Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chipped-in Wage-Slaves

Over at Pair o' Dice, they mentioned the concept of chipped workers in Shadowrun (and the same could be done in Cyberpunk), people who are slaves to the company they work for. A company that never had to train them, they just plugged in a skill chip that guides the worker's hands. Scary, creepy, sci-fi fun. And it's only a few years off.

Talking about it, Scott at Pair o' Dice wrote:
Wageslavery as a Backdrop to the Action

I am not suggesting players take on wage slave characters (although some runners have backgrounds as an ex-wage slave or corporate drone), that would probably be a terribly dull game.

But I gotta say, that actually gave me two really cool campaign ideas that aren't dull at all:

  1. A game where the PCs are wage slaves, and some sort of mix-up happens. One day, they show up for work, and their "Assembly Line Efficiency & Company Loyalty" chip has been replaced with a "Urbo-Anarchist Badassery" chip. Or just a Martial Arts chip. You're playing ordinary people who suddenly have a single maxed out skill, which was no doubt slipped to them by someone for some reason. Cue the clues, interspersed with Matrixy fight-scenes. You have to break out of work, with company property still in your head, and the pursue the mystery.
  2. A game where you don't play the meatbag, you play the AI. I'm a super-spy that only exists as a skill chip. Plug me into a person, and I immediately over-ride their personality as well as tacking on a couple of very important skills. If things go south and I need to lay low, I just convince someone else to try this awesome skill chip instead. You'd play the same character, but have new character sheets and background every time you swapped your plugging. There's some logistics to work out about the couple seconds between unplugging from your current body and getting plugged in to the other, but I'm confident it could be explained in a way that would at least diminish the risks and plot holes. If the persona lingers for a few minutes after the chip is pulled out, for example, or if the last thing you do before unplugging is auto-hypnosis. Every NPC you meet that has a visible chip socket becomes a potential bodysnatching.
Anyhow, the blog post over at Pair o' Dice is pretty cool. Check it out

Tekeli-Li: fun, but muddled and sloppy

A couple weekends ago I played a card game called Tekeli-Li. It's a Cthulhu-themed card game. Or, at least, it's trying to be. And that's the problem for me, it's the Cthulhu theme, but applied really lightly, and without much skill. Had it been the same mechanics with no theme at all, I may have been happier. Had the scoring mechanics been less clunky, or had anything to do with what the cards represented, I'd have been a lot happier. As it was, it was fun, but it left scratching my head.

It's a trick-taking game, which means you already know roughly what the play style is like. I'll start with a brief analysis of the remaining mechanics. Most of the cards are worth zero points. A handful, however, are negative points. They range from (IIRC) -10 to -240. So you don't want to take any tricks. There's a few cards that do weird things, like cancel each other out, or make you round differently.

Oh right, rounding: at the end of each hand, you divide the negative points you took by 100, and round towards zero. You then get a number of tokens equal to the absolute value of that number. Tokens are bad, the winner is the person with the fewest tokens after a certain number of hands.

Why negative scoring? Why then take absolute value? Why divide by 100? Why have inconsistent rounding? They could have just printed the cards with 1/10th the value, and it would have affected nothing, but that's at least a mistake common to many games. The negative value is, I think, so that it feels like sanity in Call of Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian games - except you wouldn't then expect to start from 0 sanity, would you? And then this whole rounding thing - you round up towards zero, which is the same as rounding down after you take the absolute value, so it's good for you. Unless you have a particular card, which makes you instead round up, which is down, which is bad for you. Which is way more complicated than it needs to be, given that the card in question would be functionally identical if it were just -100 points. You'd get the exact same result in 9 hands out of 10, without having to change the way you round when you get a particular card.

It feels like a lot of superfluous and needless math, even if it's not terribly difficult. It's mainly just a hurdle to be jumped in trying to teach the game. If you went with positive points, with no rounding or absolute value nonsense, the game would be far easier to pick up and explain. Not to mention easier to spot-check people's totals if you thought someone had made a mistake or was cheating. I suppose I can accept, however, the idea that the unwarranted complexity is intentionally designed to make it all a tiny bit confusing, so it feels like a descent into madness.

Perhaps, then, it's intended to push the flavor and theme. Too bad the theme was applied so sloppily to rest of the game.
  • The negative point cards depict various eldritch horrors, from Deep Ones up to Azathoth. That much makes sense. If I have a face-to-face with gnarly hotep, I expect to lose something from the exchange.
  • The zero point cards are ordinary people. Construction workers, doctors, even little girls. Sure, you need these folks in any good Mythos tale, but they're not terribly exciting.
  • Perhaps that's just right, given that they are zero points. But here's where the first bit of the flavor starts to fail. Tekeli-Li is the sound made by the horrible things in Antarctica in both Lovecraft and Poe. The characters depicted on the zero-point cards aren't wearing cold-weather gear, and don't have jobs that correspond to the characters in those stories. Neither are the monsters restricted to the denizens of the Mountains of Madness. If it was all Shoggoths and Old Ones, with human explorers and professors, the name of the game would make sense. Instead, it feels like the name was chosen because "it has something-or-other to do with Cthulhu". They're making a game ostensibly for Lovecraft fans, but show very little knowledge of the actual Lovecraft tales.
  • Minor gripe: The cards are arranged into suits: red/fire, blue/water, black/earth, and white/air, with corresponding imagery in the margins. Any real student of Lovecraft will tell you that August Derleth's elemental associations for the various Great Old Ones was spurious, contradictory, and definitely not in H.P.'s original concepts. Why make that a major part of the game?
  • The cards with special abilities are equally weird. The most common of these is doctors. If you play a doctor, it cancels the previous doctor. I guess that's getting a second opinion? Why should Azathoth be captured by 1 doctor, but not by 2? I can't quite grok what the card plays are supposed to represent.
  • The Necronomicon appears on two cards. In Lovecraft's stories, it's a book that gets referenced a lot, but doesn't do much other than reveal horrible truths that you'd rather not know. So, I'd expect it to cost you some sanity just like the monsters, but perhaps less. Instead, if you have 1 copy of the Necronomicon in your score pile, it's zero points - as dangerous as a little girl or a construction worker. If you have both copies of Necronomicon, however, it's worth positive (good) points. We kept joking that the book of ultimate evil has a really uplifting surprise ending, which will make you feel all better if you just stick with it through the dense second half.
  • But the strangest of the cards with special rules is the telephone. That's right, the telephone. It's the card that makes you round away from zero (so, down, but up when you're taking the absolute value, and so overall it's bad for you). I can think of one Lovecraft tale where the protagonist was worried about people eavesdropping on the "party line" that was the only phone line in Dunwich - so maybe that's it. Someone please explain to me why the telephone is as harmful as 10 Deep Ones, more ominous than the Necronomicon, and more random than Nyarlathotep.
It's like someone with a very casual and fleeting knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos (someone who'd read one or two Derleth stories, and maybe once played in a Call of Cthulhu one-shot) took the card game Hearts, obfuscated the scoring system with arbitrary mathematical functions that serve no purpose, stapled a Squid onto it, and said "I bet the fan boys will spend $14.95 on this!"

For the record: I could be talked into playing it again, but I certainly wouldn't spend money on it. It's a game that could use a major overhaul and revised second edition. Which is a shame, given the great artwork on the cards. The visuals of the game are the best part, slick and very professional.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Azathoth Upstairs, Cthulhu Downstairs

One of the other players in Fordyce Hall (a Cthulhu by Gaslight scenario I played in at Gwen Con) put up this lovely picture of me about to bash another PC's brains in. They put up a short video clip as well, and a brief Live Journal entry about it, too. Click here for their full coverage. Pretty sure that's the journal of a person named Erik, who was playing the character of the Housekeeper (or head Maid or head Cook or something along those lines - in charge of the female staff of the manor house in the game).

The big blur in the photo is me, suddenly swinging an imaginary shovel at Gwendolyn Kestrel, host of GwenCon. (In the background are Stan! and Sparky.) This image was prior to Gwen's reaction. She apparently wasn't expecting my bit of LARPing at the tabletop, and jumped. You would too if the crazy guy sitting next to you suddenly swung an imaginary shovel within a couple inches of your face. Sorry, Gwen!

The game was great fun - everybody's roleplaying was top-notch, with lots of accents and affectations, appropriate levels of in-party conflict and good humor. We were the servants of a nobleman who had just inherited some creepy old manor. It was our job to prepare the house for his arrival. It was Cthulhu, though, so only about half the staff escaped with their lives and sanity. I started the day by saving Gwen's character from an ice-cold demon-filled well, but by tea-time I'd had a full transformation. I went crazy, nearly killed Gwen's character, and ran off into the woods never to be seen again. One of the other PCs (played by Genevieve, not pictured above) ended up taking bad advice I gave her, and got captured or possessed by some powerful evil entity. All the PCs lost their jobs, at least.

My only misgiving about this very excellent and enjoyable scenario was that there was an awful lot packed in for a mere 4-hour block. By my count there were at least 7 supernatural fiends - a ghost in the manor house, a hob in cat form we managed to placate, a second hob that killed one of our horses, the clawed thing in the well, the tower-creatures that dragged off genevieve, the dark presence in the woods, and the thing at the center of the hedge maze. And I'm not sure if that list counts whatever it was that tried shoving Mary into the oven, or whatever reanimated the dead horse. The property was huge, as well, with carriage house, collapsed woodshed, hidden well, underground tunnels, hedgemaze, woods, free-standing tower, and a 3-wing 80+ bedroom manor house. Then there was a mystery about a suicide off the grounds, our surprise that the realtor wasn't awaiting us at the train station, and the fact the townsfolk wanted nothing to do with the manor. It was a pretty amazing example of highly-detailed verisimiltude-rich sandbox gaming, but there was no chance in heck of us accomplishing or unraveling anything. Luckily, it was Cthulhu, where resolution is more likely to involve madness and death than victory. Had we serious intentions toward the goal of solving or winning the scenario, it would have been way too much plot for the time.

4th Ed on 9/11/1984

I recently played in a 4th Ed D&D one-shot that had superhero and 9/11 themes. Ra's al Ghul and Prince Namor were up to no good at the World Trade Center, endangering thousands of lives, and mix-and-match crew of PC superheroes from the Marvel and DC worlds had to save the day. It was 9/11/1984, because the GM wanted to use versions of the PC's (Captain America, Batman, Wonderwoman, North Star, Black Canary, and Invisible Girl) from the 80's prior to the 90's power creep that affected some of those characters. I played in this game at GwenCon.

The GM had never run 4th Ed before. I had never played 4th Ed (but have read the 4th PHB and DMG) before, and one of the other players had never role-played before. We were playing 18th-level characters. Despite that hefty set of self-imposed hurdles, I was definitely impressed at how smoothly combat flowed. It's hard to imagine similar results from 18th level characters and first-time players in either 3.x or 2nd Ed D&D. 4th is really sweet, and easy to pick up.
A quick aside: This experience left me kinda wondering why I'm bothering with Savage Worlds - 4th's rules are far tighter, and character creation / advancement appears to be less fiddly than in SW. But that's a topic for another time - and rather similar to what I was griping about last week.
That said, it certainly wasn't a perfect gaming experience. The game was basically two fight scenes, with a very brief bit of narration between them. This was a big shock, given that the GM (Dqniel) had run an absolutely awesome Cthulhu scenario at GwenCon 2 years back. Because of the skill he'd shown in crafting and running that adventure, I was expecting a lot this time. I anticipated getting to role-play a bit more and roll a bit less. I had my hopes up - especially after seeing the jawdropping prop he'd made (see below).

Of course, what you get out of an experience is based in part on what you bring to it. I don't check my email too often, so I missed out when he sent out the pregen characters for us to choose from. As a result, there wasn't much of a choice left for me - I got stuck playing Black Canary. I've never read a comic with her in it, and didn't know a thing about her, so had there been more role-playing opportunities, I probably would have stalled out. Lack of knowledge on both character and system was a big handicap for me. My bad - there's definitely things I could have done to enhance my enjoyment of the game. I was playing a sort of monk-ish build, and didn't really know what my combat role was. In retrospect, I think I was a Striker. A tiny bit of homework on my part prior to the game would have done wonders.

Speaking of wonders, Dqniel brought something to the game that was the gaming equivalent of one of the 7 Wonders of the World. He had a 6-foot-tall scale model of the World Trade Center. He's a graphic designer by trade, and so had assembled this breathtaking foam-core and cardstock model of all the various towers. Hands down, it's the coolest single prop I've ever seen in gaming. I can't say enough positive about it - I really wish I'd brought my camera. This prop more than made up for whatever minor gripes I may have had about the pure-combat plotline (which wasn't really pure combat either, to be fair, as there was a vital skill challenge in the midst of the second fight).
UPDATE: I found a photo one of the other GwenCon attendees put up on the web. Check it out here. He or she put a caption saying it's a 4 ft model, but I think that's selling it short. I'm 6ft and change - my eyes were maybe two inches over the tops of the towers, so I'd guess the towers about 5'3" or so. The aerial on the roof of Tower #2 reached up pretty close to the top of my head, IIRC. I sure don't think I could be overestimating by more than a foot. The photo, nice as it is, doesn't do it justice. The big towers just look white or uniform light grey in the picture. Dqniel had used Illustrator, and the panels all had grids on them to give the proper wall-of-windows skyscraper effect. Much more impressive in person then on film/screen, I'm afraid, but at least this gives you an idea what we're talking about.
One last bit of praise for Dqniel - the man has patience and tact. There was a player who kept wandering away from the table, disappearing for 5 to 20 minutes at a time. Expecting that if his turn came round while he was still gone, he'd just hold his action, and get to take a turn almost instantly upon returning. Dqniel handled himself with a lot more composure than I'd have managed if some ...person... tried that at my table. Had I been GMing, the second (maybe third) time he wandered off without saying anything, I would have dropped him from the game. When he came back, I'd have said "sorry dude, you failed a save and died". I know, it's harsh. But by the end of the 4-hour block, I wanted to scream at this player - he was repeatedly disruptive and disrespectful. Dqniel kept his cool, though, didn't let it phase him at all. Buddha would have been impressed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lego Batman at GwenCon

My favorite game at GwenCon this year was Lego Batman. It had a great balance of goofiness and challenge, played wonderfully with tropes and expectations, and was just a delight to dive into.

The setting was a city that had outlawed superheroes. The Comedian was dead. Sounds familiar, right?

Except this city was Gotham, and The Comedian was a former sidekick of The Joker, a sidekick who'd gone on to become a hero of his own. The Joker, you see, was one of the outlawed Superheroes. We were all playing characters mostly known for being villains that Batman battles against - but in this alternate reality, we were the heroes. Our backstories were just a little different to fit that as well - they paralleled various superhero backgrounds. I was The Joker. My parents had been killed on our way home from the circus as a child, so I grew up to become a crime fighter, wearing a costume styled after the most terrifying thing I knew - circus clowns. I didn't get to read the other PCs backstories, but bits came out. The Penguin developed his super powers after being bitten by a radioactive penguin, etc.

The Comedian was dead, having seemingly been drained by a vampire bat, then thrown off his balcony. So I loaded up my clown car full of the old superhero gang, and started the investigation. Much hamming-it-up ensued. Before the night was over, the Bat had also kidnapped my current sidekick Eddie "The Riddler" Nigma. Our attempts at a rescue were nearly blown by the psychotic showboating of a Scarecrow that clearly had elements of Rorshach in him.

Not that I can complain about psychotic showboating. At the scene of the crime, where the police rushed to the decision that The Comedian had killed himself, I did a little psycho showboating of my own. A pretty lengthy performance, the Joker wearing a little black pillbox hat and black veil, wailing like a bereaved widow. Eventually, when the police wouldn't do anything, I took matters into my own joy-buzzer-laden hands. "The mask is it's own protection", I told them, and then got in Commissioner Gordon's face. In fact, with a few good Taunt and Intimidate rolls to back it up, I managed to make the good commissioner pee his pants on Gotham TV.

Mechanics either were True 20, or were based on True 20. I haven't read True 20 in years, so I'm not sure how modified it was. But it was fast and simple, easy to grok and worked really well despite the frequency of opposed rolls. I just may have to go take another look at True 20, 'cause this was pretty sweet. I'm not used to anything d20-related having an elegant and robust set of social mechanics that use the same basic rules as the combat system, but it was a beauty the way it allowed for the confrontation with the Commissioner.

Did I mention this was LEGO Batman? Tim Beach, the GM, went above and beyond by making a set of awesomely intricate lego models for the various locations and vehicles. No doubt many of the vehicles were published lego models, but the most important bits were Tim's own creation. I wish I could show you The Comedian's apartment and the building it was part of. Fully detailed, with all sorts of tiny details like little lego faucets and toilet. It must have been weeks worth of constructing. It was an extremely cool prop - almost cool enough to make me regret that we were playing such over-the-top characters, I'm certain there were clues and details we missed because we were too busy riffing. We were chewing the scenery instead of analyzing it.

And then there was the scene at the Superhero Bar. He made this bar model, complete with "sidekick shack" out back. The bar had more than 30 figures in it - all outrageous and awesome. I could only identify about half of them. Villains from DC and Marvel, badguys from Harry Potter, one of the Emperor's Royal Guard from Return of the Jedi, Amelia Earhart for reasons that boggle the mind, etc. Mr Danger-To-Himself-And-Others (that's Doc Ok to you, kids) was the multi-armed bartender. We were holding a wake to remember our dear friend The Comedian. In the middle of the ridiculous wake scene, me standing on the bar trying to eulogize the deceased, the Batmobile crashed through the sidekick shack.

This lead to a watery chase to that falling-apart waterfront lab from Spiderman II (where Dick Grayson was holding poor Eddie Nigma hostage), then an aerial chase from there to the BatCave. In the midst of it all, I ended up leaping from Earhart's biplane onto one of Batman's flying toys. I managed to cling on to the outside, and made him crash. Meanwhile the rest of the group trashed the BatCave and beat up his Butler. Or maybe I was fighting the butler? It's hard to tell when they're wearing the same costume.

It was a delight to behold. A cornucopia of fun. So much going on, on so many levels. Thank you, Tim, for running the best game of a really good con.

Monday, September 14, 2009

GwenCon recap

GwenCon was this weekend - it's a small gaming convention in the home of Gwendolyn Kestrel and Andy Collins. It's an amazingly packed weekend, always a lot of fun. Gwen and Andy are great hosts, and go to a lot of trouble to open their homes to several dozen visitors for this yearly event. We only went to 2 of the 3 days, but it was exhausting. Here's a list of all the games I played:

  • TransAmerica - an elegant and casual boardgame about being sneaky rail-barons
  • Apples to Apples - the classic party game
    Apples to Apples again - a second game of it
  • Tekeli-Li - a Cthulhu-themed trick-taking cardgame. Read more here.
  • Fordyce Hall - a Cthulhu by Gaslight RPG scenario where the PCs were the servants of a nobleman, sent ahead to prepare the old family estate he'd just inherited. Read more here.
  • (Are You A) Werewolf - the party game / deductive logic exercise / mob-rule simulator
    Werewolf again - there was a whole second village to hang
  • Pandemic - which I've written about plenty of times before, nothing new here other than getting to play it with Sparky and Logan for the first time.
  • LiveAction RoboRally - the game of robots, lasers, and conveyor belts... on a board so big, we got to play our robots from the first-person perspective.
  • 9/11/1984 - a cross-publisher superhero one-shot where we were saving the Twin Towers from Ra's al Ghul and Prince Namor. 18th-level PCs, and my first time playing 4th Ed. Read more here.
  • Lego Batman - In the second prop-heavy superhero-themed d20-based RPG of the day, were playing popular villains from DC comics - except, we weren't villains. Instead, the villain was Batman. Read more here.
I've got plenty more to say about at least the 13 hours of RPGs I played this weekend, and the cardgame I'd never tried before, so expect a few related posts later this week.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why I don't like starting at Seasoned

Thursday night I played in the second half of a really good Savage Worlds short-shot where the PCs were Seasoned-level characters. Before going any further, I'll reiterate that it was a great game and I had lots of fun.

At that session, however, I made an offhand comment about really not liking the process of how you make an experienced PC in the Savage Worlds system. The other players questioned me about it, but I couldn't articulate it at that moment. On the walk home from the game, though, I realized roughly my issue with it.

My main complaint can be summed up as:
  • The system actively bills itself as being faster and lighter than D&D, but the process of making a Seasoned character is much slower and more complicated than making the equivalent level of character in D&D.
This complaint has several corollaries and sub-points, which are:
  • Seasoned looks on the surface like it's the equivalent of a mid-level character in most systems, but it's really just the equivalent of 2nd-level in D&D.
  • The greater flexibility in Savage Worlds open-ended character system means the learning curve of making a good character is much higher.
  • While Edges and Feats are equivalent in power, the prereqs for an Edge are often more like the prereqs for a Prestige Class.
  • It's really easy to screw up the order of your advances, or take more than one Seasoned-level advance, which means the GM has to police the character creation process pretty heavily.
  • Novice level spellcasters are pretty potent in Savage Worlds, but advancing to Seasoned rank almost never results in any increase in the power of said magic-users. It's the inverse of the "Linear Fighters, Quadratic Wizards" trope.
That's it. The rest of this post is just specific examples of those points. If those points made the case for you, feel free to stop. If you're unclear about what I mean by any of that, read on...

At first glance, the 4 advancements of being a Seasoned PC feels like you're making a 4th or 5th level character. But you're not, you're making a 2nd level character. Here's how I came to that conclusion:

The power increase from going from starting character to Seasoned in Savage Worlds is akin to the power increase in going from 1st to 2nd level in D&D. A fighter gaining second level in 3.x D&D gains +1 to his attacks, +2 skill points, and a bonus feat. A Feat is roughly like an Edge, and the rest are basically the same as advancing 4 Skills (consider that +1 to BAB in D&D is like increasing both your Fighting and Shooting skills in SW). That's 3 Savage World's advances right there. The D&D fighter then gets a +1 to his Fortitude Saves, which, by it self isn't nearly as broad as +1 to Vigor in SW, however, he also gets big boost in Hit Points - his chance of surviving any given sword blow has probably gone up by 50%. The combination of hit points and Fort is roughly equal to increasing Vigor by a Die-Type in SW. That's roughly equal to 4 advances.

Even if the above point weren't true, and you were making a slightly higher-level character in comparison, I feel that SW makes the advancement system more complicated then it needs to be.

Let's say, for the sake of the argument, I'm making a D&D character of moderate level - say a 5th level character.

In 1st or 2nd Edition, that really only takes about 90 seconds longer than making a 1st level character. You had to pick a couple of proficiencies (none of which have prerequisites, and most of which will almost never actually matter in-game), and if you're a 2nd Ed Thief you had to assign some thief skill points. More if you're a spell caster, because you have two more spell lists to read over, but I'll say more about that in a moment. The biggest time-sink is just spending your extra money.

The important point is that in D&D you don't have to make a 1st level character, then advance them to 2nd level, then to 3rd, etc. Instead, you just make a 5th-level character, and the charts are set up to let you just copy over the relevant info. Your character is at least 200% more powerful, with only like 10% more work.

In 3.X edition D&D, it's a little more complicated. Everybody has skill points, and you're looking at an extra feat (or three for a fighter). Feats have prerequisites, so it can take a bit more time building the character, and you need to have an idea what you want the character to be. But, over all, it's still probably at most 15% more effort, for a character who is at least 200% more powerful. Again, the most lengthy part of the process is probably picking out your magic items. (And again, this is assuming you're not an arcane caster with spell lists to consider - I'll get to that, I swear.)

In Savage Worlds, a Seasoned character is definitely not 200% more powerful than a Novice character - it's more like a 50% increase in power. Yet despite that far tamer power curve, the amount of work added is about a 25% increase. Nearly twice as much additional effort for about a quarter of the boost. I'll detail why it's so complicated in the next section.

I'm going take a quick aside to justify my math on Savage Worlds:

Building a character has 4 steps.
  1. You assign 5 attribute points - but that's really just two decisions, which single attribute do you want at d8 and which one do you want at d4. Yes, sometimes you'll decide you want a d10 in an attribute, but you probably won't do it at this stage - the drawback of having 2 or more traits at d4 is much nastier than the benefit of having a d10. 8/6/6/6/4 is the most common split I've seen.
  2. You assign 15 skill points - which probably takes rather longer than the previous step. On the other hand, some character concepts need just a couple skills. Some characters have to make do with a lot of d4s, while others just pick 3 or 4 skills and max them out.
  3. You pick 0 to 3 Hindrances. If this is your first Savage character, that's tricky. But by your 3rd, you'll realize that half the list (at least) are bizarre things you'd only use for 1 character in a thousand, and you can safely ignore them. How many one-armed or blind PCs do you make?
  4. Now you choose 1 Edge, plus possibly a few more advances, depending on how many hindrances you've picked. Edges are beyond a doubt the trickiest thing about character creation. Many have prerequisites, some of which aren't easy to get. More on that in a later section.
Counting each skill point, it's a total of 19-26 decisions, with the majority of the difficulty being in the 1-3 decisions that could involve edges.

If you want, you could bump that up by including the equipment decision, but honestly, vanilla Savage Worlds has no decisions to make in regards to equipment. Unless you took the Pacifist Hindrance, you get the best weapon and armor available for the setting of the game - SW lacks the extensive equipment lists of D&D, and there's nothing in edges or powers that motivates you to take a substandard weapon. Plus, weapons are expensive enough, you aren't going to have a bunch of back-up and contingency items as a starting character.

Now let's look at a seasoned character. I'm only adding 4 more decisions - but they're all akin to the level of complexity of the Edge decision - slightly more so, because they can be an attribute raise, various permutations of skill bumps, etc, in addition to being Edges. Because they can be used for skills, you could call it 8 new decisions. 0, 1 or 2 of which can be attribute raises - if the number is 0, you'll also get 1 Seasoned-rank Edge or Power. If the number is 1, then you may or may not get a seasoned-rank Edge, depending on when in the process you raised that attribute. The number of decisions is probably only up by 20% or so. However, you're more than doubling the number of really hard decisions.

In D&D, advancement just flows from your class. It's a hallmark of 3.X - advancement can be really tricky (multiclassing, prestige classes, complicated feat choices, etc) if you enjoy that, but it has plenty of tools to speed it up and simplify if you'd prefer - there's some straightforward paths to advance characters along that, once initiated, make leveling-up quick and easy.

Savage Worlds has no equivalent, no obvious choices, no shortcuts. If you've got the time to spend on it, and a good solid understanding of how the system works, that's an advantage to Savage Worlds. It's really flexible, and you're never pigeon-holed or restricted. But unless you've mastered the system, and have a really clear idea of what you want your character to be like, it's just tricky. The system is opaque. There's no archetypes to base your character on. It's hard to figure out just how much better d10 is than d8. No yardstick by which to measure how proficient your character actually is.

Partly as a result, those advances in Savage Worlds take a lot more thought than their D&D counterpart. It's not just read one line of a chart, then pick two skills (as it is to raise a D&D fighter by a level). Instead, on each of those 4 advances that make up a rank, I have darned-near limitless options. I'm choosing between raising one attribute, raising 2 skills, raising 1 really good skill, buying a whole new skill, or picking one of over 50 Edges. In the D&D equivalent, 3 of those 4 decisions are made for me, and all I really have to worry about is what feat I'm taking... if it's a level where I get a feat.

Complicating it further is the prerequisite issue. Yes, I realize there's prereqs in D&D as well, but here's the big difference:
  • While Edges and Feats are equivalent in power, the prereqs for an Edge are often more like the prereqs for a Prestige Class.
Let's say I want an Edge that does something simple but potent - a boost to my skills. Both games have a Feat/Edge called "Investigator", that gives you +2 to rolls to find clues and get information from people. In D&D, it has no prerequisites. In Savage Worlds, it requires you to have a d8+ (so, above average, and a significant expenditure during character creation) in Smarts, Investigation, and Streetwise.

Similar things can be said about Acrobatic/Acrobat, Stealthy/Thief, etc. There's a few exceptions (for example, every Savage Worlds PC effectively has D&D's Power Attack for free), but in general the prereqs are higher and more fiddly in Savage Worlds. The result is, much more care must be taken when advancing your SW character. I think the worst perpetrator I've seen is the Texas Ranger Edge in Deadlands Reloaded, the cost-to-benefit ratio for that one is just wonky. It costs 2 Attribute Points, 12 Skill points, and Seasoned Rank to qualify - for benefits that comparable to (and in some campaigns less reliable than) the Charismatic Edge.

On a related note, many of the best Edges list "Seasoned" (or a higher rank) as a prerequisite. Starting at a particular level doesn't mean you get to take Edges of that level. It means you get to take exactly 1 Edge of that level - or exactly 1 Power of that level - or raise 1 more attribute instead.

If I'm gonna have 4 or 8 advances, I need to think ahead to decide whether or not I need the early advances to qualify me (by being prerequisities) for the better advances I plan to take after them. It's really easy to get 3 advances in, and then realize you're 1 skill point short of the thing you want.

The fact that you only get 1 Seasoned advancement when making a Season character trips me up a lot - for my most recent character, I basically had to build him three times to get the order of advancements right. From looking at other PCs character sheets, I see I'm not the only one having this trouble. My wife had similar troubles with her character. The GM caught a similar problem on another PCs sheet last night at the start of the game - and he'd even goofed up and taken 3 such advances, not just two. Likewise, in my Deadlands campaign, 2 of the 3 players who took Veteran of the Weird West had made the same mistake as well.

One reason for this is that in normal character creation, you get to apply the steps in whatever order you want. This means you can finagle "extra" skill points out of the system by using your bonus points from a Hindrance to boost your Attributes before doing skills. Or you can buy up a prerequisite skill to qualify for an Edge before you take it. In making a higher level character, however, you first build a Novice character, then apply advances in order. It seems like a simple and self-evident difference, and the Explorer's edition book just casually drops it in a single sentence. But it's a fundamentally different paradigm, and causes all sorts of slip-ups. Switching between the two modes requires a conscious analysis/transition, but nothing in the text makes that clear - and so again and again I see people screw it up.

Policing the character sheets to prevent this extremely common mistake, however, is really time-consuming. There's a decided lack of transparency in character creation - the order is so important, but there's no good way from a character sheet to track the order without deconstructing your build. A legal Seasoned character could have between 3 and 9 Attribute points, and between 10 and 32 Skill points, depending on Hindrances and order of creation. There's 13 edges and 7 powers that are restricted to Seasoned rank, and any PC can only have one of them - but if so they end up with 1 less Attribute point. You can't eyeball that.

So much so that the GM is tempted to just let it slide. A character built without paying strict attention to that timing restriction while leveling up can be a little more potent. That's all, just a little - the various Powers and Edges that require a higher rank aren't really all that much more potent, and there's (to Savage World's credit) not many degenerate combos in the system. If you goof up and take two Seasoned Edges, it's not like you're going to overshadow all the other PCs and make people angry.

So, you want to just say "screw it". However, there's a slippery slope here. It magnifies the potential that a player who's more familiar with the system will have a huge advantage over someone new to the game, and opens a potential for point-weaseling and munchkinism. A mistaken extra Seasoned power or edge won't unbalance anything - but intentionally taking all your advances as Seasoned-rank ones might. Or taking Seasoned-Rank powers with not just your advances but also initial character build - that'll give you a significant step up. Exceeding the number of Attribute raises you take, especially if you also have a Power who's derived stats come from those attributes will give you a huge leg up. So, a mistake is not likely to cause any troubles, but waiving all restrictions probably will.

This is not an insurmountable flaw, not a game-breaker, but it is the sort of thing that just rankles my hide.

Now, as promised, let's talk about Magic. One of the strengths of Savage Worlds is the simplified magic system. The spell list is much shorter, and in theory the trappings let you customize as you need without having to read an extra 150 spell descriptions. Even assuming that the trapping system does that (which it would if they gave a few more examples - there's not much guidance and no real tools for balancing it in the Explorer's Edition), we still hit an issue with the utter lack of high end magic.

Savage Worlds seems takes pains to avoid the "Linear Fighters, Quadratic Wizards" trope. Magic Users do not appear to suddenly jump out ahead of other character types in later stages of the campaign. At first blush, this is admirable and welcome - I am not a fan of that trope, after all. However, the more I build high-rank characters, the more I suspect they overcompensated and went too far to fix it.

There are 31 spells in Savage Worlds - 20 of which can be taken by starting characters, 7 that require Seasoned level, and 4 that require Veteran status. Invisibility, Quickness, and Telekinesis are all pretty buff (Telekinesis sickly so), the other Seasoned-rank spells aren't really worth it. Of those 11 "higher level" spells, four of them are even sadly redundant to lower level powers:
  • Blast is only marginally better than lower level Bolt or Burst (and not a lot better than Stun, either).
  • Fly and Teleport both have situations where they are superior to Burrow and Speed, but come with a lot more complexity and expense in the process.
  • Greater Healing is really expensive, and in most situations not actually more helpful than Healing.
No doubt there are specific situations, plotlines and campaigns where these will pay off, but their the sort of situations that a GM has to specifically set out to create, or else it will never matter. Unless a PC has Fly, the GM is not going to make the story involve an impassable crevasse 20 table top inches long with no bridge. Buying the power creates situations where the power is needed - kinda circular, huh? In D&D, that wouldn't be the case - there's an established number of flying creatures, traps and magical tricks are common, castles dominate the countryside, etc, and plenty of reason to expect every wizard will eventually be able to fly. That setting has a need to fly built into it, but SW has no default setting.

When you take one of these advanced Powers, you really don't get you much more than the Novice powers would give you. I had Burrow and Bolt, I'd never be seriously tempted to pick up Teleport and Blast. In both cases, sinking the points into my spellcasting skill would be a better upgrade - it'd make my existing powers more effective. Since Bolt (SW's Magic Missile) takes the same amount of Power Points as Blast (SW's Fireball), and does the same amount of damage, there's not much desire to take both. Bolt can hit the same target three times, or hit three targets. Blast, the "better spell" can sometimes hit more targets, but it's gonna be rare to get more than 3 enemies in the radius with no friendly fire problems, and it can never do more than 1 hit to a single target. The sole real advantage it has is the reduced chance of rolling 1's and getting a misfire - but since the dice mechanics of SW are a little wonky, it's hard to say if that's really better than just spending the advancement (where you would have bought Blast) on raising your Spellcasting stat. Either method reduces the chance of scoring a critical failure, and the later method would improve all your other spells as well.

In D&D, picking up new spells is pretty easy. Spellcasters just naturally gain versatility as they level up, and you're happy that you have both Magic Missile and Fireball, because it didn't really cost you anything. In Savage Worlds, each new spell costs an Edge. That edge, "Extra Power" feels weak. The original Arcane Background Edge got me 10 power points, plus 2 or 3 powers. The new Extra Power Edge gets me just 1 power, with no power points. I've gained versatility, but have to spread my powerpoints thinner to use it. They didn't just do away with "Linear Fighters, Quadratic Wizards", they effectively inverted it - it's now "Linear Everything Else, Diminishing Returns On Magic".

Compared to D&D, making an experienced wizard in Savage Worlds takes a lot less time - and I applaud that. This character type is the only one that takes so much less effort in Savage Worlds. It accomplishes this because there's such shorter spell lists to read over. However, the cost of that simplification is that you can't really capture the feel of a high-level wizard. There's just no spells that boggle the mind, wipe out armies, or make everyone sit up and take notice.

Well, I've rambled on long enough. The point was to just explain why I'm not enamored with making experienced characters in Savage Worlds. I don't feel they gain enough power to warrant the extra complexity. I'm pretty happy with starting characters in Savage Worlds, and feel my desire for elegance outweighs my desire for power. I'd rather play a starting character than have to worry about all that crunchiness.