There's this one Strong Bad email where the president of a fraternity asks Free Country, USA's greatest criminal mastermind to come to a kegger he's putting together. In the space of a few sentences Mr. Bad goes from "Look fratty, I'm not comin' to your party." to "So I guess I'm goin' to this frat party. That's pretty hilarious." That self-directed disbelief is kinda how I've felt this week.
Monday night's 3.5 game didn't happen as planned. Half the party couldn't make the game and Carl and I were unprepared to assault the kobold fortress without additional backup. I just don't trust those wee bastards to stand still while we make a steep cave ascent to the entrance to their lair. So we ended up talking through Carl's idea for a round robin fantasy campaign, the kind with rotating GMs. I've participated in that sort of think before and with the right people it can be highly satisfying.
The catch is that after almost 3 hours of knocking this campaign concept around, we can't come up with a better system choice than 4e. I don't loathe 4e. It's just not my bag, baby. Since the PDF fiasco I'm not exactly a fan of Wizards o' the Coast, but I don't feel that obligates me to hate their product. Heck, I've been kicking around the possibility of getting the new D&D Essentials boxed set when it somes out later this year. Still, I feel like we painted ourselves into a corner Monday night. Are requirements are basically that we need a fantasy system for buttkicking adventure in the D&D tradition AND it has to be in distribution such that all participants could get copies through our nifty local game store. And here's the kicker: Exalted, Pathfinder and the new HackMaster have all already been voted off the island.
I'm not averse to playing 4e if it comes to that. By my lights good folks can trump system choice in lots and lots of cases. But I feel like there's got to be some more options out there that we are missing. Anybody got any ideas?
EDIT TO ADD: Thanks for all the great responses! To clarify, we're looking at print products only and the rest of the gang doesn't seem too keen on using an old school game. They're happy to play in my LL game, but want to do something else for this campaign idea.