tries to hit you first." "That sucks" "That's why you want First Strike...


...or learn to be preemptive and go on Hold.

I've personally seen the dumpstat mistake. Guy played an Aevakar in Shaintar, had a d4 Vigor along with a -1 Toughness from his race ... and chose to be melee combatant. In the first scene he got Incapacitated by a villager (it's always a bad sign when your Grey Rangers start the game off by picking fights with villagers ... and probably worse when they lose).

And while it's not a mistake common specifically to people coming to Savage Worlds from d20: make sure you understand the damage rules. Specifically this:

Damage is a Success: Character becomes Shaken. If the character is already Shaken, they suffer 1 Wound.

Damage is [n] Raises: Character becomes Shaken and takes [n] Wounds. It does not matter if the character is already Shaken, they do not suffer any extra Wounds above [n].
Last edited by islan on Mon Aug 05, 2013 11:27 am, edited 1 time in total.

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#19 Postby islan » Mon Aug 05, 2013 11:27 am

Jounichi wrote:That's not entirely true. First Strike only applies if the opponent is trying to hit you first. Anyone who has an enemy withdraw from melee (including running right past them) gets a free shot, but no special maneuvers or tricks.


I don't have the book in front of me, but I'm pretty sure First Strike activates the instant they come into base contact with you, regardless of whether or not they are attacking you.

And I believe the "running past them" example above means that they were not in melee combat, and therefore were not withdrawing from melee.

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#20 Postby D-Rock » Mon Aug 05, 2013 11:29 am

Volt875 wrote:Granted they aren't many utility spells but there are a few topics about that on the forums here already. My personal favorite way is to give magical trappings to the skills. Wizard wants cast Lemounds Tiny Hut? Survival roll please.


That just blew my mind. I had been wondering how to give casters more noncombat utility. That's perfect!

I just started running a War of the Dead campaign and the players have adapted to the system well.


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