Jun 292010

It’s been so long since I blogged anything about Savage Worlds. So, I figured it was time to go back and revisit my old friend.
This time I want to rant a little about Whiff & Ping. For those not up on the local gamer jargon, Whiff & Ping is easy to explain. Whiff: I swing, I “miss”. Ping: I swing, I hit, it bounces off my opponents thick scaly hide. Pretty much not matter what your system of choice is you’ve felt at least a little bit of this. In D&D, in it’s many forms, you’ve got high AC’s, Spell Resistance, Energy Resistance, Damage Resistance, Evasion, the lucky Saving Throw and the list goes on. In GURPS, you’ve got your Active Defense, Damage Reduction and a host of resistance rolls. In World of Darkness, you’ve got a one die pool mechanic, sometimes known as the “Roll a Pile of Dice and Nothing Happens” System. The danger of Whiff & Ping exist in pretty much every game.
At first glance, it might appear that Savage Worlds combat can suffer from Whiff & Ping Syndrome and in a way it does. In Savage Worlds, you have two defensive stats, Parry and Toughness. Parry is basically your target number to hit. Toughness is basically the target number to damage. Simple. Right? Anyway, some Big Bads can get some pretty high numbers. So it can be pretty hard for your buff fighter with a d8 in Fighting and shells out 2d8 in damage can hit the dragon but he’s going to have a hard time hurting it.
But here’s the deal. A lot of games out there basically use attrition damage systems (At least, that’s what I’m calling it here.) Let me explain. Most damage systems rely on a slow whittling away of Hit Points, Life Points, Wound Levels or whatever. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. In a way, it’s kind of neat. It builds tension in the fight scene whether the players realize it or not. They slowly see their life getting chipped away bit by bit. When they hit an opponent, even it’s for the tiniest amount of damage it’s a reward. It builds the excitement and the players gain some sense of accomplishment. Our gaming brains have been wired to look at combat and damage in this light. Savage Worlds is more about the constant danger that the rug will be yanked out from underneath you at any moment. A couple of good hits and the right dice mojo will end a fight.
The act of hitting and not damaging an opponent equates to failure in most gamer’s minds. And nobody likes to fail. Even if you land that solid blow, you still might not hurt the guy. I’m going to use an extreme and overly simplified example here. Let’s say that we have an encounter with your standard D&D adventuring party of four versus a big nasty red dragon with 100 HP. On average due to various conditions each of our heroes does 5 HP a round to the dragon. It would take about five rounds with a total of 20 attacks to finally take down the dragon. In Savage Worlds, a similar encounter would run pretty much the same way. Twenty or so attacks until someone finally rams a sword through the beast’s eye. There will probably be a couple of Shaken results and maybe a Wound. Now, I know some of the math fetishists out there will want me to run some sort of simulation and work out all the probabilities. That ain’t happenin’.
Now it’s time to talk about the Whiff factor. This one is really simple. If you’re having problems hitting an opponent, read the Combat Survival Guide. If you are still having problems, you need to figure out if your GM is cranking up things too high. Finally, gauge your character to your oppoents. You might think your character is a bad ass but according the GM’s encounters, you’re a mook. Just talk things out, folk.
Just like any other game, it’s real easy to outclass the player characters if GM’s aren’t careful. The key here is just like every other game is to know the player characters and their capabilities and then design encounters that will challenge them. There’s no real magic bullet to balance an encounter and it doesn’t matter what game system you are using.

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 Posted by at 7:46 pm

  13 Responses to “Savage Worlds Combat: Whiff & Ping”

  1. Yes, I’ve been having a similar discussion with another RPG Bloggers Network member (Canon Puncture Show). Him, finding combat too slow in SW (except mass combat, as it turns out) and me only starting to run SW tomorrow and working off my understanding of the rules. You’ve summarized and validated my points in this, but also added the interesting comparison to attrition damage (I’d call it that too).

    All of which makes me hopeful for the games to come.

    In my view, the system is designed to encourage descriptive combat and strategies. Players in SW should be ready to fight for every bonus they can trying to level the playing field against high-Parry, high-Toughness opponents. I can’t wait to try it out in practice.

  2. Thanks. I should have tooted my own horn and added a link to another post I did that a lot of people found helpful. Rewiring your brain for Savage Worlds. Hope this helps too.

  3. Most of my adventures start in medias res with the characters just having jumped out of a plane without a parachute or something (so HEAD first). In this case, I’ve prepped something else entirely (not only am I testing out a new system, but breaking in 2 new players as well… hands full). Still, mass combat will now come sooner than later.

  4. Nicely put…folks coming over from those attrition type systems may find SW’s “ping” factor frustrating if they don’t shift their expectations about how combat works. It also helps if there is a shift in approach about how to fight an opponent from “stand and swing” to using various tactics, focusing fire, etc., etc. based on the specific situation/opponent.* This is one reason that I haven’t found probabilities/monte carlo simulations all that helpful…SW combat is a lot more about thinking on your feet rather than figuring out what is the generally optimal choice ahead of time.

    *Still trying to beat that one into my players and we’ve been playing SW for almost a year now. 😉

  5. Super useful discussion. I actually prefaced our first SW session today with it.

  6. That’s great.

  7. I’ll start by saying: I really wanted to love SW. From a GM’s perspective, game prep was a breeze. My players were gung-ho and were ‘expecting’ a different kind of combat system (they read the ‘Survival Guide’).

    But only after 4 sessions, we dropped the game because of the “Whiff/Ping” combat system. Not because the players were getting frustrated…it was because there didn’t seem to be a challenge. Since ‘extras’ can only take one hit, they were dropping goblins by the handfuls. The big-bad guy could only stagger around as they ganged-up on him, and shook him over and over again. Repeated ‘acing’ of dice seemed to hit even the highest of target numbers.

    It seemed like solo monsters didn’t have a chance against 4 PCs. I won’t go too much into the math, but if you have a single Minotaur (Parry 8, Toughness 11), the group is hitting him twice/round so it doesn’t take long to break his toughness (average fighter-type has d8 STR + d8 Longsword) – especially if they have used taunts and tricks on him first.

    Even if you ‘tuffen-up’ these opponents (make them wild cards, etc), these lucky hits seemed to take all of the drama out of the “big boss fight”. Sure, you can also add lots of minions (extras) but that forumla gets old quickly (…why are all these sea crabs allied with the Kraken…).

    We liked everything else about the game and tried to salvage it, but couldn’t find a fix that worked.

  8. Welcome back! It’s been a long time. I have to admit. It’s now one of personal quests to some how teak Savage Worlds and get over that problem. Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

  9. I think the heart of the problem is SW dice-type resolution (which, unfortunately is part of the game’s charm).
    For example, the best fighter in the world (d12) has just as much % chance of rolling a “1” as he has rolling a “12”. Other system have more of a bell-curve resolution (dice + adds, or dice pool). This makes conflict resolution very…chaotic…

    This unpredictability makes ballancing* an encounter very difficult for the DM. (*Please note: the SW game designers know all about this and embrace it as a feature, not a flaw. E.g., even the lowest of goblins has a chance of wiping out a seasoned knight, making no fight a ‘sure win’).

    While that sounds cool on paper, it falls flat in play. For example: no player wants his kick-*ss fighter to struggle and almost die against a one-legged peasant. Nor is it very climatic when the final Big Boss fight is over in one round when the first PCs to roll gets an ace 3 times.

    The closest we came to “fixing” this problem was use a die-pool mechanic (changed d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 to 1d6, 2d6, 3d6, 4d6, etc and still kept the TN of “4”.)

  10. I hear what you are saying. I kind of like the possibility the Mr Bad Ass fighter could get taken out by a lowly peasant. And sometimes the Acing Head Shot of Doom can take out your Big Bad. I’ve seen it in other systems but it is more pronouced in Savage Worlds.

  11. I completely agree with you. I think there should *always* be a chance (however remote) that a peasant could take down a knight. Think of the book “the Hobbit” where Bard took down the dragon Smaug with a single black arrow.
    This is where D&D falls flat: even with crits, you can’t take down a dragon in one hit.

    I guess a good way to judge if the game has it ‘right’ would be to see if it can mimic reality. How many peasants would you really need to take down an armoured knight? 5? 10? Then test that scenario out in the system.

  12. A post back from the grave. Just another little opinion. But it’s all about the feel and flavor rather than hard number crunching.

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