Here are my humble thoughts about the Symbaroum core book, a RPG product which left a grand impression on me.
The first thing that caught my attention is obviously the artwork. In perfect harmony with the atmosphere and mood of the dark fantasy setting, the pictures, as well as the general visual presentation of the book, are breathtaking. Without the stunning artwork, I doubt that I would have taken the plunge and bothered to invest in yet another fantasy RPG, a segment of RPGs that is being obscured by the recent success of the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The paintings and their ambiance made me immediately think of the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim game. Not the cute, heroic high fantasy and whimsical depictions of generic D&D settings. No jolly hobbits singing and dancing on tables from Tolkien novels. This is a dark, mysterious world, filled with perils, where ancient threats lurk just outside of any attempts at the civilization of the untamed wilderness. So hooking us up with fantastic visuals was a perfect gateway to the actual setting.
The world of Symbaroum is both a narrow/tight/localized sandbox, as well as an incredibly vast and rich campaign setting. It focuses on a particular area, with a short historical overview, and a few races and factions to populate this environment. Nevertheless, I can already think of hundreds of ways to make it work for years of play. It has incredibly compelling depth, texture, and atmosphere. The authors mentioned inspirations such as Princess Mononoke’s animism/shintoism and narrative about the conflict between nature and civilization, the aesthetics of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy’s fantasy horror, and Swedish fairytale folklore as inspirations, among other sources. I concur. It is a beautiful mariage of grim, dark fantasy, echoes of European fairytales about nature and mystical powers, Japanese ubiquity of spiritual essentialism in all things natural, Scandinavian primeval nature and tribal folklore, and twisted horror tales which conjure Lovecraft and Moorcock’s work to the mind. This isn’t your cookie cutter Tolkien-esque epic fantasy, nor the high fantasy worlds of Dungeons and Dragons. More Warhammer fantasy than the Forgotten Realms.
The rules are a great compromise between highly narrative games and highly simulationist/tactical games. They are crunchier than Cypher System games and Dungeon World, and tidier than Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder (I may have too few modern references to compare with, apologies). There are obviously some confusions and questions that immediately come to mind, but some of the ambiguities have already been addressed by the erratas issued by the developers. Character generation is neat, the abilities, traits, and powers are all interesting. There is no filling with rubbish material. The rules are tight. There are no overpowering options to put your characters on a pedestal. This world is deadly. Accordingly, the combat rules are deadly. You will not come out of the Forest of Davokar unharmed or un-tained. You will bear scars and wounds. Some of which are not physical. Magic is mighty, yet it comes at high personal costs.
I won’t go for a quantitative assessment. If I say 10/10, am I comparing this to the mainstream stuff, the few games I’ve played over the last decade, or the many games I’ve played back in the 80s and 90s, mostly? All of this matters not. For me, Symbaroum build up my enthusiasm from the Fall of 2015, when it was announced that a translation would be undertaken through crowdfunding, but being very busy, I only managed to read the core book from cover to cover during the holidays season. Then we started playing last weekend, finally. I’ll tell you this: I love this game. It is my favourite thing to come out in a long time. I think it looks fantastic. I think it reads fantastically. I think it plays very well. I am literally oozing with enthusiasm about Symbaroum, and my five players, with whom I have played and GM-ed D&D 5e over the last two years, are being contaminated by my sheer enthusiasm. I will happily purchase, read, and play every single product that the Järnringen team can translate. Hear that, Järnringen? You better put some of your designers and translators to work ;-) And please sell more of the artwork as posters. It is the most beautiful RPG artwork I have seen in decades.
tl;dr version: I love Symbaroum. Stunning, unparalleled and original artwork + a focused, atmospheric and immersive setting of dark fantasy themed around the concepts of the untameable and unfathomable power of nature versus the inexorable yet corrupting race towards civilisation + great low maintenance character creation and rules = awesome.
[5 of 5 Stars!]