Mike Yow is the creator of Savage Kingdoms, a gritty, swords and sorcery style TTRPG that was first published in 2014. Following the publication of the core rulebook, Yow has released the Savage Kingdoms East world expansion book, a Bestiary PDF, and several adventures. In 2017, Yow released Savage Kingdoms Reforged, combining Savage Kingdoms East with the core rulebook, as well as update some of the rules.
“I haven’t changed the rules too much, but they have been tweaked and “sleekified” a little bit,” he says. Yow has been an avid RPG fan for most of his life, entering his first dungeon in 1979 at age 15.
“My first game was the blue home set with the Dragon on it, the Blue Box, and then within two weeks it was AD&D because the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual and the DM’s guide all came out,” he says. “There was a kid in high school, an older kid so, you know, he had the DM screen and he ran this adventure for us after school and we had a really cool teacher for Architectural Drafting, named Mr. Herb, and he was into [D&D] too so he sort of let us play a little during class.”
Yow was instantly hooked: “I played with this DM, and I thought what he was doing was magical, but in two weeks I was already running games for my brother and kids in the neighborhood.” He has been GMing ever since.
As the years passed, and Yow improved his Game Mastering chops, he began to make modifications to his D&D campaign settings, and to the rules.
“I started out as a lot of GMs do, designing my own home-brew campaign settings for Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder,” says Yow. “The setting I designed was really detailed. It goes all the way back to 1982 when I first started tinkering with it. The setting got so big in and of itself, and we had so many house rules and so many tweaks, eventually, a couple of people said ‘Why don’t you just design your own system?’ So finally about three-and-a-half years ago I really sat down and started coming up with the mechanics; things I wanted the system to do that other systems weren’t doing.”
The world that Savage Kingdoms inhabits is a low magic setting that gets more inspiration from authors like George RR Martin and Robert E Howard than from the high fantasy tropes of C.S. Lewis, or JRR Tolkien. The world in human-centric, with some monsters, and optional rules for including the occasional Dreugar, Sidhe, or Serpent-person as player characters. The heroes of the world tend to be very gray, and tribal morality rules.
Savage Kingdom’s core mechanic runs on a single D20, for example, ’To Hit’ and ‘Damage’ is all calculated into one roll. There is little need for tinkering with different dice. This mechanic goes a long way in streamlining combat encounters, as well as helping out newer players who still haven’t learned to tell their D12s from their D20s.
Yow is particularly proud of the character creation aspect of his game:
“A lot of people have come to me and said it’s almost a game-within-a-game,” says Yow. “Some of my players have a stable of up to fifteen characters because they enjoy it so much. It’s not a class-based system so it is very customizable. We use a point-buy system for talents, and a character can take on narrative weaknesses to gain more points to put elsewhere in talents and skills.”
He says that there are some mechanics in place to reign-in outrageous character creation, but that these are employed while still striving to provide as much player agency as possible when it comes to character generation.
“Certain races and cultural groups have base attributes that give bonuses to certain builds. I wanted a customizable system that wasn’t completely ‘throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.’ You can go against type, but point-wise you can save points if you lean towards what your culture is really good at,” says Yow.
Yow runs his game once a week on average, often on Roll20.com, and once every two weeks at The Wyvern’s Tale, a FLGS near his home in Asheville, NC. As a fan of legends and ancient cultures, his favorite moments at the table are the times he can insert historical or mythological motifs into his adventures.
“There’s this one Celtic myth about a king, Llew Silverhand or Nuada, depending on if you are hearing the Welsh or Irish version. Llew lost his hand in battle with the forces to the evil Meldron, and could no longer rule the kingdom because a king must be unblemished. He is only able to return and overthrow Meldron after one of the gods crafts him a hand made of silver.”
When one of Yow’s player’s character lost a hand, Yow leaped at the chance to explore that myth.
“I talked to the player about what they want to do with this maimed character…there is advanced healing magic in the world, but it is really rare that you could regenerate a hand. I told him I had a cool quest for that.”
Yow then had the player’s character start having dreams that incorporated the themes and images from the Llew Siverhand/Nuada myth into his next few game sessions.
“Last night the player figured out the motif of what was going on, and he was like dude are you doing the Nuada thing?” It was really cool when he recognized it,” says Yow.
Outside of becoming a game creator, Yow has also recently achieved another personal triumph. “I finally get paid to GM,” he says. Yow’s full-time career is as a stage actor and an acting teacher. He runs an improv class at the Franklin School of Innovation in West Asheville and has begun an after-school program for students where he runs weekly role-playing games.
“We have six players, and I run Dungeons & Dragons two afternoons a week,” he says. “We are about to add a third session, and I hope to run Savage Kingdoms on that day.”
Despite his busy schedule, Yow still cannot get enough table-top action: “Now that I’m older and have other responsibilities it’s not quite as steady, I don’t get to play as often, but it’s still a fairly common theme in my life.” Yow laughs as he says it, and checks his watch. It’s getting late, and he has a game to run.