Fantasy System Customization

Questioning BoyToday I come to you asking for help. I am trying to find a system that matches requirements for a certain type of play style that arose out of a conversation I got involved in yesterday. I was asked recently by an American friend to investigate games based on customizability. There was a large discussion about the systems we know about and I think he shaped precisely what he wanted from that discussion. We talked Pathfinder a little and I lamented about the one thing I don’t really love about the system that was introduced with D&D 3rd Edition and that is Feats.

What my friend is wanting to do is find a game where he can take an off the rack class (say a fighter) and through options of customization, turn him into a stalwart defender so to speak. Or it might be he wants a rogue that customizes to become an excellent burglar. Just the ability to take an off the rank archetype and make it your own. I talked a bit about feats as they were topical at the time I joined the conversation and I stated how I really did not like them. Feats as a tool for customizability are good but they make the rules systems intricate and complex.

I have been watching a person on Google Plus (Keith J Davies) who is currently trying to model the feats and their dependencies in UML (maybe, but definitely some kind of flow chart) and he is coming up with some intensely complicated diagrams. These diagrams are just for the requirements too! Let us hope he doesn’t try to model the effects also! From a GM perspective, feats are a nightmare as there are hundreds of them and they all essentially change, tweak or break the rules in some way. In an ideal world the players would all know their own feats but I get asked at least once a game what a feat does. Not to mention the NPC feats and monster feats that you have to be across to utilize your opponents well.

OK, feat rant over. They are good for customization but they introduce a massive bloat in complication. Once we had reached this point in our discussion we started to look more broadly at the customizability of other games. D&D Next was looked at favorably apart from the removal of the skill system introduced also in 3rd Edition D&D which we thought limited the customization of a character. Instead the system relies on a very poor amount of proficiencies (taking it back to similar to first and second editions). Dragon Age was mentioned as a possible option though we do not like the proprietary feel of the system. Exalted came up and was looked at favorably but the “charms” it uses create new rules and thus has the same problem as Pathfinder with every “charm” offering more complexity to the game.

So what I guess we are looking for is a fantasy system that does the following things;

  • offers a healthy level of character customization so you can build different characters from the one archetype;
  • contains a skill system that is variable (i.e. not a binary system of you know it or you don’t, but a system that offers levels of understanding)
  • customization mechanics need to build off present rules so that the effects only modify what any character can already do
  • customization options must not be “overly” extensive (i.e. there can’t be so many that the games complication outweighs its usability); and
  • it has to be a game with a certain amount of “crunch” value (where “crunch” means a robust rules set and the game is not considered rules-lite)

This is a challenge that I put out to you all dear players and GM’s of the interwebs. We all have our favorite systems (and despite my rant about Pathfinder feats it is still one of my favorites) and I am hoping that for some of you the points above may be ringing true. There are a lot of fantasy systems out there and hopefully one will fit the bill. Do you feel the game that you play meets those dot points? Does the game you play fit the points because you house ruled it? Do you feel that these points would represent a game you would like to try or do you not value customization in a game? Please help us out and share your systems with me that you think will meet our needs. Until next week, keep rolling.

Mark Knights is  39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

9 thoughts on “Fantasy System Customization

  1. Check out Dungeonslayers. It’s a short (and free) ruleset, but I wouldn’t call it rules lite. Note: I am a rules light sort of fellow though, so tastes may vary. DS makes use of talents (which are basically feats without the bloat), a non-binary skill system, and hero classes that characters can choose at 10th level to go on top of their base classes.

  2. I’m going to recommend 13th Age here, it ticks all the boxes. When you make a character it’s all about customisation from the top down. The skill system is hands down my favourite implementation, and the level of customisation is limitless.

    • I second the suggestion to check out 13th Age. I’ve come to love the system, and I think it meets the needs that you bulleted out.

      Another system that comes to mind, although quite different from d20-based systems, is Savage Worlds, and the Hellfrost fantasy setting based on the Savage Worlds engine, in particular.

  3. I’ll plug my own system, Zounds! (part of the SFX! game line), available for free at It’s all about customization, while remaining streamlined. Actually one of the complaints I’ve heard is that it’s too customizable, and sometimes you just want to pick a character and go… one thing is it might not be crunchy enough for your taste. Or at least at first glance it falls towards the rules-light end of things, but once you get into it you find that “fluff” is not cosmetic in play (it has mechanical consequences) and you can go pretty far once you start applying advantages and disadvantages to abilities E.g. by applying the Requires Equipment disadvantage to a defense “Like a Tank” and getting some heavy armor you can make a fighter who’s significantly tougher than normal to put down when armored up, but much less capable when caught unarmored and vulnerable to things like nets and webs.

  4. Take a look at Fantasy Hero. I think it meets all your requirements. Haven’t played it in a long time though. But it’s still around. On it’s 6th edition now. My only complaint is the spells are kind of boring compared to D&D. But we had fun with it. In the end, we went back to D&D for nostalgia.

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