Savage West, Session 1: The Riverboat Poker Heist, Of Marks and Busts

This is 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 player/PC’s point of view.

Dramatis Personae Redux

Judge Gloom: Scary as hell roaming judge running from disbarment , played by PM

Dynamite Chang: Chinese miner-turned-demolition-expert. Prefers to mine safes now, played by Alex

Jayne: Ex hitman/enforcer of a bounty hunting outfit. Not as gifted in the brains department as he thinks, played by Maze

Jimmie Joe: Con Man with a knack for chemistry, fast talking and easy marks. Played by yours truly.

Scene 1: Ready, Set, Mark!

Our first order of business was to locate a poker player who was good enough to have already registered for the tournament, but obscure enough that we could take his place once we “borrowed” his entry fee.  So we made our way to the town where the players would board the Riverboat for the tournament.

Yan had us roll Streetwise checks to find a likely skilled player who had the money but wasn’t too known to cause alarm should he fail to show up.  Savage Worlds doesn’t seem to have a “helping out” mechanic so all trained PCs played their skills, with success.  We tracked one such player staying in a nearby Saloon, trying to finish building up his 1000$ buy-in.

Game design aside: I realized in that scene that I now more or less expect games to have “helping out” mechanics.  D&D has had one since 3e and Burning Wheel more or less runs on that.  Now I know that Savage Worlds has a relatively low success target, meaning that helping is not that needed, but it still lends itself to the oft-played “lets all throw dice and one of us will succeed” approach to skill rolls. I might have missed something about adding margins of successes but I’m not sure.

We then explained to Yan that we wanted to discredit the player before we made the “Two-Stage Winston Job” on him.

Yan: WTF is that?

Phil: Trust me, it’s flawless…

First we tried to spread the rumour that the our Mark was a cheater.  Yan made us roll persuasion rolls at a penalty (I have an Edge called Charisma that cancelled it).  We succeeded. Once we established that our mark was in his room,  Judge Gloom entered the Saloon where he was staying.

PM: I walk up to the bar, order a double Whiskey and say real loud “I hearsay that this house of sin hides a lowly cheat and thief that’s been trying to evade justice!  (Slowly pans the whole room) Well justice has finally arrived.”

Phil: I run upstairs real fast and start banging on our Mark’s door.

Yan: Whaaaaat?

Phil: Yeah, and I whisper through the door: “Quick man, Judge Gloom is here for you, you gotta run!”

Mark: “Who the hell are you!”

Jimmie Joe: I’m your biggest fan man! I know you’ll win this tournament! In fact, I bet my whole house on it! You’ll make me rich… but you need to get the hell out, follow me I can help you!

(General laughter)

I aced with a good margin of success. In hindsight, I think that I should have gotten a Bennie (action point) for it (Edit: See Yan’s comment below).

The sucker followed me, hid in my wagon under a tarp and got beaten senseless by my more physical acolytes.  Bang, we were 900$ richer!

Good start!

Scene 2: Busted!

With some scratch from the other party members (cuz, you know, I was tapped out), we made the full thousand.  We then went to register to the tournament a few days later.  Our plan was dead simple.  Dynamite Chang, through some bribing of a distant nephews, arranged to get on the ship as a replacement coal shoveller, ready to start a diversion on command.

As for our main Poker player…

Jayne: I’ll go… I got this RISK-PROOF method for playing poker! I had to pay this guy a fortune for him to teach it to me.


Jimmie Joe: Is that right?

Jayne: Yeah! Remember when we played and I told you that 2 identical Kings was the best hand? Well, I’ve tons of foolproof tricks like that!  So can I play?

Jimmie Joe: Sure you can! You’ll be the perfect foil while we go for the prize.

Jayne: By that you mean that I’ll win it for you guys right? Cuz I totally can!

Jimmie Joe: Sure Jayne, sure Jayne.

Aside: I must say that Maze played his dumb-as-a-5-day-old-tuna-fish-sandwich guy to perfection.  Once we adjusted to his way of playing his PC, we all embraced it and he fit seamlessly in the story we were building.

Jimmie Joe: All right so Jayne will be the player, Gloom and I are going to be his entourage.  Chang will be in the boiler room or whatever they’re called on those boats. We locate the Prize money and…

Others: Yes?

Jimmie Joe: We’ll see once we get there…

So a few hours before we boarded, we got to the boat’s pier to register for the tournament.  As we were waiting in line…

“He’s that’s the guy that stole my money!”

Yan: You see your mark, along with a sheriff and a few deputies.  They want to interrogate you at the Sheriff’s office.

Phil: (Facepalm) Yan, you are a rat bastard.

Yan (Jubilant): Why thank you!

I tried talking my way out of it but the odds were stacked against me and I failed my roll. (I didn’t want to spend my bennies quite yet).

Jimmie Joe (sotto vocce): You guys register without me, then go for plan “Jack’s Inbox” !

Yan: You do know that you have the money on you, right Phil?

Phil: Damn! Can Jimmie Joe pass it along unnoticed to Jayne with a sleigh of hand roll?

Yan: Sure… roll for it. (I made it)

Aside: I may have already said it, but Yan’s the quintessential good GM.  While heavy prep is not his forte, he’s very very good with improv and he is the embodiment of “Say Yes or Roll”

Yan: Oh, BTW, the boat leaves in less than 4 hours.  Since the Sheriff failed to find the stolen money on you (much to your ex-mark’s chagrin), he decided to let you “rest” in the jail cell while he tried to figure this mess out. 

Phil: Sure man, I’m not worried. I trust the combined resources of my fellow players to sort this out.

Jimmie Joe (Muttering nervously): Nope, not worried at all, everything’s fine.

Stay Tuned…


  1. Actually there are rules for “helping out” rolls. Page 57 of the Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition. Up to a max of +4 can be gained from people helping. Game sounds like it was alot o’ fun!

  2. @Wrath thanks man I’ll reread the section. I’m still not sure about all the rules but I’m from the school that, if it’s not mandatory to the game at hand, let it slide and check the rule after. This way pace is not broken for minor detail that detract from the fun at hand.

    @Phil: just for sake of clarity I did not gave you a bonus to your roll. But you definitely should have earn a benny for your personification. This is my blind spot. In game I have my plate full creating the thing has we go and trying to come up with complication to make things interesting. Little things like give gift to players gets neglected. I’ll come up with an alternative solution to the benny giving mechanic. Maybe an award system à la Burning wheel at the end of a session. Where we vote so the players can get an extra benny on the next session for being the workhorse, MVP, etc…

    I know you take some liberty in the retelling but it need to be said that the “mark” only recognized you as he never saw anybody else and that’s why you where the only one to be put in jail.

  3. @Yan: I’ll re-edit the thing to fit better… it also help explains the next scene in the prison better. 🙂

    Me take artistic liberties? Never! 🙂

    That being said, I’m all for Bennies at the end of the game.

  4. Glad you liked my character’s antics 🙂

    Had a blast playing a down-on-his-brains dude 🙂

  5. ABout the awards, perhaps you could do something along the lines of Fanmail from Prime Time Adventures, where the players award each other for their good moments? In this case it will leave Yan with some more time to focus on the story.

  6. @Morten: I don’t know “Prime Time Adventures” but are you saying that the player are giving award when one of them does something “cool” mid game?

    Currently my preferred approach would be an award system at the end of a session. It serves too purpose at the same time. It let us discussed the game while it’s still fresh, which provides an instant feedback on what the player liked. It still gives them the bennies they should have received but for the next session. In the end the amount of bennies available per session should be around the same but won’t be liable to me forgetting it.

    Mid game award have the added disadvantages of cutting the pace of the story and invariably will fall flat when we are really into it. Which is somewhat of a paradox since these are the very moment you would want to encourage with an award system.

  7. @ Yan: Basically yes.

    The system is based on the concept, that the GM (or director) has a limited amount of resources to generate opposition with during a session. (IIRC) A part of the spent resources becomes a pool of tokens in the middle of the table from where any player at any instant can grab one token and give it to another player as ‘fanmail’. When the player later spends the fanmail – almost like a bennie – about half of them returns to the GM’s pool of resources creating an economy of rewards and opposition.

    Now it is not this model I am thinking of, but mostly using the idea of having a pile of tokens (with an amount fitting for a session), that any player can grab and grant to another player as a reward for cool things. The idea is to keep this smooth, so it will not interrupt the flow of the game.
    To do the rewarding you can either wait to right after the moment, or you do it quietly during the moment. To reward you have to stop and explain why, you are doing it, or ask if it is okay.

    From my experience with PTA, it works nicely without disturbing the flow.

  8. @Morten and Yan:

    I’m familiar with PTA’s fanmail system, I bought it last year. It’s a very interesting peer-based award.

    Based on what I read from Luke Crane’s Adventure Burner, having the GM stop mid-game to hand out awards does indeed break flow. That’s why he moved his “artha” rewards to session’s ends… Except when something so big happens that the event itself breaks said flow and all players leave the fiction to react emotionally as players.

    Moving to a player-based reward is probably less likely to induce breaks in flow as everyone usually knows why the award was given. However, I fear this opens the game to what I call emotional influence, something that I know I’m very good at. A player more apt at playing for the audience of his friends runs the risk of getting more bennies whereas at the end of the session, the emotion has passed and we can focus on good shots.

    I’d likely propose something where every one gets one bonus Bennie per game they can award to anyone during the game (but not themselves) and then move all other awards at game’s end. I picked that somewhere, but I don’t remember ,maybe PTA?

  9. @ Chatty: In my view that looks like a good approach. This actually also opens up for some alternate approaches.

    Imagine this one (combined with yours, Phil): At the beginning of each session Yan designates a series of goals (perhaps one pr. player +1 or something), and whenever a goal is reached a bennie is earned.
    Each goal is within the theme of the game – and can be things such as ‘blowing up the safe’, ‘seducing the waitress’, ‘stealing the key out of the front pocket of the admiral’s jacket’, ‘getting caught in the furnace room’, and ‘getting recognized as a swindler by another gambler’.

    These are not tied to a single character, but a rather situations the players can try to create.

    Additionally each player may propose a goal for another player, such as ‘I want to see your character break out of the ships locker’ or ‘challenge the skipper to a duel’ etc. These also earns the player a bennie, or perhaps two.

    My idea is to expand on the way, you originally thought out the adventure by creating the end scene, and then add the elements necessary to reach the end scene. Here you sort of point to, what scenes or event you would like to see in play (without revealing the outcome of the scene), and then you reward your fellow players, when their actions introduce the event.

  10. Throwing a bennie out to a player in the midst of the game doesn’t seem to break flow. I’d actually argue that, au contraire, it can be a nice capper to the action. When a player says something funny that breaks the table up, you just reach down and toss them a bennie and then keep on gaming.

  11. @Morten and @walkerp: Yan’s an engineer, and his primary concerns when he GMs is to keep things as simple and as efficient as possible. Then he wants to keep his act together and focus on reacting to our actions and choices to keep things going. He’s doing 100% improv with a very dynamic group (You’ve seen my creative output and energy, hell walkerp, you’ve GMed me), which, knowing him, requires 100% of his attention.

    Pushing Bennies giving at to the end of the session frees a lot of his mind and I think as a group we’d be way cool with that. I’m also sure he’d agree with the one free bennie per player.

    That being said, your counter idea Morten fuels my “reverse engineered adventure” concept even more. I’d even go as far as saying that combining your flashback ideas, the Bennies for meeting intermediate goals, my 1 bennie per player and my vision scaping, we’d have the basis for a new RPG.

    I love this!

  12. @ Phil: Glad you like my counter idea. I think your idea of combining the different elements would be a great new RPG. There definitively is something there.

  13. In every Savage Worlds game I’ve played in, the GM gave out bennies in mid-game to reward good moments, roleplaying, etc. It keeps the benny economy going which helps the action along as you play. I also played in one session where the GM gave everyone a benny that they HAD to give to another player and couldn’t spend themselves, so it was both a peer reward mechanic and a teamwork mechanic.

  14. TheLoremaster says:

    As a long-time Savage GM, I have a couple questions about how the table play is going. Are you using markers for bennies, or are you keeping track of them on paper? I use glass beads from Imajewels (the old Savage Worlds ones), and always keep them at hand when running. IME, it takes no time at all, and breaks no immersion, to toss one to a player who has earned it. This also gives that player instant gratification and immediate reward, leading to a direct reinforcement of that player’s actions.

    The hard part is remembering _when_ to hand them out. The best way (IMO) is to keep aware of the “Oh, cool!” moments. If you, as the GM, either think or say “Oh, cool!” or “That’s awesome!” in reaction to a player’s action, toss that man a benny. The longer you go before you grant that reward means that the action may not be reinforced.

    However, that being said, it sounds like you have a great group anyway, so they may not need that reinforcement, but I’m also mindful of the logistics of keeping track of “earned” bennies from one session to the next. I’d think that would be a big PITA. 🙂

    I do think that instituting a player-to-player reward is a Good Idea. I’ve been playing with an option (not fully formed yet) using XP. For each session, each PC automatically gets 1 XP for showing up, 1 XP for taking an active part in the scenario, then the group can vote to see who gets a bonus XP for the night for being the “MVP”. Ending a chapter or succeeding greatly gives all PCs an additional bonus XP as well. Haven’t played with it for long, but it seems promising.

  15. So many interesting responses… 😉

    The part about breaking pace his debatable and will depend heavily on the group and GM. When I say it’ll break the pace of the game it’s considering that, I am, GMing.

    Like Chatty said my games are at least 90% improvisation. I’m always creating scenario discarding other, listening to what the players are saying, stealing idea from them, adjusting others searching for interesting twist etc… Bottom line I’m busy and I do not want to be bother with this mid game. This is me and each group will have there own dynamic and should adjust any game they play to fit there style.

    As for the logistic associated with noting a number of bennies from the last session on one’s character sheet. Well It’s simpler then keeping tracks of your character’s equipments and I don’t see this as really a problem considering that, I’ve removed XP and bullets from the players bookkeeping necessity.

    That being said, the pool that players distributes mid game seams a good compromise which would push the decision making of my court and address the core issue. I’ll probably propose either way to a vote from the players and pick whatever they prefer.

  16. TheLoremaster says:

    The implementation will be key here. The benny economy in Savage Worlds is very, VERY, well balanced. One small change can have far-reaching effects.

    For example, assume that rewarded bennies roll over to the next night. First game night, the four PCs start with 12 bennies between them, and the GM only has 4. At the end of the night, they’ve each earned an extra benny. Next game night, they start with 16 bennies and the GM gets four. It happens again, and the next night they now have 20 bennies … and you still have 4. How will you maintain any sort of challenge when your NPCs have less chances to re-roll attacks, soak damage, etc.?

    This might auto-correct itself, especially since it seems that your players are more interested in getting themselves into trouble than getting out of it, but potential benny inflation might give you a skewed view of how Savage Worlds “works”.

    However, player granted bennies I can completely get behind, but rolling over bennies consistently might have negative effects.

  17. The idea his to give them for the next session only.

    After a session all unused bennies are lost as before. The awards are then determined but will kick in only at the start of the next session.

    No hording of bennies possible here. This respects the spirit of the mechanic as it only delays them for one session.