[RPG] Game with Interesting Combat that is Crunch Heavy and is built to not Require a Grid?


As an alternative to trying to play a game that normally requires a grid, I'm looking for an RPG that

  1. Has mechanically interesting combat (plenty of depth, not
    necessarily high complexity).
  2. Has a lot of rules for character customization (again, depth preferred over complexity)
  3. Is built to not require a grid for its combat, but instead have combat described. I'd like to clarify that I would rather avoid miniature combat all together and just have descriptive combat.

I would prefer to move away from Class/Level systems a bit here, but that's more preference than a requirement for the question. I would also prefer either a highly developed setting or a totally generic game (either one works), but again, these are more preferences than requirements for the question. I would like fantasy more than some other genre, but having a universal system or a system with its own well developed setting I think is more important.

Edit: A short description of my version of Depth versus Complexity

Deep: A system that allows for important choice. The deeper a system, the more important choices you can make within the framework of the system.

Complex: The more fiddly bits/pieces a system has, the more complex it is. Example: D&D 3.5 Spell-casting is both Complex and Deep. So is Chess. Quite a bit can be done with it, but you'd better know your rules. Unknown Armies is deep but not complex (relatively). You can do a lot with spells, the skill system is wide open for customization, but the rules governing them are fairly simple. Rock paper scissors is neither deep nor complex. The board game Life is relatively complex but has no depth (you only spin the wheel, with no real choices).

Best Answer

Burning Wheel

The Burning Wheel has an in-depth and involved subsystem for melee combat. Its main features are:

  • Double-blind decision-making. Both sides secretly choose a series of actions like Strike, Block, Counterstrike, Feint, and Lock; these are then executed simultaneously. Players (including the GM) have to plan ahead using incomplete information.
  • System mastery is focused on in-play tactics. Making a combat character doesn't really involve any tricky stuff in character generation. Most of the challenge is in choosing the right maneuvers in play. The system has a basic attack/defend flow but also strongly rewards effective use of risky special actions like feinting, beats, or grappling.
  • Abstract positioning. There's no battle grid, but the rules take weapon length and footwork into account in the form of vying for advantage.
  • Brutal wound system. Injuries are nasty. They incapacitate characters rapidly. Healing up successfully afterward requires time and skilled help.
  • Relatively low lethality. Injuries are nasty but the game is designed with ways to avoid outright death.
  • Equipment matters. The game doesn't have a lot of magical gear, but having the right tools for the job is important. Just having a high Knives skill isn't enough for your quick-witted sneak-thief to kill a fully-armored knight in straight-up combat; you need to use tricks to overcome his defenses.
  • Easy math. You don't have to do nearly as much bonus-counting as a typical D20 game. It's all roll-and-compare dice pools and a bit of single-digit arithmetic to find margins of victory. Combat does tend to involve some reference and research, but the number-wrangling side of it is pretty simple.
  • Heroic metagame currency. Players get points that they can use to boost individual rolls or mitigate failure.

The Fight subsystem caters to one-on-one face-offs. Generally if a whole group of PCs is fighting, we break down the fight into smaller individual scenes (think about the action sequences in the Lord of the Rings movies, for example).

BW has similar in-depth systems for ranged combat (more group-oriented) and social confrontations as well. It also supports robust one-roll resolution for all these sorts of scenes, so you're never forced to use the complex subsystems. Generally groups only use the detailed rules when they want to "zoom in" on a scene because there's a lot on the line.

The game's general mechanics focus on character-driven dramatic stories. It supports quasi-historical medieval fantasy and Tolkien-esque fantasy well "out of the box."

Character creation uses a lifepath system. Advancement is tied to using skills and abilities in-game; the group also awards characters special traits and reputations based on narrative accomplishments.

The Riddle of Steel

The Riddle of Steel is a fairly similar system created by historical swordfighting enthusiasts. Many of the bullet points above apply to its melee system as well, with two main exceptions:

  • Straight-up lethal. The wounds are brutal and nasty wounds do just lead to death.
  • Always-on bonuses instead of points you can spend. If a fight relates to your Passion, the bonus is applicable to the whole fight.

Its double-blind action system is a bit simpler and more direct than BW's "scripting," which tends to make for quicker play (at least if you have the fan-made wound charts that simplify look-up).

The outside-of-combat mechanics are less polished than the Burning Wheel's, however. The main book sketches out a setting inspired by a mix of sources, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and sword-and-sorcery fiction.

Character creation is point-buy for skills and stats, with players ranking several categories in order of priority to determine how many points you get for each. Advancement is point-based like WoD but requires temporarily spending down your motivations.

The game is currently way, way out of print, but fans recently introduced a "successor" game, Blade of the Iron Throne.