A Tough Act to Follow

Approximate time to read: 7 minutes.   

When you put yourself in harms way, you set your life firmly on the line. Those who enter the field of battle without a solid plan, good armor and significant training will do so with genuine risk of death. A well placed sword could floor you and a quick opponent could finish you without retaliation.

Toughness, for most characters in Symbaroum, peaks at 18. Generally, everyone starts with at least 10. Over the course of a character’s career, the permanent score will never change. A rare tweak from Abilities or perhaps an Artefact could modify it a little, but otherwise the score stands.

For some, a perception of low survivability makes Symbaroum a challenge to Munchkin and power game – to find the perfect mix of character species, Abilities, Traits and Armor such that the blows of the enemy struggle to breach the character’s defenses.

For me, the low score for Toughness means much more.

Grim Worlds

The world of Symbaroum isn’t a pleasant place. The backdrop doesn’t makes life easy; less so for those who seek to make their lives from violence or lawlessness. That includes treasure-seekers. Few who enter the sprawling ruins and shadow-cloaked hallows of Davokar do so with good intentions. Treasure-seekers enter the haunts of Davokar to pillage.

Then again, it isn’t just the treasure-seekers. The whole Ambrian nations rises above plains and forests stained with the blood of barbarians, goblins, elves and others. The people of Alberetor did not come to an empty landscape, north of the Titans, and settle in for a peaceful existence. They have travelled north to escape war and ruin, then spread it the infection of violence.

The game of Symbaroum is not uniformly grimdark. Hope exists and the cycle of destruction and decline is not eternal. The people of Ambria can make a difference – and the player character could be the catalyst for that change. However, their is nothing black and white about the world – Symbaroum presents a palette of greys, a whole spectrum of them through which the characters must wade.

Against this back drop, people get hurt. Injury and death pervade the background; characters can expect to suffer wounds and carry the scars – physical, mental and social – that result from their decisions. This is not high fantasy; this is not a world replete with noble elder races, golden quests and ancient prophecies that offer a glimmer of hope.

Symbaroum presents a canvas for struggle, by races old and young, in the process of living through trying times, seeking understanding and alliance in the hope that it might rekindle the dying embers of this cycle. Treasure-seekers loot the ruins of the past seeking weapons rather than understanding; when lore comes from their delves, it provides sage lessons and harsh warnings.

Characters should carry their scars like medals of honour, a journal that tells something of the bad decisions they’ve made…

Meaningful Tactics

…because combat comes all too frequently out of weak tactics and strategies. When a character finds an enemies blade or teeth sinking into their flesh, they’re often suffering the reward for poor decisions and bad choices. Most enemies, even beasts, will fight only under extreme duress or threat to their own lives or their childrens’ lives. While a soldier might strike to kill on the field of battle, characters rarely find themselves in a similar situation.

Characters trespass on their territory of monsters or delves into ruins like common burglars. Without a plan and some measure of restraint, they likely deserve what comes to them.

When the conditions allow, players would be wise to come up with a plan that allows their characters to avoid direct confrontation. If the environment allows, sneaking and hiding would be the better option. In the Promise Land, for example, the possibility certainly exists to use subterfuge and distraction to avoid direct and damaging conflict.

Low Toughness should be a driver for this approach. As characters acquire more Abilities with Experience, but their Toughness remains threateningly low, they should use what they have to find more ways to avoid combat, not wade in faster. If the situation doesn’t allow stealth or the use of environment as a funnel or trap, then perhaps a few choice words will do.

Words More Than Deeds

Symbaroum offers pages and pages of combat Abilities, but little for social exchanges and challenges. That doesn’t mean that the designers of the game meant it to become a bloodbath, slogging through one combat after another. Social challenges should resolve through roleplaying rather than mechanics. You can use your own talents for deception and compromise, influenced by your character’s characteristics and Abilities, rather than resolve every social exchange with the clatter of dice.

Conversation and social challenges should come down to more than just the throw of a die; in turn, that means that you can rest your Toughness by speaking before you react. If you have a low Toughness score, consider words over deeds, reaction over action. If you have made the right contacts (or possess good Contact traits), you can leverage them to see you through and avoid barriers. Rather than battle the guards, why not bribe, coerce, intimidate or bluff them? If you have picked up a piece of information through your careful investigation or discovered a rumor in the local tavern, you could win over the support or assistance of someone who might otherwise have expired in a pool of their own blood.

I cannot easily set a number to the times I have read the words of a GM bemoaning the fact that players chose to have their characters kill a key non-player character. While the players might have made the poor decision driven by the blood lust of their characters, it could also be the GM failing to set the scene or the precedent that the softly softly approach pays dividends. If you can show the players that words have value – and even pay out in Experience sometimes – then they might set aside their weapons. Each scene comes with a challenge, but that doesn’t necessarily have to involve weapons or a dice throw. Make it a puzzle. If the NPC won’t offer something readily, the characters will need to find a way – those who trade in information, for example, may give something up in return for facts or rumour of equal value, backed by some shred of evidence or authenticity.

If the characters don’t have the information, maybe they know someone who does. Over the adventures that make up a campaign, characters should foster relationships with individuals and organisations, building up contacts (with a lowercase ‘c’). The challenge that ends a scene might require a particular truth that could only come from one group, sect or cause – and that might mean that only the goblin or Theurg, say, can fulfil the request due to their unique connections. A player might also ask the GM to translate ad hoc associations into mechanical benefits – upgrading contacts to Contacts. That makes sense when a player character has fostered their connections with many individuals of a common cause or purpose.

Let other people, and their words, win your battles for you!

Others Will Follow

You play a part, a single cog in the great mechanism of world events. At the conclusion, you will be long dead.

From the very first time I read Symbaroum, I could see the potential for ensemble play. This approach assumes that each player might guide many characters in their time. If the GM wants to run an adventure in a dungeon, the player can choose an appropriate character, one best suited to the challenge. Other times, a diplomat or an elf might be in order. At the greatest extreme, a player group might create characters that anyone can play – meaning that no single individual holds sway over a unique and personal character. Maybe one player likes the challenge of creating a group of emissaries, diplomats and spies – then in the game itself, all the players get the chance to choose one to play.

Like the pregenerated characters in the core book, ensemble characters can have a little colourful background but leave enough room for development and individual play style. A player can add notes – so that if someone else plays that character down the road they can take on the additional history and connections, perhaps developing them further. Characters become a work of cooperative fiction, as much as the story of the campaign itself. Everyone has a part to play in the heroic tale of each individual.

The GM might find it useful to foster an organisation of sorts in this circumstance. If the various characters the players create all worship a specific Old God or follow a particular cause, it will make it simpler to explain the nature of the group and their common motivations. On the other hand, characters might also keep contacts and set down journals so that if they die others can pick up their trail. Like a narrator telling the tale of a dead protagonist in a story, the purpose or goal of a group can live on in those that follow in their footsteps.

Toughness becomes part of the story – the expiry of one character giving motivation and direction to another who chooses to follow. Better yet, the very fragility of an individual can give drives to the next character in the chain – a sense of justice, curiosity, revenge, or right.

Cherish Your Weakness

A low Toughness is not a challenge to game the system, but an important tool in setting the scene, telling a tale, and building a heroic fantasy against a grim backdrop. On the recurring apocalyptic cycle, Symbaroum characters live to make their mark, set their stall, and stain the scene with their life blood. They have a part to play, but that does not depend on their survival – they have a legacy to impart and a story to which they add but a chapter.

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  1. I agree with your point that a high lethality system encourages players to think and strategize. This has been true throughout my experience in any game system.

    I disagree with the assertions that designers didn’t mean for the game to become a bloodbath and that social challenges should resolve through RP, not mechanics.

    Game design guides play. Like above, a highly lethal design guides players to strategize. If you want to encourage your players/characters to think of alternative approaches to situation, even if its just how to best maximize the odds in the combat to come, then high lethality is a great design choice.

    If the game does not have social mechanics, then its not about IC social interaction. Likewise, if you claim a game is about social discourse or exploration, but the only tools given to the players by way of their characters are combat abilities, then the game is really about combat, which is, unfortunately, mostly what Symbaroum presents.

    Now, Symbaroum does have a social system. You’ve got Persuasion and Resolute. You’ve got traits like Contacts, Pariah, and Privileged. You’ve got… ok, it kind of ends there. Its an anemic social system, but its still there. It would be better and more attractive to players if it were bulked up, but Symbaroum is not the only game to take this approach.

    To dismiss the system out of hand with the all too common “social challenges should resolve through RP, not mechanics” is telling people that those things, that system, does not matter. Go sink everything back into combat. Its a slippery slope towards min-maxing. Even if the “RP is informed by the sheet”, without at least the occasional check to reinforce the importance of the system, well, the system will get ignored.

    Where this mentality is “eh” of an issue at the table, because, hey, how you play your game can totally different from how I play my game and that’s OK, it creates a larger issue of fostering the idea that social systems in games don’t matter and that those stats can be completely ignored. This in turn can cause issues when people who accept that style go to other games. In these situations I routinely encounter folks RPing well beyond the ability of their characters because of this learned behavior.

  2. Personally I dont feel a system needs “mechanics” to resolve social interaction at all. Thats what Roleplaying is for. Even in the early days when D&D was pretty much a combat system only, the games were full of interesting and dynamic social exchanges. Sure, some rules systems seem to provide more tools for this sort of thing but a creative GM and an immersed player can do the same thing without a single die roll or stat. Our games of Symbaroum are thick with this sort of thing in part because, as mentioned here, when the swords clear the sheathes it tends to get nasty.

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