When I had my first opportunity to see Savage Worlds in action at a Gen Con demonstration in 2002, I was blown away. There were two things that jumped out at me.
First was the bravery of Shane and crew at Pinnacle. The gaming industry was in the midst of the d20 boom, products like d20 Stargate and d20 Everquest were being released, and it looked like the entire hobby would be Hero or d20 based. Even Green Ronin's innovative Mutants and Masterminds game was d20 adjacent and based on the OGL. For a company, especially a mid-range company that would be more vulnerable to shifts in the market winds, to release a new system in that environment was a truly brave move. Doubly brave considering the push-back they eventually received on their Deadlands d20 line when fans failed to notice that future products were double stat-ed for d20 and Classic rules sets.
Second was how the game lived up to the "Fast! Furious! Fun!" tagline on the cover. If you take the time to watch any of the how to play videos from Saving Throw or Wil Wheaton's TitansGrave series on Geek & Sundry, you will notice that roleplaying games can bog down during combat pretty quickly. This is even the case with good Game Masters (like Wheaton) and experienced gamers (like the Saving Throw crew). Savage Worlds isn't immune to this problem, but it is suffers from it less than many other systems. Combat in the game is definitely Fast and Furious. Whether it is Fun can depend on the Game Master and Players, but I think the default is yes.
Savage Worlds was designed to be able to handle combats of a relatively large nature in very little time and to achieve this goal it incorporated a couple of key mechanics. The first was the use of different categories for different kinds of characters. Characters who are meant to be fodder, or at least easier to defeat than others, are classified as "Extras" and those who are meant to stick around a while - like the Player's characters - are called "Wild Cards." It's a system inspired by games like Feng Shui, but it's a very effective system. The second way that Savage Worlds speeds up combat is through its Keep It Simple/Is It Simple Enough philosophy. A perfect example of this is the "Up, Down, or Off the Table" principle of combat (pg 68 of Savage Worlds Deluxe HC) which was the underlying reason for the recent change to the game's "Shaken" rules. This rules change isn't the first relatively major change in Savage Worlds' combat system and I'd like to take you through many of those changes to show you how the game has changed in order to keep things moving Fast! and Furious! in order to maximize the Fun!
In the 2003 edition of the game (which you can play using the v3 of the Test Drive Rules), combat worked in the following way. A player rolled to hit. If the player hit the opponent, then they had to keep track of how much they hit that opponent by and for each 4 points over the number needed the player added +2 to the damage dealt to an opponent. This damage was resisted by Toughness and could be "soaked" if the victim spent a "Benny" to make the roll. If a player took more than 3 wounds, then that character would suffer the effects of a knockout blow. The effects of this knockout blow depended on the amount of damage the attack did while the character was at three wounds. For example, Hugh Manley has taken 3 damage from attacks earlier in combat. He suffers another attack and it would do 2 points of damage. This would leave Hugh incapacitated, but Hugh could spend a "Benny" to soak the damage to prevent the knockout effect.
This system was fast, but probably wasn't fast enough for the designers because by the time that the 2004 Revised Edition, the bonus damage had been changed from +2 "per raise" to "+1d6 per raise." Given that the average damage of a d6 is 3.5 and that these dice could "ace" (be rolled again and added on a 6) it made it possible to do more damage. The system for incapacitation remained the same for this edition.
Explorer's Edition in 2008. You can play this edition using v6.0 of the Test Drive Rules. In this edition, the attacker rolled +1d6 if he or she rolled any raises, but only an additional +1d6. Using the older Incapacitation rules though, this might still end up bogging things down. With this new edition Players made an "incapacitation roll" when their character takes more than their three wound allotment. Now, instead of comparing the amount of damage from the final attack against a chart and deciding whether to soak the damage, the player would decide whether to soak or make an incapacitation roll where if the character rolled high enough then it would still be active. This system was quicker than before and worked pretty well.
Then Necessary Evil came out, and with it characters with enough Vigor to almost always get a raise on an "incapacitation" check and thus who were nigh impossible to knock out of a fight. So this brought about one more change. Like the Explorer's Edition, damage in the Savage Worlds Deluxe edition was an additional +1d6 if the attack had any raises (and only +1d6), but incapacitation changed. This time, any time a character suffers more than three wounds that character is incapacitated...period. A Vigor roll is made to see if there is permanent damage or death, but the character is out of the fight period...unless the character makes a soak roll, but that requires a Benny. This change made combat much faster, and scaled well with the new Super Hero rules and characters with higher stats.
But combats could still bog down a little and so Pinnacle made one more change, this time to the Shaken rules. It's a small change, but it has some significant effects on combat. One of the most significant of these changes is that it speeds things up. Players can still spend Bennies to keep their characters moving, but the importance of Bennies has been increased. Given how the rules have been written since day one, this seems intentional. The designers want there to be a good and moving Benny economy.
Since the game was released in 2003, it has seen a number of changes and editions, but it seems that uniformly the question underlying the changes is "How can we make this simpler?" The thing that most impresses me with Savage Worlds is how it strives to capture all the granularity of a complex game like Hero or 3.x while keeping the game as simple as possible. I think that they manage this feat remarkably well.
If you are interested in playing Savage Worlds, and you should be, you can download and play the modern day adventure The Wild Hunt for free. It even includes a recent version of the Test Drive rules. There is a more recent version of the rules in the Lankhmar set, but that is for another post.