Whither Davokar?

Approximate time to read: 3 minutes.   

I’m Not Giving Up, I’m Just Starting Over

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When you’ve been around as long as The Iron Pact (more than 5 years gaming in the World of Symbaroum), you hear the same thing time and again. I read fellow old-timer palinola respond to a comment, “The game isn’t just combat,” on Reddit with the words:

99% of what you can do to build a character is combat abilities though.

u/palinola of Ordo Magica

And that’s the truth of the matter. After more than five years of enjoying Symbaroum as a setting, I can’t escape it. The lush artwork and the deep back story act as an anchor to gamers who appreciate the grim fantasy settings and the corrupt darkness.

Simultaneously, the game system aggravates those used to D&D and Pathfinder for the lack of options when it comes to min-max builds. Everyone ends up as either a raging Ogre dealing out bucketloads of damage or a black-hearted Sorcerer flinging Maltransformations and Bending Will with honed precision that drops the enemy in moments. The game system is geared toward combat’s mechanical support first and foremost; yet, it doesn’t quite have sufficient options or balance for the hardcore battlemat-wielding gamer.

In the midst of all of this, The Throne of Thorns campaign carries a weight of named non-player personalities sufficient to crush the will of the most accomplished and ardent roleplayer. Social interaction requires nothing much more than raw narrative-driving talent, while any conflict delivers a tabletop of clattering dice and gnashing teeth.

Heavy Lie the Mechanics

All of this doesn’t sully the appeal of the game. I hope that the Symbaroum Starter Set: Treasure Hunts in Davokar will bring more new players into the fold. It should; Davokar has a lot to offer.

That said, I wonder whether there’s more potential to revisiting the mechanics in a way that values the theme rather than the potential attraction of players alone. I’m not blind to the fact that the conversion to 5th Edition D&D is about wider accessibility and profit — no bad thing for a game company that wants to expand and thrive.

I have read queries about why Free League chose to release Symbaroum using something other than the Year Zero engine — but those questions are from those unaware of the history and merger with Jarnringen. Of course, it begs the question of why they haven’t considered it since the merger, or at least pondered the possibility of a conversion guide?

Games like Tales from the Loop and Alien tweak the Year Zero engine to make the mechanics support the theme; from the very personal level and freedom from permanent harm of the former to the tension and failure inspiring stress rules of the latter.

Symbaroum could do with a sympathetic reappraisal that takes it away from a homebrew system gone wild and recentres it on the diverse foci of a campaign in Ambria and Davokar. The current system handles the corruption well, but it needs greater support for exploration, travel, personal interaction and a downplaying of the combat system. You can make fighting brutal and gritty, maintaining the grim fantasy tone, without all the mechanical cruft accrued through an ad hoc expansion of the character creation options over the years.

Basic and Simple

I wouldn’t suggest releasing Symbaroum‘s setting as the chassis on the Mörk Borg ruleset, but the solution isn’t far off. Mörk Borg is perhaps too far in the other direction, too stripped down by far. However, it does have the same compelling visual anchor for gamers and the setting material does a great deal to add meat to the nigh-on non-existent skeleton.

When I released Davokar, I had that thought in mind. A stripped-back ruleset to underlie the rich setting. Davokar too is a step too far, but it’s what Symbaroum needs; simplicity would do the system a world of good and swing the focus away from combat alone into the setting proper.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it feels like it falls somewhere inbetween. I’m aware that fans have tried to rework the existing system or replace it with generic vehicles like Fate; that might be the way to do it, and isn’t far from what I’m saying about Year Zero or Mörk Borg.

I think, as time passes, I’ll take a swing at considering the options and post links to those other varied efforts that fans have tried themselves. I love Symbaroum too much not to try to find some middle ground, while keenly aware that the answer isn’t Rules As Written.

8 Comments

  1. I realise that this doesn’t address the question of why there isn’t an official Symbaroum YZE version, but there is actually at least one fan-made YZE hack (using the Forbidden Lands ruleset, to be exact). I say “at least”, because while only one has been released on the Year Zero Worlds Discord server, a couple of other people have stated that they are also working on their own versions.

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  2. Great to see you still back commenting on Symbaroum Paul

    To my dismay I find myself agreeing with most of your comments

    When the art and lore suggest survival horror, but the ruleset feels like a skirmish wargame its hard not to feel frustration at the seemingly wasted potential.

    Ironically I quite like the Symbaroum system and have found some rule gems hidden amongst the min-max gamers fantasy, but I can certainly see the validity in your suggestion of looking at Year Zero or Mork Borg style systems. However, I must admit to not liking the dice pool mechanic of Year Zero and find Mork Borg very much style over substance.

    With the amount of time and money I have invested into Symbaroum I hope Free League don’t go down either of these routes (or heaven forbid 5E), but will re-evaluate what they are actually trying to give us.
    Now The One Ring has been added to Free Leagues stable the innovation I am looking for may actually appear.

    In the meantime I’ll keep working on my Frankenstein Symbaroum ruleset until it is ‘perfect’

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    • Always been around; I’ve just be focussed on personal projects!

      I, too, like a lot about Symbaroum — I wouldn’t have continued writing for so long on the game if nothing excited me about it. However, I always come back to the imbalance between combat and everything else… Organic, homebrew development has served the game well in the setting, but the system creaks a lot with every new player, group and supplement.

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      • I think you’re right in suggesting a simplification of the system is the way to go.
        The obvious choice to reign in the min maxing is archetypes, but I have always enjoyed the free form nature of Symbaroum character creation.

        Will we ever see a Symbaroum 2.0, I hope so but have my doubts the drive is there for the overhaul that’s required

  3. Been using forbidden lands with a los of tweaks over a year and works fine, much better than original Symbaroum rules, more balanced, less combat oriented( not much) and fairly good travel rules, but in the long run the system fails too, too many dice for the rolls, too many rolls per action, hit/ defend/ armor. Even we greatly capped the xp and increased the cost of skills and talents.

    For a long long campaign like throne of thorns( we playing 1/week since 2018) forbidden lands/year zero is better but no perfect.

  4. Honestly I think this is mostly on the GM. I usually only have about one combat encounter per session and social encounters the rest. I have no issue having social encounters rely on the basic characteristics, the abilities and the player characters background. Not just the loremaster ability, if they have the alchemy ability they probably have knowledge in chemistry, herbs and other substances, if they have beast lore they know a lot about animals, if they have acrobatics they’re probably better at climbing. I often have the characters background have as big effect on social encounters, where are they from, what kind of job did they have, what kind of people have they hung out with. I love the symbaroum system and I think it’s easier if you consider it a modern/OSR hybrid where the combat is closer to modern systems and the social part is more like OSR.

    Regarding the min-maxed build. I always tell me players I will adapt the encounters after them so they should never feel the need to powerplay. another thing I love about the symbaroum system, anything can be countered, the opponents can have the same abilities and then some more (monstrous traits).

    • Well said. I have yet to run a game myself, so I’m not really qualified to delve too deeply, but I have read the books, and I tend to find the “no social abilities” argument lacking. I have been running Mork Borg, and though it’s a light system, I’ve never had any complaints on people dealing with things beyond combat or in a more granular fashion. I mean, do we really need specific skills for every single action? I don’t think so. We have plenty of attributes to make that roll, plus background characteristics as you use.
      More rules/abilities/skills don’t necessarily give you more options. Sometimes using backgrounds and base stats are what you need, otherwise people start thinking they can’t do something unless they have X skill.

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