RPG Reviews – Symbaroum & Starter Set (Free League)

The forest of Davokar holds dreams and nightmares. Tread carefully, for you may find both.

After the war with the Dark Lords, the nation of Alberetor was in ruins. Queen Korinthia decreed her people should travel north, across the mountain range of the Titans, to settle in the land beyond, on the borders of the forest of Davokar which covered the ancient empire of Symbaroum.

There her people encountered and fought the barbarian tribes that claimed inheritance of Symbaroum and eventually claimed a territory for themselves, which would become the kingdom of Ambria.

From here, treasure hunters and plunderers delve into the great forest seeking lost relics of the ancient age, while contending with the barbarians and Elder Folk who wish to keep them out.

If there’s an absolute highlight of this game – it’s the setting. It is so well-realized through the chilling, haunting, and awe-inspiring artwork, and the descriptions of the world itself. But the rest of the game is good too!

The core rulebook is laid out in three “books.” The first covers the setting, second player-facing rules, third GM-facing rules. It’s a valid approach, though I occasionally found myself doing a lot of flipping to get the whole picture on an aspect of the game. But in terms of introducing the content, it works well.

The setting of Symbaroum is familiar, but different. The traditional FRPG races like elves and dwarves are in the setting, though not character options (yet.) The dwarves don’t seem to care much about humans and the elves are actively opposed to human expansion and exploration of the forest, invoking the ancient Iron Pact that gives them guardianship.

You’re given a very good description of Davokar, what to expect, how to traverse it, what pitfalls you might encounter both on the edges and deeper inside. The threshold town of Thistlehold, home to adventurers and treasure-seekers, is given a very good overview, including plenty of NPCs and plot hooks to play in the town itself, and the capital of Yndaros receives the same treatment – both essential things when describing a setting.

The Ambrians are given a very good overview and brief delve into their psychology. We learn how they feel about their place in the world and their role in taming it “for civilization.” It’s one of the key elements really, that while there are other peoples, this seems to really be a story about “civilization” vs “the wild” and everything is set up to encourage that. I’d read comparisons to Miyazaki and Princess Mononoke and this really is a similar story through a Swedish dark fantasy lens.

An interesting thought occurred to me related to the previous and to what’s upcoming when I discuss the system. The setting is perfect for a dungeon crawl. Go into the forest, find some ruins, plunder, repeat. But the system isn’t really all that tactical – it’s not built to reward that style of play either in intent or in the “personal satisfaction” reward. D&D 4E, for example, is super-tactical and well-suited to entertaining combat and dungeon-delving. Not so Symbaroum. So while they’ve established the perfect setting for it, the system doesn’t fully support that style of play. Rather it supports play that allows focus on the themes of the game (dungeon crawling is a thing you will do while you wax philosophical about the clash of nature vs. civilization). It gives you structure for adjudication then gets out of your way so you can bask in the majesty of Davokar and wax philosophical about your role in the world. For me – definite feature, not bug.

The system is incredibly straightforward. Characters have a series of Attributes, like Cunning, Vigilant, Strong, and others. They’re given a rating and any successful task resolution requires rolling equal to that number, or lower, on a d20. Symbaroum is, however, player-facing, so there’s no rolling by the GM (and no opposed rolls.) Instead, difficulty of a roll is modified from -5 to +5 and, in the event of it being opposed, this number is generated by the opponent’s Attribute. It’s clean and simple and easy to remember.

To make it easier, players can choose an Archetype for their character from among the options of Warrior, Rogue, and Mystic. These simply provide helpful guidelines though and are by no means mandatory.

One of the things that makes Symbaroum great is the Race options. There are two human cultures: Ambrian and Barbarian, but then the usual fantasy species are put aside for the shape-shifting Changelings (possibly descended from Elves, they emerge among humans after having been left behind by the Elves for some purpose. One can also choose from Ogres – large, solitary creatures who emerge from Davokar as blank slates, attaching to Humans and Goblins to develop a sense of identity, and Goblins – short-lived, fiery and passionate and industrious people who tend towards the southern borders of Davokar and Ambria. This makes for a much more unique set of possibilities and interesting roleplay than many settings.

Traits are special aspects of characters and include things like Contacts, representing a network of informants, or Shapeshifter, which allows one to alter their appearance. Abilities act similarly to Skills in other games, but should be looked at more as specialties. Normally, characters roll combat against the Attribute “Accurate,” but if they have the first level of Ironfist (Abilities are ranked in three levels), they may roll against “Strong” instead. The Ability Medicus allows them to heal others and the various Magical Traditions have Abilities representing their practices.

Combat and spellcasting work in the same fashion. Roll against the appropriate Attribute and determine success. Weapon damage is reduced by armor, then the remaining points are inflicted on your Toughness, which function as your life points. There’s a very handy combat flowchart, but the overall system is very straightforward and easy to execute. It seems designed for simplicity and to allow some tactical thinking without being simulationist – it even factors in elements like weapon reach, which I really like. Things could get swingy and there are some character builds that can allow one to maximize their combat potential to an extreme, but I see that as a feature, not a bug.

One doesn’t need to belong to a Tradition to practice magic, however there are benefits. Each Tradition explains how it views magic and Corruption (the backlash to using magic) in a way that helps evoke the setting. The Theurgists of Prios believe they are granted magic by the Sun God and Corruption is born when the wild is left untamed by civilization. The Wizards of the Ordo Magica view the art as a measurable science and craft, Corruption being the opposing force to magic – the reaction. If practiced carefully, one can avoid adverse effects. Objectively, in Symbaroum Corruption is the lashing out of nature against those who would define or change it, so as one accumulates Corruption, they change and acquire monstrous traits to reflect it. It’s a nice way to temper an over-use of magic and to reinforce setting themes. These changes are then also reflected in a character’s Shadow, a visual aspect of their spiritual side, visible by certain people in the setting. Spells themselves are designed like Abilities, receiving a Novice, Adept, and Master level each. Rituals (lengthy castings) have singular effects. Spells have a mix of combat-oriented, utility, and protective/buffing effects.

The Gamemaster’s content is well-written and helpful. It does cover much of the expected material for a core book, like table management, but also provides the GM perspective on content earlier in the book. This includes how to build balanced encounters, manage task resolution and combat factors, social conflicts (only briefly), and how to handle Corruption. I had initially thought the latter should be with the magic section, but the book is layed out so as to clearly delineate what a player needs and what a GM needs, and this is more the realm of the GM, so it makes sense. There are also travel and economy guidelines and a suitable list of adversaries to use.

One part I found to be a great inclusion was the adventure builder. While not an actual generator it guides the GM through the construction of an adventure – the opening, the threats, and other elements to keep in mind. It’s just a helpful thing to have, especially for a newcomer.

The core rules end with a sample adventure, “The Promised Land,” a tutorial in which adventurers travel across the Titans to Ambria, only to deal with danger and threats along the way. It’s the tiniest bit railroady, but quite honestly – who cares? It’s there to help you cement the basics of Symbaroum’s gameplay and it’s set up well for that. I do find it interesting that the default seems to imply the characters aren’t from Ambria, though there is a sidebar helping adjust the plotline for characters already across the Titans, and it’s easy to just say “your group crossed the Titans with one caravan, now you’re going back.” That’s not a perfect answer although I think it works for the tutorial nature. You might want to suggest any newly-generated PCs are only now making their way north from Alberetor, even if it restricts character concepts a little.

The starter set is a really good introduction to Symbaroum. I read it first before approaching the core book and found it very helpful. It has the advantage of having come out some time after the main rules, so I found one or two things to be slightly clearer, even though it’s basically the same content.

The rules in the Starter book are a much more truncated version, with character options primarily focused on the 5 pregenerated PCs. This extends to magic too, while you get a picture of things, you only receive rules for what you’ll need. The setting information is similarly reduced, but still expresses the majesty and spookiness of the world.

The Adventure Compendium book again only really includes what you need: an overview of Thistle Hold, guidelines for traveling in Davokar, relevant antagonists, and two completely new adventures.

Where Darkness Dwells is a site-based adventure involving the exploration of a ruined cemetery, lost to corruption. The PCs will also have to deal with the external threat of the elves of the Iron Pact. The Gathering Storm is meant as a sequel, but not required to be. It’s also a site-exploration where the PCs will tangle with rival treasure hunters and ancient evil. Both are well-detailed and progress as a series of events triggered by actions, allowing for free exploration of the sites up to that point. Both also include a list of developments progressing from the adventures to allow continued stories.

Symbaroum is a really cool dark fantasy game. It’s not only a gorgeous and evocative product with brilliant art and design, it’s also a setting that evokes strong melancholia and has a strong philosophical component. I like how the rules work and appreciate that they aren’t what one might except when looking at the setting. These titles were provided for purpose of review.

The art and the books are really works of art. You can check out a few shots of the core rules over on my Instagram. It has a matte cover and two helpful cloth bookmarks!

You can pick up the core rules and starter set from the Free League Publishing website or the below Affiliate links to help support this site!

Symbaroum Core (DriveThruRPG)

Symbaroum Starter Kit (DriveThruRPG)

Symbaroum Core (Noble Knight)

Symbaroum Starter (Noble Knight)

Symbaroum Core (Amazon)

Symbaroum Starter (Amazon)

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