Fantasy on the dark frontier
Genre: Tabletop RPG
Publisher: Free League
Release date: April, 2016
Medieval fantasy settings have always been popular in pen & paper RPGs. There’s probably more fantasy RPGs out there than every other genre put together, and Free League even has two different medieval fantasy RPGs in print right now, Symbaroum and Forbidden Lands (technically speaking they have more, but Mörk Borg is really its own thing altogether). With so many fantasy RPGs out there a new one really has to do something special to stand out.
Symbaroum is a dark frontier fantasy RPG set in a region where civilization meets the untamed wild. Unlike many other RPGs with vast worlds to explore Symbaroum focuses in on a relatively small region and really fleshes it out. The setting feels inspired by 12th-13th century Nordic folklore and beliefs, from back when the forests were vast and unexplored and venturing too far into them could be really dangerous.
This review is based on the Swedish version of Symbaroum and a few terms might differ in the English translation, but the content should overall be the same.
21 years ago the Dark Lord was defeated. After a two decade long war against the Dark Lord and his armies a hard fought victory was finally won, though at a great price. The once fertile land of Alberetor had been destroyed. The very land was dying, crops could hardly grow and the rivers were drying up. In order to save her people queen Korinthia lead her people north, over the mountains and into the land of the barbarian tribes. The barbarians did not stand a chance against the well trained and organized armies that Korinthia brought with her, and the land was settled by the people from Alberetor. This new land has come to be known as Ambria.
Just north of Ambria is the vast and mostly unexplored forest of Davokar. The barbarians warn that the forest is dangerous, cursed even, and that anyone who ventures too far into it are bound to die or be corrupted beyond recognition, and worse yet they might awaken the forest and bring destruction upon the world. But in the forest are also great riches, ruins from a once mighty civilization can be seen dotting the land and this attracts treasure hunters and explorers.
Exploring Davokar is indeed risky. Not only are there dangerous animals lurking in the woods, who would be more than willing to turn any would be explorers into dinner, but the elves will actively try to stop anyone they find too deep into the forest. Where the barbarians for the most part are fine with just warning any would be explorers about the foolishness of trying too deep into the forest, the elves are more likely to try and stop them by force. And anyone who’s able to make it past the animals and the elves will find that the stories the barbarians were telling about the forests ability to corrupt anyone who dares venture too deep into it hold more than a grain of truth.
Ambria is not just populated by humans, there are other intelligent creatures who live alongside them. Ogres are large and often very strong and tough, often solitary creatures, though are by the ruling humans often viewed as simple-minded. Goblins on the other hand are almost the polar opposite of ogres, they’re small and live in large tribes. The strange sense of humor that a lot of goblins have is generally not appreciated by humans and they have a poor reputation, and are often only allowed into cities to do manual labour. Many goblins don’t really appreciate the lot that has been given to them, but if the choice is between working hard for the humans or starvation, they chose hard work. Then there’s the changelings who’s actual origins are clouded in mystery. All that’s really known is that elves will sneak into human homes and snatch away their newborn children, replacing them with newborn changelings. Because changelings can alter their shape this switch is often not noticed until they enter their teens, where they’ll get more elvenlike features. For both the changeling and the family who lost their child this revelation can be disastrous. There are also a few dwarves living in Ambria, though they are not very widespread.
The setting in Symbaroum is dark, but it’s not dark in the same way as a lot of other dark fantasy. What makes it dark are the dangers of the wilderness and the unknown, not some big evil or people living in filth and on the brink of starvation. It’s dark because the setting assumes that many of the stories that people told about the great unexplored forests of the 12th-13th century are true, there really are trolls and malicious spirits out there who want to lure you to your doom and children are being snatched away by elves only to be replaced by lookalikes. It’s a surprisingly grounded setting, yet there’s plenty of room for the fantastical.
The rules in Symbaroum are simple but not simplistic and easy to both learn and teach. Most checks are done with a 20 sided die and the player will have to roll equal to or under their relevant stat plus or minus any modifiers. If for an example they are doing an unmodified check against strength and their strength is 12 they will need to roll 12 or less on a D20. What makes Symbaroums rules different from most others is how it’s the player who will do almost all the rolls. If a troll is trying to punch a player character the game master won’t be rolling to see if the troll hits, the player will roll to see if they are able to avoid the trolls attack. The game master will simply tell the player that they need to do a defense roll modified by the trolls to hit value, and if the player rolls well they are able to avoid the troll’s punch. If the troll then hits the game master once more does not roll for damage, but the troll deals a set amount of damage minus the player character’s armour, which they roll.
This extremely player facing rule system, where the game master pretty much never rolls dice might seem a bit weird at first, particularly for those who are used to games like Dungeons & Dragons where the GM and the players follow roughly the same rules, but it means that the players are always aware of what’s going on, why a roll is made the way it is and they can also not blame the GM for their bad dice rolls. It also always keeps the player involved and it’s a pretty fast ruleset on top of that.
The Player Characters
Central to any pen & paper RPG are the player characters and making one in Symbaroum is really easy. For a new player all you really need to do is pick a “occupation”, and then assign attributes, and you’re done. The occupations are split into three categories, or archetypes, warrior, thief and mystic (this games counterpart to mages), with a few different occupations in each, that already has abilities and suggested races assigned to them. The archetypes are not set in stone though, and a player can chose to pick their own combination of abilities if they want to, they’re just a good starting point.
There are four races in the core rulebook, humans, changelings, ogres and goblins, with humans having the choice between being “civilized” Ambrians, or barbarians. These races don’t modify your attributes, but come with different traits, some of which are optional. A changeling for an example is always considered to be long lived, and may chose to have the ability to change shape. If they pick the later they’ll get fewer other starting abilities.
Attributes are on a 1-20 scale, though player characters can’t start with one at 20. There are eight attributes in total, and they’re relatively broad. These include strength, quickness, cunning and so on. Exactly how the attribute points are distributed at character creation is up to the game master, but it can either be as an array or they can be assigned more freely, though the maximum value of all attributes combined should be 80 at creation (that’s an average of 10 in each attribute).
Abilities are where things get interesting. If you picked a pre-made archetype then these will already be decided for you, but anyone making their own character from scratch (or just want to change some from their archetype) have 35 different ones to chose from. Every ability is then split into three tiers, with the higher tiers of course being better. A good chunk, but not all, of the abilities will give you some kind of advantage in combat, like the ability to deal extra damage when stabbing someone in the back or knowing how to use a shield better, but some abilities like alchemy will let the character brew potions and give them knowledge about different herbs, sixth sense allows the character to navigate even in darkness and witchsight allows them to spot corruption and tell if a creature or person has been corrupted. At creation every character is allowed to take either 5 abilities or two at level 1 and one at level 2. If a race allows you to chose an additional trait this will also count as one of your abilities.
Anyone schooled in magic will also be able to get spells instead of abilities. The spells have, much like abilities, three tiers, and are bought like any other ability. There are 25 spells in the core book and they are quite varied, ranging from being able to turn into a wild animal, to charming someone, to healing and the ability to create maggots under someone’s skin. Magic is dangerous not only to its target but also to the caster though. Learning new spells can give the magician permanent corruption, and using them gives temporary corruption. If a characters corruption gets too high they’ll start to show visible signs of it and if it gets even higher the character risks turning into an abomination, which effectively kills it. Corruption is one of the things that keeps mages in check and prevents them from going completely wild with their spells. That and of course any the general fears of people around them.
Finally there’s the equipment. Symbaroum does not have a whole lot of it and instead chooses to split similar things into broad categories. A regular 1-haded weapon will for an example always deal 1D8 damage (unless you have some ability or spell that modifies it), be it a mace, a sword or something more exotic. There are then a few special 1-haded weapons that have some additional property, like a flail which might still deal some reduced damage even if the character misses. Every category of weapons works like this. The same also holds true for armour, all light armour always blocks 1D4 damage but there are some types that have special properties. Characters don’t get a whole lot to start with either, unless they take certain abilities that might grant certain starting equipment they’ll get a weapon, light armour and some basic adventuring/camping gear. The players might find better gear in their adventures though and even some mystical artifacts (although using weird artifacts that you find out in the wild is not without risks…).
As with most RPGs player characters will grow in power over time. Experience points earned can be spent on more abilities and mystical powers, though player characters won’t grow as powerful as in say Dungeons & Dragons. Getting new abilities or improving old ones can make a big difference on how strong a character is, but a player character won’t go from being at the risk of dying after a goblin stabbed them in the toe to being able to be hit repeatedly by an angry dragon without breaking a sweat.
The Other Stuff
Any self respecting RPG will contain a section with advice for a new game master, and Symbaroum does this as well. It gives advice on how to run a game as well as adventure ideas and ideas for challenges that the players might have to face.
On top of that there’s also a bestiary in the book. The back of the book says that there are 38 monsters & foes in it and this is true, but some of them are variants on each other, like a few different kinds of elves and some are humans with different professions that the players might come into conflict with. There’s still enough variety to it that there’s an appropriate foe for almost any situation and enough examples and monstrous traits that a GM can create their own creatures without too much trouble.
At the end of the book is a short introductory adventure. The adventure can be played in a single 4-5h session and acts as a good introduction to both the rules and the setting. It’s also a good introductory adventure for people new to pen & paper RPGs in general, as it’s linear yet the players still have options, and those options are presented in a way that both make sense for the game and gives good examples for a new game master for how these things can be handled. The adventure itself is not going to set anyone’s world on fire, but as an introductory adventure it’s really good.
Layout, Art and Quality
Symbaroum is a pretty game, there’s no denying that. The art in the book is outstanding and really captures that feeling of a dangerous untamed wild. There’s an almost eerie beauty to a lot of the art in Symbaroum. All the images in the review are from the book, and they are great.
The layout of the book is overall pretty good, and it’s easy to find what you’re looking for, but there’s one strange design choice that makes the game a bit harder to learn, both as a GM and a player, than it should be. The rules are split up into two sections, one for players and one for the GM, though there are a couple of pages between these sections, and some of the things in the GM’s section is still important for the players to understand, like corruption, which also gets mentioned frequently in the player’s section. Overall the game has light enough rules that it’s not too hard to memorize these things and not have to look them up, but it would still have been better if all the rules were in one place. Also unlike almost every other RPG out there the rules are not at the start of the book, instead that’s where the description of the setting is located, the rules, including those for character creation are in the middle of the book.
The quality of the book itself is excellent though. The book is printed on a thick paper and the print quality is great. The book also feels sturdy, like it will be able to be handled a lot of use without falling apart. Only time will tell if the book is as sturdy as it feels, but going by past experienced with Free League books, this one will probably last a long time.
I’ve played a lot of fantasy RPGs in my life, more than I can really remember off the top of my head. Everything from Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, Earthdawn, MERP, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay to local games like Drakar & Demoner and Eon, so a fantasy RPG really has to do something special for me to take note. After all, between those RPGs you can do pretty much any type of fantasy adventure.
Focusing in on a small geographical, that’s mostly consisting of a huge forest, might seem like a limiting choice, and in a way it is, but it also means that this area can be properly fleshed out and the game built around the feeling of being on a wild frontier. And there’s still a lot the players can do in this region. On top of that the rules are really good. They’re fast and easy to work but still offers a decent amount of depth. A game like Pathfinder might be mechanically deeper, but that’s at the cost of it being a lot slower, and for a game with relatively light rules Symbaroum still offers a fare bit of depth.
It’s also nice to have an RPG where you don’t need to lug around anything more than the core book and some dice. There’s enough in the core rulebook to play the game and it even has a creature section, so you don’t need a monster book or a separate player’s handbook to get started. These things have been released over the years, but they’re not necessary.
Overall Symbaroum is one of the best fantasy RPGs I’ve ever played. I’m struggling to even come up with things I don’t like about it, apart from a few minor issues with the layout, and apparently my game group felt the same way as during our first play session one of the players in the group went online and bought their own copy of the core rulebook. I don’t think that has ever happened before in my group. The only complaint that was brought up by my players when I asked them was that the corruption system feels a bit harsh for magically inclined characters. It’s also less limited in scope than it might first seem. While the game covers a relatively small geographical area, there are enough plot hooks for it to be easy for a GM to make a wide variety of different campaigns. The game does assume that the player characters will be of the more adventurous sorts, who will fight monsters and bad guys, explore the wilderness and deal with the local conflicts, but neither the setting nor the rules are so rigid that you have to play it that way.