about 6 years ago I got back into pen & paper RPGs with a group of like-minded friends who had been playing continuously for about 25-odd years. I'd taken a break since I was about 15 and discovered alcohol, drugs and girls, all three of which I heartily regret, but that's another story.
In the last 6 years we've played a lot of different systems - we take it in turns to DM/GM every 6-9 months or so as a campaign comes to a conclusion. We've played Call of Cthulu, Age of Conan, Serenity, AD&D4, AD&D5 "beta", a marvellous homebrewed system called KEEN (modeled on Unreal Engine combat no less), and a homebrewed system of mine called AfterEarth which I'm developing.
Before I go further here's my one paragraph musings on each of those systems:
Call of Cthulu is almost an anti-game; like it or not it frequently leaves players clueless or powerless, and the characters dead or insane. If this were the actual objective of the players that'd be fine but really it seems to be just built-in to the system to provide mirth for a malignant DM. Ours is not malignant and even he finds it extremely difficult to make the game enjoyable. CoC is like war: months of tedious preparation, waiting, fannying about, followed by 5 minutes of terror and then death. Maybe this is why it works.
AD&D3.5 is a total mess of layers upon layers of rules. There's so much in it and so little consistency it should probably be read to games designers at night to frighten them. Players of AD&D3.5 are missing the point of RPGs so widely I don't think they even realise they're not really playing RPGs but simply navigating a nightmarish land of twisted geometries and the deranged imaginings of what appears to be 100 game designers, none of whom talk to each other. We sort of looked at AD&D3.5 and we might have even played a scenario but it was so forgettable I can't even remember what it was.
AD&D4 is everything that shouldn't be in a pen & paper RPG. It's basically an online MMORPG converted into paper format. You almost need a computer to play it. It's not an RPG, it's the mechanical application of a complex and unyielding set of parameters to achieve a specific result. All online MMORPGs fall into this category. There's as much "role" playing as there is in Space Invaders. You are the commander of Earth's last defence tank! Right. I played a human wizard called Lazarus who was a humourous mash up of ineffectual megalomania (level 1 wizard, haha) and Rincewind cowardice.
AD&D5 beta is more consistent and simpler to play but fundamentally lacks the charm and rich tapestry of other RPG systems such as Warhammer or AoC. It's like David Eddings fantasy versus Tolkien - a big mac and large fries, flavourless, bland, junk food versus haute cuisine. As it's a beta that's the last I can say of it except that the actual mechanics are both more consistent than 3.5 and far easier and more fun than 4. I played an Elven wizard called Vim Twinkletoot, who is an arrogant ponce.
Age of Conan has that rich world feel to it that Warhammer has which makes it so immersive to play. However it is plagued by a massively complex pile of rules which appear to fundamentally be based on the maxim that more complex is more fun and you can never have too much fun, right? Every single silly little thing has a rule and data written somewhere, from buying sausages in villages of between 100-150 inhabitants to casting 15-day long arcane rituals with 100 disciples to summon a daemon to make the tea. Gameplay consists largely of declaring intent, followed by 10 minutes of reading and crossreferencing. I played... a wizard (surprise) called Ezekiel, fairly closely modelled on the little bald asian shaman dude in the original Conan.
Serenity had a lovely simple system and a universe to explore but ultimately a fairly limited appeal due to the difficulties of dealing with RPGs in space ("space is big. Really big. etc") and the fact that it's set in what is basically a very short time period in a fairly sketchy setting. I played a nutcase engineer called Url Doe, based on the main character in My Name Is Earl. He ended up being so mental he wore a literal tinfoil hat, and 7 pairs of underpants simultaneously.
The KEEN game we played had the inklings of a really intricate and detailed universe all inside the DM's head and had a focus on realtime mechanics and consistency.
The AfterEarth system I've been developing my antidote to AD&D4.
Prior to this I played an awful lot of WFRP.
Anyway... these systems can be broadly classified into two main schools of thought: there's the Grinding Advancement
school and there's the Specialisation Balance
school. And of course the boundaries aren't as clear cut as that, but I describe the two schools thusly:
Grinding Advancement systems are all AD&D variants, and Conan to a lesser extent. The players constantly aim to advance stats which will make them arbitrarily more powerful (typically in some entirely abstract, unbounded range). Their reward is... arbitrarily more powerful NPCs / monsters to defeat. Also, the players gain magical loot, and in return, get to defeat arbitrarily more powerful NPCs. The balance of the game is like watching a sine wave, angled slightly upwards, which increases in amplitude as time goes on. Fundamentally nothing really changes but the players are compelled to keep levelling up and collecting magic loot because that's really all there is to do beyond advancing the plot (and unfortunately the plots are generally pretty bland being set in lacklustre high fantasy with few hooks). The players are tricked by deep psychological urges into continuing to level up and advance. It's built into most people's minds and it's clever how these systems appeal to this sort of positive feedback system using a combination of the constant illusion of "progress" interspersed with random "rewards".
Specialisation Balance systems are what people do when they realise that Grinding Advancement systems are just giant self-licking lollipops which actually have no purpose beyond short-circuiting. Specialisation Balance replaces constant upward grind with a fairly finite cap on the raw "ability" of characters and the option to specialise in specific areas. Given that there's a limit on vertical advancement, it shifts the focus of the game party interplay into one of providing richer and more diverse options; and it also seems to foster a greater sense of humility and attachment to a particular character - even highly experienced characters in these systems are usually just as close to sudden death as green novices.
IMHO, specialisation balance systems are very rare in computer gaming because they require a much richer and more diverse environment in order to actually have fun with them that most game designers give up realising that actually making a game out of it is going to cost massively in terms of resources and programming versus the nice, easy shortcut route of grinding advancement, which particularly suits itself to making games where you simply increase numbers constantly and get newer, bigger monsters to fight.
Any Diablo 3 players in here? Have you noticed that no matter how you really play or advance you're always in roughly the same amount of peril? What would happen if you met something really dangerous and got killed? You'd moan it was too hard. What if your tooled up level 500 fighter wandered into a dungeon full of snotlings? You'd moan it was too easy. Yet specialisation balance systems are all about being able to do exactly this. And given those choices you have room instead to grow your character's personality as there's not a lot else to grow. Why
would your experienced warrior wander into a snotling den to murder them all? Well, he probably wouldn't, because even though he's been in the wars he's still just an ordinary man and a knife in the back will kill him. Why
would your n00by mage attack Al H'Thrath (Slayer of Gods)? Well, he wouldn't, because he's not so bloody stupid as to try.