As a fan of tabletop RPGs, I’m constantly on the lookout for new systems and settings. Recently, I stumbled upon a brilliant new science fiction RPG titled Coriolis from Free League Publishing. (Check out our review of Coriolis here!) It was the combination of art and setting that drew me to this studio’s work. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Free League is also publishing a dark fantasy game: Symbaroum.
With hundreds of fantasy settings out there, it can be quite difficult for new tabletop RPGs to stand apart from the rest. However, looking at the cover of the Symbaroum core rule-book, it’s clear that this game offers players something a bit different. Personally, I was excited by the dark and mysterious themes presented in the art, as well as, the strong drust-like overtones. Dark and gritty, many images feel druidic, while using the landscape as a focal point. This highlights the setting and world players will dare to enter. Much like Coriolis, Symbaroum feels like the setting and game system were born from the art rather than being an afterthought. This approach makes the game feel organic, and draws players into a wilderness full of mystery.
The setting of Symbaroum is extremely focused, as it takes place in a specific region and time-frame. By putting these location/time constraints on the setting, the writers were able to bring a level of detail to their towns/settlements that other RPGs can only dream about. The setting chapter uncovers much of the lands recent history, and outlines much of the newly established Ambrian empire. While doing so, the book provides hints of a mysterious past and plenty of story hook ideas for GMs. The Symbaroum setting does use humans as the focal point, but more playable races are available, such as, ogres, goblins, and changelings. The settings chapter also details the different clans and kingdoms that humans come from. For example, will you be playing a human from the Ambrian empire, or one of the many barbarian clans? The rule-book does a fantastic job describing these cultures in a way that almost makes them feel like different races. Even with these differences, this is a game about surviving in a hostile land and uncovering its secrets. This means the humans need to work together, since being pushed out from their lands by the undead, the Ambrians need to make a new life just south of the Davokar forest. While the southern portion of the forest has recently seen human settlements constructed, the more north you venture, the darker the forest becomes. Little is known of the origins, however, at the heart of the forest lays ancient ruins of a long dead society. The humans would love nothing more than to tame this wilderness for its resources and perhaps discover long lost treasures. Unfortunately, two things stand in their way. The elves of Davokar and abomination like creatures that roam the dark wood. Personally, I love the shift in dynamic for the elves. Rather than the classic trope, these elves are descendants of fey creatures. Still long lived compared to humans, they claim that an old human king signed a treaty that left a large portion of the Davokar forest to the elves, and that any human trespasser can be killed on sight. As dangerous as this sounds, something far more sinister lays deep in the dark wood.
While I quite enjoy that idea of adversary elves, Symbaroum has another, more terrifying, foe. That is the abominations. All creatures, along with cultured ones like humans and elves, can obtain corruption that grows from within. With enough corruption, the creature begins to be twisted and transformed. Almost like agents of chaos, these beings are freighting to behold. This brings us to the central theme of Symbaroum, and that is the mystery of the forest. What is causing this corruption? Does it have something to do with the ancient ruins at the forest’s heart? What are the elves hiding in there? This corruption also manifests in the player characters if the choose to tap into more mystical powers. Magic exists in the world of Symbaroum, however, it can be extremely risky for the untrained. Players can gain access to powerful spells and rituals, but will gain points of corruption, and if it goes unchecked, well… they will join the abominations of the forest. This corruption element really ties the setting to the rules system in a visceral way. While the GM chapter does clue you in on a few secrets, for the most part, these mysteries are left open as story hooks. The art also does a wonderful job of creating these unnatural beasts and landscapes. This gives the reader a feeling that there is more that needs to be explored.
Upon reading the rule system for Symbaroum, I have to say, I’m intrigued. It runs on a d20 system that many D&D fans will be familiar with, but with a slight twist. You want to roll low. It’s a mind fuck and goes against everything I have been taught about games! That’s not to say the system is bad or that I don’t like it. It’s just that it feels unnatural at first. An abomination if you will. So, how it works is your character attempts a skill check. Let’s say you need to shoot a bow and hit a target. You look down at your character sheet, and see your Accurate skill is 13. The GM can then add any modifiers for conditions. For this example, the GM deems this an easy shot and grants the player a +2. You would add this +2 to the Accurate 13 to equal 15. Now, you roll the d20 and you want to get lower than the required 15. So, if you have a set of dice that are notorious for rolling low, perhaps don’t melt them down just yet, and keep them around for Symbaroum. This is just the basics of the system, but there was one other aspect that I found fascinating: The GM never rolls dice. That’s right, it felt weird to type as well. When an enemy attacks you in melee combat, the player rolls their defense with the GM providing the modifier as before. If the player rolls high (which remember is bad), then he/she is hit! You then reduce the damage done by the players armor value, and the rest goes through to the players HP. Again, this works if something is trying to sneak up on the party, the player simply roles their Vigilant skill against the villains Discreet modifier. I think this gives the players more sense of control, rather than the GM “being the bad guy”. There are many other rules, but I think these highlight one of the central goals the designers had for this system. That is a system that plays fast at the table. The GM can simply announce the skill being tested, along with the modifier, and the player rolls their d20. The player just needs to roll under the skills numerical value. Again, there are many other rules, but nothing that seasoned tabletop players haven’t seen before. This gives Symbaroum a familiar yet unfamiliar feel all at the same time. I’m not quite sure if I’m sold on the rolling low portion of the rules, but I do see the potential for fast and deadly combats at the table.
Symbaroum was an absolute joy to read, and I even ordered a few other books before even finishing. This is primary due to the rich setting and how it jumps off the page with wonderful art. The world building has just the right amount of detail to feel fully fleshed out and inhabited, but not weighed down by any boring or mundane content. You get plenty of maps for cities/settlements, and the whole setting chapter is well realized. The rules keep things light, but they also serve the game well. The goal being for fast and deadly combat and I think it achieved that. While it may take some more stubborn RPG players awhile to adjust, the system feels natural, and most of the math can be done at a glance. That being said, this game is deadly. With corruption creeping in on your players and foes aplenty in the forest, players need to be careful when adventuring in Symbaroum. So, if you’re looking for a game that’s a bit more dark and mysterious, then I highly recommend Symbaroum from Free League Publishing.
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