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Sunday, 3 July 2016

Symbaroum's Promise

Ambria is a young kingdom. Barely two decades old, it was founded on the ruins of the ancient and long-lost empire of Symbaroum as the refuge for the survivors fleeing north over the mountains from the Kingdom of Alberetor as it fell to an onslaught from the necromantic Dark Lords. Ruled by its young queen, Korinthia, Ambria sees itself as the last bastion of civilisation and its duty as to drive back the darkness that pervades the Davokar Forest that dominates the land to the north and which has no end. Already, the capital, Yndaros, is a shining beacon of culture and civilisation, but towns have been established closer to the eaves of the forest, such as Thistle Hold. From Thistle Hold and these other towns, treasure hunters, theurgs of the Sun God, Prios, mystics of the Ordo Magica, and others set out to explore the dark under the forest canopy, hoping to learn its secrets, locate long lost ruins of Symbaroum, and perhaps return with treasures of the past that will make them rich.

In conquering the verdant lands that have become Ambria, the kingdom has also subdued barbarian clans and goblin tribes, whilst pushing to explore and exploit the Davokar Forest, it may have done worse. It may have broken the Iron Pact. This is an agreement between mankind and the elves, the ancient and mysterious folk of the forest, that the forest would remain untouched. Now as mankind probes ever deeper under its shadowed canopy, elves strike at the interlopers and more—they besiege villages and they swap human babies for changelings… Many of the barbarian clans and the witches that advise their chieftains still hold to the Iron Pact, but there are worse dangers than barbarians and witches and elves in the forest. There are creatures and plants and places that blight explorers, corrupting their souls, perhaps unto darkness. This is in addition to the dangers that many bring into the forest themselves. In particular, magic. Casting any spell or ritual may also corrupt the soul as much as it aids the caster and his allies. The disciplines of theurgy, witchcraft, and wizardry are means to use both magic and withstand its corruptive influences, but there are Sorcerers who practise magic unheedful of the corruption. There are even others who embrace it... 

This is the set up for Symbaroum, a Swedish RPG published by Järnringen that was released in English following a successful Indiegogo campaign. Now distributed by Modiphius Entertainment, it is surprising how quickly Symbaroum has made it to the English-speaking market. It was originally published in 2014 and then published in 2015 in English; foreign language RPGs usually take much longer—in some cases, decades—to appear in English. What Symbaroum presents is a dark, earthy fantasy RPG, in effect set in a limited region, on the edge of civilisation, with a strong sense of the foreboding. From this set up, certain parallels can be drawn between Symbaroum and other RPGs. The first is Dragon Age RPG Core Rulebook from Green Ronin Publishing, primarily for its tone with the threat of impending demonic invasion, but also for its three character Class (plus options) structure. The second is Monte Cook Games’ Numenera, with which Symbaroum also shares a three character Class (plus options) structure as well as having player facing mechanics. Yet perhaps the RPG that Symbaroum has the most common in with, is the French RPG, Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, in particular in its tone and presentation. It also shares the same sense of isolation, but Symbaroum is much more focused RPG with a smaller playing area than Shadows of Esteren and where the horror in Shadows of Esteren verges upon the Lovecraftian sense of a greater unknown, that of Symbaroum is earthier and more primal in its feel.

Essentially the setting for Symbaroum amounts to a pair of regions. The first being Ambria, the newly founded kingdom, the other being Davokar Forest. Both regions are detailed in the opening quarter of the Symbaroum Core Rulebook. In particular, it details the capital of Ambria, Yndaros; Thistle Hold, the northernmost outpost from where a great many expeditions set out into the Davokar Forest just a few hundred yards from its palisades and which has grown rich on the finds that some survivors bring back; and Karvosti, the great cliff that rises from the forest that is home to home to the High Chieftain of all of the barbarian clans and chief witch or Huldra, the site of the twice-a-year market or Thingstead, and which worryingly for both the High Chieftain and the Huldra, has more recently become an important site for the Church of Prios. Although there are many gods—and each barbarian clan has its own as well as respecting nature, in Ambria, Prios has become all but the only faith because it the light of the Sun that guided Queen Korinthia to safety and will bring light beneath Davokar’s canopy. All three locations are described in some detail, including notable places and peoples, but of the three, it is Thistle Hold that is given the most attention, since in the default set-up for Symbaroum, it is from here that the player characters will set out into the forest, having already purchased their Explorer’s Licenses. In comparison though, the description of Davokar Forest feels all too brief, and whilst this is at the front of the book in a section intended to be read by player and GM alike, it does have an effect on the game as a whole—as will be seen in the GM’s section.

Each character in Symbaroum is defined by his Archetype, Attributes, Race, and Abilities. Symbaroum gives three Archetypes—Warrior, Mystic, and Rogue—which can be defined by an Occupation. There are five of these for each Archetype, each one suggesting important Attributes and Abilities as well as an appropriate Race in order to create that Occupation. This means that a Warrior might be a duellist, knight, or sellsword; a Mystic a witch, wizard, or Theurg; and a Rogue a witch hunter, treasure-hunter, or ranger. This gives quite a good mix of character options, but of course, a player is also free to design his character as he wants. Each character has eight attributes—Accurate, Cunning, Discreet, Persuasive, Quick, Resolute, Strong, and Vigilant—that range between one and twenty. There are five choices when it comes to Race—Ambrian (Human), Barbarian (Human), Changeling, Goblin, and Ogre. Changelings are the replacements left behind after the Elves have stolen a Human child. They look Human when babies, but grow more Elf-like as they age and their very strangeness usually means that they are rejected by their human families and forced to fend for themselves. The short-lived Goblins are little tolerated, but used as labour in many towns. They are also short-tempered and have a tendency to survive their knockabout existence. Ogres are also little tolerated, but they are long-lived and tough. They lumber out of the forest with no idea of who they are and goblins or humans typically take them in and teach them. Each of the Races has its own Traits, for example Ambrians have Contacts or Privileged, Ogres tend to have Robust, and Changelings have Shapeshifter. 

Where each Race has its own Traits, all characters have access to Abilities, each of which represents a skill or knowledge. There are over thirty of them listed in the game, ranging from Acrobatics, Alchemy, and Backstab to Witchcraft, Witchsight, and Wizardry via Berserker, Loremaster, Shield Fighter, Strangler, and Twin Attack. Each has three Ranks—Novice, Adept, and Master—as do some Traits. So for example, at Novice Rank, a character with the Men-at-Arms Trait knows how to use his armour for maximum effect and increase its protection value by one die step—for example, from a six-sided to an eight-sided die; at Adept Rank, armour no longer impedes actions based on the Quick Attribute, including Defense; and at Master Rank, he can use his armour to stop the armour-piercing effect of armour-piercing arrows or bolts.

Character creation itself consists of a player selecting an Archetype and an Occupation followed by a Race. Either eighty points are divided amongst the eight attributes or a package of set points assigned to the eight. Whichever method used, a player character can have no Attribute higher than fifteen or lower than five. Then he has five points to spend on Abilities (and some Traits), with no Ability Rank being higher than Adept. This can either be  two abilities at Novice level and one at Adept level or with five abilities at Novice level. Lastly each player should define two further aspects about his character. One is his character’s goal, but the other is his Shadow, an expression of his spiritual essence and alliance. For example, characters allied to nature have a Shadow expressed in natural colours, whilst that of those allied to civilisation, have a Shadow of metallic tones. A corrupted or blighted Shadow may appear aged or chipped, blackened or spotted, and so on. The nature of a character’s Shadow can be discerned by certain magics, such as Witchsight.

Edogai is the son of Ambrian nobility, disowned for his dissolute ways even in the face of the onslaught of the Dark Lords. He fled north over the Titans to the new land of Ambria, hoping to find a place for himself, but he became no more than a sellsword and a drunk one at that. Family ties remain strong though and with each refugee caravan that passes over the Titans he yearns for news of survivors, if not to learn of what happened to them. He does not fight to kill, but to show off his skills and sometimes he is too proud of his sword arm.

Edogai
Race Human (Ambrian)
Archetype Warrior Occupation Duellist
Traits Privileged
Accurate 13 Cunning 10 Discreet 05 Persuasive 15
Quick 11 Resolute 10 Strong 09 Vigilant 07 
Abilities Acrobatics (Novice), Dominate (Novice), Man-at-Arms (Novice), Quick Draw (Novice), Twin Attack (Novice)
Weapons Fencing Sword (1d8), Parrying Dagger (1d6)
Armour Lacquered Silk Cuirass (1d8)
Defence 11
Toughness 10 Pain Threshold 05 Corruption Threshold 05
Equipment 
Shadow Rippling Quicksilver
Goal To learn of his family’s fate

Symbaroum uses a straightforward set of mechanics. At their core is a roll against an appropriate attribute on a twenty-sided die. All rolls are made by the player—the GM never has to roll the die. So a player character might roll his Vigilance to spot a guard, but the same guard would not roll to spot the player character, but rather the character would roll his Discreet to avoid being spotted. Modifiers tend to be static or opposed. Both type range between -5 and +5, but the former are simple modifiers typically based on the circumstances, for example, how complex a lock might be to pick or the icy conditions under hand and foot when climbing a wall. The latter are determined by the opposing character’s Attributes, whether a player character or an NPC. So if the NPC opposing the character has a low attribute, the character receives a higher bonus, if the NPC has a high attribute, the modifier is low.
For example, Eodogai has fallen out with the landlord of the Lothar’s Lodgings over an unpaid bill and the landlord has kept some of Edogai’s belongings. The young duellist has sneaked into the landlord’s room and is searching for them. The GM calls for Edogai to make a Vigilant [-2] to hear the maid coming down the corridor. With a Vigilant of 7, Edogai needs to roll a 5, but rolls an 11 and is surprised by the maid entering the room. Fortunately, Edogai is quick thinking and when the maid asks him what he is doing in her boss’ room, he turns on the charm and attempts to seduce her. The GM asks for a [Persuasive←Resolute] roll. This means that Edogai’s roll will be modified by the maid’s Resolute Attribute, which is 9 and gives him a +1 modifier. So his target is 16 and Edogai rolls a 7 and succeeds…
Combat uses the same key mechanic. Accurate is rolled to make attacks and Defence is rolled to avoid them, but both Damage and Armour—called effect dice—are rolled. What is interesting is that there is no initiative roll. Instead Initiative is conditional. So a character with a spear or polearm might attack first because his weapon has reach, but only on the opening attack as after the first round his opponent has stepped inside the weapon’s reach. Other Attributes also have an effect on initiative, such as Quick Draw. Once in combat, a character typically receive one movement action and one combat action per round. Any damage suffered by a character is deducted from the character’s Toughness. Notably, should a character suffer damage in one blow equal to his Pain Threshold, he is knocked down and can suffer further attacks. Most monsters and NPCs will die when they lose all of their Toughness, but player characters are merely dying and make a Death Test until they get better, die, or someone stabilises then.
For example, after his tryst in the landlord’s bed of Lothar’s Lodgings with the maid, Edogai has slipped out of the building into the dark streets of Thistle Hold. Making his way to his new lodgings, the duellist hears a sound from a nearby alley—that of fist upon flesh. It is followed by a man saying, “That was for the last Elf attack you Changeling bitch!” Stepping into the alley Edogai can see three burly thugs standing over a slim, female Changeling who is on all fours in the dirt of the alley floor. The young duellist clears his throat and when the two thugs turn towards him he says, “I don’t think that two on one is fair fight, do you?” The thugs look at each other unsure how as to answer, which gives Edogai the chance to taunt them with, “I think that the three of you against me is much fairer fight.” With that the thugs heft their clubs and charge towards the duellist.
As yet, Edogai does not have his weapons drawn, so he uses his Quick Draw Ability to draw his weapons as a Free Action. This requires a Quick Test. Edogai’s Quick is 11 and his rolls a 9—the duellist has both fencing sword and parrying dagger in his hands as the thugs lumber towards him. For his first attack Edogai is not going to use his Accurate Attribute, but instead use his already taunt together with Dominate Ability. This allows him to test his Persuade rather than his Accurate. The thugs each have a Defence of +4, so this is added to Edogai’s Persaude to give him a target of 19! Edogai also gets a +1 to this attack because his fencing sword has the Precise quality, but since a roll of 20 is always a failure, the attack is as high as it can be.
Edogai rolls a 5 to hit with his fencing sword and then 1d8 for a result of 8 for the damage. Now where a player character would roll to determine how much protection his armour would give him, an NPC has a set value for his armour (as well as how damage his weapons do). In this case, the thugs are wearing hardened armour and this gives each thug two points of protection. These two points are deducted from the damage, so the first thug suffers 6 points of damage. Not only is this deducted from the thug’s Toughness of 10, but it beats the thug’s Toughness Threshold and causes him great agony, causing him to fall to the floor with a very nasty slice to his forearm. This also allows Edogai a Free Attack in addition to the second attack he gains with the Twin Attack Ability. The GM rules that the Free Attack is a standard attack rather than one using Edogai’s Dominate Ability. So the attack is equal to his Accurate (13) plus the Precise Quality (+1) of his sword and the modifier for the thug’s Defence (+3). So still 17 and with a roll of 10 to hit and 4 for damage, this enough to leave the thug with a Toughness of 2 and seriously rethinking his decision.
Meanwhile Edogai has a second attack with the parrying dagger. The target is just 16 (Accurate 13 plus thug’s Defence of +3) and with a roll of 9 to hit, followed by 5 on the damage die, Eodgai flicks the short blade to nick a second thug with 3 damage as he moves into flank the duellist. Now Edogai has to roll to avoid the thug’s attacks. These are against his Defence (11), modified by the Balanced Quality of the parrying dagger (+1) and the Twin Attack Ability (+1), for a total of 13. The two thugs remaining crowd in on him, in the process gaining an Advantage by Flanking him. This gives the thugs -2 to Edogai’s Defence rolls and an extra two points of damage in addition to the standard four they would inflict if Edogai cannot defend himself with his re-adjusted Defence of 11. Edogai rolls 7 for the first attack and successfully parries, but with a roll of 12, cannot stop the second attack. For his Lacquered Silk Cuirass armour Edogai only rolls a 2, so he takes a 4 point bash to the shoulder. With a Toughness left of 6, Edogai needs to deal with the thugs fast…
Magic in Symbaroum is divided into four Traditions—Sorcery, Theurgy, Witchcraft, and Wizardry, and each tradition has its own set of spells and rituals as well as there being spells and rituals shared between them. Sorcerers believe that the world is already corrupt and dying and embrace Corruption, and have spells and rituals like Unholy Aura and Enslave. Theurgs are devoted to Prios, the Sun God, and preach their faith as well as having spells and rituals like Holy Aura and Command Confession. Witches embrace nature, their primitive nature consisting of spells and rituals such as Entangling Vines and Turn Weather. Wizards study magic and thus approach it in a more logical fashion. In Ambria they are members of the Ordo Magica and know spells and rituals like Brimstone Cascade and Clairvoyance

Of course anyone can learn magic in Symbaroum, but learning a spell or ritual also gains the practitioner permanent Corruption—and this in addition to the temporary Corruption gained for casting a spell or ritual. Typically, the amatuer practioneer will gain too much Corruption and be blighted, if not burnt up, by it, that is if he is not hunted down and killed by a witch hunter. Yet this is where the benefits of belonging to a tradition come to the fore, since a Mystic will not gain the permanent Corruption that he would if he were not a member of a Tradition. This does not stop a Mystic gaining temporary Corruption and should he gain as much as his Resolute attribute, then he will become a creature of the blight and an NPC, though he will have gained possibly noticeable blight marks in the meantime (this also applies to Corruption gained whilst exploring the Davokar Forest). Essentially this mechanic counters a Mystic’s overuse of his spells and rituals though he can otherwise cast as freely as he wants or needs to.

Mechanically, each Tradition, each spell, and each ritual is treated as an Ability with the same three ranks as other Abilities. With just five points to assign to his Abilities during character creation, a Mystic is going to know just a Tradition and a few spells or rituals at most. Symbaroum does not present a wide diversity of spells or rituals, but then a Mystic is never going to know a huge selection anyway and the limited choice available is matched by the limited number of points with which to purchase them. The individual spells are nicely themed to the Traditions and are in general more grounded in practicality than they are flashy or showy.

Riamata had a happy childhood until at puberty she began to change and express elf-like features. Her family rejected her and she was forced to fend for herself until Adela, a local witch took her in. Riamata has trained with the witch for over a decade until an attack upon their village scattered the inhabitants and Adela disappeared. All that was left was Adela’s familiar which bonded with Riamata and now the Changeling searches for his missing mistress.

Riamata
Race Changeling
Traits Shapeshifter (Novice)
Archetype Mystic Occupation Witch
Accurate 11 Cunning 10 Discreet 13 Persuasive 07
Quick 09 Resolute 15 Strong 05 Vigilant 10 
Abilities Larvae Boils (Novice), Ritual—Familiar (Novice), Witchcraft (Novice), Witchsight (Novice)
Weapons Stiletto (1d6+1)
Armour Witch Gown (1d4)
Defence 09
Toughness 10 Pain Threshold 05 Corruption Threshold 08
Equipment
Shadow Leaves on the turn
Goal To find out why the Elves leave Changelings
Meanwhile back in the alley, the Changeling who was attacked by the thugs, Riamata, has roused herself after being assaulted and knocked to the ground. She looks to the end of the alley where she sees two of the thugs that attacked her have turned their attention to someone else, whilst one of them lies on the ground. The two remaining  thugs are in danger of flanking this other person, so to even things up, Riamata decides to cast Larvae Boils. This causes larvae to burrow their way out of the spell’s victim. Casting the spell requires her to make a [Resolute←Resolute] test to overcome the thug’s will. The modifier is +3, but the GM rules that the beating she has taken makes Riamata’s task more difficult and levies a -2 penalty. So with new target of 16 (her Resolute plus the thug’s modified Resolute), she rolls 11 and causes the larvae to grow and feed in the thug. This causes him 1d4 damage for as long as Riamata can maintain the spell… It also gains Riamata 1d4 points’ worth of Temporary Corruption.
For the GM there is decent advice for running the game and some optional rules that cover critical attacks, fumbles, instant kills, and even playing as an Abomination should a player character fall prey to Corruption. Advice though for handling and applying the rules feels underwritten as do the rules for handling social situations. The monsters though are nicely handled, being categorised according to the degree of Resistance they offer—Weak, Ordinary, Challenging, and Powerful—and enable the GM to pitch monsters of the right threat level at his player characters. The monsters themselves are creatures and things—things of horror and primeval nature—that would persuade you from entering the woods. The nature of the creatures, such as the spiders, has the feel of The One Ring and the creatures of Mirkwood, but rather more with the feel of the Dark Ages and something more primal. In particular, Symbaroum’s treatment of Elves stands out, their being creatures utterly alien to mankind, even inimicable, but nevertheless are creatures of nature.

Symbaroum includes a starting scenario that raises its own issues. The problem is that ‘The Promised Land’ does not take place in Ambria, but in the Titans, the mountains between Ambria and Alberetor. The player characters—there are nine sample characters provided—are making their way over the Titans, fleeing Alberetor to Ambria. Given that it takes places in a mountain pass, it will surprise no-one that it is rather linear. Broken down into three acts with a strong narrative across the three, it does a decent job of introducing the system and some of the themes, but what it does not do is introduce Ambria or indeed, Davokar Forest and treasure hunting. This only contributes further to the core problem with Symbaroum.

Mechanically, Symbaroum presents a solid set of rules whose primary focus is the player characters. In places though, they do feel underwritten, especially when dealing with social situations and in terms of advice for applying the player facing rules. Which does undermine their objective of leaving the GM to get on with running the game instead of trying to apply those mechanics. Further, whilst the advice for the GM on running and creating scenarios is good, the overall effect is to make Symbaroum an RPG unsuitable for the beginning GM and a challenge even for a more experienced GM who has no experience with as player facing mechanics as those presented here. A GM who has run Numenera or similar RPGs will have less of an issue with this. 

Physically, Symbaroum is an impressive looking book, clean and tidy with an unfussy layout. The writing in general is also good, but it is clear in places that English is not the designers’ primary language with odd turns of phrase and choice of words. In each instance, it is generally obvious what the authors mean, but another round of English language localisation would not have gone amiss. What really makes the Symbaroum Core Rulebook really stand out is its art which is superb, in turns, dark and brooding, dangerous and foreboding, majestic and mysterious, brutal and bloody… So much of the art captures the sense of what Davokar Forest is like and as good as the artwork is, it only exacerbates the problem at the heart of Symboroum.

Ultimately that problem with Symbaroum is that it does not explore or showcase its primary set-up, that of the player characters going into Davokar Forest in search of secrets. Certainly in terms of the setting it has a good starting point with the description of Thistle Hold, as this is where the player characters will set out from to go into the Davokar Forest, and it gives solid means for a GM to take his players and their characters under its canopy. In particular this means the monsters, which are often nasty, earthy creatures that really feel at home in the forest. The Elves stand out here. Yet for an RPG which is about treasure hunting in a mysterious forest, it does not take the players and their characters treasure hunting, it does not show what treasure hunting is like, and it does not begin to explore the secrets under the eaves of the forest. It is so disappointing—and yet…

The hints and the artwork in Symbaroum are so enticing! Even if the RPG does not explore its raison d'être, it provides more than enough information in pages to get a game going. This is because the small scale of the setting means that more attention can be paid to the three core places—Karvosti, Thistle Hold, and Yndaros—Thistle Hold in particular. So each location contains details aplenty that can be worked up into scenarios and adventures and thus the basis for multiple sessions, but there is still Davokar Forest… 

The Symbaroum Core Rulebook presents an atmospheric, dark and foreboding setting on the edge of a new world—though built on the long lost ruins of the old—and combines them with solid mechanics that match the brutality that the setting hints at. It may be disappointing that the RPG never delivers on the unknown of the Davokar Forest it hints so much at, but hopefully the publishers will reveal more soon with future releases.


—oOo

Note that more information about the Davokar Forest and treasure hunting is available in supplements Adventure Pack 1 and Tomb of Dying Dreams as well as the forthcoming SYMBAROUM: Thistle Hold - Wrath of the Warden. This is the first part of the campaign, Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns, and is on Kickstarter now.

Reviews from R'lyeh plans to review these in the very near future.