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I'm looking for a light gaming system which supports a Victorian-era steampunk setting (as we've already have a fun world and characters we'd like to use). Furthermore:

  • role-playing is more important than combat (that is to say - the mechanics shouldn't encourage building the whole campaign around a large number of conflicts only)
  • (tied to the above) I think it'd be great if munchkining / min-maxing wasn't possible or at least discouraged
  • we definitely want a system where the GM is the main storyteller - as such, Fate is a no go
  • the system shouldn't encourage potential fail scenarios if the players lose a conflict (example: failing in Fate doesn't mean characters die - it means things get more complicated. However, it seems my fellow players never really understand this and treat each conflict like a life-or-death situation, even if only subconsciously, leading to a lot of issues)
  • no exploding dice
  • (preferably) normal distribution for die rolls
  • no grids / figures / maps required

I've been trying out Wolsung (which is where we got the world and characters from), but it's really poorly written when it comes to actual rules.

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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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I'd strongly suggest looking at Risus. Created by S. John Ross, it's mainly aimed at light-hearted to genuinely silly play, and can handle any setting you can conceive of. It doesn't use exploding dice, allows for limited (non-fatal) failure, doesn't require any sort of grid/map, pretty much eliminated optimizing, and uses a limited number (1 to 6 virtually all the time) of 6-sided dice (with an option for "funky" dice). The core rules fit on one side of a letter size sheet in small but readable type size, and all the rules supplements take up fewer than half a dozen pages.

Oh, almost forgot to mention that the core game is free and character creation can be accomplished (by an experienced player) in less than five minutes.

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Cortex Plus

If you're eliminating Fate, I would take a serious look at Cortex Plus, as seen in the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide. It's a modern game, powering a number of licensed properties, including Marvel, Smallville, and Firefly.

Taking your points, I think it satisfies most of them. Let's look at each:

role-playing is more important than combat (that is to say - the mechanics shouldn't encourage building the whole campaign around a large number of conflicts only)

In Cortex Plus, conflicts are conflicts. You can have an argument be just as important (and systematized) as a fistfight. And the system supports and encourages playing to a character's strength...and showing his weaknesses, too.

(tied to the above) I think it'd be great if munchkining / min-maxing wasn't possible or at least discouraged

I'm sure that it's possible to abuse the system, but Cortex Plus is emphatically not a game that's about builds. It's about characters.

we definitely want a system where the GM is the main storyteller - as such, Fate is a no go

I'm not sure what disqualifies Fate here, but Cortex Plus uses a standard GM - it's not GM-less like Fiasco or anything. That doesn't mean players don't get narrative power, they do. If you want players to have zero narrative agency, this is probably the wrong game for you. But I would examine the source of that desire, because narrative agency is fun...do you really need to hog it all?

the system shouldn't encourage potential fail scenarios for conflicts (example: failing in Fate doesn't mean characters die - it means things get more complicated. However, it seems my fellow players never really understand this and treat each conflict like a life-or-death situation, even if this was only subconsciously, leading to a lot of issues)

Cortex Plus is not deadly by default. Lose a fight in Leverage and you get get knocked out and maybe captured - out of action for a bit, but not dead. Same with Marvel.

no exploding dice

Nope. All non-explosive dice.

(preferably) normal distribution for die rolls

The basic Cortex mechanic is that the GM will roll 2 or more dice of varying sizes and select 2. The sum of those 2 becomes "the stakes", a value the player has to meet or exceed. The player builds a pool out of his applicable values and rolls, usually selecting 2 to sum. Various powers, distinctions, and point spends, etc., can change which dice are rolled and how many are kept. So while you're not rolling 3d6, like GURPS, the distribution for the pool will be normal.

no grids / figures / maps required

Cortex Plus fully supports the "theater of the mind" style of play it sounds like you prefer. I don't think there is a tactical, maps-and-minis option I have seen, even.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've read the Fate Core book, and it seems that the role of the GM is mostly reactionary. I may be wrong here, as I have not had the pleasure of playing an actual Fate game (I admit). However, according to the Core book, you start off by discussing with the players what it is they want the game to be about - this sounds both useful ("Same Page Tool"-built-in) as well as... not so useful (a GM, rather than tell his own story, caters to the whims of the players. Finally, the use of tokens can influence a story greatly. Please correct me if my image of Fate is somehow muddled or plain wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – Shaamaan Dec 5 '14 at 22:04
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If the goal is primarily role-playing, you don't necessarily need a formal system. A few basic rules and some notes may be all you need for the game.

I once played such a campaign, where there were no formal levels or classes, but just a simple set of basic skills. Combat was resolved with a single die roll, and chance outcomes were determined primarily by coin flips, rock-paper-scissors, etc. Rarely, bonus points were given out as rewards for clever roleplaying. One influential player never went adventuring or fighting, but simply ran an in-game business.

It wasn't a formal system, and it wasn't always consistent or "fair", but it was always fascinating, and there was little or no drama, mainly because the players were deliberately discouraged from directly identifying with the characters personally. Actions were described in third person, never first person, character death was common, but not a big deal, because everyone had many characters.

It was more like collaborative storytelling than gaming, but was very rewarding.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As much as I'd love to try something like this out, I fear my fellow players are not ready for this kind of experience. We were playing Wolsung recently (which is where we got the characters and setting from), but we argued a LOT over the rules of that system (which are really poorly written and explained). I could see your idea, even if it could fly in the end, causing a lot of arguments when picking those "basic rules". \$\endgroup\$ – Shaamaan Dec 9 '14 at 14:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like your players may be more hung up on the rules than you are yourself. There are two ways to avoid this, one is to just never kill anyone off, and the other is to make dying so common and ordinary that it's accepted as just part of the game. The more emphasis on role playing, the less you actually need things like levels, and skills, and character sheets. Role playing a truly heroic death can be a great opportunity. \$\endgroup\$ – barbecue Dec 9 '14 at 20:18
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My usual gaming system is D&D. When thinking of steampunk, the Ebberon setting comes to mind. However, min maxing can occur (It is still D&D after all.)

Another system I've played is "All Flesh Must Be Eaten." It's primarily designed as a zombie survival game but is extremely flexible. It focuses far more on the role playing aspect than on combat as well. There is an expansion called "All tomorrow's zombies" which has rules for different technologies from steampunk to spacefaring.

To describe the flexibility of this system, we played a game based around Firefly/Serenity using these 2 books.

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Go with BESM.

BESM seems simple at first, then it seems too complicated because it's a generic system and pretty much everything can be customized. But once you decide what to use and what not to, it becomes a simple, fast game. I ran so many different settings with this system after I got comfortable with it that it was hard to stop playing it when D&D was suggested. I almost ran a Fantasy Game with this system just cause it's that good.

Updated:

role-playing is more important than combat (that is to say - the mechanics shouldn't encourage building the whole campaign around a large number of conflicts only)

BESM is open to any kind of gameplay you want and the dice roll is always simple. And even though you would have to build a character to be good at combat if you so wanted him to be, it doesn't not penalize Intelligent Characters in combat. In fact, you can make them smart or strong and they all will do well when it comes to fighting.

(tied to the above) I think it'd be great if munchkining / min-maxing wasn't possible or at least discouraged

There are recommendations for min-max, but they can easily be put aside.

we definitely want a system where the GM is the main storyteller - as such, Fate is a no go the system shouldn't encourage potential fail scenarios if the players lose a conflict (example: failing in Fate doesn't mean characters die - it means things get more complicated. However, it seems my fellow players never really understand this and treat each conflict like a life-or-death situation, even if only subconsciously, leading to a lot of issues)

BESM is so easily played that when I was the GM, I wouldn't even make character sheets for the NPCs and there was a battle. I would just make the characters fight till the point they felt it was hard enough and them call the combat (By saying the enemy lost all HPs, Energy Points or even he would run or give up)

no exploding dice

You play besm with 2d6 and you don't even roll damage.

(preferably) normal distribution for die rolls no grids / figures / maps required

You better have a very dynamic imagination with this system. And you will not need grids or figures. Specially if you are a experienced GM who loves to see your players come up with new ideas. I loved using this system when we played Naruto because it was all about imagination and strategy before anything else.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you discuss why it's appropriate to the requirements? Make sure to follow the requirements of the system-recommendation tag. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 6 '14 at 7:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I just Updated the post \$\endgroup\$ – Davi Braid Dec 6 '14 at 7:34

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