Playing Symbaroum

A couple of weeks ago I played Symbaroum for the first time. I had never heard of the game, had no idea of what it was about and quite honestly would have preferred to play something else. One of the options originally floated had been Adventures in Middle Earth, a game I am keen on, but the group had voted for this Swedish RPG. I wanted to play something and I went along with no great expectations. It was an eye-opening experience.

Normally, I am a diligent player. If I am in a roleplaying game, I read the rules. I am also usually familiar with the world background, mainly because most of the games I have played over the past couple of decades have been set in worlds I know (some I have even written for)– Warhammer’s Old World and Imperium, Stars Wars’s galaxy far away, the Forgotten Realms, Shadow of the Demon Lord’s corrupted world and so on. These bring a set of expectations about who, how and what you will play. I arrived in Symbaroum with no expectations whatsoever. I was given a pre-gen character and I flipped through the book.

The art was lovely and very evocative. It conveyed a sort of gloomy, dark, Scandi, barely pre-industrial world very well. The game system was clear and immediately understandable, particularly since I had been immersing myself in the Black Hack. It’s a d20 roll under system with three classes, and simple looking but really quite sophisticated skill and power rules. I grasped just enough of it not to have to flounder around when the game started. The rules got out of the way and let everyone play their characters.

The play reminded me of those long-ago games that got me into the hobby in the first place. I didn’t KNOW what was going on around me. I had to guess at a lot of stuff. I could not make an exact diagnosis of monster powers or strengths. Everything was new and kind of wonderful. The art had imprinted a vibe on me and that was enough to be going on with as our caravan passed over the mountain and into the Promised Land. I had forgotten how much more fun, and actually how much more realistic it is not to understand the way every little thing works in a game world. The setting is mysterious. Things feel dangerous. My own diligence in reading rulebooks has robbed me of that for many years.

Initially, I decided I would keep it that way, but no follow-up game materialised so I broke down and bought the Core Rulebook. It lived up to my initial expectations. The system is relatively simple. Basically, you roll under a characteristic to get things done. This is modified by the characteristic level of your opponent. Magic is atmospheric and feels mysterious. As you cast spells you have to deal with the consequences of corruption which can have all sorts of nasty side-effects. There are some clever character creation mechanics, that let you have builds in a way that you might have in an MMO. I like it. As I get older I find I have less time for complex systems than I used to. I would rather just play.

The world is beautifully done. It has elements of Game of Thrones and a dark and haunted Nordic Twilight feel. Some of it is reminiscent of Dragon Age but it feels like itself. It’s also quite specific. You’re looking at a kingdom and a forest, not a whole world. Major NPCs are handled as if they were characters in a novel. You get pen portraits of the Queen and the power players. You get details of definite locations. The core assumption seems to be that you will spend your time exploring the haunted, magical forest of Davokar.

The handling of non-human races is interesting. There are elves, but they seem to be in a mostly opposing role. You can play ogres and goblins. It gives things a very different vibe. I enjoyed it immensely and look forward to playing it some more in the future.

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  1. A kingdom and a forest… very specific indeed. Has been years since i played, but from what you say looks the kind of game with a sinister landscape i like. The most interesting thing looks the magic. It must have a price or is only a sort of superpowers system.

    And the rolls. The less dice you have to hold in your hand, the better for me. That reminds me: i always try to have a look at the character sheet of any RPG. i think is a good way to have a first idea of how complex or simple can the system be.

    • Agreed about the character sheets, Deka. The setting is sinister and magic definitely has a price. It’s built cleverly into the world lore too.

      • DekaBlack says:

        I started that sheet thing after noticing how simple was the one from D&D (the red box) compared to the sheet from Runequest. But for me, the most complicated always will be RIFTS in terms of design

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