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Sunday 24 March 2019

The Symbaroum Campaign II

Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is ‘The Second Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’, the campaign for Symbaroum, the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game from Swedish publisher, Free League, distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment. Having been successfully funded via a Kickstarter campaign, it follows on from Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden, taking the player characters deeper into the great Davokar forest. With the inaugural part being set in and around Thistle Hold, the northernmost outpost of Ambria, from where a great many expeditions set out into the Davokar Forest just a few hundred yards from its palisades and which has grown rich on the finds that some survivors bring back, with the second part, the campaign’s focus switches to Karvosti, the great cliff settlement which rises from the forest. This is home to the High Chieftain of all of the barbarian clans and chief witch or Huldra, the site of the twice-a-year market or Thingstead, and which worryingly for both the High Chieftain and the Huldra, has more recently become an important site for the Church of Prios.

The format for Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is the same as Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden. It is divided into three sections, the first is background, the second expanded background and rules for the Game Master, and the third, the campaign itself. The first part is ‘The Explorer’s Haven’, which presents what is generally known about Karvosti, a refuge against the darkness of the Davokar forest whose inhabitants agree on the need for a united front against the threats from the surrounding area, but cannot agree on much else. It takes us onto the plateau via the great entrance topped with a pair of boar statues and guarded by the ever-vigilant Wrathguard which patrol the settlement, and at which everyone is checked before being allowed to enter. Some history of Karvosti is given; as are plenty of places to eat and drink at, how its inhabitants—both permanent and the many transients in their tent city—entertain themselves, most notably the well-attended story nights held at the market; places to shop at, such as Crueljaw’s Traps where items needed for monster hunting can be purchased and Vearra’s Outpost, an outlier settlement serving those who prefer not to go up onto Karvosti; places to go for information—much in demand by explorers and fortune hunters; and the most notable figures on the plateau. Lastly, the two barbarian clans whose lands surround Karvosti, the Baiaga and the Odaiova, are also detailed, again examining their histories, culture, settlements—including notably, Arch Bridge, the Odaiova stronghold built around an ancient and massive bridge which spanned a river that has since moved several hundred metres away, their leading figures, and their response to the growing darkness from Davokar.

As with Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden all of this initial information in Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is intended for both players and the Game Master. It is designed as either widely known information or easily researched information, but either way, readily available. It is a lot to take in for the players and it might well be worth the Game Master preparing a set of cheat sheets for her players. Ideally, these should be targeted at the type of character each player is roleplaying. So Barbarians, fortune hunters, Witches, and so on are likely to know more than Ambrians, Templars, and the like. This would give pointers for both that would serve as hooks to draw the players and their characters further into life on Karvosti.

The second section is the ‘Game Master’s Section’, which is divided into two parts. The first, ‘In Darkness’, builds on the preceding section, revealing the actual history of Karvosti and its current, fraught political situation, with rising tensions between High Chief Tharaban, the Iron Pact, House Kohimoor and Queen Korinthia, the Sun Church, the Barbarian clans, and the Witches. There is a lot of rich detail here and it is nicely supported with a dozen adventure seeds, ranging from disappearances on the plateau and a rescue mission to free two trapped fortune hunters to dealing with bandits on the road between Thistle Hold and Karvosti and an outbreak of Black Plague Termites, which can be used to add depth to ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign itself or used in general as part of a Game Master’s campaign.

‘New Mechanics’, the second part, provides rules for creating ruins and detailing their original purpose, inhabitants, features, and so on. This set of tables can be easily used to generate a location—even mid game—and set up a small encounter. This can be during ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign as there are opportunities for this, but the tables can also be used in general in any campaign. The rules for Scheming can also be applied to any campaign, setting up Symbaroum’s various factions, their likes and dislikes, and establishing the relations between them, before presenting a simple means to track the player characters’ interactions with each of them and how the player characters’ actions change their relationships with them. In general, the rules are quite simple, but the complexity comes in Game Master needing not only to track the relationships and effects of the player characters’ actions as a whole, but also do it for each individual player character because each player character will be different and how each faction views them will be different. As useful as this is, it does add to the task of being the Game Master. In addition, ‘New Mechanics’ gives new rituals and monstrous traits, artefacts, elixirs and diseases, and several new monsters all of which can appear in ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign.

‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign itself takes up more than half of Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. It gets the player characters involved in the politics on Karvosti itself, between the Barbarian clans, and between Ambria and the Barbarians, as well as sending them out into Davokar and back again to investigate various leads and explore various locations—some of the latter being almost dungeon-like. Notably, it does require the use of the Advanced Player’s Guide and it is designed for a group of experienced player characters with roughly a hundred Experience Points each, with at least one player character being able to speak the Barbarian language, and with the group having a reputation for bold and capable. Guidelines are given for creating new characters of sufficient capability as well as some incentives to get them involved.

Yet those incentives are in a way a stronger means than the default means of getting the characters involved in the campaign. This has them at tavern where they—and everyone else—overhear the maudlin outburst of an NPC about how the authorities treated a friend, an explorer, who was suffering from Blight and who had with her a great artefact. Now this gets the interest of everyone in the tavern, then on Karvosti, and eventually, but all too quickly, across the region. Yet is it enough for the player characters to be involved? Well, yes and no. Yes, because each player character should have motivations enough and faction links enough to get involved on one side or another, but no because it is all too for any of the player characters to decide that their characters have no interest and walk away, leaving the Game Master with more work to do in order to get them involved in the campaign. Nor is this helped by the fact that there are no obvious links between Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, so that the Game Master will need to develop those before running this part of the campaign.

Once the player characters engage with ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign, they will find themselves on massive McGuffin hunt—first for the friend of the NPC, second for what she knew, and third, for the artefact. Divided into three acts, this continues with their searching for further clues on Karvosti, before going out to three very different locations where the explorer was last seen—a settlement of religious zealots, a ruined palace, and an island on the brink of the spirit world. Each of these has a different atmosphere and feel, the latter in particular feeling ancient and desolate, and more than a little creepy in places. The difficulty in visiting any one of them is compounded by the interest of rival groups and factions who are after the same information, but often for very different reasons. The three locations can be tackled in any order, not just by the player characters, but also by the other groups. Good advice is given here for the Game Master as to the status of each group at each of the locations in whatever order the player characters tackles them. The likelihood is that the player characters will need to ally with one or more of these groups if they are to succeed and this is where the Scheming mechanics come in because the player characters’ actions will influence these factions’ opinions of them. It all comes to a head as the player characters race back to find the final McGuffin. 

Rounding out ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign is a discussion of its aftermath. Again, this is organised faction by faction depending upon what the characters do. Much like the involvement of the factions throughout the campaign this feels messy and devoid of any easy outcome, just one more sign of how nothing is easy in Symbaroum. There is also some advice on further leads and stories and potential rewards for the characters.

Like Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden before it, there is a good mix of roleplaying and action involved in Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, especially in the second act where the player characters need to balance their need to find the information they want with having to negotiate with others in order to get it. The Game Master is again given a great cast of NPCs with which to roleplay and there are some decent handouts for the players. Yet Karvosti – The Witch Hammer also suffers from having a lot of information that first the Game Master needs to process and then get the relevant parts to her players and their characters, especially at the beginning where the player and their characters are expected to know a great deal about life on Karvosti. It does not help that the campaign does not make enough of that information itself to provide a really good hook to get the player characters involved at the start, especially given that the player characters are supposed to know it.

Physically, this being a book from Free League and for Symbaroum, there can be no doubt that Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is going to be a fine-looking book—and it is. The layout is clean and tidy, and the artwork is fantastic. Putting aside the repeated use of artwork—less of a problem here than in other books—the artwork could have been better used, for example as a set of portraits to show the players of the campaign’s very many NPCs. Especially given the number of factions involved in the campaign that both the players and the Game Master has to keep track of. One big issue is that the book does lack an index, potentially something that will slow play down if the Game Master needs to look something up. Lastly, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer comes with some great maps, but it also comes with some bland ones too. The one of Karvosti itself is particularly uninteresting and given how time the player characters will be spending there, it is a shame that a better one could not have been provided.

The Symbaroum core rules focuses on three important settlements. Two are Thistle Hold and Karvosti, the third, Yndaros, the capital of Ambria, the young kingdom set up in the wake of the fall of the Kingdom of Alberetor. With Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, the ‘Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ campaign can be seen to expanding upon those locales and their immediate environs. So it good to see that the publisher is expanding upon these locations as well as providing adventuring material built around them.

In addition to presenting more information on Karvosti and the surrounding area, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer does a good job of involving the player characters in the politics of the region and bringing to a head the political tensions that have been simmering at the heart of the game. Yet as content rich as the book is, it is difficult to bring much of that information into play and it makes preparing the campaign that much more difficult—and that is for player and Game Master alike. At the same time, it provides a disappointing hook to get the players and their characters involved and does not tie this, ‘The Second Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’, back into the first, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden. There is undoubtedly some decent gaming to be got out of this part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns, but bringing Karvosti – The Witch Hammer to the table will be a challenge for any Game Master.

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