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What fantasy system and setting should I try?

(cue Huey Lewis...)

What I'm looking for, in rules & setting & campaign:
  1. Low magic, in the sense that by design casters are either rare as PCs, or even exclusive to NPCs, and magic items are special/rare.
  2. Low-to-medium crunch. I lean toward fewer rules but with complex implications/interactions.
  3. Flat-ish progression. Low level characters can adventure with high level characters. What's the opposite of "zero to hero"? Whatever it is, that.
  4. Un-exotic: no flying ships, planar travel, floating cities, or tons of exotic races to choose from ("humans only" would be fine). And absolutely none of that steampunk crap that seems to be infesting the whole genre.
  5. Save the Village, not the World: I'm also pretty tired of every adventure path being a race to save the world from destruction. It's fine if there's a Sauron out there, but the players shouldn't be setting out at 1st level to defeat him.
  6. Suspense and fear.

Things I do like:
  • Trudvang, thematically. (I'm just not familiar with the rule system). Viking-inspired games in general I'm finding appealing.
  • The dice mechanic in The One Ring (one roll, but with various grades of outcome)
  • Dungeon World mechanics/classes. (I just struggle with the overall Dungeon World playstyle, which requires a lot of improvisation.)
  • Straightforward dungeon crawls

But other than that, whatever. I'm not picky. :)
 

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TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
I would suggest two games: Forbidden Lands and Symbaroum. Both are by Free League Publishing.

Forbidden Lands
This is Free League's response to the OSR movement.
  1. It's lowish magic. There's casters classes, but you don't cast a ton of spells and their pretty impactful. There's few magic items, but they're quite potent (artifacts).
  2. The game is low crunch. But there's a big side-management side to the game. Tracking ressources, tracking raw materials, tracking some conditions. You can have a mount and a stronghold, you have to track your hirelings salary, etc. If you decide not to play with Strongholds and just do the adventurers running around, it seriously reduces the amount of work.
  3. There's three elements tied to your character: his attributes (strength, agility, etc), his skills (melee, move, craft, etc) and your talents (something resembling feats). Your attributes will never increase. Your skills increase and you can get new talents as you spend experience you accumulate. But you do not become excessively powerful. There's no challenge rating system because lower-end monsters will end up being easier to manage but will always be a threat and higher-end monster will become more manageable but will always be a serious threat.
  4. The elevator pitch is that the region known as the Ravenlands was covered by something known as the bloodmist for 300 years. People couldn't get really far from their villages as the bloodmist would reappear every night and kill anyone in it. Unexplicably, five years ago, the mist lifted. The whole ravenlands are ripe for exploring. There's ruins, hidden treasures. But there's no big cities, very little trade. There's only specks of villages around the map. The game is very clear about the players not being heroes but adventurers.
    Unfortunately there's exotic races but the setting is slightly human-centric.
  5. The game is slightly brutal. It gets easier as your player progresses, but there's a lot of random tables and hunger, thirst, cold and dangerous enemies. Things can quickly spiral out of control.

Symbaroum
This is an actual dark fantasy product that joined the Free League family a few years ago.
  1. Similar to Forbidden Lands. There's magic, but it's very mysterious. There's caster classes but they don't throw spells every round. And casting has a cost. There's something called corruption.
  2. The game is pretty low crunch. It has a very simple roll-under your attribute system. I was impressed by how lean the rules were (maybe even a little too lean to my taste).
  3. Similar to Forbidden Lands. There's no level, you accumulate experience and buy talents and boons. They give you abilities but you don't really progress all that much numerically. What was deadly will still be as deadly, you just have a better toolkit to manage it.
  4. The setting is locked on a limited region of the world. There's an area of plains known as the Kingdom of Ambria that's stuck between a mountain chain and a humongous dark forest known as Davokar. An old civilization known as Symbaroum used to be here and thus there's old ruins, castles and treasures to be found in the deepest parts of the forest. But there's dangerous monstrosities coming from the corruption, there's the elderfolks (elves, goblins, etc) that are really protective of their territory. Once again, you play adventurers and explorers but not heroes.
    There's exotic races, but they're pretty based and not as high-fantasy as others. The setting is also very human-centric.
  5. The game can be pretty brutal. It's marketed as a gritty dark fantasy game.
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
I'd suggest Beyond the Wall and Other Adventure.

It uses playbook like Dungeon World, uses OSR-lite rules.
Casters do not have endless cantrips, they can cast 1 spell per level per day. There's only the Mage class; no difference between divine or arcane magic. Spells do not have level, they just level with the mage himself. Then there's ritual, who are pretty long to cast, but are more. powerful (i.e Fireball is a ritual that takes 4 hours to cast, wall of stone takes 8 hours). Rituals require costly reagents that are consumed upon casting.

Its really made to play young-ish villager having sandboxy adventures around their village.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Forbidden Lands, Symbaroum, and Beyond the Wall (or it's S&S sequel, Through Sunken Lands) are all good fits for the requirements.

A lot of OSR games would fit a good amount of the requirements except for "zero-to-hero", which is pretty endemic to anything D&D derived.

For the grimmer Viking aesthetic, maybe Ironsworn?
 

MattW

Explorer
1. Pendragon.
2. Bushido (It's probably best if you can find a secondhand physical copy. But there is a scan of the game for $10 at Drivethrurpg)
3. Warhammer Fantasy
4. Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of (I haven't played this one, but it has good reviews)

Of course, there are several systems that have supplements for Medieval/Renaissance settings. GURPS, or World/Chronicles of Darkness or Call of Cthulhu might all be possible solutions to your problem.
 

pming

Legend
Hiya!

Warhammer Fantasy (1st Edition is best, imnsho, but the latest 5th (?) has some interesting bits n' bobs). This checks all your boxes.

Pendragon (as mentioned above). But its definitely got it's own "vibe" of Arthurian Classic Fantasy...which doesn't mesh well with the idea of "dungeon crawling".

Just about any Point-Buy-System (GURPS, HERO System, Masterbook, etc). These can be, obviously, used in almost any way. But it will take a lot more work to infuse your own particular "vibe" into it... generic point buy systems, without significant preliminary work on the part of the GM, feel just like their name; generic (flat, boring, grey, etc).

Oh, one more, maybe look at an old classic: Powers & Perils (early 80's fantasy RPG by Avalon Hill; you can get the full rules free, legally, here: www.powersandperils.org ). The only warning I give is this: It falls into what I termed back in the mid 80's as a "Lightbulb Moment" game. You'll start reading it, and be thoroughly confused. Parts will make sense, and others will make none. But, at some point, a lightbulb will go off over your head and all the pieces fall into place and it all makes sense. So if you persevere, keep going, it changes from a "highly complex and confusing system" into a "pretty simple system with a lot of stuff you can use or not use as-is". It's a "Low Roll is Better" system, using d100.

The P&P community are generally old farts like me, and we're mostly harmless (lack of teeth and poor eyesight and all that... ;) ), but we are friendly. Join the mailing list and ask whatever you want. Someone will typically reply more or less immediately. :)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 


Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I would take a serious look at Worlds Without Number. It works well with no magic users, has a pretty flat power curve, and is more swords and sorcery leaning than default D&D.
 

Retreater

Legend
I'm really enjoying Warhammer Fantasy at the moment and it seems to line up well with what you're describing. The Starter Set is a pretty great intro to the system if you'd like to give it a test drive.
 


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
(cue Huey Lewis...)
I know what I like?

I made a pact with a certain devil that requires me to recommend Modos 2 here. Because...
  1. Low magic, in the sense that by design casters are either rare as PCs, or even exclusive to NPCs, and magic items are special/rare.
  2. Low-to-medium crunch. I lean toward fewer rules but with complex implications/interactions.
  3. Flat-ish progression. Low level characters can adventure with high level characters. What's the opposite of "zero to hero"? Whatever it is, that.
  4. Un-exotic: no flying ships, planar travel, floating cities, or tons of exotic races to choose from ("humans only" would be fine). And absolutely none of that steampunk crap that seems to be infesting the whole genre.
  5. Save the Village, not the World: I'm also pretty tired of every adventure path being a race to save the world from destruction. It's fine if there's a Sauron out there, but the players shouldn't be setting out at 1st level to defeat him.
  6. Suspense and fear.
1. PCs can be powerful casters, but getting there requires player skill, which might make PC casters rare.
2. Low crunch: the rules cheat-sheet is just one page.
3. The major difference between low-level and high-level characters is about 8 skill points.
4. The exposition story includes most of your no-nos, yet each part taken separately is pretty mundane.
5. Setting is on the GM. I'm adapting mine to Final Fantasy IV, currently.
6. Suspense occurs with the book's encouragement of letting players narrate (what will they come up with?) and the GM's final ruling (will the players get away with it?). Fear can take a number of house-ruled forms, but the easiest is inflicting Mental or Metaphysical damage as Fear Points.
Things I do like:
  • Trudvang, thematically. (I'm just not familiar with the rule system). Viking-inspired games in general I'm finding appealing.
  • The dice mechanic in The One Ring (one roll, but with various grades of outcome)
  • Dungeon World mechanics/classes. (I just struggle with the overall Dungeon World playstyle, which requires a lot of improvisation.)
  • Straightforward dungeon crawls
  • Viking games rule! I have a copy of Raiders of the Serpent Sea (player's guide) just begging to be used as a campaign companion.
  • Modos RPG uses a die roll that determines which side gets the better outcome - not whether you succeed or fail. Outcomes can be cut-and-dried, or there can be player-GM collaboration on what the roll means.
  • Only one place to find "Dungeon World mechanics" as far as I know. That's Dungeon World.
  • Making a dungeon crawl feasible in Modos RPG is very much on the GM, because the game doesn't hand out healing, and makes getting outnumbered bad news. The easy access to dials (rules modules) means you can turn up healing rates, restrict the flow of combatants, and do what you must to make your dungeon crawl "straightforward."
 

pemerton

Legend
What I'm looking for, in rules & setting & campaign:
  1. Low magic, in the sense that by design casters are either rare as PCs, or even exclusive to NPCs, and magic items are special/rare.
  2. Low-to-medium crunch. I lean toward fewer rules but with complex implications/interactions.
  3. Flat-ish progression. Low level characters can adventure with high level characters. What's the opposite of "zero to hero"? Whatever it is, that.
  4. Un-exotic: no flying ships, planar travel, floating cities, or tons of exotic races to choose from ("humans only" would be fine). And absolutely none of that steampunk crap that seems to be infesting the whole genre.
  5. Save the Village, not the World: I'm also pretty tired of every adventure path being a race to save the world from destruction. It's fine if there's a Sauron out there, but the players shouldn't be setting out at 1st level to defeat him.
  6. Suspense and fear.
Prince Valiant ticks most of these boxes. The exception is that, by default, it does not have a lot of suspense or fear. By default it's fairly light-hearted. But I think it could be drifted that way if you wanted to.
 


Rogerd1

Explorer
Beasts and Barbarians for Savage Worlds. It is a great setting, and is one of the best Conan type settings out there, whuile doing its own thing.



Low crunch, and Savage Worlds is a heap of fun.
 

schneeland

Adventurer
Would also have recommended Forbidden Lands or Beyond the Wall, but these have been mentioned already (there's also a sword&sorcery version called Through Sunken Lands, which I have bought, but not read yet).
If you like straightforward dungeon crawls, I would recommend to give Dungeon Crawl Classics a try (basically old-school D&D on a 3e-ish game engine, with nice tweaks making magic more dangerous and a lot of good adventure modules). There is a fair bit of scifi elements in some of the adventures - depending on your preferences that might be a plus or a minus.
Finally, if you like Warhammer Fantasy, but find the rules too heavy, I would recommended given Warlock! a look - an Advanced Fighting Fantasy descendants with light-weight rules that is, in many ways, just Warhammer with serial numbers filed off.
 

(cue Huey Lewis...)

What I'm looking for, in rules & setting & campaign:
  1. Low magic,
  2. Low-to-medium crunch.
  3. Flat-ish progression. Low level characters can adventure with high level characters. What's the opposite of "zero to hero"? Whatever it is, that.
  4. Un-exotic: no flying ships, planar travel, floating cities, or tons of exotic races to choose from ("humans only" would be fine). And absolutely none of that steampunk crap that seems to be infesting the whole genre.
  5. Save the Village, not the World: I'm also pretty tired of every adventure path being a race to save the world from destruction. It's fine if there's a Sauron out there, but the players shouldn't be setting out at 1st level to defeat him.
  6. Suspense and fear.

Things I do like:
  • Trudvang, thematically. (I'm just not familiar with the rule system). Viking-inspired games in general I'm finding appealing.
  • The dice mechanic in The One Ring (one roll, but with various grades of outcome)
  • Dungeon World mechanics/classes. (I just struggle with the overall Dungeon World playstyle, which requires a lot of improvisation.)
  • Straightforward dungeon crawls

But other than that, whatever. I'm not picky. :)
Pendragon
1. Yes, low/no magic in PC hands, unless running 4th or maybe 6th edition. (6th isn't out yet and may or may not have a pc-accessible magic system). And even when aa caster in 4th does use magic, it really is "One big showdown, then go down for the count for months"
2. Stick to the core for any edition, and the crunch really is pretty low. except for economics, Book of Knights is a fully functional 32 page version of the ruleset.
3. Progression is "what you use advances" - and it's not a huge issue if the 40 YO baron is adventuring with the 18 YO just-knighted PC... as every sword and every skill matters. I'd recommend using a deck pull rather than a d20 for the family traits, tho', as that ensures each has a unique one.
4. No steampunk. No magic ships. Occasionally, a faerie as an NPC nasty.
5. It can be very local based, or can be very political, but the system to date has never had a "save the world" level threat published.
6. Doesn't have suspense as a goal, but it happens in play. Character fear is mechanicalized... a wyrm is going to make many a PC turn tail involuntarily... and sometimes, make a Player secretly happy to have failed.

It does have a couple issues to be aware of:
A. It operates almost as a licensed game would, except that the setting is multple semicompatible legends. Which leads to...
B. Historical setting complete with inherent racism. (Manifest as Hate (people) traits that can override player control of their action. There is a resistance to them - invoke a passion or trait to oppose it - but some will find that a dealbreaker. (And I don't blame them.)
C. It is, in essence, a wholly male-character focused game. It explicitly notes this, but also provides multiple options for female knights as PC's should one choose to use them.
D. Its romance rules presume traditional heterosexual romance only, as that's part of the sources, including Tristam & Yseult (Traditrional), The Mabinogwion (Traditional), Le Morte d'Artur (Mallory), Once and Future King (White), All the Kings of Britain (Nennius), and even a few touches from Lackey's Mists of Avalon series.
E. The setting is highly rigid social class-roles; you don't play peasants, nor merchants. You play knights. Or their ladies. Or their squires. All of gentle or noble birth. (Optional rules for other birthrights do exist. They're core only in 4th)
F. a secondary focus on dynastic inheritance. That is, it's a strong element that your character needs an heir so you don't lose your accumlated goodies when your character dies.
G. All charcters hold to a religion as a function of culture. Actual praxis is "offscreen" but the religious bonuses do shape play strongly.
G1. If using 4th ed magic users, the religious traits and adherence to them are a major driver for such characters. Far more so than for Knights.

If one is willing to engage with the setting, and that can include allowing female knights quite easily, either with the altered scores or with standard scores generation, possibly even both in the same group, it can be quite a compelling game.
The heterosexual characters issue is the dynasticism; non-hetero characters don't generate heirs. This can be an issue, or not, as the group decides, but it's a "faithful to the setting" default state.

The 4th ed has two alternate settings: Saxons! and Land of Giants. Both of these change the social classes up, but have many of the issues, as well, but both also make allowance for 4th ed Core's magic users as PCs.
 


Crusadius

Explorer
I was going to jump in and echo "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay!" but then I realized the 5th part of the Enemy Within Campaign that has just been released in electronic form has, on its cover, a flying ship (a dwarven dirigible to be exact) which breaks rule number 4 - "Un-exotic: no flying ships...".

So I'm going to ignore rule number 4 and suggest "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay!" anyway.
 

jdrakeh

Adventurer
(cue Huey Lewis...)

What I'm looking for, in rules & setting & campaign:
  1. Low magic, in the sense that by design casters are either rare as PCs, or even exclusive to NPCs, and magic items are special/rare.
  2. Low-to-medium crunch. I lean toward fewer rules but with complex implications/interactions.
  3. Flat-ish progression. Low level characters can adventure with high level characters. What's the opposite of "zero to hero"? Whatever it is, that.
  4. Un-exotic: no flying ships, planar travel, floating cities, or tons of exotic races to choose from ("humans only" would be fine). And absolutely none of that steampunk crap that seems to be infesting the whole genre.
  5. Save the Village, not the World: I'm also pretty tired of every adventure path being a race to save the world from destruction. It's fine if there's a Sauron out there, but the players shouldn't be setting out at 1st level to defeat him.
  6. Suspense and fear.

Things I do like:
  • Trudvang, thematically. (I'm just not familiar with the rule system). Viking-inspired games in general I'm finding appealing.
  • The dice mechanic in The One Ring (one roll, but with various grades of outcome)
  • Dungeon World mechanics/classes. (I just struggle with the overall Dungeon World playstyle, which requires a lot of improvisation.)
  • Straightforward dungeon crawls

But other than that, whatever. I'm not picky. :)

Yarnmaster Fantasy Roleplay may be for you!

1. Low magic. By default, in-setting, magic is the result of successfully petitioning a god (you must make a successful dice roll). Out of setting, the gods may not actually exist and magic practitioners are merely manifesting their own will into being.

2. Low crunch with complex interactions/implications. Yarnmaster uses a simple yet robust unified dice pool system to resolve all action/conflict, with an eye toward low crunch verisimilitude.

3. Flat progression. Characters grow via in-setting accomplishments. Accruing reputation, wealth, etc. No levels. No XP. No build points. Think fantasy Traveller.

4. No gonzo stuff (unless you add it yourself). One of Yarnmaster's two main influences was Harnmaster and it plays like it.

5. Not high fantasy by default. The ruleset is geared toward low fantasy adventure in the tradition of Harnmaster.

6. By virtue of PCs being mostly regular folk, suspense and fear are pretty easy to engender. Monsters are, by default, rare and when (if) they appear in your game, they are just that - monstrous.

Anyway, you can buy the game at the following link for the low price of $3. Or claim a community copy (it'd sure be swell if you bought it, though). :)

Yarnmaster Fantasy Roleplay by jdrakeh
 
Last edited:

Aldarc

Legend
I apologize for only now seeing this thread.

(cue Huey Lewis...)

What I'm looking for, in rules & setting & campaign:
  1. Low magic, in the sense that by design casters are either rare as PCs, or even exclusive to NPCs, and magic items are special/rare.
  2. Low-to-medium crunch. I lean toward fewer rules but with complex implications/interactions.
  3. Flat-ish progression. Low level characters can adventure with high level characters. What's the opposite of "zero to hero"? Whatever it is, that.
  4. Un-exotic: no flying ships, planar travel, floating cities, or tons of exotic races to choose from ("humans only" would be fine). And absolutely none of that steampunk crap that seems to be infesting the whole genre.
  5. Save the Village, not the World: I'm also pretty tired of every adventure path being a race to save the world from destruction. It's fine if there's a Sauron out there, but the players shouldn't be setting out at 1st level to defeat him.
  6. Suspense and fear.

Things I do like:
  • Trudvang, thematically. (I'm just not familiar with the rule system). Viking-inspired games in general I'm finding appealing.
  • The dice mechanic in The One Ring (one roll, but with various grades of outcome)
  • Dungeon World mechanics/classes. (I just struggle with the overall Dungeon World playstyle, which requires a lot of improvisation.)
  • Straightforward dungeon crawls

But other than that, whatever. I'm not picky. :)
Based on a number of these elements, I have a fairly strong recommendation to make: Stonetop.
1ced098ef4a818bd23a71de268abefe8_original.jpg


It is a Dungeon World hack that self-describes itself as "hearth fantasy." This is to say, that the game is about the human inhabitants of the vaguely Celto-Germanic Iron Age village of Stonetop and the adventures to help defend and support the growth of this village and its people. The village of Stonetop has its own playbook. As you play, the village may shrink or grow with time (e.g., seasons, years, generations, etc.) and through the successes/failures/complications of the adventurers. The village can also acquire steading improvements and upgrades (e.g., mill, inn, palisade, well-trained militia, irrigation improvements, etc.). The threats you deal with are the sort that could endanger the lives of the villagers: e.g., drought, floods, cattle-raiders, dangerous creatures (e.g., beasts, fae, spirits, monsters) of the surrounding forest, illness and plague, etc. But at the same time, there are still ancient ruins in the surrounding area to explore.

Likewise, there is still magic and magical characters (e.g., the Blessed, Lightbearer, Seeker), but it's much flatter, more subtle, and rarer. There are also a variety of "Arcana," which are strange magical artifacts and locations that the players can acquire or learn about. Interestingly enough, you can also tell by the gods and playbooks that despite this being a Dungeon World game, it clearly came out of 4e D&D: e.g., Aratis (Erathis), Tor (Thor/Kord), Helor (Helios/Pelor), the Marshal (the Warlord), the Blessed (Druid), the Heavy (Fighter), etc.

The spoiler contains Stonetop's more setting-appropriate playbooks:
e8fb845318f2eb9ef0e696d784b1b0c1_original.jpg

Despite it being (at heart) a Dungeon World game, there is also a lot of guidance and support for GMs. For examples, monsters and locations have some possible hooks, and they often have relevant questions that the GM can ask the players or think about themselves. There is useful and interesting lore about these places as well. So it comes with some support and assistance with improvisational side of things.

The game has technically not been released yet in a published form, but the author Jeremy Strandberg has released a lot of their game already for free on their blog and the Dungeon World Discord before the Kickstarter. I've seen late comers ask for access to the playtest materials and get it despite not being part of the Kickstarter.

If not this, then I would also recommend Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures, but I genuinely think that Stonetop should be a Top 3 contender for your consideration.
 

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