Savage West, Session 1: The Riverboat Poker Heist, The Plan

I bought 3 copies of the pocket-sized Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition at Gen Con last summer.  It was a game I was told I might like given the limited time I could spend playing on Friday nights.  I asked Yan if he’d like to GM a demo to our once-a-month Sunday geekout crew (PM, Maze, Ubisoft Alex and I) and he agreed.

Savage Hybrid

The best way to describe Savage Worlds I heard was to say that it’s what would happen if D&D and GURPS created an offspring. It’s purported to be fast and furious.  This is mostly achieved by a dead simple task resolution mechanic: all attributes (Strength, Agility, Vigor, etc) and skills are ranked in terms of polyhedral dice (D4, D6, D8, D10, D12). When you attempt a task (or try to hit a target), you pick the appropriate polyhedral and you try to roll a 4 or more. All dice are open ended (i.e. you keep rolling maximum results and add them together). As a PC, you also get a bonus D6 wild die for all rolls and you get to choose which of your normal or wild die rolls you keep for the task at hand.

Combat is done on battlemaps (squares or hexes, GM’s choice) and is indeed fast and swingy.  There’s no Hit Points to worry about, just combat conditions likes “dazed” and “incapacitated” plus various wound levels that make your character progressively less effective.  Mook NPC are even easier to deal with, going down after one solid hit or 2 minor ones.

Action and general character badassery are helped by the expenditure of Bennies.  They are Savage Worlds Action Point and allow PCs to do things like re-roll failed checks, soak up damage or cancel a critical failure.  Each player gets a few every sessions and can win more through play.

Finally, character generation is simple yet covers a very wide range of possibilities through the existence of setting specific Edges (advantages) and Hindrances (disadvantages).  Each character buys attributes, skills and gears. Then, they pick two edges and one major (or two minor) hindrances and they are ready to go.

Thus after a bit of brainstorming, Yan offered to run a Far West game and we made PCs accordingly.

Gallery of Rogues:

Judge Gloom (PM) a roaming judge, delivering swift justice and harsh punishment on the frontier with his annotated books of Law and Bible (he crossed out the “wussy” parts and added his own when necessary).  He stays ahead of the letters from the Chief Justice that revoked his licence by travelling fast with a band of misfits he barely tolerates.

Dynamite Chang (Alex): Chinese miner who discovered that it was way more lucrative to mine gold from safes than from mines, he joined a team of foreign devils who all think they are smarter than he is, but that’s all right, he’s the one who handles the group’s explosives.

Jayne (Maze): None-too bright, overconfident ex Hitman/Bounty Hunter of the fabled Pinkerton.  Was forced out of the organization because he kept being convinced by his targets that not killing them was a better deal for him. He hopes that this McGraw guy gets it right this time, because his ex-bosses are NOT happy.

Jimmie Joe McGraw (Chatty): Grifter, Hustler and Miracle Max with limited judgment and too big a mouth for his own good.  He drives his cart filled with snake oil, and medicinal elixirs while dreaming of striking the big one and retiring young. Currently on the run from the law and one particular enforcer of the nascent drug cartels of Mexico.  Informal leader of this band.

Vision-Scaping an Adventure

After we setup and introduced our PCs, Yan asked us to work some way to for our group to make sense as a whole. It quickly became apparent to us that what we had was a hustling crew.  Gloom was a perfect, if scary as hell straight man, Chang was the techie, Jayne was the muscle (thinking he was the brains) and my PC was to be the Brain and Face of the operation.

So when we had our crew, 4 faces eagerly turned toward our smiling GM…

Yan: So guys, tell me what trick you plan to pull…

Oh hell, it was going to be one of those… Yan had no prep done whatsoever. He was ready to go with whatever we wanted to do.  This could have gone bad with a more passive group, but we were anything but that.

So we started brainstorming and got the following objective:

Our crew wants to steal the prize money of the Annual Rio Grande Riverboat Poker tournament.

We became a bit bogged down in the details of planning the heist before we even began to play, finding how to place some PCs on the boat but not others.  As we discussed, I was doodling the river boat on the backs of my character sheet and then an idea struck me:

Chatty: Guys, the way I see the game is that it ends with the boat burning and sinking in the river while we swim away from it, our faces blackened from soot.  We’re all holding on bags filled with cash and money bills are drifting downstream from us as we leave the scene.

Alex: And then we get a blackout, with “one month before” written on the screen.

From this clear image, all blocks fell into place.  The game needed a casino river boat, the PCs needed ways to get on board and an exit strategy that would likely blow up in their faces. Yan had everything he needed to go, and we were all ready to start playing.

Aside: This approach of starting with the last seconds of the end scene of an adventure triggered a near epiphany, I need to explore further and make a post out of it soon.

The Plan

Like all good heist stories, we needed a plan, even if it was going to blow up in our faces. So after some discussion, we agreed to the following:

  • We’d track down a less known poker player who had raised the entry fee.
  • We’d con the money off him.
  • We’d use the fee to get Jayne, myself and Gloom on the boat, Jayne as player, we as entourage.
  • Chang would sub for one of the immigrants working one of the boat’s furnace, ready to create trouble.
  • Once on the boat, we’d find the place where the money was kept.
  • We’d create a big diversion.
  • We’d steal the money and leave the boat.

Flawless plan wouldn’t you say?

Not so much… see you in part 2.


  1. Brilliant! I was about to ask if reverse engineering a story arc or adventure was par for the course in Savage Worlds until I re-read that part. Very cool, and makes waiting for Part II even more worthwhile. After all, you know what they say about the best-laid plans of thugs and conmen. . . .

    By the way, I have to say that those are some of the best character concepts I`ve ever seen. Very cool party composition.

  2. Savage Worlds is one of my favorite system. It does the D&D style of gameplay so much better than D&D does nowadays. You should’ve played in Jocelyn’s Savage Worlds Dark Sun game to see how good it really is.

    Plus it very adaptable to lots of styles of play. Well worth the 10$.

  3. I love savage world because it is light, versatile and easily adapted to any need. The rule do not get in the way of the actual play yet supports it and the systems is understood in no time.

    Balancing difficulty for the DM is a little bit more subtle but this was my third sessions running savage world and it was a lot more easy for me to put the pressure on…

  4. Its a great article, but it does kinda give the impression that Savage Worlds takes a lot form D&D and Gurps. SW does use the idea of a universal gaming system but the mechanics are nothing like Gurps and D&D editions at it time of publication.

    SW is based off of the system Pinnacle created and developed for Deadlands and Hell on Earth which was first printed in 1996. 4 years before the d20 system. The first printing of SW was in 2003 5 years before D&D e4. SW brought a lot of new ideas to gaming, but it gets over shadowed by bigger publishers. Its seems to be a lot of peoples second or third game system they try, but rarely someones first. I think this leads people to see where SW is like other games with out seeing what SW brought to the table.

    I know I am being a little touchy about it but thats because SW never seemed to get recognized for what it created. Its not one of the old greats like D&D, Gurps, or Cyberpunk and its not really seen as a game changer like WhiteWolf was. It of course influenced by those games and others like SuperBabes and Tri-Stat, but it does break a lot of new ground. In my opinion a lot of the innovations seen in D&D 4e were first seen in SW. Most notably concept of a parred down fast and lose game with an almost miniatures feel to the combat.

  5. @Rafe: How right you are. Wait till you see how things went, it truly felt like one of those “hustle” movies. I’ve forgotten the plot but my friends kept referring to the Maverick Mel Gibson and Judie Foster movie.

    @sicnaxyz: Man, je HAIS ton alias 🙂 he he he. I’m now convinced that Savage Worlds is one of the best contenders for large range action-oriented gaming. Were I to play a “1940’s Zombie Apocalypse in an Archeology dig with THE PROFESSOR” game, I would not choose another system.

    @Yan: Your love of the system was apparent friend and you sold it very well. You’re right that we could have had it a little harder, but we did play the right rolls, for the rights skills, at the right time, backed by the right ideas. A lesser GM than you could have balked and gone all sulky on us and be mean just to “get his own fun”. I’m glad you’re not like that. 🙂

    @Egon: Thanks for the background on the game, it was useful and informative. Please remember that this wasn’t a review but a “let’s place the game in simple context in so few words”. Thus, I have to say that I found the tone you used to be definitely touchy. I’m not convinced it’s conducive to an enthusiastic, geeky discussion to bring people to the game, a tone I try to cultivate on my side of the blog.

    Thus, I don’t believe a game shines by its pedigree or what shortcuts people use to describe them but by the game experience it delivers. And I’ll attempt to convey exactly that with these 2 posts.

    That being said, in hindsight, I could have mentioned that I find that this revision of Savage Worlds pushed the envelope further than what BESM (Tri-Stat) did and delivered a game that completely captures adventure gaming inspired by movies and pulp-era entertainment, at least from the mechanics I’ve seen so far.

    I can’t wait to play it again.

  6. I think it’s worth noting for anyone on the fence about SW that the game costs $10. So if you’re even mildly curious, there’s really no reason to not get it.

  7. I meant to say that I had more success in putting pressure on the player in this session then the 2 before… But compared to some other games the heroes in SW are a capable bunch which his fine. It just means I need to put the pressure in the story not on the rolls themselves… 😉

  8. Hi Chatty,

    Your riverboat heist sounds a bit like the use of flashbacks described in this article:

    The basic idea being that certain elements are either covered retroactively through flashbacks or defined by being played ahead (such as your end scene), and then the blanks are filled out.

  9. Oh and for the GURPS and D&D comparison… It’s kind of impossible to not compare any game to them since we’ve played them for so many years… Also here is a translated quote that was said around the table: “This is what GURPS 4th edition should have looked like”

  10. This sounds absolutely disastrously fantastic.

  11. This group has had awesome chemistry when working out group dynamics and impacting storyline throughout all games I’ve had the chance of attending.

    No exception this time around 🙂

  12. @Rafe: It is by far one of the best RPG deals for a printed book. The ease at which you can create settings and the tons of PDF supplements for settings and adventure makes it a great game to try when you want to explore new RPG horizons.

    @Morten: Hey, long time no see! Great article on Flashbacks you posted on Stuffer Shack. What we did was indeed a ‘lets plan the scenario’s last scene” and see what ingredients we need to put in place at the setup to allow this. It was a very cool exercise and I think it drove all 5 of us to achieve that goal.

    I’ve been simmering the idea more and my playing Fiasco last Friday, where generous use of flashbacks were used, may well generate a full post on my part to explore the idea further.

    @Yan: We HAVE been Gurps heads for a long time… man. 10 years of that then 10 years of D&D…. that’s bound to leave a mark. 🙂

    @Andy: Don’t miss part 2 that just got published a few moments ago.

    @Maze: You are 100% right, you were pure genius. It was a great session, can’t wait to play again.

  13. @ Phil: Been a bit absent, but been reading everything you write. I really like, that you have been exploring other systems. I hope you do a post on Fiasco and/or flashbacks.

  14. Is Savage Worlds an open-source rules system like the d20 and Fudge/Fate systems?

  15. @Craig: No it does not have an open game licensing. That being said this mostly affects would be publisher of material and not the user of the system in itself.

    Not sure that is what you meant though… In it simplest form Savage World is a generic task resolution engine with a simple point buy system à la GURPS.

  16. @Yan: Ok, thank you.

    I keep kicking around a digital tabletop gaming concept, and I’m looking for a simple open source system with a reasonably large fan base. Savage Worlds seemed to be fitting the bill.

    I’m looking for something like the d20 system, but streamlined. Any suggestions?

  17. Yan may not be entirely right. Pinnacle entertainment encourages people to use SW to create compatible material. It may not be the OGL but it seems friendly and simple enough.

    Have a look:


  1. […] a play report of my first Savage Worlds game in which I played a character. Yan was our GM.  See part 1 here.  I write them from my perspective, so expect the story to be a told mostly from my […]

  2. […] 3 of my Savage Worlds play report for the first session my friend Yan ran for us. Don’t miss part 1 and part […]