there are a lot of free toyz to do that ... Houdini has the free version thats awesome for making particle effects - blender is actually pretty bad-arse for effects as well ....it sounds like you would make great use of blender if you only focused on learning one or 2 things ....
Paid / low cost - you would probably really enjoy 3D Coat, get the student / non pro user version ..much less than pro version - same functions but more on legal limitations and some features you would probably never need anyways .... I personally love sculptris myself - so simple and straight forward - then you also have Messiah which is known as one of the best tools for making motions and rigging ..at least in it's price range.
If you haven't tried 3D coat yet, it seems it covers a big portion of your list as far as modeling is concerned. People try to compare it to Zbrush, obviously Zbrush has the upper hand ...but has a steeper learning curve and more expensive and many hard core modelers would rather have both than say one is better than the other.
Also I just found out myself recently that Mixamo does free rigging for models under 10k faces - which is gaming size, but it's a superior rigger that will give you 3DS Max like results with a very easy to use interface ...granted no facial rigging , but that is a moot point anyways when importing to iclone. - Daz is a great software also with their packages - but that "free" software is going to run you a few hundred bucks anyways to get the character builder packages and decimator software.
For making characters - you can use Make human - Im personally not crazy about that one myself because making clothing to fit a pre-existing character can be a real PITA - it's doable and has a pipeline to blender ....
and you also have http://www.wondertouch.com/htmls/special_effects_software/index.htm which has some really nice presets but can be a little pricey if you only want to do 1 or 2 effects.
For making faces, I personally like getting creative ...like I'll use this free site http://www.morphthing.com/ and mix and match faces then use in iclone to put on characters, that can be fun ...I made a baby with Don King and Marylin Monroe, and another with Maralyn and a monkey
- extremely fun and hilarious with the combos you can do!
everything I'm mentioning so far is either free or in the hundreds, not thousands....
I'd recommend first checking out 3D coat though, it's fairly easy to get quick results without having to spend a ton of time on tutorials so you can get a feel for it. - but for more advanced stuff you will have to spend some time learning the subtleties in it.
For props - sketchup is hard to beat ....if you get good at it ..you can get freelance gigs as many people ask for sketchup models.
also , don't let the the fact that it's free and the simple concept of sculptris fool you...with skilled hands you can do some amazing things with it ..check out this video ...
"Creativity is just connecting things." Steve Jobs
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