[none] Review: Symbaroum

**Disclaimer: Dom set a high bar with the level of detail in his Traveller 2e review. I'm not going to try and compete, I'm not even promising to do the game real justice - I'm walking up to the bar, lowering it so I can celebrate receiving a participation medal.**

So here's my review of Symbaroum:

Symbaroum...gorgeous isn't it? This is what drew me in way back in Q1 2016 when the English language version was released. In what appears to be a common theme in Swedish RPGs the artwork and graphic design calls out 'I'm mysterious, explore further'.


Basic Premise
Okay there's been some wars and stuff and basically the lands you've all lived in for generations (Ambria) are basically a write-off. Poisoned land, desolate and uninhabitable... (ever catch the train from Birmingham to Wolverhampton? .. yeah like that).

So you venture North over the mountains to make a new home in relatively unspoiled lands. However, these lands aren't uninhabited, there's Barbarian tribes, Elves, Goblins, Ogres etc, and to be honest they're not massively chuffed to have you here, but make an uneasy peace.

So there's lots of gaming mileage in games about the frictions between different civilisations and the goings on of frontier towns, however the big draw is Davokar, a huge ancient forest that was once the site of an ancient civilisation. And within Davokar are all sorts of treasures, monsters, mysteries and adventure.

Why I like the Setting
The key things for me are that a) the setting feels fairly fresh, it doesn't feel like Fantasy generica, and b) as the new lands are fairly new to the inhabitants it also means they can be new to the GM and Players. Certain games such as Gloranthan games as an extreme example feel like you need years of study before you can do them justice, but the premise that it's largely new to everyone with lots of unknowns creates an easy jumping on point.

There's plenty of player options to play. Although Ambrian Human is perhaps the default assumption, there's Barbarians, Changelings, Goblins, Ogres to play. Get the Advanced Players Guide, and play Elves (not the usual type), Dwarves (also not the usual type), Trolls, and Undead, and whoever you play with should change the lense through which you view the game rather than being the usual ragtag party of PCs.

And to be honest the art... it's really evocative, it brings the game alive in my imagination.


The gist
It's a fairly simple system. Firstly you have a fairly standard array of stats: Accurate, Cunning, Discreet, Persuasive, Quick, Resolute, Strong, Vigilant, which are typically ranged 5 to 15. Then you've got some derived stats like Toughness and Defence etc.

To make a test it's generally roll a D20 under the appropriate stat. If it's an opposed check, then the oppositions stat -10 is the dice modifier to your role.

e.g. if you have a Discreet of 13 and try to sneak past someone with a Vigilant of 12, you're trying to get 13 or less on 1D20+2

The GM never rolls though. If the GM makes an attack, takes an action the players make an appropriate roll in reaction, with things like Damage being a static amount.

On top of these there are numerous Abilities and Powers the players can choose and invest Experience points in. A bit like feats in Pathfinder/3.5e but more all encompassing, if you want to hit harder to do more damage you get an Ability/Power, new spell also an Ability/Power.

Combat, you've got your standard Free Action, Movement and Action thing going on, you typically roll your Accurate Stat against your opponents Defence. Then roll for damage, which is then soaked by amour (which I'll return to later).

What's good
It's a really easy system to learn. It's not much of a paradigm shift coming from F20 games, and as such it's fairly intuitive.

The abilities/powers system ensures there are lots of interesting player options to be found even for those who don't pick an exotic character option. On top of which there's an Advanced Players Guide which expands these options greatly - I made some pre-gens for a 1 shot game and found it fun to imagine playing through various options as opposed to the usual slog that pregen making can be.

As you gain experience you don't get increasing stats (which might break the roll under system) or loads of extra hit points you gain new abilities which will keep the characters feeling fresh. And the non-increasing hit points mean the fear of death doesn't go away.

Niggles for me
The GM doesn't get to roll. I'm not completely sold on this. It's okay, but I kind of like rolling, and as I don't roll it's static damage for NPCs, and don't enjoy that predictability.

It's light but trad. It feels like a trad system with a load of rules taken out rather than say something like a PbtA game that's light but aims a different style of play. I guess what I'm trying to say it's a barebones system rather than something interesting or clever, so YMMV if that's for you or not. I came to RPGs from Board Games, I enjoy interesting mechanics, so not a criticism but perhaps not to my taste.

A load of Abilities are designed purely just to overcome poor stats. So use Accurate as a dump stat, and take an ability to swap out Accurate for another stat is a common character building option for example. Not a big deal, more of a 'huh, okay'.

The biggest niggle for me though is the damage soak mechanics. You can pick character options that make you largely invulnerable to a huge swathe of beasties out there. So with certain character options you can build a real tank. A player in my group for instance built a starting PC which rolled 2d4+2 to soak damage when hit. Now getting hit with longsword does 4 damage. So one-on-one RAW being stabbed in the face with a longsword is of no consequence. But what if he's surrounded being stabbed by longswords, pikes and clubbed by warhammers? Well the advantage would add +2 to damage, so now there's almost a 19% chance of doing any damage.

Now firstly, there's the 'is this a feature or a bug argument'? Maybe there's an intention for certain characters to be able to walk around not being that afraid of the majority of things they encounter. I don't like that but that's just my personal tastes.

There are also a number of ways round this. Option Critical Hit rules (upping the chance of damage from 0% to 5% in some cases), there are also Optional Hit Location / Called Shot rules (in the Advanced Players Guide), which will make a difference some of the time. There are also lots of powers you can give adversaries to counteract abilities, making them harder hitters etc or arm all the NPCs with poison weapons or make them stanglers etc. There's always the lazy fallback of upping weapon damage, or simply rolling for damage so there's some variability.

I've seen a number of forum posts and blog posts dealing with the issue, and it basically comes down to taking a creative approach to dealing with the character options the player has chosen. That's fine. But what if you're not interested in tailoring every single combat encounter to deal with 1 particular player's character options? I might be being lazy but for me at least it gets tiresome, and it takes time and effort away from making the encounter interesting for all concerned.

It's an interesting setting and combined with the gorgeous artwork it's one that calls you in and offers loads of potential game ideas. There's also loads of interesting character options you can choose from, and it's easy to build a fun character option.

The system for the most part does the job well, is easy to learn and run and keeps the game running at a fairly good pace. There are potential 'gotchas' like armour soak I mention above, and although this is largely an edge case, it's worth considering. For me though, the system's not quite my cup of tea, so the follow up to my last Symbaroum campaign keeps getting trumped by other games. However a combination of the books calling me from the shelves and pester power from players in my group who really enjoyed it will undoubtedly see it return albeit perhaps with some mutually agreed rules tweaks.


Staff member
Thank you for the kind words; that review became a monster because I was being asked how the game had changed. Sadly, the first edition review was lost with the first Tavern premises. You have a great feel for the game with yours.
The Symbaroum setting and art is absolutely excellent. It also screams at me with lots of adventure options. I've only done one-shots; I'd love to run a campaign.

The system I'm fairly neutral on. It's light and mostly doesn't get in the way, but I think to run a campaign rather than a one-shot with pre-gens I would have to house rule.

But the setting again! The setting is amazing and makes it all, even the thought of some house-ruling, worth it. And it wouldn't be much house ruling at all really; the base is light and simple enough to take it.