Story-Gamesifying Savage Worlds

edited January 2009 in Game Design Help
There's a gaming group I sometimes play with, and they tend toward traditional games. Currently the game is a Deadlands/Weird West campaign using Savage Worlds. In general, the play preference is for traditional games. I ran a Burning Wheel campaign, and, while there are a couple players who enjoyed it, it's a large group, and most of them didn't dig it all that much.

A few of the players, including both GMs, have expressed a desire to use some story game / narrative-style mechanics, to keep the game from being nothing but combat encounters.

I played a campaign with this group some time ago using Clinton Nixon's Sweet20 rules (essentially adding Shadow of Yesterday's Keys to D&D), which met with mixed success. But the GMs are interested on some kind of explicit "flag" mechanic, and Savage Worlds is simple enough that it seems like something could be worked out. The Sweet20 D&D hack doesn't quite fit, but I'd like to try something similar.

For anyone not familiar, advancement in Savage Worlds is simple (and not particularly elegant). For each session, every players gets 1-3 experience points. When you collect 5, you get to pick one new thing, like an extra Edge, or a skill or attribute increase. Experience is awarded entirely by GM fiat; the book suggests giving out XP based on how successful the group was or how important the mission was. XP is tied in no way to character motives or actions.

Experience points are actually not all that significant in the rules. More significant are "bennies", which work as free re-rolls and so on during play and can't be carried from session to session. Again, they are awarded by GM fiat; the rules suggest giving at least 2 per player per session, usually when someone roleplays well, or does something humorous, significant or dramatic.

This seems like it could accept some sort of flag mechanic pretty easily, but such a mechanic would need to incorporate both experience points and bennies. I was thinking of letting each player choose two Keys (or something like Keys) for his character. But I'm not sure how to incorporate both advancement mechanisms.

Any ideas would be appreciated.

PS - No need to point out that hacking traditional games to make them more like story games is not nearly as useful and time-effective as just playing story games to begin with. I agree, but this group enjoys Savage Worlds and plans to stay with it.


  • I got a more important question for you - do you need mechanics to keep the game from being just combat encounters?

    I mean, I don't really think you do.

  • Can you describe the "mixed success" more?

    Maybe, instead of bringing in Keys, try to stay true to the SW rules, but then focus on Conflicts of Interests and avoid task resolution. Have you tried the "Say yes or roll the dice" rule from Dogs? Do you normally ask players "what is your character's intent" or "what is your character's goal?"

    Have you tried those approaches before?
  • Good questions. Something I don't think I made clear in my original post: I am not the GM for this game.

    Re: Mixed success with Sweet20

    I've played using these rules a few times. They work okay, but I think D&D (especially in its current incarnation) is so carefully designed to support a specific style of play that adding new mechanics feels clunky. In my experience with Keys and D&D, its chief benefit is to provide some explicit flags for a DM who's already committed to bring story elements into play, but it doesn't really help drive play in a meaningful way. (Not to knock Clinton's idea .. D&D is what it is, you know?)

    Given that Savage Worlds is much more open and loose in terms of rules, I feel like there is room to stick in a whole new mechanic there without it feeling out-of-place. That is to say, I think a similar rules hack would work better with SW than D&D.

    And, yes, we could simply make a more concerted effort to play a narrativist style SW game. But with this particular group (which is large, 7-8 people, and composed of many old-school and infrequent gamers), I think a game mechanic will be more effective. Specifically, I like how Keys work, since they force people to define their character's goals, and give the GM space to create meaningful villains and conflicts.
  • FWIW, I've toyed with the notion of adding Aspects to SW and awarding Bennies when they're played as Hindrances, then letting Bennies trigger Aspects for certain benefits, like Aspect-related stunts.
  • Hm! Here's another, more important question: What's missing in your play that you're trying to add? Answer in terms of what happens in the game's fiction (We see the characters pursuing their own goals, we see the characters learning about the world around them, we see the characters caring about the world around them, etc), not in terms of game mechanics or what the players do.

  • I've run 2 Savage Worlds campaigns and a bunch of mini-campaigns of it (1-3 adventures). It seemed to work fine as an intermediary game, and all I really had to do was:

    1) Allow all players (not just GM) to award bennies. No one ever seemed to abuse this.
    2) Give far more bennies as a kind of "fan mail": Someone does something cool, dramatic, or in-line with their character, then they get a bennie.

    Problem with 2 is that you may find that the players are simply getting too many bennies, and levelling up too fast. If that's a concern, in conjunction with 1+2 add a rule requiring all advancement to take double the normal amount of bennies.

  • There are alt rules for adding aspects to SW. They were in the Savage Worlds fanzine, Sharkbytes. The article can be found in this issue:
    Specifically page 10.

    Andy, #2 is pretty much what the rules says to do re: giving out bennies. It sounds like you're just being more liberal with your benny giving. BTW, in the SW Explorer's Edition, Bennies can no longer be converted to XP.
  • I haven't played Savage Worlds. I know a teeny bit about it.

    What's the payoff for the game? You do cool stuff, and then what happens? What's the reward? Is it D&Dish in that you earn XP and use those to develop your character into a stronger, meaner version? If so, story-gamesifying this game will be tricky for long-term play.

    For short term play, yeah, just ignore combat, set stakes for the combats that you do have, and focus on a different payoff. You can do Vanilla Narr play that way.

    For long term play, it's harder. You'll find that, as much as you all try to focus on the premise stuff, the combat and character-building keeps getting in your face. Why? Well, because you haven't removed the strong reward mechanism already in the game. Players like building up characters. Once the character levels up, the player wants to try out the new stuff. That drives play down a certain road. One solution: Don't advance characters at all. Make up strong characters to start with, and just ignore the usual reward system. Graft in a Narr reward system, like keys or kickers.
  • Adam,

    You gain xp, though not necessarily for combat, you spend that xp to gain new abilities and over time increase in power.

    So yes, storygaming that would be tricky.

    That said, the OP doesn't really seem to require that, they just want it to not be all about combat. Most non-storygames (just like most storygames) aren't all about combat, so the problem and the solution seem only tangentially related if that.

    Shreyas I think asked the right question (I'm moving on from Adam's query here), why do you need mechanics to make the game about stuff other than combat? Most of the games I play don't have storygame style stuff in them, but they're not about combat, those two factors aren't particularly related (and some storygames are about combat, I think narrativist is being used here in some odd general sense rather than in the Forge-specific sense many of you may be reading it as).
  • Posted By: BWABut with this particular group (which is large, 7-8 people, and composed of many old-school and infrequent gamers), I think a game mechanic will be more effective. Specifically, I like how Keys work, since they force people to define their character's goals, and give the GM space to create meaningful villains and conflicts.
    Ah, I missed this, you probably were using narrativist correctly then, sorry for suggesting otherwise.

    Hm, 7-8 players? I could totally run a SW game as written which was heavy on character interaction, rp and maybe some investigation and have no problems at all, with say two to four players.

    But 7-8? Hell, that's going to be about the combat. SW is good at fast moving large combats, and that's a large group. I think your problem may be the group, it's size and composition, and not so much your choice of game engine. Do the old school and infrequent guys even want character goals beyond "those are the bad guys, gettem!"?
  • I like the idea of letting anyone hand out bennies, not just the GM. That doesn't really change anything in the rules, and it increases a sense of player authority. And leveling up isn't that big of a deal in SW anyway, so that's not a concern.

    I like the idea of using aspects. That's just the sort of thing I was after. I will check that article out (once I am no longer at work, that is). I've never actually run a game with aspects, although I have a copy of SotC.
  • To elaborate on the "problem" ... its not that the game is unfun. By all accounts, everyone seems to enjoy it. But a few of the more engaged players would like to see a different kind of game, one where the focus is more on character and story and less on moving from fight scene to fight scene. Like I said, I am not the GM for this game, nor am I playing this particular game often (although I know the group pretty well).

    I agree that the group is overly large. But this is a case of social obligations trumping gameplay considerations.

    This isn't a situation where SOME players want a combat-based game and SOME want a story-based game, and there is disagreement. It's more that some want a story-based game, and the rest just show up and roll the bones. That is to say, not everyone has expressed a preference, but those who have feel that the game might be more fun and engaging if it was more character-driven. (And those players are precisely the ones with a high level of ownership/responsibility for the group).

    And, yes, I may have used terminology incorrectly. I tried to avoid using the word "narrativist" for that very reason, but I think I failed. -2d to my next "theory discussion" roll.
  • So, you keep saying you have a problem, but you keep giving it the wrong name! I am here to solve your problem.

    It's more that some want a story-based game, and the rest just show up and roll the bones.


    Take this particular, highly invested subset, and play a game that SPECIFICALLY caters to what they want; don't include the other people, because they don't care anyway and they're just getting in the way of the other group's trying new stuff.

    You don't have to STOP playing with the larger group, but you aren't going to find any one thing that makes both groups optimally happy.

    That said, I'd tell you to dump them anyway. Who wants to play with halfway-there players?

    Wait, let me say that in bold. Dump them. Your fun will be the better for it.

  • I understand why you suggest that, but it isn't a solution.

    Yes, we have a small group of players who want a certain sort of game, subsumed in a larger group, who mostly want to get together every week or so, roll dice, drink beers and eat pretzels. (Incompatible creative agendas, one might say, if one were willing to risk incorrect usage of theory terminology).

    But this is a group of mostly married people with kids and jobs. No one has the time to be involved in two gaming groups, and no one is willing to "dump" anyone. Yes, the game might be more fun with fewer people, but optimizing fun is not worth the social damage that kicking people out of a friendly gaming group would inflict.

    Which is why I am trying to come up with something that will improve the fun for the more focused RPGers, while preserving most of what the less-focused ones enjoy.

    I don't think it's fair or accurate to say that the other players "don't care anyway". They do care; they enjoy the game as a social experience, which is what RPGs are supposed to be in the first place.
  • edited January 2009
    Here is an easy way to storify any traditional system. When a player succeeds in a roll, the gm says how the character suceeds. When the player fails a roll, the player describes how the character failed.

    (My favorite rule from Trollbabe.)
  • I have done essentially what Andy described using Bennies as fan mail. It seemed to work fine. I believe they nixed the convert unused Bennies into XP in the most recent edition of the game. That was the only off balance part I saw.

  • Ryan, thanks for the link to Sharkbytes. I have downloaded and read it, and I think I'll bring it to the game on Wednesday night and see if everyone is on board.

    I'm also going to pitch the ideas of player-awarded bennies.

    We'll see if anything sticks / works.
  • Posted By: BWARyan, thanks for the link to Sharkbytes.
    Glad to help. I'm kind of a Sharkbytes pusher. I'd really like to know how that works for you. I've wanted to do it several times, but haven't yet.
  • Posted By: John PowellHere is an easy way to storify any traditional system. When a player succeeds in a roll, the gm says how the character suceeds.When the player fails a roll, the player describes how the character failed.

    Corollary: When a player fails a roll and describes how the character failed, he or she doesn't have to actually fail. Instead, consider someone else succeeding more.

    You: I want to find the plans to the Death Star in the central computer.
    GM: How do you do that?
    You: I connect my braintrodes to my R2 unit, who plugs into the computer and translates for me. I'm an expert in computer security.
    GM: Roll dice. Difficulty 25.
    You: Drats. A 20!
    GM: You fail.
    You: I do not. I hack into the computers successfully! However, the Empire is one step ahead of me. "They have moved the plans to... a protocol droid in a secure sector. We'll have to do this on foot!"
  • I reviewed the Sharkbytes Aspect hack for SW: Qualities. At first read, it looks like a neatly done port of FATE's Aspects, clear and elegant. Makes me want to plug them in and gin up a Slipstream campaign.
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