Thursday, August 9, 2012

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is similar to Cortex, in that you assign polyhedrals as the values of your stats and skills. The SW is a general set of gaming rules which have been used in a great many settings: Space 1889, Pirate of the Spanish Main, Slipstream, The Savage World of Solomon Kane, Deadlands, and so on. Savage World settings embrace the term 'savage': They are challenging and interesting places to play in, but nobody would actually want to live in a Savage World setting. Life, in a SW game, is nasty, brutish, short and occasionally awesome.

I bought the Savage Worlds Deluxe book and Action deck that go with it, so this is a review of the generic form of the rules and not of any particular setting, although the core book references several of the already produced setting books and provides a couple of 'one page' adventures to get you started.

Character creation is quick: with four core Attributes, a couple of derived Stats and Skills. Skills are linked to specific Stats, and learning a skill up to the linked Attribute rank is easy; going beyond that is more difficult/expensive. You also get Edges which break the standard rules in one way or another, and Hindrances which limit or complicate your characters' life, but earn you back Edges or Attribute/Skill steps.

Character's earn 1 to 3 XP per game session, and you 'Advance' every 5xp earned. Each Advancement lets you do one of the following: Raise an attribute one step; gain a new Edge; learn a new Skill at d4; or increase one Skill one step (or two skills one step each if they are below their linked Attribute value). Every 5 levels earns you a 'rank' increase, from Novice, to experienced, elite and legendary status. Your rank determines what kinds of Edges you have access to. Creating experienced characters is pretty easy: start with a novice, then spend as many Advancements the GM lets you.

Unlike Cortex, you roll either your Stat or Skill dice. Heroes and major villains also get a 'wild' d6 to throw as well and can choose that result instead. The target number to beat is 4, or a derived stat of your target; each 4 points you roll over the TN is a Raise for additional effects. Dice can also 'ace' or explode on a max result and allow rolling additional dice. Fast and simple.

SW doesn't just use dice but also a deck of playing cards. These are used for initiative, in-between "interlude" scenes or just playing poker when the game slows down.

Savage Worlds also has a dramatic economy measured in Bennies. Spending a Benny allows you to re-roll a trait roll, or activate other effects.

SW focuses mostly on combat conflicts and strongly implies using miniatures and maps. However, I was surprised and delighted to discover a simple and effective social conflict mechanic hidden in the book. There's also the "Dramatic Task" system, as well as travel and mass battle systems.

I like the simple, streamlines aspect of Savage Worlds, plus that it's entirely open-ended for introducing your own Edges/Complications and Skills. I don't like that it's essentially a tabletop combat game with some roleplaying elements strewn in. Savage Worlds is clearly a game that tries to straddle the fence between combat-simulationism and storytelling.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cortex rules (Serenity and the BSG RPGs)

Cortex is the name for the core rules used in the Serenity and BattleStar Galactica RPGs, both products of Margaret Weiss productions (although sadly they no longer supported/licensed). I feel fortunate that I got copies of all three games while they were published. The core rule book is still available, however, both in print and digital form.

So a gamer friend asked of me: "What kind of gaming would I use Cortex for? I play D&D when I want high fantasy, I play Burning Wheel/Empires when I want heavy character pathos and worldbuilding/destroying. Do I use Cortex for combat-heavy games, or social-heavy games?"
And after thinking about it, I answered: Both, but mostly the former (combat and action).

Cortex is a polyhedral system: your character's abilities, skills and Traits are rated in a type of polyhedral die. When performing an action or testing a characters abilities, you roll the relevant dice from your Attribute and one from you Skill. You compare your roll versus another character's roll, or versus a TN set by the GM. Some rolls combine multiple attribute ratings, or you add the attribute values together to determine other thresholds. Cortex also has extended actions (for projects lasting more than a single roll), and a simple chase mechanic. If only it had a social conflict framework. There IS a sort of social meta-game in the generic version of the rules, but it's focuses on legal court battles, which isn't nearly as universal as one could want in a social conflict structure.

Cortex Skills have two tiers: general skills, and specializations within general skills. You can learn general Skills up to a d6 in rating, and beyond that you buy specializations (D8 or better).

Cortex characters also have Traits which are also rated as polyhedrals. Cortex shines in that these advantages can be added to your attribute + skill rolls when relevant, or add flat values to your derived stats. While the core rules have a wide variety of examples, Cortex easily allows for additional Traits to be added for your campaign. Traits can be Assets (which benefit you some way) or Complications (which have a negative cost, but complicate your character's life). The examples in the generic version of the rules have basic examples, but the Traits in the BSG and Serenity books are flavored like the settings they come from.

Cortex has a drama economy, measured in Plot Points. Plot Points can be spent to add dice to a roll, prevent damage, or affect the plot of the story. Plot Points are gained via strong roleplaying.

Combat has one twist that I find interesting. You have track 'stun' and 'lethal' damage separately, on reciprocal tracks against the same value. If you have, say 14 hit points, you're out of combat if you take 14 stun, or 14 lethal, or any combination of stun and lethal that exceeds your 14 total. This is less complicated than, say, the Storyteller damage tracking system, but you can get KO'd real fast in Cortex.

I like how Cortex treats vehicles just like characters: with attributes and skills/specializations and traits. They even have the dual 'stun' versus 'lethal' damage tracking system. 'Stun' to a vehicle meaning non-permanent but disruptive damage.