Whither Davokar?

Approximate time to read: 3 minutes.   

I’m Not Giving Up, I’m Just Starting Over


When you’ve been around as long as The Iron Pact (more than 5 years gaming in the World of Symbaroum), you hear the same thing time and again. I read fellow old-timer palinola respond to a comment, “The game isn’t just combat,” on Reddit with the words:

99% of what you can do to build a character is combat abilities though.

u/palinola of Ordo Magica

And that’s the truth of the matter. After more than five years of enjoying Symbaroum as a setting, I can’t escape it. The lush artwork and the deep back story act as an anchor to gamers who appreciate the grim fantasy settings and the corrupt darkness.

Simultaneously, the game system aggravates those used to D&D and Pathfinder for the lack of options when it comes to min-max builds. Everyone ends up as either a raging Ogre dealing out bucketloads of damage or a black-hearted Sorcerer flinging Maltransformations and Bending Will with honed precision that drops the enemy in moments. The game system is geared toward combat’s mechanical support first and foremost; yet, it doesn’t quite have sufficient options or balance for the hardcore battlemat-wielding gamer.

In the midst of all of this, The Throne of Thorns campaign carries a weight of named non-player personalities sufficient to crush the will of the most accomplished and ardent roleplayer. Social interaction requires nothing much more than raw narrative-driving talent, while any conflict delivers a tabletop of clattering dice and gnashing teeth.

Heavy Lie the Mechanics

All of this doesn’t sully the appeal of the game. I hope that the Symbaroum Starter Set: Treasure Hunts in Davokar will bring more new players into the fold. It should; Davokar has a lot to offer.

That said, I wonder whether there’s more potential to revisiting the mechanics in a way that values the theme rather than the potential attraction of players alone. I’m not blind to the fact that the conversion to 5th Edition D&D is about wider accessibility and profit — no bad thing for a game company that wants to expand and thrive.

I have read queries about why Free League chose to release Symbaroum using something other than the Year Zero engine — but those questions are from those unaware of the history and merger with Jarnringen. Of course, it begs the question of why they haven’t considered it since the merger, or at least pondered the possibility of a conversion guide?

Games like Tales from the Loop and Alien tweak the Year Zero engine to make the mechanics support the theme; from the very personal level and freedom from permanent harm of the former to the tension and failure inspiring stress rules of the latter.

Symbaroum could do with a sympathetic reappraisal that takes it away from a homebrew system gone wild and recentres it on the diverse foci of a campaign in Ambria and Davokar. The current system handles the corruption well, but it needs greater support for exploration, travel, personal interaction and a downplaying of the combat system. You can make fighting brutal and gritty, maintaining the grim fantasy tone, without all the mechanical cruft accrued through an ad hoc expansion of the character creation options over the years.

Basic and Simple

I wouldn’t suggest releasing Symbaroum‘s setting as the chassis on the Mörk Borg ruleset, but the solution isn’t far off. Mörk Borg is perhaps too far in the other direction, too stripped down by far. However, it does have the same compelling visual anchor for gamers and the setting material does a great deal to add meat to the nigh-on non-existent skeleton.

When I released Davokar, I had that thought in mind. A stripped-back ruleset to underlie the rich setting. Davokar too is a step too far, but it’s what Symbaroum needs; simplicity would do the system a world of good and swing the focus away from combat alone into the setting proper.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it feels like it falls somewhere inbetween. I’m aware that fans have tried to rework the existing system or replace it with generic vehicles like Fate; that might be the way to do it, and isn’t far from what I’m saying about Year Zero or Mörk Borg.

I think, as time passes, I’ll take a swing at considering the options and post links to those other varied efforts that fans have tried themselves. I love Symbaroum too much not to try to find some middle ground, while keenly aware that the answer isn’t Rules As Written.


  1. I realise that this doesn’t address the question of why there isn’t an official Symbaroum YZE version, but there is actually at least one fan-made YZE hack (using the Forbidden Lands ruleset, to be exact). I say “at least”, because while only one has been released on the Year Zero Worlds Discord server, a couple of other people have stated that they are also working on their own versions.

  2. Great to see you still back commenting on Symbaroum Paul

    To my dismay I find myself agreeing with most of your comments

    When the art and lore suggest survival horror, but the ruleset feels like a skirmish wargame its hard not to feel frustration at the seemingly wasted potential.

    Ironically I quite like the Symbaroum system and have found some rule gems hidden amongst the min-max gamers fantasy, but I can certainly see the validity in your suggestion of looking at Year Zero or Mork Borg style systems. However, I must admit to not liking the dice pool mechanic of Year Zero and find Mork Borg very much style over substance.

    With the amount of time and money I have invested into Symbaroum I hope Free League don’t go down either of these routes (or heaven forbid 5E), but will re-evaluate what they are actually trying to give us.
    Now The One Ring has been added to Free Leagues stable the innovation I am looking for may actually appear.

    In the meantime I’ll keep working on my Frankenstein Symbaroum ruleset until it is ‘perfect’

    • Always been around; I’ve just be focussed on personal projects!

      I, too, like a lot about Symbaroum — I wouldn’t have continued writing for so long on the game if nothing excited me about it. However, I always come back to the imbalance between combat and everything else… Organic, homebrew development has served the game well in the setting, but the system creaks a lot with every new player, group and supplement.

      • I think you’re right in suggesting a simplification of the system is the way to go.
        The obvious choice to reign in the min maxing is archetypes, but I have always enjoyed the free form nature of Symbaroum character creation.

        Will we ever see a Symbaroum 2.0, I hope so but have my doubts the drive is there for the overhaul that’s required

  3. Been using forbidden lands with a los of tweaks over a year and works fine, much better than original Symbaroum rules, more balanced, less combat oriented( not much) and fairly good travel rules, but in the long run the system fails too, too many dice for the rolls, too many rolls per action, hit/ defend/ armor. Even we greatly capped the xp and increased the cost of skills and talents.

    For a long long campaign like throne of thorns( we playing 1/week since 2018) forbidden lands/year zero is better but no perfect.

  4. Honestly I think this is mostly on the GM. I usually only have about one combat encounter per session and social encounters the rest. I have no issue having social encounters rely on the basic characteristics, the abilities and the player characters background. Not just the loremaster ability, if they have the alchemy ability they probably have knowledge in chemistry, herbs and other substances, if they have beast lore they know a lot about animals, if they have acrobatics they’re probably better at climbing. I often have the characters background have as big effect on social encounters, where are they from, what kind of job did they have, what kind of people have they hung out with. I love the symbaroum system and I think it’s easier if you consider it a modern/OSR hybrid where the combat is closer to modern systems and the social part is more like OSR.

    Regarding the min-maxed build. I always tell me players I will adapt the encounters after them so they should never feel the need to powerplay. another thing I love about the symbaroum system, anything can be countered, the opponents can have the same abilities and then some more (monstrous traits).

    • Well said. I have yet to run a game myself, so I’m not really qualified to delve too deeply, but I have read the books, and I tend to find the “no social abilities” argument lacking. I have been running Mork Borg, and though it’s a light system, I’ve never had any complaints on people dealing with things beyond combat or in a more granular fashion. I mean, do we really need specific skills for every single action? I don’t think so. We have plenty of attributes to make that roll, plus background characteristics as you use.
      More rules/abilities/skills don’t necessarily give you more options. Sometimes using backgrounds and base stats are what you need, otherwise people start thinking they can’t do something unless they have X skill.

      • So true. I don’t even think the Boons & Banes from the Advanced Players Guide add something to the experience either. They might be good for players who still want to find their way into role-playing, but handing out a Difficulty Modifier based on Background and (Campaign-) Experience is more rewarding and easier to handle at the table. It will not contradict any rules and not put any player at a disadvantage, if he had to purchase the Ability, Boon or Bane. To be honest, if a player comes up with a background story of being a blacksmith, why not just handing him that Ability? How often will it actually come up in a session or story line for it being relevant?
        I always say to my players: as long as they can bullshit me into something, I’ll hand them a modifier. No rules necessary.

        As far as Abilities go: I really want to ignore most of them (did it once), especially the ‘Professions’ ones. I can understand Combat Abilities, as Combat is (hopefully) very abstract to most of us and needs more structure. But social and professional/trades Abilities are utterly useless to me, as these experiences will be gained through game sessions and story experience. Abilities should be reserved for ‘cool’ things, something where in-game-world-people would recognise a character for. A master Blacksmith, the guy who tracked down the untraceable, the Monster Hunter everybody speaks of. Using Abilities to represent mundane things is just … disappointing and a waste of experience points (if you use them).

  5. I’ve also looked at other rulesets to adapt for Symbaroum, but always go back to Symbaroum itself. The basic mechanics (Attribute, modified by adversary or difficulty, and roll under) is the quickest, most intuitive and easy to read once rolled I’ve seen.

    Another great overlay to that mechanic is, as Jesper and Jason said, to always consider the background and Abilities or Traits as influential in the rolls, substracting difficulty if appropiate or even making a roll unnecessary. A character with Dominate will have an easier chance to impress an crowd when rolling Persuasive, for example.

    My main problem is with how quick the different abilites (from the players and from the adversaries) stack, so that as a GM you have to study many of them if a combat is to flow without constant interruptions. And also that my experience is that combat is too deadly. It’s easy to deal a large amount of damage and Toughness almost never increases. That makes some combats so quick, that they aren’t even dramatic.

    First of all, I’d advise against including too much combat in any given adventure. That’s a matter of design, not rules, of course.
    Then, I’d simplify the effects of most Abilities as much as possible, so that they aren’t so difficult to learn on the fly.
    And last, I’d reduce the number of Active Abilites an adventurer or enemy can gain, so you don’t have to worry about how 10 different Abilities work midcombat.

    I don’t mind having a combat system that’s more precise than the system for interactions. In fact, I’ve never found a system for interactions that works without feeling that it is too intrusive in the flow of the conversation.

    But a small and light system for travels through Davokar, that adds fatigue and perils, but not necessarily need to roll on tables, would be welcomed.

    • I think that Symbaroum adds layers of complexity on more than one level without providing sufficient support or consideration to the GM. When you’re the creator, you might be blind to this complexity, but that’s part of the challenge and isn’t always managed as well as it might be. Not only does the system become more complex and interlinked as the experience of the characters increases, but the sheer scale and complexity of the campaign, too. I’ve recently been running Impossible Landscapes for Delta Green. This 300+ page campaign has a lot of advice on running it, replacing characters without losing the connective tissue of the interlinked adventures, and considering how characters from one adventure might appear in others. The key feature beyond this is a book (Static Protocol) that specifically catalogues the key characters, locations, and events alphabetically, with a summary of notes around their actions and activities before and during the campaign. Symbaroum’s Throne of Thorns needs a book like that. To be clear, Static Protocol is not necessarily all-new material — it’s a mix of clues from the campaign text combined with a few extra key avenues of investigation. If you had that for every character, location and faction in Thorns, it would go a long way to helping a GM from not drowning amidst the myriad points scattered across the campaign.

    • > And last, I’d reduce the number of Active Abilites an adventurer or enemy can gain, so you don’t have to
      > worry about how 10 different Abilities work midcombat.

      We use the ‘Pyramid ‘ approach for this: you will need 3 Novice & 3 Adept Abilities first, before being able to step up one Adept to Master level. This keeps the ‘niche protection’ for characters.

      Also, Experience points are only used for ‘Feats’ during the game. In order to get a new Ability, players need to find a teacher (read: go on an adventure trip) and in order to step up an Ability a player needs to be at a meaningful tactical disadvantage three times (see my other comment about that). This way, the players engage with the combat situation (and environment) more and put themselves at risk by not being able to use their optimal capabilities. It enhances the RPG experience a lot – and also degrades the hunt for Abilities to something secondary. The players instead focus on the story, as they know I drop new Abilities and unexpected Ability upgrades here and there. We call it Milestones – they happen when the characters are ‘there’. (I never really ‘got’ these Experience Point systems with any RPG anyway. It just is counterintuitive for story arcs and tends to bring out the worst in character development, as players buy Abilities ‘they’ want, but not the ones that would make sense for their characters.)

  6. I found that nearly every Combat ability can be nullified by good tactics. At my table, tactics are being role-played (we do not need confining rules for this) and if a character (monster, player, adversary) finds himself in a tactical disadvantage, a few things might apply:

    – he might not use some Abilities
    – weapons only do their Category Damage
    – weapons cannot apply their Qualities
    – the character needs to use Accurate to attack

    We use a ‘Hindered’ marker to represent this tactical disadvantage.
    Tactical disadvantage does not automatically allow for being at an Advantage for the other player/character.

    How are tactical disadvantages created? Most of the time they are already there, but ignored at the table:
    – terrain: a swamp will hinder the Acrobat. Maybe also the Long Weapon fighter
    – a shield works wonders against a Long Weapon or Marksman
    – Iron Fist and Two Handed Force both rely on strength and room to apply it. A corridor, normal room, dense woodland, etc will make it impossible to wield a weapon with full strength. There’s a reason why short swords, daggers, spears were invented.
    – using a Jointed or Entangling weapon against a Shield Fighter does the trick. Or bash the shield away (-5 to attack, similar to the ‘Disarm’ manoeuvre in the advanced Players Guide).
    – a Tactician cannot apply his skills when being outnumbered or fighting against a Dominate(ing) character.
    – To be able to Dominate, you need to be healthy (above 50% of your Toughness and not affected by Poison or Disease).
    – a long weapon will still make it possible to act against a character with the Acrobat ability, when he tries to tumble away.

    There are many more examples to list here.

    I think people still have in their mind the ‘rule for everything’ approach, while it is so obvious to simply apply role playing and good reasoning to a situation.
    The rule system for Symbaroum is not ‘broken’ and I think it does not need ‘fixing’ – there just needs to be more advice on how to use the theatre of the mind approach to create engaging combats that feel alive.

    This is a role playing game after all and not a table top war-game. If I want to handle many rules for different tactics and situations, I’d rather play a good table top war game than a role playing game – they tend to have the better rules for that anyway and the players are just ‘in’ for that: combat.
    My table wants to have engaging battles, we want to remember the ‘time when the hero pulled off that trick’ – and there will never be enough rules to cover all our imagined situations – it can only be handled by role-play, a certain understanding at the table, good players and good game mastering.

    I really appreciate the rules of Symbaroum. Light, taught in 5 minutes and only covering 6 (!) pages in the Core Rule Book. The rest … you can actually throw it out, forget about the Abilities or ignore them completely, if you like. It won’t change much in a an actual gaming session (try it out!) – but it will change a lot in terms of free thinking and role play.

    The ‘GM centric’ or ‘Story telling’ approach is not for everyone, though. I bet a lot of ‘rules readers’ (but not actually ‘game players’) will disagree with a lot of what I’ve said above (“you need rules, otherwise it is a game of pretend”, “rule give players a baseline”, “rules are necessary to allow player actions”, etc.). In my experience this is not true, as I can strip down any RPG to its basics and still run it without a hitch – as long as I do not break/contradict the immersion.

    Players coming from rules heavy systems tend to have the most difficulties with the system, while new players or players coming from story telling game systems find it easy to grasp.


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