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Looking for a system that would be able to support gaming in a setting of medieval-ish, raw and muddy themes (if I were to pick an example, the setting of The Witcher series would come in close). These would be my requirements for the system:

  • low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent)
  • grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)
  • classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)
  • mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such - keeping it human)
  • rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)
  • customization-friendly (as in keeping the system a bit abstract and flexible - i.e. not swaying into too much simulationism and specifics, in the Riddle of Steel sense)

Preferably (but not necessarily), also:

  • dice pool resolution mechanics
  • level-less system (a point-buy system would be desired - as in taking certain points of experience for enemies defeated and/or quests solved, and spending these points on the go / whenever one feels like it)
  • rich on thievery (sneakin', stabbin', stealin', shootin' ... but still, I may be able to house-rule these features into the system myself)

No opinion about:

  • Combat grid / map

If you want examples of settings/themes that may fit well with the aforementioned requirements, he re you go: Thieves World, Thief, Ironclad, The 1982's Conan (not interested in that Riddle of Steel system, though), The Witcher (this trailer gets the theme right, although Geralt is way too good when it come to fighting).

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8 Answers 8

I'd heartily recommend Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay (WFRP), 2nd edition. (It's not the most recent edition of the game, but it's the one I have experience with, and I'm pretty sure you can get a copy of it even these days.)

Let's see how it meets your requirements:

  • low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent) +
    grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)

    Let me quote the game's description from its rpg.drivethrustuff page:

    In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, you are unlikely heroes in a grim world of perilous adventure. You venture into the dark corners of the Empire and deal with the threats that others cannot or will not face. You'll probably die alone in some festering hellhole, but maybe, just maybe, you'll survive foul Mutants, horrible diseases, insidious plots, and sanity-blasting rituals to reap Fate's rewards.

    Wikipedia says the following:

    The primary setting of WFRP is the Empire, a region of the Old World based loosely on the Holy Roman Empire, with a number of baronies, counties and dukedoms fashioned after the fiefs of elector counts and dukes. Other prominent regions include Bretonnia, based on medieval France with strong Arthurian mythology themes; Kislev, based on medieval Poland and Imperial Russia; and the Wasteland, whose sole city of Marienburg is based on the Low Countries. (...) While the setting of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay shares traits, such as the existence of elves and goblins, with other popular fantasy settings, it is chronologically set slightly later than that of many fantasy games – close to the early Renaissance era in terms of technology and society. Firearms are readily available, though expensive and unreliable, and a growing mercantile middle class challenges the supremacy of the nobility.

    As for magic, it is rare and very dangerous... to its practicioners as well, considering that its source is the very same thing - Chaos - that's intent on unraveling order in the world. Magic users - unless they come from one of the imperial institutions that train and indoctrinate them (and sometimes even so) - are feared and hunted. (Note, please, that the videogame adaptations of the franchise feature a lot more magic than the pnp game does. Do not base your view of the game's magic-richness on what you may find googling Warhammer videogames.)

  • classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)

    from Wikipedia:

    A central feature of all published editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is the career system. Characters advance by entering a series of careers that provide access to a series of new or improved skills and bonuses to attributes (called "advances"). The selection of careers available to characters reflects the late medieval/early Renaissance setting of the Old World. Basic careers might be filled by any individual with a modest amount of training or instruction. Advanced careers require greater preparation and training, and, particularly in later editions, tend to be more appropriate to the lifestyle of an active adventurer. The career system gives an idea of what a character might have been doing either before embarking on a career as an adventurer (working as a baker, night watchman, rat catcher, or farmer) or as an ongoing occupation during and between adventures (thief, ranger, wizard's apprentice, druid), as well as how the character has changed and developed through their career (becoming a mercenary, explorer, or ship's captain).

    ...so, the system is somewhere between classless and classed. You could say (I think) that it has a... very modular class system - so modular that it's practically classless. And of course with practice and experience, you, the GM could easily build a completely classless version of it. But the careers, tailored to the world and the setting, are an excellent tool for story-building and character+world integration, and I wouldn't dismiss them, especially knowing from experience how much freedom they allow compared to what D&D has to offer, for example.

  • mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such - keeping it human)

    See above. In my experience, WFRP is one of the most mundane fantasy rpgs out there. It's like Call of Cthulhu meets medieval fantasy (almost literally.)

  • rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)

    Considering that the game's roots go back to one of the most popular wargames ever, combat and tactics are an inherent part of the game. Sure, the system is simple and designed for quick (and grim and dirty) conflict resolution, it's open to customization, and you're free to emphasize aspects you find interesting. You could even decide to widen your reach and start playing out certain battles in the wargame version of the game... but beware, that's a costly move. Warhammer, the tabletop battle game (with its miniatures and such) is quite an expensive hobby. And you might even fall in love with it... :D

  • customization-friendly

    See above. :)

  • dice pool resolution mechanics

    This is a point where my answer fails your requirements. WFRP, for the most part, uses a simple percentage dice.

  • level-less system

    See above, under "classless system".

  • rich on thievery (sneakin', stabbin', stealin', shootin' ... but still, I may be able to house-rule these features into the system myself)

    It's there. But if what you find in there isn't enough for you, you can easily add more. The percentage-based skill-system is very, very friendly in this regard. In fact, when we last played WFRP, the computer game called "Thief III: Deadly Shadows" - from the franchise you yourself have mentioned - was one of our main inspirations: we aimed to recreate the atmosphere and feel of that game - and I'd like to think that we succeeded. WFRP and Thief can be quite similar.

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This was my first thought when I read the question, although the mechanics are tied fairly tightly to the setting. Also worth noting that 1st edition is very similar to 2nd, so either book will probably suit. –  Matt Thrower Jul 7 at 8:26
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1E is not as readily available as 2e, almost all the books are available on DriveThru and the core rules available for PoD (though expensive). –  javafueled Jul 8 at 19:32
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GURPS

GURPS is an excellent system - a solid member of the old guard. I have played and run GURPS for years, so this recommendation is based on that experience. GURPS is at its core a toolkit game, designed to be able to create the game you want to play. The fourth addition simplifies and streamlines the game, addressing the historical weaknesses (smart characters couldn't speak a foreign language badly, knockback was broken, etc.,) known to community experts. Additionally, it is a very good fit for your particular requirements. Let me take your points one at a time:

low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent)

grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)

GURPS lets you design the world. Your fantasy world can have as much or as little magic as you desire. It can even vary from place to place. This is not just fluff; there is mechanical backup for your decisions. You can have different kinds of magic, too, not just the system in the core book. See Thaumatology for customized magical systems. GURPS is dangerous by default - it starts with reality as its basis, so combat in earnest makes people dead.

classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)

GURPS is totally classless. Characters are built up from attributes, advantages, disadvantages and skills. You build the character you want.

mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such - keeping it human)

Again, the system is designed to let you design the game as you desire. By default, highly-experienced characters will become highly skilled and perhaps eliminate some disadvantages they started with, like bad reputations or poverty. Power level is entirely yours to control.

rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)

GURPS has a highly detailed combat system that differentiates between different kinds of damage and weapons and armor and rewards specialization. That is to say, a leather jacket is not the same as boiled leather, an arrow is not the same a bullet, acid is not the same as fire, and a shortsword and a court sword are different.

It has a rich combat system including different combat styles and maneuvers and even changes to the combat system itself. If your wood elves have a combat style based on shooting arrows while springing from branch to branch, go ahead and make it.

GURPS has always had detailed rules for the creation of items, but to be frank, I've never really gotten into them. I suspect your crafting needs would be met, however.

customization-friendly (as in keeping the system a bit abstract and flexible - i.e. not swaying into too much simulationism and specifics, in the Riddle of Steel sense)

I'm not sure exactly what you mean in the parenthetical, but focusing on customization-friendly: you can hardly do better. GURPS is designed as a toolkit, a game-framework upon which you can build anything you want. GURPS is decidedly a Simulationist-leaning game - that's where a good chunk of it's power comes from.

Preferably (but not necessarily), also:

dice pool resolution mechanics

Sorry, GURPS used a 3d6 roll-under mechanic for resolution. Why do you want a dice pool? What does it accomplish for you? The bell-curve generated by 3d6 is part of the realistic simulationist basis of GURPS. It works nicely.

level-less system (a point-buy system would be desired - as in taking certain points of experience for enemies defeated and/or quests solved, and spending these points on the go / whenever one feels like it)

Check. GURPS has neither classes nor levels. Each character point spent contributes to the overall effectiveness of the character. Spending can be limited by GM approval - You just spent a month killing monsters in a hole...how does this raise your savoir-faire? or you can allow your players to spend freely.

rich on thievery (sneakin', stabbin', stealin', shootin' ... but still, I may be able to house-rule these features into the system myself)

GURPS' rich skill system covers all of these and many, many others. No house-ruling required.

No opinion about:

Combat grid / map

GURPS has you covered either way. It has basic and advanced combat, designed for use either with or without a hex-map. Do it however works for you - no map, sketches, "this die is the orc, this die is you", or detailed maps. The mechanics support you.

Summary

I think most people mean realistic when they talk about dirty or gritty or grim fantasy. They want people to die when stabbed in a low-tech environment - if not right away from blood loss, then later, from infection. GURPS has this covered. It starts by simulating reality so it does a good job of feeling real, but is abstract enough to feel more like a game than a physics exam.

It is one of the original point-build systems - discarding the notion of levels and classes when it was revolutionary to do so - but massaged over decades into a modern and usable game.

I find when running GURPS that when I have to improvise an answer at the table, its very close to the rule I find when I look it up later. That's because GURPS is rational and self-consistent.

Its strength is its flexibility - any game you want, any character you want - that is the promise of GURPS and it does a great job keeping it. But even though it is a toolkit, it is a well and widely supported one, with sourcebooks on a huge range of topics, allowing you to concentrate on whatever you find the most interesting.

You can get started for free too.

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I recommend Harnmaster by Columbia Games.

  • low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent)

Harnmaster is geared to play the medieval setting of Harn. Because of fantasy's origin in the mythology of western europe it is easily adapted to many low fantasy settings.

  • grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)

Harnmaster combat is a deadly system that takes in account specific injuries including a healing system that takes into account that a character is just as likely to die from infection than the wounds he suffered. The nice thing about Harnmaster is that is well designed and playable. It accomplishes this by the use of a front loaded character sheet where vital stats are precalculated and well designed charts. You can see an example of their combat chart at this link. This and the character sheet is all you need in hand to effective run combat.

Combat itself doesn't consume much of a session's time. It not as fast as classic Dungeons & Dragons or Fudge/Fate but it resolves faster than D&D 4th edition, Fantasy Hero and GURPS. All these system I have personally refereed in various campaigns.

  • classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)

Character creation is skill based. Attributes use the familiar 3 to 18 skill similar to various editions of Runequest. Emphasis is on the referee conducting a pre-game with each player where the two individual use the tables and rules to create a background for the character.

There is one caveat is that Harnmaster opts for emulating realism where it can. This means that if you use the tables as-is most character (80%) will start as serfs or other forms of peasantry. Be prepared to ignore certain tables if you want the characters to come from a particular social background.

  • mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such - keeping it human)

There are no options in Harnmaster for superheroic play. Experienced characters are highly skilled compared to novice characters. There is magic, religous magic, and psionics (optional) even those are skill base and there is a point of diminishing returns. It is possible through bad luck for even the most experienced character to die from a lucky arrow shot or sword blow.

  • rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)

At you see from the combat chart, the attacker and defender pick different tactics and their respective skills are rolled and cross-indexed. Also from the chart you can see Armor is rated for Blunt, Edge, Point, and Fire/Frost. Armor can also be layer although there is a encumbrance penalty if you put on too much armor for your strength.

Again I stress all you need to play out combat is the character sheet and a copy of this chart. Combat resolves quickly and fast.

  • customization-friendly (as in keeping the system a bit abstract and flexible - i.e. not swaying into too much simulationism and specifics, in the Riddle of Steel sense)

Harnmaster is detailed but because of its front loaded design it is very playable. The rule system has many options created by the fan base most of them can be downloaded at Lythia.com. It for the medieval fantasy setting of Harn which means it applicable to many other types of setting drawing on Western European Fantasy.

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Great recommendation - I wanted to mention Harnmaster but don't have the personal experience to go by! –  gomad Jul 6 at 16:41
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My answer, which gets to most of what you're looking for, at least, is Burning Wheel.

low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent)

Burning Wheel has a magic system but it's entirely optional, and if you do choose to play with it you will notice that a. it's not terribly useful in combat, and b. failures to cast spells can have some pretty nasty consequences.

grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)

This is one arena where I think BW maybe doesn't quite deliver; it's not necessarily easy to kill a character, particularly an established one. In fact, if a player has an extra Deeds point sitting around and their character is mortally wounded, they can spend that point and save them.

That being said, it is very easy for a character to get seriously maimed in this game and in effect take them out of action. In fact, in the case of the mortal wound, spending that point doesn't make your character instantly healed. Depending on their stats and how well they roll their saves, it can take years to heal up all the way from a mortal wound.

And the best thing about this is, there is basically a chance that a mortal wound can be inflicted in every combat your players decide to engage in. Most BW players figure out very, very quickly that combat is not a thing that they do unless they absolutely have to because chances are, somebody they like is going to get hurt badly.

Additionally, there is this concept of Steel which is missing from a lot of games. Basically, Steel is a character's ability to do something really brave or just plain suicidal without chickening out. You roll Steel when you get wounded, when you try to run straight at a guy 200 feet away who's pointing a cocked bow at you, when some big bad threatens you, and so on. If you fail the roll, you can actually choose what your character does, although the choices are things like "cower and possibly pee your pants" and "drop whatever you have in your hands and run away screaming".

classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)

Not only is BW classless, using the system of Lifepaths that they have, coupled with Luke Crane's amazing amount of research into medieval life (and, where it applies, the Tolkien mythos), you can create virtually any character you want. I played one campaign as a lawyer and agitator for equal rights for serfs. He was born noble but when he grew up, instead of becoming a knight like his parents wanted him to, he went into law instead (along the way I gave him some skill in mace wielding because hey, you gotta do something in fights). All this was part of the character creation process.

mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such - keeping it human)

BW models itself after Tolkien, which means that humans can be regular old Joes or studs depending on how many Lifepaths you allow characters to have at the start of the game and how you choose to GM. Elves and Dwarves are OP just the same as they are in the LotR series, but if you restrict players from playing them or just ban them altogether, things can be as mundane as you want them to be.

rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)

You can be a weaponsmith in BW but where I think the system truly shines is in its variety of tactics available in combat. There are separate systems for melee, ranged combat, spellcasting, and even debate (no, seriously, it's resolved like a little combat system itself and it's kind of awesome). There are a crap-ton of options available to you in melee, for example, from choosing to all-out strike in a turn to parrying (you script out around 10 seconds worth of moves at a time and you generally have an idea of when your opponent is going to strike due to speed scores, so this can make some sense), to a "counter" move where you choose to allocate dice between attack and defense at the moment the attack is resolved (the downside to this being, even if your opponent doesn't attack, you still have to put at least one die in defense), to spending the move trying to move out of dagger range and into, say, sword range if that's what you're carrying, and so on.

Weapons behave like weapons ought to behave. If you decide to wield a bow in melee combat, you're going to get one shot off if you managed to cock your bow ahead of time and that's generally it. As noted before, there are significant advantages to wielding a polearm, not to mention the huge disadvantage that if someone is quick enough to get inside your range, that fancy polearm is now basically a club. You won't be able to use a mace as often as you can use a sword or a dagger. To simulate the kind of expertise that advanced martial artists have, you, as noted before, script out your moves ahead of time, and although you can cancel out of a move during resolution there are some serious consequences for doing so.

customization-friendly (as in keeping the system a bit abstract and flexible - i.e. not swaying into too much simulationism and specifics, in the Riddle of Steel sense)

This is probably the biggest drawback to what you're looking for because in my experience BW is about as simulationist as games get. I don't think it's that hard to do combat once you've gotten the hang of it, but there is a learning curve (hint: print out and laminate an action sheet for every player so that they can just check the boxes they want to use with a marker instead of writing stuff down every turn or, worse, going around the table DnD style).

dice pool resolution mechanics

This is exactly what BW uses. If you have a 4B strength, you literally get 4 dice to roll and when it comes time to succeed or fail at something you roll them and count successes (for "B" or "black" you have to roll 4-6 to succeed). You get additional dice for skills, and depending on circumstances you might be able to have another player aid you by rolling a die of their own or add an extra die to your pool via the use of FORKs (Fields of Related Knowledge; for example, if you're trying to pick an ancient Dwarven lock, you'd probably be testing Lockpicking but you might just be able to FORK to Dwarven History to add an extra die or two).

level-less system (a point-buy system would be desired - as in taking certain points of experience for enemies defeated and/or quests solved, and spending these points on the go / whenever one feels like it)

BW doesn't use a point buy system. What it uses instead is a system similar, actually, to the Elder Scrolls series. That is, you increase skills by using them. In fact, once you get a bit of proficiency, the only way you can increase your skills is by trying really hard things that are in some cases statistically impossible and somehow succeeding at them (via helper dice, for example, or by spending artha (think FATE points) on re-rolls and "open ended dice", which allow you to roll an extra die for every 6 you get).

This is actually not as tough to keep track of as it sounds. The trick is that the players have to do it.

rich on thievery (sneakin', stabbin', stealin', shootin' ... but still, I may be able to house-rule these features into the system myself)

You can include as much thievery as you want. There are whole groups of lifepaths devoted to thievery, and there are lots and lots of ways to create a thief or a burglar or a forger or a con artist or (insert thief type you want to play here). BW doesn't have specific mechanics outside of skill testing for thievery, but then, the skill testing mechanic is quite rich already.

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Ars Magica

Don't let the title distract you - although a large part of the game rules is about powerful magic, the system is intended and well designed also for non-magical adventurers with design approaches that very well match what you intend; and I've happily run multiple zero-magic adventures with the system. The setting is almost-historical medieval Europe, and there are source books that support the 'mundane' setting part which includes

How it fits your criteria:

  • low fantasy - most people have almost no interaction or knowledge about the magical part of the world, apart from superstition; but if some adventurers delve deeper then they might encounter magic dangers, enchantments or fey creatures if they're "asking for it". If you wish, you can have very interesting and flexible magical opponents or NPC's, or you can simply ignore that half of the book and have the wizards successfully keep their secrecy.
  • grim theme - realistic medieval europe stting as such is grim enough, if you don't stay within the walls of a fancy court; and the combat/recovery rules are rather deadly and grisly.
  • classless system - this is a key point that I liked about the Ars Magica rules; their skill and advancement system feels realistic and allows for nice customization without the need to stick to archetypical classes.
  • mundane, NOT heroic - the rules of generating and advancing non-magical characters keep their capabilities very much realistic, not over-the-top heroic. An extremely experienced knight should fear death and offer surrender if surrounded by 5 armed thugs.
  • rich in combat and tactics - the approach to weapon stats was rather interesting - I'm not sure if it's superior, but choice of different weapons offer direct, large tradeoffs of speed/chance to hit/damage. Also the gear isn't "equally balanced" between itself unlike, say, D&D. Different weapons and armor aren't simply a matter of preference, but some of them are clearly superior than others; for many items the only advantage (as in real life) is that you can afford them; e.g. if you're in a 1-to-1 fight on a level ground with no dirty tricks happening, then a warrior with plate armor, shield and longsword would be ridiculously superior to a bit more skilled warrior in leather armor and a dagger. Mounted combat was also interesting.
  • customization-friendly - the skill system is very customizable; and I have successfully used the same system customized for modern world 'low-heroic' adventures; with some additions/changes to skills it worked okay.

  • dice pool resolution mechanics - the mechanics are based on a pool of d10's; with the pool depending on character skill and specialization.

  • level-less system - the advancement is level-less (skill based) and it has a nice point-buy system for it; including points for special advantages/disadvantages (e.g., character being deaf or having powerful NPC connections)
  • rich on thievery - skill based systems as such are sufficient for thievery, as IMHO their success/failures should be mostly based in narrative and plausibility, rather than very detailed mechanics.

NB - this is all based on my experiences with Ars Magica 4th edition, and I'm not sure if the latest edition handles the non-magical adventurer part worse or better than 4th.

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I played in a post-apocalyptic game system called "After the Bomb" that was filled with all kinds of animals mutated into humanoids, it has all the things you mentioned. It uses Palladium's Megaversal system.

  • low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent)

Essentially After the bomb has this covered because magic does not exist. This was a human society that dabbled heavily in genetic manipulation, so much so that they began splicing genes into animals to get mutated animals.

It eventually led to the point where viral disease was a non-problem, because they had heavily delved into the human genome and changed it at its core. Viruses that targeted the genome were essentially easy cures, and eventually everyone was concocting their own viruses to see what effect they would have.

  • grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)

Eventually someone created a virus that possessed an entire copy of the human genome, infected all humans, and killed 75% of the human race.

Of course the remaining humans assumed that the virus was a bio-weapon concocted by an enemy nation which led to large scale nuclear war which completely destroyed and killed the entire human population, leaving entire cities dead, and abandoned.

  • classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)

The virus that had infected and killed most of the human race actually had a secondary effect, in infecting humans it killed them, but when infecting animals it spliced their genes with the human genome, which essentially turned most animals into human/animal hybrids. ( Anthropomorphic animals )

During character creation characters choose a base animal, have a certain amount of Bio-E ( Bio Energy ) that they can choose to acquire different genetic traits with. Allowing classless customization.

  • mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such - keeping it human)

Due to this being a post apocalyptic setting, deities do not exist, and neither do humans, surprisingly enough. God is dead. The only "deities" left are the ones the animal-people pray to.

  • rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)

This game has as much tactics as you can come up with situations that would require tactics between animal-people who all speak the same language. The combat system is mostly guns, weapons, or physical strength based. Rhino-morphs can throw cars, while Fox-morphs sneak around and assassinate things with knives.

Ammo can be either found sparingly or everywhere, depending on how you want to treat it. Lack of ammo can lead to some interesting tactical situations. ( The Rhino-morph using a car as a shield to catch bullets while charging at a group of dog-morphs firing at them is a great example )

  • customization-friendly (as in keeping the system a bit abstract and flexible - i.e. not swaying into too much simulationism and specifics, in the Riddle of Steel sense)

New abilities for genetic mutation can be created for players to spend their Bio-E on, and you can expand infinitely into the equipment that you can find, as the society before when the humans died was a technological heaven compared to the current state of things.

The game makes actually delving into a scientist profession really satisfying because you're an animal morph with limited intelligence delving into advanced technologies that existed prior to your lifespan.

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Game system:

My own game, BRUTAL: Big Bad Ball Busting Bloody Battles.

Free:

The game rules, supporting documents and adventures are all available as free PDF downloads.

Simple role playing rules

The role playing rules are short and sweet. GMs are encouraged to focus on the story, and not get distracted by too many skill checks.

Fast-paced and strategic combat rules

  1. (Dice pooling) Attacks, defenses, damage, etc. are all added together as a pair of opposing dice rolls. Highest Roll wins. Damage is the difference between the two rolls. Simple and quick.

  2. No waiting around for your turn. Each round everybody may attempt two moves, two actions and one or more defense rolls, ..but not all at once. Your "turn" is distributed across 12 initiatives that are counted down by the GM as quickly as possible. Mistakes happen, actions are missed, too bad, keep moving!

  3. This game system was originally designed as a mini-based tabletop war game. The rules handle free movement with rulers and grid movement equally well.

  4. Keep it simple. This game is not about listing every possible weapon, or how well some weapons work better against some armor. All weapons have a rating like 2d. Some have a reach like 2 inches. Some have a range short/medium/long. And some (like the whip) cause pain. Choose your weapon stats and call it what you want, or pick from a short list of predefined weapons.

Grim, gritty, dangerous and deadly:

Hit points never go up. They are fixed for the life of your character. And while there are many attack options, there are only a few defense options. You must learn when to run away.

Fantasy, low fantasy:

  1. The game rules include a monster manual with dragons and fairies and such, as well as the darker vampire undead zombie types.

  2. Casting spells is very much like reading scrolls (called spell glyphs). They tend to be very tiny and very hard to find, or they are etched into things too big to move (marble floor). Wizards and such cannot memorize spells or copy them, not at first. Also, the actual reading (casting) takes a long time and often fails.

  3. There are however, an abundance of +1 magic weapons of all types. These are necessary to fight some monsters and do not ruin game balance. Giving a character 4 or 5 +1 weapons does not make her more powerful.

No classes, no levels

  1. There are attributes and abilities like strength, and ratings like 4d. Together these form attribute ratings and ability ratings, like STRENGTH=4d. When creating a character you select the attributes and abilities important to your character.

  2. Experience points are saved up, then spent on buying higher ability ratings. Attribute ratings like SIZE are fixed and may not be improved.

Sneaky thieves and assassins

  1. The rules for hiding, sneaking, surprising, tripping, nudging, telling lies, disguising, pick pocketing, picking locks, etc. are clear and simple. Some will use your coordination rating. Some will use your corruption rating.

  2. Your character's corruption rating is dark and sinister. Honorable characters will have a low corruption rating. "Evil" characters tend to work alone or with other corrupt characters. But in some cases where the non corrupt characters learn to trust the corrupt characters, mixed groups can do quite well for themselves.

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Just to add another option

RuneQuest 6 (Basic Roleplaying - BRP- derived)

low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent)

You can tweak the magic level you want, but even at it's highest, it's wayyy below D&D-style "Gandalf Everywhere"

grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)

You can set the dial at whatever you want (it's setting based...)

classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)

All skill based, but "Carreer Oriented" (you chose carreers, but are not bound to continue in them. it's basically to give you skill choices that are logical

mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such -keeping it human)

BRP's the base for Call of Cthulhu. You can't get more Grim than that. In Runequest, you can lose an arm easily. A Battle can get you in the Healer's Hut for weeks...

rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)

All armor are BY PIECE (Head, Chest, Abdomen, Arms, Legs)

One of the most interesting thing about RuneQuest is that instead of having "weapon proficiency" or "weapon skills", you have a "Fighting Styles" skill. Those includes all the necessary know-how to FIGHT. Unfortunately, in the base rulebook there is not a list of them, but they tell you how to make them as you want

Ex: the Roman Legionary fighting style let you use the Gladius (short sword), Pilum (Javelin), Scutum (Large Shield) while wearing a Lorica Segmentata (Lammelar Armor). All this and common Legionary tactics (Testudo, etc).

The characters can have more than one, each having their own skill

Ex: - City Guard basic training (Long sword, medium shield) - Pikemen (Pike, formation fighting, etc) - Samurai (Katana, Wakisashi, Yumi, NO shield)

Special moves are attached to Fighting Styles

Ex: - Judo includes throwdowns, etc... - Classic D&D Dwarven Fighting includes bonuses vs Giants

Fighting styles can be easily derive from whatever you find on Wikipedia, or made up

customization-friendly (as in keeping the system a bit abstract and flexible - i.e. not swaying into too much simulationism and specifics, in the Riddle of Steel sense)

It's BRP Based.. BRP is generic, you should be able to fiddle with bits without too much problems

Preferably (but not necessarily), also:

dice pool resolution mechanics

It's not dice pools, but Percentage based

level-less system (a point-buy system would be desired - as in taking certain points of experience for enemies defeated and/or quests solved, and spending these points on the go / whenever one feels like it)

Experience rolls give you points to add to skills. There are Trainers to boost that or to learn new skills.

rich on thievery (sneakin', stabbin', stealin', shootin' ... but still, I may be able to house-rule these features into the system myself)

That's more part of the world, not the system

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Aren't fighting styles new to RQ in 6th edition? The editions are all similar, but if you're recommending a specific edition's features it would be helpful to note it specifically. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 11 at 15:18
    
I cannot really comment on this, as the 6th is the only one I know. –  Remi Letourneau Jul 12 at 3:18
    
'Kay, I'm going to edit in that your recommendation is specifically about RQ6. There's no point in being more general when you don't know what the others are like, right? :) (Oh, and on that note, you might consider adding a paragraph-with-link about RuneQuest Essentials, since that's a nice free way to get into RQ6.) –  SevenSidedDie Jul 12 at 4:19
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