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I'm a new GM running a Savage Worlds game, and I'm wondering if someone can help me understand the best way to set up a skill check with relative difficulties. Specifically, how do you differentiate between different "challenges" to the same skill?

For example, a "jailbreak" scene: a bunch of prison cells, all locked, with a chest elsewhere that holds the cell keys. If a character has Lockpicking on a d8, they'd be just as likely to be able to pick the cell door as the chest. But that doesn't really make sense, nor does it work for gameplay: picking the chest should be harder, as it negates the need to pick all the cells individually. (In-universe explanation being that the lock on the chest is more complex, or a special design).

How do I differentiate between the same action being "harder here, easier there"? It's easier to Intimidate this scholar than that soldier, it's harder to Ride this warg than that horse. Would I have players roll their skill at a -1 or +2, etc? Or maybe special cases become opposed checks, your Riding versus the warg's Spirit or something?

What's the best/approved/official way to handle these distinctions? Or should one shy away from those distinctions altogether, and just let a lockpick be a lockpick?

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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The easiest way is to add or subtract a bonus to the roll. Let's say a character has d8 in lockpicking. I want the cells to be opened 50/50 of the time, so I set the difficulty at -1 for that character. The chest needs to be harder, so you can set that at a -2 or a -3.

You always make the adjustment to the roll, and not the target number. I find it much much easier to do it this way. All my players know that all difficulties (except melee) are a 4+. Some adjust that to a 5 or better, some just add up there dice and difficulties and see if it's 4+.

You can also adjust a scenario to the character fairly easily as well. This can really help in the case where a new character comes in to the middle of a game, and the rest of the group have high skill. If the new character has a d4 in Lockpicking, you still make it 50/50 with a +2 to the roll etc.

One other thing to remember to look at with any player character, or other wild card is that a d4 is actually a d6 (all wild cards roll their dice and a d6). So, even a d4 skill will hit 2/3 of the time, and explode 25% of the time. Very often the second roll of the d4 will put them over the target number. I find that d4's & d6's explode a lot, and that can make for interesting games :) I don't try to balance this, since this seems to follow the "beginners luck" trope pretty well.

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Convention for Savage Worlds is to give difficulty modifiers in multiples of 2. So you might task them with Lockpicking(-2) but not Lockpicking (-1). And I agree, keep the TN at 4 always and just give penalties instead, –  Thunderforge Jan 13 at 23:06
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While I agree with the penalty system, don't simply base it on the player's current skill level. It makes training the skill worthless if you're always going to have a 50/50 chance of success. Keep it consistent: -0 for a typical lock, -2 for a strong lock, and -4 or even -6 for maximum security. Also, remember that high-quality tools can provide +2 bonus and a lack of tools suffers a -2 penalty. –  Hand-E-Food Jan 14 at 3:11
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The difficulty of Trait Tests in Savage Worlds is adjusted by applying modifiers to the roll. These are described in the Trait Tests section of the core rules, and the example given is for using the Tracking skill where...

  • An easy task such as find tracks in mud would have a +2 modifier
  • A difficult task such as finding tracks by torchlight would be -2
  • A very difficult task such as finding tracks in a rainstorm would be -4

If you need further examples of what constitutes an easy, difficult or very difficult task then a good place to start is the section covering the different skills. For example, Climbing using modern equipment gives a +4 modifier, whilst if a surface is wet or slippery then you give a -2. It is worth noting here that such modifiers can and should accumulate so, if you were climbing a slippery surface with modern equipment, the overall modifier would be +2.

I should also mention that although Thunderforge's comment about modifiers generally being in multiples of two is broadly correct, there are examples in the core rules that break this (Tracking in a dusty area, light cover etc), so don't be afraid of doing so yourself if you feel it is necessary.

As a side note, you mention Opposed Rolls in your question. As your example suggests, these are used when the Skill or Attribute being used is being directly opposed by a target using another Skill or Attribute. Examples include a number of the different Powers, Agility and Smarts tricks, Tests of Will, and Stealth against an Active Guard where the opposed roll is made using Notice. With Opposed Rolls, modifiers can and should be applied to each participant as appropriate.

For example, say I'm sneaking up through medium cover on an Active guard who has two wounds. My Stealth roll would have a +2 modifier for the medium cover, whilst his Notice roll to spot me would have a -2 modifier for the two wounds he has.

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Although the usual approach is to have a fixed Target Number (TN) of 4 and give the players situational modifiers, there is some precedent for variable TNs - for example Fighting vs Parry, or damage rolls against Toughness.

A fixed TN is useful when you want the players to know what they need to roll, but that isn't always desirable. For example imagine the following scenario:

Player: I press my ear to the door, can I hear anything on the other side?

GM: Make a Notice roll at -2, as usual you need 4 or better to succeed.

Player: I rolled 5, with the -2 that's 3...failure.

GM: You don't hear anything.

As opposed to a variable TN:

Player: I press my ear to the door, can I hear anything on the other side?

GM: Make a Notice roll.

Player: I rolled 5!

GM: You don't hear anything.

In the first example, the player knows they've failed, but are expected not to use that knowledge to metagame. In the second example, the GM knows that the player needs a 6 or higher to hear the monster on the other side of the door, but the player doesn't know whether or not they've succeeded.

You can apply the same logic to other skills, for example Lockpicking:

Player: A raise, even with the -2 penalty! Okay guys, the trap is disarmed, let's go!

Becomes:

Player: A raise! Okay guys, I'm pretty sure the trap is disarmed, but it was pretty complex, so let's go through one at a time just in case.

Variable TNs also have other advantages. For example, if the entire party fail their Notice rolls, and you feel the story would progress more smoothly if at least one of them spotted a certain clue, it's much easier to fudge the outcome if the players don't know what they needed to roll.

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