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My groups go-to system is Savage Worlds, and it works pretty well for our needs. But the system uses exploding dice, and that means that sometimes a casual encounter that should be a cakewalk for the party can turn suddenly lethal. On one hand, we agree that we kind of like this aspect of the system. On the other hand, it sucks when it actually happens.

My question is, are there any good hacks for this? I would especially like a sneaky way of doing it that keeps the impression that death can come at any time while it actually makes the chances of that slim to none.

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I seem to remember listening to a Smilin' Jack's Bar and Grill podcast episode where the Savage Worlds people discussed a new book coming out that tweaked the lethality of the game downward by tweaking the consequences of getting your last wound. Anyone know what I'm vaguely talking about? – SevenSidedDie Aug 28 '10 at 17:24
up vote 15 down vote accepted

Here's a good blog article about tweaking the lethality of Savage Worlds at The Geek Life Project.

In summary:

  • Be generous with bennies. Really generous. Give them out like candy.
  • When you spend bennies as a GM, don't spend them to "beat" the players, but to increase drama. Use them to re-roll encounter-turning skill rolls like Notice or Stealth, not for soak rolls or for attack rolls. Use GM bennies outside of combat more than in combat.
  • Don't use the Incapacitation chart and Injury table, just use the Incapacitated-on-fourth-wound status as written up on p. 76 of the Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition. That is, they're out of the fight until healed.
  • Use the "toughing it out" rules from Winterweir: make a Toughness and a Spirit check to keep up and fighting despite Incapacitation.

My own suggestion would be to use the death spiral and Incapacitation chart, but treat all results as if they were nonlethal. Heroes and Wild Card enemies then can only be properly killed if they're first taken out and then served a coup de grace while unconscious.

That gives you, as the GM, lots of options for unconscious heroes, and it makes it easier for fallen heroes to be dragged off by their companions to get healing. It also puts heroes in a moral quandary when they defeat a villain: to kill in cold blood, or not?

Use the injury table if you want that kind of long-term Incapacitation consequence, or not.

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Excellent! That's a nice list of suggestions. I especially like the suggestion to not use the incapacitation chart, except for in special circumstances. – olajostein Aug 30 '10 at 7:45

I'm loving Savage Worlds too. It's a recent find for me; I use it mainly for Deadlands Reloaded and Realms of Cthulhu.

I can only go by Savage Worlds:Explorer's Edition, but I find that even without tweaking the player character lethality has more to do with how reckless the players are than the exploding dice themselves. Even being incapacitated doesn't kill a PC most of the time.

However, if you are truly being reamed by the mechanics, the obvious answer is to limit the number of aces any one damage roll can have. One per die would seem to be adequate. Of course, your players may demand that the rule doesn't apply to their damage rolls, players being what they are. This sort of behavior should be greeted with your "yeah, right" face.

NPCs are virtual people too.

And of course, there are all those bennies (though they can't alter a damage roll unless a particular edge has been taken) for re-rolling soak rolls, vigor tests and so on.

Sudden Thought Department: One common misconception I've come across is that you should add a D6 per raise on a combat hit, when the rulebook clearly states that one or more raises gets you a single extra d6. One game I watched had a very high lethality on account of this one small misreading of the rules alone.

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Isn't that what bennies are for? Those are the built in "save your bacon when someone gets a lucky hit in" mechanic. If you think they're really sucking it up, throw some more bennies their way for doing something arguably cool or in character. No need to add/mess with the mechanics when there's a built in way already.

Of course, doing away with the death spiral can help too, or at least the penalties to soak and other stay alive/defensive rolls from it.

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I concur about eliminating the "death spiral" penalties! – Wilmanric Aug 28 '10 at 21:18
When the damage-rolls get sky-high the soak-rolls have to be incredibly good as well, wich means that the bennies-solution is haphazard at best. The suggestion on doing away with the death-spiral has some merit, tough. – olajostein Aug 29 '10 at 12:38
In the end, any game with randomization won't always be completely safe. If that's what you want, you're going to have to fudge rolls or make a more obvious narrative change about "when you die you don't really die you just lose all your bennies and are jacked up for a while." – mxyzplk Aug 29 '10 at 13:47
Except that, as written, Savage Worlds is readily hackable in subtle ways that will significantly alter the likelihood of character death without making the changed probabilities obvious. The wound and injury mechanics are particularly fiddly and opaque, making them perfect for this kind of stealthy hack. "Fudging it" is a bad answer because it's unnecessary. – SevenSidedDie Aug 29 '10 at 21:57
Unless your players are dumb, "I would especially like a sneaky way of doing it that keeps the impression that death can come at any time while it actually makes the chances of that slim to none" would indicate a change hidden from the PCs, not made as a formal part of the rules and transmitted to everyone. – mxyzplk Apr 26 '11 at 4:40

A completely different approach stolen from the Conan RPG might also serve your purpose: allow a bennie spend to be "left for dead" instead of being actually dead.

If I were going to do this I would probably make the spend more costly than a re-roll though, I think. Perhaps a two-bennie cost.

This would have an undesirable side effect of making players unwilling to spend that last one or two bennies though, so on the whole I would have to give this one a lot of thought before I implemented it.

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It's also used in the WFRP line, with fate points. In 1e, the only use for them. In 2E, plus Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch, one of several uses for fate... and similar to Bennies uses – aramis Nov 30 '10 at 0:09

In Savage Worlds: Deluxe, the 'Heroes Never Die' setting rule greatly decreases lethality. With this rule in play, heroes are never killed and instead are knocked unconscious unless dramatically appropriate.

Another setting rule, 'High Adventure', allows you to spend bennies to get combat edges. A player with spirit d8 could get Harder to Kill, preventing them from dying.

As a GM, be generous with bennies so players can soak more often. If that's not enough, you can house-rule in bonuses to soak rolls.

Finally, remember that going below 3 wounds is not automatic death! Several rolls still separate a player with multiple wounds from actual death.

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Also consider giving everyone Hard to Kill for free. Ignoring wounds when rolling on the injury table is a huge advantage and really helps characters stay alive. – Ryre Jul 10 '13 at 15:22

I recently played a Pathfinder Adventure Path converted to Savage Worlds rules. As the lethality of PF and DnD is much lower than Savage Worlds, the Gamemaster made a couple of adaptations.

First, he gave every character the Hard to Kill edge for free. It makes a big difference: DnD players are used to fall in combat and be cured back to action; without Hard to Kill this becomes more difficult as it is not uncommon to die when you are incapacitated. Hard to Kill makes sure that accidental non-climactic death in combat happens rarely.

Then he made a point of explaining the incapacitation rules and suggested that everybody saved a bennie for that last "roll against death". The combination of Hard to Kill and a final bennie makes death very unlikely (unless in a TPK situation), but it has an additional benefit: it also adds a bit of drama to combat! When you fail what could be your last attack against your foe, will you spend your last bennie to attack again or will you save it in case your foe hits you after?

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Have you looked at the free Pulp Rules from Triple Ace Games? You might find them helpful. Be advised that you need to use Acrobat for Mac/PC/iPad to display it. I did manage to unlock it and save it with print preview so I could use GoodReader instead.

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Can you describe what the Pulp Rules do differently that makes them less lethal? If the download is ever removed from their site, this answer becomes "empty". – SevenSidedDie Jul 21 '13 at 2:29

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