Game Mastering Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds logo

As a GM, deciding to use a new game system is not something that you undertake lightly.  Beyond taking the time to learn the new ruleset, you also only have one chance to make a good first impression on your players – you are also ‘selling’ the system to other gamers.  As a result, your first game needs to run smoothly while hopefully showing enough of the positives of the game’s core rules to win over at least a second look.

Converting an adventure to VTT is also a sure way to learn it forwards and backwards

So I prepared a one-shot Halloween game, converting a Savage Worlds adventure from an older 2003 title called ‘Last Rites of the Black Guard’ over to Fantasy Grounds.  Converting an adventure to VTT is also a sure way to learn it forwards and backwards – so my confidence in running the adventure was as high.  I also spent 14 hours as a player in games hosted by other GMs and a goodly amount of time reading and re-reading rules, again building more confidence through knowledge.

To top it all off, I put my own spin on the adventure.  I constructed a team of pre-built player characters with crisp, well-defined roles. They were all part of a video production crew trying to film enough of the occult and creepy settings to get a TV deal.  They had electronic devices and gadgets to help them investigate any hauntings or dark happenings.  So they had an over-arching goal of selling their show to the networks and then a host of immediate goals for the client whose children were in occult danger.  They would have contracts and release paper-work, lighting and power considerations, and gobs of smaller details to worry about that would hopefully help invest them in the story.

Defining team roles worked really, really well

Last night I GMed my first Savage Worlds game and because I was exceedingly well prepared, it went very smoothly.  Defining team roles worked really, really well and it gave everyone some of the limelight.  Everyone contributed to the collective story and the rules quickly faded into background noise once everyone got familiar with how to make skill checks.  I drove the adventure where it needed to go by making it increasingly spooky and by adding enough tension at certain points to steer the players where they needed to go.

For instance, they ‘knew’ early on that the source of their problems was coming from an adjacent house, but they had been paid to help their client and she really needed them and her distress got them back to helping her kids.  They rightly believed that they were treating the symptoms, and it weighed heavily on them for a while, but they were soon getting clues about the nature of the haunting and started to see value in helping their client.  A seance allowed them to learn a great deal about the haunting and was TV gold!  It was nice, from a GMs perspective, to have a plot device that actually provided a logical reason to dig deeper even when you had an intuitive reason to skip to the end.  They are filming the story and they wanted a good record for their viewers.

A one-shot one-kill affair really stunned them

As far as the game system goes, there were only 2 combat encounters.  The first one was a one-shot one-kill affair that really stunned them.  They’ve been use to D&D 5e combat were opponents generally tend to get worn down gradually.  But here – BANG – and they killed a zombie creature with single shot!

The next combat came on the heels of the first and it was a lot different from D&D.  All but two of the players were hiding and dreading combat because they saw that it could be deadly.  And it was deadly – they stabbed and shot a pair of murderous attackers and the combat was over after 2 rounds.  Combat isn’t really that deadly for wild cards – but there is no reason to tell them.  It role plays better this way – and it is going to lend a sense of danger to future combats.

Everyone seemed happy with the adventure and with the game system.  Combat was exactly what I wanted – impactful to the plot, but not the key element of play.  I already have a good mental picture of how to layout the next two or three episodes – and I will be channeling my inner Carl Kolchak if we decide to proceed.


Severing Magical Ties

If a mage goes mad with power and starts terrorizing the citizens with lightening bolts and other powerful spells, what can be done to stop the mage?  Well, the obvious answer is to put the mage to death.  But what if the mage is more subversive – using his powers to glean information, for instance, and then using that information to further his goals?  He’s not harming anyone – at least not directly – and what can be done now?

The concept of a process which removes the ability of magic user to cast spells is occasionally mentioned or used in fantasy fiction.  It is usually done to protect the world from a corrupt mage, but sometimes it is done to control or otherwise limit those that have a ‘dangerous’ power.

The process invariably has a name that sounds somewhat dreadful.  A ‘silencing’ or ‘stilling’ – perhaps a ‘quelling’ or a ‘quenching’ – a process that permanently prevents a caster from drawing upon the source of magic.

How to deal with a insane mage?
How to deal with a insane mage?

A process that permanently prevents a caster from drawing upon the source of magic

How the actual process works depends entirely upon you.  Perhaps it takes a ritual and the involvement of a handful of the other casters.  Maybe it is controlled by the gods and a gathering of high priests from various orders?  Perhaps it only requires a very special poison, one which gives the caster the choice between death or being forever cut-off from magic. The specifics are up to you.

It can be easily blended into your campaign – a mission to capture a mad mage so he can be stilled while sparing him his life could be challenging.  Perhaps a player has been a bit wild in his castings and learns that orders for his silencing have been issued – that the academy of mages has judged him and will cut him off from magic in order to save the academy further embarrassments.

Implementing a background or lore for this doesn’t take a great deal of work and is another little way to make your campaign special.  And having a background for a warrior or thief of having been a quelled mage would just be pretty cool and would open the door to a lot of potential tales.


This article is a part of a series on how to customize your campaign without really doing too much laborious work.  Each article outlines an idea or a series of related ideas or concepts, each of which when fully considered and blended into your campaign will help to make it unique and more fully realized. 

Magic Portals and their operation

Magic portals to distant locations are uncommon in magic settings, but the concept is a well known one.  They seem to be heavily utilized in Faerun (Forgotten Realms), and I will talk a bit about that implementation.

magic_circleMagic portals in Faerun require a password to activate (like the original magic wands) and everything and everyone inside the magic circle are transported to a linked circle.  There seems to be a 1:1 relationship between circles and while it is not specified or said, there is probably a limit to the number of times a circle can be activated (daily or weekly, perhaps).  There is also a suggestion that the linking can be ‘re-tuned’ – so perhaps you could retrain the destination if you had the right information.

Magic portals could be more complex.  I designed the portal system in my current campaign to work so that the outer ring could be directed to a particular ‘address’ and you could spend the daily charge attempting to go there, but portals can be locked or set to only accept visitors during a narrowly specified time.  Most portals also spin the outer ring randomly after their use, so the address last used is lost.

Another tact for a magic portal is that of an enduring interconnecting wormhole between two places.  The wormhole might be open constantly or it might open briefly under the right astrological circumstances.  How it appears could differ – an inky, shifting blackness when a door is opened, or perhaps touching or using something causes that person to disappear and reappear at the destination.  These types of places would be as much about one’s knowledge of them as one’s ability to reach them, being perhaps part of the powerful remains of an ancient civilization.

One could also introduce a ‘Terminator’ factor to the travel and prevent metal and inorganic materials from making the trip.  This would be especially disagreeable to most parties – they’d probably rather walk the length of a continent rather than forgo the use of their treasured magic items.

More rarely, magic portals are used as traps, typically transporting the ‘victim’ deeper into a dungeon, but they could just as easily send them to a different plane of existence.

I generally prefer to go without magic portals or, if I do use them, I will go with the rare remnant of an dead civilization.  The ability for factions to create portals would be a primary weapon of war, allowing troops to ignore walls and distance.

I know that high-magic settings demand such things, but I still chafe at the difference between how they are used in the game versus how I believe that they would actually be utilized – as a tool of war.  Wow, sounds like a good idea for a campaign high-level over-arching plot…

This article is a part of a series on how to customize your campaign without really doing too much laborious work.  Each article outlines an idea or a series of related ideas or concepts, each of which when fully considered and blended into your campaign will help to make it unique and more fully realized. 

Enchanting as a campaign element

This article is a part of a series on how to customize your campaign without really doing too much laborious work.  Each article outlines an idea or a series of related ideas or concepts, each of which when fully considered and blended into your campaign will help to make it unique and more fully realized. 

D&D and most gaming systems that I’ve had experience with do not really address most of the specifics of how enchanting works.  The system provides a list of material components, a cost of construction, and the amount of time it takes for someone capable to craft the magic item.  Kinda of bland, kinda boring, and very, very vague.

What details or information am I talking about without getting too specific?  What can be added without creating a lot of work?

3Let us consider, then.  Is magic in an enchanted item like compressed air?  Does it take a more powerful compressor (a higher level crafter) to jam more magic stuff into the item being made?  So a +1 sword might be easier while a +3 sword takes a more powerful and skilled enchanter to add enough magic to make it stronger?  It is a reasonable explanation, and it can lend itself to ideas such as items being over-enchanted, over-inflated if you will – and prone to catastrophic failure.

Is magic in an enchanted item like compressed air?

An alternative to this would be that there are more powerful magic elements that take a more capable caster to control.  Still vague, but it might infer that there are common, more easily managed powers that can be infused to create more common magic items.  As a created item become more powerful, perhaps the sources infusable magic become increasing rare or more difficult to obtain and control.  Since magic weapons go from +1 to +5, it is not hard to visualize 5 different unique magic essences, each one increasingly more challenging to gather and to bend to the will of the enchanter.

I also like the concept of spirits being bound – willingly bound, preferably, through a challenge or a sacrifice – to give magic items particular properties. This in turn would allow the weapons themselves to be bound to an individual and end up with a very involved creation process – good stuff for rewards.  Anyhow, this isn’t generic enough and would take a lot of work to fully form, but striking someone with my Howling Sword of the North (which was made with the spirit of a friendly frost wolf) sounds pretty cool.

Maybe you can spark an entire campaign off of how magic items are made

Adding structure to how enchanted items come to be created might add more flavor and personality to your campaign.  It also might help you create content branded to your view of how magic exists.  And if you can give some logic to how enchanting magic items work, you can also give it a story, a background, and maybe you can spark an entire campaign off of how magic items are made.

Some questions you might ask yourself are:

  • Is magic unlimited?
  • If magic isn’t unlimited, can it be horded or controlled?
  • If it is limited, it is regional or limited to the current plane of existence?
  • Are magic weapons powered from a different energy than holy weapons and other gifts from the gods? (I will touch on this in more detail in another post.)

The deeper you develop systems like this, the more unique your campaign becomes and deeper the pool of inspiration you’ll have to draw upon when creating a story that only you can tell.


The Importance of Realism

I tend to buy adventure modules and source books just because I want to see how the author(s) tackle problems.  Some of them, such as “The Cerulean Seas” campaign setting by Alluria tackle some really complex problems – in this case, such as buoyancy and depth – and the resulting document can be informative while providing keen examples of solving problems in a solid fantasy gaming fashion.

But a bit too often authors needlessly introduce unnecessary challenges to reality.  I will give you two examples.

I recently purchased a module because I needed something to cover me for just 3 game hours because I hadn’t created anything for my weekly game.  So I bought a module that happened to be the correct level and it was structured loosely enough so that I could adjust it to integrate fairly well into my campaign.  I should have been ready in like a quarter the time – I ‘d just have to read it.

And then I noticed that a portion the pirate-themed adventure featured a 170 foot pirate ship.  I don’t know if you know much about wooden ships, but I assure you that this is a honking huge wooden ship.  Not impossibly huge, but it would be an impressive wooden ship in any era.  My bullshit detectors were starting to spin-up.

Next I discovered that this behemoth of a ship was ‘crewed’ by 5 pirates that would sail the ship to intercept and engage any ship piloted by the party.  I am not saying that it would be bs_meterimpossible to sail a ship with just 5 people, but it would be very challenging just to sail the ship, much less engage another fully crewed vessel while attempting to control a 170′ mammoth.  The BS detector was now sounding loud and clear – DUH – DUH – DUH!

No one wants to have a realism discussion instead of gaming

Once your inner BS detector is sounding off, it is a problem – your disbelief is no longer suspended and you start to scrutinize everything else.  Just handing something that set off your BS detector to your players without sanitizing it can result in them having a similar “that’s a load” moment and a couple of those can create problems.  No one wants to have a realism discussion instead of gaming.

And mistakes of this nature aren’t limited to 3rd party publishers.  While reading a fairly recent (i.e. 5e) WoTC adventure document, I encountered a brief description of a young mother and her sextuplets.   Yeah, it was tossed in the middle of an adventure just that casually, hastily used to illustrate the generosity of this woman who was also caring for adoptive children.  Six suckling infants and still such a charitable soul that she is adopting non-human children! So noble!  So…unlikely.

There have been less than 200 cases of sextuplets since the 1800s

It took me like 5 minutes on Google to learn that there have been less than 200 cases of sextuplets since the 1800s.  And the success rate for the infants is low until recent times and it is still quite common to lose all of the infants.

As a player, I would have investigated the woman to see if she were following a goddess of fertility or if she’d actually been bedded by a god.  And if the DM seemed surprised that I was asking such oddly prying questions, my vote of confidence in the entire scenario would almost certainly be suspended and that dreaded reality talk about how things really work would have started.

Yes, I realize that we’re playing a game and that it should not be very realistic – it is, after all, rather abstract.  But neither should it flaunt ignorance or outrageous stupidity – unless that is the actual intent, to make players question or to dig deeper into something that is clearly, and obviously…wrong.

Neither should it flaunt ignorance or outrageous stupidity

Adding needless color text that creates disbelief, conceiving scenarios requiring some scant knowledge without doing any amount of reasonable research, or simply introducing something on the edge of believably that does nothing to advance the adventure are foolish, easily avoidable mistakes that reflect poorly upon the editors – the quality control people – first and foremost since they accepted the ‘work’ without pushing back or doing due diligence.


Gaming Terminology – Thorp, Hamlet, Village

I’ve always been a bit amused by some of the words that were selected early in the life of RPGs to act as ways to describe things that really were not very different.  But because they were adopted early, they’ve remained.

In this case, the words in question define the size of a village, but they should do a bit more than that.  I will make some suggestions that I’ve not seen used.

Thorp or Thorpe

A thorp is the smallest form of village and it should be used to refer to settlements that are 20-49 people in size. There is no government and possibly no businesses, with the reason for nearness often being the most basic one – the members of the budding village are family.  Common extensions for these places include -thorp, -thorpe, -porp, -dorf, and -dorp.


A hamlet is a step upwards from a Thorp, with a population of  50-199 good people.  There are still no government buildings, but a business or two are likely and several clans of folk are almost certainly living here.  Common extensions for places this size include -heim, -ham, -heem.


A true village almost certainly has a fundamental government and at least one religious structure.  The government might be as small as a mayor or it might have a small council.  A larger village might have a sheriff to keep the peace.  The village might own land, such as a communal marketplace or a place for caravans and other visitors to camp for the night.

Places of this type are not as clannish or suspicious as the smaller villages.

Villages will have 200 to 1999 people.  Common naming extensions for places this size include -stead, -place, -ville, -vale.

Closing Thoughts

Fantasy worlds are not safe places.  Thorps and Hamlets should be more common in patrolled or civilized lands, but uncommon to rare where things like goblins, orc, gnolls, and trolls would find small settlements easy targets.  Still, places have to grow, so new settlements will sprout up where there is safety and money to be made.

Places often retain the extension on their names, so it is possible for towns or even cities to carry the name given to a thorp or hamlet.

These small places should not be especially tolerant of new comers, especially those of clearly different races.  Superstition and ignorance should combine to make the less traveled villagers difficult to be around unless the place is near a larger place such as a town or city.

Protection for these small settlements will come from the larger regional government.  Particularly troublesome regions might have a temporary garrison in or near larger or strategically important villages.

Coincidentally, almost all random population systems will break things down further into 3 categories of town (small, medium, large) and into 3 categories of cities (small, medium, large).  There are no special words for each category, which makes the thorp/hamlet/village system feel like the start of an unfinished word search or something.

I’d break with the trips format and go with Burg / Town / City / Metropolis for the remaining descriptors.  Using some term that requires a google search isn’t what I would want.

As a small aside, in medieval France, a settlement of any size was considered a city if it contained a Cathedral.  Just a thought, that perhaps the names of places could reflect some important societal goal which in turn would give other some expectation about the organization and strength of will of the inhabitants.


Rebuilding G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

Sometimes I like to take on a technical challenge and I thought that converting G1 to D&D5e would be an interesting thing to try.  I thought that it would be cool to see how well 5e would overlay upon the old bones of G1 and it would be interesting to discern how much of the original AD&D model would still shine-through while creating a Fantasy Grounds module.

Schley’s version is a great improvement, being rendered in a 5′ scale

So I gathered up a copy of G1 and the first task seemed to be to either make or find a high resolution battle map.  A little bit of search engine action later, and I was staring in amazement at a Mike Schley version of the two maps in G1.  They were not a one-to-one match, but very, very similar while getting the job done.  Actually, Schley’s version is a great improvement, being rendered in a 5′ scale while the original was in 10′ map square.  I became a patron of Mr. Schley’s web store and bought the two maps.

David C. Sutherland III cover art for the original G1 module

Once I had the maps, I started to wonder if Mike just took on old modules and made maps, or what.  Why in the heck did he make this map?

The entire G-series was remade for the 4th Edition of D&D

It turns out that the entire G-series was remade for the 4th Edition of D&D starting in the pages of Dungeon 197 and subsequently reappearing in 199 and climaxing in issue 200.  It was designed for level 13-14+ characters, which made me a bit unhappy since the original G1 was designed for level 8 or 9 adventurers.  I am still targeting the level 8-9 range because I’d prefer to keep at least that much consistent.

Fantasy Grounds screen shot of the Steading map and adventure text
Mike Schley’s excellent map serves as the anchor for my conversion of the G1 module to D&D5e and as a Fantasy Grounds module

Reviewing the pages of Dungeon 197, I was actually very, very pleased with how they had structured it.  The Steading was zoned off into logical areas and it was tied into what would happen if an alarm was sounded.

A 25th Anniversary edition of the G-series was released as Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff

Still looking at things through a historical lens, I discovered that a 25th Anniversary edition of the G-series was released as Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff in 1999.  I suppose that this was swan song of D&D2e material – but it is not available online, so my interest in it died.

Very, very early into this conversion, you have to stare down the barrel of Gygax’s player killing design.  The second room in the original module contains over 25 giants.  If the alarm goes up elsewhere in the structure and this group fans out and gets organized, it could be very easy for a party to do a full wipe.

The second room in the original module contains over 25 giants.

Conversely, a room filled with Giants is an AoE wet dream.  I can still recall the party that I DMed for hitting that room with wands, a necklace of fireballs, and of course an actual fireball cast by the party mage.  Of the 25 giants, most were dead or nearly dead and the room was really an irresistibly huge XP pool and my group of players happily cannon-balled and belly-flopped into the warm, warm waters of combat experience.

Fantasy Grounds chart for use in G1 module
This is one of the custom charts to generate mundane finds when searching.

In fairness, things were quite a bit different back in D&D1e days.  Damage inflation hadn’t happened – doing over 10 points of damage on a single attack was doing good.  The giants of the time had hit points listed as: H.P.: 44, 3 x 40, 39, 5 x 38, 5 x 37, 3 x 36, 33, 30, 2 x 27.

Your average run of the mill D&D5e Hill Giant has 105 hit points – close to 3x the average hit points of the giants in the original encounter listed above.  More problematic for the players, these giants will not crumple and fold under the incandescent glow of a few fireballs.

So the number of foes has to be reduced – even an expert party would go down under the crushing power of 25 giants.  It still needs to be an overpowering group of grubby hill giants, one that you do not want to face in a fair fight, but something closer to manageable in case the party decides to risk direct conflict.

What I ended up with was a CR 16 group worth 14600 XP – not yet modified for difficulty which will be deadly.  The group summarizes as:

  1. Stone Giants x 2 (one being the chief Nosnra, one being the stone giant emissary)
  2. Hill Giants x 5.  I really considered going with three (one giant for each seat at the table), but decided to dig in the spurs and make sure the group had significant gravity
  3. Dire Bear x 1.  The chief has a pet bear and animals might pose problems or opportunities depending upon the group and their plans.  To create the bear, I modified a polar bear, gave it more hit dice (7d10), renamed it to DIRE BEAR and patted myself on the back.

Get the hardest encounter tuned and the rest of it just sort of falls into place.

Getting the principal encounter on the map ‘tuned’ to level 8 or 9 made me feel pretty good about how the rest of the adventure will turn out.  I think that I will use this approach during future conversions – get the hardest encounter tuned and the rest of it just sort of falls into place.

Area 01 summary (CR9 XP 4950):

  1. Hill Giants x 2 (one on the tower, one asleep against the main doors)
  2. Ogres x 3 (asleep near the main gate)

Add one more ogre and the difficulty jumps from HARD to DEADLY, so this monster encounter is a pretty good acid test to see if the group of players is ready for adventure inside the Steading.  If you are unsure, fudge it into an full encounter and if the party struggles, they might want to fall-back.

Area 03 summary (CR14, XP 11250)

  1. Morzul, Hill Giantess Shaman (started with a Hill Giant, copied the three powers from the article in Dungeon 197 and removed rock throwing – she is asleep in her room)
  2. Hill Giants x 3 (these guys are asleep and scattered in beds in two rooms)
  3. Hill Giant Younglings x 9 (I took an ogre and converted it into a Hill Giant youth.  The players have three rounds to get this group down before they attract the attention of the adult Hill Giants whereupon things could take a turn for the worse)

This is a controlled situation where player choices will make a difference.  If the adults become involved, the situation could deteriorate very quickly.

Unexpected Twists – Plot Branches

From time to time over the course of a campaign, players will embark in a new course well away from the story arc that you’ve planned.  It is a product of role play and it is a large part of why role playing games are successful – they are adaptive and designed to work as guidelines rather than rules.  Being able to leave the rails and to go boldly in a new direction is exactly why role playing games are the preferred game of many.

The players are starting to discern that a malignant force might be sowing the seeds of chaos

Last night’s session was one such night, where the players decided to look much, much harder into one of the mysteries that they’d caught hints of earlier but had not acted upon.  The town that they are based out of is plagued by all manners of woes, with recent years being times of great turmoil and strife.  Having recently ascended to 5th level and having put an end to some of the woes, the players are starting to discern that a malignant force might be sowing the seeds of chaos.

So rather than going the direction that they’d been nudged, they decided to look harder at their employers – the Council of Six, the ruling council of town.  I’d already started thinking about a series of events and adventures for the church in town that had over the last three years lost more than half of its parishioners.  So, adlibbing like mad, they spoke with a council member – a priestess – and at her bequest began looking into why her flock had become increasingly disloyal.

The sigil of Cyric
The dark sun sigil of Cyric

The night became one primarily of role play and plot examination, with the players clearly seeing that the church of Cyric had been tempting, forcing, luring away the happy-go-lucky followers of Sune in great numbers and that the conversion had been transpiring for several years.  It was starting to look as though the town might be like a rotten apple, bright and shiny on the outside but rotten with worms within.

The players are forcing the growth of a new plot branch.

Is there a lesson here, something to learn?  Having considered a number of plot hooks and continuations, it was easy enough to reach out to one of half formed, half cooked plots and allow the party push off in a “new” direction.  They are still working within the over-arcing plot, but the players are forcing the growth of a new plot branch.

More importantly, this is the direction that they want to go.  No longer trusting the direction of the suspect council, they want to examine things that had been otherwise ignored or kept hidden.  They’ve uncovered several new leads and now have an array of paths that they might take.

Keep your notes at hand and hold close your unimplemented or discarded ideas and plans as they might serve you well when the party sets off exploring an unexpected tangent or reopens a thread of thought only lightly touched upon.  In this case, I really only had three semi-considered sub-plots and the one I chose was perhaps the least developed of them (another actually had battle maps and encounters built, albeit for a lower level group).

Finally, if your plot has moving parts (and it should, if you can manage it), keep the timelines and background events moving.  The players ignoring or electing not to follow breadcrumbs might later have unintended or dire consequences.

The sigil of Cyric was made with the Mischief software that I discussed earlier in the month.  A handy tool for sketching!