Roleplaying games leave little room for critique. So much of the enjoyment that comes from an RPG is generated by the players. When you think about it, the industry is really charging you fifty dollars a book to play Cops and Robbers. Pinnacle Entertainment has come along to charge you a mere ten dollars for that privilege.
Savage Worlds is a game that has seen an unsurprising rise in popularity. For only one Alexander Hamilton, you receive character creation, equipment, world building tips, a bestiary, and rules. All of this fits in a nice, slim volume. Interestingly, the book does not seem to need more pages than it provides because the rules are brief and simple in an amazingly refreshing way.
The game uses the standard set of polyhedral dice of four to twenty sides. Your attributes and abilities are actually represented by these dice, as opposed to being numbers added to a roll. This creates an incredibly fluid game experience. As an example, let us say that you want to land a plane. You need to roll your flying skill. It is a d8, so now you roll against the standard difficulty of four. If the runway is a little slick, the GM (Savage Master?) may increase the difficulty to six. Even damage is kept simple. Enemies are generally hurt or dead, with little room in between. This system keeps the game from being bogged down by multitudes of bonuses, penalties, and hit points, thus leaving more time for real roleplaying.
The game is designed to be generic, but does seem to encourage pulpy, cinematic adventure. However, superhero, western, horror, and fantasy settings can all be played with ease. The core book features plenty of full color art (once again, shockingly at ten dollars) that can spark the imagination. What keeps the cost down for this art is that it is recycled from the sourcebooks that have been released for the game. Much of the art is from the Deadlands sourcebook, and, in fact, the SW system is a refined version of the original Deadlands game system.
An impulse to play a zombie western like Deadlands had prompted me to take a look at Savage Worlds. We have not yet played in that setting, but I did run a game as a pulp adventure. The story was heavily influenced by the Shadow and the Rocketeer with gangsters, Nazis, and zeppelins abound. The players took the simple options in front of them as an opportunity to be creative, which led to some wonderfully memorable scenes. Thanks to the abstraction of the damage system, our plucky boyscout was technically more powerful than the dashing mercenary pilot. Where the pilot could shoot one enemy in each round, the boy scout took three thugs out at once by dumping his bag of marbles on the floor, creating an impressive area of effect attack. Most games have such a dependency on numbers that this is a scenario that could never happen, in D & D for instance, without a major bend in the rules.
Interestingly, how non-combat play is featured into the game is of higher importance than how combat is played out. The game provides fun and fast rules for thrilling high speed chases. The participants are placed at set increments away from one another; the pursuer tries to decrease the range while the pursued attempts to increase the distance. Both parties are supplied with a variety of maneuvers to gain advantages, and the GM is issued with an arsenal of obstacles to drop into the adventure at random. Just when the villains are about to overtake the heroes, they may suddenly be halted by a flat tire, an old lady crossing the road, or even wind up in the middle of a parade. These events are randomly selected through the deck of cards that control the game. This deck represents the players initiative scores, as well as the obstacles the GM can play throughout the adventure. You can easily make yourself a chart to design random trap encounters. Draw a four of clubs? The heroes better outrun that boulder! The game is admirable for not only presenting the GM with these options, but for giving the GM simple tools for presenting them to the players.
With an unprecedented price point and exceptional quality, I cannot recommend Savage Worlds enough. I have actually purchased multiple copies, since it is so inexpensive. I wanted more than one person to have the book handy, but thanks to the elegant rules, it turned out to be unnecessary. I found a few of the rules to be mildly vague, but they are easily reinterpreted to keep the game moving. Roleplaying games require the participation of the whole table to be enjoyable, and when so many complications are lifted from the experience, the players are able to really enjoy themselves.