[RPG] Which system to support a grim world of low fantasy?

campaign-settingsgame-recommendation

Looking for a system that would be able to support gaming in a setting of medieval-ish, raw and muddy themes (if I were to pick an example, the setting of The Witcher series would come in close). These would be my requirements for the system:

  • low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent)
  • grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)
  • classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)
  • mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such – keeping it human)
  • rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)
  • customization-friendly (as in keeping the system a bit abstract and flexible – i.e. not swaying into too much simulationism and specifics, in the Riddle of Steel sense)

Preferably (but not necessarily), also:

  • dice pool resolution mechanics
  • level-less system (a point-buy system would be desired – as in taking certain points of experience for enemies defeated and/or quests solved, and spending these points on the go / whenever one feels like it)
  • rich on thievery (sneakin', stabbin', stealin', shootin' … but still, I may be able to house-rule these features into the system myself)

No opinion about:

  • Combat grid / map

If you want examples of settings/themes that may fit well with the aforementioned requirements, he re you go: Thieves World, Thief, Ironclad, The 1982's Conan (not interested in that Riddle of Steel system, though), The Witcher (this trailer gets the theme right, although Geralt is way too good when it come to fighting).

Best Answer

I'd heartily recommend Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay (WFRP), 2nd edition. (It's not the most recent edition of the game, but it's the one I have experience with, and I'm pretty sure you can get a copy of it even these days.)

Let's see how it meets your requirements:

  • low fantasy (where magic is very rare or virtually non-existent) +
    grim theme (dirty, gloomy, death on every corner)

    Let me quote the game's description from its rpg.drivethrustuff page:

    In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, you are unlikely heroes in a grim world of perilous adventure. You venture into the dark corners of the Empire and deal with the threats that others cannot or will not face. You'll probably die alone in some festering hellhole, but maybe, just maybe, you'll survive foul Mutants, horrible diseases, insidious plots, and sanity-blasting rituals to reap Fate's rewards.

    Wikipedia says the following:

    The primary setting of WFRP is the Empire, a region of the Old World based loosely on the Holy Roman Empire, with a number of baronies, counties and dukedoms fashioned after the fiefs of elector counts and dukes. Other prominent regions include Bretonnia, based on medieval France with strong Arthurian mythology themes; Kislev, based on medieval Poland and Imperial Russia; and the Wasteland, whose sole city of Marienburg is based on the Low Countries. (...) While the setting of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay shares traits, such as the existence of elves and goblins, with other popular fantasy settings, it is chronologically set slightly later than that of many fantasy games – close to the early Renaissance era in terms of technology and society. Firearms are readily available, though expensive and unreliable, and a growing mercantile middle class challenges the supremacy of the nobility.

    As for magic, it is rare and very dangerous... to its practicioners as well, considering that its source is the very same thing - Chaos - that's intent on unraveling order in the world. Magic users - unless they come from one of the imperial institutions that train and indoctrinate them (and sometimes even so) - are feared and hunted. (Note, please, that the videogame adaptations of the franchise feature a lot more magic than the pnp game does. Do not base your view of the game's magic-richness on what you may find googling Warhammer videogames.)

  • classless system (i.e. letting the player construct their own characters)

    from Wikipedia:

    A central feature of all published editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is the career system. Characters advance by entering a series of careers that provide access to a series of new or improved skills and bonuses to attributes (called "advances"). The selection of careers available to characters reflects the late medieval/early Renaissance setting of the Old World. Basic careers might be filled by any individual with a modest amount of training or instruction. Advanced careers require greater preparation and training, and, particularly in later editions, tend to be more appropriate to the lifestyle of an active adventurer. The career system gives an idea of what a character might have been doing either before embarking on a career as an adventurer (working as a baker, night watchman, rat catcher, or farmer) or as an ongoing occupation during and between adventures (thief, ranger, wizard's apprentice, druid), as well as how the character has changed and developed through their career (becoming a mercenary, explorer, or ship's captain).

    ...so, the system is somewhere between classless and classed. You could say (I think) that it has a... very modular class system - so modular that it's practically classless. And of course with practice and experience, you, the GM could easily build a completely classless version of it. But the careers, tailored to the world and the setting, are an excellent tool for story-building and character+world integration, and I wouldn't dismiss them, especially knowing from experience how much freedom they allow compared to what D&D has to offer, for example.

  • mundane, NOT heroic (i.e. not letting the players become some demigods and such - keeping it human)

    See above. In my experience, WFRP is one of the most mundane fantasy rpgs out there. It's like Call of Cthulhu meets medieval fantasy (almost literally.)

  • rich in combat and tactics (as in putting together a custom set of armor with its pros and cons, choosing a specific weapon with its pros and cons (speed, reach, style, types of damage), smithing and crafting, learning combat moves and such)

    Considering that the game's roots go back to one of the most popular wargames ever, combat and tactics are an inherent part of the game. Sure, the system is simple and designed for quick (and grim and dirty) conflict resolution, it's open to customization, and you're free to emphasize aspects you find interesting. You could even decide to widen your reach and start playing out certain battles in the wargame version of the game... but beware, that's a costly move. Warhammer, the tabletop battle game (with its miniatures and such) is quite an expensive hobby. And you might even fall in love with it... :D

  • customization-friendly

    See above. :)

  • dice pool resolution mechanics

    This is a point where my answer fails your requirements. WFRP, for the most part, uses a simple percentage dice.

  • level-less system

    See above, under "classless system".

  • rich on thievery (sneakin', stabbin', stealin', shootin' ... but still, I may be able to house-rule these features into the system myself)

    It's there. But if what you find in there isn't enough for you, you can easily add more. The percentage-based skill-system is very, very friendly in this regard. In fact, when we last played WFRP, the computer game called "Thief III: Deadly Shadows" - from the franchise you yourself have mentioned - was one of our main inspirations: we aimed to recreate the atmosphere and feel of that game - and I'd like to think that we succeeded. WFRP and Thief can be quite similar.