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Specifically, I want to make a modern campaign that will start out this mystery case of the session RPG, and then slowly delve into more and more overt supernatural weirdness. This needs a system that supports a modern campaign setting and fantasy elements. At the moment I have as options USR and GURPS, but USR would require creating whole swaths of rules do deal with some of the stuff and GURPS has a rather steep learning curve. Are there any systems out there that would lend itself to what I want to do?

I want to start them out as detectives. The cases will start mundane enough, but I want to add more and more overt supernatural components to their cases until they are drawn into this hidden world of magic and weirdness hidden from most people. I'd prefer classless as it would give them the flexibility to start learning and incorporating what they discover into their characters.

I'd prefer time consuming, difficult to perform magic over the D&Desque 'blow things up with a wave of the hand'

I'd probably stick to basically human enemies for much of it, perhaps branching off into some things like ghosts and the like.

As this has been put on hold again, let me just list my critera.

  • Supports a modern day setting (As in 21st century, not 1920's/30's) with fantastical elements
  • Works with a custom setting
  • Magic in system should be difficult/time consuming to perform
  • Classless
  • Investigations/Mysteries take priority over combat
  • Private Investigators, not military
  • Ideally the supernatural parts can be hidden until they start cropping up.
  • Enemies mostly human, but some other things can crop up from time to time. It'd be best if the game has pre-made NPC stats, to help save me a bit of work.
  • It must be playable on Roll20 with a group of 4-8 players in a session
  • Online character sheets

Sort of an X-Files/Cthulhu/Haven type thing.

The group in question is mostly accustomed to D&D 3.5. We are a group that meets online, so a character sheet being either in Myth Weavers or there being a google sheets template out there would be helpful, but not required. I don't care whether or not the system uses miniatures. I don't have a definite length set for the campaign.

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closed as off-topic by Purple Monkey, Jason_c_o, Miniman, V2Blast Jun 15 at 23:38

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Trail of Cthulhu is an RPG using the GUMSHOE system based off the works of H.P. Lovecraft. It's similar to Call of Cthulhu, but emphasizes investigation and planning from the players. GUMSHOE is a system designed for more investigative play, making the game based on clues rather than discrete encounters. It can be catered to a lot of different playstyles, and like Call of Cthulhu, magic is more than just handwaving. Even if you're not particularly interested in the universe of Call of Cthulhu, you can substitute out your own setting in its place.

I've played Trail of Cthulu for a few sessions using the "pulp" style, which caters more to higher action gameplay, but it can be toned back for more "realism". While somewhat complicated, it's nothing compared to GURPS or USR, and the interactions with clues and crime scenes is very intuitive. The game expects the GM to slowly build into the more surreal events, but does a decent job of abstracting the characters' exposure to horrible eldritch beings.

Keep in mind that this is Cthulhu mythos game: PC death is common and the players are not necessarily expected to win. The pulp style stacks the game a little more towards the players, but everything is still highly dangerous. Trail's combat is also weaker and less rewarding than other systems, but since your game would be low on combat anyway, it shouldn't be a problem.

  • Can be converted to a modern setting easily, and is set in the Cthulhu mythos, already full of fantastic elements.
  • Magic is difficult, stressful, and painful to use. It can be powerful but requires serious investment to use properly.
  • This system has no class!
  • One of, if not, the best systems for investigation and mystery. Combat is less rewarding than other systems, but the investigation excels.
  • Made to build up from the mundane to the surreal.
  • Works great with human enemies as well as horrors from another dimension.
  • Runs well on Roll20. Journals are an easy way to keep track of clues!

Trail can also be adapted to work with the Delta Green setting, literally X-Files meets Cthulhu. See sillyputty's answer for more information about Delta Green.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also worth looking at the Esoterrorists which is more-or-less the same game but with a slightly different focus. \$\endgroup\$ – Quentin May 6 '15 at 14:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ I second this, specifically Esoterrorist is set in the modern world, too, one step closer to the actual requirements. Here is a review: rpg.net/reviews/archive/16/16027.phtml \$\endgroup\$ – p.marino Jun 17 at 13:20
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Fate Core / Dresden Files

I can recommend from experience the Dresden Files RPG as a modern fantasy investigative game. You have hit the three points that the game is intended to cover in your question title:

  • Modern Fantasy - The Dresden Files is a modern fantasy series of novels
  • Investigative - Harry Dresden is a wizard and a private detective

I have run multiple long DFRPG campaigns and fewer, shorter games with Fate Core. I have lots of experience with both systems.

Based on that, I would recommend the Fate Core rules because they are cleaner and more streamlined, representing significant advances in the designers' understanding of how the game should work and a lot of feedback from the community. However, the magic system in DFRPG is more fully developed and richer than anything in the Fate Core world that I have seen. If magic is to take a central role, it is worth your time. Let's take your points in order now:

  • Supports a modern day setting (As in 21st century, not 1920's/30's) with fantastical elements
  • Works with a custom setting

DFRPG is set in the 21st century, FC can work anywhere, any time.

  • Magic in system should be difficult/time consuming to perform

This is what drove my choice. You could use just the Thaumaturgy rules from Dresden, giving you both difficult and time consuming. Or you could allow Evocation, too, which is only difficult. However, DFRPG does not come with the Cthulhu baggage that assumes magic will drive you insane. It only comes with the idea that it's powerful and dangerous.

  • Classless

Fate (which powers DFRPG) does not have classes.

  • Investigations/Mysteries take priority over combat

The character creation system in Fate is not combat-oriented. The system does not prioritize combat the way that D&D does, for example. You can adjust the prominence of combat in your game as desired.

  • Private Investigators, not military

While Harry Dresden is a PI, you could have military or ex-military PCs if you wanted.

  • Ideally the supernatural parts can be hidden until they start cropping up.

The system supports varying levels of supernatural firepower at character creation, including leaving aspects unselected or undisclosed so they can be chosen or revealed at a later time.

  • Enemies mostly human, but some other things can crop up from time to time. It'd be best if the game has pre-made NPC stats, to help save me a bit of work.

The game has a wide variety of NPC ready to go but is very easy to work with on-the-fly.

  • It must be playable on Roll20 with a group of 4-8 players in a session

I have played on Roll20 with 6 players both mixed remote / local, and all remote.

  • Online character sheets

I honestly haven't looked lately - but the roll20 github repository shows sheets for both Fate Core and DFRPG.

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The Delta Green supplements for Call of Cthluhu 6th edition are an excellent choice for mundane investigators tackling a world beyond their scope. If you're looking for a campaign in which your players will go mad after long exposure to these fantastical elements, Delta Green will be right for you.

Playable on Roll20

Combat isn't tactical in this system, more a "theater of the mind" type of style. Very rarely will you have to worry with moving minis around. There are also very few formulas you would need to keep track of. The game revolves around rolling 1d100 and checking your roll against a target number. If you roll that number or lower, you succeed. While Roll20 may not be the best method to deliver the atmosphere the game strives for, it is certainly very playable over the internet.

Modern Fantasy

The Delta Green source material is set in the 1990's, but can be easily adapted to a 21st century setting with minimal effort. There are even suggestions for doing so in the Countdown supplement book. The players take on the role of (usually) Federal Agents who have been brought into the Delta Green organization- a secret conspiracy inside the American government tasked with defeating the paranormal/supernatural. Players are fully human, and only have what a normal human would have in order to defeat their foes. That's not to say that the government can't get them some special firepower, however.

Start Mundane

The introductory scenario (pre-made for you, and an excellent scenario for beginners) is one in which the investigators start out on a regular murder case. You can easily modify the parameters of the case so that the investigators only find out about the supernatural elements later in the game, and then get conscripted into the organization. The scenarios written for the game all work similarly, with Federal Agents having to cover up their knowledge of the paranormal by making it look like they are investigating more mundane crimes.

Drawn into a hidden world

For a dark twist on this, the game can actually represent it mechanically. The investigators have a skill called "Cthulhu Mythos" which can increase every time they encounter something paranormal. Unfortunately, the larger your mythos score goes, the lower your maximum sanity...

Investigation over Combat

As with any Call of Cthulhu game, if you're in combat, things have gone horribly, horribly wrong. The entire game is about uncovering what happened/is happening, so that hopefully a solution can be found without going into a full combat encounter. Blow up the barnhouse with the weird, mutant crab people? Sure. Fight the weird mutant crab people with your guns? That's a less optimal solution.

This is also exemplified with the rules. The combat mechanics for Call of Cthulhu are...clunky. A much more streamlined version exists as part of the new Delta Green stand alone game, which is currently in Beta. It gets rid of a lot of the bookkeeping of previous CoC combat in favor of a simplified approach.

Classless

The game revolves around putting points into skills. You can divide up likely skills based on character profession, but it isn't required. Players can pick whatever skills they want to have, so long as you all agree on them. The only exception to this is the Cthulhu Mythos skill, which no one can just "put points into".

Magic is Difficult

And how! The only way you're learning magic is if you seek it out and spend the weeks required to study it and even then, casting the spell may rend your mind in two or cause other horrible side effects that you don't want. To whit, a player of mine found magic that would banish ethereal monsters back to their home plane, but required that he killed a living human victim. To save the many, he slaughtered the few.

Human Enemies

There is a large beastie compendium in the Call of Cthulhu gamebooks, but Delta Green goes out of its way to explain that the real monsters are the cultists. The humans who have delusions of power that are working with the horrible forces of the night to further their own ends. It's the people we have to watch out for. There are also stat blocks for almost every named NPC in any given scenario or faction presented in the books. Even random guards or generic NPCs that are likely to be run into get their own stat blocks. You won't be making tons of sheets for this game.

Sheets Online

Classic Delta Green sheets are easily available for download online. Unfortunately, the newer sheets playable with the new standalone version of the game are still in Beta, and are going to be a little harder to find. The template is pretty easily re-created, however. The math isn't terribly complicated, and there aren't a whole lot of things to keep track of. Skill numbers, weapon stats, and basic attributes, essentially. Anyone coming from D&D 3.5 will have no problem keeping track of a DG character sheet.

4-8 Players

This is where things get a mite tricky. The game assumes anywhere from 2-6 investigators at a time. There is no reason you can't go up to 8 players (though a group that size for any game is a bit much for me). The conceit of the game has players grouped into 3 person cells. If you modify this to say that they are in 4 person cells, or that not everyone is inducted as a full agent into the group, then you can have a working group of 8 players. Some of the characters might start to feel a little "samey" however.

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I'm a big fan of Conspiracy X. It's got supernatural, supertech, and a majority of normal people who have no idea that either exists.

The basic idea is that humans are very slightly psychic, and that causes all sorts of problems; werewolves and vampires, aliens, and sorcerers, are all things that threaten to make the world a bad place to be. In theory, the PCs are working to curb that. In practice, hey, go nuts.

The system is simple and fast, combat is quick and DEADLY (serious, guns will ruin your life). There are options of magic and psychic powers, and if you want to let PCs get access to it, alien tech.

Also, this is the only game where, as a GM, I've made a grown man cry. So it always holds a special place in my heart.

With the updates to the question, I don't believe this is quite what you are looking for. Here's your list of requests:

  • Supports a modern day setting (As in 21st century, not 1920's/30's) with fantastical elements

    Absolutely, with a minimal update from 90s tech to today

  • Works with a custom setting

    Again, with minimal adjustment, absolutely

  • Magic in system should be difficult/time consuming to perform

    Yep, also dangerous

  • Classless

    Sort of, skills aren't class based, but there are sort of classes that determine influence abilities, which help you do things outside your direct control

  • Investigations/Mysteries take priority over combat

    Avoiding combat is the smart way to go here, as combat turns deadly in a hurry

  • Private Investigators, not military

    this can be arranged that way, certainly

  • Ideally the supernatural parts can be hidden until they start cropping up.

    It's part of the setting that most people have no idea

  • Enemies mostly human, but some other things can crop up from time to time. It'd be best if the game has pre-made NPC stats, to help save me a bit of work.

    There are non-human enemies available, but how/when they are in game is totally up to you. The best games of this I've ever played were set against human antagonists

  • It must be playable on Roll20 with a group of 4-8 players in a session

    This one I'm not super sure of; The system involves 2d6 and modifiers of +/- 1 or 2, and a target number. If you can do that in Roll20, the rest is easy. It's not really a tactical movement style game, for the most part though, so the map is going to be somewhat less important than narration.

  • Online character sheets

    I don't know for this one either, but again, the character sheets are, for the most part, REALLY simple and streamlined. They could be setup in a few minutes on Google Docs as a spreadsheet for each player.

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Delta Green* (The Standalone Game)

Delta Green is a modern-day scenario where the players play agents of either an ultra-secret Department of Defense special access group or a rogue criminal conspiracy, who fight a secret war against utter annihilation at the hands of Lovecraftian horrors, pushing back the seconds of the doomsday clock at the cost of whatever they hold dear.

Supports Modern Day

Delta Green is current up to past 2010 in its lore. Everything you will find is essentially modern-day, whether it be weapons, universe lore, and hooks.

Works with a Custom Setting

Delta Green is very open-ended. It has some pregen campaign hooks, like the one in the Agent's Guide, but you are by no means required to follow those. In fact, the authors go out of their way to encourage GMs to mess with various aspects of the game, including the setting. It's a horror game, and the last thing you want is the surprise to be spoiled at the beginning.

Magic should be difficult/time consuming

There is a list of suggested rituals in the Handler's Guide (with the usual caveat that you should feel free to modify them as you see fit), along with descriptions as to what they do, what ingredients they require... Oh, and the cost to your Willpower and Sanity for performing them. Because what humans call Magic is science to the Old Ones, and each glimpse of understanding into things Man was Not Meant to Know brings you one (or two, or several) steps (or flying leaps) closer to the abyss.

Classless

Mostly. The game uses skills and careers, which are both very important, but there aren't class-specific abilities or anything like that. The key places where careers come into play is both in realistically determining what skills a character might be able to have (for example, a run-of-the-mill CDC official would not have skills in, say, Hacking, using Mortars, or thieving), and what reactions the world might have to a character doing certain things. For example, an FBI Agent can arrest someone, but a CIA Agent or Private Investigator often can't. Likewise, if someone saw a CDC or EPA agent packing heat, they'd get a little concerned and start asking questions.

Investigations/Mystery take priority over combat

As Delta Green is a horror game, the authors actively encourage GMs and to focus on investigations and story, with combat as a tool and not the entire game. GMs, likewise, can do this to their players in a number of ways. For one, a dead suspect can't give information, and also the game's realistic setting is going to punish excessive belligerence because it will call attention and heat down on the Agents' heads, potentially getting them arrested, suspended, or crippled by being under extensive review.

Furthermore, some entities just can't be hurt physically by mere mortal weapons. A quick-thinking desecration of a summoning site, the solution to a particular equation, or the completion of a certain ritual might be the only thing that can keep the mortal world separate from rampaging horrors.

Private Investigators, not Military

The game is set-up with Law Enforcement in mind, but the illegal situation of the Delta Green Conspiracy lends itself very much to having Private Investigators rather than Military Operatives. In fact, the Agent's Guide even has a recommended quick-start build for PIs, as well as a substantial range of other civvies such as Socialites, Criminals, Professors, and Programmers.

Ideally, the Supernatural Parts can be Hidden until they crop up

This is very much the nature of the game and the lore. The Supernatural isn't a club to beat the story with, or even the cake-batter. It's used sparingly as a twist, and it's a pervasive fear, both in the game and in the meta, but overuse of the Supernatural desensitizes the characters and the players to it, which ruins the atmosphere. If you consider Alien: Isolation and how it treats the Alien, you'll see what I'm getting at here. If all you did was run away from the Alien, it would start to feel pretty stale.

Playable in Roll20

I don't think Roll20 has the actual system yet, however, it is a pretty standard d100 system. If you've ever played the FFRPGs, just toss in the Lethality rules and bam you're good. I'm not sure that Roll20 really captures the atmosphere of Delta Green as well as in-person does, but it can make certain aspects of the game easier.

Online Character sheets

I am not sure if anyone has online sheets for Delta Green, but the company has released PDF copies for free.


*Another answer suggests the Call of Cthulhu Delta Green supplement, which still uses the C0C system, and mentions the Standalone as a beta, which is no longer accurate. The Standalone is its own system, current up to past 2010 in its lore. I have linked to the Arc Dream store page where you can buy it, but you also can get it from Amazon or in a game shop.

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