A while back, I thought to myself that I'd take the chassis of Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and fiddle with it a bit. Remove classes and levels, make it even more skill-based, switch from d20 to 2d10 for the bell curve and to do something interesting with the dice, scale damage based on the attack roll, break the enormous block of spells down into smaller, more thematic lists...that kind of thing.
Then I found out that Novus already did it for me, so I just bought that instead.
That's not to say that Novus is derivative of D&D 3.x so much as that it drew on the same well. The author also worked on Rolemaster and HARP, and you can see elements of those games in here. Always roll high. Rolls are open-ended. Small spell lists with the possibility to learn multiple lists and each spell being customizable on the fly. That kind of thing.
Anyway, the game. I'm not going to cover the setting because there's nothing explicit, but the rules lend themselves to generic D&D elf-dwarf-orc fantasy. There is a class and level system, but it seems kind of vestigial to me. The only thing they determine is what skills you get a discount on buying, called Favored, and what Talents you start the game with. Level just provides a pacing mechanic to prevent someone from sinking all their points into their Stab Fools skill right away and becoming a combat god, though it also provides a somewhat-useful comparison with the monsters since all of them have an implied level too. The classes are a bit more diverse because of the skill system, but while they still fall into the Fighter/Mage/Thief/Hybrid paradigm, it'd be pretty easy to build your own as well. The attribes are exactly what you'd expect, except Dex is split into Dexterity and Speed (covering fine motor control and gross movement) and Willpower and Wisdom are separate attributes. Somewhat confusingly, it's called Wisdom instead of Perception even though the latter is basically what it does.
The basic mechanic revolves around rolling 2d10 and adding a bonus from your skill and trying to beat a set difficulty. Everything, from combat to casting spells to searching for traps to resisting magic to talking to people, follows this format. If either die rolls a 10, that die explodes, and if either die rolls a 1, then that die implodes. If you roll a 10 and a 1, neither die explodes or implodes, but you get a Fate Point, which can do various things like add static numbers or rolls, add Boon or reduce Snag points, add an extra d10 to your roll or, for multiple Fate Points, to another's roll, and so on.
Boon and Snag Points are the other major lynchpin of the system. Whenever a roll is a full 10 points above the difficulty, then it earns a Boon Point, which can be spent for different effects, like bonus to further uses of that skill during the day, extra damage in combat, special maneuvers, and so on. Similarly, every 10 points the roll is under the difficulty earns a Snag Point, which must be spent to have various mishaps and terrible things happen.
There's plenty of fiddly bits on top of that, too. The combat system has a system of maneuvers to buy, like All-Out-Attack or Trip or Ranged Disarm or Dive for Cover, and the actual combat uses an action point system where each movement, attack, spell, or other action taken in combat requires a set amount of action points and the various maneuvers modify how many actions points each action takes. Armor is damage resistance instead of making the wearer harder to hit, though shields do the latter, and while there is different armor for different locations, normally that's abstracted away unless the attacker deliberately goes for a called shot.
The spells are all modifiable at the time of casting, with the ability to add more damage, a greater range, other targets or other effects at the cost of making the spell more difficult to cast and cost more spell points. I know this is one of the most widely-praised aspects of HARP's magic, so I'm glad it's carried forward into Novus
There's also a small bestiary with all the Generic Fantasy™ staples, like orcs, trolls, skeletons, imps, and so on. And dragons all the way up the ancient wyrms that will eat you in a single bite. Finally, there are rules for finding treasure and a small sampling of various potions, scrolls, and magical items. There's also a note that a character has to attune to magical items and can only carry seven at a time, ostensibly because chakras, but I think it's a good way to help work against the Christmas Tree effect.
Novus actually reminds me most of the D&D Basic Set in its construction. It's a complete game in just over 100 pages, focused mostly on low-power spells, low-level monsters, and low-level magical items, but with hints of how the game works at a higher power level and the ability to extrapolate up if the GM wants. The focus is pretty similar too, with the idea that the PCs are kind of nebulous "adventurers" who go out, descend into dank holes in the ground, and beat up The Other for their silver and shiny magics. It doesn't have the advantage of simplicity that the Basic Set does--I imagine many people who play pre-3.x games or their clones would recoil in horror at the action point rules--but I don't particularly care about that because I like some crunch in my rules.
That's not to say there aren't some oddities that stand out to me. One thing I find weird is that opposed rolls aren't really opposed. If, say, one character is trying to sneak past another one, the first character rolls their stealth, and then their roll modifies the difficulty of an independently-derived roll the other character makes instead of just pitting the rolls against each other, which is really odd because there's actually a Perception skill. I can see this in cases where there's only the attribute saves to rely on since they don't scare nearly as well as saves do, but if there are skills, why not just have them roll against each other?
Also, there's a random table to determine how much treasure is found, but just a note about how there's no random table to determine what type of each object rolled on that random table is found because the GM can suit it for their game. That's true, but doesn't that apply to how much treasure is found too? Some kind of guidelines would be nice, at least to know what the design assumptions are. And it's minor, but enchanted weapons have an equal cost to gain +1 to hit and +1 to damage, even though +1 to hit is far better because the amount by which you hit is the amount by which your damage is increased.
If you want D&D-style fantasy but aren't all that enamoured of the gameplay of D&D and its various spinoffs, Novus is a good alternative. And there's several small expansion PDFs out to add more options, like a system for building new spells, one for removing classes or building new classes, getting rid of spell points in favor of a fatigue system or casting from hit points, and so on. I eagerly look forward to further products in this line.