What are the various styles of systems out there and which ones are best for what I want to do? In general, I've found that there are two different formats out there: Limited and Toolkit game formats. In this article I plan to go into detail about my opinions on each of the format and which ones I feel are much more flavorful for the player and the gm.
So first off, what do I mean by limited and toolkit? Plainly put, limited means you have a set choice of abilities that you can choose to either Specialize in, or outright ignore, and regardless of the other elements on your character sheet, those elements are only different from other people due to a small extent, having either a different flavor descriptor or having a unique damage type (often times it just comes down to "You deal X amount of Damage and get a minor extra benefit" that repeats in every single class). Balance in such games is based around the limited number of choices you have and doing its best to keep everyone relatively on the same level numeric wise with only minor numeric differences.
A toolkit on the other hand is a word I've used for systems that allow you to piece together characters according to a point buy system, and your level determines how many points you have and its entirely up to you how you decide how specialized or how moderate (or non-existent for that matter) you are in a collection of abilities, which are also up to you to choose. In such systems, the balance of the game is purely set by the point system. In toolkit systems that span everything rather than just combat, it becomes more of a creative use of the knowledge of player limits and the host creating challenges based on those limitations that the players have set up for themselves.
For those of the technical orientation, the limited would be like Windows, where as toolkit would be more like Linux. For those of us who are not, you can compare it to either limited, which would be like deciding to purchase a collection of pictures from an artist you like, or for toolkit, using that same amount of money to make your own collection of art (Which more times than not would leave you with even more cash to do other things with) and simply using the artist you like as a means of inspiration.
Out of the two, my favorite format happens to be toolkit, mostly due to how it allows for absolute freedom of character management and character specialization, but it also allows for you to either specialize in a small number of abilities, or be moderately good in everything! Also, in such systems you can have two people who have similar specialties, but have two completely different ways of achieving said specialty. On top of that, but Toolkit systems are notorious for having content on how to make more of the books you already have, and provide unlimited replay value in the games that they help you put together! These books I've found provide some of the best guidance for putting a character together, as it gives you a set of benchmarks to help you add flavor to your character, benchmarks that help you figure out how you compare to others like yourself. Such a flexable system allows any players character to have a unique story element to themselves, as you can incorporate real life traits to an otherwise super character!
With a limited system, you know for a fact that you are either specialized or you are not, and the only thing that really will make the difference is either the chance of a die roll, or the inclusion of a minor but unique ability that gives you a new "trick" with that particular task. With this in mind, your doing your best to try to find a combination of "tricks" to give you a superior advantage in combat or in a story oriented situation. Unfortunately, more times than not, you won't be finding to many Limited systems with the inclusion of real life traits, as they are "back story" or otherwise unnecessary, made more or less for flavor but having little to no affect on your actual character.
With the limited style options, you are left with more options but you have not the ability to use those options without leaving you empty in something else that may or may not be crucial to the character. You are either Specialized or you are not, and if you choose to be broad minded in such systems you'll find your character is instead negated a lot of the use you'd have normally or extremely lacking. Toolkit on the other hand will provide tools to allow you to compensate for that, and more times than not, give you the advantages to make up for the gap. You won't be great at it, but you'll still be able to get by.
There is also the limited "Class" vrs the toolkit "Dynamic" where a limited system will try to publish a substantially large amount of options that you'll have to more than not have to pay substantial amounts of money to get, where as toolkit you can make do with just the core book to do everything you need, and the extra books only add things that have been put together for your enjoyment.
On the flipside though, games that are of the limited sort are very very quick to set up. Finding a character you want is often times as simple as picking your class, picking the class specialty, and with the rulebook in hand you are immediately set into the game! There is very little downtime between levels, and more times than not your character gains more options as they level, though the rest of your character progresses relatively linearly. Toolkit systems on the other hand require a bit more math and customization and a lot more approval on behalf of the person hosting the game. Not only that, but due to the complexity and dynamics of the system, there are more opportunities for your character to not fit the mold that the host has set up for you. This is also true for the game mastering aspect of the limited format. Limited will have a larger selection of choices, but since you only have to select a small amount of them, you can have an encounter or adventure ready to go with little to no effort. More times than not though, there will also be pre-formated adventures that you can purchase as well providing a format and standard for you to base any adventures you may wish to make later.
In either case though, this drawback can simply be ignored by the host establishing a collection of characters to choose from ahead of time, providing a general idea of what the host is looking for theme wise for your characters if you do choose to do your own as well as the chance to just pick up and get right into the action. Once a general idea has been established though, the characters who want to try their own thing will then have ample time to do so, and everyone will get a chance to play immediately with little to no downtime, but a bit more work for the host. This system also has guidelines for making non-player-characters as well, and if your lucky they'll provide some pre-generated NPCs to build off of. Though with a bit of time and preperation, you'll get your very own collection for future games, therefor reducing your downtime the more you get into games.
Given the differences of limited and toolkit formats, which would you prefer the most, and why?