Approximate time to read: 7 minutes.
In gaming, as with so many other hobbies and pastimes, there are different views and perspectives of what works, what doesn’t, what’s right, what’s unhelpful. Every gamer will have an opinion that varies, a spectrum of belief that coalesces in a Venn diagram complex enough to melt your brain.
Symbaroum is no different. The Iron Pact, for my part, is my view of what the game means to be and how I feel it works best. Symbaroum is not without its own complexities and many gamers will find themselves wanting. On the other hand, as I found, the game has a myriad high points, aspects that make it a fascination for the eyes, smarts and soul.
I ‘m going to set down some thoughts here – and I guarantee that 99% of you will disagree with some (or even all) of it. That’s the nature of gaming. We all have our nuances as personalities and the games we play and how we play them mirrors and complements those characteristics. Those who query why the roleplaying industry needs to generate more game systems and settings need look no further – because our view of the perfect game will never agree.
I just picked up a copy of the 2002 Hellboy RPG, which runs on GURPS Lite. For me, that’s a perfect example of a gameable setting, in the world of Hellboy and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, but a game system that will never work for me, even in its Lite form. It isn’t all wrong – GURPS is not without merit; for me, it just doesn’t appeal as an overarching system.
For many Symbaroum pans out in very much the same way.
Simple and Unbalanced
Symbaroum thrives on a certain sort of simplicity. The game system has some odd angles, like the modifiers to player focused dice throws posed by enemies – that whole business of making every roll; for many, that approach doesn’t work at all and Gamemasters rail against the loss of their ability to chuck dice around the table. However, the simplicity makes the game really easy to teach to newcomers. And from the perspective of the GM, simplicity makes the system easy to adjudicate and relatively fast for creating new adversaries.
However, it also leads to cookie-cutter opponents that perhaps don’t feel as different as they might, built from the same attribute numbers. Gamers used to systems that inflate the powerful with every increasing hit points find the fact Toughness hardly ever changes a challenge to commonsense. Thematically, I think it works well at accentuating the raw and unforgiving nature of the world. Others will see this as a ceiling preventing heroism that other game systems foster through an escalation of talents, spells and abilities.
And when anyone used that kind of power comes to Symbaroum, they can quickly create characters invulnerable to harm or built to disrupt the enemy at the waft of a hand. The system presents far too many combat-focused abilities – and those seeking ‘builds’ can define them, at odds with the archetypes instilled with flavour through the inclusion of non-combat abilities that might seem valueless or under-powered to anyone looking at Symbaroum as a game about unceasing battle. After a few adventures, players intent on ‘winning’ over progressing the story will find that no challenges remains and I have spent so much time reading pleas for assistance from GMs seeking some way to resolve this imbalance against troll tanks and masters of esoteric confusion.
Freeform and Loosy-Goosy
Symbaroum never uses the term theatre of the mind, but therein lies the heart and soul of the game. While travel times nod to movement at scale, spells, bows and other facets lack anything more than a sense of ‘what you see is what you hit.’ Perhaps the supplements and adventures for the game support the misunderstanding, as grid-based maps litter the pages. However, there is no accounting for the cost of diagonal movement, the specific distance covered by a sprinting jump or the burst radius of a fire ball.
The specificity of a pace, as a movement rate or the consumption of material components in the activation of a mystical power means nothing in the greater tale of Symbaroum. Massed combat occurs at a individual skirmish level, a brief battle against a scattering of foes while the weight of the warfare erupts and cascades around the player characters – but without mechanism for calculating casualties, collateral damage or the ebb and flow toward victory.
Why? To my way of thinking, story matters more than anything else. The campaign proceeds and the player characters have their role to play – and sometimes that role will be tied up in a fate not of their own making. Yes, The Throne of Thorns cares not for the specific intent and motivation of your characters because it isn’t written for them – it’s a narrative filled with people, events and mechanics. You have options – ranging from a table based agreement to flow with the tide and for player to make it their aim to involve their characters no matter how at odds events might seem with their own intent, or you – as Gamemaster – take the events and personalities, aims and consequences, and use them as parts in your own tale, a mastery of the story-line difficult to achieve in a mass market publication.
(A recent example of this would be the new Judge Dredd game, which – theoretically – offers the chance for player characters to take on the role of Judges, perps or citizens; in the very first quick start adventure, it seems clear that the practicality of doing this well will be a challenge every single time, because a hook alone is not enough to engage such varied characters in the story. To ensure the narrative remains engaging, scenes and challenges need to grab everyone and provide a meaningful progression to them all.)
Word and Deed Alike
At this point in the campaign, Symbaroum has well in excess of two hundred named personalities (I’m plucking that number out of the air and suspect that I’m calling short of the true number). Of those individuals, most don’t want a fight. And yet, the combat-focused Abilities and sense of threat in some scenes of the adventures might leave players feeling that every challenge will be a physical rather than a social one.
Symbaroum, at heart, is about politics, not warfare. The power struggles between Queen, court, Church, templars, Masters, Ordo chapters… Political action and maneouvres abound. From the core book, one of the earliest sidebars notes that characters in your game may, and probably must, vary from those presented in the adventures and campaign. Non-player characters rarely survive long term exposure to players with swords. Impatience and anger abound – and social challenges lack nuance. Persuasive and a smattering of social Abilities would lead you to believe that the only option must be violence.
For me, this situation handles best in ensemble play (something for which I can recommend picking up a copy of Ars Magica to inspect the particulars of the troupe system presented). Creating several groups of characters each of which has a particular focus, base or motivation allows for the campaign to progress without running afoul of rail roading. If the hook for the campaign feels forced and you can’t reconcile it to the characters, switch to another group for which that resistance doesn’t exist. You might have an expeditionary team from the Ordo Magica, a unit of militia from the Queen’s Guard, a wanted band of un-licensed Treasure-seekers… and whatever other variations. Each has a character per player with a couple to spare to account for accidental death, new players, or missed game sessions.
In Ars Magica, players had a mage, a companion (an adventurous or professional type) and a bunch of lesser characters (peasants, bodyguards and so forth) – and depending on the adventures you would choose an appropriate selection. For an adventure driven by politics, you would play mainly magi with a lesser character or two, while a quest for a rare spell component or artefact might require more companions. Symbaroum and the campaign would better suit this approach than the more ‘traditional’ single-character-single-player approach. For that very reason I co-opted the concept of ‘The Funnel’ from Dungeon Crawl Classics in various articles in the past precisely because that makes it possible to raise many characters from lesser station and bring them into the greater and wider world.
All games do not come from the same cookie cutter or jelly mould. Each has a heart set in mechanics and raw concepts, but in building a new game the designers imbue the basics with their own flavour, theme and focus. When we step into Ambria, we enter a world created by a small group of writers and that world has a slant of their own. Coming from any other game, we must cleanse our palette of preconceptions and try hard not to shoehorn Symbaroum into a form like those we have just left behind.
Symbaroum is not Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, nor The One Ring, Genesys, RuneQuest or Warhammer. While you can read the Core Book and use the setting to run another game with another system, the best approach to actually play Symbaroum requires you set aside your hunger for spell ranges, feat trees, battle mats and point-based character balance and embrace the idiosyncrasies wide-eyed and open-minded.
Hand wave the inconsistencies without writing copious house rules. Embrace the imbalance by choosing Abilities that make sense for a rounded character rather than in building a perfect machine. Step away from the concept of playing toward the culmination of some heroic rise to transcendence and mess about in the world of change and difference by being someone different every other adventure.
Symbaroum is not the game you played last time or the one you’re playing next. In entering the lands of Ambria, you benefit from letting go of all preconceptions and embracing the imperfections of a world that you didn’t create yourself. We all have imperfect worlds we love, each unlikely to match the expectations of anyone else. However, for the brief moments you spend their you can find joy, challenge, laughter and achievement if you choose.