Monday, June 14, 2021

REVIEW: Symbaroum Starter Set

After more than four decades of playing fantasy RPGs, I don't really need any more. From an objective point of view, I already own more than I'll likely ever be able to play. Even so, it's pretty easy to pique my interest and I'm usually willing to give a new game or setting a try, especially if it's recommended to me by someone whose opinion I respect. 

That's how I first came into contact with Free League's Symbaroum. In the Before Time, when it was still possible to get together around a table to roll some dice with people, a local friend offered to run a session of the game. Unfortunately, world events prevented our ever playing another session, but I enjoyed myself enough that I found myself looking into Symbaroum from time to time. I even grabbed a copy of the Core Rulebook, reading it with great interest.

Then, earlier this year, Free League released a boxed Starter Set  and that caught my attention. Subtitled "Treasure Hunts in Davokar," the set consists of two 64-page softcover books (one a rulebook, the other an adventure compendium), a set of polyhedral dice, two double-sided maps, and six character sheets (five of them describing pre-generated characters). The box itself is incredibly sturdy, being thick and heavy, as well as deep enough to provide space for additional books or gaming materials. Simply as an artifact, it's quite impressive – all the more so thanks to the brooding, evocative artwork of Martin Grip. 

Many fantasy settings include one or more "dark lords" who menace the world, their depredations providing a backdrop for the heroics of the player characters. Symbaroum's setting takes a slightly different approach, occurring two decades after the conclusion of a generations-long war against such a foe. Though victorious, victory came at a price for the Kingdom of Korinthia. The land was devastated by dark magic and the only promise for the future seemed to lay to the north beyond the Titan Mountains, which legend held was the original homeland of the Ambrian people. Korinthia's queen led her subjects on a mass exodus to the edge of the vast Davokar Forest, where she established a new kingdom and, she hoped, a better life.

Davokar is ancient and huge. Within its boundaries are innumerable threats, from barbarian humans to ogres and other monsters. Also found within the dark forest are many ruins associated with the mythical fallen civilization of Symbaroum. As the subtitle of the Starter Set makes clear, the baseline activity of Symbaroum is venturing into Davokar in search of treasure within the ruins of the forest. It's a good starting point for a campaign, part dungeon crawl and part hex crawl, and has a great deal of potential for development over time, thanks in no small part to the large number of factions who also have interests in the ruins of Symbaroum. 

The one immediate drawback of the Starter Set is that its 64-page rulebook does not include rules for character generation. Instead, there are the aforementioned five pre-generated characters and pointers toward the separate Symbaroum rulebook. While I can understand why this was done, I think it's a mistake, especially when you compare it to older "basic" sets, which were complete, playable – albeit limited – games. From my limited knowledge, this seems a common approach nowadays. It's a reminder, I suppose, that I am old and my tastes and preferences are out of step with the times.

That caveat aside, the rulebook is attractive and its rules clear. Characters have eight attributes whose values range from 5 to 15. Most actions are handled by rolling under the attribute on a d20, with various modifiers being applied based on the level difficulty. Characters also have a profession, of which there are four in the Starter Set (warrior, mystic, hunter, and rogue). Professions provide access to abilities, which are a bit like a bundle of skills and/or talents, like Acrobatics or Loremaster or Tactician, in addition to certain mystical traditions. Abilities have three levels – novice, adept, and master – that represent increasing degrees of knowledge/experience, though only the first two levels are detailed in the Starter Set.

Player characters can come from one of several races, though (again) only a few of them are described here, namely Ambrians (humans), goblins, and ogres. Likewise, there are only two magical traditions (theurgy and wizardry) described here, leaving the Core Rulebook to present the others. Unlike the lack of character generation rules, the more limited information on topics like races or magic did not bother me and indeed even made sense in a Starter Set. The point in such a set is simply to introduce the game and its setting to newcomers, in order to give them a taste of the full experience rather than to overwhelm them with unnecessary options. I wish a similar approach had been applied to character generation, though I can understand why it was not adopted.

It's worth mentioning that Symbaroum's rules are what I've heard called "player facing." That is, the players roll all the dice when it comes to determining what happens to their characters. In combat, for example, players roll both to attack and enemy and to defend against their attack. The Game Master's role is simply to adjudicate the results of these rolls rather than make them himself. If you're used to older RPGs, it's a bit strange and, honestly, I'm not convinced that it adds anything worthwhile, except perhaps to alleviate the GM from having to be the one whose rolls could potentially kill a player character. On that point, it's also worth mentioning that the game's death rules are rather lenient in my opinion. A character whose Toughness is reduced to zero does not immediately die (unlike NPCs or monsters) but is simply dying, leading to a series of escalating rolls to determine when – or if – the character finally shuffle's off this mortal coil. This is probably my least favorite aspect of Symbaroum, but one's mileage may vary.

The second 64-page book details the game's setting and provides two introductory adventures, along with information on expeditions into Davokar and the monsters and adversaries to be found therein. Whereas there were several aspects of the rulebook that I did not like, this book is almost universally excellent. First, we get an overview of Thistle Hold, an Ambrian settlement at the very edge of Davokar and a natural launching point for expeditions into the ancient forest. This is followed by rules and guidelines for handling things like movement, supplies, orienteering, and events within Davokar – all straightforward and useful. Symbaroum's monsters are (mostly) new spins on fantasy staples, but the spins are compelling. Elves, for example, are monsters and, therefore, not playable as characters. Long-lived, perhaps immortal, they undergo a variety of physical and mental changes as they age, effectively becoming different creatures at each stage. This is Symbaroum's general approach and it's a very good one in my opinion.

The two introductory scenarios are interesting. The first is quite simple and involves the exploration of ancient catacombs, as well as dealing with elves who take exception to the characters' presence. The second one presents a ruined tower and, more importantly, rival adventurers seeking to explore the same site. I'm a big fan of rival adventurers and am happy to see that Symbaroum includes them in one of its beginning adventures.

 All in all, the Symbaroum Starter Set did a fine job of introducing the game's rules and setting in an attractive and accessible way. My complaints about the lack of character generation rules aside, I think it nevertheless provides more than enough material with which to judge whether one would like other products for Symbaroum. For myself, I continue to find the setting fascinating and might take a look of some other of its offerings. 


  1. I was just thinking that I really do not need any more RPGs...and then I read this. I still don't need more RPGs, but now I want this one.

  2. I skipped the starter set and went straight for the core book based on various reviews and was pretty pleased with my purchase. Like you I don't really need new RPGs in my life but I enjoy reading rules as much as conventional books, and I'm a sucker for an intriguing setting. Symbaroum's certainly got that going for it. Reminds me a bit of Naomi Novik's novel Uprooted, although only slightly due to both having an incredibly dangerous and mysterious forest as a centerpiece to their stories.

    Still not sure I'll ever run the game itself, but it's a good read and there are ideas to be mined for rule systems I'm more comfortable with.

  3. Also guilty of picking this up a few weeks ago. Like you I've been drawn to the art and the what I'd heard about the setting...though I've heard mixed views on the system. I have to say the setting has really grabbed me..and I failed my willpower roll a few days ago and ordered the core book and the first of the campaign books, too!

  4. Monte Cook's Cypher System and Eden Studio's Buffy & Angel RPGs are both player-facing, I find that the first couple of sessions its cool but after that I find I actually like rolling dice as a DM.

  5. Symbaorum had a Bundle of Holding time limited offer not long ago. I didn't buy it though.

    The only 'player facing' game I've read is Apocalypse World. My impression is everything bascally revolves around saving throws. I liked the approach, on paper at least.