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I'm really enjoying Savage Rifts, but every now and then I come to a rule that just makes me wonder what Shanne Hensley was thinking. This rule is really open to interpretation (emphasis added):

Innocent Bystanders

When an attacker misses a Shooting or Throwing roll, it may sometimes be important to see if any other targets in the line of fire were hit. The GM should only use this rule when it’s dramatically appropriate—not for every missed shot in a hail of gunfire.

"When it's dramatically appropriate" is incredibly vague. Does it mean every fight where the PCs lives are at risk? Only "boss fights"? Only fights with actual innocent bystanders?

Furthermore, should PCs be able to use it to just fire automatic weapons indiscriminately any time two enemies are adjacent, knowing that even if they miss they have a good chance at an "innocent bystander" hit on an adjacent enemy? In an extreme case (raised in a Reddit thread) why shouldn't non-combat PCs with d4 Shooting skill just fire fully-automatic weapons at any adjacent enemies. On a 4, they hit. On a 1 or 2, they also hit. Ignoring the wild die, they have a 75% chance of hitting with a d4 Shooting as long as two enemies are adjacent; that seems wrong.

I've scoured the Internet for any kind of official answer to when something is "dramattically appropriate", but found nothing. That Reddit thread I mentioned had one guy who got 24 votes (the most in that thread) for saying:

Define an innocent bystander to be "someone you don't want to hit." It's meant to be a penalty, not a bonus. Enemy combatants are not innocent bystanders. Civilians and friends are.

I love the logical consistency of that answer, but it's not at all what Shanne Henseley wrote. I've also seen a variety of other answers ranging from:

Only if its dramatic enough to change the flow of battle

and:

if it falls into the top and might change the flow of battle or embolden some action, run with it

to:

1) A PC/Important NPC is "In Melee" with the person the shooter wants to injure (this includes hostage situations)

2) There is a large crowd of 'innocent bystanders' in the surrounding area. (Gunfire into a Mardi Gras parade, for example) - Mooks/Goons/Allied Extras don't count in this case - ONLY unaligned, uninvolved types.

If one of those two applies, I usually find that it's also Dramatically appropriate.

and:

it is always dramatically appropriate to screw over the PCs with a bad dice roll

So it seems like I can just always apply it, which will heavily favor the PCs since there is usually more enemies than them. Or I can only apply it when I feel it's dramatic, which is completely subjective: my PCs won't like it, and I'll probably unconsciously benefit the NPCs with it. Or I can convert it into a logical rule of "it can only hurt your side, not help", even though I'm really throwing out the dramatic part that way and just basically making up my own rule at that point?

Any answers on how Savage Worlds GMs in general should handle this rule (ideally canonical ones, but any well-reasoned ones) would be appreciated.

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It sounds like the solution is to consider that whole sentence as context:

The GM should only use this rule when it’s dramatically appropriate—not for every missed shot in a hail of gunfire.

This rule is an optional rule which will slow down the game with additional die rolls if you use it all the time. The GM can invoke it, at their discretion, if they feel that the value of simulating more realistic gunfire is worth the cost of slowing down the game.

I recommend that you invoke the rule if there's an important target that is very close to the character's line of fire, and otherwise ignore it.


It's true that there's a judgment call here about when to invoke the rule, but that's actually a very common issue for instructions given to the GM. I haven't played very much Savage Worlds, so I'll use D&D as an example. In particular, take a look at this question, with its attached quote:

You usually gain advantage or disadvantage through the use of special abilities, actions, or spells. [...] The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result. (PHB 173)

Consider granting advantage when: Circumstances not related to a creature's inherent capabilities provide it with an edge. Some aspect of the environment contributes to the character's chance of success. (DMG 239)

Suppose that my barbarian is attacking an orc, and the two of them are on a staircase, and my barbarian is two steps higher. Does my barbarian get advantage?

Suppose my barbarian is two steps lower; does she get disadvantage?

What if there's a low ceiling, such that my barbarian can't swing her greatsword overhand? Is this disadvantage?

What if I narrate that my barbarian is charging at the orc with a particularly fierce scream of rage, and the DM asks for an Intimidate check and she rolls a sixteen? Does that confer advantage on the attack? Does the orc get disadvantage on a counterattack? Does something else happen?

For all of these questions the answer is the same: the DM makes something up. The DM can add these additional effects to make the game more interesting, but should try to avoid doing so in a way that feels arbitrary or unfair. A DM that doesn't feel comfortable with making these judgment calls can just choose to not ever use this rule.

The rule you're looking at here, about missed projectile attacks, seems to be in the same category as the advantage/disadvantage rule from D&D. It's inherently arbitrary! If you want, you can use it to make the game more fun. If you think it won't make the game more fun, you shouldn't use it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I'm unclear about what you consider "very close": does an enemy directly in the way count? Slightly to the side but in front? Next to? Next to but behind? Also, it doesn't really slow down the game with more die rolls. In fact, it does the opposite: without this rule after a miss you'd need two rolls (to hit and to damage) on a following turn. With this rule you get to take out an enemy with a single damage roll on that exact turn. Not saying that's a good thing (again it let's a d4 Shooting skill character have a 75% hit chance if they're not a wild card), but its how it works. \$\endgroup\$ – machineghost Dec 10 '18 at 20:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @machineghost Savage Worlds is not the kind of game where "next to but behind" is different from "next to but in front". The point is to imagine the situation and think about whether a stray bullet could reasonably hit anyone interesting. Aiming at Mook A and sometimes hitting Mook B instead is not an appropriate use of this rule. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Dec 10 '18 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dan B "I haven't played very much Savage Worlds" I think this speaks to the heart of the problem with your answer. Savage Worlds isn't D&D. D&D has consistent rules for shooting into combat, and there's a reason they do: people are going to be next to each other in almost every single fight, and it's just not a viable RPG combat system to have the GM "make something up" every single time someone is next to someone else. If something is happening almost every round of every combat, you need rules that work consistently for that thing in order to have a functional RPG. \$\endgroup\$ – machineghost Dec 11 '18 at 18:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mark Wells If the standard is "could reasonably hit anyone interesting" then I'm back to square one: who's interesting? Only wild cards? Only actual innocent bystanders? If I have two badass boss NPCs next to each other a PC who is a terrible shot (d4 Shooting) can hit one or the other with 75% accuracy, but then if that same exact PC shoot two mooks next to each other that chance goes down to 25%? That doesn't seem to make much sense. \$\endgroup\$ – machineghost Dec 11 '18 at 18:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @machineghost What interesting result is there from missing Boss #1 and instead hitting Boss #2? Were you trying to capture #2 alive for some reason? Was he in the middle of activating his death ray and you hit him just in time? Is this where you discover that #2 is actually immune to bullets? It's a story consideration. If the main result is "you put out more average damage per turn", that's not interesting. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Dec 11 '18 at 20:02

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