I'm starting to learn Savage Worlds, both from player's and gamemaster's perspective.

From what I know so far, NPCs can be "extras" or "wildcards". Extras are basically mooks which are inferior to any PC, and wildcards antagonists can be on-par with PCs, having multiple wound slots and a wild die.

Any character can defeat another character with luck. However, it's a common trope in some genres when a single foe is superior to a hero (or even party of heroes, think dragon), so it normally requires a lot of effort, teamwork and preparation in order to defeat one. How such a foe is meant to be represented using the Savage Worlds core mechanics?


2 Answers 2


The Framework

Savage Worlds has two broad categories of rules (with a wide overlap): Player character rules and Gamemaster character rules.

Player Side

Player character rules are found at the front of the book, and are designed such that any character can be defeated by any other character. Even a Legendary hero with Parry 17, Improved Dodge, Toughness 17 (5), and five Wounds can still be killed in a single hit by a crippled peasant (Strength d4) using a sharp rock (Improvised Weapon, damage Strength + d4).
Bennies can mitigate that variability (commonly with Soak), and some Setting Rules (notably Wound Cap, on page 141 of Adventure Edition) can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of such random results. But those random results are part and parcel of the player character rules - by design.

While there are several builds that can make a Player Character extremely dangerous, and a worthy foe for multiple Wild Card opponents, none of them are guaranteed or universal.

  • Reactive Fighter: For a setting with lots of melee combat, using the First Strike and Counter Attack Edges (and their improved versions) allows the character to make up to six attacks during other characters' turns. Supplement with Extraction Edges for the ability to reset the sequence during your turn. For a Parry of 10 or higher, that's going to be very effective. Easily countered by Reach weapons, Ranged attacks, and numerous Powers.
  • Many Hits: Maximizing the number of attacks you can make in a round maximizes how many foes you can defeat during your turn. Automatic weapons (RoF 2+) and the Rapid Fire and Rock and Roll! edges are a common trick for campaigns with a modern or later technology level, and adding Two-Gun Kid is an uncommon trick. For Fighting characters, the combinations of Frenzy, Sweep, and Two-Fisted allows attacks against all characters within Reach and up to four individuals. The issue with this approach is that it only works during the character's turn - initiative matters a lot to this character.
  • Anti-Magic: When dealing with magic-focused parties, the ability to stack the Arcane Resistance Edges with the arcane protection power is non-trivial. While the Edges make it significantly more difficult to cast arcane protection, the results are spectacular. A maximum -8 to all Arcane Skill rolls to affect the character, or -8 to damage from all magical sources, is extremely good protection that doesn't interfere with the character's own offensive magic. This build can be further supplemented with a dispel or drain Power Points power to disrupt and prevent casting outright. The disadvantage is that this focus is only good against powers, leaving the character normally vulnerable to mundane weapons like swords and arrows. Additionally, the active magical disruption uses limited resources and actions, minimizing the character's direct effects.

Game Master Side

Game masters have a bunch of additional tools that player don't get access to. The most relevant ones are found in the Bestiary chapter.
While Non Player Characters can use all the player character rules, they aren't built by them. Non-player characters are given whatever abilities the GM desires, even if they wouldn't meet the requirements by player character rules.

  • Heavy Armor: First mentioned in the vehicle rules, this ability can be given to monsters in a couple of ways. Either the GM can give it directly or it comes bundled as part of the Gargantuan ability. Regardless, it's a defensive ability that prevents the character from being harmed by any attack without the Heavy Weapon quality. Using this forces all characters without Heavy Weapons to act in a supporting role, but the Support and Test rules give them some meaningful options to contribute during the combat.
  • Immunity: Total immunity to a kind of damage. The character cannot be harmed by damage of that type. Good for protecting a fire elemental from burning, it can also be applied more creatively like "metal weapons" or "attacks by men". Immunity is always limited and finicky - it is very powerful but it only works on the listed thing.
  • Invulnerability: While not total protection from damage (the character can be Shaken by damage from any source), Invulnerability provides protection from serious harm. The character cannot suffer Wounds, except from listed Weaknesses. Those Weaknesses are mandatory because without them the character would be unstoppable - and unstoppable foes are not fun. Confronting an Invulnerable foe is tricky - you have to determine their weakness ahead of time or you're going to lose; you want to have an escape route determined in case your research was incorrect, or things go badly, and you need to flee; and you want to maximize the odds of success for your Weakness attack because you may only get one chance. One of the benefits of a setting known to have Invulnerable foes is that players and characters expect to have to do research and investigation before confronting major threats.

Unfortunately, none of those options are as straightforward as the Boss Template from 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Creating such templates has been a recurring effort on the official Savage Worlds forum for many years, with no real success.

The Answer

The current Adventure Edition of the rules handles the problem better than most previous attempts, with the changes in action economy (abilities like the Dragon's Tail Lash can make attacks as Free Actions), the ability to have more than three Wounds (maximum 8 at Gargantuan) without increasing the Wound Penalty, smoothing out area effect damage (Dragon fiery breath changed from 2d10 to 3d6), and providing more options to minimize multiple action penalties while still being limited to three actions and some free actions.

There's no single way to represent a foe that requires a team to defeat. In narrative, non player character can talk about how dangerous a foe is, how it would take a "small army, or at least a band of heroes" to defeat the foe, even recounting battles the foe has had to illustrate some of the tactics and abilities that make it relatively easy for the foe to defeat single targets.

Another option is to have a scene where a powerful non-player character attacks the foe and loses badly. This is more effective when you roll it out in the open, possibly letting the players roll for the powerful non-player character. That really drives home that the foe is still using the core rules, not simply cheating by fiat.
One of the more successful variations I've seen used is for the player characters to have a mission (or vision) where the players take control of some powerful (Wild Card) non-player character allies, and then have a later scene where those allies confront the foe and lose badly. It's one thing to hear about how a foe is deadly, it's another thing to game out the foe killing a powerful band of heroes that the players were attached to and controlling.

[Aside] During these scenes, don't forget one of the fundamental pieces of GM advice (especially for Savage Worlds) - don't put a character in a scene with player characters without being prepared for that character to die. Players can be fickle, can be lucky, and can roll well when they randomly do exactly the thing needed to slay an otherwise overwhelming foe (or quest giver). Don't put a character into a scene with player characters without at least some thought to what happens if the players kill this character. [/Aside]

The mechanics of this "Superior Foe" are going to depend upon the concept and style of the foe. Generally, it needs some kind of damage avoidance to keep all attacks from landing, it needs some kind of damage mitigation to limit the frequency of Wounds, and it needs some way to attack multiple player characters that might be spread around the battle field; it also needs to be beatable by the player characters, though they may need prior research and preparation to do that.
Example: Dragons combine Flight and the Fear special ability to limit the number of attacks and attackers that can target them. They use high Toughness and Hardy to limit the number of Wounds taken, have their own bennies to Soak, and have two additional Wounds from being Huge. Dragons also have claws (that ignore Scale penalties), tail lash (a free action), and fiery breath (cone template) to attack multiple characters in a round; augmented by the superior mobility of Pace 8 and Flight Pace 24 to reach far targets. Dragons are "superior foes".


There are ways to do what you want, although none are perfect.

High Toughness and Multiple Actions per Turn

This is the mathematically easy solution: If a boss has a Robustness 4 to 6 points above the norm, it will take a lot of tries to score a hit capable of taking them down. By at the same time giving them many things they can do per turn, you can keep an entire team "busy" with attacks/effects/secondary whatnots. This is how a dragon is statted out in the core rules.

However, this in my experience and opinion a bad option, because it just increases the incredible swinginess of Savage Worlds combat. No matter how high the Robustness, there is a nonzero chance the combat is over in the first turn, and on the reverse, there is a nonzero chance it will take "forever", or at least longer than the player characters can last.

Since wounding the boss is essentially random, the players won't feel very engaged during the battle. Their decisions will not matter much, it's all just waiting for that triple explosion on the damage dice, while hoping at the same time the BBEB won't get it first.

Similarly, multiple actions from a single source are more swingy than the same amount of actions from multiple sources. If the boss is Shaken, all actions are lost at once. And especially for multiple melee attacks, there is a severe focus fire problem, in which one guy gets hit by everything and thus immediately dies. Or in reverse, in case your players stay wisely at range, suddenly all those nifty multi-options are useless.

Conditional Weaknesses

Some of the example monsters in the bestiary use this approach, in that they can only be damaged/wounded by certain specific things. E.g. a Vampire can only be Shaken by any result that's not sunlight, holy or a stake through the heart. This obviously makes the monster undefeatable until the weakness is found and exploited.

This is, while a bit better than just high Toughness, also a bad option my opinion. This is for two reasons:

  1. Most players and GMs let their controlled characters fight until one side is dead. If however a monster is undefeatable by normal means, then this makes a combat encounter with that monster a foregone conclusion: Total Party Kill. As a GM, you need to re-think combat to have other end states than dying, and to make really sure that your players realize they have the option to try and disengage. This is not easy.

  2. This kind of approach is inherently rail-roady: What the player characters do is meaningless until they find and exploit the weakness. Especially if the scenario to discover that weakness is badly designed, this will kill all enjoyment for the players as well.

Smart Bennie Use

Each GM Wildcard has 2 Bennies per Session, and in addition, the GM has 1 Bennie per Player around the table, which can be used at any time, even for Extras.

One of the main uses of Bennies are Soak rolls, negating a wound. This means, more than the Wound track, it's the amount of Bennies that is equivalent to the HP amount of other games. Once a boss can't Soak any more, it's usually over quickly, because the penalties of wounds make everything more difficult, and easier or their opponents.

Therefore, if you save the generic pool Bennies for the final confrontation, the Boss gets proportionally harder. With four players, he goes from Soaking 2 times to 6 times, so the combat will also last 3 times as long (on average).

Intimidating Descriptions

Savage Worlds is a narrative system insofar that it just supplies mechanics and then leaves the interpretation of those mechanics in the hands of the GM. What does it look like to be Shaken? What real-world action, if any, is represented by a Soak roll (or Bennie spend in general)? This can be used to make a foe appear more dangerous than their raw stat block might suggest, by simply giving an unusual narrative explanation to the Soak/Recovery rolls of the character.

For example, one of the more memorable fights in my recent campaign was against a guy with rather average combat stats. If the main fighter of the group had been there, it would have been over quickly, as basically the only thing out of the ordinary was that the enemy ignored all wound modifiers.

However, the players involved became really desperate during the fight, because I narrated that guy as basically the Implacable Man. When the rogue opened the fight by a called sword attack to the head, I described the successful Soak roll as (instead of as usual, the wound being slight despite initial appearance) him continuing to function despite having a gaping head wound and no eyes left to see with. Later, he Soaked a wound acquired from the ranger charging on an inpromtu mount and impaling him with a lance. The description was that the man grabbed the lance and pulled it out by pushing rider and mount backwards over the ground. None of that had any mechanical impact, but it made the fight extremely memorable and impressive.

Narrative Danger

As desiging a combat encounter to be meaningful but difficult in Savage Worlds is not easy, a better option is to not rely on combat, which also meshes better with the genres Savage Worlds tried to emulate. What makes Toht and Belloq so problematic isn't that they can beat Indiana Jones in a fist fight, it's that they have a resource advantage with their Nazi backing and a greater willingness for amoral actions.

Therefore, instead of trying to shoe-horn a boss fight the players are expected to loose in there, create secondary conditions which make just attacking or killing the villain difficult or undesirable. This can be as easy as not having them be in direct contact with the heroes until the last act. A villain can be intimidating and difficult to overcome without being any kind of personal danger.

For example, in my current campaign, my group is currently facing a mage who they managed to easily defeat before. This time, they're a lot more careful, not because their opponent has better stats, but because the surroundings are different: Last time, it was an isolated encounter in a place that didn't care much. This time, he's a boss of a cult who has infilftrated the local law enforcement, and living in a place where any entanglement with the law on the part of the heroes might result in a civil war breaking out. Therefore, even if they were to meet that mage in the street, they couldn't deal with him as easily as last time.


While of course not really answering the question per se, the best option is to simply accept that Savage Worlds doesn't do one-on-one fights and duels very well. The system is designed for larger scale battles, with multiple participants on both sides.

Therefore, instead of trying to make that Big Beefy Boss work, it's best to instead supply a multitude of opponents, with differing abilities, who work together, to give a hard challenge for the team. This also prevents the anticlimax of the Boss going down in a single hit because of a lucky four-fold explosion.

This applies as much out of combat as in combat. By letting go of the idea of one central keystone villain, the narrative breadth and responsiveness of your scenario to the player's actions increases dramatically. I'll point at Justin Alexander's nice Article "The Principles of RPG Villainy" for a longer exploration of that subject.

And, because it should be mentioned because it's from an official source:

Super-Benny Actions

In the "Daring Tales of Adventure" booklet, the authors introduce a special rule to use for more Pulp-like scenario flow. Paraphrased because I've only got the German translation:

A GM Wildcard may at any moment in combat spend a Benny to Flee, that is, move their max speed and ignore all obstacles or attacks of opportunity preventing them from making that escape. They automatically suceed in all checks they'd need to make and can take that action even when it's not their turn during combat.

This allows specifically for recurrring villains, and prevents them from dying prematurely. But I'd also call it a bad option, because the notion on a boss dying prematurely and then just inventing a rule to prevent that are both symptoms of railroading.

  • \$\begingroup\$ In the first section, "High Toughness and Multiple Actions", you point out a problem with using high toughness for bosses. Did you mean to say something about multiple actions also? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Oct 16, 2019 at 12:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells good point, I'll add a paragraph \$\endgroup\$ Oct 16, 2019 at 12:10

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