Posts tagged Savage Worlds

Thoughts on “Goblin Dice”


I recently read a fascinating blog entry at Ponderings on Games called Goblin Dice. He sums up the term pretty well:

D&D’s d20 is a prime example of what I’ve taken to calling a “goblin die”. You roll high, a goblin dies. You roll low, a goblin lives. No one doubts the eventual fate of the poor goblin. It doesn’t matter if it’s killed this round or the next. But it’s still fun to roll those dice, just as it is fun to fight the scrambling goblins. Hence, goblin dice: good for determining the fate of goblins. Not so good for determining the fate of heroes, or worlds. They are terrible for anything important.

The author goes on to point out that, because of this binary pass/fail mechanic, a number of problems with this ambiguity occur. This was even parodied here in the web comic DM of the Rings where whether or not Frodo managed to destroy the One Ring came down to a single d20 roll and the DM rolled…a 10. Well, did Frodo destroy the Ring or not?

Part of the problem when interpreted this way is that a d20 roll is often seen as a result on a continuum. A 1 is an absolute failure, a 20 is an absolute success, and everything else is in the middle. I suppose one thing that I like about “cinematic” systems like Savage Worlds and the good ol’ d6 System is that they avoid this problem by having open-ended die mechanics. You can’t judge your dice result of 1 to infinity as a continuum, so you compare the result to the target number and it’s pretty obvious by how close you were how much you succeeded or failed by. Roll 10 under, you definitely failed. Roll 1 under, you barely failed. Roll 20 over, you definitely succeeded and probably won a medal for it. Granted, this can still result in Goblin Dice if you’re not careful, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space avoids this problem by having different levels of success. Just hit the target number? You get a “Yes, but…” result, meaning you got what you wanted, but it didn’t work as well as you hoped. Get it by a moderate amount? You get a “Yes” result, meaning it happened just as you wanted. Get it by an extreme amount? You get “Yes, and…” meaning it turned out better than you’d hoped. The inverse happens with failure as well.

I encourage gamers to read the whole article at Ponderings on Games, it’s a really a good read. And feel free to share your thoughts, here or on the original article.

Gaming Tips from Lego The Lord of the Rings


Lego Lord of the Rings Cover ArtWhile at the public library I’m spending my AmeriCorps service year at, I ran into the Lego Lord of the Rings video game. I’d played the first two Lego Star Wars games with my brother years ago and, after getting a chance to play it for just a little bit, decided it was so much fun that I would get the game myself! I destroyed the Ring, got all the mithril bricks, rounded up all the characters, and proudly achieved 100% completion. I’d say it was well worth it!

But that doesn’t explain the offbeat title of this blog post. Can a video game like Lego Lord of the Rings really teach us tips about how to play roleplaying games? Absolutely!

Have Some Fun on a Serious Quest

The Lego series by TT Games is noted for their humorous spin on the movies they represent. Lego Lord of the Rings continues this tradition by throwing in some humor. Sure, part of it is to entertain little kids, but part of it is just to make the game more fun to play.

One of my favorite things is the running gag with Eowyn wanting to fight, but not being allowed to. For instance, when the Wargs attack, Eowyn excitedly pulls out a sword and…

Theoden: You must lead the people to Helm's Deep.

Theoden: You must lead the people to Helm’s Deep. And make haste!

Lego Eowyn Angry

Eowyn: Awww! [Throws down her sword]

Sound like any players you know? A battle comes up, but they don’t get to fight and they get mad.

There was also some outright absurdity. While Boromir is trying to steal the Ring from Frodo at Amon Hen, Frodo builds a catapult in order to fire off a stone and distract him. Eomer’s horsemen do kind of a synchronized dance as they circle around Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Lurtz keeps firing arrows at Boromir, but when he runs out and he’s still not dead, he switches to some unorthodox ammo like brooms, bananas, and chickens.

Lego Lurtz and Boromir

I say embrace it. Let these things be fun. Sure, the quest can be serious and the stakes be the fate of the world, but ultimately roleplaying games are about having fun. Sure you don’t have to actually let them fire off bananas, but at least let them entertain the idea!

And for added fun, throw in a Mithril Disco Phial!

Non-Combat Diversions are Good

There are some interesting diversions in Lego Lord of the Rings. For instance, the Pass of Caradhras involves causing avalanches in order to clear rocks that block the way. Freeing Theoden from Saruman’s hold requires building traps to catch Grima Wormtongue so he won’t disrupt Gandalf. Camping on Weathertop leads to finding firewood and gathering food so that the Hobbits can cook up something to eat. I’ve actually had some games where what they’re making for dinner (complete with a Cooking roll for the quality) is actually a really fun moment in the session. Let this happen and enjoy it!

Sometimes Not Fighting is Just as Interesting

The second level (after the Prologue level involving Isildur defeating Sauron) features the four Hobbits spending most of the level avoiding the Black Rider on their way to Brandybuck Ferry. This means tossing rocks at branches, stirring up bees, and even lighting a bridge on fire. I found this to be pretty interesting overall. This was an enemy that couldn’t be defeated, so clever methods had to be devised in order to avoid it.

I think we need more of that in roleplaying games. Sometimes I think we get stuck in the D&D mentality of kicking down the door and killing everything inside (while also expecting it to be level-appropriate enemies). But interesting scenarios can happen when you are up against even just one enemy that is way out of your league and you need to think of some creative means of avoiding it.

It’s Okay to Split the Party to Pursue Different Objectvies

After Amon Hen, there are two groups of characters traveling simultaneously: Frodo & Sam and Aragorn, Gimli, & Legolas. You can swap between the two at will and continue with their stories and sometimes this is necessary. Personally, I think that there is no problem at all with separating the party like this if they are working towards a common goal. Indeed, this is most obvious at the end where Aragorn leads an attack on the Black Gate solely for the purpose of aiding Frodo and Sam.

I plan to write about this more at some point in the future (perhaps more officially than in a blog), but I think it would be really interesting to have a campaign where your party splits and then occasionally you swap back and forth between two sets of characters each working towards their own goals. Splitting the party to pursue different objectives can be a very interesting way to have a campaign become a saga.

Large Parties are Lots of Fun!

I think one of my favorite parts of the game was right after Rivendell when you had a grand total of nine in your party. And Lego Lord of the Rings didn’t skimp on that, no you have eight people following the lead character around on the overworld! It was a lot of fun walking around Middle Earth and switching between characters to use their special abilities and grab the goodies scattered all around. And levels like the Mines of Moria were really epic having a group just as large working together to fight off Orcs.

I definitely like having large parties because it makes things seem more epic. Granted, you probably need a system that can support it. I’ve found that Savage Worlds scales pretty well with larger groups, especially if many of the extras are, well, Extras. Dungeons & Dragons is usually okay if you just add one or two (under the players’ control, it’s no fun if the DM is rolling the dice!) but can still be somewhat cumbersome. Still, if you can pull it off, it can make things much more interesting.


The final lesson is to allow for lots of exploration! Unlike previous Lego games where you have a central “hub” (such as the Mos Eisley Cantina), Lego Lord of the Rings takes place all over Middle Earth. You start in Hobbiton and throughout the course of the game you travel all the way to Mordor (of course, one does not simply walk into Mordor!). Getting from here to there over a perilous journey can be one of the more interesting parts of a roleplaying game. In fact it’s one thing that I think The One Ring does especially well (as described in my previous review).

So there you have it, several lessons in roleplaying games that a video game taught us. Isn’t that cool?

Lego Lord of the Rings Characters
And yes, I’m fully aware that the title is actually Lego The Lord of the Rings, but I think that the initial “the” sounds redundant and breaks the flow so I drop it.

Three Settings I’d Love to See


So we’ve all got our favorite settings. Frequent readers know that I’m particularly fond of Deadlands and Urban Arcana. But there is always room for more settings, so here’s three that I’d love to see, along with working titles:


Odysseyeus Blinds PolyphemusBasically, it’s the world of Homer’s The Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid as well as other legends like Jason and the Argonauts where mortals must survive perilous journeys. Along the way, they encounter life-threatening hazards, battle fearsome monsters, and deal with the whims of the gods. Rather than having a single hero as these stories, groups with a common goal set out on a ship to reach their destination, and have an incredibly difficult time getting there.

The benefit of this setting is that it’s set up perfectly for episodic game sessions. You arrive an an island of lotus eaters one week and fight Scylla the next. Given the frequent detours, long term planning isn’t necessary and so the GM can easily adjust the scenario given the events of the campaign.

Ancient Greek and Roman history hasn’t seen too much love in roleplaying games, which I find odd given that a number of recent movies have been made in this era and have been very successful (e.g. Troy, Gladiator, Clash of the Titans). The closest roleplaying game I know is Hellas, which presents a space-faring Ancient Greek society. It’s pretty cool to yell out “This! Is! Sparta!!!!” as you kick your enemy off your trireme starship, but I think I’d be more interested in something a little more traditional and less over the top.

Holy Land, Unholy War

The Crusades are a fascinating era in human history. It is true that there was a great deal of bloodshed and misuse of religion in order to gain political power, but it was also an era of heroes from both sides and some incredible moments in military history, as well as some truly surprising moments. There was the surprise upset of the First Crusade, the stupid decisions of the Second Crusade, the glorious military campaigns of the Third Crusade, and the complete bizarreness of the Fourth Crusade (the Platinum Warlock once told me he’d like to write a comedy musical on the Fourth Crusade. Yeah, it’s that bizarre!).

I imagine the best time period for a crusades setting would be the Third Crusade simply because it’s the one that is most recognizable (this is the one in which Richard the Lionheart and Saladin fought) and there were some really great military campaigns. The biggest hurdle in creating such as setting is that it’s not very politically correct to be Christian crusaders fighting Muslim warriors or vice versa, especially given recent conflicts in the Middle East. Personally, I think that the conflict between the two religions, and the often non-religious motivations of many leaders, is an important aspect of the setting, but I think it’s best to have a truly evil faction.

For that, I’d propose adding some fantastic elements to the campaign. Let’s imagine that both factions had splinter groups who were using some dark arts to try and sway their side of the war. It’d probably be the Knights Templar on the Christian side (although in reality they aren’t nearly as mysterious as they’ve been made out to be in fiction) and evl sorcerers reminiscent of Arabian Nights on the Muslim side. Clearly, both of these groups are not aligned with their religious ideals and, especially if they’re summoning creatures of darkness or creating plagues or something, they’d be a group that Christians and Muslims can unite against in order to unite against. Or if the GM wants to blur the lines, perhaps sometimes they might present situations where it’s not clear what the side of righteousness is.

Years ago, Pinnacle Entertainment Group announced that they were working on Weird War: Crusades to join their Weird War II and the upcoming Weird War: Rome. Although it’s on indefinite hiatus and details are scarce, it seems to be exactly the sort of setting that I’d love to see. I hope that Pinnacle does make it some day because I’d love to play it!

Yankee Camelot

Twain's drawing of Lancelot sweeping in upon his bicycle.

Mark Twain’s drawing of Lancelot sweeping in upon his bicycle.

When I take long drives, I like to listen to audio books and have grabbed several free ones from This past summer as I was moving to St. Paul, I listened to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and my mind was spinning with possibilities. For those who aren’t familiar, this is a novel about Hank Morgan, a modern man in the 1880s who suddenly finds himself in the medieval era of King Arthur. His knowledge of science, especially electricity and gunpowder, is mistaken for wizardry and he uses his influence and learning to transform that backwards time into a much more modern era.

As I was listening to that book, I was fascinated by the merging of two time periods. I think my favorite part was where Hank and King Arthur are rescued by Lancelot and other knights charging into battle on bicycles! Just that image sticks in my mind as something that makes me want to game in that setting!

I imagine that the setting would occur after Hank has been put into a delirious sleep and apparently returns to the modern era. There would be less emphasis on combat and more on social interaction and being able to effectively use and manage new technology in the medieval world. Player characters would be either other individuals who have arrived in the medieval era from the 1880s (or perhaps slightly before) or native medieval folk who were under the tutelage of Hank or one of his institutions (the novel for instance describes how a “West Point” had been founded as a military academy as well as a patent office: “the cornerstone of any civilized society.”) Antagonists would be those who are ignorant or fearful of the advances, especially the Catholic church as it was in the original novel, but I imagine a new faction could emerge who sees the power of inventions like Gatling guns and wishes to use it to overthrow the feudal structure.

All in all, this is a setting I would absolutely love to see. Perhaps someday I’ll actually write it!

The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing


When I play in a roleplaying game, sometimes I come across a bad GM. Sometimes, the GM is bad because they are inexperienced or there are circumstances out of their control. However, there are other times when GMs make mistakes that are, in essence, unforgivable. These mistakes ruin the game and make it no fun at all for a player. I’ve decided to label these “The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing.”

1. Unpreparedness

Not coming to the game ready to play. As a GM, you are the organizer, referee, storyteller, and entertainer. If you’re not prepared to do these jobs when you come to the table, then you and the group will suffer the consequences. Preparedness means something different to each GM (I for one feel like I’m completely prepared if I’ve got a detailed story in my head, while others feel that they must write everything down beforehand). This sin could encompass not bringing needed materials to a game (especially con games), as well as not reading the adventure beforehand, or even worse, not knowing the most basic rules to the system you’re running.

Personal Experience: I played in a con game, run by a member of an otherwise very well-respected gaming group, where the GM seemed to make up his own rules for Savage Worlds. Successful Fighting rolls directly deal damage? Enemies make Dodge Checks? The GM spends Bennies to make the players reroll? I’m convinced he looked at the rules for the first time just 15 minutes before the game.

2. Apathy

Not caring about the game you’re running. This is where the GM has little passion for the game and it shows. His or her excitement isn’t evident and the players have little reason to get excited either. In its most extreme form, the GM would rather do anything besides GMing. Generally this happens if they did not originally plan to GM or there was some incentive to running the game that was more important to them than the personal enjoyment of running the game.

Personal Experience: In my only game of Pathfinder ever, I walked in ready to play (I had heard that it fixed many of the issues in D&D 3.x and was eager to try it to see if it was the game for me). The game had loads of issues, but one of the worst was the GM who brought no enthusiasm to the game. He read the adventure text in a deadpan tone, didn’t bother to explain monster damage (he’d silently move figures, roll some dice, and then say “you take 9 damage”), and didn’t even try to allow for roleplaying. I found out at the end that the only reason he ran the game was to be part of Paizo’s GM rewards program. The game was so horrible for that reason (and many more) that I have never played a Pathfinder game since.

My personal experiences for Apathy and of Unpreparedness are both described further in GMs to Love, GMs to Hate.

3. Railroading

Dictating how the players should play the game. Most commonly, this is done by presenting a situation with a problem and only accepting a single solution, or otherwise failing to give them a choice on how to proceed. I should note that when I talk about it as one of the “seven deadly sins,” I’m talking about the more extreme examples. Sometimes it can be useful in a limited amount, such as in con games where you need to tell a story in a limited time period, but it’s best done if you at least give them other options (or use some techniques to give the illusion of choice). But when you’re running a whole game and dictating how the players should play every step of it, then you’ve gone too far.

Personal Experience: I haven’t experienced this one personally, but I have a friend who played in a game where the GM presented a murder mystery. There was one clue at each site with one way to find it and one interpretation of the clue and one place to go next. Interrogating subjects or trying alternate ways to catch the killer was vetoed, and there was nothing more to be done.

4. Lack of Focus

Not having the game at the center of your attention. This is when the GM is at the table, but their mind is not. They are being distracted by other things in the room, texting, or having personal issues in life that keep their mind off the game. It’s bad enough when a player is not paying attention to the game, it’s worse when the GM, the one coordinating the game, isn’t. Apathy could be the reason for this, although it doesn’t have to be.

Personal Experience: It seems that shortly before a con game of D&D 4e, the GM had some sort of relationship crisis with a girl he’d just received a phone call from. Apparently he didn’t have the willpower to force his issues out of his mind and, despite us telling him that he could cancel the game if he wasn’t up to it, he decided to go ahead and run with it. The GM’s mind clearly wasn’t on the game and there was one or two times when the game stalled because the GM didn’t keep the action moving. The game ended after one encounter of D&D 4e and the four hour game took a grand total of one and a half hours. Not the way I planned my con game to go.

5. Physical Neglect

The term “gamer funk” has been coined to describe the body odor that comes from a stereotypical gamer. This tends to be someone who is so geeky that they neglect personal hygiene and fails to shower or use deodorant. I also broaden the sin of Physical Neglect to include failure to get enough sleep and not eating right because those can have a detrimental effect on how to run the game.

Personal Experience: There was a GM who seemed unable to focus on the game and was somewhat…cranky. After about an hour and a half, his buddy stopped by and gave him a sandwich, which he ate voraciously. Afterwards, he did a lot better and was focused and entertaining. From what I could tell, he hadn’t eaten much at the convention and it was adversely affecting his ability to GM an enjoyable game.

6. Playing Favorites

Favoring one character over another. As a storyteller, there is a temptation to want to make certain characters be the heroes of the story, rather than having six or so characters equally be the heroes. Unfortunately, this results in players not having as much fun, as they are no longer the stars of the adventure. This comes in two flavors: Mary Sue characters where they are an NPC favored over the player charcters, or the Dungeonmaster’s Girlfriend where a certain player is favored over others.

Personal Experience: The worst time I’ve come across this is in the Deadlands Classic adventure Fortress o’ Fear, which is a below average ending to the otherwise phenomenal Heart o’ Darkness trilogy. The adventure is based around Jackie “Mary Sue” Wells, time traveler from the future who has a gun that is powerful enough to kill even Stone. Most of the scenario revolves around her bossing around the posse, then saving the day time and again by being so awesome she can’t be killed and doesn’t need to roll dice. This was perhaps the biggest reason why the adventure failed (although the backstory to the creatures in Devil’s Tower was just as bad). Completely excising her does make the adventure playable though.

7. Absence

Simply not showing up. Obviously, there are understandable circumstances for GM absence, such as personal illness and family emergency and if these are properly communicated, are fully forgiveable. But if the GM fails to show up with no explanation, then I say that they’re committing the worst sin of these seven. I would also include in this category canceling a game on short notice for a non-emergency reason. It’s fine to cancel for non-emergency reasons with enough planning so long as it doesn’t happen too often, but telling us you’re going to be absent mere hours before the next game isn’t.

Personal Experience: One thing I occasionally encountered in college was a GM canceling a game two hours before because they “have too much homework.” This always irked me because 9 times out of 10 the problem could have been avoided with proper planning. Generally I had done my homework ahead of time knowing full well that I’d be busy that evening, and so to suddenly have something I was looking forward to canceled because the GM failed to do the same left a bad taste in my mouth.

An Eighth Sin?

Interestingly, the Orthodox Church recognizes Eight Deadly Sins rather than the Seven that the Catholic Church recognizes (they add Despair). Is there an Eighth Deadly Sin that you think should be added to this list?

Savage Worlds Deluxe

Interesting Rules I’ve Learned About Savage Worlds


Savage Worlds DeluxeWhile working on Wild Card Creator, I’ve gotten to know the Savage Worlds rules much better than I ever had before. Having looked at the text for Edges, Hindrance, Races, and Powers, as well as the rules themselves in great detail has resulted in me getting a very detailed understanding of how the system works.

In fact, there have been a few times that looking at the rules in such detail has resulted in me asking some pretty interesting questions about the rules. Sometimes I can figure it out myself by reading the text more carefully, but sometimes the book just doesn’t say. One of the great things about Pinnacle is that Clint, one of their staffers, has a section on the Pinnacle forums where you can ask him a rules question about Savage Worlds and get an answer back from him, usually in about a day. Between all that, I’ve made some pretty interesting discoveries:

When Edges and Hindrances Collide

  • There is nothing preventing you from taking the Rich Edge and Poverty Hindrance at the same time. Although it seems contradictory at first, it actually works out. The Rich Edge triples your starting funds and the Poverty Edge halves your starting funds, so you start with 1.5x the starting funds. The Rich Edge gives you a yearly salary and the Poverty Hindrance makes you lose half your total funds every week. So you’ve got a spoiled brat who blows his money every time his parents give him some, which may be an interesting character.
  • The Fleet-Footed Edge says the character’s normal d6 running die becomes a d10. The Lame Hindrance says the character’s normal d6 running die becomes a d4. What happens if you have both? The official answer is that you turn them into die steps (i.e. Fleet-Footed gives you +2 die steps, Lame gives you –1 die step). My group already played this way anyway, but at least it’s official (and the way Wild Card Creator handles it).

Putting the Arcane in Arcane Background

  • The Power Surge Edge requires the character to have “arcane skill d10+”. Even though Arcane Background (Super Powers) and Deadlands‘ Arcane Background (Chi Mastery) don’t have a typical Arcane Skill, having any of their “power skills” at d10 qualifies for this.
  • You can have an Arcane Skill without having the corresponding Arcane Background. This is most obvious in Hell on Earth Reloaded and Deadlands Noir where they actually require you to have a d6 in your Arcane Skill before you can take the Arcane Background. This is actually specifically noted in the Deadlands Noir adventure “The Old Absinthe Blues” where they encourage them to make use of a character that has the Arcane Skill, but not the Arcane Background by having them use Cooperative Rolls to help out other spellcasters. And if you have the Weird Science skill, you can use it to operate a gadget that was made by someone with Arcane Background (Weird Science).

Game Rules You Didn’t Know About

  • There are actually rules for covering yourself over a grenade. Basically, the person takes double damage, but everybody else in the blast template takes damage minus the Toughness of the person who covered the grenade.
  • You can Crouch to make ranged attacks against you suffer a –1 penalty, in exchange for only moving half your Pace each round. It’s the only system I know of that makes use of this, despite the fact that any good soldier knows to do this.
  • You can dive for cover to avoid an Area of Effect weapon (like a grenade or the Blast power), which moves you to the edge of the blast template.

I’ve also discovered a bunch of inconsistencies that I’m having to deal with. For instance, some gear tables have Weight before Cost and others have Cost before Weight. Overall though, I’ve come to appreciate the Savage Worlds rules a bit more because of my work on it with Wild Card Creator.

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