Symbaroum – Story and Balance

travel-in-Symbaroum-2Symbaroum has a place in your gaming world. Or it should. A fantasy filled with Elves, Trolls, Undead and Witches, littered with corruption, politics, deprivation and adventure. Using a twenty-sided die, but not D20 – Symbaroum has a lot going for it, not least the fantastic artwork and interesting storyline.

This is a puff piece filled with my opinion – and for that reason you have every right to disagree with it.

Symbaroum is a game for playing, not for winning.

There. I’ve said my piece.

OK. I’ll elaborate.

Symbaroum is not a balanced system. Indeed, it isn’t a system seeking balance. The mechanics provide a simple framework for playing the game, not a comprehensive bible of crunch to cover every circumstance. I have seen a lot of discussion and many questions about how certain abilities might combine for horrific game-breaking effect. I see these as an attempt to win the game like you might try to in other systems.

In those systems you develop a character over a long period of time, clawing your way up a greasy pole toward the godhood of upper levels. Along the way, you seek to find a combination of talents, feats, powers and abilities that generate massive damage or deliver withering effect that leaves your opposition demoralized before they even enter the battlefield.

Symbaroum, in my opinion, does not have the same playscape nor should you encourage this approach.

The publishing team, Järnringen, has a campaign arc in mind behind their current delivery schedule, both for their home audience and the wider world (once translation kicks in). Indeed, I have my own campaign arc in mind that (almost certainly) differs from this landscape – but nevertheless sets out certain factions, personalities, secrets, and events.

If I were to compare Symbaroum to other games, I would cite Pendragon, Ars Magica or A Song of Ice and Fire. These systems and settings consider the long game and engage the players in roles as multiple characters, whether associated by family, politics, bloodline or magical tradition.

I believe that players in Symbaroum should play characters that fit the adventure in hand and the phase of the campaign landscape faced. If the adventure involves raiding a fortification in Alberetor, it should involve characters appropriate to the situation and location; whereas, treasure-seekers in Bright Davokar will be quite different.

The game’s character creation system positively supports this approach, because in practice you can conjure up a new character in 10 – 15 minutes. I strongly suggest a GM should clearly state the sort of characters needed for a landscape (a short series of adventures) to provide players with an idea of what they need to generate – then it simply comes down to rolling dice (or selecting standard scores) for Attributes, then spending Experience on Abilities and Powers. Then you play.

This means that one month you might be raiding a site in Davokar for treasure; the next month you might be handling the investigation of a murder in Yndaros; then the month after that dealing with the repercussions of a disagreement between two competing noble houses over the use of the dead on The Sleepless Path.

Each might involve the same characters, but more realistically it should be about the same players playing different characters. The enjoyment of the game comes from seeing the campaign arc unfold and knowing you have a place in how it pans out. This is not about engineering a character for destructive perfection, but about the enjoyment of the game, the discovery of a dark, dark world, and the fun of participating in the creation of a story.

Like I said at the outset this is my opinion. I would rather run a game where everyone had a good time because of the mutual involvement in the unfolding of a great story. Symbaroum is not perfectly balanced – but it needn’t be. It isn’t – and shouldn’t – be about book-keeping, score-honing and min-maximising. The story should be everything and the individual fate – and death – of a character should be a note on one page of a greater journal recounting the events that unfold.

That’s my opinion.

There now… I really have said my piece.

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