High crunch for players, low crunch for the GM

Looking for some system advice from the hive mind. This is mostly academical right now, as I’m not actually looking to bring a new system to the table in the near term. But I’m always on the hunt for the holy grail…

Which system would you recommend that caters to tactically minded players that enjoy crunch (combat, character advancement, etc.), while being as straightforward as possible for the GM to prep and run?

Criteria:

  • Fantasy genre
  • Tactical combat
  • Overall, skews towards traditional RPG, rather than story game
  • Significant player choices at character creation, as well as during advancement (many “builds”)
  • Reasonably easy to run for the GM (not too many “fiddly bits”)
  • Simple and concise monster stat blocks, both for quick and easy monster creation during prep, as well as usability at the table (minimize flipping back and forth between stat blocks and rules)
  • Bonus: Online tools for character generation or rules lookup
  • Bonus: VTT support, preferably for Foundry

The closest match in my collection that I can think of is Shadow of the Demon Lord. This gives player a lot of options via its path based advancement system, while keeping things pretty simple for the GM (streamlined mechanics such as boons & banes, fast & slow turns instead of tracking initiative, etc.). Monster stats are pretty straightforward, especially since there are no skills or saving throws. Some monsters do have spells, though, which requires familiarity and/or flipping through the book. There are also nice options to use either grid-based combat or simplify things further with zones.

My ideal game would be pretty close to this, but even simpler monster stats, and with better tool support. E.g. getting all these SotDL monsters entered into Foundry would be a pretty big lift, and I’m not holding my breath for any official Foundry support from Schwalb.

In terms of monster stats, my favorite example is DCC. The stats are extremely concise, because they’re asymmetrical from player stats and rules. No attributes, just the 3 saves, hp, attacks, etc. Monsters typically don’t use full spell rules, but rather concisely list any special abilities inline. But while it’s one of my favorite systems overall, it doesn’t offer the kind of choice during player creation and advancement that I’m looking for in this post.

Most of the systems I own and have flipped through either don’t offer sufficient tactical or character crunch (e.g. DCC and most OSR games, Forbidden Lands) or aren’t especially streamlined for GMs (e.g. Savage Worlds, D&D 5e, Pathfinder, Zweihaender, The Dark Eye) - to be clear, I enjoy a lot of those systems, but they’re not what I’m looking for in this post.

Monster stats in WFRP 4e look quite streamlined, and I know the path based system offers a lot of character options and crunch. But (not having read the rules yet), I believe it’s not exactly a streamlined experience for GMs (I do love me some Warhammer, though!). Will need to take a closer look.

I’m also not very familiar with the 2d20 system (e.g. Conan) or Cypher (e.g. Numenera). I get the sense that Cypher could check this box quite nicely, but don’t know enough about it. The monster stats look quite simple, but surprisingly verbose.

What system would you recommend that matches these criteria? Also feel free to offer alternative opinions on the systems I’ve already mentioned, as my experience with some of them is very small.

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Alright, I’ll try to cover the Conan corner.

Fantasy genre. Well, to be clear, and it goes without saying, that it’s specifically human-centric, “low” fantasy.

Tactical combat. Okay, you get PLENTY of this. If you read just the core mechanic, you (like I did, and many others) perhaps may get the impression that Conan 2d20 is “rules lite.” But, after you add Momentum spends and Standard and Minor Actions and various Skill Talents to that core mechanic, man oh man you’ll be having hour-long fights. In fact, right now I’m in a Conan game and our current boss fight has gone on now, I think, for almost two hours.

Overall, skews towards traditional RPG, rather than story game. I think so. It’s Conan. What’s in the box is what’s on the cover. But it also embraces mechanics that encourage pulp action storytelling. The GM uses a resource called Doom to try to sculpt the rise and fall of the action, to justify narrative elements that would just be cool in the moment. Similarly, PCs can use their Fortune Points to intrude some narrative elements, but I don’t see this option get used too much. This Fortune use needs GM approval, anyway.

Significant player choices at character creation, as well as during advancement (many “builds”). Oh, yes. If you have Power Gamers, this game is broke right out of the box. Character creation offers random tables for nearly every part of character creation, and I suggest making use of some of those. XP during campaign play can be spent on Attribute increases, Skill increases (two types: Expertise and Focus), and Skill Talent trees.

Reasonably easy to run for the GM (not too many “fiddly bits”). If your players know the game and know what is on their character sheets, then I say yes. But player competence is always the ideal, right? My group is pretty competent with the rules system, and yet we often are looking up rules, cross-referencing, and puzzling out ambiguities. (If you have any rules lawyers, court is definitely in session with this one!) But I will say this: when I GM, I need very little prep. I’m ready to go in a moment (all I need is a plot and a guesstimate of what NPC abilities may be), but the game execution can get pretty nitty-gritty. Almost zero cognitive load on the GM’s part, lots of tactical action at the table.

Simple and concise monster stat blocks…. As above.

Online tools for character generation or rules lookup. No SRD. BUT, the character generator at Modiphius is super sweet! I use it all the time.

VTT support, preferably for Foundry. A Conan system is available for a cost at/with Fantasy Grounds. The system package has a lot of complaints, and it doesn’t seem to have a lot of support. One currently is in construction for Foundry, community built and sanctioned by Modiphius, expected to be available in January (I’m eagerly awaiting it for myself). At release, it’s expected to be pretty minimalistic, but should have a lot of support in response to user recommendations.

https://conan.modiphiusapps.hostinguk.org/

Sample monster stats.

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Also, you mention Zweihander, so I have to ask: Have you any interest in a Rolemaster system (it’s also d100, shares similarities to WFR)? If so, I have to plug Against the Darkmaster. After all, I’m credited as a playtester. :slight_smile: I’m probably going to start a AtDM campaign pretty soon here.

https://www.vsdarkmaster.com/

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These kinds of games generally aren’t my bag and my advice probably isn’t worth the electrons I’m wasting posting this, but I personally would look hard at Low Fantasy Gaming, Numenera, Forbidden Lands, King of Dungeons, Everywhen (based on Barbarians of Lemuria), Savage Worlds, and Symbaroum. Certainly agree that both SotDL and the 2d20 games also probably lead the way here – and remember that Schwalb is coming out with a new fantasy take that doesn’t include Hateful Defecation and other Demon Lord favorites…

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Thanks for the insights on Conan!

This definitely feels worth a look. Mechanics to encourage pulp action storytelling sounds great. I picked up the recent Humble Bundle, so I have a ton of Conan PDFs now (I’m slightly intimidated by how many there are, but realize they’re all optional). The monster stats look easy to read, but not exactly concise. There are quite a few numbers. Have you found it pretty straightforward to create new monsters?

FWIW, while upcoming Foundry ruleset support sounds like a good start (and I am really glad there is such an active developer community), I feel that without official backing by the publisher, these kinds of rulesets only get you halfway there. There tends to be a lot of work left for each GM to enter the actual content of the game (classes, items, spells, monsters, etc.). For example, I couldn’t imagine running D&D 5e in Foundry without the modules that import content from D&D Beyond.

Regarding Rolemaster:
I know very little about the system, or about Against the Darkmaster. I think I played a tiny bit of MERP back in the late 80s, but don’t remember much about it. But in general, I’ll play any system at least once, and especially if it’s something off the beaten d20 path. I probably wouldn’t commit to a long-running campaign right now, but in case you ever run a one-shot or an episodic campaign, I’d be interested in giving it a shot. Same goes for Conan. :slight_smile:

Yep, this is exactly what we’ll be getting from Foundry.

I’ll be offering one-shots of Conan 2d20 for the G&BS community as soon as I have the System for Foundry (and spend all that time plugging in the work :slight_smile:). I’ll let you know.

And sorry I wasn’t clear, but I have another group in mind for AtDM. I’d be surprised, actually, if anyone around here wanted to play that, and wanted to play a whole campaign! Ha ha!

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Thanks for the pointers!

Low Fantasy Gaming is on my list to check out; don’t own it yet. I have Barbarians of Lemuria, and based on a skim this might come fairly close (stat blocks look very simple at least). I need to check out Numenera for sure. Savage Worlds (which I ran very briefly a few years ago) doesn’t quite seem to check these particular boxes, as the GM experience is symmetrical to the player experience - the stat blocks have skills and everything. Symbaroum seems similar. Forbidden Lands (and other Year Zero games) don’t seem to offer the kind of character builds, tactics, and advancement I’m going for here, but I’ll have to take another look.

And yes, definitely looking forward to Schwalb’s next SotDL based game. I own Punkapocalyptic as well, but haven’t really felt drawn towards it yet.

Ah, never mind then. :slight_smile:

Yeah, you’re going for a sliver of a Venn diagram here; there are loads of games I can recommend that represent opposition simply, but almost none of them offer tactical crunch and/or tons of player build options. For the record, Savage Worlds can be hacked super easily to make the opposition simpler to construct, but yeah, RAW, oof.
In the end, run The Black Hack and tell your players to buck up and get with the program! =]

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Yeah, I know. :slight_smile:

I’m mostly curious how far this kind of design could be pushed if it was a deliberate goal for a game system, and if any games have taken innovative steps in this direction.

Lots of games represent foes with a single number, die, or small dice pool. In The Black Hack, which had a specific design goal of simplifying stat blocks, the monster hit die (1-10) determines both the usual range of hit points, but also the damage done. For enemies you don’t care much about, they become:

Brigand
HD1 HP4 Damage 1d4

If you want to specify things a little more carefully, you can. An official block looks like:

image

This tells you what attribute to test to avoid damage from them, lists static damage, and one ability to give them a little flavor.

Games like Fate, Cortex, the new Sentinels Comics RPG – they have opposition that can be modeled with a single number, or a die. I’m sure there are many others, but it’s late and I’m tired. :slight_smile:

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Yes, games like The Black Hack perfectly achieve the GM side simplicity I’m looking for (though I wouldn’t mind rolling dice). But they don’t offer much in terms of player side crunch and advancement options.

I realize these two goals are hard to reconcile, hence this mostly academical exercise. I’m just curious if a game could be achieved that has such simple monster stats that it leaves most of the details to the GM to improv (perhaps just based on an overall sense of magnitude of the monster’s attacks and such, but without having to spell everything out in detail, look up spells, etc.), but still gives players all those detailed options - and somehow still feels balanced and “fair” for players looking for combat as sport.

Perhaps there’s an empty niche worth exploring here. Or perhaps this is just a stupid idea. :slight_smile:

Have you looked into the Cypher System by Monte Cook Games? There is definitely more crunch on the player’s side but overall a fairly light system. The players handle most of the dice rolling.

EDIT: Apologies! You said traditional fantasy. :slight_smile:

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Ha ha, yeah, I started mentioning AtDM before I recognized that he thought stuff like Zweihander is too much.

But I don’t think you’re wrong. Cypher does fantasy.

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Yes, Cypher feels like it might be close. I’ll have to take a look at it.

However, I believe that’s just the generic game system, without all the content for a full fantasy setting (spells, monsters, etc.). Of course, there’s Numenera, but I’m not really drawn towards that setting.

Monte Cook has 2 fantasy settings it supports using the Cypher System (not including Numenera), Godforsaken and Gods of the Fall.

Godforsaken, a high fantasy “build your own” setting.

"Dragons. Magic wands. Singing swords and flying carpets. And above all—heroes!
"What fantasy worlds inspire you? The classic high fantasy of Tolkien, Zelazny, or Jordan? Modern fantasy like the Harry Potter series, The Dresden Files, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Paranormal romance? The whimsy of settings like Discworld or The Dark Crystal? Wuxia, swords and sorcery, or gritty, low-magic settings?
"Fantasy—tales of heroes, monsters, and magic—is arguably the oldest genre of human fiction. It’s also the genre that first inspired us to step into imaginary worlds through roleplaying games, and it remains the most popular type of RPG setting. Godforsaken takes the Cypher System on a deep dive into the infinite variety of fantasy realms, with rules, character options, gear, and a complete, ready-to-use setting that makes the most of the fantasy genre.
" Whatever fantasy setting you envision, the Cypher System can take you there. Godforsaken includes:

  • Rules for treasure, traps, magic, and other topics particular to fantasy gaming.
  • New playable species, along with new foci, guidelines for adapting existing foci to fantasy use, and advice for building common fantasy character types in the Cypher System.
  • Dozens of fantasy creatures and NPCs, including the basilisk, lich, manticore, elementals, wyvern, and more. Plus scores of new cyphers and artifacts.
  • Discussion of the many varieties and subgenres of fantasy, along with resources for inspiration.
  • The complete Godforsaken setting. Characters seek glory and wealth as they venture into the Godforsaken Lands, leaving behind the protection and blessings of their gods—but there is more to these dimensions than they can possibly be prepared for.
  • Two full-length adventures for use in the Godforsaken setting or your own campaign, plus three Cypher Shorts."

Gods of the Fall is a full setting:
"There was a time when gods walked the world. Their magic pervaded the earth and the sky. From their mystical realm of Elanehtar, they brought plenty and pestilence. They judged the living and the dead. Their rule was absolute.
"Then Elanehtar fell to earth like a vengeful star, sparking cataclysm and plunging the world into a dark age. The gods are gone, but their works remain—scattered and broken. The world struggles under the yoke of murder, slavery, and corruption. Dark things have squirmed free of their divine prisons, and even the afterlife has become a realm of nightmares.
"But a power has awoken against the darkness. A divine spark struck in the hearts of new gods-in-the-making. You have this spark—the seed of godhood within you. Can you restore what was broken before the world vanishes forever into darkness? Can you claim a place for yourself in the heavens?
" This book includes:

  • A complete, ready-to-play fantasy game world for the Cypher System, with a detailed history, new races, dozens of unique locations, and an array of celestial powers to choose from.
  • New creatures and NPCs, including the monstrous Hellmaw, guardian of the afterlife; seraphs, metallic servants of the divine; and ravers, the reanimated husks of dead gods.
  • Rules for growing your character from adventurer to god. Find your spark, choose your dominion, face divine challenges and labors, and fulfill prophecy to create a new pantheon."
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Ah, thanks for the pointers! I had poked around for something like this but apparently failed my investigation check. :slight_smile:

Out of these two, Godforsaken sounds most interesting to me. Will check it out!

No problem! I hope you find something you enjoy. :smiley:

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Many good points above. One caution on VTT systems. They are great and do cool things, but I find that when they go sideways its crazy frustrating. They are helpful, but not easy or without issues. HOWEVER, this will not be the case for many of you are computer savvy. Unlike me, a middle age Luddite art major.

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Totally fair point. While I consider myself tech savvy and enjoy fiddling with this kind of stuff, I also feel that oftentimes, less is more.

For example, when I run DCC, I typically just use a voice/video service like Discord, regular character sheets (or Google Sheets), and I either paste occasional map snippets into the chat or, in some cases, screen share a map I made in Google Slides. But I also run DCC combat theater of the mind, so I haven’t needed a battlemap and tokens (and thus a VTT).

For some quick & dirty map and minis action, I’d likely just use https://www.owlbear.rodeo/. But for something more complex like 5e, I appreciate tool support around character creation, combat tracking, rules and monster lookup, etc. But yes, you can totally get by without a VTT and have an awesome time.