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Switching To Savage Worlds

Table of Contents:

How to Become a Wild Card

The TTRPG flagship of D&D is sinking fast, and many playgroups are looking for safe harbors in other systems. Savage Worlds is a fast network of systems and settings all using the same mechanical base that can be used for traditional fantasy games, sci-fi space battles and everything in between. But the Savage Worlds have over a hundred books in their library, where do you start? We’re going to go through all the major differences and changes you can expect switching from 5e D&D to Savage Worlds. Get ready to roll those wild dice as we go through everything you need to know.  

Why Savage Worlds?

I can’t emphasize enough how Savage Worlds acts as a base and a template. Savage Worlds itself doesn’t have a setting or even a genre, it’s just a unique and flexible mechanical core that all sorts of games can grow out of and intermingle. Old veterans who remember GURPS will find a lot of familiar territory here, with the potential for vastly different games played using the same base rules. This makes games where you bridge genres especially perfect for Savage worlds, since mechanically things as disparate as Roman legionnaires, wizards, aliens, superheroes, and cruise missiles can all comfortably play together without the game breaking down.

Fundamentally Savage Worlds is a cinematic system that lends itself towards big emotional conflicts and climaxes. It has low levels of crunch while still letting characters feel unique, and it can flex to fit stories focused on practically any setting or scope. It is however very different from 5e D&D if that’s what you’re used to. If all that sounds like what you’re looking for, then Savage Worlds is a great fit. 

What Books do I Need?

Savage Worlds has a TON of books that can be very confusing to parse out at first, but to start playing you really only need a single core book:

  • Savage Worlds: Adventure Edition

  • Savage Worlds doesn’t like to exactly number their editions, but the “Adventure Edition” is the newest edition that you should be picking up. This single core book is available in PDF for typically only $10 and it covers everything you’ll need from core rules, character creation, and Gamemastery.

    Savage Worlds Settings

    You might be interested in Savage Worlds for one of its unique settings, many of which have dozens of books devoted to them with a long and rich gaming history all their own. To play in these settings, you’ll need their core books which build upon the basic Adventure Edition book. All these books work together or rather can work together; it all depends on what elements you want to include in your campaigns. We’ll go into each of these settings later as their own articles, but for now we’ll go over the major options and what books you’ll need to get.


    An alternate American history filled with cowboys, zombies, and steampunk wonders, Deadlands is probably the most popular of the Savage Worlds settings and for good reason. If you want an extra wild west, you’ll need to start with the following books:

  • Deadlands Reloaded: Player’s Guide
  • Deadlands Reloaded: Marshal’s Handbook 

  • Both books can be found pretty easily as PDFs for about $10 each nowadays. Be careful though, and make sure you get the latest editions as there are earlier versions floating around.

    Weird Wars

    Take a real-world conflict and add a bit of dark magic to it and you get Weird Wars. Think Wolfenstein, Hellboy, or Valkyria Chronicles. Each Weird Wars book focuses on a different war, with options for WWI, WWII, future conflicts, and battles in ancient Rome.

    To get started in a weird war you’ll need one of the following:

  • Necropolis 2350 
  • Weird War Two 
  • Weird Wars Rome 
    • Weird War One 

    The bad news on these books is that they were all written before the current edition. Conversion between Savage Worlds editions isn’t hard, but it’ll still be a pain, especially if you’re new to the system.  

    Super Powers Companion

    Less a spin-off game and more of a supplement, this single book contains everything you’ll need to turn your Savage Worlds game into a superhero adventure. It’s over 200 pages of superpowers and all the comic book trappings surrounding a superhero filled world.

    Sadly, once again this book was written before the current edition and to play it you’ll have to work with some conversions.

    SWADE Fantasy Companion

    If you’re itching to use Savage Worlds for a more traditional fantasy adventure, you’ll want this book to fill out all the fantasy tropes. Savage Worlds is built to fit any setting or era but that means it definitely falls short of things like 5e and Pathfinder when it comes to standard fantasy content. This book does a great deal to fill in the blanks and flesh out your Savage Worlds fantasy adventures.

    Thankfully this book was updated for the latest edition, meaning there’s no conversions needed!

    Savage Rifts

    Savage Rifts or just “Rifts” is Savage World’s sci-fi setting and supplement for everything aliens, lasers, and spaceships. If you’re looking to go for a science fiction angle, you’ll want Rifts powering your campaign. To get started in Rifts you only strictly need this book:

    • Rifts 1: The Tomorrow Legion Player's Guide 

    The Tomorrow Legion Player’s Guide acts as the Rifts core book, but if you plan on playing a lot of rifts you should probably also pick up these books:

  • Rifts 2: Game Master’s Handbook
  • Rifts 3: Savage Foes of North America

  • I also recommend picking up Rifts if you plan on doing any genre-shifting or portaling shenanigans. As the name implies, Rifts focuses a lot on rifts in reality, that can bridge any setting or time period your devious GM brain can think to combine.

    What Dice do I need?

    Similar to D&D, you’ll need a polyhedral set of d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. You’ll also need an additional d6 that is different from the first d6 to use as a “wild die”.

    I Need Cards?

    Yup, Savage Worlds uses a normal deck of playing cards for certain parts of the game. If you’re playing Deadlands it uses cards a LOT but even in other settings, you’ll be pulling out a deck and shuffling up often. The table only needs a single deck which usually is brought by the Game Master.

    Basic Rules

    Let’s go through some of the fundamental rules you’ll be working with in Savage Worlds:

    Trait Rolls and Target Numbers

    Savage Worlds is not a d20 system, and rather than adding a bunch of bonuses to a single die, you’ll be upgrading or downgrading the die you roll. If a character is able to do something but they’re bad at it, they’re probably rolling a d4, if they’re good at it maybe they’re rolling a d8. How good a character is at something is determined by their attributes and traits which you’ll see on the character sheet as “d6” or “d8” indicating what they’ll roll for that sort of check. 

    The standard TN or “Target Number” you need to succeed on anything is 4, but depending on all sorts of circumstances the Game Master can apply bonuses or negatives to your roll, or they might even change the target number all together for really difficult things.

    Wild Dice

    Whenever a character rolls for a check, they also roll an additional d6 which is called a “wild die” and then you take the highest of the two results. This helps with the harsh swing of a single die roll, and mathematically smooths out a lot of the variance. So if you have a d4 in a trait, you’re actually rolling 1d4, and 1d6, then taking the highest result.

    Aces, Raises, and Critical Failures

    When you roll the maximum possible result on a die roll (and that could be your trait die, your wild die, or even both) you get what’s called an ace. When you ace a roll, you get to roll that die again and add it to the result. Let's say you have a d4 in Athletics, and you roll a 4 on the d4, and a 5 on the wild die (d6). That d4 aced, and you roll another d4 getting a 3, and add that total to the original 4 for a total of 7. That gives you your dice results of 7 and 5, and since you always take the highest roll, your final result for the check is a 7.

    If you roll particularly high on a check, you can get what’s called a raise that adds additional benefits to your check. To raise a check, you need to get double the target number. Let’s say your character is extremely smart and has a 1d12 in science and you roll a 9 for analyzing some glowing goo. Assuming a normal target number of 4, you’ve doubled the target with a 9 and get a raise. Each skill and attribute have their own unique additional benefits granted by a raise, and in science’s case you learn even more in-depth scientific information than you would with a regular success. So, for our glowing goo the normal success might determine that it’s toxic and dangerous, but a raised check might also determine what sort of creature exuded it.

    Critical Failures are the fumbles of this system, and they happen when both of your rolls result in a 1. On a critical failure you automatically fail on whatever you were trying to do, and something extra bad happens as determined by the GM.


    Savage worlds uses a system called “bennies”, which they claim is an American slang term for benefits but as an American I can tell you they made that up. Benefits or “bennies” work a lot like inspiration in 5e (a criminally underused mechanic). Each player gets 3 bennies at the start of each session, and the GM is meant to award them with extra bennies whenever they roleplay well or do something cool or noteworthy. Players can then spend their bennies on making rerolls, preventing damage, or even on asking the GM for help or clues. 

    Action Cards (Initiative)

    The primary thing that the deck of playing cards is used for is initiative. Rather than rolling for initiative every player and NPC is dealt a playing card, and the GM can choose to deal them face up or down. Going from Ace to 2, characters take their actions, resolving ties using the card suits going from spade, to diamond, to heart, to club.

    Jokers are always left in the deck and their extra special. When someone is dealt a joker, all the players receive a bennie and after that round all the cards are shuffled again. People dealt a joker can also cut in with their action at any time in the round, even interrupting enemies.

    Damage and Wounds

    Perhaps the biggest departure from 5e in Savage Worlds is how they handle damage. When a character is successfully hit by an attack and damage is rolled, that damage isn’t subtracted from a hit point total, instead it’s compared to the target’s toughness and if the damage total exceeds the toughness, they’re “damaged”.

    When a character gets damaged, they become shaken (scraped up but not mechanically hurt in any way), but if they’re damaged while they’re already shaken, they get wounded instead. Wounds are serious business in Savage Worlds, and they can potentially turn into permanent injuries. Wounded characters take a cumulative -1 penalty to ALL their checks equal to the number of wounds they have. Finally, once a character takes 3 wounds, they must make a Vigor check to see if they get a temporary injury, a permanent injury, or if they immediately die. And any wounds past that incapacitate a character. 

    Wounds are difficult to heal up as well, and if your setting doesn’t have magical healing and you don’t get first aid within an hour of taking the wound, you’re stuck waiting for natural recovery. Naturally healing a wound takes a vigor test every 5 days for the chance to heal up. 

    Switching to Savage Worlds as a DM

    Let’s go through some of the biggest changes you’ll feel as a DM switching from 5e D&D to Savage Worlds.

    Cinematic Combat

    Mechanically, 5e is essentially a resource game. You use smaller encounters to waste some of the party’s resources like hit points and spell slots, before challenging them with a boss, allowing them to rest and regain their spent resources before starting the cycle over again.

    Savage worlds doesn’t really work like that. The only resources players typically have to spend are bennies (unless magic and power points are involved) and their capabilities are simply their capabilities. With the way toughness and damage works, most “underlings” will cinematically crumble under the onslaught of the protagonists and our heroes will emerge unscathed except for inconsequential scrapes and bruises.

    Think in movie terms. The hero getting wounded is a big deal that should be happening at critical moments. It’ll take a bit of a mental shift to get used to, but I find the end result is a satisfying and entertaining game. You’ve just got to reorient your thinking from a dungeon crawl and boss fight mentality over to the highs and lows of an action movie. 

    Awarding Bennies

    In 5e many players abandoned the Inspiration mechanic altogether, but its equivalent “bennies” are a much more integral part of Savage Worlds. Every player gets 3 bennies at the start of each session and loses any unspent bennies at the end of every session. This is deliberately to encourage players to use them and not hoard them up like dragons. You should be giving bennies out frequently, especially at the start of a session, and typically you should slow down on bennies when the situation gets tense.

    Ideally each player should feel free to spend bennies on things that are important to them, while still having some left over for helping with combats that spring up. The scientist should feel free to use that bennie to make sure they succeed on a science check, since that’s the thing they designed their build to do, without feeling like they wasted some super valuable resource.


    Savage Worlds doesn’t have levels, instead you can award “advancements” that the players can spend on increasing their stats or gaining new features. There’s no hard rules for when to advance your players, it just depends on how fast you expect a campaign to be. Some games may want to advance at the end of every session, some might advance every few sessions or after major accomplishments or milestones.

    You’ll want to play around with this and find what pace feels right to you, but know that the advancements are much less significant than 5e levels. The fundamental power level of a party won’t change much for each advancement, they’ll just get slightly better at some things or gain a new ability. As a rough guesstimate, think of each advancement as about ⅓ of a 5e class level. 

    Switching to Savage Worlds as a Player

    Let’s go through the biggest changes you’ll feel as a player swapping over from 5e D&D to Savage Worlds.

    Classless System

    Starting a Savage World’s character means putting points in your attributes and skills, picking a race, and possibly taking some hindrances in exchange for better stats or some edges (think of edges like feats). What you won’t find here are classes or levels. Some edges (particularly background edges) feel a bit like classes or themes, but your abilities are defined by your skills and edges and there’s no “pre-built” class system structure. It can take some getting used to but once you realize that this allows you to do practically anything it’s really freeing.

    Called Shots

    5e really condition us into just “making attacks” and rolling damage, but Savage Worlds has some more depth than that. You can always make “called shots” targeting different parts of a creature, with potentially very different effects and difficulties. Break that guy’s legs, hit the gaps in the armor, shoot that monster in the big obvious weak point.

    4 Armor Sets

    Just like you can make called shots, you’ve got your own weak points to worry about. You have a different armor rating for your legs, arms, torso, and head. Most attacks by default go towards your torso, but you’ll still need to track your different armor sets separately in case something aims for your head or tries to shoot that gun out of your hands. 

    What to Expect from your Savage Worlds Games

    Savage Worlds is a solid and streamlined base that can be used for practically any setting without skipping a beat. It’s not the absolute best system for any given setting, but as a jack of all trades it works beautifully to blend whatever genres and styles together that you can come up with. It’s a very different experience than 5e D&D, but it can take you to so many places that other systems just can’t handle. I highly recommend Savage Worlds and its many settings, particularly if you’ve got a genre defying idea for a campaign.

    Savage Worlds FAQ

    What Edition is Current?

    The short answer is Adventure Edition is the current version you should be using. The long answer is that Savage Worlds doesn’t number editions, but there are 3 distinct Savage Worlds editions (technically 4 but 3 that matter):

      • Explorers Edition (SWEX). Technically explorer’s is an update to the very first book, but it’s the oldest version you’ll likely find in use.
  • Deluxe Edition (SWD). This was the longest running edition and a lot of the supplements will still reference deluxe editions rules.
  • Adventure Edition (SWADE). This is the current edition that focuses on streamlining and simplifying a lot of the more complex parts of the Deluxe Edition.

  • Can I Run Old Savage Worlds Books?

    Yes. You can even just straight up use the older editions if you’d like and there’s a ton of support and supplements for them. I do really recommend using the newer Adventure Edition rules as your base though as it fixed a lot of problems and smoothed out a lot of rough edges. Books written for the Deluxe Edition are fairly painless to convert over to the new rules, and many of the online resources for them also include handy conversion guides.

    Can I Mix Settings?

    Yes, in fact it’s encouraged. Each supplement like deadlands or rifts has their own lore and mechanics to work with, but they’re all modular and easily interchanged. As the game master you can feel free to mix and match any Savage Worlds books you feel like to your heart’s content. You may just have to include a setting’s core book as well if you want to use some of their extra supplements.

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    Last updated: January 27, 2019

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