Thursday 24 May 2012

Savage World of Solomon Kane Review - 17th Century Pulp Horror Skirmish

Ironically it was watching the Solomon Kane movie which piqued my interest in olden-day monster hunting.  Whereas modern horror skirmish (Fear and Faith) and pulp era/Cthulhu (Strange Aeons) are represented, and Victorian (Empire of the Dead, Chaos in Carpathia) monster hunting is well supported, the only way to fight monsters and undead with rapier and flintlock was with Helldorado - a game set in hell rather than darkest Africa or Aztec temples.

I wanted pirates to fight zombies; musketeers to face off against Deep Ones! I wanted conquistadors to face serpent cultists in blood-soaked temples!

For a low budget, low profile movie this was surprisingly good.  James Purefoy was well-cast in the lead role.  110% better than the puerile Disney Van Helsing movie. 
4/5 Stars - Highly recommend.

I tried "Witchfinder General" - reviewed here - but was dissatisfied with the narrow scope and limited bestiary.  At the same time I discovered "Savage Worlds" RPG. Based on the Weird West miniatures skirmish game "Great Rail Wars" it was fast playing - far smoother than the usual gluggy RPG combat and able to handle dozens of minis on each side quickly and easily.  When I found out they had used the same game engine to make a "Solomon Kane" RPG I put in an order. (Note: Ordering direct from the Pinnacle website is far more expensive than simply ebaying it from a retailer: their postage is ridiculous)

 The glossy hardback is a beautiful book. I nursed it, crooning softly, all the way back from the Post Office. Surprisingly slim and handy for its whopping 559 pages.

This is a RPG book, but I will be reviewing it from the point of view of a miniatures skirmish gamer.  Since the "Savage Worlds" engine has won major industry awards we can assume it works quite well in its intended RPG role. 

The Shiny
It is very, very shiny. Possibly one of the nicest rulebooks I own. At $50, not the cheapest, but its hardbacked, glossy goodness, plentiful art and interesting fluff make it solid value.  Plus I'm a sucker for embossed covers. This book is complete in every way - you do not need a "Player's Guide" a "Gamemaster's Guide" and a "Scenario Book" like some RPGs. A beautiful book, weighing in at a hefty 559 pages.

My main criticism is it not that easy to use from a gamer's perspective.  It has a thorough table of contents but I feel the book itself could have been laid out better.  I.e. I would have assumed the section on "Damage" would have been right alongside the "Combat" section; not separated by a dozen pages on other topics.  There is a bit of waffle and they are not as focussed and logically set out as a true wargame would be, as they can use the 'refer to GM' cop-out if rules are not clear. 

That said, they do include a solid quick reference section at the back of the book and at the end of key chapters, and the core rules are only 30 pages.  But the other 529 pages are well worth inclusion.

Making Characters, Weapons & Gear
This is aimed at RPGers but it is useful in that the character creation 'points system' is also useful for creating monsters and balancing scenarios; and weapons and gear.  Stats are "Agility"  "Smarts"  "Spirit"  "Strength"  and "Vigor".  There are a few other relevant stats "Charisma" "Pace"  "Parry" and "Toughness".  The ones in bold are very relevant for combat and the italicised ones can be largely ignored.  So a similar amount of stats (4 to 6) to a Warhammer game.

Each stat is represented by a die.  I.e. a character could have d8 Agility, d10 Smarts, d6 Spirit, d4 Strength, d8 Vigor, etc. Higher dice show a better level of skill.

There is a list of traits and skills (summarised well in a quick reference page) which I ironically found less complex than Malifaux or Warmachine "special abilities". There is a comprehensive list of arms and equipment - once again there is a quick-reference page which makes it easy and logical to use.  The weapons list includes everything from Nzappa Zaps, daos and blowpipes to harpoons, halberds, rapiers and matchlock muskets. 

Even better, the free Savage Worlds Showdown (which shares the same combat rules) has a free Excel unit builder (see the link above to access it).  

Swashbucklers vs demonspawn.  Pirates against mutants.  Solomon Kane is cool.

Game Rules
The "Savage Worlds" combat engine is showcased in the free download linked above.  The rules themselves are only 30 pages long and very straightforward.  

Heroes have extra rules to stock troops - namely 2 extra 'wounds' and the ability to throw a "Wild Die" - an extra d6 thrown alongside its normal dice.  The Wild Dice can be chosen instead of the normal roll if it is better; allowing heroes a more consistent chance of success.  They also have the rather idiotically named "Bennies" - tokens that when spent allow a re-roll of any die test. 

Characters and groups of minions are each dealt a card from a normal deck and then take their actions in order of card rank. Jokers allow you to act at any time and give bonuses to action rolls.
Units that are ambushed are not dealt a card that round.

You can "hold" your action to activate later ("overwatch")

Characters can move their "pace" for free but to run, shoot or melee will cost them their action.  You can make several actions if you are a hero but two actions would be at -2 to both, 3 actions would be at -4 to both, and so on.

Most rolls need to pass a target number (TN) of 4 to succeed, or beat an opponent if opposed.  The TN can be modified by range, difficulty etc, usually in -2 increments. 

 If an attack succeeds and beats an opponent's Parry, damage is inflicted by adding the weapon die to your strength. If you beat your opponent's toughness he is "shaken" - he moves at half speed and must make a "Spirit" test or forfeit his next action.  If you beat him by +4 he is wounded. A single wound kills non-heroes outright but heroes can absorb 3 wounds and can even recover when incapacitated. Wounds cause penalties to dice rolls and movement.

The rules are very complete as being a RPG they need to cater for almost every eventuality.  You can defend getting a bonus, disarm foes, use area affect weapons and grenades. Skirmish staples such as cawling, crouching and prone; breaking down doors, jumping and climbing are covered thoroughly.  You can dive for cover, grapple with foes, perform finishing moves, wild attacks and tricks on your foe.  Fire and smoke can incapacitate.  Intimidating your foe gives a bonus in combat.  You can heal yourself or allies.  There are a multitude of other options.  Some, such as fatigue or ammo, may only be applicable to a campaign game.  

Fear rules have good applicabilty to horror and the rules here would work well in a Cthulhu game; gaining phobias and the "mark of fear" or even suffering heart attack.

There is a solid 2 page summary of the combat rules and the "Showdown" rules (available free on the Pinnacle website) provide another easy-to-use reference.

The ritual is about to be interrupted by a well-aimed musket ball.   
Strange Aeons fishmen and other monster miniatures lines are 'backward' compatible to older eras. 

Sensible and simple. Players make an "Arcane Skill" roll minus the spell's difficulty.  Failure to cast the spell may have negative effects  or "backlash".  The base magic rules are similar but not identical to other "Savage Worlds" games and are customised to the setting. Spells include barriers, control animals, boosting abilities, curses, deflecting missiles, invisibility and typical magical fare, along with spells such as  -"animating hands"  - specific to Solomon Kane stories.

GM Stuff (Campaigns)
The "Art of Storytelling" and "Creating Adventures" sections are simply the GM's guide. While more of a RPG thing, they are useful to a wargamer for creating battle scenarios and linking scenarios into a campaign, and for 'levelling up' heroes and characters after battles. 

Fluff & Scenarios
The book describes attitudes and customs of the day, and gives lots of sample adventures for European, Darkest African, Oriental and New World adventures. The thorough explanations and planning of a RPG-centric approach is a benefit - they form the basis for wargame scenarios with lots of colour and 'background'.

Fight Aztec werejaguars, escape the Croatoan spirit, battle snake men warriors in African jungles, thuggee cultists in the temple of Kali, and flee demon worms in the Sahara.  I found this section a font of ideas.  There are 145 pages of this and it provides a global scope and vast pool of ideas that gives immense replayability and impetus to create new scenarios.

Find the lost Roanoke settlers. Discover the meaning of Croatoan.

The Horrid Beasts of Solomon Kane (Bestiary)
I pilloried the "Witchfinder General" ruleset for its limited selection of half a dozen or so monsters.  Could Solomon Kane do better?

A definite yes. And better still, you can create your own. There is a list of "Monstrous Abilities" which act like player skills, and there are rules for making tiny, huge, and undead creatures. Combining them with the character creation rules would give you limitless variety from ghosts to giant King-Kong sized apes.  

Besides this, there are a dozen natural foes like crocodiles, gorillas and pumas.  There are about fifty unnatural creatures like the winged Akaanas reptoids, mummies, hellhounds, hopping vampires, wendigos and succubi.  About thirty human foes are also listed - from inquisitors to highwaymen, explorers to immortals; naval officers and knights.  Amazons, assassins, pygmies and witches - you can see there is a wide varied selection which would allow you to quickly approximate any foe without bothering to work out exact stats.  Or the Excel unit builder used for "Showdown" can be used to quickly tot up points if you want to create a weird one-off monster. 

Flashing Steel is pirate-centric and would need additional rulebooks to add monsters. I have reviewed it previously on this blog.

The other option is combining Ganesha Games' Flashing Steel skirmish rules and their Fear and Faith modern horror rules. Both are a $8 pdf, are fun and simple to play (simpler than SK) and share game mechanics allowing crossover between the games. They also have Excel unit creators allowing total freedom creating monsters and heroes quickly and easily.  However since campaign rules, terrain and warband advancement rules are found scattered through other pdfs (Song of Deeds and Glory, Song of Gold & Darkness, Song of Wind and Water) you may as well have a beautiful hardback rulebook loaded with period specific fluff and foes; and dozens of great scenario ideas for a similar price.  If you already had many "Song of..." rulebooks (or your group already plays the rules) this would be an option worth exploring but if you are starting out 'cold' Solomon Kane gives everything you need in one comprehensive, attractive package.

Smooth-playing combat allows dozens of miniatures to be used. "Heroes" have bonus abilities that separate them from the common troops and give a cinematic quality.  You can easily custom-create characters or monsters with an Excel unit builder but will seldom need to, given the very extensive bestiary.  The fact these are actually RPG rules allows very atmospheric and involved skirmish adventures and campaigns to be run. There are a wealth of ideas and scenarios for adventures in every corner of the globe.  A huge array of weapons, skills and traits are easily accessible given the quick-reference pages at the end of the relevant chapters. A very complete book, attractively presented.  The best game system and reference for 'muskets and monsters' - i.e. blackpowder era horror - I have encountered so far.   Recommended.

The only reason for a pulp horror gamer not to rush out and get these rules is cost - or rather the fact that Pinnacle's The Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition is only $15 (a brilliant bargain) and, when  combined with the free Showdown rules and unit builder software, and you have everything you need to play Solomon Kane adventures if you are willing to be creative.  However I feel at $50 the SWoSK rules are a bargain. The wealth of period specific scenarios and adventures, spells, monsters, weapons, equipment and background info make this a must-have for those interested in gaming this genre.


  1. Whats not to love??? :-)

    PS Send me an email and I'll send you some other gladiator stuff:

  2. Thanks! I'm tossing up 28mm and 15mm - Foundry come in packs with too many weird chicks and dwarves, and Crusaders all look like dwarves... ..but for such small scale skirmish buying a few 15mms seems a bit lame...

  3. I received my copy today, and it is indeed a wondrous item. However, you have overestimated the page count by about 200. I'll admit I was initially also misled by the ornate font used in the page numbering, but the 5 is actually a 3.

    I now need to start seriously looking for suitable figures, though for me the scale is a given - 28mm at the minimum.

  4. A (relatively) slight tangent, but are you familiar with either 'Donnybrook' or 'Cutlass!'? I only discovered the latter today, while browsing Black Scorpion's site. I've had Donnybrook for a few months, but have not gone beyond reading it. It's a purely historical set, devoted to the period c.1650 - 1750, with units of between 4 & 12, depending on quality, in a similar manner to Saga, while Cutlass! is a fantasy pirate set with individual activation, I think, with a strong emphasis on development over a campaign. Curiously, both use a range of polyhedral dice, with the type of die to reflect a unit or character's skill, as in Savage Worlds.

    As that's really not much of a tangent, it may also be worth mentioning that the 2nd edition of Strange Aeons is now available.

    1. I have Cutlass - I've discussed it years back but never really done an in depth review. The activation system is odd. Have not got Donnybrook - will be nicely produced I'm guessing, but I have a wargame budget close to 0 since my second child arrived so I'm not going to buy it for my "collection."

      Strange Aeons was a labour of love, but overpriced, and overrated by its Cthulhu fanboys. They would buy anything with the hint of a Deep One inside. So v2 doesn't have me all agog...

      The only interesting feature was the "competitive co op" i.e. everyone is the good guys, and warbands never fight each other directly, but you take turns controlling the bad guys in your opponents game.

      Word of warning: Cutlass minis are awesome but out of scale with other 28mm. I love the pirate sculpts but never use them. The cowboys worked out OK because I use them with equally oversized/heroic Malifaux stuff.

      If I did it "over again" I'd probably do pirates and cowboys with a company with a bigger range/better compatibility, like Foundry or Blue Moon.

  5. Donnybrook is an expensive set, at £27 in soft cover. It's full of colour photos of figures, and looks very nice, but seems overpriced, which is why I held off buying it for a long time, hoping for a special offer which never came. As an extra kick in the teeth, it requires a set of cards to play, but you have to make them yourself. Nice touch.

    I've noticed the larger dimensions of the Black Scorpion figures, and am sure they wouldn't fit my existing collection, such as it is. (My only pirates are a few by North Star and some Eureka figures & cannon produced here by Irregular Miniatures, in themselves not really mutually compatible. They need reinforcements, and in particular opponents, but Black Scorpion won't fit that bill; another bill, perhaps, but not that one; they look so good, however, I may not be able to resist them indefinitely). I've no wild west figures, weird or otherwise, to speak of, so BS might well be viable. I looked into the Wild West Exodus range following your pointer (having never heard of it) but they seem very specific to that setting (whatever it is - more steam punk than pulp as far as I could discern).

    I've now discovered another pirate game - apparently quite well known - called Freebooter's Fate, but am trying not to think about it at the moment. BGG discussion - relatively limited - suggests it's not only expensive but flawed in some areas, particularly combat.

    I'd got the impression Strange Aeons was better than you make it sound, but am prepared to be corrected. Would Chaos in Cairo fit the bill for early 20th century weird-but-not-necessarily-Cthulhuesque-pulp games? I had Chaos in Carpathia pegged for more Victorian-style weirdness, but that may be purely my own projection. I'm happy to do both, as you'll be unsurprised to hear.

    1. "I'd got the impression Strange Aeons was better than you make it sound, but am prepared to be corrected."

      --It's OK, I'm just not a rabid fanboy of the genre.

      --Chaos in Cairo = Indiana Jones/Mummy etc
      --Chaos in Carpathia = van Helsing, vampires, werewolves etc. As you'd expect.

      --Freebooter's Fate is very pricey and I'm not a fan of the boutique-cards-$15 per mini rules... Combat mechanics are different.

      --Donnybrook "card based activation" "5s and 6s to hit" different dice sizes (d6 rookie, d8 regular, d10 vet) sounds a lot like a mix of Ambush Alley and Sharpe Practice.