Symbaroum brings a complete Swedish tabletop fantasy role-playing game to a wider English-speaking audience in a hardback volume or as a PDF. Not the first tabletop game to achieve this transition by any means, Symbaroum might seem unusual in that it only appeared in it’s original language format in 2013. Funding the translation by IndieGoGo, the game developers Järnringen took their dark and brooding fantasy creation and set it loose – supported further by an alliance with Modiphius Entertainment in distribution.
Symbaroum presents a dark and gloom-riddled world of adventure and intrigue, charting but a fraction of a wider fantasy world. Akin to the likes of Warhammer Fantasy, Shadows of Esteren and Dragon Age, this is not the high fantasy of Tolkien, Brooks, Edding or Moorcock. Ambria and Davokar hold little hope, except a tale of struggle that might promise fortune to but a scattered few.
Järnringen has come up with their own world and a simple tabletop system to support roleplaying groups that favour mechanical crunch somewhere in the middle ground. Symbaroum runs on a system I best compare to Green Ronin’s AGE system, but without the nod to Old School shown in the presence of specific levelling. Roll to hit a target number or lower with small modifications for expertise or challenge.
The game places the dice firmly in the hands of the players – a trusty twenty-sided die for most tests with other dice rolled for damage. Most tests involve rolling equal or lower, adjusted by skills, circumstances, equipment and magic.
With a relatively simple set of mechanics and a focus on discovery, exploration and skulduggery, Symbaroum may well appeal to those more used to narrative games willing to try something more structured. Alternatively, those dabbling in existing dark fantasy might find the Symbaroum system and background sufficiently promising to attract attention for a try – supported by the availability of standalone materials for ‘taster’ purposes.
For those who prefer more cerebral games of discovery, diplomacy or investigation, the setting supports but the mechanics run thin. The rules on actions, combat and healing fill only a dozen pages, but social challenges and puzzle solving get just a couple. The game isn’t heavy with rules nor burdened by layers of crunch, but what focus there is – in skills and spells – sways more toward conflict than negotiation. Those who prefer not to fight can certainly play their own game, but the emphasis shows through strong in places.
Järnringen has put together a gorgeous physical product. Whatever the format, the sumptuous artwork provides an impressive view into the world of Symbaroum. Many of the images using broad strokes of light and shade, imbuing the world with a brooding and somewhat indistinct atmosphere. The townscapes of Yndaros and Thistle Hold appear wreathed in obscuring mists like some pervasive corruption mirroring that of the wild and ancient lands of Davokar to the north.
The hardback has glossy pages that make the full page art appear even more impressive. As I read the PDF I found myself pausing at these murky, atmospheric images and wishing I had the physical book in hand. I’m slightly envious of any IndieGoGo backers who picked up one of the sumptuous artificial leather bound Nightbane edition, complete with metal foiled logo.
Symbaroum rolls three books into one 264-page volume. Slightly less than a third goes on setting while a further third outlines character creation and back rules. The final third or more covers gamemastery and an adventure, which includes guidance on running a game with a narrated script to kick things off for the absolute novice.
The book makes many references to the future availability of adventures and supplemental volumes from Järnringen. At the same time, they also make it quite clear you can build off the basics presented here however you choose. Indeed, much of the setting and associated timeline provides rich pickings for alternate starting points and adventure outside the scope of that directly supported.
Reading and Structure
Let me confess something a little odd – I read this book from back to front. I have the PDF and I reckoned a nice way to get a feel for the system would be to check out the adventure. Symbaroum has an introductory adventure – The Promised Land – that kicks off with a narrated script – to really ease in total newcomers. The adventure then follows a structure explained in the GM Section.
(You can download The Promised Land from the Modiphius website for free if you’re keen to do what I did and get a flavour of the game in action before delving further. However, I would note that while good at conveying the mechanics of the game and the Symbaroum approach to adventure design, it’s less effective at conveying the game’s themes and atmosphere.)
When I finished reading that, I wanted to step through the structure of creating Symbaroum adventures, covered at the middle of the GM Section. The rest of that section details running games, interpreting the rules, and handling campaigns, before pressing on into a bestiary of beasts and abominations.
Having got halfway through in reverse, I just followed the flow and kept going with the Player Section – stepping through character creation, magic, rituals, equipment and the core rules, before hitting the beginning – wherein lies the setting.
I wouldn’t necessarily read this way as a rule but, this time, it worked for me. By the time I got to the start of the book I had a grasp of the sort of game I had in my hands – brutal and a bit grim, tinged with corruption and riddled with a simmering rivalry. The setting made sense from there.
And actually, I’m tempted to believe the quite complex situation outlined in the Setting section might have left me a bit boggled and bewildered otherwise. The World of Symbaroum provides a brief background on the narrow area presented for this core game, then covers factions, the dark forest of Davokar, the adventurers’ rest of Thistle Hold, the capital of Yndaros and the barbarian seat of Karvosti.
In 70-pages of setting, you have a pile of names, titles, factions, and rivalry that warrants a map of its own. A veritable web of intrigue a GM wanting to really delve into the setting will need to sketch it all out – filling out the allies and rivals.
The Ambrians fled for their lives across the mountainous Titans to escape the threat of the Darklords. North of the peaks they found a land of ancient ruins and great plains peopled by scattered barbarian tribes. They battled one of the tribes for a foothold and subjugated them while defeating the Darklords at their backs. Twenty years on, the Ambrians have started to rebuild, but the dark forest of Davokar to the north shelters the remaining barbarians, the mysterious elves, the threat of corruption and the lost secrets of Symbaroum.
The setting provides personalities from across diverse backgrounds: rich and poor, migrants and refugees, thieves and slaves, soldiers and adventurers, followers and apostates.
I mentioned that the recent IndieGoGo campaign funded the translation of the original game from Swedish. In places, I found the translation imperfect. The text contains occasional words that seem out of place. Other time, sentences feel convoluted.
In truth, at 264-pages Symbaroum does well to avoid typos or editorial bloopers. However, the current text warrants a little polish to clean up these dangling mistranslations.
Symbaroum provides the tools and guidance to make coming up with characters quick and straightforward. Whether you’re creating something in a hurry or going for something more thoughtful, you start with a nugget of inspiration – whether from books, TV, films or elsewhere. By giving yourself a basic platform to build from, you keep things focused and simple. In the end, you can create whatever character you want, but having a concept to leverage helps no end.
You choose an Archetype first – Warrior, Wizard or Rogue – and from there assign points or preset values to eight Attributes. Rather than just things, Attributes are descriptive. You have scores (between 5 to 15) to show how Vigilant and Strong you are, rather than values that define your Perception or Strength. Somehow it makes the scores more involved and action orientated. I realise it’s just a word, but the difference worked for me.
Each Archetype has an outline of what Attributes and Races best fit and then, in turn, these link to Abilities – skills and notable talents – and Occupations. Wizards also might have Traditions and Powers – the former representing an approach to handling magic. Traditions compare to classes like Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer and so forth from Dungeons & Dragons – and they denote a subset of Powers – or spells – available for study and use.
Traditions also serve to provide a means to stem the flow of corruption. Those who use magic risk turning themselves into monsters, especially those who choose to go it alone and study magic on their own. While temporary corruption fades quickly, permanent corruption leaves a stain – visible to a gifted few in the colour of the character’s Shadow. In time corruption will twist and break an individual turning them into an abomination, target for witch-hunters and Templars of Prios, the Sun God.
Symbaroum doesn’t try too hard to distance itself from traditional tropes of classic tabletop games. As a gamer of 30 years, I could see the grime and corruption of Warhammer, the brutality of OSR’s tiny hit point pools, the dark fantasy and stepped skill development of Fantasy AGE and the looming shadow of the Dark Side from Star Wars D6 (your experience and comparisons will vary!).
The Occupations and Traditions all provide a rough guide to appropriate abilities or preferred powers, so you can quickly pull these elements together and have a playable character in minutes. With more time and consideration you could completely cast aside the suggestions and create something that fits what you want – indeed, the example player described throughout the sections builds a character on that very principle, eschewing all suggestions.
If all this still seems like too much hassle, the adventure at the end of the book includes several pre-generated characters suitable for immediate play – though I would have preferred them in a format I could copy, cut and hand-out. Nevertheless, they’re handy for one-shots and impromptu games or filling a spot for an unexpected fatality!
In brief – and covered in two dozen pages or so, they are – Symbaroum‘s main mechanic involves making a test against an Attribute. So, covering the ground between the city wall and a ruined tower beyond before anyone sees might require a test on Quick. If the act isn’t challenging or challenged, it might not even warrant a test, especially if the character has some other suitable skills, traits, or equipment.
Where a character faces a direct challenge or competition, the action requires a modified test. Symbaroum uses a special notation for this, identifying the attribute of the challenged and the modifier. If the character does something tough, but without an opponent, it appears in square brackets with a modifier – [Vigilant –3]. Opposed, it appears with an arrow pointing left – so, wrestling a treasure from another adventurer might require [Strong←Strong], while sneaking past a guard [Discreet←Vigilant].
As mentioned, Symbaroum places the dice firmly in the player’s hand (though the GM might occasionally have use of them for a random encounter or discovery). This means that while players roll for things like a weapon’s damage or an armour’s protection, the GM deals in fixed scores or Effect Values. A creature will do damage equal to 4 instead of 1D8 or have armour that protects against 2 damage instead of the 1D4 offered by a woven silk vest.
If you prefer dice for all or a system with gritty minutiae covered, Symbaroum‘s rules will not be your thing. For my part I found them sufficient without overpowering; simple and reasonably intuitive.
With half of the book given over to setting, adventures and background, you might choose to use Symbaroum with your own system. On the other hand, why pick up such a gorgeous book and not try out all on offer? The simple system doesn’t try to be everything for everyone, but it has mechanics enough. Many might breathe a sigh of relief when I say Symbaroum lacks rules for grappling. Again, I feel a similarity to Dragon Age as both games keep their systems pared down to a minimum without slicing right down to the bone.
You won’t find random tables here nor pages laden with treasures and artefacts. Equipment covers the essentials and nothing of what lies in the ruins of Davokar appears in more than passing comment.
If you want a means to randomly generate dangerous trips into Davokar you should pick up Adventure Pack 1 – the first of the IndieGoGo campaigns stretch goals – which contains a who sub-system for running expeditions into the forest of Davokar, along with random tables of curiosities, treasures, artifacts and encounters. Several random tables generate locations, treasures and threats, detailing a dozen mystical treasures, more than half-a-dozen artifacts and many minor items.
The Symbaroum – Adventure Pack 1 also contains two ‘landscapes’ – brief adventures intended for a single session of play. The first – Curse of the River Goddess – recounts a boat trip along a dangerous waterway and a mysterious disappearance, while the other – Blight Night – pits the adventurers against a band of desperate goblins laying siege upon a frontier inn. Each provides a mapped location, non-player character descriptions and motivations and a dramatic incident for the player’s characters to resolve, including a new beast and monster trait.
Both adventures are short – mere morsels that provide just a skeleton to build from. I look forward to seeing something more substantial from the Järnringen team in the future.
I finished reading Symbaroum in less than week. It didn’t take long and never felt like a burden or a chore. Sometimes reading core rules can feel that way. Yes, I read it in reverse order – but that just seemed a quirk of my approach.
In the end, I finished up with a mind flooded with ideas for adventures. Actually, I had a flood of ideas when I looked at the succinct half-page timeline of recent events in the Setting section. Things popped into my head all the time. I enthused at length on the setting to my gaming group at the end of our last session – and I’m definitely considering running a game at my next convention.
In my mind, that’s good.
It’s a good thing to come away from a game with a well of creativity bubbling up. As a reviewer, it’s a good thing to come away from a book and know that you want to play the game.
For those who favour the dark, Symbaroum will be brutal. I can imagine that this game will have as many Total Party Kills as some of the classics. When I last played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons I feared for my characters life with every footfall. Those travelling the paths of darkest Davokar should do the same.
Symbaroum follows the increasingly familiar Scandi Drama theme of dark and haunting landscapes filled with enigmatic and damaged characters in complex relationships. The simple system and rich setting, thick with dark and evocative imagery, makes this a worthy consideration for new and experienced gamers alike.
My copy of the Symbaroum – Adventure Pack 1 – also authored by Mattias Johnsson and Mattias Lilja – was a purchase from RPGNow, $3.99 in PDF.