Symbaroum. A Dark Fantasy setting and system created by those crazy folks over at Järnringen and published by Modiphius. An interesting beast to be sure, and my first Core Rules review I have done either here or on my old youtube channel. Strap yourself in because this is going to be a LONG one. I want to thank the folks at @Team_Jarnringen for giving me a PDF Copy of the rules as well as the Art Book. All Art in this post is from the books directly and belongs to the original creators.
Now being a Core Rulebook, I am going to break the review up into sections based on how the book is divided. Make no mistake, this is an entire system and setting in a 300 page book and its a lot to go through, which is why this has taken me so long.
So what, in a nutshell, is this game? Symbaroum can best be described as dark fantasy focused in a region called the Davokar forest. A massive primeval forest filled with ruins, treasure, and danger, the players create characters using a custom system of 3 “Class Archetypes” broken up into multiple professions (or creating their own creation), and spend time dealing with political intrigue from the various ruling houses as well as danger and adventure within the forest itself. Ruins, beasts, dark mysteries, its all here.
Now, I only have a PDF copy of this book so sadly I cannot comment on the quality of the printed book. Layout wise, the book is pretty easy to navigate. The art pops off the pages, the text is easy to read, and the general layout is easy to follow. While I generally dislike dealing with PDFs over 100 pages (and this PDF is why I refuse to do Core Rules in PDF form anymore, it’s too much a bother) in general its a solid design and the book SHOULD be excellent, at least visually. Seriously, the art is the best part of this whole book. Also they hot linked the Table of Contents which is a god send. Creators take note, if you have a PDF with multiple sections and a table of contents, LINK THE CONTENTS so I can jump around easy!
Let’s go ahead and move on, and break down each of the three major sections of the book. The book itself is broken up into the Setting, then the Players Guide, and finally the GMs Guide.
The first section of the book deals with the setting of the game itself. While there is clearly a large world here, the vast majority of the information presented here is focused on the large Davokar forest, the plains around it, and the cities, peoples, and races that make up this area.
Its well detailed, and definitely gives you the feeling of dark deep unfriendly woods. The cities are well thought out, the maps are highly detailed, and you get just enough information on the various Houses and Clans that you can easily figure out who likes or dislikes who and how the various group interact with each other. There are also some notes about religion and how it affects the various groups but not a ton of info.
My biggest single issue here is that the setting is the Forest. If your players want to explore mountains, vast rolling plains, jungles, or icy tundra, this book will not be able to help you. While there is clearly a larger world hinted at here, it’s never really explained or explored. The bits we get about why the human nation is here, and what drove it out, is super vague and while some GMs will be ok with filling in the gaps, others may have a hard time expanding on the world. Additionally, if the players have little interest in exploring and interacting in a forest or frontier styled setting, this will not work for them.
Now if you are seeking a dangerous dark and foreboding world then you got one here in spades. The Forest is treated as almost being its own malevolent entity and I would have loved a lot more information about the forest itself and the places within. Its very very basic however, and leaves a lot up the GM, which is both good and bad in equal measure. Good in the sense that a creative GM can easily fill the forest with treasure caches, ruins, dangerous encounters, and so on, but those GMs who have issues creating such things might have to go out of their way to hunt down things that fit the theme of a dark evil forest.
To be frank, I would have loved to see just the setting come out as a system neutral book, with a lot more information expanding the world and how its peoples interact with each other. There is enough here to get going, but the GM who wants to use the setting alone will have to work fairly hard in places to really fill the gaps in.
THE PLAYERS GUIDE
Now we enter the meat of this book in my humble opinion. The rules for character creation, combat, and so on.
When creating a character the player is given the option of choosing one of 15 professions, broken up into three broad Archtypes (the Warrior, the Mystic, and the Rogue). However, the player is also completely free to go free form and pick and choose skills, attributes, and so on that makes sense for the precise character they want to play.
Honestly, I really like this. I am a huge fan of classless character creation, and this system is very well done. Its nothing ground breaking, exactly, as games like Savage Worlds and GURPS have done similar setups and newer systems like Open Legend continue this tradition, but its a welcome setup none-the-less. Sadly however the professions at times can seem very generic. Nothing really stands out as unique, with Warrior professions including things like a Man at Arms, Captain, and Knight, for example. The Mystic is possibly the one with the most interesting offerings, breaking things up into the Witch, Sorcerer, Theurg, and my favorite, the self taught mystic. Its nice to see hedge wizardry is alive and well. The Rogue also has some interesting stuff in there, with things like Witch Hunters alongside actual thieves and charlatans.
You also have to choose Attribute and Race, of course. There are 8 Attributes and 5 Races available in the book and your race does give you bonuses and penalties to those Attributes. But the game thankfully seems flexible enough to allow for any combination. If you follow along, they make an Orge Mystic for example which is quite a fun concept!
Next the book talks about your Attributes. Attributes at the start can range from 5 to 15 in value at the start, and the basics of the game are as follows: Roll a d20, and try to get a number equal to or lower then your attribute for the test. These are usually modified when attempting things such as breaking a door down, or opening a lock, or even hitting someone. Now this system for testing / success and failure I am NOT a fan of. It’s very odd to me to try to roll low, basically. A 1 in this game is a great value because its almost assuredly a success, wherein a 20 is not. I have never been a fan of this sort of “subtractive math” in my tabletop games because it can become confusing quickly, especially when the vast majority of systems use additive math. Also having the rules for tests and rolling here seem odd, especially when you have an entire section on combat and basic actions later. You essentially have to relearn what you know to play this system if you are experienced with almost ANY of the other common systems.
So once you choose your Archtype (if you choose one) and set your base Attributes you then choose one of five races: Human (Ambrian or Barbarian), Changeling (Kinda Elf), Ogre, Goblin. The races are pretty solid, and most just give you access to Traits, which are unique passive effects.
You then choose your Traits and Abilities from here. These are the meat of your character, the very skills you have and the things your character can do out in the world. From Abilities like Backstab, to Iron Fist, to Theurgy, this is how you really dig deep and create a unique character in this system. And because nothing is concrete even if you pick a profession, you can customize your character to your liking.
Now, one thing this book discusses are Mystic Traditions. Rather than having classes for magic they have Traditions. These are Sorcery, Wizardry, Theurgy, Witchcraft, and Independant. Basically your character can choose one of these traditions if they are a spellcaster to have more flavor and style or simply choose the Independent option if you prefer to have your character be their own unique caster style. I do like this because it means I could be some sort of strange shaman from out in the wilds practicing my own worship and faith of a god no one has heard of without penalty, or I can be a strange hedge wizard who truly believes that licking frogs grants me power, to anything in between. It’s quite flexible, but does rely on the player being able to come up with ideas on their own unless they take one of the more basic paths.
From there we go into spells and rituals, then equipment. Neither one really stood out to me as anything special. You have your basic mix of damage, utility, and flavor magics and the equipment is pretty standard fantasy fare.
Combat comes next, discussing how fighting works and despite my years of gaming this through me for a loop. Weapon length plays a factor for example, with “Long” weapons getting a free hit against some in the first round, but “Short” weapons being able to be drawn instantly as a Free Action. Also they use static numbers for Initiative, based on your Quick attribute. If you and another person have the same Quick, then you check your Vigilant, and if that’s a tie then you roll. Combat actions are pretty normal, with Attack actions, Movement actions, and 2 actions per turn that are not Free Actions or Reactions. Apparently get unlimited of each per turn. Just take a look at the “Quick Combat Chart”.
Also standing up takes both actions. I don’t really get the purpose of that penalty.
Movement is generally “not a matter of importance” beyond if the player can make melee or ranged attacks, and they use Meters for movement (10 paces = 10 meters) when it becomes a need. I am not going to get too much further into the nitty gritty of how combat actions play out exactly, but at the end of the day it seems overly complex for the sake of just being complex, especially with the strange subtractive math. It could just be me, but I really do not find the actual mechanics here fun at all.
After this at the tail end of the chapter is a section on “important additional rules that deal with things like character advancement. I do however like the fact that Experience is a currency, spent to advance your skills and attributes. It lets a player pick and choose how to grow as a character.
THE GMS GUIDE
Finally, let’s talk about the content held within the pages of the GMs section. This is for those people (like me) who would be running this game.
This section opens up with a broad overview of what the folks at Järnringen consider to be the core tenants of Tabletop Roleplaying in general. And honestly, I have to agree. They go over, in broad strokes, what I personally feel are the tenants of Good GMing. From there it goes into Tests and a deeper explanation of them and how they view them, breaking down simple to complex tasks including social ones.
They also use a Fail Forward / Graduated system here for success. Just because you don’t get a perfect roll does not mean you don’t get some info or some success. I like that it’s baked in here.
Once it gets into running combat the game breaks down its “challenge” system which uses general brackets rather than any numbers. You got Weak, Ordinary, Challenging, Strong, and Mighty, which roughly explain how strong enemies are. I kinda like this as its less about “Oh god I need 4 CR 2s and 2 CRs 3 to challenge this party” and more “Ok so I will throw a couple bandits and this strong beast here” style. Many GMs now a days just do encounter building by feel anyway, including myself, as you get the hang of a system so it’s nice to see that here as well. This however CAN be confusing to new GMs, which is a downside.
Another thing I do like is the section dealing with inter-party conflict. I am personally not a fan of party infighting. I don’t like having players come to blows in character, and I like the way they suggest handling it here (Narratively rather than actual full on dice rolls in general.)
This section also delves into one of the signature bits of the system: Shadows. These are spiritual, and eventually physical, manifestations of the corruption of Power. In this world Power literally corrupts you, and this is an interesting way to show a character’s “alignment” for lack of a better term. In fact, one of the mystic traditions, the Sorcerer, is entirely built around the idea of embracing the Shadow Corruption. I do find it kinda funny that the Shadows are color coded but you gotta do something to make em stand out I suppose.
As the corruption takes hold the players will slowly exhibit “Stigma” which are the physical effects of the corruption and I find this bit fascinating. I might considering stealing the entire concept of Shadow for myself, and switch out Alignments for it in 5th Edition in fact. Its that interesting.
There is also an entire section detailing optional rules such as “Life Goals”, Crits and Fumbles, spending Experience to reroll dice and so on. There are a ton of options here and can easily allow a GM to customize their game to their liking with ease.
Next we get to the section dealing with Campaign rules. These include rules for currency, travel, and even magical items called Artifacts. These bits are pretty standard fare with just some flavor to match the setting and really would not be useful if you were not running a game in the Davokar forest itself. There are a couple of interesting examples of Artifacts though, so thats nice. It can give you a starting place for your own creations.
From there we move into Adventures, which again is pretty standard fare for anyone who has created their own adventures, but if you are unfamiliar with building adventures this can be helpful. Nothing really jumped out at me here as being worthy of note. Then we go into Monsters and Adversaries, breaking down a ton of options for baddies to use in your adventures and campaigns, and finally a full on Adventure to get you started in the world of the Davokar.
The adventure, titled “The Promised Land” is a tutorial adventure written to help both GMs and Players get the hang of the game, and it’s a welcome addition. As far as format, it’s broken up into 3 distinct chapters with breakdowns of mechanics as they come up. It even has a narrative tutorial for the GM to read to help break down actions and how it works, and some pregen characters to speed up getting into the game itself. I am not going to break down the worth of the adventure itself, as that would take up way too much time and space but after reading through it I feel it’s a solid starting point for both getting to know the system and setting AND helping jump start a full on campaign. Also the maps included in this section are nice.
Overall, I feel this book is a decent single book RPG. The actual content is solid, the art is phenomenal (And all art here in this post is from the book) and the concept of the Davokar interests me greatly. However, the whole thing works best as a complete package and trying to use any part of it solo just doesn’t feel right. While I could use the Davokar setting in any other game, I honestly am not a fan at ALL of the mechanical bits here. If you are looking for a dark fantasy world, grim and brutal, and want the simplicity of a single book for everything you need then look no further as this is well worth at least the PDF Price.
However, if you are only looking for a single part of this book (the setting or the system) give this book a pass. The setting alone is not fleshed out enough for the price, and the system itself is overly complex for no real reason that I can see. In fact, you can get this style of system from games like Open Legend or Savage Worlds, which are built to be Setting Neutral rather than tied directly to the setting AND are easier to understand with more normal math behind them. In fact, I daresay that this should not be anyone’s first Tabletop RPG. Its simply too complicated.
Although the GM section alone MIGHT be worth the price of the PDF, if you are new to Tabletop RPGs. The advice there for new GMs is stellar and can be applied to pretty much any game you run. Just ignore the mechanical bits in there and use the advice and instructions as just that. Also the adventure could probably be adapted without too much issue and serve as a decent base.
At the end of the day, I would be willing to run games in the Davokar forest and its surroundings, but I would personally never use the actual system presented here. It’s just not for me. But perhaps it will fit you perfectly.
You can pick up the PDF on Drive Thru RPG for $18.99 HERE
You can pick up the book in Print with PDF on Modiphius for $45.99 HERE