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.

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