Trappings: They aren’t just for powers anymore…

This article was written for Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition (SWEX) but the material applies just as well to Savage Worlds Adventurer’s Edition (SWADE).

“Yes, I am Martala the Mighty,” confirmed the spindly teen-aged girl standing in front of the old soldiers. Her robes were threadbare but she had a warm confidence about her.

“They say Martala can swing a fast sword. “

The girl nodded and paused a moment in concentration. In the barest whisper she asked “Master Chung, care to do the honors?” Her hand flashed out snatching an incredulous soldier’s sword from its sheath and using it to slice the strap on the man’s satchel. She flipped the sword and gave it back to the man hilt first.

Another soldier took a step forward. “Martala can call lightning from the air.”

The girl smiled again, whispering under her breath, “Arielle, can you make it crackle blue?” A gesture with her hands and a ball of bright, sparking fire in pale blue brightened the tavern. The soldiers all took a step back.

The third soldier scowled. “Martala knows all. What is my real name?” The other soldiers relaxed a bit and chuckled.

This caused the girl to frown a moment and ponder. She mumbled to herself and looked to either side like she was conversing with people though no one was near her enough to hear. Finally her face broke into a smile.

“Your father called you Horus,” she began to the grins of the man’s comrades. “But your first nursemaid called you…”

“Enough!” interrupted the red-faced mercenary. “You are Martala. We’re bound to escort you across the mountains.”

When playing a fast and light game system like Savage Worlds, there are only a limited number of skills, Edges, and magical powers. Create a dozen magic-using characters and you can see the tendency for them to be fairly similar mechanically. This is especially true when you realize some powers are more popular than others. Most of the burden of creating an interesting character lies at the feet of role-playing and getting inside the character’s head. But we don’t need to limit our creativity to just story elements.

Savage Worlds encourages spell casters to use trappings or custom descriptions to present the same game mechanics effect as if it were different spells. Trappings allow spell casters to take the most logical (and popular) powers without becoming a clone of every other wizard. They are a narrative device that gives the players and the game master a lot of freedom.

Trappings can be applied to more than one power. A character can have the same Trapping Theme across all of her powers. She could even reflect that theme in her wardrobe or the way she speaks.

But why stop there? Anything with a mechanical effect is a candidate to add to a Trappings Theme. Suddenly a character who may only express their powers five minutes a day in a battle can be ‘always on’ with their special nature showing itself in many ways.

Let me run through some examples and hopefully they will spark your imagination in your next game. We’ll use a couple supernatural Trappings Themes and a mundane one to see how this can be done. The same approach can be tried for any character to some degree.

Different Kinds of Magic

We all know the traditional image of wizards casting spells from books to harness glowing powers from the ether. Let’s use some different Trapping Themes to broaden the possibilities. One Theme uses an existing Trapping from the Core Rules. Two are new Trapping Themes for magic and the last is mundane but could be a Trapping Theme for magic. You could also drive the same logic based on a race, a culture, a religion, or a background or profession. But let’s start with the magic.

Psionicist: We could explore the power of the mind with the existing Psionics Arcane Background. Read Minds and Telepathy are pretty straight-forward. Smite is actually whispering in the target’s mind to move more into the path of the weapon. Heal is instantaneously drawing from the collective knowledge of everyone around him to know how best to bind wounds. Speed is actually just slowing the perceptions of everyone in the melee while he operates at a normal tempo.

Spiritualist: Like Martala in our little tale the source of this mage’s powers is the spirits of the departed who are all around us. The mage can speak to them and lean on their knowledge and skills to replicate magical effects. Her only power is the natural ability to speak with them. Her spell-casting skill is Communing which lets her reach and attempt to convince an appropriate spirit to help her when needed. Many spirits are friendly but a 1 on the ‘casting die’ indicates she has contacted a spirit who is downright… cantankerous.

Totemist: Imagine a kindly grandfather passing his days in the sun whittling small shapes from wood. He keeps quite a little collection in a pouch on his person. It is only when raiders come seeking to pillage their town does the grandfather show his magic. He tosses the figurine of the dog to summon a beast to defend him. A wooden ball laced with images of flames rolled at the hulking raiders bursts into flames when it comes to a stop. An intricately carved miniature shield grows to become a shield maiden saving him from clubs and blades. The casting die is Carving but the quality of a carving is only revealed when it is used. A failure reveals a flawed and inert carving while a 1 on the casting roll creates an unintended effect.

Detective: Let’s harness the power of a well-trained and attentive mind a’la Sherlock Holmes to create magical effects without requiring supernatural sources. Through simple observation, deduction, and a sponge-like ability to absorb esoteric knowledge, this mage could produce magic-like effects quite easily. Having already detected the cave walls and floor are weak and porous, she affects a Burrow quite easily with a distraction and then limber movement through nearly hidden crevices below her enemies. Knowledge of rare teachings of the body allows her to manipulate the humors and provide a victim with Succor. A more challenging power would be Bolt. Something from nothing? Perhaps part of her abilities is preparedness for eventualities. She might carry on her person pouches of mundane powders and iron bearings. When they are flung together they touch each other and ignite to create the poor woman’s Bolt.

Applying Trappings to Skills

Probably the easiest extension of a character’s magic trappings is the skills by which they are tested most frequently. Let’s try it with Fighting, Healing, Investigation, Notice, Persuasion, Shooting, Stealth, and Streetwise.

Psionicist: The man who can touch minds and the mental energies of those around him has great powers. Streetwise is simply touching the minds of everyone around you to pick up threads of information. Fighting is a matter of sensing his opponent’s intentions or distracting their thoughts to slow their swing. In order to Notice a vital clue, the Psionicist senses auras of objects around him. Persuasion is easy when you can sense another person’s fears or desires. You can slip away Stealthily by muddying the minds of those who seek you.

Spiritualist: For Martala, these come fairly easily. A spirit could provide a needed skill either by taking over Martala’s body and perceptions or performing the actions outright on her behalf. Of course there could be some additional flavor. Contacting a storied veteran soldier to wield the sword through you might cause her to chortle and let out some bawdy soldier talk. She communes with all the spirits in the area to see what they Notice. The silver tongue of a recently deceased bard could be quite Persuasive although his love of singing might have Martala dancing around the square in her deal with the bard. Finding the right spirit who knows an obscure secret is like Investigation. The player can play up the different accents or speech patterns her character might take on if the spirits use her body or have her whispering to the air. (In a modern setting, this could represent a genius like the Detective with multiple personality disorder).

Totemist: When Fighting, the Totemist throws the figurine of a warrior to fight for him and clings to its back for safety. To become Streetwise, the Totemist carves many tiny eyes and leaves them around the city to whisper to him. He keeps a larger carved eye in his hand to Notice things he misses. Carvings of cloaks could be tossed away from him to distract watching eyes and give him Stealth. The carvings could be large or small, secreted around his person, hung on a string, or as wooden rings on his fingers. It also gives him something to be doing with his hands in the quiet times.

Detective: The key element of the Detective is the breadth and depth of their studies. For each skill, there are studies of other cultures, ancient disciplines, forgotten arts, and the natural philosophies we might term science. When attacked with a sword, the defensive arts of the silent monks of the ice temples come easily to hand allowing her to use their momentum against them, or manipulate random objects nearby to block and deflect harmful blades. Her highly honed senses provide an excellent basis for Notice, of course. A fluency in many dialects and cants could provide a necessary advantage when gathering information on the streets. A study of anatomy could allow her to perform near miracles of healing. It is all in the descriptions of how she uses the skills using strange bits of arcane lore and details to achieve her ends.

Over time skills improve and that can be explained as well. The Totemist’s ability to carve the magic into the wood improves allowing him to do more. The Spiritualist may commune with the same warrior over time and create a stronger bond, enabling the warrior to perform better when controlling her body. The Detective is always studying and absorbing new knowledge like a sponge. The Psionicist’s mind is a muscle that grows stronger with every use.

Applying Trappings to Edges

Why stop with powers and skills? We can take this approach by applying Trappings Themes to Edges as well. Here are some examples.

Alertness/Danger Sense: The departed whisper to the Spiritualist a moment early to warn her. The Detective is obsessive with her attention to detail so this is a natural fit.

Beast Bond: The Psionicist can reach out with his mind to more than people, creating the trusting bond. A study of animal behavior and training methods prepares the Detective for such eventualities.

Berserk: Controlling one own’s mind can be tricky and when emotions get the better of the Psionicist his powers can express in ways he did not intend. Our Spiritualist may have made the mistake of communing with a crazed spirit.

Combat Edges: The warrior figurines of the Totemist get more complex over time and can fight with more and more techniques. The Detective is always learning and can add techniques to his own abilities from many lands and cultures simply by studying a book or observing a practitioner.

Common Bond: The Totemist can pass a figurine of luck to a friend even though normally others cannot bring out the magic in his carvings. A spirit could be asked to help a boon companion rather than the Spiritualist which could be disturbing to the companion if they don’t know what is happening.

Healer: The Totemist has carvings of medicinal plants which unleash restorative powers. The Psionicist manipulates the victim’s mind to ‘heal thyself’.

Leadership Edges: A spirit of powerful presence takes over the Spiritualist’s body to give the right command or inspiring speech. The Detective has a strong personality naturally and has read of the techniques of great leaders in history.

Linguist: The Spiritualist has a special affinity for spirits from many lands and a few remain close to her, speaking to her in their own tongue. The Psionicist simply picks the words from others’ minds but over time can pick up a language or two.

Applying Trappings to Attributes

How far can we take this? With some creativity, even Attributes can be affected by a Trapping Theme. Take our Psionicist. He could explain an increase in Vigor die type with an ability to lessen the kinetic power of things. An enemy’s blow could be slowed. A fall could be softened. Even poisons and toxins in his blood could be stopped from circulating to vital organs.

An increase in her Smarts die type could be explained for a Spiritualist. She speaks and listens to spirits all the time, not just when they are needed to do her a favor. A constant education from a wide variety of experiences sharpens her thinking.

A Rose by Any Other Name

This Trapping Theme technique can be applied to characters without an Arcane Background as well. What about someone who can speak with the departed but doesn’t have the skill to convince or compel them to create powers? They can still reach friendly spirits and get the effect of Streetwise or Investigation, or a spirit bothering them at the right moment could inadvertently cause them to Notice something. They don’t take the Arcane Background but still gain a very flavorful aspect for their character.

The possibilities of this approach are exciting for developing unique, fun, and compelling characters. It also addresses the complaint that Savage Worlds’ magic is not very magical. Someone whose powers express themselves in all sorts of ways through the day is much more magical than the typical spell slinger.

Not every power or skill or Edge will work with a Trapping Theme-based alternative description. Have fun with the ones that work well and either avoid the problematic powers or accept they are exceptions. I think you’ll find the ones that work enrich your gaming experience with Savage Worlds.