The King is Dead: On The New Shaken Rules

It used to be that three silver bullets through the heart might at least Shake a vampire for a round or two...
(Love at First Bite)

The interview Jack Shear posted yesterday at Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque was conducted several weeks ago. One of the questions was how I felt about the new Shaken rules for Savage Worlds, and I didn’t have a good answer at that time because I’ve mainly been playing D&D 5e in 2015. Ironically, since the interview was completed, I have now had time to play some Savage Worlds again – specifically a half-dozen playtests of The King is Dead – and now I have an informed opinion about the new rules.

Oh my gods, they make it hard to kill vampires!

(Or, at least, they make it hard to kill my vampires.)

For those presumably few readers who don’t play Savage Worlds, SW’s damage system is deliberately streamlined compared to most RPGs. Similar to the Storyteller System, characters have a wound track instead of hit points, with every level of wounds imposing increased penalties on rolls. There’s only three wound levels before you’re incapacitated, though, and each level only has one box in it. This seems quicker and deadlier than it is (though it is pretty quick and deadly); characters can still make a roll to soak damage, and damage rolled has to beat a Toughness threshold by four or more points to even cause a wound.

If damage meets or exceeds Toughness, but isn’t high enough to cause a wound, a character is instead Shaken. The Shaken condition is meant to emulate things like blood in your eyes from a scratch on the forehead, stumbling backwards from a parry you barely made, ringing in your ears from a nearby explosion, and other debilitating but survivable incidents. In most games, this would mean a few lost hit points or a check or two along the wound track; in Savage Worlds, this means your character can’t do anything but move until it gets its shit together with a successful roll against its Spirit attribute (what in other games would be Wisdom or Willpower).

The old rules were that a character that rolled a normal success on the Spirit roll was no longer Shaken, but had used up its turn. You had to roll four higher than the minimum difficulty to un-Shake and act in the same turn. Several months back, Pinnacle Entertainment Group (publishers of Savage Worlds) published a new rule that said characters who rolled a normal success were now un-Shaken and could act that turn as well – making it much, much easier for player characters and important NPCs to just blow off the Shaken status and keep fighting.

On paper, this seems like a great idea – heck, it probably works fine in certain genres – but the last several The King is Dead games tell me it’s problematic in that setting. Yes, it’s great that players don’t have to worry so much about sitting out combat scenes doing nothing, or burning the hero points mechanism called Bennies to snap out of being Shaken. It certainly lets heroes get back in the action quicker, and lets them keep their Bennies for more awesome things than shouting “I’ve got to get it together!” Unfortunately, it lets the villains do the same.

I’m sure this is no problem when you’ve got your good guys fighting a bunch of low-level Nazi goons or orcish rabble, but that is not The King is Dead. TKiD is… Well, it’s hunting Dracula over and over again. The first time, he’s Bela Lugosi’s slow-moving bored aristocrat. The second time, he’s Christopher Lee’s feral brute. The third time, he’s Gary Oldman’s shape-shifting warlord. The fourth time, he’s got Luke Evans’ giant cloud-fist of bats. By the time you get to the end, you’re fighting Alucard from Hellsing, and he’s this protean, impossible, Lovecraftian god. The vampires get tougher and smarter and just plain stronger the higher you murder your way up their hierarchy. It becomes easier and easier for them to un-Shake.

For example, the 12PM Saturday game at GaMEXpo was about hunting down the “rabid” dhampir Erzbet Mullins. She has a Spirit rating of d8, meaning she rolls an eight-sided die when rolling Spirit-related tests. As a Wild Card (an important character with the same benefits as a player character), she also rolls a d6 when she makes a trait test, taking the best of the two results. 

The number you have to beat to un-Shake is 4.

On a d6, you statistically have a chance to un-Shake half the time (all you need to roll is a 4, 5, or 6 out of six possible outcomes). This actually goes up to 5 out of 8 times on a d8 (4, 5, 6, 7, or 8). I’m no mathematician but it’s obvious Erzbet has a chance to un-Shake significantly better than 50/50 – and that’s not even considering she can spend a Benny to un-Shake immediately.

A d8, I should point out, is only one step above human average. 

(Honestly, it seemed like the absolute minimum rating to emulate the raging instincts of a starving blood-drinker.)

I saw how pointless the Shaken status is now when the heroes tried to stop Erzbet as she was fleeing from a crime scene. They hit her a couple of times with enough power to Shake her, but she immediately un-Shook on her next action without even spending a Benny. “Oh, you shot me with a crossbow? I’ll just tear out the quarrel and slaughter these soldiers standing between me and the exit, thank you very much.” I couldn’t really complain at the time (it was their first encounter and I wanted her to escape) but it sure hammered home how much the new rule changes things.  

Several magical powers were designed to inflict or heal the Shaken status, and they’re barely worthwhile now. At the very least, they’re useless against vampires, even if they’re sort-of useful against human mooks. I’m kind of sad about that, because those powers are very flavorful for psionic characters.

I think I’m going to have to include a discussion of the new Shaken rules in The King is Dead, laying out the pros and cons of both versions. (Pro: Vampires are tougher; Con: Vampires are tougher.) The new rule is only [edit: in the] online download[s] (for now), so players who only have the [edit: physical] books aren’t going to be aware of it anyway. (As I saw in person when this came up at the convention.) In fact, letting GMs choose their poison is probably the best bet, period. The King is Dead is a setting that can be played as anything from high camp to deadly seriousness, so giving people the power to customize the setting is always the best choice.

Damn, I hope Pinnacle doesn't publish a new edition of Savage Worlds anytime soon.


  1. FYI, Sean, this rule *is* in the current edition of Savage Worlds. All PDF's of the core rules have been updated, and the download is an official update to the rules.

    That said, if the intent of Shaken is to deny actions of Wild Cards as opposed to setting them up for others to hurt, then it won't really do that any more (it kind of will if the Wild Card has wound penalties to content with as the odds of success drop significantly). That's specifically one of the unintended effects we wanted to remove with the change.

    Yep, that lets a Wild Card villain get back into the fight faster, but as you noted, it also let the players (who are all Wild Cards) do the same, so as long as they outnumber the Wild Card villains (which they should almost always), it helps them more than it helps the opposition.

    That said, if the vampires in the setting are that powerful to begin with, you could consider appying a penalty to recover from Shaken from attacks using their Weakness (presuming that fits). So a vampire with a Weakness to Wood might suffer a –4 to recover from Shaken if hit with a crossbow bolt.

    Course, I checked Erzbet's stats on the other page, and with her +4 to recover from Shaken, she'd be nearly unstoppable even with the old rule. :-0

    1. Cripes, I totally forgot that I'd given her Combat Reflexes. I didn't remember to use that the whole game. LOL

      I really need to re-download the Deluxe Edition; I did not realize the change had been made there. Some of the people I was playing with, though, only had physical copies of the books and don't keep up with the online community. They were shocked by the new rule.

      Thank you so much for the suggestion about penalties for recovering from Shaken. I do feel the "Shaken lock" is a very useful tool for vampire hunters in this setting, so coming up with some way to bring it back helps me tremendously. In fact, it clears up a number of design problems I was having.

      Expect a hearty "thank you" in the book's credits, Clint!


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