This is a mirror of this Twitter thread, which was written in real time as I read the Symbaroum Starter Set. It hasn’t been edited in any way. You can pick up Cypher System from Amazon. You can also leave a tip at Ko-Fi if you like this kind of content and want to see more of it. I post these tweet mirrors to Detritus at least a week before they go live on Loot The Room. This post isn’t affiliated with or sponsored by Free League in any way, though the Amazon link above does use an affiliate code. Thanks for reading.
I didn’t get a chance to sit and read a game this weekend, but today is clear so I’m going to take the opportunity to read the Symbaroum starter set from Free League!
As always this will be a long thread with no real aim in sight, just me reading the book(s) and musing about it as I go. It’s not a review.
I may get things wrong. I may not like things you like. I may like things you don’t like. That’s all fine.
Here’s what I know about Symbaroum going in to this read:
Absolutely nothing. Literally nothing. I picked it up because I’m a sucker for a boxed set (I grew up in the AD&D 2e era of boxed sets) and because the art looked cool.
I haven’t even read the back of the box. My assumptions based purely on the front cover and the tag line “treasure hunts in Davokar” are that this is a dungeon exploration game.
We’ll see, I guess! The back of the box gives us a bit of lore/history/flavour/fiction/whatever you want to call it. I immediately get big THIS GAME IS ABOUT ARTEFACT CAMPAIGNS vibes and I love that. The Rod Of Seven Parts and Axe of The Dwarvish Lords are part of my DNA as a gamer.
We’re promised an “easy to learn and highly flexible ruleset”, two adventure locations and rules for making our own, some dice, two maps, and some character sheets. Everything you need to start playing.
Let’s dig in. Before I even open the box I’m struck by the fact that I don’t actually know who wrote this game. With things like Pathfinder and 13th Age I could make some assumptions about what I was going to find based on the past work of the writers. That’s not the case here. I don’t know if you know this about me but I really like green, and this is a lot of green. This is very pleasing to me.
Let’s see what we can figure out before we crack open the books.
We’ve got a set of the 6 standard polyhedral dice, so I suspect we’re in “familiar if you’ve played D&D territory” as far as basic mechanisms go. Obviously I could be wrong about that. On the character sheets we’ve got what looks like 8 ability scores – Accurate, Cunning, Discreet, Persuasive, Quick, Resolute, Strong, Vigilant.
Sometimes the order of abilities can tell you something about what a game is interested in but these are alphabetical. We also have Toughness, Pain, and Corruption. I can make some guesses about how this works and what it’s purpose is but I’m not going to spend time trying to reverse engineer the game from the character sheets when I could just read the book.
Other things I can learn from the sheets:
Player races include Human, Goblin, Ogre, and ‘Mystical Being’
Occupations (classes?) include Knight, Witch Hunter, Treasure Hunter, Wizard, Bodyguard, and Theurg.
It also looks like we use XP as a currency? We’ll see. To the book!
Two things: first, the art is gorgeous.
Second, the book is organised in a really interesting way.
The very first thing in the book is an example of play and I think I love that? Sequencing a rulebook is hard. There’s this constant back and forth about whether it’s best to put rules text or character creation first. One goal is always to reduce page flipping and make a book usable. But it’s hard for players to make decisions about their characters without knowing how the game works, and it’s often hard to take in rules without the context of what characters look like and what they do. Putting the example of play up front before anything seems like a really smart thing to do and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it more often. It seems obvious now I’m looking at it.
Hopefully it’s a good example of play. Back to the contents.
We then have chapters on the setting, characters, races and traits, tradition and powers (which I guess is the classic divine/arcane magic split), combat rules, and then “Other Rules”.
There’s going to be fighting in this game.
I really love this typeface.
The example of play is really short, and interestingly it takes over from a section of fiction which is a conceipt I really like.
Here’s what it looks like as narrative. Here’s what it looks like in play.
Things we learn from the example of play:
It’s a d20 roll under stat system.
And that’s about it. That’s a little disappointing if I’m being honest. I was prepped to go into the rest of the book with a decent idea of how the game works.
But that’s fine. It does a good job of setting up the tone of the game, at least. It’s also made it clear that if something is easy or your have a skill that’s relevant then you don’t need to roll, which is something I really like. We’ll see how that’s borne out by the rules as we get into them. (I will say that I love reading fiction in rulebooks but that I wish it was more common than not for the fiction to be really good)
I’ve sort of grown tired of reading “What is a role-playing game?” sections in books because most games aren’t going to be someone’s first RPG. That said, I think it’s totally fair to include them in something that’s explicitly a Starter Set and the Symbaroum one is pretty good
I particularly like this paragraph that says, “yeah, you’re going to have to go off script and make shit up, you can’t account for everything”. A lot of new GMs struggle with that and often don’t even know that’s something they’re meant to do, so this is good.
Earlier it describes the GM as “something of a real-time director” and I much prefer that to, say, descriptions of the GM as some kind of god figure. The next section gives us details about the world. Personally I tend to bounce of in-depth worldbuilding in game texts. I just struggle to take it all in when I’m reading it in a big chunk; I prefer to develop it organically during play.
But there’s a good thematic core here. The world is in a state of massive upheaval that’s happened quickly, but one thing remains true: the forests of Davokar contain secrets, treasures, and the ruins of ancient Symbaroum, and the deeper you go the more there is to be discovered – but also the more danger there is. I like the emphasis on rumour, the fact that the stories about the forest – and the reasons you don’t venture there – can’t be trusted. That’s a nice juxtaposition to the truths of the world at large, and means you don’t need to worry so much about ‘canon’ as you play. I sort of love this added level of infuriating bureaucracy on top of the game, too. Of course the powers that be place a tax on people exploring the forest. This is a nice source of external conflict aside from the monsters etc in the forest.
One thing I’ll give the large Setting section is that it’s packed full of hooks (which should be a given, but isn’t always the case). I particularly like, “the elf wardens of Davokar claim that the human race consented to leaving the forest in their care and swore never to set foot in the depth of Davokar again.”
We’re onto the chapter on Player Characters, and this is where I’m held back by the fact that this is a starter set. The box comes with 5 premade characters but doesn’t actually contain character creation rules – they’re in the Symbaroum Core Rulebook. Which isn’t a criticism of the starter set. It’s not just designed to get you playing the game, it’s also designed to sell you the main rulebook, so it makes sense that some stuff would be missing.
It’s frustrating for me today but that’s just the nature of starter sets. As an aside, I really like these glyphs dotted throughout the book in sidebars. They do a better job of selling the idea of an ancient, lost civilization deep in the forest than 10 pages of history ever could.
The text explicitly calling out that it’s not just the job of the GM to provide fun to the players is something I really like and I wish I saw more often.
Because we’re not learning about how to make characters, we get straight into how the game works on a mechanical level. It sounds like the GM doesn’t roll dice, which surprises me and I’m not sure I can quite explain why
At its core it’s d20 under stat with situational modifiers
I bounce off the way this is described hard. Something about the way my brain works means that the second I see square brackets, letters for variables, and even the most basic of mathematical symbols (i.e. ±) my cognitive abilities just turn to mush.
Oh, Symbaroum, it was going so well. I was liking you so much. And then you went and ruined it with point buy and standard arrays.
(I’m mostly kidding but also I’m deadly serious)
(I just like rolling for stats don’t @ me)
Okay but if weret being serious I do like that all creatures in the game work the same way in theory. It depends how much additional detail is needed for monsters. If I need a full character sheet for every enemy then that’s too much but on the surface, this is nice and easy. Your other stats – Toughness, Pain Threshold, Defense, Corruption Threshold – are derived from your core stats. I don’t yet know if monsters and NPCs also have these stats but I’d guess that if they do, they work in the same way. I do appreciate them pointing this 80 points thing out in the starter set, too. Even though there’s no explicit rules for character creation, you could probably piece them together from what’s here. This art of the Mystic absolutely fucks, I love it
We’re moving on to abilities now, and picking up some more stuff about how the game works even though we haven’t hit the rules for combat yet. You get two Actions each Turn, you act in Initiative order, and you also have Free actions, plus Passive actions that are always active. The sentence “Passive Actions are always active” bothers me because something can’t be both passive and active at the same time, but here we are.
Note to self; don’t call things Passive Abilities in my own games. I like the Mystical Power ability. Obviously I don’t know how abilities are gained yet etc. but if I’m reading it right it seems like all characters have access to magic, and I always enjoy that. I like magic being tied to Corruption, too. A lot of the stuff I like about this game so far reminds me of Trophy Dark, weirdly, even though they’re very different games in terms of what they set out to do. I really like that the core races in this game are ones that are usually treated as being monstrous in other dungeon games. The starter set gives you Human Ambrian, Goblin, and Ogre. The core rules expand this to include Human Barbarian and Changeling. The Advanced Player’s Guide also includes Troll, Dwarf, and Undead. (I won’t get into my rant about publishing models again).
So no Dwarfs as standard. No playable Elves. No halflings or gnomes.
I like this. I also like that some of the racial traits are optional – you don’t have to purchase them at character creation. You’re not tied to one view of what these ancestries look like. We’re on to Tradition and Powers, and so far my favourite sentence in the book:
“The powers not only manipulate but also violate the fabric of the world, something which makes the world strike back – in the form of Corruption.”
It’s also confirmed that characters don’t need to belong to or practice any of the traditions to learn magic and I genuinely love that. More games give magic to everyone, please. I’m learning so much more about the world by reading about the various schools of magic than I did from the chapter specifically designed to teach me about the world. I really love the different attitudes and aporjaches to Corruption specifically. According to the Starter Set there are only 25 powers in the Core Rulebook, and only 4 are included here.
And I’m torn on that. 25 doesn’t seem like many, but also how many of the hundreds of spells in a game like D&D do most players ever actually use? Of course we also have Rituals – which take longer to cast – and I have no idea how many of those exist in the full game. Onto the Combat Rules chapter, and it’s reiterated very clearly this time that the GM doesn’t roll dice. Enemies instead do static damage that’s modified by players rolling an Armor die.
We start with a Narrative Tutorial, and then the rules follow. The way rolls are modified when rolling against other creatures (the example given is of a guard) makes use of modifiers attached to the value of the enemy’s stats. I remember seeing a sidebar with these modifiers listed earlier in the book, but they aren’t listed elsewhere. This is the kind of stuff that would be really handy on a rules reference, something that’s missing from this box set. It’s also what I tend to use GM screens for. (Having flicked back to the list of modifiers, they’re actually very easy to remember. 10 is ±0 and then the modifier goes 1/1 with stats, with 15 being -5 and 5 being +0. Still, that would be nice to have in this chapter.)
We get another example of play here, this one written less clearly than the one at the start of the book but showing how combat works. It seems pretty straightforward, although there’s lots of rolling happening that’s all on the players to do. I’m always interested in the way games that don’t use grids for combat approach movement when they have specific Movement actions (in Symbaroum you have two action per turn – one for Combat Actions and one for Movement Actions).
In this case they basically just don’t care. “Normally, the exact distance is not of any great importance.”
Nice and easy, and that’s my preferred solution. It does go on to say that the Movement Action represents 10 paces, which is 10 metres – or about 30 feet – if you need it to be more specific. But the game doesn’t care, it doesn’t think distances are important, you just need to know if you’re in melee range or not. And that, I think, is the best way of dealing with it. It’s not a game about positioning and tactics, really. Interestingly, a sidebar says that the Core Rulebook also includes rules for Line Of Sight and Flanking, so I wonder if the full game is a little more concerned with grids and exact positioning than the Starter Set? That wouldn’t surprise me, since the aim of a Starter Set is to get you playing and having fun quickly, rather than getting you bogged down in lots of rules. One thing I really like – the Pain Threshold.
If you suffer damage that exceeds it you’re basically staggered, and you either fall to the ground or your enemy gets a Free Attack against you. That makes big hits feel big and scary and I love it. “Monsters and non-player characters die as soon as their Toughness reaches 0, unless the GM wants something else to happen.”
One thing this book does really well is in simple things like this, that acknowledge that GMs are going to fudge things for dramatic effect sometimes. We also have Death Tests for players which are functionally identical to Death Saves in 5e except that you want to roll low, not high, so I don’t need to spend much time talking about that. We’re moving on from combat now and into the section helpfully titled Other Rules.
The first thing we learn is that the basic unit of time in Symbaroum is a Scene. All situations have to include a challenge – and, hence, some risk – to count as a Scene. PCs earn Experience for each Scene they survive, so this is important.
Scenes without risk are called Interludes, and they don’t bring XP awards. We get a very brief section on Problem Solving – i.e. non-combat challenges that require die rolls. Extended Problems especially are very similar to 4e’s Skill Challenges, where the group as a whole must make multiple checks to succeed at something. There’s no mention here of abilities negating the need to roll, which was sort of implied by the example of play at the start of the book. I’m going to take a second to go back to that and take a look again, and also to look at the Ability it used. Okay, so the example in question showed a character rolling Quick to quickly run away from some enemies and start climbing some rocks, and another character following them. They said, “I have Acrobatics, do I have to roll?” and the GM said no. I strongly suspect that what we’re seeing here is rulings vs. rules, where the GM just said “sure, you can do that” because it makes sense and failure wouldn’t be as interesting as allowing the success and maintaining the pace of the encounter. Which is a cool thing to see in an example of play – the GM going off script and making a ruling that isn’t necessarily supported by the RAW of the game in order to keep things flowing. Moving on, it’s time to learn about Shadow and Corruption – which the start of this chapter tells us are “one of the elements that make Symbaroum unique”. Reading this section, I feel like it should have been much further forward in the rulebook because it speaks directly to the central themes of the game.
This section ends with the rules for Experience. You gain 1XP for each scene you complete. Purchasing a new Novice ability or power costs 10XP, upgrading one to Adept costs 20XP, and from Adept to Master costs 30XP. I’ve become really fond of level-less games recently, where players upgrade their characters as they see fit rather than a predictable linear progression. This is nice and straightforward and I think it would be really satisfying to save XP and upgrade abilities you want. The final chapter (aside from the one giving details about the pregen characters) is equipment. It’s pretty short and the equipment listed is fairly basic – again, starter set – but I like what I’m seeing.
I really like the Jointed property for flails.
There’s also a sidebar about using equipment to solve problems, telling GMs to reward creative play with a temporary +1 to the relevant attribute for that test. And that brings us to the end of Book 1: Starter Rules.
As a game it seems really straightforward. I like the setting, I like the weirdness and the inherent danger of magic. I’m going to take a look at Book 2: Setting & Adventures, though I probably won’t go as in-depth here. It opens with some good general tips for GMs – things to do before a session, best practices for running games (including “Say YES”) and things to do after the session.
It’s fairly basic stuff if you’re experienced but for a beginner GM it all seems pretty useful. After a chapter detailing the starter town of Thistle Hold – described as the heart of the setting – we get into ‘Expeditions in Davokar’. We get guidelines for handling travel in the forest, and I love that it refers to “excavations”.
Archaeological horror LET’S GO. The section on Excavations – a system of rolls to determine what you find after uncovering a Ruin in the forest – is a good example that a game is more than what’s contained in its text. If you played exactly as written then your game would be little more than a roll and write. The game is what happens in the spaces around the text, what happens in play, at the table, when you’ve set the rules aside and are just engaging in shared storytelling.
After this chapter we get Monsters & Adversaries, and with that come our first stat blocks. I’m glad to see that even though enemies use the same stats as characters, they’re expressed as modifiers. No need for thet chart after all.
The end of the book contains two short adventures – some crypts to explore, and an expedition to a ruined tower. They do a good job of setting up the world, the various factions in Davokar, and of showing you what Symbaroum exorcts players to be doing. All in all I really like this Starter Set. It’s done a great job of hooking me and making me want to run the game, and I’m very tempted to pick up the core rules. It seems designed explicitly to run a West Marches style game, pressing into the forest and discovering weird shit.
Based on the starter set alone the game doesn’t seem to be doing anything wildly innovative, but that’s fine. The Corruption mechanism does a nice job of reinforcing the themes of the game and the setting, and I can see it being a lot of fun to engage with long term. I really like the non-standard races and classes, and I like that the scope of the game is quite tight and focused. It doesn’t really care about the world at large – it’s just the forest, and the things within it.
And that’s…really all I have to say about Symbaroum? It’s a gorgeous product, I definitely want to play it, and I’m going to buy at least the Core Rulebook and probably the bestiary as well at some point. Thanks, as always, for sticking with me with this thread.
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