Approximate time to read: 7 minutes.
Your quest has only just begun. Or so your map suggests. But, then again, a quest is such a commitment that might be more than you have made allowance for.
Symbaroum’s The Throne of Thorns campaign is not without a measure of commitment. In many ways, it might remind you (a little) of the Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. Your primary characters engage in a righteous quest to do something good for the world. They travel far and wide to locations that house notable characters and critical artefacts. They uncover new information as they travel, find fresh allies, face threats—from within and without—driven by dark motives, and ultimately achieve something that sets the world on a new course—usually at a significant cost and with many scars and lessons learned.
That’s A Big Deal
If you take on the multiple books of the Thorns campaign, you may find yourself playing for years. In that time, characters will rack up a network of contacts and a spider’s web of potential enemies and antagonists. The number of primary and secondary non-player characters runs into the hundreds, with individual motivations, inclinations and personalities. If you looked at the list a few years ago, it was long.
With the release of recent books, not only has the list grown longer, but the number of factions, foes and families has multiplied. And the intentions and goals assigned to them early on have changed, twisted or performed a complete 360-degree turn.
A newcomer to the setting and the game system might stumble under the weight of undertaking such a massive campaign. Yes, you can pick up the various minor adventures or use the Game Master’s Guide techniques and tables to create original expeditions, but what then? And if you don’t follow the trail from The Promised Land, aren’t you missing out on tons of backstory and setting?
What is Symbaroum beyond the Thorns?
At heart, Symbaroum is not beholden to any specific kind of campaign or adventure style. The setting serves up dark fantasy, exploring particular territories—whether geographic or thematic—through individual volumes in the series. It’s worth noting that each book has a different focus that develops new areas of the master setting. There are themes of colonialism, slavery, genocide, and other tough subjects that you should consider in Session Zero. Symbaroum is a game that warrants safety tools.
The setting is a richly defined one created over many years by the authors, guided by their own play experience and personal approach to gaming. In some respects, the faults in the system that create imbalance do so because the original players played the game in their own personal style. They did not experience issues because they weren’t out to game the system.
I have had the opportunity—over the last few years—to discuss elements of the game and mechanics with Mattias Johnsson Haake. I have touched on issues, like the lack of non-combat Abilities and the light touch given to social interactions, but these are not ‘bugs’ of the game, just features of a group who play in a certain way.
Symbaroum is not an everything system. I do not believe that you can readily take the system out of the game and use it for something else. That said, I think that the setting has far greater potential beyond that of a quest-driven campaign or simple and repeated acts of tomb-robbing.
What Books Do I Need?
At a fundamental level, a new GM needs the Core Book. That single volume gives you all the rules you need to play the game with the essentials of character creation, equipment, mystical powers, antagonists, regional guidance, history, and a sample adventure, The Promised Land.
Beyond that, what you buy depends on where you want to take the game and where you are in the moment. Allow me to explain:
Investigating Character Expansion
If you want to expand the options for all characters—player and non-player—consider the Advanced Player’s Guide.
First, however, it would be best to be mindful that much of the information in this book best fits into an intermediate game state. By that, I mean that the new races, occupations and abilities serve as appropriate fodder for creating or developing characters for players with experience under their belt. And by experience, I mean that they have played a few Symbaroum adventures. The Guide serves as a route to progression once the player characters get into the mid to late hundred Experience range—for reference, the base game starts a character at a value of 50 Experience and an average adventure serves up around 5 – 10 Experience (essentially, 1 per critical challenge).
Players and GMs can all too easily fall into the trap of using the APG as a supplement for contriving ‘builds’—mirroring the sort of activity encouraged by other fantasy role-playing games. Professions and races presented in the APG best serve as second or third characters, once the gaming group has had the opportunity to grok the setting.
A player offered the Core and APG for initial character creation otherwise tends to end up with either an Undead or a Troll—honed to magic or combat, respectively. They build a weapon rather than a character, crafting a tool that exploits specific mechanics to create a threat to game balance.
These weaponised characters veer closer to high fantasy tropes of heroes prepared to face powerful enemies in many ways. At the same time, the early adventures serve up low-level fodder intended for Core characters that APG-enhanced PCs quickly reduce to a blood mist or mind-controlled slaves.
A group using the APG without experience of the game, rules as written, from the Core invite the possibility of a corruptive imbalance. If the players create characters with the APG from the outset, the GM can find the game difficult to “balance”, facing an uphill struggle understanding how to tackle the PCs. Rather than focusing on adventure and setting, the challenge becomes about beating the PCs, as if the table has settled down for a skirmish game rather than an RPG.
It warrants careful thought and consideration, and, as noted, a modicum of experience will go a long way.
Running Setting-rich Adventures
If you want to tap into the setting for your adventure creation, as GM you might find the Monster Codex offers more value than the Game Master’s Guide. The material within the Codex makes the world of Symbaroum come alive with glorious illustrations and interesting in-game material—like journals, reports and similar. The GMG is a toolbox, whereas the Codex feels more like a travel guide—or a sumptuous coffee table book created to lure you away to some exotic location.
Combined with the Core, the Codex expands the available options for background non-player characters, with statistics and short descriptions. The Monsters & Adversaries section provides a critical toolset for creating encounters on the fly with guards, commoners, townsfolk, nobles, guild and church members, wildlife (categorised by environment), and monsters from Bright and Dark Davokar.
Beyond the ordinary, the Codex presents extensive information and backstory around more than thirty significant threats. These monstrous antagonists can serve as the end goal for many adventures or the recurring menace within a string of linked experiences.
Like the APG, the GM will find the tools here to extend and expand the threat of adversaries. More than three dozen Monstrous Traits (some gathered from adventures and supplements released between the Core and Codex) make it possible to tinker with the power levels of enemies. Like the APG, a GM using these Abilities should consider carefully before generating any antidotes to weaponised player characters.
The critical value of the whole book is the potential to place every monstrous entry at the heart of an adventure. The richness embedded in individual entries makes it possible to convey what makes the Symbaroum setting so different and worthy of engagement. Indeed, the root of those encounters in Adventure Locations lies in the wealth of potential contained in these entries. Each considers a wilderness site plagued by one of the creatures or entities defined within the Codex.
Let’s Go Hack The System
If asked, I would recommend a new GM pick up the Core and the Codex, then the APG after playing a few adventures. Symbaroum is not like other fantasy games on the market. The reference to Player and Game Master is not a guide to their essential purchase, but the side of the table is likely to extract the most significant value.
You can play with the Core and nothing more. The players do not need the APG, nor does the GM require the Game Master’s Guide.
Indeed, if you want to get a taste of the experience of playing Symbaroum, a few rules as written adventures is a must. In that case, I think the best first purchase beyond the Core would be to pick up the Adventure Collection. Then, play through the elements of The Copper Crown and get a feel for what makes the game different, accepting everything even if it feels strange or, even, wrong.
If you have enjoyed other systems, the experience of playing Symbaroum may feel different along a broad spectrum. For some, the changes may be small; for others, they may undergo a wholesale revision of their expectations about what role-playing sessions might involve.
When should you pick up the Game Master’s Guide? I believe that the book has the greatest value after you have played through an initial campaign. The GMG is a toolbox intended for the GM who wants to tinker and appreciates guidance offered by the creators to do so.
Many GMs may feel that they have the experience or confidence to handle this without guidance. However, the GMG provides a glimpse into the crystal ball with insight into what the original writers believe might change or adjust.
The other benefit of the GMG comes in offering a way to take the game into adjacent worlds. Like professions or races into the APG, stepping into the Under, Yonder, or Spirit World likely warrants an initial period of exposure to the baseline background of Ambria.
Challenges and Chronicles
When I set out to write this article, I hadn’t intended to take a walk through the critical non-adventure books of the Symbaroum game system. But, in the end, that initial walkthrough serves as a necessary step toward any game group picking up the game for the first time. Ultimately, what I want to consider is what lies beyond these books; what adventures await? As I asked, in a section header, What is Symbaroum beyond the Thorns?
Playing Thorns is an investment into a particular flavour of the game. That was the reason for calling out the network of foes and allies. What if you don’t care for that sort of adventure? Where then should you take the game? Or, in truth, is Symbaroum for you at all?
In the next article, return to see what answer I have for that thorny question.