The roots of the roleplaying hobby, and its genesis in Dungeons & Dragons, came from a myriad of sources. Some of these sources had their own baggage that they brought with them, and others became more problematic when combined with inspirations from various sources.
One of the big themes that emerged from the earliest era of D&D is colonialism. In many campaigns, it was accepted that the player characters would “clear” the wilderness of dangerous creatures, including sapient beings who lived there, and then settle that region to rule as their own.
While the “domain” game of D&D is less prominent in recent years, the idea that some sapient beings were okay to kill and subjugate is a legacy that has been hard to completely shake. Many of the designers of D&D have been working hard on this and moving the game away from those narratives, and a wider array of people have been tapped to contribute to the game in recent years.
This all brings up the question, however, can you have a game that deals with the themes of colonialism and expansion, and do so with intentionality? Are these topics that should always be avoided, or can you create a compelling and complex narrative when everyone knows the moral pitfalls of unchecked expansion and supremacy?
The RPG Symbaroum initially tackled these questions with its established setting, the nation of Ambria and the ancient forest of Davokar. Presenting a setting where the Ambrians are fleeing a war in their homelands, they return to Davokar, which is rumored to be the origin of the Ambrian people. The elves and the local witches try to warn them away from the dangers and corruption of the forest, and an unnamed doom lurks waiting to challenge all.
The initial Symbaroum system is designed as a “roll under” system using d20s, where magic causes corruption, and the quality of a character’s shadows show the progression of that corruption. The initial game includes three archetypes, Warrior, Mystic, and Rogue, and four races, Human, Changeling, Ogre, and Goblin (although these options are expanded in other supplements). Magical traditions are sorted into Theurgy, Sorcery, Witchcraft, Wizardry, and Independent Mysticism.
The core game is more about gaining additional abilities and powers from the subsets offered to different archetypes than following a linear level progression. A character might get tougher or more competent over time, but it’s measured in discreet talents being improved or added, rather than bundling advances and attaching them to character levels.
I received the Symbaroum core rulebook and Starter Set, as well as the Ruins of Symbaroum Player’s Guide, Gamemaster’s Guide, and Bestiary in PDF format from Free League for review purposes. I have not had the opportunity to get either the setting or the 5e adaption to the table. I have read the starter set as well as parts of the core rulebook, in addition to the Player’s Guide for this review. I am familiar with D&D 5e both as a player and as a DM, and I have also written several reviews of games that have adapted D&D 5e for use with other settings.
Safety and Calibration
While the information on the setting handles the topics of expansion and tensions between neighboring cultures in a mature and nuanced way, there isn’t much in the way of discussion of table safety or content calibration. I would have liked the book to address how to use the setting if individual elements of the setting are elements that one or more people at the table have as a no-go for content.
While this review is primarily focused on the Player’s Guide, I did want to mention that the Gamemaster’s Guide does have an entire section on campaign themes which directly addresses that the game is intentionally pulling on real world issues to frame some of the conflicts of the game, and even draws a line to the conflicts at play in this game and other Free League games. It’s a great window into the concepts of the setting, and clearly mentions that games, do in fact, interact with politics.
That said, because I have heard enough cases of people unironically engaging with colonial or supremacy-based narratives instead of looking at the overall theme of a campaign, I would love to have a big sidebar disclaimer in the Player’s Guide saying this isn’t about providing you with a fun fascism simulator.
Almanac of Ambria
This review is based on the PDF version of the product. It’s a 240 page volume, including a title page, a two page table of contents, a two-page index, six pages of Kickstarter backers, four pages of character sheets (front and back in color and black and white), and a full page OGL statement.
If you have seen any of the Symbaroum products, you probably already know about the Martin Grip artwork, which is dark and shadowy, with a touch of impressionistic haze, and very evocative of a setting that draws a lot from folklore and mysterious, unknown forests and lurking monsters.
The book itself has a two-column layout, with distinct kinds of sidebars denoted with different styles of boxes. Some of these are for in-game commentary, and others are more meta-discussion about the rules and decisions being made about a campaign using them. There are also various sketches presented throughout that represent symbols and writing found in various ruins, and theories about what they mean.
The book is divided into the following sections:
- The Setting (timelines, factions, settlements)
- New Rules
- Character Origins (including backgrounds associated with different origins)
- Classes & Feats
While the core Symbaroum rulebook uses the term race, origin replaces that term in this adaptation.
If you aren’t familiar with Symbaroum, it’s a dark fantasy setting that draws a lot from European folklore. In many cases, it’s not so much that it literally uses known creatures, but often mixes and matches elements of similar creatures to create something unique to the setting. Politics and the supernatural are important, and I would say that if you can envision something equal part Dragon Age and The Witcher, you would probably be pretty close.
The humans of the setting can all trace their lineage back to the lost ancient empire of Symbaroum, whose ruins are now swallowed up by the Davokar forest. Those that stayed near their own home formed the tribe that currently live on the outskirts of the forest, with societies advised by the Huldra, the tribes highest ranking witch. Those that left the region became the Ambrians, who have recently survived a war with the Dark Lords, but found their lands were dying because of the magic used during the war. The Ambrians have now returned to the outskirts of Davokar to found new settlements.
The Ambrians initially wiped out one of the local tribes, but there is an uneasy peace now. The Ambrians elevated their sun god to the only god worthy of worship, and the fanatics of that religion wish to stamp out or heavily regulate magic, as well as to convert the tribes from worshiping the old gods all of the humans once had in common.
On top of all of this, as the Ambrians push into Davokar for resources and to loot the ruins of the ancient empire, the elves have warned them that there is a great danger slumbering in the forest, and some have invoked the Iron Pact, an ancient agreement with humans of the region saying that the elves can kill anyone that wanders too deep into the forest.
What I like about this situation is that it isn’t just a careless human empire expanding into other lands. Many of the Ambrians desperately need resources and money to recover from what they have lost. Goblins, dwarves, and ogres wander out of the forest looking for employment, and elves and the human tribes have their own dignitaries that talk with the Ambrians. At some point the Ambrians may push too hard and have all the human tribes and elves willing to go to war against them, but among those that believe there is a great evil sleeping in the forest, no one wants this, because then it’s likely that everyone will lose.
Because there is a lot of travel and exploring in the setting, a lot of the new rules deal with those elements. In addition, there are more formalized rules for social challenges, as well as dealing with corruption.
The travel rules simplify travel distances and the amount of time taken, because the rules aren’t trying to account for a multitude of terrains, just the known environs in and around Davokar. Forced marches should be familiar and play with the exhaustion rules already in the structure of 5e. These rules also introduce death marches, which require characters to push on at dangerous rates for an extended time without any rest and can generate persistent failed death saves while still on the journey.
Ruins of Symbaroum also adds some granularity to the rest rules in the core 5e OGL game. Instead of dividing rests into only short or long rests, there are now short, long, and extended rests. Short and long rests are still 1 hour/8 hours, but you don’t regain all of your hit points or half of your hit dice on a long rest. Instead, if you spend 24 hours in a safe place with plenty of time to rest, you regain all of your hit points and hit dice.
Social challenges add an additional group ability challenge to an interaction, and then use four tiers of resolution to determine how likely the person you are interacting with is to react well to your spokesperson, who makes any requests. That check might be harder if the group made a bad introduction (disadvantage), or it might go well (advantage). There are also rules that modify this structure for a single character introducing themselves and making the petition.
Ruins of Symbaroum doesn’t utilize alignment, but instead tracks corruption. Characters have a corruption threshold, and once it is exceeded, they make a corruption check, which may result in a permanent change as well as a permanent point of corruption. Characters that have marks of corruption equal to their threshold become NPCs. Short and long rests can allow a character to remove some corruption and hit dice can also be spent to reduce corruption.
The social challenges aren’t unlike the audience rules from Adventures in Middle-earth, which I’ve been using in other 5e games since I read them. The changes to the rest structure are something I really like. As someone that attempted to use the grittier rest rules from the DMG, bumping things up from an hour to 8 hours, and 8 hours to a week was way too drastic. On the other hand, letting PCs refresh the “toys” from their classes with a long rest, but still making them sweat their hit point recovery is something I really like, and may snag for other 5e campaigns.
While the terminology for races from previous material is changed to Origin, Ruins of Symbaroum doesn’t adopt the new standard that official WotC material has moved towards, where character ability score increases are divorced from race. In some cases, the cultures presented in Ruins of Symbaroum are smaller and individuals share more cultural touchstones, but it’s still not an ideal utilization of ability score bonuses.
One change made in Ruins of Symbaroum is that hit dice is based on character origin, and not an aspect of the new classes introduced. While this is an interesting shift, it only really means that every origin except goblins have a d8 as their hit die, since everything else falls in the medium range. The origins in the book are as follows:
- Abducted Humans (humans raised by elves after they placed a changeling)
- Changelings (elven children that look like humans when placed with them)
- Dwarves (secretive humanoids with complex family interactions)
- Elves (long lived and connected to the natural way of things)
- Goblins (small, thin humanoids that do undesirable work and have short lifespans)
- Humans (both Ambrians and Davokar tribes)
- Ogres (big humanoids that wander in from the forest with no memories, connected to goblins)
- Trolls (big horned humanoids that live underground, connected to goblins)
- Undead (restless souls that still inhabit their bodies)
While the overall presentation of these origins looks very much like the traditional organization of races in D&D 5e, at the end of each origin’s entry, there are several specific backgrounds related to that origin. For example, under human, there are the following backgrounds:
- Common Folk
- Faithful of Prios
- Houses of Nobility
- Scholar of Ordo Magica
In a few places it is noted that characters might take a background listed under a different origin, especially if members of that origin are often found among other folk. I like this arrangement, because it adds a tool to help communicate about the cultures in the setting in an area proximate to the origins.
It’s also worth noting that the Features under the different backgrounds usually have more direct interactions with the rules than the more nebulous narrative permissions that the Player’s Handbook backgrounds have, such as allowing characters to make a specific check for some form of knowledge or advantage under fairly narrow circumstances with a specific skill.
Classes and Feats
While Ruins of Symbaroum is using the core rules of the 5e OGL, the designers have gone the route of customizing every part of the system that would work better if it was designed from the ground up. That means that rules like proficiency bonuses, levels, hit points, and armor class all work the way you would expect, but instead of trying to make existing wizards, rangers, or warlocks to fit the story and tone already established in Symbaroum, there are all new classes designed for Ruins of Symbaroum.
There are some notes on using these classes outside of the “origin as hit dice” structure, which would also lend itself to porting these classes to other 5e games. That said, every class in this section recommends a d8 hit dice if used in this manner. I’m still trying to understand the specifics of tying hit dice to origin when only one origin deviates from the d8 pattern, and why, if you were going to use that paradigm, you would use some of your class entry space reiterating that it would be a d8 class otherwise.
Each of the new classes is set up in a manner recognizable to anyone that has looked at a 5e character class. Class features include hit dice, proficiencies, and starting equipment. Each class also has a section on Shadow, explaining their shadow threshold. Like D&D 5e, Ruins of Symbaroum provides a number of subclasses for each class, although all the classes are designed to pick up their subclass at 1st level, with all of the subclasses referred to as approaches. The list is:
- Captain (think warlord from previous editions)
- Merchant Master
- Hunter (think spell-less ranger)
- Bounty Hunter
- Monster Hunter
- Witch Hunter
- Mystic (with less of a difference between divine and arcane magic, the framework caster)
- Artifact Crafter
- Staff Mage
- Troll Singer
- Scoundrel (think rogue)
- Former Cultist
- Guild Thief
- Warrior (the baseline combatant that can take on trappings like barbarians, paladins, or even monks)
- Rune Smith
- Tattooed Fighter
- Weapon Master
Right up front, the classes are not only imaginative in reframing 5e OGL concepts into the Symbaroum narrative, but they also incorporate some of the more recent D&D class design decisions, like having special abilities that are limited by proficiency bonus rather than an ability score bonus.
In general, while all of the classes gain their approach at 1st level, the 1st level abilities feel a little light for all of them, with more substantial “trademark abilities” coming online at 3rd level. While the early approach abilities may not be signature moves, they do help to establish things like armor and weapon proficiencies, and additional skills right from the start, so you don’t have quite as many moments where your character can suddenly use heavy armor and two handed weapons.
The Mystic class has to do a lot of heavy lifting, with its approaches showing off all of the different magical traditions of the setting. The Mystic doesn’t have spell slots, but they do have favored spells and a maximum spell level. What limits spellcasting is the buildup of corruption. Favored spells can be cast with less corruption than standard spells, but even a cantrip can’t be used infinitely, since any use of magic results in at least one point of corruption (although some approaches get to use some cantrips without consequence eventually).
Some of the spellcasting traditions are defined by how they interact with corruption. For example, the Sorcerer accepts some permanent corruption up front to cast some spells with less penalty. Staff mages can shunt permanent corruption to their staff to hold off effects on themselves for a time. Theurges can perform some supernatural abilities without casting spells, and without gaining corruption.
I think the work done to customize classes to this setting is fascinating and provides a lot of insight into how things work in core D&D and why they may not work in similar games. It is a fun thought exercise to see what a spell-less ranger would look like if you weren’t trying to maintain editions long traditions, or to see what it looks like to make classes like the barbarian, paladin, or monk into subclasses of fighter.
Ruins of Symbaroum also adds some simple divisions to feats and in doing so, makes it clear what they are meant to represent in the setting. Feats are divided into Boons, Burdens, Origin Feats, and Class Feats.
Boons are the traditional “gain a +1 to an ability score and a simple benefit” style feats. Burdens are +2 to an ability score but come with an ongoing flaw for the character (and are specifically marked as ultra-double optional, but not using that terminology). Origin Feats give you other abilities associated with your origin, or enhance an existing origin feature, and class feats do the same for class abilities.
I don’t know if I would port all of these classes out of Symbaroum. Anything that interacts with spellcasting really needs to have that connection to the threat of corruption to maintain the feel of the class.
I do think that if any one area of the book proves the thesis that if you understand the OGL 5e ruleset–that you can tailor the tools it provides to reinforce the themes of settings outside of the norm for D&D 5e–this chapter does so. It marries the strength of the setting to the flexibility of the ruleset.
The Resources section of the book is where everything else resides. Right up front, I appreciate that they use the terms for coins in the setting, but set them to gold, silver, and copper equivalencies. I have to admit, I really don’t like “367 gormugs to the vanderglack, 27 vanderglacks to the smuggins” conversion rates in RPGs, even it if may be more representative of currencies from the real world.
Because adventuring into Davokar requires licenses, and because there are bounty hunters and officials and laws cropping up with each new petty lord appointed upon their arrival from the Ambrian homeland, there is a whole section on how to bribe. Given how often I’ve seen attempted bribes in D&D games, I’m actually kind of surprised this isn’t core rulebook material.
There are new weapons, as well as weapons from the core rules that get a slightly different name to better represent the setting. There are a few new traits, but overall, the rules associated with them aren’t too difficult to apply. For example, Deep Impact weapons allow you to double your damage modifier as well as the damage dice for the weapon. There are also alchemical items that fill a similar space to firearms but use alchemically generated bursts of fire to perform their tasks.
There is a whole table of lesser artifacts, some of which are limited use, and others that act as consumables. These range from masks and coins to rings and scrolls. There are some creepy items on the list as well, such as the spider figurine that travels from wound to wound healing a character, while also adding a point of corruption to their total.
It’s worth noting that many of the consumable items that characters can acquire do add corruption to a player character. That means that supernatural corruption can still be an issue for characters that don’t regularly cast spells.
The final section of the book details the spells of the setting. Many of the core OGL 5e spells still make an appearance on these lists. For example, if you are a fan of lightning bolt or black tentacles, you’re in luck. If you want to gain corruption for them, you can cast them. Some spells don’t make the cut.
Some of the spells on these spell lists are noted as not being able to be favored. Often, these are go to, clutch spells, so you won’t be able to mitigate the corruption cost of them. Remember lightning bolt from above? You may be able to pick Sending as a favored spell so you can relay information without building up corruption, but if you want to blast someone with nature’s strobe light, it’s going to cost you.
There are more spells listed as ritual spells than in the core rules. In some cases, this adds cantrips to the list of ritual spells. In standard 5e OGL games, it doesn’t make much sense to add cantrips to ritual spells, since cantrips are an unlimited resource, but in a setting where even a cantrip is going to start rotting your soul, it’s nice to know if you are slow and steady, you can still cast light and not damn yourself. Other brand-new rituals let you send out smoke to see how much corruption clings to a being, or you can perform a ritual so you can set yourself on fire and burn your corruption out. Ouch.
Spells that were changed from the core rules were reprinted, although in most cases these are minor adjustments like material components. There are several new summoning spells that use discreet stat blocks for the summoned creatures, like the Summon Daemon or Patron Saint spells, although they don’t use the proficiency bonus and hit point scaling rules used in some of the newer summoning spells found in D&D books.
One of my favorite new spells interacts with the corruption rules, causing the target to save using their corruption total as the DC, and blasting them with radiant energy if they don’t resist.
As I mentioned above in the class section, a lot of the charm of this magic system comes from the interaction with corruption, and you would lose a lot of the fun of that interaction if you tried to remove the spellcasters and the unique spells from the context of the setting, or at least one that has similar concepts of corruption and shadow.
While this review is going to focus on the Ruins of Symbaroum Player’s Guide, because it is the “gateway” to the Symbaroum conversion to 5e, I wanted to touch on what kind of content the Gamemaster’s Guide and the Bestiary contain as well.
The Gamemaster’s Guide focuses on how to structure expeditions into Davokar and different objectives for those expeditions. It expands on the settlements introduced in the Player’s Guide, as well as adding setting information about more spiritual realms and the different locations in Davokar. It introduces extended optional mechanics, like advanced traps, chases, domains, troupe play, expanded ritual spells, and wars. It wraps up with a new adventure to use.
The Ruins of Symbaroum Bestiary looks slightly different than the other two volumes within the monster entries. It has woodcut borders, and most of the monster entries start with in-world quotes about the monster, as well as sidebars formatted to look like additional notes tucked into the book. The entries include adventure set-ups and occasionally handouts, as well as material that puts the monster in context of the wider setting. Monsters are categorized into these areas:
- Hordes of the Eternal Night (evil, corrupting creatures)
- Beasts & Monsters (creatures corrupted by the above, or just generally dangerous)
- Adversaries (NPC adversaries)
There is also a section that breaks out features, traits, lair actions, and legendary actions, so they can be used as building blocks for other creatures and encounters. There are also terrain features, which give game statistics to some common elements found in many scenes, like providing the amount of cover given by barrels or boulders, or how to adjudicate unstable walls during a fight.
There is also a player character origin, the andrake, which is . . . a humanoid duck. While they have a background that integrates them into the setting, they were initially introduced as an April Fool’s joke, and they aren’t likely to be referenced in official material. But maybe if you really want to bring some durulz energy over from Runequest, have at it.
Survive and Thrive
This is a wonderful fusion of theme and rules. The modifications to the 5e OGL system work extremely well to support this setting. I think because Symbaroum is, at its core, “what if we did what we did in D&D back in the day,” but then adds more consequences and political ramifications, the transition from its core system to D&D 5e feels natural. In picking apart what was done to customize the rules to the setting, it’s possible to gain some insights into why D&D does the things it does, and why Symbaroum is different from core D&D assumptions. Just the work on classes and approaches, and the categories assigned to feats says a lot about what it means to make a subclass and what a feat should represent.
Dangers in the Woods
While the Gamemaster’s Guide may have a whole section on tone and theme, and enumerate the different struggles the setting is meant to show, I don’t think there is enough direct discussion in the Player’s Guide about safety or employing the setting’s themes at the table. For example, by default the Ambrians treat many of the more mystical origin species badly, and that’s something that really needs to be discussed in a session zero, as well as handled with active safety tools.
This is a minor point, but if you want to mine this book for other D&D 5e content, the lower level abilities of some of the classes may be a little light, and the spellcasting classes really should be ported only to settings that are going to play with the dangerous nature of magic and its ability to corrupt spellcasters. Even playing a corruption based caster next to a standard caster is going to potentially puncture the feeling that magic is a dangerous thing.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you want to see solid design work based on the 5e OGL and how to use the toolset’s strengths to reinforce the themes and tone of a setting, this is a great example to look at. If you want a great, evocative setting, and you might be more likely to engage with it using the 5e rules than with the native ruleset in the Symbaroum Core Rulebook, this is an easy recommendation.
What other game setting have you seen cross game systems, and which ones were your favorites? How did the new game system manage to encapsulate what you loved about the original with a separate set of assumptions? We want to hear from you in the comments below!