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A Few Words on Social Combat and the Like

In the midst of unapologetically ragging on Savage Worlds, I noted that one of the drawbacks of the system, in my mind, was the lack of Social Interaction rules in any significant form.  It was only later that I realized that I was likely speaking some form of Greek to the average role-player.

It’s been my experience in most games that the first section that needs to be scrutinized in the system is the way that Combat is conducted.  The flow of conflict is an important aspect of any game, as it determines how much time and effort needs to be devoted to resolving an encounter.  If the system is filled with charts and derived numbers, the combat might be extremely detailed and realistic, but it’s going to take the better part of the night to deal with a single fight between reasonable sized groups.  If the game is slanted towards tactics, there’s going to be a need to have map grids and miniatures to better visualize everything, else it’s all going to go awry.  And if everything is pushed in a more story-driven direction, combat is likely going to focus on abstract narrative elements, leaving the damage tables and the grid maps completely out of the mix.

The amount of options a given system has for combat also factor into how the game is supposed to be run.  A game like Savage Worlds tends towards fast and loose arbitration, where the player characters are generally expected to be able to win any given encounter without a great deal of worry.  Exalted offers a rather detailed combat system, but it allows a fair amount of narrative freedom, which lets the godlike characters slide through harder encounters if they have a stylish reason to be able to pull off the maneuvers well enough.  On the other end of the scale, you find yourself in systems like Call of Cthulhu, where the characters aren’t optimized for combat and the scale of the enemies simply dwarfs their capabilities.  The emphasis in games like this shifts toward being able to think your way through a situation, rather than rush blindly into a fight.  And given the source material, it only makes sense.

So how does the Social angle of things work into this?

A little bit of personal history, if you would.  Much of my narrative GM’ing style comes from the games of the early to mid-90’s, when the miniatures-oriented game design of the early years started to be expanded.  Whereas many of the early games were derived from miniatures combat (and therefore tended to be combat driven), the games of this era started working toward the idea that non-combat characters could have roles within the context of battle, even if they weren’t worth a damn swinging a sword or firing a gun.

For me, the eye-opener was Torg, where non-combat actions were rolled into combat through the use of the Drama Cards.  If a character were to stand on the sidelines and taunt the villain, the distraction of their commentary had a concrete effect on the villain, making it easier for the other characters to be able to defeat him.  This showed up in subsequent games, here and there, to the point that it started a sort of sub-system in some RPG’s, where there were additional rules for ‘Social Combat’ in other areas of the game.

The other notable aspect of Torg was that, because these rules were in place, a combat-focused character was still able to be defeated by other means.  Even if they’d maxed out the requisite stats in a way that made it impossible for regular mooks to do real damage or even hit the character, they were still vulnerable to Mental and Social attacks that could incapacitate them.  The best example of this ended up being the ridiculously powerful Tharkoldu Cyber Demons, who combined the unbalancing effects of cyberware with … well, being demons.  They had extremely high physical stats, armor and spiritual powers.  What they didn’t have was any way to cope with being taunted, to the point that a character with sufficient skill and luck could theoretically put them down for good with a well timed and deeply personal verbal assault.

Up to this point, a character was either built to be worth a damn in battle or built to be useful in the library.  To have both was generally unthinkable and / or the realm of pure munchkinry.  With Torg (and many of its descendants), it was possible to have a bookish character that could hold their own through their smarts or a social character that could use their persuasion in a wider venue of circumstances.

Exalted took this entire theory to its logical conclusion, putting together a system that paralleled physical combat by codifying social maneuvers in a similar manner.  Where a duel between master swordsmen would entail a certain amount of circling and testing for weakness before striking at a vulnerable point, the Social Combat rules tried to put these same sorts of actions into play within the realm of conversation.

The problem was that it didn’t quite work, as written.  Over the years, I’ve made a point of testing social builds in the various RPG’s that allow it, and while Exalted made a fine go of it, there were very specific problems.  For one thing, it tended to abstract the flow of conversation to the point that actually using the rules while role-playing required the player and GM to pause in the midst of witty repartee and roll dice.  In that way, it felt like the only real way that the Social Combat could be used would be in a completely abstracted way (“I’m going to verbally attack him, using my Investigate Skill to probe for weakness.”  –  “Roll your Manipulation and Investigate.  If you get three or more successes, you’ve discovered his love for horse racing.”), and this idea struck directly against the more narrative aspects of Exalted, with its Stunt System.  While it was an interesting idea overall, it honestly felt like there needed to be another pass of playtesting before releasing it into the wild.  And considering that there’s a whole tree of Lunar Social Charms that take advantage of these rules, the unfinished nature allows the system to break entirely, handing a stupid amount of power over to competently built characters played by people who know what they’re doing.

Finally, there’s Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, which tries its damnedest to replicate the intrigues of the books in its Social Combat system.  While I love Exalted in unnatural ways, I have to note that this is a system that has managed to do it correctly.  The intrigues in ASOIAF are both simply designed and effective, as they can cause characters to act against their own best interests because they were seduced into a course of action by a skilled master of deception.  The system has layers of complexity as needed, but compared to the vaguely disruptive ways in which Exalted handled it, it makes a lot more sense.

To my perspective, this is the way modern games are structured.  When combat was all that mattered, that was the only focus that skills and attributes got.  Over time, however, game design came to reflect the subtler nuances of the gamer palate, where talking to ones adversaries became less of an outlier and more of a commonplace act.  Yeah, combat is still the core of any system, as there needs to be a mechanic of some sort to resolve conflict, be it physical or otherwise, and this often serves as the skill resolution system as well.

As such, the throwback nature of Savage Worlds continues to mystify me, as it presents itself as a modern game for the current generation of gamers, even while it ignores the innovations that have come about since the early days of gaming.  It’s only made worse by the fact that Deadlands itself had built in enough variance that a Social character could easily hold his own in combat in that system.  And that aspect of the game design was completely lost when the new system took hold, meaning that it had to have been a conscious decision.

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Two Thousand Words on Why I Hate an Otherwise Popular Game

Let’s start this whole thing off with an embarrassing and personal admission on my part.  When I sat down to write out this review, I’d had in mind to pull a book off my shelf and work through my opinion piece by piece, laying out my general opposition to the product as I went.  No big deal; I already owned the book I was going to review, so it would be a fairly simple matter of just going back to the library and finding it.

That is, until I sorta got lost.  You see, my library is laid out in a very specific manner, so I can readily visualize each shelf as it is organized and mentally find the book before I have to physically loo for it.  This has worked well for me, to the point that my personal coterie could generally do the same.  In their own odd way, they’ve memorized the layout with much the same precision as I have, since they’ve taken the time to peruse its stacks over the years.

So, when I went to snag the book in question, I was utterly mystified when I couldn’t immediately find it.  The main reason was because I’m running on a spectacular amount of sleep dep at the moment (also why I haven’t had the time to reply to the various blog commentary; I’m not ignoring anyone, but it has been an extremely busy week on my end of things), and my confusion caused my brain to slip a cog for a couple of minutes.  The secondary reason is that I’d put it on a shelf of fairly low import, where games that I’m not likely to run, ever, tend to get put.

The specific book is Pirates of the Spanish Main, the Savage Worlds conversion of the WizKids Constructable Minis game.  I picked this one because, in a lot of ways, it’s the prettiest and most generally accessible of all of the Savage Worlds game books.  I own a half-dozen Savage Worlds books, most of them bought in the hopes of learning to love a system I would end up generally hating.  I’d like to think that it was a noble endeavor on my part, but an ultimately failed one, no matter how you look at it.

The other reason that I picked Pirates is that I’m less likely to compare it to any other product.  The Deadlands book, while pretty, would have immediately earned my wrath as an unnecessary conversion.  Solomon Kane would have spun me into a tangent on the far superior Witch Hunter game by Paradigm.  And Necessary Evil would have put me in mind of better super hero games, which I’ve already covered.  At worst, Pirates would make me think of 7th Sea, which is so far removed with its innate complexity and source material that there’s really no comparison to be made.

On the surface, there’s nothing to complain about.  The production values for the game are top notch, having gone all out to create an extremely pretty book with excellent layout and illustrations.  The pages are meant to evoke an old treasure map, and they do so with the idea of readability firmly in mind.  The simple truth is that, were this a system that I liked, the quality and subject matter of the book would make it one of my favorites.

And that’s where it all starts to fall apart.

The original idea of the game was to be a simplified version of the Deadlands Classic rules, merged with the rules that governed the Great Rail Wars miniatures game.  From what I’m given to understand, this was the general intent of the rules in the first place, allowing the tactical combat nature to integrate with a much quicker and simpler system of rolling.  This is all fine and good, but the end result is that we’re left with a generic miniatures game, with some vague sop towards role-playing tacked on the end of things.

The section on Skills and Attributes offers the first indication of a problem, when the system is so heavily weighted towards combat that it seems to overbalance the mechanics to begin with.  There are five Attributes for the game, with a scattering of Derived Attributes to round it out.  The main Attributes are Agility, Strength, Vigor, Smarts and Spirit.  We can already see that three of the five are physical, and a quick glance at the rules shows us that Spirit is meant to serve as both the Willpower and Social attribute.  We’re already off-balance here, and this is before noting that there are nine skills associated with Agility and eleven with Smarts.  This takes up a full 20 of the 24 skills, with the remaining split between Spirit (three skills) and Strength (one skill).

So, already we’re left with the understanding that the only important Attributes are Agility and Smarts.  And Smarts is only going to come into play with characters that aren’t obviously going to be in combat regularly.  (In reality, Agility is the only real Attribute of note, and as we’ll see, the Attribute itself isn’t important in the slightest.)

The Attributes and Skills are rated as single die types, with the least as a d4, moving up through D12 at the high end.  The die type of the Attribute has zero bearing on the skill that it governs, other than determining whether or not it costs more to increase the skill (in the case that the skill exceeds the governing attribute).  This is a system where an extremely fluid character (Agility of D12) goes to pick up a sword to defend himself.  If he doesn’t have the skill, he’s reduced to rolling a d4 with a -2 penalty to his roll.  This is, for whatever it’s worth, the exact same die type that’s offered to the clumsiest pirate on the ship with an Agility of D4.

From this, there’s also the Wild Card mechanic.  This refers to the idea that Player Characters are a step above the madding crowd, with special powers and a universe that favors them specifically.  Nothing wrong with that idea inherently, but the execution is a little weird.

Savage Worlds is ostensibly derived from Deadlands, at its core.  With Deadlands, your Attributes were set out as die types, much like this.  Then your skill base was however many of those dice you rolled, to then take the highest result as your skill check.  Fairly logical and straightforward, I felt.

With Savage Worlds, your skill is still a specific die type, but you only roll one.  All right.  And being a Wild Card, you then roll a D6 as a Wild Die, no matter if you’re rolling a D4 or a D12 as your skill.

I literally have no idea why.  It seems arbitrary on one hand, and somewhat nonsensical on the other.  With a spread of five die types (D4, D6, D8, D10 and D12), it would logically make sense to pull a D8 out of the spread, as it’s in the direct middle of things, and use that as a Wild Die.  Or it would make sense to use a second die of the same type as the skill you’re rolling.  But using a D6 is just sorta weird.  The best idea I’ve come up with is that everyone has an extra D6 laying around, but new players may only be sitting at the table with a set of the standard seven Chessex dice, unable or unwilling to borrow someone else’s dice for the roll.  Seriously, that’s all I’ve got.

There are some varying attempts to change or ‘fix’ the rolling system of Savage Worlds, given the weird way the dice spread on given difficulties, but this lies somewhere well beyond my ability to care.  No one seems to be happy with the way the dice fall if they’ve looked too closely at the system.

Then there’s the problem of anything that’s not based on Smarts or Agility.  As I’ve noted, Social interaction is severely limited, to the point of seeming like it’s an afterthought.  There is a Charisma Attribute, but it’s more or less Feat-based and mainly exists to alter Persuasion rolls.  There’s also a Fame mechanic that goes into this.  I see what the system was intending to do, but a lot of this strikes me as a weird throwback into early D&D rather than a modern game that has other examples to work from.

Speaking of weird throwback mechanics…  Movement is specifically referred to in Inches, as in how far you’re able to move on a miniatures grid.  Combined with careful Encumbrance rules, these rules have managed to scrub many of the innovations of the last 30 years, putting us firmly back into 10×10 rooms and reams of graph paper.  Sure, this is essentially a miniatures game with Role-Playing elements grafted onto them, but so was the original White Box edition that grew out of Chainmail.

Finally, there’s the Feat system, herein referred to as Edges.  I can bitch all I want about all of the previous aspects of the game, but this section was where I came to understand what a strangely unbalanced system this was.

Most gaming systems have a focus on specific skills that are important to the character over the course of his career.  Level based systems like Pathfinder separate this between level-based abilities and a spread of skill points that can be allocated.  Skill-based systems (most everything else) offer different directions to accomplish specific things.  At the first glance, it seems like Savage Worlds is heading toward that as well.

The problem is that the Edges take up something like four times as much space in the rule book as the skills.  Edges define the character and offer a variety of special benefits, depending on what sort of build the player is looking to create.  And if the character has the specific spread of skills they’re after at the point of Character Creation, most of the earned Experience Points are going to go directly into Edges.

When I was playing Savage Worlds, I found that I spent no points on improving anything, since I’d taken a fairly high Fighting skill, and my character was free to just throw his efforts into increasingly unbalancing feats that kept my edge in combat unparalleled.  It quickly became ludicrous, and my character made a point to never get any better at anything that he did, skill wise.  The same was true for the rest of my crew, as they were free to specialize in whatever builds they saw fit, since I’d made combat a moot point for the most part.  (Suffice to say, Dirty Fighting was more than enough for my build, given my background in knowing how to use Stunts in Exalted.)

The reality is that I really wanted to like Savage Worlds.  I loved the entirety of the Deadlands line (with the only real exceptions being the Lost Colony card game and the various novels), and I tried my damnedest to give this system every chance I could.

But the reality is that it just sucks.  In Deadlands, you could build a virtually crippled character with no physical abilities and flaws to back that up, and they’d be a playable character through Mental or Social means.  In fact, they could be the most powerful character in the party, based on the build itself.  The system for dice was quick and elegant, and the systems for Initiative and Experience were innovative.

Savage Worlds, in comparison, is a clunky system that presents itself as Fast and Fun, trying to graft Cinematic Action with Tactical Miniatures.  And the end result is that it does neither one very well.  The dice mechanic is generally bad, compared with modern systems and their elegance, and the skills system is something of a joke, overall.  I appreciate that a lot of people love the system and the worlds, leaving me as something of an outlier.

What’s interesting to me is that, while researching public opinion on Savage Worlds, I found that most people assumed a dislike was due to inexperience with this system or others.  For my part, I’ve got the opposite problem.  I’ve played enough games to know when one is inferior.