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In my endless struggle to find RPG systems which suit my style of game mastering I've made my way through endless pages of results on the RPGGeek with no avail, so once again I am going to surrender to the community knowledge.

My most successful campaign ever was run in The Riddle of Steel in a custom, alternate reality setting but there was one, rather big hitch - while the combat system is really awesome (in my opinion), the fact that I specifically DIDN'T want my players to get killed rendered it pretty useless, it's just too easy to either make the adversaries a piece of cake to defeat or to get your players dead in one unlucky roll. The more narrative style of gameplay was something I have thoroughly enjoyed though.

So, a list of my requirements:

  • Supports fantasy settings
  • Little randomization in rolls, anything bell curved is fine (classic d20, d100 are out). I want dice though, so please save the diceless systems for another question of mine in near or far future!
  • Generally non-heroic, but supporting such characters. What I mean: In DnD, you can make the game non-heroic by making it impossible for the characters to advance beyond, let's say, level 6 - this supports non-heroic gameplay by restrictions. Ideally I'd like the system to revolve around human abilities and improving them, but allowing heroic characters by giving them ridiculously high attributes.
  • Skill/stat based character development, no classes.
  • There should either be no hitpoints, or losing part of the character's hitpoints should have a negative effect on said character's performance.
  • Fast (or at least not ridiculously slow) combat without gazillion of statistics, tables and number crunching techniques.
  • It would be a nice addition if a system does not use too many rolls to resolve conflicts - again, in DnD you roll twice for an attack: first is to hit, the other roll is damage. Ideally the success of the attack roll would also determine the damage.
  • A magic system supporting generating spells on the fly would also be a nice touch but it is not required.

I want the system to improve the gameplay, not create fixed boundaries which are difficult for both the players and the GM to step out of. To quote mxyzplk: "Conan doesn't ask if he can leap up on Dagon's back and tear his horn out [...] He just does it." As in, Conan doesn't have a fixed list of moves he can perform. He attempts to do whatever he wants. That's the type of gameplay I am looking for.

Now, I am generally negative towards generic systems like GURPS or FATE. That's because I have a real hard time getting into them - they have so many extensions and content that I can't wrap my head around them. If you want to suggest them, please tell me exactly WHICH books should I look into.

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

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Burning Wheel hits all your points (and is also in part designed as a response to some of TRoS' weak points), but since I'm reading it right now I can't be sure my impulse to recc it isn't just because I'm reading it. Someone reality check me: should I post it with details? –  SevenSidedDie Aug 18 '12 at 1:44
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You absolutely should post details. I was looking for it in the answers as it seems made for what @Maurycy is after. –  wombleton Aug 20 '12 at 1:06
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This is one of the best sys-rec questions I've seen on this site. If only all of them were this good. –  Daenyth Aug 20 '12 at 14:54
    
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. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  mxyzplk Aug 30 '12 at 3:06
    
"Generally non-heroic, but supporting such characters." VS "To quote mxyzplk: "Conan doesn't ask if he can leap up on Dagon's back and tear his horn out [...] He just does it." That's the type of gameplay I am looking for." Aren't these two incompatible? –  Cristol.GdM Feb 15 '13 at 14:44

9 Answers 9

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The short answer is, you want FATE. But, keeping in mind your mention of generic systems, here's why FATE works and why it won't be as bad as you think, and it's all to do with a version of FATE called Dresden Files.

Supports fantasy settings

Dresden Files takes place in an urban fantasy world. The title character is a Chicago PI who happens to also be a wizard. He regularly encounters trolls under toll bridges, vampires with submachine guns, and knight templars who also work a nine to five job during the day. But, if you want to mod it for straight up fantasy, here's what you do-

Change the name of the skill "Guns" to "Bows." Change the name of the skill "Drive" to "Ride." Ignore most of Hexing. (Magic users short out technology. A dark ages world obviously doesn't need this. Ignore any kinds of weapons that don't fit your setting. If you feel like it, rework the difficulty of Resources checks. A n d you're done. (There are probably various descriptive sections that will need to be ignored, but the system itself doesn't care about them.)

Little randomization in rolls, anything bell curved is fine (classic d20, d100 are out)

The FATE dice curve is a solid bell curve. Rolls are + or - 4, with a strong bias towards 0. Well over 50% of the time you'll be scoring within 1 point of your actual skill. But it is far from diceless- I've seen some brilliant upsets on occasion. Rolling a +4 is unlikely, but possible, and devastating when it happens.

Generally non-heroic, but supporting such characters##

Characters have aspects, skills, and refresh. But they don't have a strict relationship between each other- you could have a character with 40 skill points, 5 aspects, and 3 refresh, or 0 skill points, 10 aspects, and 15 refresh. The book recommends about 20~30 skill points, 7 aspects, and 7~10 refresh, but you can play with those numbers pretty easily. (For the record, everyone in the party should have the same numbers- just spread out differently. They're different, and balancing between them is very nontrivial.)

Skill/stat based character development, no classes

No classes here. There are templates, but those are more guidelines than anything else. And even following the templates to the letter, there's a huge degree of variation. I've played five different focused practitioners, and not one felt like a repeat.

There should either be no hitpoints, or losing part of the character's hitpoints should have a negative effect on said character's performance.

Characters have stress, which might be called hit points with no negative effects. But stress can only take one or two blows before running out, and that's when consequences come in. Each consequence carries with it a daunting -2 penalty. Remember the dice can only give you a +4 at max- two such consequences hurts. Characters can take up to 4 consequences, which go away at different rates. These can model bruises to losing a hand, depending on the severity.

Fast (or at least not ridiculously slow) combat

I roll an attack, add my skill. You roll a defense, add yours. You deal with potential damage. Sometimes I might want to maneuver instead, in which case, I roll and add my skill against a target number set by the DM. Combat is that quick. An overall fight (multiple exchanges of blows) takes longer of course- how long depends on how stiff the opposition is. Concessions (basically metagame surrenders) even allow a graceful way to end a fight prematurely if you realize you're halfway through a boss battle and the clock just struck midnight.

Does not use too many rolls to resolve conflicts

I roll, add my skill. Either you roll and add your skill or the DM sets a target number. Either side can compel or invoke aspects as they wish. (Basically saying "This aspect matters, and I'm spending a FATE point to use it." Actually, it literally is that simple.) Each aspect grants a +2 or -2 to someone's roll. You find the difference between the two numbers, and if the attacker won, damage is applied that is equal to the difference.

A magic system supporting generating spells on the fly

Hoo boy, does Dresden have you covered. Check out Rick Neal's awesome articles on some of the cool rabbits you can pull out of a hat. There is no such thing as a 'list' of spells for the game- the basic assumption of the magic system is that each spellcaster's spells will be close to unique to them. (Okay, pretty much everyone has a max-shifts single target blast spell they love, but at least the flavour is always different.)

Be Specific

Now, why is Dresden Files FATE not just some generic fourth generation FUDGE mod? Firstly, volume. Or should I say volumes- two decent sized books spelling out how everything works, how to deal with edge cases, and clarifying any possible ambiguities. It has a monster manual even, (called "Our World") at least half of which can be ported into any fantasy setting with little work. (The other half is made up of named characters from the books the game is biased on.) The thing is, working from the books may have been the best thing to happen to Dresden.

Everything in the books works, and works well, for one world. It doesn't try to be all things to all people. Thing is, it's also very self sufficient- You only need the main book ("Your Story") and dice. No knowledge of other FATE systems needed. No extensions, no errata, no knowledge of the source material needed for things to make sense, no libraries, pre-compiled binaries, or dependencies. In a word- Elegant.

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Bell curve mechanics are also known as 'Dice Pool'. –  Rob Lang Aug 20 '12 at 7:52
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Really? Are those one and the same? Seems those are separate terms which frequently overlap. –  IgneusJotunn Aug 20 '12 at 18:54
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The only way of getting a bell curve out of dice is to either count the successes or add up the total. Either way, it involves rolling a pool of dice. Rolling a single die is a linear mechanic. –  Rob Lang Aug 22 '12 at 7:33

FATE, specifically Legends of Anglerre which is is a Fantasy themed FATE game. The core book for it is the only book you need.

Now, I am generally negative towards generic systems like GURPS or FATE. That's because I have a real hard time getting into them - they have so many extensions and content

FATE doesn't really have many rules. The LoA book is quite fat, but that mostly comes from a combination of a long list of stunts and a lot of "And here is how you can apply the same rules to a hydra, or an army, or a country".

Little randomization in rolls, anything bell curved is fine

FATE uses either 4dF or d6-d6, both of which give a bell curve.

Generally non-heroic, but supporting such characters.

Power level is set by starting number of skill points / stunts / aspects and a skill cap. LoA has various starting power levels as a core part of the rules.

Skill/stat based character development, no classes.

Yup

There should either be no hitpoints, or losing part of the character's hitpoints should have a negative effect on said character's performance.

Characters take stress, which has no effect until they reach their limit. At that point they have to take Consequences (such as injuries) to avoid being Taken Out.

Fast (or at least not ridiculously slow) combat without gazillion of statistics, tables and number crunching techniques.

Opposed dice roll + appropriate skill, then spending of FATE points to activate aspects to boost scores. It is pretty quick.

It would be a nice addition if a system does not use too many rolls to resolve conflicts - again, in DnD you roll twice for an attack: first is to hit, the other roll is damage. Ideally the success of the attack roll would also determine the damage.

Stress dealt is attack score minus defence score plus weapon bonus minus armour bonus.

A magic system supporting generating spells on the fly would also be a nice touch but it is not required.

LoA has generic magic skills ("Do stuff with the element of fire", "Do healing stuff").

You could also look at The Dresden Files for an alternative magic system which divides magic into "Quickly throwing energy together" and "Carefully (and slowly) constructing a spell with circles and other items".

Dresden Files also has (IMO) one of the best explanations of the core FATE mechanics on the market, so might be worth reading if LoA doesn't explain things to your satisfaction.

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I think the fantasy game which meets your complete list of requirements is Desolation by Greymalkin Design Studios. Detailed Product Description and Samples

Desolation runs using the Ubiquity Roleplaying System (from Exile Games, makers of Hollow Earth Expedition) which is an incredibly fast and stable system which is easy to learn, but very flexible.

•Supports fantasy settings

Desolation is a fantasy game with two built-in settings to choose from that you can easily ignore if you prefer your own. I will include some details in the rest of this answer, but generally avoid talking about the setting. The default setting is a post-apocalyptic one, mere months after the end of the world. As a result, it has a very sword and sorcery feel in which Conan would feel right at home. The other setting is a very high fantasy world. The game can be easily run from the core book and you need never worry about or bother with the Before, even if you opt to use the world presented for the game.

There are different races of humans, fantasy races, and a solid bestiary of classic and new creatures. Many of these are presented as very new takes on classic types, but the stats of course can be used for whatever you might choose to run them as.

•Little randomization in rolls, anything bell curved is fine (classic d20, d100 are out). I want dice though, so please save the diceless systems for another question of mine in near or far future!

Ubiquity is a dice pool system where even numbers are successes. Part of the system's speed is the freedom to 'Take the Average' on non-combat rolls. Difficulty in the system is represented by the numbers of successes needed. I have never played a faster system with less frustration over results for players and GMs. As a perk, it is a clean system that produces easily adjudicated results without layers of math or memory intensive rules, exceptions, explosions or implosions.

Two questions regarding the system's dice mechanic on rpg.stackexchange are listed here and offer further details:

Link One
Link Two

• Generally non-heroic, but supporting such characters.

This one is a little harder, but if Iunderstand your requirement the system still meets your needs. In Ubiquity, characters tend to be specialists. This can be mitigated by setting a lower starting cap on skills, or having them spread their build points out over a wide range of skills. I suspect that you would not need to make any modifications, based on your second point about heroic levels of attributes.

The game also uses a trait called Style Points which are earned in play in a variety of ways with rewards determined by the GM. This lets players invest themselves in actions which are important to them in a way that most systems ignore or handle with less finesse, and it lets the GM adjust the level of lethality if necessary.

•Skill/stat based character development, no classes.

Absolutely

•There should either be no hitpoints, or losing part of the character's hitpoints should have a negative effect on said character's performance.

Hit and damage are a single opposed roll, and loss of health levels leads to penalties and unconsciousness before death.

•Fast (or at least not ridiculously slow) combat without gazillion of statistics, tables and number crunching techniques.

Ubiquity will blow your hair back. It is so fast that I am still surprised at it even though it has been my go-to game now for two years. Combat involves one initiative roll at the start, then declaration, opposed rolls to resolve hit and damage, then repeat as necessary.

•It would be a nice addition if a system does not use too many rolls to resolve conflicts - again, in DnD you roll twice for an attack: first is to hit, the other roll is damage. Ideally the success of the attack roll would also determine the damage.

See above for an emphatic yes.

•A magic system supporting generating spells on the fly would also be a nice touch but it is not required.

Magic in Ubiquity in general, and Desolation in particular is free-form and easy to manage. There are clear examples of spells, a clear system of assigning the difficulty for casting, and the added touch of making magic dangerous and difficult by having it cause a form of energy backlash which can exhaust incautious casters. This definitely restricts mage characters from running wild, but leaves them with enough kick to be an enjoyable challenge.


NOTES

Availability: The game is available in PDF or hardcover from the usual sources. The Amazon and Publisher links are given above.

Needed to Play: Core book, any even-numbered dice in any combination

Due to the nature of the dice resolution system, you can use any even-numbered dice you own in any mixture or combination as you are looking for evens, not any particular target number.

A note on dice: The company does produce specialty Ubiquity Dice (video 1, video 2) very cheaply (usually less than $5) which makes this process even faster while reducing the number of dice you are required to roll. The set of 9 comes with three U1s (representing 1 die), 3 U2s (representing 2 dice) and 2 U3s(representing 3 dice). They dice, when rolled deliver results showing the number of successes you would have earned rolling normal dice.

Alternate Core book suggestion: If you have difficulty obtaining the Desolation rules, or want something with more of a human-centric, swashbuckling feel, you could go for Triple Ace Games Ubiquity powered All for One: Regime Diabolique and hit all of your requirements at a 1636 level of technology (inclusion of muskets and pistols), minus fantasy races (which you would find pretty easy to devise). The magic system works in similar fashion, but is even easier to use, if harder on characters to use in daily life. This game has also been released as a Savage Worlds product recently, but I do not think that Savage Worlds meets your requirements as well as Ubiquity does.

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I am reading through the core rulebook right now, skipping all the setting information and diving straight for the rules, and I must say it seems to fit all of my requirements so far perfectly! –  Maurycy Zarzycki Aug 18 '12 at 20:05
    
It is a good system to use, and characters - despite the simplicity of building them- have a lot of differentiation. Glad you are enjoying the read~ –  Runeslinger Aug 19 '12 at 1:08

Savage Worlds is the best match for this, I believe. It was designed to be a more fast and furious replacement for D&D, so fantasy settings are its core competence. There is a Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion now, but we ran two fantasy campaigns in SW without that. Here's a link to the Test Drive rules.

You generally roll two dice, one based on your stat (e.g. Strength d8) and a wild die (usually d6) and you take the best of the two against a target number, often 4. So it's more normalized than a straight 1d roll but without scads of dice.

Power levels are a lot lower than D&D, especially because there aren't hit points, just a short wound track where you get wound penalties: -1, -2, -3, incapacitated, dead. The differential between a level N and a level N+3 character is much less than in D&D leading to a more low-powered game. There are no classes, it's skill based.

Tell you what, here, just go look at this character sheet for one of my characters to get a quick idea of what a SW character looks like.

Combat is quick; "Fast! Furious! Fun!" is their slogan. It's a lot less tactical than D&D. You do a roll to hit then damage; it's not combined; though the degree of success on the to-hit affects the damage. The game has "Bennies" players use to avoid getting killed or to succeed on rolls; you can tune the lethality of the game by giving out more or less of these without changing the system per se. 3 bennies = decent survivability, 5 = good, 7 = quite hard to kill.

The default magic system is power points to power traditional defined spells, not "make up an effect on the fly" like Ars Magica, but there's variants in different books.

And the Savage World Explorer's Edition rulebook is $9.99! It's pretty small; it's 192 pages but is 6.5x9 inches. A lot less rules than most other games (including FATE, I'll note.) And as a side note it's well supported and has a huge fan community generating adventures and conversions of many properties to SW.

For more in depth research we have the character sheets, session summaries, etc. from two SW fantasy campaigns online - Legends of Steel and Empire of Ashes. My play impressions was that it was much more rules light than D&D (except maybe Basic), more deadly (thought not Runequest/Warhammer Fantasy v1-2 deadly), characters could be customized as much as you want (skill based), and play went fast. There were definitely downsides - the lack of hit points makes combat often feel "whiff and ping," leading to "I seem to be missing a lot" frustration, and a more rules light game puts more burden on the GM in terms of describing the game world and having a more freewheeling approach - both our GMs were more used to heavy systems and so didn't use the system as well as it could have been.

I've also played FATE and while you can use it as you can any generic system, it's more rules heavy and less about the action.

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Well, the Amber Diceless RPG technically meets all of your requirements.

It is a fantasy system, there are no classes, and there are no random elements or dice whatsoever. It does focus more on 'super-human' characters than you might like.

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I know of Amber, I even have the core rulebook sitting on a shelf, but it's diceless and I'd specifically like a system with dice. I will edit my answer to mention this... Or I will do this once I can. Amber feels like a great system though, I and I hope one day I will be brave enough to actually try to play it! –  Maurycy Zarzycki Aug 17 '12 at 19:45

I really like the One Roll system from REIGN (That's where I heard about it from anyways). It's fast, novel and easy. Plus you can get the base set of REIGN for free, so added bonus.

http://www.gregstolze.com/reign/

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The problem is, as far as I know, Reign has a macro scope which I do not want, but I might be wrong so please correct me if that's the case. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Aug 17 '12 at 19:49
    
The game itself is macro-scoped, but the dice system isn't. It's from another game (I don't recall which offhand) and is exactly what you're looking for. It's easy, simple and uses a skill+trait system and is classless. It's worth at least checking out, cause again... free :) –  DaOgre Aug 17 '12 at 20:43
    
By macro-scoped, I suspect you mean the realm-management parts? Those are optional and not embedded into the core, so a character-level scale is the default. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 17 '12 at 23:56

Late to the party, but I'm going to suggest d6 Fantasy as a system for your needs.

The d6 system I've used extensively and it's a quick to use and resolve system, combat is nice and easy (target roll to hit, then damage roll to determine effect, minimal tracking) and everything uses the same Target number system.

Lets go through your points and some extras.

  • First off, it's free and available from drive thru RPG in PDF.
  • Supports fantasy settings? Yes, it's specifically set for generic fantasy. Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes and Reptile folk are in the set as standard and it's pretty easy to make other races.
  • Roll randomization? It's Stat + Skill in d6's; so the randomization is fairly good, there's still the potential for disaster/overkill however.
  • Generally non-heroic. The system as is is pretty adaptable, but the simple damage system means that it can be very dangerous. What you add to the system in terms of equipment and limits for skills and stats provides you with a toolkit for what type of system/world you want to run.
  • No classes. Character templates are provided for starting up, after that where you spend your points/XP is up to you!
  • No hitpoints. D6 uses two systems for damage (you can choose) Body points or Wound levels. Body points are more "hit point" like, whereas Wound levels just indicate the characters physical state: Bruised, Stunned, Wounded, Severely Wounded, Incapacitated, Mortally Wounded, Dead. The latter fits your bill. The more damaged a character is the more penalties they get.
  • Fast combat: No feats or special skills, minimal combat options (lunge, sweep, knockdown) which all just modify a single attack roll. No tables beyond remembering how much damage means which wound level. Easy.
  • Not too many rolls. Hit and damage. That's it. There's even a "fast option" for handling if the number of dice get too many; just roll five dice and add a modifier.
  • Magic system on the fly: Spells can be dynamic generated in d6 fantasy, typically you'd prepare them in advance with a formula, but you can do them "on the fly" it's just harder to do so!

I'd strongly recommend taking a look, it's free after all!

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Shadowrun 3 meets all of your requirements except on-the-fly spell creation. (SR4 rules got changed in a way that greatly reduces the reliability unless you take them outside of the range where they work well.)

Supports fantasy: It's a mixed fantasy/cyberpunk setting. Drop the cyberpunk and the fantasy works fine; just don't expect to have stats on fifteen different types of polearms.

Little randomization in rolls: The level of randomization is highly tunable based upon target number (what you need to roll on d6, with exploding d6s in that if you roll 6, you roll again adding 6 to the previous number). You typically get pools of dice to add to your basic skill dice, which means that for typical stuff you're rolling 10ish dice with TNs below 6, giving things that are nicely curved. There are also various get-out-of-trouble maneuvers (e.g. spending karma pool) that'll let you reroll failures, which really helps avoid sudden death situations.

Non-heroic: Just cap the allowable skill and attribute levels. (The costs go up quadratically, so heroism is difficult to attain anyway.)

Skill/stat based: You have to buy in to being a magician at creation time. After that, everything is skill/stat. (SR4 is better at making magical ability be skill-like.)

No hit points: Everyone has 10 health, and you receive increasing penalties the more you're wounded.

Fast combat: It can be fast: attacker makes one roll which covers both success and damage, and defender makes one defense roll. But there are options that can slow it down (how do you allocate combat pool, is an additional dodge roll applicable, etc.). When you're familiar with it, it's a medium-speed combat system even with all the bells and whistles.

No extra rolls: This is one of the nice features of the TN + # of successes system. (Fixed TN + minimum-number-of-successes-needed systems share some of the nice features, though they're less flexible.)

Spells on the fly: Nope.

I'm not saying you should choose the SR3 system for your game; many many rules are written with the near future cyberpunk setting in mind, and that's a lot to wade through if you don't have guns, cars, or computers. If you do have guns, cars, or computers, it could do quite well.

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Not sure shadowrun can be considered "low dice"... –  Rob Feb 15 '13 at 9:53
    
@Rob - The OP didn't ask for "low dice" but "not too many rolls to resolve conflict". SR does an okay job with that, or at least gives a lot of richness per roll. I'm assuming that picking up a small handful of dice instead of rolling a d20 and then 2d6 is not the major concern here. –  Ichoran Feb 15 '13 at 17:14

You can't make a combat easy enough to be edgy and satisfying without shifting the genre - see DREAD for example.

Still, if combat is not the main attraction, you can use the narrative like in diceless systems (Active Exploits, Amber etc): if the character's backstory proves he is competent at whatever he's doing, he succeeds. Because Conan does not need any luck to cleave his foes. in any other situation it's either failure or Word of GM. There's no options easier than this, and it serves the roleplaying well.

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