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Sunday, 11 July 2021

A Symbaroum Starter

The starter set for any roleplaying game is always designed as an entry point into that game. It has to do three things. First, it has to introduce the game—its settings and its rules to both players and Game Master. Second, it has to showcase the setting, the rules, and how the game is played to both players and Game Master. Third, it has to intrigue and entice both players and Game Master to want to play more and explore the setting further. A good starter set, whether City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set, or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set will always do that, whereas a bad starter set, or even a mediocre starter set, such as the Sixth World Beginner Box for Shadowrun, Sixth Edition, will not. Whilst a starter set is always designed to introduce a roleplaying game, it has another function, depending upon when it is published. A starter set published as a roleplaying game’s first—or one of its first—releases introduces the game and setting to everyone. A starter set published later or deep into a line’s run, when there are multiple supplements and scenarios available as well as the core rulebook, is designed to introduce the game, but not to those who are already playing it. That said, if it contains content which long term players will enjoy, then that is an added bonus. Of course, it is intended to introduce the game and setting to new players, at the time of its publication providing a means of getting into both when the range and number of books and supplements available might be daunting and there might not be an obvious point of entry. This is exactly what Symbaroum Starter Set – Treasure Hunts in Davokar does for Symbaroum from Free League Publishing.

Symbaroum Starter Set – Treasure Hunts in Davokar includes two sixty-four-page books, a Symbaroum Bright Davokar Dice Set, two double-sided maps, and six character sheets for the starter set’s pre-generated Player Characters. Everything is presented in rich colour, the artwork in particular, standing out as being awe inspiring and absolutely fantastic in depicting the mysteries and wonders to be found in Symbaroum. The books do need a slight edit in places and yes, much of the artwork will be familiar to anyone who has looked at any of the supplements available for Symbaroum, but for anyone new to the roleplaying game and its setting, the artwork very much sells the setting.

The first book is the Starter Rules. This introduces the concept of roleplaying and both the rules for and the setting of Symbaroum—all at a brisk pace. After a quick explanation of roleplaying, it goes over the key points about the setting—that Ambria is a young kingdom, its peoples forced to flee from the south over the mountains after their original home fell to the Dark Lords, how the military of the refugee kingdom defeated the indigenous barbarian tribes, and how some began to look for signs of ancient, long-lost kingdom to the north, under the canopy of the vast Davokar Forest. In doing so, they would penetrate ever further north, and in doing so, threaten the Iron Pact between the Elves and the Barbarian tribes that kept mankind from exploring too far north… In explaining the rules, the Starter Rules booklet is very much focused on the rules as they apply to the pre-generated Player Characters. So the Man-at-Arms and Iron Fist Abilities for the Knight and the Prios’ Burning Glass Power for the Theurg, explanations of their Races and their Traits, and so on. Abilities and Powers in Symbaroum come in three levels of skill—Novice, Adept, and Master—and whilst the pre-generated Player Characters all have Novice levels in theirs, the explanations of each Ability or Power covers the Novice and Adept levels. This means that the pre-generated Player Characters in the Symbaroum Starter Set – Treasure Hunts in Davokar can learn from their experiences and get better at their Abilities and Powers in between the adventures provided in the Setting & Adventures booklet. Ultimately, the Game Master and her players are going to need the Symbaroum core rules, but these options, along with a surprisingly lengthy equipment list, do allow for a playing group to get a goodly amount of play from the starter set before doing so. 

The explanation of the mechanics and how combat works emphasises how Symbaroum is player-facing in that the Game Master never rolls dice, the players do, and a nice touch is that the guide to combat is supported with a good example of it in play, also emphasising that there is a narrative to the play rather than making them simply mechanical and procedural. One aspect of Symbaroum which sets it apart from many other fantasy roleplaying games is that the Player Characters can suffer from Corruption. Temporary Corruption comes from casting spells, but cast too much magic and the Corruption can become permanent. Other sources of Corruption include using certain artefacts and encountering certain creatures and places in and under Davokar Forest. Too much Corruption and a person’s Soul is blighted, which the Witchsight Power can reveal. These rules show how both magic and the secrets of Davokar Forest can be dangerous and so should be handled with care.

The Setting & Adventures booklet is of course, for the Game Master’s eyes only, and it starts with some advice for her, before delving into the setting of Symbaroum with some specifics. In particular, presenting the fortified town of Thistle Hold on the edge of Davokar Forest as a launching point for any treasure hunts into its depths, as well as rules for and the dangers for making such journeys. The description of Thistle Hold is nicely done, having a ‘Wild West’ feel, but with Dark Ages flavour. Again it will be familiar to veteran players of the game and perhaps the only thing that might have made it better would have been the inclusion of a few NPCs that the Player Characters could have regularly interested with. Whilst there are rewards to be found on the treasure hunts, some of them listed on the included table, not all of these rewards are entirely safe, notably the handful of artefacts which inflict corruption when their powers are invoked. These do give their owners minor, but still powerful benefits, but their use needs to be weighed against the cost of that use. Other dangers are more obvious, such as the short bestiary of monsters and adversities that might be encountered under the eaves of the Davokar Forest. Including beasts, members of various cultures, and the undead, the dozen or so entries are certainly sufficient to support the two scenarios in the Setting & Adventures booklet, and a bit more.

The two adventure locations in the Setting & Adventures booklet are designed with new players in mind, being relatively short and straightforward and intended to give them a taste of the core activity at the heart of Symbaroum, and its accompanying dangers. They are designed to be played in order, although the two are not connected, with the second being more complex than the first and with each Player Character earning sufficient Experience Points that should his player want to improve him, then he can. The first is ‘Where Darkness Dwells’ and is the simpler of the two, the Player Characters having been informed that the corrupted lake of Kal-Halaran and the nearby cemetery of Kalea Ma-Har are both sites of interest to anyone wanting to further study the Darkness, and perhaps been hired to locate a missing noble who was last seen there. The adventure veers between being a scavenger hunt and a dungeon delve, although quite a short one. This can be peppered with a series of random events, but the scenario has it events and encounters as well as the site to explore. These include encounters with some interesting NPCs whose role in the scenario is to illustrate the dangers of exploring the Davokar Forest and hunting for treasure. This includes with Elves, who in Symbaroum distrust mankind at the very least since their incursions into the forest break the Iron Pact and meddle with dangers best left alone. The one issue here is that should the players and their characters handle the situation wrong, it may end in their being executed, possibly because of the players’ lack of awareness of the dangers of treasure hunting. So the Game Master may want to really warn the players and their characters ahead of time in game, because such an outcome is likely to end their playing experience with Symbaroum, let alone with the Symbaroum Starter Set – Treasure Hunts in Davokar. Otherwise, this is a solid introductory scenario which successfully imparts much the setting elements to Symbaroum.

The second, more sophisticated scenario is ‘The Gathering Storm’. The Player Characters learn of another location, Lafarda’s Tower, from some notes that come into their possession, and that the tower might hold another artefact, this time the Rod of Light and Darkness. Either having discovered them during the events of ‘Where Darkness Dwells’ or purchased whilst back in Thistle Hold, the notes suggest the tower’s location, in the middle of the Blasted Heath, leading to a nasty trek across lightning cracked land to find the tower in the fog. However, when the Player Characters arrive, they discover that a rival band of treasure hunters has already got there, but has come up against a problem that it is not strong enough to deal with. It is a classic situation of uneasy alliances complicated by the arrival of a second rival party, a party of innocents, the weather getting very, very frightening, and something nasty below the tower… This is the better of the two scenarios, and although it does not lack the potential for a total party kill (as opposed to execution), that potential feels less arbitrary. 

Both scenarios include notes on their set-up and potential developments, depending on the outcome. Both will need thorough read throughs as they are quite busy in places and there are events which the Game Master will need to prepare as well as the various locations. Beyond the suggested developments, the Symbaroum Starter Set – Treasure Hunts in Davokar is wanting in terms of further adventures. Given how much is included in the starter set in terms of background and rules, it would have been nice if there had been a few adventure hooks or seeds which the Game Master could have developed for herself. However, both adventures should provide two sessions of gaming each, especially if the Game Master develops the set-up a little more to involve some roleplaying and investigation in Thistle Hold prior to the Player Characters setting out on their expeditions.

The six character sheets for the starter set’s pre-generated Player Characters include a Human Ambrian Knight looking for redemption, a Human Ambrian Witch Hunter who has probably seen too much Darkness, a Goblin Treasure Hunter on the make, a Human Ambrian Theurg wanting a better understanding of Darkness, and an Ogre Wizard curious about the world who accompanied by a mystical companion. All six sheets are done on glossy paper and easy to read. The backgrounds for each of the Player Characters is given in the Starter Rules booklet. These backgrounds have sufficient ties between the Player Characters to explain why they are working together. However, the Game Master will need to do a little copying and pasting to make the background readily available to their prospective players.

The double-sided maps are done in full colour on stiff paper stock. One depicts the town of Thistle Hold—the start and end point for any treasure hunt into the Davokar Forest on the one side, and a map showing Ambria and the known Davokar Forest on the other. Both of these maps have been seen before, but having them separate is always useful as is the fact that various important locations are listed on the Thistle Hold map that the Player Characters can visit. The second map depicts the adventure locations for each of the two adventures in the Setting & Adventures book. Both are unmarked.

The Symbaroum Starter Set – Treasure Hunts in Davokar takes Symbaroum back to where it started—and where many of the early adventures take the Player Characters—treasure hunting under the canopy of the Davokar Forest. In doing so, it presents a robust and surprisingly detailed introduction to the setting of Symbaroum and its mechanics. For anyone interested in getting a taste and feel of the dark fantasy Swedish roleplaying game, The Symbaroum Starter Set – Treasure Hunts in Davokar is a solid entry point.

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