Deep in the ink-black darkness of the ruinous forest of Davokar, something dreadful stirs. You can’t see it, but you know your shadow is already marred with oily streaks from a spell you cast just moments before. To protect yourself with more magic, you risk further pushing yourself into corruption. What do you do?
Mini-dramas like these are all too common in the tabletop RPG Symbaroum, where players are tasked with balancing their need for physical survival with their need for a sort of ethereal or spiritual survival. The 2015 tabletop roleplaying game comes to us from the Swedish company Fria Ligan (Free League), and was a 2016 Origins Award Nominee. I’ve spent the last two weeks combing through the pages of the main book, and while we’ve yet to get it to the table (tabletop impressions coming soon), I can honestly say I’ve never read a roleplaying game handbook like this before.
The layout of the core rulebook itself goes against the norms of the industry, with the first seventy pages dedicated to explaining the campaign setting of the game. And while many other roleplaying games have their own dedicated game settings as an ancillary addition to a core ruleset, Symbaroum makes it clear that its primary function is, first and foremost, to serve as a deeply detailed world for players to roleplay within.
The game takes place in a country in the middle of massive strife. A warrior queen and her people have recently colonized the wild northern lands, where they constantly trade and/or clash with the barbarian clans who previously occupied the region. A mountain range blocks off the south, and the dreaded and mysterious forest of Davokar fences off the north. That forest, full of old ruins and incredibly dangerous in and of itself, makes up most of the map of the core rulebook.
The book details, at length, many different towns, strongholds, and regions of the world, going into as much specificity as: describing the powerful people at play, describing the fluctuating costs of goods from town to town, and describing the hierarchical structures of different clans of people on the continent.
Players themselves can play as several different races of people, including two different types of humans; the regal, Queen’s army of Ambrians, or the tribe-centric Barbarians. They can also play as Changelings, elves that are switched with human babies at birth, and are predisposed to changing their shape. Then there are the “pariah” races, the short-lived Goblins and the hulking Ogres. Each of these races are presented as living, breathing races. This is one of the places where the book really shines. If you play as a Goblin, there’s a lot of information on how your people view, interact with, and are constantly rebuffed by the world around you. I’ve never encountered a system so dedicated to making you feel like you belong in the world as this.
From there, players choose from there major archetypes: Warrior, Mystic, and Rogue. From there, players can choose (or disregard) available subtypes within each archetype, such as the Warrior’s Knight or Sellsword, the Mystic’s Witch or holy Theurg, the Rogue’s Treasure Hunter or Witch Hunter, and more. After abilities are chosen and equipment bought, that’s just about that. And a character creation that may, on the surface, seem daunting (with all the lore available for players to dive into) in the end it’s streamlined and straightforward.
The game itself is governed by eight defining characteristics that each player assigns points toward, including: Accurate, Cunning, Discreet, Persuasive, Quick, Resolute, Strong, and Vigilant. Unlike most modern D20-based tabletop RPGs, the goal of Symbaroum is to roll equal to or under your ability when trying to succeed at a task (or trying to evade danger). In another diversion from traditional RPG design, with Symbaroum the Game Master makes no roles, all dice rolls are made by the players.
My only complaint with Symbaroum is that certain rules, including the idea of Corruption, are broken up and sprinkled throughout the rules. So to understand exactly how you “gain corruption,” you’ll have to bounce around several chapters of the book. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it can interrupt your train of thought. This is mitigated by the fact that, once you’ve read all the rules you need to know, the game is perfectly straightforward.
A note on “chrome”
Symbaroum has some of the most beautiful oil painting-style illustrations I’ve seen in an RPG. Forget about bursts of orange flames spewing from an emerald green dragon’s mouth, or snow-white elves giving peace signs in an Autumn grove, the world of Symbaroum is washed out and moody. Not in a “edgy” “dark-sided” way, but in a way that immediately evokes a sense of loss, of time and nature conquering innovation, of corruption seeping its way into everything. The illustrations by Martin Grip are so crucial to the vibe of the game overall, that it would feel empty without them.
The bottom line:
Symbaroum is a roleplaying game that truly rewards players investing in, and being curious about, the world their game takes place in. It wouldn’t do at all to show up to a new game of Symbaroum and say “I’m a Goblin Assassin, why am I in this tavern and how do I know the rest of you?” This game book begs to be read. It’s the kind of book you don’t stop thinking about when you put it down. When it first came in the mail I wasn’t expecting to read it like a novel, but I couldn’t put it down. I’ve been thoroughly transported to Davokar.
Get this game if...
You thrive in a well-established setting.
You want to try a rules system that feels different, but not completely alien.
You’re interested in exploring a deep fantasy world.
Avoid this game if…
You want to be the high-flying hero of an action-heavy RPG.
You prefer miniatures and heavy tactics over theater of the mind.
You don’t like to read.
You’re a goblin hater.
What do you think of the world of Symbaroum? Will it be hitting your table any time soon? Let us know in the comments below.
The copy of Symbaroum used for this review was provided by Fria Ligan.