I am looking for an RPG which has the following:

  • This game has "heroic-style" play. This means the characters are special because of the situations they're in, not because of some ability to do stuff. All enemies, even smaller ones, can be deadly unless directly and immediately dealt with. A well-placed crossbow bolt can be as deadly for low-experience characters as high-experience characters. (Character Levels need not be a mechanic.) Note that this does not mean that characters do not grow with their experiences or cannot better handle previous threats, it does mean they must simply never entirely "write off" any able-bodied enemy as inconsequential from a mechanical standpoint.
  • Health is not represented by incrementing some value or values. There must be no health tracker which relies on a number going up or down. That eliminates every system with hit points, and their myriad deviations, which use numbers to represent health or answer "how close to losing this conflict are they?" in any way. In spite of this, character death and failure still needs to be able to happen. "Math-less" may not universally apply to the systems I'm looking for. (As a side note, HP could be allowed if the losses of HP directly indicate a loss that players undisputedly relate to a specific real-world injury, like a 1"x.125"x.001" cut or 1st degree burn covering 1 square inch of flesh, that may be acceptable. "The Mechanics Must Tell the Story.")
  • Somewhat "simulationist" mechanics ought to be in force. The abstractions used by the game can be easily/intuitively understood to represent real life concepts or abilities. Simulationist here does not mean high detail/bookkeeping, it means mechanics/game ideas correlating to real-world things. As an example, I consider most forms of "AC" from D&D 4e and 5e as not simulationist enough, but AC from D&D 3.5 is more acceptable due to its daughter "touch" and "flat footed" ACs. (A more simulationist system would have a "to hit" value and damage reduction; real-life armor appears to agree with such a system more.)

Any recommendations based off of these criteria? Remember, it need only fit the above criteria; dice-less systems or systems with unusual dice are acceptable, and yes, genre is not a criteria.

Please remember the guidelines for Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and the community's thoughts on Game Recommendation Questions.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have an example of a system that follows your second criteria? \$\endgroup\$ – Kyle W May 8 '15 at 17:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KyleW No, I don't really have an example, and that is a reason why I'm asking. If that bullet is satisfied for a system, I suspect the other ones can be as well. It's a tough requirement. \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip May 8 '15 at 18:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed. In order to simulate things, you pretty much have to put numbers on it. Strength, health, dexterity.... movement... damage... abilities... they're all numbers. This is why asking for absolutely no numbers is an odd requirement to me. Degrading your abilities as you take damage is probably going to be the best you're going to get. (But there are a lot of systems I'm not familiar with, so good luck.) \$\endgroup\$ – Kyle W May 8 '15 at 18:39
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ I think most folks would call your "heroic" definition more "gritty/low-power" and I'm not sure you've unpacked your definition of simulation enough if people are mentioning FATE in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil May 8 '15 at 19:09
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Chat indicates the poster is more specifically looking for a game where the mechanics determine the description of e.g. damage without requiring GM interpretation, not simply a hp-less system, based on a podcast episode, Extra Credit's "Mechanics as Metaphors." \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil May 9 '15 at 2:13

The Riddle of Steel

See this answer for more details on the combat system, but here are your points:

  • Heroic play: TRoS characters will never be able to ignore a blow or a missile - no matter how they advance. Every wound is potentially lethal. TRoS is intended to make players consider every fight carefully.

  • No hit points: TRoS uses numbers - but they're not to track your health. They track your blood loss. Which builds a pool of dice that you roll to avoid falling unconscious and / or dying every turn. Which is why any wound is dangerous - it's not like you just know how much you can take.

  • The game is very much simulationist - especially as far as combat is concerned. The combat tables assist in describing the strikes and wounds as you requested. It is about allocating resources between two clashes per round, deciding whether to attack or defend, and how much to commit to each. It's not about taking turns, you can both hit, and both die.

The non-combat systems in TRoS are not all as good and sadly the game is either out of print or not widely available. However, Blade of the Iron Throne is supposed to be a refinement and reimplementation of the system. I haven't played that one, though, so can't actually recommend it as an answer.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You may want to limit or toss out the Spiritual Attributes in Riddle of Steel or Passions in Blade of the Iron Throne as they push their respective games toward "I believe strongly in X therefore I become awesome" cinematic logic, which drives the narrativism in those games. Riddle of Steel it's quite possible to get massive dice bonuses this way that overwhelms other stats as factors. This is either a feature or a problem depending on what you want out of a game. \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 May 10 '15 at 16:41


This game has "heroic-style" play.

It doesn't take a great deal to kill a character, and experienced characters aren't significantly tougher.

That said, with a bit of luck, experienced characters with be wealthier which they could translate into better equipment that increases their survivability.

Health is not represented by incrementing some value or values.


There is no separate health score. Damage is taken directly off attributes (which makes characters less effective as they get wounded).

Somewhat "simulationist" mechanics ought to be in force.

To Hit is modified by dodging / cover / etc.

Armour does damage reduction.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I recommend Mongoose Traveller over other editions. It's a little more accessible to modern audiences than CT and MT, is more readable than T4 and T5, and avoids the system problems of d20T and GURPS Traveller (which in any case have features that don't perfectly fit the OP's requirements). \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 11 '15 at 0:40

If high bookkeeping isn't a problem (I understand it's not a feature here), I'd recommend Phoenix Command (with at least the Wounding advanced rule, obviously).

Contrary to popular opinion, it's fun.

PCs are definitely more skilled/trained than a 'normal' human (though you could easily 'fix' that, I think doing so is a bad idea and does not play to the system's strengths) but no more so than a 1st level character is theoretically better than your average commoner in OD&D. Enemies are always a threat, unless they realistically wouldn't be (You're in a tank. He has a 9mm pistol), and situations where enemies aren't realistic threats aren't situations you are likely to be in (and if you're in one, your enemies should just retreat and try again later. You're never invincible because of your level or some other 'always on' thing). Thus I contend that the game captures the 'heroic style' well.

Health is kind of incremental, in that weapons do have (several) damage ratings and the way you are hit and such increments your percent chance of being taken out of the fight via the hit, as well as the other physical consequences of the hit. There isn't really 'hp' though (we're using the Wounding rules, remember).

It's the most simulationist game out there, and was designed to be such. This section should need no further explanation than the linked material provides.

The downside, as previously alluded, is the massive amounts of bookkeeping. An additional upside is how massively modular everything in the system is. Porting in new material is super easy, and works really well. Here's a converter for firearms, as an example (and here's the easy version). There's tons of optional rules and as long as you want to stick to heroic, simulationist play, you can probably find a set of modules that'll float your boat.


I'd recommend GURPS.

"No," I hear. "GURPS has hit points based on a stat!" True, but there's a canonical variation in the core rule books whereby the GM does all the tracking of hits and damage -- characters will only know "You've been injured -- you're bleeding, but don't feel significantly impaired," or something similar; given a little accounting for combat adrenalin, a fairly badly injured character might not realize he's close to death. Better yet, short of basic stat increases (very expensive in terms of experience points spent, compared to skill improvements), a bullet or crossbow bolt is just as deadly to a highly skilled and experience character as to a complete newbie (assuming the same level of armor protection, of course).

This also fits the "heroic due to circumstances" criterion; a GURPS character build can be set up so that characters are very ordinary humans, or are set apart only by their skills, more easily (in my experience) than making them superheroes. GURPS is also very simulationist; probably the most so of any RPG I've played, with very crunchy combat mechanics and a highly detailed (and easily expanded) skill system -- as well as the desirable "armor absorbs damage" mechanic.

Edit: Hit locations, limb loss/crippling (including for shock effects immediate to an injury), even blinding/deafening, and specific skill/combat effects of those conditions are covered in detail in the core rules. The GM can quite readily use the built-in HP system to provide unambiguous levels of progressive disability as injury progresses -- while still hiding the actual hit points from players.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure would be nice if downvoters would give some indication why... \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon May 8 '15 at 16:59
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ No, GURPS has hit points based on a stat. It also isn't specifically tailored to any of the OPs criterion at all, and isn't particularly good at them. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil May 8 '15 at 17:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer I'd strongly disagree that it doesn't meet (1) and (3), but I have to agree that the kind of HP GURPS features are specifically unwanted by the OP based on some clarification I got in the comments. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 8 '15 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ GURPS isn't "specifically tailored" to anything; that's its strength. If you don't like it, just say that. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon May 8 '15 at 17:31
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The question's been updated based on the comments. I think the most relevant thing to this is that if a system uses HP, each loss thereof must not require anyone's creative interpretation before knowing what specific injury it represents. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 8 '15 at 17:53

Burning Wheel

Burning Wheel has a simple core rule (dice pool, count successes) which gets applied a myriad of ways towards tracking a lot of aspects of play.

Combat is dangerous, though not necessarily instantly lethal (it's easy to get wounded and be unable to win a fight, but it's not so easy to instantly die... infection or the person continuing to stab you after you can't fight are often the cause there...). Damage is tracked by wounds, armor degrades, combat is partially determined by your character's stats and partially by strategies chosen by the player.

The non-simulationist core is the Artha rules, which are effectively hero points. You don't get a ton of these, but having your characters wrestle with their personal goals, beliefs and drama is a core of play, which may or may not be your thing.

Apocalypse World

Apocalypse World has a few wound levels ("the damage clock") that never increase for anyone, which means a gun or a knife is ALWAYS a threat. The mechanics are based in physical action, but they're set up a little different than most games.

As opposed to "I shoot the guy, roll my gun skill", there's a difference between "I'm trying to drive them out of the hall so I can take the doorway" vs. "I want to shoot THAT guy, dead." - these constitute two different actions, because AW makes any action a "Move" which gives a subset of outcomes.

This makes it one of those things people either love or hate, but it's a light, flexible way to deal with events in play.

The setting itself is a very particular view of a psychically charged post-apocalypse, but it's relatively easy to port/houserule into something else if you wanted something more modern, sci-fi- or fantasy.


I would suggest Shadowrunner. I only played (I think it was) 3rd edition, but it was a lot of fun.

Heroic-style play: Your character can have some stuff that's in fantasy, but it's stuff that every PC or anyone you run into can have.

Health: I'm not sure if you would consider it to have a HP system... a deadly wound will kill you outright. There's 10 boxes, with the 4 levels of wounds "filling" 1, 3, 6, and 10. These also correspond to -1/-2/-3 penalties to rolls at 1, 3, 6 boxes.

Simulationist: A better aimed hit deals more damage. Better armor makes it easier to resist the hit. Not sure if the body roll makes sense...

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like that health system is a variant of HP. You're incrementing health over boxes, it sounds like a graphical representation of numbers, and so it fails the "No HP" criterion. Good try! \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip May 8 '15 at 17:32

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.