Approximate time to read: 3 minutes.
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.