My players love to create character builds in crunchy games that provide a lot of options for character customisation.
(The main drawback one of them saw to Pathfinder 2E was that there weren’t enough option when “only” three supplements had released, and, given the chance, he would play with enthusiasm in a Pathfinder 1E game.)
As a GM, I can appreciate crunch, but purposeful one; & while I have liked the time I spent playing it, Pathfinder 2E and its streamlined, but numerous rules have overstayed their welcome for a while behind my screen.
I want to get my players to try new things, and – more importantly – I want to GM new things.
So, I’m reaching out & asking around. What games would you advise someone to play if they wanted to avoid Pathfinder-level crunch, but still provided players with the pleasure of customisation in a limited framework?
P.S.: I use the term “limited framework” because my players weren’t interested in the more freeform customisation of something like Whitehack when I told them about it. P.P.S.: Shadow of the Demon Lord feels like it could do the trick, but I want to know if there are any other well-regarded options to go around.
Maybe a GLOG, as that was initially created by a Pathfinder/3e player discovering the Principle/Manifesto side of the OSR.
The GLOG ecosystem is massive and I am not really an insider, so someone else is probably able to recommend a particular take on it. But one of the features of many of these systems is to have four “templates” to a class, so it provides a very limited almost E6-ish kind of customization as the game is played.
I’d second the GLOG, it can take a bit of effort to adapt an existing version to your world, but it should fit the bill.
Most GLOG systems I’ve seen only give PCs new class templates up to level 4, but I’ve allowed additional class templates on even numbered levels after level 4, and that didn’t seem to break anything.
An approach I’ve seen and adopted for playing Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition might work: start with one of these big games with a ton of options, but then agree beforehand to use only a limited set of them (only certain classes, only certain species, only certain extra books for powers etc). The choices of which options are available can even tie into the world building aspect of the game and you can use the choices to support a desired aesthetic as well. You still have opportunities for customization, but it’s focused rather than sprawling and is easier for me (as a DM) to wrap my head around.
I’ll second Shadow of the Demon Lord, which is meant to support “descriptive” character-building, though it also invites its share of prescriptive build planning.
I am currently working on a thing to address this exact desire, but in the interest of not just turning this into a “plug my own work” post, I’ll describe what I thought would be a good solution:
Remove all classes and starting abilities. Maybe have a roll or pick “starting profession” sort of thing just to give players some small element of individuality that could affect play. Starting inventory packages are very helpful here because they suggest a background without constricting future play. Tie things like health, attack progression, etc. to some level-oriented formula or even just have a single universal table.
Take the abilities you would like to see appear in your game. Atomize them – find the smallest unit that feels like a single identifiable technique that could be learned or discovered. Seed these as things that can be found in the world. Make the ways they’re discovered more like “I found a martial arts master” or “I found this intriguing scroll” and less Elder Scrollsy “I swung a stick 100 times and now have +1 in stick-swinging.” The latter can work, mind you, but is more tracking than I think a lot of GMs want to deal with.
Come up with a way to limit how many of these things the players can take advantage of if they discover them. It could simply be money and time, but may more easily be “slots” they fill or items they carry. Having downtime phases or other manner of not just immediately jumping from adventure to adventure is key to this. Give the campaign some breathing space between adventures so players can feel like their characters can pursue these interests between expeditions.
I think with this method, the game would allow players to actually describe their characters using mechanical bits and bobs rather than feel plan them in advance. Note, I’m not writing this post as an indictment of planning character builds and such. People clearly like that and more power to 'em! But I also think there is room in the D&D-adjacent design space for mechanics that let characters feel very individual without asking them to plan out in advance that their warrior will one day become a witch or something. Hopefully this is helpful for your goals!
Honestly, the godfather of all customizable character games is GURPS. It’s setting neutral and extremely customizable. If you undertake to learn it, I’m happy to help orient you. Your players may be just the ones for this system. There is a GURPS Lite free pdf that gives the gist of it, but nothing matches the hundreds of world- and setting-books full of customizable rules.
Fantasy game worlds were the first ones used with GURPS. There’s also Dungeon Fantasy, which is a sort of minimal “front-end” for the crunch of the GURPS system, somewhat high-powered for my taste but emulated “old-school” fantasy endeavors.
Yeah, somebody tried to get me to pitch that thing on my blog, but I haven’t even read it. Honestly, the old editions of GURPS were the original “Delvers to Grow” kits. Good old days with 100-point characters, not these modern new-fangled 250-point characters and all those powers… grumble grumble.
You don’t have to find a middle-ground, you can run a one-shot of whatever you’re excited to try right away. For example: “Hey, I need a break from Pathfinder, so I’m going to be running a one-shot of [System] for you guys this week. It’s pretty different, so I’m not asking any of you to commit to a second session if you end up disliking it, but if we all keep an open mind I think it’ll be a fun change of pace.”