A Walk in the Woods – A Review of the Symbaroum Starter Set

Symbaroum Starter Set – Treasure Hunts in Davokar

Author: Mattias Johnsson Haake, Mattias Lilja
Publisher: Free League
Page Count: 128
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $9.99
Print (Free League) – $348kr (abt $41.50)

Free League recently provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy of the Symbaroum Starter Set. Having been on a bit of a Free League kick over the past year to two and never setting eyes on Symbaroum, I seemed the perfect candidate to review it. For purposes of this review, I’ve avoided getting any other Symbaroum products. However, I did wind up purchasing a digital copy of the Starter Set for my middle-aged eyes (gotta love dialing up the brightness on the iPad).

I went into this review with very few preconceived notions—indeed, one of the things I did not understand before reading the Starter Set was why this wasn’t simply a supplement for their Forbidden Lands RPG. Now, after having read it thoroughly, I can see they are very different games.

Unboxing

Symbaroum is a fantasy roleplaying game set in the “dark and mysterious forest of Davokar.” Let’s pop open the boxed set and see what we find:

  • A bag of polyhedral dice.
  • A 64-page Starter Rules book. This is perfect bound with glossy paper and color illustrations.
  • A 64-page Setting and Adventures book. Similar in appearance to the Starter Rules book.
  • Five pre-generated characters (being a Starter Set character generation rules are not included).
  • Free League catalog.
  • Two double-sided 17 x 11-inch map sheets illustrating
    • A map of the civilized land of Ambria and the mysterious forest of Davokar
    • A map of the settlement of Thistle Hold on the borders of the forest. Gives me Keep on the Borderlands vibes.
    • Maps of two adventure sites – one an outdoor map and the other a cutaway view of a tower

Buying a physical copy direct from Free League, you will also receive downloadable PDFs of the two books, the four maps, and the character sheets shortly after purchase.

Overview of the Setting

Symbaroum takes place twenty-one years after the Great War, a decades-long battle against the Dark Lords. Queen Korinthia led her kingdom to victory against the Dark Lords. In the aftermath of the war, the land of her kingdom was dying. She led her people on an exodus north of the Titan Mountains, to the land that legend had it was her people’s ancestral home. They settled in a fertile land to the south of the forest of Davokar, naming it the kingdom of Ambria. Barbarians already living there were “integrated” into the kingdom, with conflicts between Amrbia and the barbarians continuing to the present day.

At the border of Davokar is the settlement of Thistle Down, a common base of operations for treasure hunters seeking adventure in the Davokar Forest. The forest is a dangerous place, with magic, barbarians, ogres, ruins, and predators, becoming more difficult and dangerous the deeper one goes. As a fan of The Hobbit, I get a little bit of a Mirkwood vibe from the forest. The elves of the land speak of the Iron Pact – though no humans are fully certain what it means. Apparently, humans swore to leave the depths of the forest in the elves’ care and never to set foot there again. I’m sure the elves won’t mind adventurers wandering the woods.

Characters

As with most starter sets, this game does not include rules for character generation. Symbaroum has its own distinct engine apart from the Year Zero engine used in most Free League games.

Characters have a variety of attributes that range from 5 to 15. When making an action, characters attempt to roll equal to or lower than their attribute score on a d20. Symbaroum is a player-facing game meaning all dice rolls are made by the players. The difficulty of a task and/or the attributes of opponents will adjust these target numbers.

Characters belong to a broad profession and a more specific occupation within that profession. For example, a Mystic may be a Theurge (priest) or Wizard. Characters gain abilities that allow them to do various feats (use armor better, heal people, cast magic, etc.). Each ability is available at three tiers (novice, adept, and master, though no master abilities are included).

The Starter Set has pre-gens showcasing three races—Ambrian Human, Goblin, and Ogre. Readers should note the core rules add Barbarian Humans and Changelings. Goblins are found in settlements bordering on the Davokar Forest, often doing the most menial of jobs. Ogres find their way out of the deepest parts of the forest with no memories of their past. Character traits are based on their race and behave like abilities.

The Starter Set features two magic traditions: theurgy, practiced by priests of the dominant sun-worshipping religion (ooh, fire magic), and wizardry, practiced by those who study natural laws. As with abilities, the powers found within these traditions have three tiers.  Both wizards and theurges have to be concerned with corruption (all characters do actually, though Mystics are the most vulnerable).

Rules

As mentioned above, Symbaroum is a player-facing game, with characters trying to roll below the appropriate attribute to perform an action—or avoid an action directed at them. An opponent’s attribute rating modifies the target number.

If you’re familiar with modern incarnations of D&D, you’ll find the terminology easy to grasp – it has concepts like move actions, combat actions, etc. Armor reduces damage characters take, with various thresholds providing points for vulnerability to pain, incapacitation, and death.

While those who use magic are most vulnerable to corruption, anyone adventuring in the darkest parts of Davokar may find themselves corrupted by the experience. This corruption can either be temporary or permanent. Adventure Book

The Adventure Book is where my mood went from “hmm, this is an interesting fantasy variant” to “this setting is really fascinating.”

This book has five main components—an overview of Thistle Hold, adventuring in the forest, creatures, and two adventures.

Thistle Hold evokes feelings of classic fantasy tropes. It has a frontier outpost on the border of a dangerous land. The outpost is filled with inns and treasure seekers. Interestingly, the outpost has a frightening dichotomy between the haves and have-nots—tax-paying citizens can treat the guest laborers however they want with nearly no repercussions. Adventuring visitors like the player characters are treated better than the guest laborers, in proportion to how renowned they are in their accomplishments.

Wandering the forest is a dangerous undertaking. Beyond the monsters and abominations within the woods, there are ruins, enchantments, and lots of opportunities to get lost.

Speaking of monsters, the Starter Set includes such creatures as blight-born abominations, nasty creatures (of course including spiders), the undead, and various cultures—cultists, mysterious elves, barbarian warriors.

As far as the adventures go, I’ll treat them with broad strokes. The first features the characters exploring some blight-infested catacombs while dealing with elves who are not particularly happy to see them. It serves as a nice, straightforward introduction to the setting. Not a ton of complexity but a lot of immersion into interesting aspects of the setting.

The second adventure adds an interesting wrinkle to the exploration of an adventure site. The forest is filled with treasure hunters? In this adventure, the characters must deal with a rival band of adventurers while exploring a mysterious tower. An uneasy alliance? Outright conflict? You’ll have to play to find out.

Closing Thoughts

I was careful in this review to avoid diving into the lore of Symbaroum outside of the Starter Set. As a result, my view is most definitely—and intentionally—incomplete. The Starter Set gives a sample of the Symbaroum setting but by no means a complete picture. I most definitely find myself wondering—“but what about…” on many issues.

However, I think that’s a good thing! I leave my reading of this book wanting to learn more about the setting while feeling enabled to try out a few adventures.

Having not had an opportunity to get the game to the table yet, I’m a little uncertain as to my opinion on the rules. They seem solid and straightforward and are well presented. I’d say where the game seems to really shine is in its setting.

Symbaroum definitely differs from The Forbidden Lands, another Free League fantasy game. The Forbidden Lands feels more like a “traditional” Free League game – a lot of emphasis on not only improving characters but building up communities and groups. That might be the case in Symbaroum as well, but the impression I got from the Starter Set is a setting of “professional adventurers” exploring a wild and dangerous land.

~ Daniel Stack

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