Symbaroum is a moderately low, moderately dark fantasy RPG. Designed by Järnringen (which has since merged with Fria Ligan) and currently published by Modiphius, Symbaroum was first released in 2014 (in Swedish), with the first English printing in 2015. Symbaroum is tightly focused on a specific part of its world. Within that part of the world the primary focus is on the conflict between civilization and the wild, with a secondary focus on conflicts between factions within civilization.
The world of Symbaroum can essentially be divided into two parts – Ambria (civilization) and the Davokar (a giant forest to the north, mostly unexplored and full of beasts, combative elves, and such). Ambria is a new nation (a couple of decades), primarily consisting of (and entirely ruled by) the Ambrians, a people who moved north and conquered Ambria after their own lands were left ravaged by a years-long war against the forces of darkness. The main other inhabitants of Ambria are the barbarians, the humans who lived there before the Ambrians showed up (few of the barbarian tribes were outright destroyed, and the tribes are mostly intact under Ambrian rule, but many barbarians are effectively enslaved). In addition, there are a smattering of elder folk, including goblins and ogres (who are playable) and dwarves and elves (who are not).
The basic die roll in Symbaroum is a d20 (note: it does not much resemble a roll in D&D). This roll is always made by the player – indeed, all rolls are made by the players. When a player attempts a task, they roll to succeed. When an NPC attempts an action against the player, the payer rolls to prevent the task. When a player hits in combat, they roll damage. When a player is hit in combat, they roll for armor (to reduce the damage).
Attributes (at least at character creation) range from 5 to 15. Higher is better, so when attempting a task the player is trying to roll equal to or below their attribute (there are no skills; the roll is just based on the attribute). Tasks with a static difficulty may modify the target number (up to +/-5 for tasks that are very easy or very difficult). Opposed task difficulty targets are modified by the opponent’s applicable attribute (above 10 imposes a penalty; below 10 grants a bonus).
The eight attributes, then, directly govern all tasks. They are Accurate, Cunning, Discreet, Persuasive, Quick, Resolute, Strong, and Vigilant. Accurate and Quick are often opposed as offensive/defensive stats. Persuasive is often opposed by Resolute. Discreet is often opposed by Vigilant. Cunning and Strength (which also includes toughness/constitution concepts) most often roll against static difficulties.
In each round of combat, characters get two actions – one combat action and one movement action. Initiative is determined by who has the higher Quick. In general, attacks and spells are combat actions, while most other things are movement actions.
Attacks are typically based on Accurate with the defense being based on Quick. So when player characters attack they typically roll Accurate modified by the opponent’s Quick, and when defending the players roll Quick as modified by the opponent’s Accurate. A generic, base-level attack (e.g., a sword) deals d8 damage (a flat 4 for NPC attacks), while generic, base-level armor (e.g., chain mail) reduces damage by d6 (a flat 3 for NPC defense). However, while that might make the combat seem somewhat of a grind (an average of 0.5 damage getting through), by the time the full array of mechanics are in play (including character abilities) one side or the other will have a much more decisive advantage.
Indeed, the addition of the pain threshold can produce a (sometimes literal) death spiral, as a big hit can produce an extra attack (although, since the player gets to choose, I presume that they will generally not choose this option if they are the victim of the big hit). Characters have hit points equal to Strong, but there’s a minimum value so even low-Strong characters aren’t extra-squishy. While most NPCs instantly die when reduced to zero hit points, but PCs will indefinitely stay in a dying condition, rolling in each round to see if they wake up or die (equal chance of each), or being stabilized or someone uses healing on them.
Movement and positioning is usually vague, although there are free attacks allowed against characters who move past or move away from enemy combatants.
Character Creation and Advancement
Character creation in Symbaroum ostensibly begins with an archetype, but there are no mechanical effects of an archetype. They do, however, give some hints of what kind of characters the designer anticipates players making – warriors (berserker, duelist, captain, sellsword, knight), mystic (witch, sorcerer, theurg, wizard, self-taught mystic), or rogue (charlatan, witch hunter, thug, treasure hunter, ranger).
The real starting point of character creation is attributes, which can be determined with a point buy or with a fixed array. The average value (even for PCs) is a 10.
Players then choose a race, which will have far more roleplaying consequences than mechanical ones. Most races receive a single trait. Any human can take Contacts, for example, while Ambrians can substitute Privileged and barbarians can opt for Bushcraft. Some of the races have semi-required traits – they don’t come with the race, but you are strongly encouraged to buy them with one of the ability choices. Changelinges (elves who were left as humans as infants) automatically get the Long-lived trait, but must use an ability slot to take their Shapeshifter trait. This is not to say that all of the races are created equal, however. Goblins, in particular, get the short end of the stick, starting with two negative traits and then has the option to pay for a positive one.
However, from a mechanical point of view it is probably the abilities that will define a character the most. All abilities have three levels (novice/adept/master). Characters start with five novice abilities, or can lose two of those to upgrade a third to adept (this is the same cost equivalence as purchasing them later with xp). Abilities most commonly grant entirely new actions that are otherwise unavailable, or upgrade existing abilities. For example, Acrobatics lets a characters avoid free attacks, while backstab deals extra damage on attacks with advantage and alchemy allows the character to create potions.
While abilities include some social powers, most characters will gravitate to combat enhancements or magic. There are abilities for fightings with two weapons, with shields, with two-handed weapons, with ranged weapons, and so forth – any character who plans on landing blows in combat will presumably have one of these (the novice level typically adds extra weapon damage; taking one of these weapon-based feats also provides the applicable equipment for free). Mystic characters will need to spend ability slots to buy powers and also probably spend ability slots to be able to perform rituals and for basic training in their mystical tradition. This will leave them with little in the way of non-magical options. Characters also have options to substitute attributes, allowing for dumping if desired. For example, the Leader ability allows the character to use Persuasive in place of Resolute, allowing the latter attribute to be ignored.
Character advancement comes in the form of new or upgraded abilities. There is no clear guidance on how often experience-awarding events should occur, so it’s difficult to say how often advancement is expected.
Symbaroum is organized into three sections – setting (~70 pages), player’s guide (~95 pages, containing character creation and most rules), and GM’s guide (~90 pages, containing more rules, some tips and guidance, and a thirty page bestiary). There is also an introductory adventure, occupying the final ~ pages of the book.
I generally like the idea of systems where the players do as much of the dice rolling as possible. It can feel weird when you’re used to the GM/DM rolling dice all the time (and I suspect that most of us are), but RPGs should be all about putting the characters fate in the player’s hands. Having the player’s roll all of the dice just takes this more literally.
From a flavor perspective, the Symbaroum core book felt a little empty. I read through the third of the book devoted to the setting, and then got to the third devoted to player rules, and all of a sudden there was an introduction of the concept of all magic mechanically corrupting the character. This left me baffled. Why does magic corrupt? There was a strong nature/civilization conflict set up in the setting material, but natural magic is just as corrupting as the civilized forms. Mystical characters can (and effectively have to) negate this with training in their chosen magical school – but I’m not sure why, exactly, the training mitigates the corruption. Ultimately, it felt like a way to force mystical characters to funnel their ability choices into the training options. But it was emblematic of what I felt about the flavor of the setting overall. There are interesting bits, but they aren’t well-developed and they seem to get lost in more generic concepts. I thought the initial concept of Ambria was quite interesting – a society forced to start over after it had won its great war against the darkness. But this doesn’t seem very relevant to day-to-day life in Ambria, which feels much like a generic medieval settings – nobles, warriors, priests, wizards, sneaky types. There are playable options for non-standard races like ogres and goblins, but very little information on how they fit into society. There is a bit more information on elves and dwarves, but then they aren’t playable options. The Davokar is set up as this great and mysterious forest, but at the end of the day the mechanics don’t distinguish the monsters all that much and it has the feel of just being a giant adventure location without any more mystery than a random dungeon.
From a rules perspective, Symbaroum falls into what I, for lack of a better term, refer to as the uncanny valley of RPG design. It is overall a rules-light system, but then it provides a lot of combat options and combat is a very important part of the game. This makes it relatively easy to create characters who could be described as ‘overpowered’ or ‘broken’ in combat – they have some combination of powers with a potent effect, and the game rules don’t have the level of complexity needed to keep a lid on that sort of thing. This is far from a death blow – the pre-Fantasy Flight versions of one of my favorite RPGs, Legend of the Five Rings, had this issue in spades – but it can be a problem. Resolving it requires a certain sort of mindset from the players and (to a lesser extent) the GM. Everyone just has to consciously choose not to make this sort of character. And the GM has to do more work than might be expected on properly gauging encounter difficulty.
For me, then, Symbaroum has a couple of strikes against it. I mentioned loving Legend of the Five Rings despite it’s roll ‘n’ keep system not holding together all that well. But L5R has one of the most distinctive and interesting game settings out there. You played L5R because the setting was great and the rules were acceptable. Symbaroum, at least at the core book level, doesn’t deliver a complete package on either side of the equation. The mechanics have interesting parts, but there are real flaws. The setting has interesting bits, but the whole is more nondescript than the parts.
I think that players might like to try out Symbaroum if (1) they really like the idea of the dice always being in their hands; (2) they want to be able to do cool things in combat without worrying about things like ‘game balance;’ or (3) they are really entranced by the idea of elves who hibernate into different forms as they age.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.