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Last night I ran my first Savage Worlds combat, to try to get a feel for the system. The combatants were two sword-wielding fighting men against three orcs (extras) and their chieftain (a wild card). I enjoyed a lot of the combat, but when all the orcs had been dropped, all progress seemed to stop. We had endless whiff and ping on both sides. I have already read about reducing whiff and ping in SW, and that advice is good for combats that are underway. My question is about planning combats ahead of time.

Savage worlds doesn't have a challenge rating or threat level system, which makes sense in many respects, because of the general unpredictability of encounters. Unfortunately, it means that without having experience with the system, it's hard to guess at what threats will not be boring. In the case of the orc chieftain, for example, his high Parry and Toughness made it impossible for the PCs to damage him without acing out the wazoo. This wasn't a question of a sure-thing TPK from a massive threat: the PCs, too, had high parry, which made it almost as difficult for them to be hurt. Even when we slowed down the combat to really look at bonuses everyone could work for, we kept whiffing and pinging.

In retrospect, I probably would have done better to replace the chieftain with plain old orc who was a wild card and had a higher Strength and Fighting. He could've hit the PCs more easily and been hit more easily himself.

So, my question is: how could I have known that from the start? Is there a simple often-right-enough formula for comparing PC traits to threat traits? Is there other common wisdom on doing this?

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Not all tactically important combatants need to be Wild Cards. Reserve Wild Card status for Important NPCs, not just "strong" NPCs. Make strong NPCs strong extras. Rule of thumb: if the plot calls for them to die, they're an extra. If the plot could go either way—the PCs winning or the villain escaping/bargaining for their life/defeating the PCs and imprisoning them below the Tower of Doom—only then do you make them a Wild Card. –  SevenSidedDie May 19 '11 at 17:07
    
Yeah. This was totally a throwaway combat to see how the Wild Card would play differently -- a fact which also suggests it should've been of the same genera as the other orcs! –  rjbs May 19 '11 at 17:20
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...and now I find this post saying, "btw, orcs are way tougher than you think": peginc.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=68729#68729 –  rjbs May 19 '11 at 19:00
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This is an extremely useful question! Thanks, rjbs and answerers! –  gomad May 19 '11 at 22:58
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Good question; I've largely been turned off on SW partially by a GM who doesn't understand how lame and frustrating it is to have opponents you just can't hit/damage 95% of the time. –  mxyzplk May 21 '11 at 14:46

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Generally when I write my stories, I'm more focused on making orcs be plausibly orcs, and then letting the PCs figure out the best way through whatever made sense in the context of the setting. It is a philosophical departure from D&D, but I've found you see a lot more clever avoidance of fights by PCs when the world is designed that way.

That said, when I'm looking at the statline for for an antagonist and wondering if it is a good fight I look at the following:

  1. Can it hit the PCs? (Look at its die type for attacking, make sure you'll hit most PCs at least 25% of the time)
  2. Can it get through the PCs armor? (As above, look at the damage dice and think about the expected value)
  3. Conversely, can the PCs hit and damage the antagonist?
  4. Finally, will the antagonist slaughter the PCs (Look at average damage and hit chances, if you're going to hit most PCs most of the time, and do serious damage, then be careful)

This is a bit more work than just looking at a CR, but after you do it a bit, you'll start to get a "feel" for what works and what doesn't. Also, don't be afraid to modify stats some to suit your needs- if a normal orc doesn't do it, maybe they should be up against a bigger, nastier breed orc with some better combat stats.

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Thanks. I actually do plan to use a much more real-life-like setting, in which combat is meant to be avoided. This was very much a "let's see how combat works." When I do want to have a climactic battle, though, I want to make sure it doesn't devolve to a ping-fest -- so your advice is appreciated. –  rjbs May 19 '11 at 18:23
    
Just make sure to think of gang-up bonuses as well. A horde of extras can be deadly if each one is getting +2 or +3 gang-up bonuses. –  Xphile May 1 '12 at 5:29

Slogging through a lot of Google results found a Savage Worlds encounter design post at Key Our Cars, referring to a post deep in the PEG archives, which has some advice that seems fairly useful and on-topic.

If I'm reading the quoting and authorship right, Key Our Cars advises:

  • 150% the group size in Extras plus
  • 50% the group size in Wild Cards
  • both the Extras and Wild Cards have combat Traits (Fighting, Shooting, Parry, Toughness, &c.) comparable to that of the PCs
  • introduce the enemies in waves so that the number present can be fudged as needed
  • as always, alter the flow of Bennies if needed

Clint Black, in the cited post, says:

  • compute a damage rating (DR) for the PCs
  • a PC's damage rating is the sum of the 1/2 the PC's damage dice; for example, a strong (d10 Str) PC with a rapier (Str + d6) has a damage rating of 8 (10/2 + 6/2)
  • you can compute the party's DR by averaging DRs
  • if the party's DR equals the opponent's Toughness, the fight could be about even
  • the difference between DR and Toughness indicates a greater or lesser threat

Clint Black doesn't say anything about whiff here, but it seems that you might be able to use the above method, with Fighting substituted for Damage, and Parry for Toughness -- but those stats seem likely to vary more, attack to attack.

This looks like it should be easy to eyeball, and there seems to be some amount of endorsement for it, though not universal.

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That DR calculation makes sense—that's average damage per hit, and complements Rain's answer about developing eyeballing skills. –  SevenSidedDie May 19 '11 at 19:25

When I ran the "Orc!" adventure I noticed the same thing. Hence I wrote a simulator to see what happens. I have extended it to have one of the groups fighters at several ranks.

Summary: an Orc Chief Wildcard is worth about 20 Novice Fighters and about one Heroic. (results not included: Change him to a non wildcard and he is worth 16 Novice Fighters and less than one Heroic. Make him an extra and he is worth 5 Novice Fighters and 1/3 of a Heroic.)

NOTE: this assumes no healing, use of bennies, gang up, the orc chief use of his sweep, or any other stuff so the values should be taken with a pinch of salt.

As you can see from the sim, a Novice fighter on his own stands no chance. From our battle I can say that the party was wiped by the Orc Chief. Next time I run this adventure will only make him the same as the rest, an extra.

Novice Fighter vs an Orc Chief

Hathor (N) vs Orc, Chief
    name      : Hathor (N)           Orc, Chief          
    type      : wildcard             wildcard            
    att       : 8                    12                  
    str       : 6                    10                  
    dam       : 8                    10                  
    parry     : 6                    8                   
    tough     : 5                    11                  
    wound     : 3                    3                   
    Monster Mark: 21.371
      1:     1.89%  34.20%
      2:     1.17%  28.86%
      3:     0.75%  17.13%
      4:     0.46%   8.58%
      5:     0.12%   3.79%
      6:     0.04%   1.71%
      7:     0.02%   0.80%
      8:     0.02%   0.27%

Seasoned Fighter vs an Orc Chief

Hathor (S) vs Orc, Chief
    name      : Hathor (S)           Orc, Chief          
    type      : wildcard             wildcard            
    att       : 8                    12                  
    str       : 8                    10                  
    dam       : 8                    10                  
    parry     : 6                    8                   
    tough     : 5                    11                  
    wound     : 3                    3                   
    Monster Mark: 16.271
      1:     2.61%  34.70%
      2:     1.49%  28.68%
      3:     0.86%  15.80%
      4:     0.49%   8.17%
      5:     0.21%   3.88%
      6:     0.08%   1.69%
      7:     0.04%   0.78%

Veteran Fighter vs an Orc Chief

Hathor (V) vs Orc, Chief
    name      : Hathor (V)           Orc, Chief          
    type      : wildcard             wildcard            
    att       : 8                    12                  
    str       : 10                   10                  
    dam       : 8                    10                  
    parry     : 8                    8                   
    tough     : 9                    11                  
    wound     : 3                    3                   
    Monster Mark: 4.007
      1:     3.60%  12.08%
      2:     3.81%  14.17%
      3:     3.06%  13.26%
      4:     2.62%  11.38%
      5:     2.32%   8.92%
      6:     1.38%   6.30%
      7:     1.06%   4.55%
      8:     0.71%   3.07%
      9:     0.48%   2.23%
     10:     0.35%   1.39%
     11:     0.24%   0.97%
     12:     0.14%   0.67%
     13:     0.04%   0.37%
     14:     0.09%   0.27%
     15:     0.03%   0.16%
     18:     0.02%   0.04%

Heroic Fighter vs an Orc Chief

Hathor (H) vs Orc, Chief
    name      : Hathor (H)           Orc, Chief          
    type      : wildcard             wildcard            
    att       : 10                   12                  
    str       : 12                   10                  
    dam       : 8                    10                  
    parry     : 9                    8                   
    tough     : 11                   11                  
    wound     : 3                    3                   
    Monster Mark: 1.064
      1:     7.03%   7.20%
      2:     7.90%   7.68%
      3:     7.12%   7.84%
      4:     6.03%   6.72%
      5:     4.87%   5.60%
      6:     4.21%   4.53%
      7:     3.11%   3.57%
      8:     2.34%   2.60%
      9:     1.57%   1.70%
     10:     1.33%   1.33%
     11:     0.94%   1.00%
     12:     0.71%   0.60%
     13:     0.41%   0.37%
     14:     0.24%   0.26%
     15:     0.19%   0.18%
     16:     0.15%   0.09%
     17:     0.09%   0.10%
     18:     0.10%   0.03%
     19:     0.04%   0.04%
     21:     0.03%   0.03%

BTW - Monster Mark means how many of the attackers will be required before the monster will be on average be killed. The Sim was run 10,000 times for each combat. So in the first example, one on one with no use of bennies etc then the Orc Chief will on average kill 21 of Hathor (N) before he is taken down.

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Awesome work! Seeing it laid out like this is really useful. One question though: what does "change him to a non-Wildcard" mean if you don't mean making him an Extra? Am I suffering amnesia and there's a third category of opponent I've forgotten about? –  SevenSidedDie May 31 '11 at 16:02
    
@SevenSidedDie: Thanks. In the standard rules there are only Wild-cards and non Wild-cards. Some of the other rules have variants. For example you can allow the wildcard extra d6 or not, the bennies or not, the 3 wounds or not. In this case what I meant was to remove his wild die as /non-wildcard/ and make him and Extra give him only one wound. –  David Allan Finch Jun 1 '11 at 7:20
    
Aha, that makes sense. I just haven't seen those variations yet. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 1 '11 at 18:59
    
Your Hathor seems quite weak to me. Most starting fighter-like characters I have seen have Fighting d12, strength d8 or d10, vigor d6 or d8, parry 8 (+1 shield) and toughness 5-7 (+3 armor), and have useful edges like Brawny, Combat Reflexes, Liquid Courage, Nerves of Steel, or Trademark Weapon. That would seem like a fairer fight against the Orc Chieftain (still weaker, but then again they are usually not alone). –  sergut Jul 20 '13 at 17:39
    
@sergut - it was not my character it was the main fighter the player created and I have used the progression he created over the campaign. As this was our first SW campaign I expect it would be more optimised next time. –  David Allan Finch Jul 22 '13 at 8:48

This is more like a philosophical, system-agnostic question, so I won't mind my very limited experience with Savage Worlds and go ahead answering it.

The answer is simply don't. Don't balance it. Have the PCs decide to fight or flee and remember your NPCs got the same decision as well.

On the orc example above, try to step into his shoes: you're an orc chief taking a stroll with your bodyguards when two lousy hoomans show up swinging swords. It turns out they kill your bodyguards quickly and want your blood. You try to stab them and you can't. An orc chief may be proud but he didn't get to be chief by fighting outnumbered and to the death.

Have the orc chief flee. The penalties he'll get for disengaging and running will give your players a chance to get him. If they don't, promote this orc to recurring villain. Win-win!

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I am all for unbalanced encounters, but my intent was not to find out how to balance them. (Combat is war!) It was about how to plan. I can look at stats for many games and tell what a stand-up fight will be like. I can know "this area is safe for the PCs, so if they go adventuring here, they might live, so I need more data; this area is super deadly, if they go here, they will die." In SW, I could not predict this, which was an inconvenience for planning. This was a very mechanics-related question. –  rjbs May 3 '12 at 12:02
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Now I understand what you needed. The Deluxe edition rules have a section on estimating the relative strengh of two parties (considering wild cards and extras), but not taking into account edges, tactics, etc. IIRC. –  Yianes the Sneak May 6 '12 at 1:50

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