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Ok my original question was apparently too vague and raised question marks about my problem with the power curve in 3.5. I won't explain why I don't like 3.5 since that's not the point of my question. I'll simply reformulate my question.

I've been playing 3.5 and Pathfinder for over 6 years now and I recently got tired of rule-intensive systems after playing Mutants and Masterminds for a while. What I like of Mutants and Masterminds:

  • Combat is not tactical. No grid, no attack of opportunity etc.
  • All the combat rules are covered in couples of pages.
  • The list of conditions for your character (sickened, shaken etc.) is shorter and more intuitive since the numbers are consistent.
  • The system doesn't have any classes so you don't have to fit into a box of preselected features.
  • Game is point-buy so players can create their own characters with no other limits than their creation point budget and the campaign frame.

I could use Mutants and Masterminds as a system for a fantasy game but that wouldn't be appropriate. Mostly like using Exalted to play a game where all players are humble farmers. Scalability problem etc.

So now I would like to start a fantasy game with a system that correspond the following criteria:

  • Fast combat
  • Combat is not tactical
  • No classes so player can create their character the way they want
  • The books are still available somehow (free pdf, still in print etc.)
  • The system can cover any genre from vanilla D&D (Middle-Earth-esque) to Steam Punk + magic.
  • System must not be bound to a setting (like Exalted or L5R where you need to select a clan or an element of the setting that would determine features for your character).
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Welcome to Role-playing Games! As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  C. Ross Jul 10 '12 at 17:52
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Answerers - read the top comment and the links. I will just up and delete answers that don't explain how they have used or directly seen used game X for purpose Y. "I have heard of it" or "I'm sure it would be good for" are not worthy answers to system-rec on this site. Your answer should go into depth on how you personally used that system in a game matching what the OP describes and how that worked out for you. Thanks. –  mxyzplk Jul 11 '12 at 0:35
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Probably too late, but am closing this - a question too general, which probably 50% of extant RPGs could be argued to fit, along with a batch of answers of which only the small minority bother to meet our requirements and are largely poor fits anyway. If nothing else the close can warn future posters to take this one with a grain of salt. –  mxyzplk Jul 14 '12 at 15:58
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closed as not constructive by mxyzplk Jul 14 '12 at 15:54

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7 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Our group has used Savage Worlds for some time. It has a simple character creation process, and has a lot of game settings to pick from, or you can roll your own. There is a test drive PDF, so you can get a feel for the system.

I've had two experiences with spell casters: one was balanced well with the rest of the party, and another was effectively a one-shot wonder. Spellcaster balance is all down the the Edges you pick though, and how you play the character. I think the system itself handles it well, since there are opportunity costs to focusing on one over-powered trick.

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What's your experience when it comes to spellcasters in Savage World? Does it balance well with the non casters? –  MrJinPengyou Jul 10 '12 at 19:16
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This really doesn't tell me why this answers the question. Need a bit more than links to the game. –  wax eagle Jul 10 '12 at 20:13
    
I was going to say Savage Worlds too, but it does have its own scaling issues. Maybe "issues" is too strong a word—it's not broken at higher power levels, but how to manage the numbers is hard to figure out before one has some experience with the system at high power levels. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 11 '12 at 0:25
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Since this was the selected answer, can someone improve this answer with how this game system addresses each of the bullet points? –  GMNoob Jul 12 '12 at 9:37
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GURPS might be what you're looking for. One thing to keep in mind with GURPs is that it's so flexible that it can do almost anything, but a genre-specific system often does it better.

Gurps has an overwhelming breadth, so there's some overhead involved with paring it down to the applicable features and settings. There are so many options for point buys, items, and mechanics. Many won't be applicable to a given campaign. So GURPS is great if there isn't a good RPG for whatever setting you want because it can do almost anything. But a more specific system doesn't require that overhead. Of course, if you are dissatisfied with the canonical RPGs for what you want, give GURPS a shot. It is a fun system, but it requires some extra work.

To answer some specifics:

Combat

Pros - Combat can be non-tactical as you said, or it can use a hex grid. Or a hybrid of both, where the DM keeps track on a hex grid but only tells the players what is happening instead of displaying it on a map. "There is a goblin in front of you and a second charging through the door."

Cons - one round is usually one second so in theory it can translate in to many rounds for one encounter. Depends on your DM.

Character creation

Pros - point buy, as you said. No classes. You can build around a concept or build around your character's story. Lots of freedom. Can take disadvantages for extra points so you are aren't out-done by power gamers if you want to build your character a specific way for RP purposes.

Cons - so many options - attributes, advantages, disadvantages, and skills can all be bought with points. May need to be pared down by the GM depending on the setting. Needs a cap on disadvantages or it can get absurd. Again, character creation can be a lengthy process unless the DM delivers a simplified list of available buys or lays down some rules about what to buy. This is not necessarily a bad thing if your campaign is going to be long because it means you have to put more thought in to your character.

Settings

All pro in my opinion. Can be adapted to basically any setting with the base books and supplements can help. Has a great concept called "technology level" which helps dictate which items are available in a given campaign and takes a lot of the guesswork and historical research out of the way for you.

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I don't think Gurps really suits the criteria asked for - specifcally, I wouldn't call Gurps character creation simple. It is shallow, but extremely broad. –  YogoZuno Jul 10 '12 at 23:13
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Smeg have you used it, personally, for fast-combat in theatre-of-the-mind? Is it fun that way? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jul 11 '12 at 15:37
    
@BrianBallsun-Stanton - I +1'ed this because in the decades I've been playing GURPS, I've never used a battlemap. I've always played TotM, maybe with a few pieces to help illustrate the situation. With a little GM practice (required for fast combat in any game), combat can be pretty quick. Which isn't to say that you can't get down to serious details if you want. And yeah, it's fun or I wouldn't have been playing it since Man-to-Man. –  gomad Jul 11 '12 at 17:39
    
@YogoZuno - GURPS is optionally rules-intensive. The core of GURPS is 3d6 roll-under, and that by itself will take you a long way. Don't know the rules for freezing? Drowning? Thirst? Sleep deprivation? Roll HT and go with it. Character creation can be as simple as choosing a template and doing a little customizing, or as complex as creating new abilities from scratch. Yes, all the detail you could possibly want is available. But with basic combat, pretty much everything you need is right on the character sheet! –  gomad Jul 12 '12 at 15:00
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Hey guys, this isn't a discussion forum. Take discussions to chat; I've pruned these comments. –  mxyzplk Jul 13 '12 at 5:26
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There is OpenQuest which is based off Mongoose Runequest. It is a skill based RPG with no classes and uses the d100 as the main dice mechanic. It a more straight forward to play than Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying or Mongoose Legends/Runquest II

You may want to look at one of the Swords & Wizardry games. They are all based of the 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons. While class based your knowledge of Pathfinder can be put to use. Plus the power curve is very different than later editions particularly with the White Box version.

Also both are free to download and supported by the fanbase.

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would possibly be just as well off spending the $1 for the PDF of Legend, which is the "de-Glorantha'd" version of MRQ... if only for the ease of evaluation, and the ease of obtaining dead tree if desired. –  aramis Jul 10 '12 at 23:21
    
I didn't realize they were still selling for a $1 but Legend would be a good but slightly more complex alternative to OpenQuest. Also note the monster guide is separate for Legend. –  RS Conley Jul 11 '12 at 12:15
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I have been very happy with Green Ronin's Dragon Age RPG and Adventure Game Engine (AGE) system, playing it online with a small group in MapTools.

The AGE system very approachable and advancement, IMHO, is significantly character focused with a power balance that addresses the video game experience, but not becoming a quest at point farming or power leveling. It's all in the fluff and flavor.

I also like the box set approach too.

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is the Dragon Age RPG linked to its setting in the core mechanics? Like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition would take a lot of adaptation if I want to to, let's say, an Eberron Campaign. –  MrJinPengyou Jul 10 '12 at 19:11
    
I understand AGE is being used for new settings in development by Green Ronin. The core mechanics are very 'hackable.' However, DA is very much a fantasy setting. And yes, WFRP 3e would be a painful adaptation. –  javafueled Jul 10 '12 at 20:09
    
I might also add, one thing I found in the AGE system is an evolvement by Chris Pramas of his work in WFRP 2e (second edition). As a WFRP 2e refugee (and fanboy) I immediately felt at home with the AGE mechanics in context without it being WFRP 2e; I could sense that the Chris' learned a lot from what worked in WFRP 2e and refined it in the AGE mechanics. IHMO. –  javafueled Jul 10 '12 at 20:14
    
The rules as written are linked to the setting, but the setting is pretty generic anyway. –  aramis Jul 12 '12 at 5:38
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My go-to system for simple and generic is the D6 system by West End Games. It's an older system, and quite simplistic in nature. It doesn't offer the tactical combat of, say, a d20 system, but it provides an easy framework to play around in.

Character creation is fast and simple. You split up a pool of points into your attributes. Then you split a smaller pool of points into your skills. I believe later editions added a few merits/flaws to the mix.

The system comes in a variety of flavors. I played D6 Star Wars extensively for a number of years, but there are the newer, and more generic D6 Space, Adventure (Modern), and Fantasy available. Best of all, the latest editions are available for free on Drive Thru RPG.

Scalability is probably the weakest fit. For the most part, characters just get better at what they do, with a few branching out to become more rounded over time. Balancing an encounter is mostly a matter of using antagonists with numbers similar to the PCs. Unfortunately, some of the special powers are badly unbalancing (there were a few absolutely atrocious ones in D6 Star Wars). The system is simple enough that my group always felt comfortable house ruling the offenders as they came up, but it is something to be aware of.

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Another potential option is Legend of the Five Rings. Although the setting of the main game is Samurai fantasy, I've found in the past that the rules can easily be used for just about any fantasy type setting with very little in the way of changes. The core mechanic is simple and flexible, and character creation is relatively simple. The standard rules do kind of have a class mechanism, in that you choose to be a spellcaster or fighter type at creation, so it may not fit all of your requirements. In the core L5R setting, though, there are mainly cultural differences between fighters and spellcasters. There are very few mechanical differences, and shugenja can learn all the same skills as bushi for the most part.

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Legend of the Burning Sands is a Middle-easternish setting with the same mechanics. Seventh Sea (now OOP) is again the same engine, but slightly more different, for fantasy Europe and the Mediterranean. –  aramis Jul 10 '12 at 23:25
    
Seventh Sea is more Renaissance than Medieval, but could certainly also be used for fantasy. –  YogoZuno Jul 11 '12 at 11:30
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@Yogo, could you tell us how you've repurposed the rules to other settings and what other problems you had? Also, how can you restructure the class mechanism to most suit the requirements? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jul 11 '12 at 15:36
    
The last time we used the L5R rules for fantasy, we just used them straight out of the rulebook, and ignored the fact they were designed to be used for Samurai. We used the Schools as representative of European fantasy - for instance, my character was an Elven Skyship captain, so I used one of the Yoritomo schools. One of the other players had a Dwarf with the Crab bushi school. I don't think we had a mage that time out. As to the 'class' mechanism, you could just ignore it, and make being a mage an advantage of some sort. –  YogoZuno Jul 12 '12 at 9:20
    
The method used in LBS is to simply rename the abilities, and write new classes based upon the intended theme. Note that 7th Sea doesn't use the schools, nor all 9 attributes (reducing to just the 5 rings) - proving the system works without the schools - so you could just go skill based, and allow every insight rank to pick a power, or even just not use the school based powers. –  aramis Jul 13 '12 at 2:57
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I'm a big fan of the Burning Wheel system and I think it would suit your criteria based on my experience with it.

Fast combat & Combat is not tactical

There are 2 main combat resolution mechanics in BW. The first, "Bloody Versus", is very simple. You have a dice pool defined by your weapon skill + armor bonuses. You split this into 2 piles for attack and defense, and then you roll against the opponent doing the same.

The second is "Fight!", which is more detailed, though still not tactical in the way you describe. You script out your actions a few in advance and resolve at the same time, where actions can be things like "Avoid", "Strike", "Cast Spell", and so on. A in-depth overview of the Fight rules is on the BW wiki. (Note that I believe this page applies to BW Revised, which is not the most recent version. BW Gold simplifies this while keeping the same spirit). The Fight! system is also not required. You can run an entire campaign without ever using it. I've had a campaign running for almost a year, and I believe the Fight! rules have come out precisely once during that time period.

There's also a system parallel to Fight!, called Duel of Wits. It is used for social combat where the moves are things like "Point", "Rebuttal", "Dismiss", etc.

No classes so player can create their character the way they want

Characters in BW are made via a lifepath system. There's no class, you just pick what experiences your character has had leading up to this point in their life. From that, you get certain combinations of skills, traits, and so on. Every character is completely unique. For example, you could even play a midwife

The books are still available somehow (free pdf, still in print etc.)

The latest revision, Burning Wheel Gold, was released August 2011 and is in print.

The system can cover any genre from vanilla D&D (Middle-Earth-esque) to Steam Punk + magic.

The game includes mostly only generic fantasy (heavily Tolkien-inspired), but it could be easily modified by making your own lifepaths & skills. Here's an example Steampunk hack

System must not be bound to a setting

There is no defined setting in the rulebooks. There is only an implied fantasy setting described by what lifepaths & skills are available to characters, and the group is recommended to create their own setting as part of the campaign start. Custom lifepaths and skills can shape the setting in new ways. Additionally, the rules sections are divided into Hub, Spokes, and Rim. Hub defines the basic core of the system (how to roll, stats, advancement, etc). The spokes describe rules on how to apply the hub in play. Rules in the Rim section are all optional, and include things like Fight!, an abstract resource system, social combat, magic, divine faith, and more.

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@downvoters: Please leave a comment saying how this answer could be improved. –  Daenyth Jul 11 '12 at 16:00
    
-1 BW is my most favorite RPG ever, but I don't think it really meets the spirit of the requirements. For example, lifepaths don't pigeon-hole you like classes, but they are specifically designed to add heavy constraints to character-building. Likewise, those LPs include baked-in setting elements. Adapting BW to non-medieval-ish settings involves doing a bit of your own game design, sometimes on a pretty involved level (hence why the setting hacks are hacks rather than just "we played X in BW"). –  Alex P Jul 11 '12 at 16:10
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The answer, technically, is the best of this sorry bunch. My problem, having run (with my own travails) BW is that I don't see how "combat is not tactical" and the fight mechanics of BW... are at all compatible. While I would love to upvote this answer for its comprehensive approach to answering the requirements, I cannot. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jul 11 '12 at 16:12
    
@BrianBallsun-Stanton: I took "tactical" to mean "with a tactical map", but I can see how it would be interpeted otherwise. Regardless, it's not a required rule -- you can run an entire campaign without using the rule. You can run a campaign without even needing it, if the plot is centered around social conflict. Alex P: I disagree that LP restrict as much as classes. LPs restrict where you came from, but classes restrict where you're going. I think that's a big difference. In any case, thanks to both of you for your feedback –  Daenyth Jul 11 '12 at 16:15
    
The Lifepath system in BW is not a class system - it's more akin to Traveller's Careers than to anything else. It gets you access to some skills and points to spend on skills - but doesn't require that you take all the listed skills. –  aramis Jul 12 '12 at 5:32
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