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I am looking to run a game in a low magic not-so-epic fantasy setting. I intend to focus on personal quests and stories and character discovery and growth, which may be related to some big-scale picture but does not get entangled by it. I want a system that gets out of the way as much as possible, and by that I mean that is easy and quick to learn and use. I plan on combat being scarce, and there will be exploration, but not in the fashion of "clearing a dungeon".

I have a lot of experience with MERP and Rolemaster, but this systems do not fit the requisite of being simple. I have experience with WoD (mainly oWoD, but some nWoD too), and I have in mind something among those lines: it is open in the way that gives you a lot of freedom to create the characters (and does not limit you to a job or profession) and, this is important, it doesn't feel "numeric" at all (even though the dots in the character sheets can be translated into numbers). However, I don't plan it on being a Horror or a Dark story, so there are many game mechanics that would get in the way because I aim for a different "flavor". Of course, the mechanics could be tweaked, but I would like to try something different from what I already know.

So, what system would you recommend that could work and why?

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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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When you say that it shouldn't feel "numeric", do you then mean that you don't want the game system to focus on the stats? And what do you consider "low-magic"? In my experience, "low-magic" is a very subjective tag. –  Undreren Dec 18 '12 at 7:46
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Can you narrow this down somewhat? Without trying I can think of a half-dozen unobtrusive systems that can do low-magic fantasy, and I'm sure more if I tried. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 18 '12 at 8:01
    
@Undreren Yes, that is a much better description. What I like about the WoD way is that it's skill scores are more abstract: instead of having a +70 score (or similar in a system like Rolemaster, or D&D) which is added to a roll, I have zero to five dots that give an idea of the proficiency of the character in said skill. Addressing you second question, with "low-magic" I mean that magic is subtle and difficult to distinguish from superstition or myth, and that more evident demonstrations of it are rare and could be found but far away from civilization. –  Jojojopo Dec 18 '12 at 8:08
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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 Dec 18 '12 at 13:28
    
Why is WoD tagged? –  Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 31 '13 at 14:11

8 Answers 8

up vote 5 down vote accepted

WEG d6 Fantasy

  • Pro:
    • Free in PDF at RPGNow
    • highly customizable magic system in the PDF version - as high or low as the GM wants.
    • single mechanic system - all actions use the same basic resolution mechanics
    • uses only d6's
    • fast character generation which can use either simple assignment of dice or can use templates plus skill dice.
    • core rules options include count successes mode or roll and total mode.
  • Con:
    • requires GM prep to establish setting.
    • print versions hard to find.
    • does little to make combat rare or overly dangerous.
    • All skills linked exclusively to one attribute each.
    • PC's clearly a a cut above normal NPC's as written.

Note that the flexible single mechanic system is very easy for players to learn. If not using the advantages and disadvantages, character generation is "allocate 18 dice to 6 stats, then 7 more dice to skills."

The system is best known for it's Star Wars incarnation, but having used d6 for both SW and for other settings, it's highly flexible and supports play in both combat heavy and combat light modes.

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Any "Good Subjective" experience with the asker's use-case that you could edit in? –  SevenSidedDie Dec 18 '12 at 16:42
    
@SSD I answer only with systems I've experience with, per the FAQ. Actual "discussions of experience" are both off topic and make the answer into the subjective. This is a common problem here - YOU keep demanding off-topic addenda to what are factual-based answers –  aramis Dec 18 '12 at 19:31
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No need to get worked up. Perhaps rereading the GS,BS article and our meta about it would clarify for you why I persist in asking people. It requires either a reference or sharing experience with the particular use case, not just general experience with the system you're recommending. If it allowed only that, it'd be a really low bar and wouldn't solve the problem that the meta discussion aimed to address in the first place. If we can't stick to Good Subjective, we might eventually have to forbid sys-rec questions, and that would be sad. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 18 '12 at 22:35
    
@Aramis, read the meta post on system-rec questions and "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective." Adding personal experience is highly desirable in these cases. –  mxyzplk Dec 21 '12 at 5:58
    
I'm going to use this option. The PDF's being free I already quick-read the system and I find that it will suit the game. I will make a few changes to the magic system to make it go with the setting I have made, and I really like how easy and quick to use this game is. Other suggestions made could do the job too! But the fact of how easy to access the game is clearly influenced my choice. –  Jojojopo Dec 21 '12 at 20:55

You are aware that World of Darkness has a Dark Ages system?

As the Storyteller you can decide that the level of supernatural is simply much lower than it is even in the books, where instead of covens of Vampires in pretty much every major city, and Mages protruding from everywhere, and with Werewolves on the outskirts of every town.. They are instead very rare - and not even part of the story.

Instead, focus on the Mortal aspect.

This satisfies your system request, as the whole thing will work exactly as you already expect it to. All it requires is some creativity and some tweaking. It would be much easier than learning a whole new system, for you and your players. You could also decide that you are not playing on Earth, and instead are playing in a fantasy world with the same system.

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I didn't think of this. From the link you provided it seems that in order to play this I'll have to buy a book where I'll have to dismiss the majority of the content (the specific supernatural mechanics and all the background and information on the supernatural society). I already know how the system works, so I guess that the only benefit to buying a book is to find it tailored to suit a medieval setting instead of a modern setting. Mage would be the one to give the best payoff since I could apply the magic mechanics even if the characters are not mages. –  Jojojopo Aug 2 '13 at 23:14
    
However, the campaign is already in progress. I'll consider this for another time if I find myself wanting to try a different system. –  Jojojopo Aug 2 '13 at 23:17

The One Ring

When I played this game I had a feeling similar to WoD.

  • Pro:

    • The system is very simple and fast.
    • The character sheet is similar to WoD's and doesn't feel numeric.
    • The Shadow grip over the character gives opportunities of character development.
  • Con:

    • The system is a bit rigid sometimes, especially in combat.
    • The character creation is a bit rigid also, and all characters of the same race are too similar between them at start.
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Dungeon World (free html version)

Dungeon World uses a very simple game mechanic that combines actions and story telling into one roll. This mechanic is consistent throughout the system, allowing players to be taught the system and create their characters all within 30-60 minutes.

Dungeon World places all emphasis on the narrative, using mechanics to only guide the narrative in exciting ways. All actions are described in the narrative first, and then interpreted as mechanical numbers and dice roll. After the roll the resolution is described as part of the narrative. Because of this emphasis, I think it will fit well with your need for low magic—only things that you describe happening actually then happen.

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It would be nice to add that you can easily have a low magic setting but only if you don't put the wizard and the cleric booklets on the table during character creation. –  Zachiel Jul 31 '13 at 12:16

Within the realm of D&D, you may want to check out Power of Faerun (3.5) and Player's Option: Spells & Magic (AD&D). Both offer pretty in depth descriptions of doing the things you describe.

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D&D does not really fit the low magic requisite. True, you can avoid magic, you can even build a world where 90% of the monsters in the manual do not exist or live far, far away and hidden from civilization... but it's a bad thing for the game. D&D's mechanics assume you get your hands on magic swords and the like, especially from 3.0 on –  Zachiel Jul 31 '13 at 12:17

I would recommend Desolation for this sort of game, although you may not be interested in the game's underlying setting of surviving in a broken world months after the apocalypse.

Overview

  • Extremely quick system to grasp and use, that definitely supports rather than interferes with play (Ubiquity roleplaying system)
  • Very fast and unobtrusive mechanics that use any even-sided dice you have
  • New takes on typical fantasy lands and races
  • Free-form magic system with a lot of color that is easily adjusted for how difficult/rare you wish magic to be
  • interesting bestiary complete with nutritional information for hunting
  • Character creation is simple and designed around the idea of establishing what the character seeks to achieve (and if you use the paired post-apocalyptic setting: what they have lost and how that has affected them)
  • Available in pdf and hardcover, 2 supplements which cover additional rules for pre-apocalypse play and adventures of differing lengths and types are also available in pdf, no material outside the core book is required

Personal Observations

I have run this with a group of players with limited RPG experience (D&D only) with 0 experience with the Ubiquity roleplaying system and gotten everyone up to speed during character generation followed by a few sample die rolls to demonstrate how die pools work compared to single-die Target number systems. Ubiquity is the system used for Hollow Earth Expedition (Heroic Pulp), Desolation (High Fantasy brought low), All for One: Regime Diabolique (Swashbuckling Horror), and Leagues of Adventure (Steampulp)

The greatest area of adjustment for players of games designed like D&D seems to be in adapting to free-form spell use. Players with experience of games designed like World of Darkness should not need much orientation at all.

Perks are that the game reinforces character development and expression in its XP mechanic and its die-rolling mechanics. Its XP system is similar to White Wolf's. It's die mechanic is enhanced to allow players to differentiate how much effort they are putting into a task through the resolution speeding short-cut of Taking the Average, and its performance enhancing system of Style Points.

  • Players may opt to take the average number of successes their pool would generate to avoid rolling for things for which a base level of success (as relevant to that character)is acceptable.
  • Its style point economy allows players to push harder for important actions. Style points are earned through fulfillment of character and entertaining play.

The included setting is interesting, bleak, and challenging. It is wide open for GM creativity and development, and chock full of story seeds and hooks on many levels from simple survival to larger ones of social, cultural, nationalist, or religious import.

Lethality can be determined easily at the outset of play. In its default mode, combat is lethal and descriptive enough to be discouraging and does not lead to the typical 'kill everything you fight with' results common to many fantasy systems.

As the game is not class-based, character growth over time can be a reflection of exactly what your group wishes to explore in play.

My Experience in play

My campaign had a group of 7 players from very diverse backgrounds thoroughly entertained seeking out safe shelter, obtaining a steady supply of food and good relations with communities of other survivors, and steered itself in play into a great quest. Combat was usually avoided by careful planning, or by negotiation, but when it happened was quickly resolved (even at more than 2:1 odds) in less than 30 minutes - with novice players.

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I read the demonstration of a play session and this looked like it could really work system-wise, both the style-point economy and the take the average are good mechanics. I find free-form magic amazing, but in this game magic will not be something available to the characters in such a direct way as spell-casting so it's not something I need. I already have a setting though, so I don't need the setting of this game (even though it would be interesting to read the bestiary you mentioned). Resuming, it really could have been if I had not had access to WEG d6. –  Jojojopo Dec 21 '12 at 21:02

Low magic? Personal growth and character exploration?

Check out Hillfolk, the new rpg from visionary Robin D. Laws:

Hillfolk is based on a new system, DramaSystem, born out of the work Laws did for his book, Hamlet's Hit Points. It's designed to create stories like you'd find in a serial drama TV show. It's been successfully Kickstarted, and should be available soon. I have read, but not played the game, and it looks like exactly the thing for drama-oriented games.

If you want something you can buy and play right now, I'd recommend Primetime Adventures. I have played PTA, it was the first game I ever tried where there was a definite emphasis on being just like a TV show - so the game is mostly about everybody's issues and desires.

Or if you are up for a little hacking, Leverage. Leverage is a great evolution of the Cortex Plus system, again, aimed at reproducing a TV show. If you have a limited set of roles that you can replace Hitter, Hacker, Grifter, Thief, and Mastermind with, you're practically all set.

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I must thank you for this, I did not know of this games and they seem like interesting choices. I'll have to take a careful look to see if they are what I need. –  Jojojopo Dec 18 '12 at 8:39
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Lowell Francis' review of Hillfolk I found worth reading, which explains how it relates to some well-established Laws themes: ageofravens.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/… –  Alticamelus Dec 19 '12 at 9:53
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@gomad, have you used any of these games for what the OP is asking about, a "low magic not-so-epic fantasy setting"? If so please explain how and their suitability - we shouldn't answer system-recs with "oh I've heard of some games that would probably work." –  mxyzplk Dec 21 '12 at 5:59

You want to play Burning Wheel. Seriously, that is the game for this premise. I've played this game for quite a while now and have a lot of experience running it. It's one of those play-to-find-out games. The story is fueled by Beliefs, which are basically player-written quests. You as the GM just stand in the way of the what the characters what to accomplish in order to see what it is they are made of and, of course, create interesting drama. And failure is not a roadblock for fun, it's simply an excuse to cause a little more drama and throw the game in an unexpected direction! In the meantime, you are free to have your "big picture" working in the background, subtly hinting at the sort of things the players should be paying attention to, but never forcing their hand.

Burning Wheel's default setting is "gritty fantasy;" beyond that, the world is what you make of it. I've played games that involved petty farmers struggling to change their society and eventually (after many, MANY sessions) they end up running the place (and, ironically, became what they fought against). So if you're looking to get away from high fantasy and want your combat brutal and realistic, this game does that.

As far as magic, it can be as involved or not involved as you would like it to be. Aside from the Core Rules (the first ~75 pages or so of the book), pretty much the entire rest of the system is optional and modular. If you buy the additional Magic Burner, you can replace/augment the built-in Sorcery system with one of about a dozen other systems the game designer wrote. Practical Magic - wherein lots of people have magical ability but very slight, and it's mostly used for everyday tasks - sounds like the one for you.

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Points against: the experience and player-agency design breaks when you try to get the rules out of the way; simple base mechanic but absolutely not quick to learn (even the books themselves say so); only a lightweight system if you jettison hundreds of pages after page 74; character creation is a massive numbers game. Yes, BW is awesome, yes, the asker might fall in love with it, no, it does not satisfy the question's requirements. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 18 '12 at 16:40
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BW is a REALLY poor fit for the style of play envisaged. Further, it's neither quick to learn nor does it background well. It takes a lot of effort to get good beliefs out of players, and requires a high amount of player buy in to the mechanics, especially the process of task resolution and the negotiation aspects that apply once the GM has decided to engage the mechanics. –  aramis Dec 18 '12 at 19:37
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If character creation is a massive numbers game that alone makes it not fit for what I need. Based on the information you provided, the comments, and some Internet searches I just did, I recognize that this sounds like an awesome game and I will probably try it in another campaign someday, but just not now. –  Jojojopo Dec 18 '12 at 20:31

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