The hills are alive with the sound of Discourse! As of this writing, the gaming community is in a tizzy over the leaked changes to Dungeons and Dragons’ Open Gaming License and as such there is a great deal of interest in alternate games. I had not intended to participate in said Discourse but as chance would have it, I received the RPG Symbaroum for Christmas and I think it’s worth listing as a suitable alternative for folks who want to play something familiar but not too familiar but not too unfamiliar.
The setting is one of dark fantasy and delving into sinister woods and ancient ruins on behalf of questionable forces back in “civilized” lands. Characters can be brave knights, cunning barbarians, compassionate witches, zealot priests, goblin pickpockets, tragic changelings, etc all jostling with the various fractions trying to tame, exploit, or protect the deep wilderness and its many secrets. The monsters and challenges as written all have a grim, Slavic aesthetic with deadly plants, giant abominations, feral trolls, undead horrors, and the like. What points of light in the darkness are either outright traps or hiding perilous secrets.
Symbaroum is both a game and a game setting so there is nice synchronized theming but one could easily lift the core rules and apply them to a homemade world. Its core mechanic has players only rolling with the GM responding and pushing threats. You’re looking to roll low on a single d20 with other dice used for damage. Characters have 8 attributes ranging from 5 to 15 and when taking an action attempt to roll under the relevant attribute with modifiers either adding or subtracting from the target number to adjust difficulty. Characters start with 3 to 5 abilities (plus any traits based on their species or heritage) that determine the fun things they can do like cast spells, dual wield, command underlings, etc. There are three “archetypes” which stand in for classes – Fighter, Rogue, and Mystic – and each one comes with suggested attribute ranks and abilities but they are only guidelines and there are no mechanic differences between choosing one of these three.
Magic is potent but risks accumulating Corruption which is a game-defining mechanic. The deeper characters delve or the more secrets they uncover, the more Corruption they take on. Like sanity loss in Call of Cthulhu or Dark Side Points in Star Wars, gaining corruption can be profitable in the short term but risks altering your character, giving them unseemly qualities, and ultimately transforming them into an unplayable mess that fellow players suddenly will find themselves contending with.
Symbaroum will appeal to folks wanting a Skyrim-esque game of exploring an ancient, lived-in, and dangerous world with factions vying for their assistance and allegiance. It’s a tidy complete package with gorgeous art, clean design, and a lot of room for expanding out but provides a complete experience with just the core book. If you want something that scratches the D&D itch but with some edge, simpler rules, and a nice amount of specificity, I think you’ll enjoy it.
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