[RPG] Low-random, low-dice fantasy rpg system


In my endless struggle to find RPG systems which suit my style of game mastering I've made my way through endless pages of results on the RPGGeek with no avail, so once again I am going to surrender to the community knowledge.

My most successful campaign ever was run in The Riddle of Steel in a custom, alternate reality setting but there was one, rather big hitch – while the combat system is really awesome (in my opinion), the fact that I specifically DIDN'T want my players to get killed rendered it pretty useless, it's just too easy to either make the adversaries a piece of cake to defeat or to get your players dead in one unlucky roll. The more narrative style of gameplay was something I have thoroughly enjoyed though.

So, a list of my requirements:

  • Supports fantasy settings
  • Little randomization in rolls, anything bell curved is fine (classic d20, d100 are out). I want dice though, so please save the diceless systems for another question of mine in near or far future!
  • Generally non-heroic, but supporting such characters. What I mean: In DnD, you can make the game non-heroic by making it impossible for the characters to advance beyond, let's say, level 6 – this supports non-heroic gameplay by restrictions. Ideally I'd like the system to revolve around human abilities and improving them, but allowing heroic characters by giving them ridiculously high attributes.
  • Skill/stat based character development, no classes.
  • There should either be no hitpoints, or losing part of the character's hitpoints should have a negative effect on said character's performance.
  • Fast (or at least not ridiculously slow) combat without gazillion of statistics, tables and number crunching techniques.
  • It would be a nice addition if a system does not use too many rolls to resolve conflicts – again, in DnD you roll twice for an attack: first is to hit, the other roll is damage. Ideally the success of the attack roll would also determine the damage.
  • A magic system supporting generating spells on the fly would also be a nice touch but it is not required.

I want the system to improve the gameplay, not create fixed boundaries which are difficult for both the players and the GM to step out of. To quote mxyzplk: "Conan doesn't ask if he can leap up on Dagon's back and tear his horn out […] He just does it." As in, Conan doesn't have a fixed list of moves he can perform. He attempts to do whatever he wants. That's the type of gameplay I am looking for.

Now, I am generally negative towards generic systems like GURPS or FATE. That's because I have a real hard time getting into them – they have so many extensions and content that I can't wrap my head around them. If you want to suggest them, please tell me exactly WHICH books should I look into.

Best Answer

The short answer is, you want FATE. But, keeping in mind your mention of generic systems, here's why FATE works and why it won't be as bad as you think, and it's all to do with a version of FATE called Dresden Files.

Supports fantasy settings

Dresden Files takes place in an urban fantasy world. The title character is a Chicago PI who happens to also be a wizard. He regularly encounters trolls under toll bridges, vampires with submachine guns, and knight templars who also work a nine to five job during the day. But, if you want to mod it for straight up fantasy, here's what you do-

Change the name of the skill "Guns" to "Bows." Change the name of the skill "Drive" to "Ride." Ignore most of Hexing. (Magic users short out technology. A dark ages world obviously doesn't need this. Ignore any kinds of weapons that don't fit your setting. If you feel like it, rework the difficulty of Resources checks. A n d you're done. (There are probably various descriptive sections that will need to be ignored, but the system itself doesn't care about them.)

Little randomization in rolls, anything bell curved is fine (classic d20, d100 are out)

The FATE dice curve is a solid bell curve. Rolls are + or - 4, with a strong bias towards 0. Well over 50% of the time you'll be scoring within 1 point of your actual skill. But it is far from diceless- I've seen some brilliant upsets on occasion. Rolling a +4 is unlikely, but possible, and devastating when it happens.

Generally non-heroic, but supporting such characters##

Characters have aspects, skills, and refresh. But they don't have a strict relationship between each other- you could have a character with 40 skill points, 5 aspects, and 3 refresh, or 0 skill points, 10 aspects, and 15 refresh. The book recommends about 20~30 skill points, 7 aspects, and 7~10 refresh, but you can play with those numbers pretty easily. (For the record, everyone in the party should have the same numbers- just spread out differently. They're different, and balancing between them is very nontrivial.)

Skill/stat based character development, no classes

No classes here. There are templates, but those are more guidelines than anything else. And even following the templates to the letter, there's a huge degree of variation. I've played five different focused practitioners, and not one felt like a repeat.

There should either be no hitpoints, or losing part of the character's hitpoints should have a negative effect on said character's performance.

Characters have stress, which might be called hit points with no negative effects. But stress can only take one or two blows before running out, and that's when consequences come in. Each consequence carries with it a daunting -2 penalty. Remember the dice can only give you a +4 at max- two such consequences hurts. Characters can take up to 4 consequences, which go away at different rates. These can model bruises to losing a hand, depending on the severity.

Fast (or at least not ridiculously slow) combat

I roll an attack, add my skill. You roll a defense, add yours. You deal with potential damage. Sometimes I might want to maneuver instead, in which case, I roll and add my skill against a target number set by the DM. Combat is that quick. An overall fight (multiple exchanges of blows) takes longer of course- how long depends on how stiff the opposition is. Concessions (basically metagame surrenders) even allow a graceful way to end a fight prematurely if you realize you're halfway through a boss battle and the clock just struck midnight.

Does not use too many rolls to resolve conflicts

I roll, add my skill. Either you roll and add your skill or the DM sets a target number. Either side can compel or invoke aspects as they wish. (Basically saying "This aspect matters, and I'm spending a FATE point to use it." Actually, it literally is that simple.) Each aspect grants a +2 or -2 to someone's roll. You find the difference between the two numbers, and if the attacker won, damage is applied that is equal to the difference.

A magic system supporting generating spells on the fly

Hoo boy, does Dresden have you covered. Check out Rick Neal's awesome articles on some of the cool rabbits you can pull out of a hat. There is no such thing as a 'list' of spells for the game- the basic assumption of the magic system is that each spellcaster's spells will be close to unique to them. (Okay, pretty much everyone has a max-shifts single target blast spell they love, but at least the flavour is always different.)

Be Specific

Now, why is Dresden Files FATE not just some generic fourth generation FUDGE mod? Firstly, volume. Or should I say volumes- two decent sized books spelling out how everything works, how to deal with edge cases, and clarifying any possible ambiguities. It has a monster manual even, (called "Our World") at least half of which can be ported into any fantasy setting with little work. (The other half is made up of named characters from the books the game is biased on.) The thing is, working from the books may have been the best thing to happen to Dresden.

Everything in the books works, and works well, for one world. It doesn't try to be all things to all people. Thing is, it's also very self sufficient- You only need the main book ("Your Story") and dice. No knowledge of other FATE systems needed. No extensions, no errata, no knowledge of the source material needed for things to make sense, no libraries, pre-compiled binaries, or dependencies. In a word- Elegant.