D is for Despair and Dismay

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Approximate time to read: 4 minutes.   

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown

The stress and trauma of dealing with the sights and experiences in Davokar can simply overwhelm even the stoutest of folk. It isn’t a conscious reaction, but the bodies own defences kicking in as sensation threatens to overwhelm and survival becomes paramount.

NoteI had a very clear idea where I wanted to go with this entry and what I wanted to achieve, as I felt that the setting of this A-to-Z Challenge demanded that Symbaroum have a mechanic to handle sanity. However, I have not had the opportunity to test this mechanic (or the following Trait), so I welcome your feedback if you do get a chance to try it (and I will test it myself when the chance arises!). — Paul


In game terms, Maximum Despair represents the player character’s finite reserve in handling stress and trauma when faced by inhuman acts and supernatural threat. As a character becomes overwhelmed the body reacts defensively, cutting mechanisms intended as a means to protect from further harm – but, invariably, counter to their ability to effectively handle outside threats.

Calculating Despair

A player character calculates their Maximum Despair as:

Maximum Despair = (Resolute←Cunning)

Despair Threshold (like Pain Threshold) is half this, rounded up. After calculating the Threshold, raise Maximum Despair to 5 – though such a delicate wallflower of a scholar knows too much to genuinely consider a journey outside the doors of his library.

For example, Bartolom, Wizard of Ordo Magica, has a Despair/Threshold of 12/6, as his Cunning is 13 and Resolute is 15 (15 (10-13 = -3)). His companion Karla, barbarian Ranger, has a Despair Threshold of 13/7, as her Cunning is 7 and Resolute is 10 (10 (10-7 = +3).

Handling Despair

When a witness to an extreme or traumatic experience, the character makes a Resolute test, modified by the degree of despair (see table below for examples). In some cases, where the experience relates to a specific unnatural vision or entity, special rules or modifications may apply.

Normal0Sudden vicious assault; receive news of the death of a friend or loved on; discover brutally dismembered animal
Grueling-1Murderous attack by a stranger; bizarre or repulsive event that defies explanation; discover a dismembered body
Hard-3Gore or innards issuing from a personal wound; murderous attack by a friend or loved one; witness sacrifice of a stranger; witness torture of a loved one
Difficult-5Watch a friend sacrificed; experience brutal torture
Absurd-8Watch a loved one sacrificed; witness loved one become an abomination

A player character that fails their test acquires 1D6 points of temporary Despair. Despair of any kind represents a Lingering effect (and, therefore, Steadfast serves to resist it at Novice and Adept level ratings). Despair accrued represents a gathering sense of hopelessness and anxiety that gnaw away at the character’s soul. It dissipates at the end of Scene, as the character recuperates, takes stock, and gathers their wits about them.

Experiencing Trauma

If the characters total Despair (temporary and permanent) reaches or exceeds the character’s Despair Threshold, they gain 1 (one) point of Permanent Despair and roll 1D6 twice on the Trauma table:

1Shake - Disfavor on next Active testTunnel VisionRoll Accurate tests at -3
2Rabbit - Disfavor on next Defense testWithdrawalRoll Vigilant tests at -3
3Dive - Can only use Movement Actions for next turnUnresponsiveRoll Quick tests at -3
4Scream - Everyone aware of character; they cannot be Discreet this turnEnfeebledRoll Strong tests at -3
5Blackout - Character drops to the bottom of the Initiative orderSusceptibleRoll Resolute tests at -3
6Balk - character backs away, which gives any engaged opponent a Free AttackBefuddledRoll Cunning tests at -3

Reaction represents the immediate response by the character, affecting their activity in their next turn. If they have already acted before they hit the threshold, the Reaction takes hold in their next turn.

Condition represents the ongoing penalty experienced for the remainder of the Scene. They have become overwhelmed by the experience and should, ideally, get the heck outta Dodge at the next opportunity.

Complete Despair

If the characters total Despair (temporary and permanent) ever reaches or exceeds their Maximum Despair, they become lost to the world – utterly catatonic, comatose, or mad beyond help. They can have a final action or mutter some memorable token of wisdom, but they’re gone for good and it’s time to roll up a new character.


Some of the creatures and entities that persist in the lands of the north and across Davokar fill those who even see them with a creeping sense of disquiet and distress. Oftentimes, that gnawing dread arises from the unearthly or deathless state of the monster bearing down on them; in the case of the Saar-Kahn, the horrific body mutilation and exaltation in the blood of the enemies tears at the very soul, filling even the hardiest with a sense of cold dread.

I Passive The creature’s presence forces player characters within melee distance to make a Resolute test at -2, each turn. Failure overcomes the character with a creeping dread. For the next turn, add 1D4 to any roll for non-Passive Abilities.
II Passive The creature’s aura of dismay effects all within ranged weapon distance to make a Resolute test at -4. One test is made each turn, and should the test fail, that character gives in to the chill in their soul. For the following two turns, roll and add an extra die to the throw for any test of non-Passive Abilities; first turn, add 1D6, second turn, step down to 1D4. In addition, they immediately add 2 points to their temporary Despair.
III Passive The creature’s overwhelming presence sends waves of despondency and consternation, which effects all of those within line of sight, forcing them to make a Resolute test at -8, each turn. Should the test fail, roll and add an extra die to the throw for any test of non-Passive Abilities; first turn, add 1D8, second, 1D6, third, step down to 1D4. In additional, they immediately add 4 points to their temporary Despair.

Note: The nature of Dismay makes Leader a valid defence, so a character with this Ability can choose to ‘defend’ themselves with Persuasive instead of Resolute.

Faced with a Collector of Faces, Orlan of the House Daar (Persuasive 13, Resolute 10) comes under the influence of the creature’s Dismay (II) Trait. With Leader, the player rolls a Persuasive test with a penalty of 4, requiring a roll of 9 or less. Alas, the test fails with a roll of 14, and Orlan feels the creature’s influence chill his bones like ice water.

Shuddering he hefts his two-handed sword to attack the Collector. With Dominate, the player rolls using Persuasive to attack, penalised by 6 for the creature’s Defence. The player needs to roll 7 or less to strike true. Alas, Dismay means the player rolls 1D6 and adds it to any (non-Passive) Ability roll – in this case, the throw to attack. The 1D20 rolls 3, but the 1D6 shows 5 – for a total of 8; Orlan misses with his blade, his hands shaking, fingers struggling to keep a grip on the great blade.

Thanks to Isak Ström, who provided a vital sounding board and sanity check throughout the later developments of this article.

Support the Patreon campaign for The Iron Pact to fund the time and space for more Symbaroum articles, encounters, monsters and more.

Post is part of the #AtoZChallenge.


  1. From the little I’ve seen of this setting and your theme for the month, it seems you must have had plenty of choices for “D”…Despair, Dismay, Disquiet, Distress, Dread…

  2. I’m late to the party, but I just found this game. I wanted to find a suitable fear mechanic and this despair mechanic is pretty excellent and will work very well.

    My concern is, how would any character ever receive permanent despair? Witnessing the death of a loved one all but ensures that they will fail their Resolve test, but all they receive is 1d4 despair. Even at 4 despair, that would never reach anybody’s threshold, and since the despair dissipates at the end of the scene, I cannot see what situation would result in a character ever receiving permanent despair.

    • I’d suggest you just adapt the rule to your taste. For example, you might judge witnessing the death of a family member or close friend might deserve a straight increase in Permanent Despair by 1. Or, you could request an adjusted or increased roll, like a 1d6 or a 1d4+1 instead of the straight 1d4. Like all the rules in the game, adopt, adapt and improve!

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