Setting the mood for your games of Symbaroum makes all the difference, given the general tone of dark fantasy communicated through the background and imagery. If you add measures of horror to the game, setting the tone becomes even more important. When I played Dragon Age, another setting best described as dark fantasy, it became clear from the first session that we wouldn’t be getting too grim when we established a weird in-game absence of horses and decided that the people of Ferelden might actually use slave elves as their mounts and beasts of burden.
However, if you’re commited to a game of horror and darkness, you should do everything you can to achieve that; getting their involves everyone getting involved and coming to some measure of agreement. Convention games of Symbaroum can be harder to handle for atmosphere, but not impossible, simply due to the mix of players, their experience, and their interests at the table. If one player is here to have fun and another wants to sample the grim atmosphere of the game world, you might struggle to get a balance – I know I certainly have. In that situation, a game filled with jokes and puns will have at least one person at the table walking away unsatisfied – at at a convention where you pay per game, that’s a slightly more serious issue to account for than a home game around the dining room table.
Therefore, the following can only provide a bunch of suggestions and your mileage may vary. Do what you can – and be certain to get the players themselves involved in generating the mood. Engage them in discussion to find their level – never force a player into an experience that might leave them uncomfortable.
Reinforce the imaginery with tangible assets like maps and pictures. Symbaroum comes with a lot of dark imagery and you can reference this as a means to setting the tone. Beyond that, resources like Pinterest, Deviant Art, Art Station and so forth have millions of images that you can easily search and use as visual reference in-game.
People often mentioned soundtracks for a session, but that can be a tough call to implement if you don’t have full control of the location. Music can also have an impact on people with hearing issues or for whom concentration becomes difficult with a distraction. You might experiment with some form of low level brown noise to set people on edge and smother external sounds a bit, but again – don’t make the environment uncomfortable or render the game less accessible. I have seen people suggest lowering the temperature and withholding food – and I have to wonder why you would go so far as to make the session uncomfortable for yourself as well as the players. I think the GM has enough work to do without making the experience unpleasant as well!
Set the stage by creating an appropriate atmosphere from the outset with your introduction. If you take the time to discuss the tone of the game with the players well in advance, they can come to the table with the appropriate game faces on. You should also take the time to create characters in-session so that you can instil the mood in their background and motivations. A group effort means better integration between the characters, but also means you can find an acceptable level for the horror – as some players might have different tolerances. You don’t want too much, nor too little – so some sort of Goldilocks strategem needs to be implemented to get everything just right.
Also, make certain you have prepared for the session, especially if you’re running an off-the-shelf adventure. If practical, try not to use any pre-written descriptions or spend time laboriously page flipping for specific Tests or unnecessary detail. If you can improvise or wing something, do it – make a note to check the details later and keep going. If you spend time reading canned narrative or checking for specifics you risk breaking the mood.
Where you’re running a session with pre-generated characters, bake the mood and tone into the sheets. Use names that fit the mood and motivations that tie the characters to the tone. A character might have grey motivations around honour, revenge, secrets, or similar. You could have characters intent on finding a better life after a harrowing change in circumstances bought on by war, hardship, environment, or a power struggle.
Add character images where possible – perhaps using the archetypes from the Symbaroum books. Try to avoid using the imagery from high fantasy games – or if you do, perhaps lower the saturation of the images using more muted tones before printing them out! The characters available in the Resources section on this site use core book imagery or somewhat subdued alternatives.
Fix the Mood
Never break the mood yourself and, perhaps, take the time to set the scene before the session even starts. Resist the desire to break the mood with lighthearted banter and steer away from inciting humour by avoiding silly names or innuendo. It can be tough, but if you can get the tone right it should be hard to make light of it once the players become immersed.
My first ever game of Symbaroum kicked off with the characters trudging through the mud and rain on a path north of the Titans and then witnessing the merciless beating of a lone man by a group of thugs. The puddles ran with blood, the man’s wretched screams almost lost amidst the violent holla of his assailants. After handling this, the character came across a refugee camp, littered with corpses. Seriously — there was no doubting the tone and levity was sparse and short-lived, moments of grim humour seeking to make light just to maintain energy and purpose. It worked well.
Try as best you can to keep the game world constant. Use character names throughout and try to speak as the characters rather than one their behalf. You can reinforce the mood with sensory descriptions like cold, damp, dirt, decay, rot and rust. Cast landscapes in stark opposition, taking the characters from bright sunlight into dark and fetid tunnels or the claustrophobic gloom of the forest. Connect sensory experiences back to the real world to make it more real – so, something might smell like the rotten crud in the bottom of wheelie bin or the acid stench of fresh vomit. Taking the fantasy world and making a link to the experiences of the real world should create a more visceral sense of direct involvement.
Modify your tone of voice by lowering your tone, if practical, to draw the characters in toward the centre of the table, leaning in to catch your every word. You don’t need to do this for a jump scare, but every now and again that might work for the start of an unexpected combat encounter; however, a light, hushed tone can add a certain atmosphere to the session. Admittedly, you will be hard pressed to achieve this at a convention, where background noise drifts completely beyond your control and raised voices becomes the only option!
Establish a genuine sense of danger and suffering, both directed at the characters and the other individuals they encounter. My example above with the beating by bandits made it clear that people didn’t care for one another, a dog-eat-dog environment. The narrow band of survival that is Toughness can make all the difference; after the first battle with a challenging opponent, the characters should come aware sore and worried for their survival. Don’t give them easy access to medical help, let them trudge through another Scene on their guard before they get somewhere with a Medicus to hand (and make sure he or she isn’t willing to offer help straight away because their are other patients or the player characters cause suspicion they might themselves be bandits).
After recovery, remind players of their characters past battles with obvious scars or dull pains, bound into the narrative or mentioned when they roll badly in combat. A Fumbled roll might even open an old wound, so that the Free Attack the enemy gets might actually not be an enemy strike but a scar tearing open as they contort to avoid a sword swing.
Once you have defined the mood for your game and carried it through a whole adventure, the campaign should come more easily. You don’t necessarily want unremitting horror for months on end, so you might want to have a pause now and again with a lighter game session, perhaps handling recovery or a character-friendly organisation; just never let the darkness slip completely out of sight.
Also, after each session, take a moment to discuss the events and find out if you’re pushing to hard or too far into grim fantasy. You need to ensure that you adjust else you might push players away or lose their interest. At the same time, take the opportunity to talk about other things – raise the mood. Throughout the session and the post-game discussion, always be taking notes. Players will often let slip their personal or characters fears or concerns about the situation – and you might take advantage of that. Don’t do it to make people uncomfortable; a player with a phobia shouldn’t be a target. However, you might find a way to add subtle hints and colour to an encounter that suggest elements of those fears and worries. Listen, watch and take note.
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