Insight into Symbaroum

I just stumbled upon the game Symbaroum via Kickstarter and apparently its 4th supplement Mother of Darkness.

I find the art work really evocative and cool, especially the scale of things. People seem small in this world compared to statues, monsters, ruins. Reminds me a bit of the LotR movies.

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I know it has been out for a few years and has been translated into a few languages, so maybe I’m just late to the dance here. But I hadn’t heard of it until today.

Has you played it? Would you care to share your thoughts?

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I’ll tag @darren and @Frasersimons into this as I know the latter’s played it and the former’s run it. I’ll admit I’m curious as well, given how much they praised it.

I really enjoyed it, but part of that was Darren being critical of the setting aspects - which are made from a colonial perspective. By being aware of that I felt like engaging with it was way more fun than the kind of to-be-expected problematic issues that come from colonialists displacing people.

We played up the first set of adventures and I thought they were really cool. Some of them subvert expectations of dark fantasy, specifically with a giant spider creature that was awesome.

I like the system well enough. It’s crunchy combat with a d20 system so it can be hella swingy. You can end combat in a round or two or it can go forever. I do really like rolling under. There’s a lot of abilities to choose from, but they’re all combat orientated.

That said the bane and boon system where you choose things that complicate your backstory and can come up later in play was really compelling. I made a really cool character I was into and those complications I chose gave me XP to buy boons. It was my favourite part of character creation.

I’ve got all the books and backed the KS and I’m not that into d20 or fantasy. I am pretty sure a lot of my enjoyment stemmed from how Darren ran the scenarios/campaign.

I know they also reprinted stuff and may have revised or tightened up things. And there’s a GM book in the KS, which I think is pretty needed. It’s not super clear in the main book as is. There’s a lot of people on forums who share how they run it because you can easily create characters that are “broken”.

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So I’m going to be honest here and ask for more explanation. I’m not sure I understand what is colonial about the premise. And honestly I ask from a perspective of being educated rather than being defensive. Its probably my naiveté, and I’ll probably get flamed for this but here goes.

I’ve not read the core book, though I did order it because of the beautiful artwork, so maybe its in there. Here is their blurb text -

Symbaroum invites you to join in the adventure! Explore the vast Forest of Davokar in the hunt for treasures, lost wisdoms and fame. Visit the barbarian clans to trade or to plunder their treasuries. Establish a base of power among princes, guilds or rebellious refugees in the capital city of Yndaros. Or survive encounters with Arch Trolls, dark-minded Blight Beasts and undead warlords. But whatever you do, never ignore the warnings spoken by the wardens of the forest: tread carefully and do not disturb the ruins of old, for the dark deep of Davokar is about to awaken.

I can see that plundering the barbarian treasures could be seen as oppressive/colonial, sure. But the rest seems to read like

  • explore the ruined apocalyptic world
  • fight evil

I would think that something colonial would have main items like

  • oppress indigenous people
  • steal their stuff and culture
  • impose your own culture and systems / government

Is that there and I’m not seeing it?

And I guess the inevitable follow on question is

Are all trad RPGs colonial then? And what are some that aren’t at that scale (I can see that Drama System, PrimeTime Adventures, Monsterhearts etc - games that work at a small group interpersonal level wouldn’t have explicit colonialism baked in)

But what do I know. I’m here to learn. If you have the time, please help me understand or point me to resources where I can educate myself.

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I play the setting inside-out as the elves keeping invading colonists from their borders, which almost becomes the opposite problem. I use Ironsworn for the ruleset, though.

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There’s a lot to unpack about why the setting and the game package itself is colonialist and it is both because of who is writing the game and their perspective and also the perspective of the narrator(s) that the reader assumes by reading the books. Symbaroum’s writing is diegetic, so all of the text is in-game or in-world (even the mechanics explanations are flavored).

Symbaroum was a product of Järnringen, a Swedish company, which has been be bought Fria Ligen, another Swedish company. The game is written from a Western European perspective, which is historically colonialist. Fria Ligen, therefore, is part of this history of colonialism, even if Sweden as a nation has not actively colonized (but the Nordic countries are certainly no strangers to the idea).

The game corrupts high fantasy tropes to create a dark fantasy setting. This still falls well within what I call “western fantasy,” which relies on a high fantasy model injected with influences almost solely from Western Europe, primarily from Western folklore, but also the sociocultural thought of the West — consider the aesthetics of high fantasy and then why the genre tropes of high fantasy seem not to apply to other cultural contexts. It’s important to remember that folklore has an agenda: not a single folktale (including fairy tales) exists that is not also an allegory and/or metaphor.

So all of the Swedish writers, presuming they have grown up Swedish and have been enculturated to Western ideals, are writing Symbaroum from an explicitly Western perspective. This is an important metatextual aspect that we can see across Western works — consider how poorly Kara-Tur and Chult are portrayed in older editions of D&D and how Chult in 5e still isn’t a great representation. This touches on your question whether all traditional RPGs are inherently colonialist — I think no, but I’ll go into more detail later.

Now we need to take a detour to talk about the setting of Symbaroum and, specifically, the peoples who inhabit the setting.

First some notes about the setting, in response to your observation from Fria Ligen’s pitch: The setting is not (post-)apocalyptic. Symbaroum is an old empire that has not existed for centuries, whose ruins are beneath and within Davokar, a sprawling forest allegedly planted by the Elves (who have a natural mandate to protect the balance of nature) to control the corruption caused by Symbaroum. Symbaroum was a generically evil empire that used magic — which has a cost of corruption, a sort of degeneration of one’s humanity — to increase their power and control. They took it further and also abused the corruption itself for the sake of power. This is what led to their downfall. All Humans are presumed descendants of the Symbar people, whose empire stretched far through imperialism and retracted as power was lost and concentrated to the center of the empire (what is now the forest Davokar).

South of Davokar is a region of plains and then a mountain range, beyond which is a country called Alberetor. This is the ancestral home of Ambrians. The Clanfolk are from Davokar and primarily live on the outskirts just inside of the forest, but they are nomadic. Some two decades before the game, a war devastates Alberetor, literally killing the land (magic again), and forcing Alberians to leave. They go north, over the mountains, and “discover” the fertile region just south of Davokar, which is inhabited by the nomadic Clanfolk (the only non-pejorative term used to refer to the “barbarians,” a word which is a racist pejorative and it has literally always been so. It’s used to describe some Other who is placed in opposition to you and assigned traits like cultureless, aggressive, etc.).

Let me give a brief overview of the peoples before continuing:

Ambrians are a standard Western European people — they have knights and kings and nobles and castles and a monotheistic religion. The Ambrian perspective is the game’s default perspective and, except for a few rare exceptions, the only perspective. This is important to remember because, as the text is diegetic and presented as if from an in-world narrator, all of the text is written from an Ambrian perspective.

Clanfolk are presented as the Other with their tribalistic clans, polytheism and lack of permanent settlements. While Ambrians have a central identity, Clanfolk identity is clan-based and comes from many reductive cultural influences.

Elves take on another Western European folkloric trope as protectors of nature and balance.

Aside from Ambrians, Clanfolk and Elves, there is another group collectively called the Elder Folk, which the Elves are part of, along with Changelings, Goblins, Ogres, Trolls and Dwarves. These are like a Super Other, all of whom are perceived as far more foreign than Clanfolk. For this explanation, however, I’m ignoring the Changelings, Goblins, Ogres, Trolls and Dwarves.

So, as refugees, the Alberians (soon to become Ambrians), commit genocide and wipe out one of the Clanfolk clans, subjugate and assimilate another, and then claim the plains region south of Davokar as their own country. They name the country Ambria. You might draw connections to the Western European colonization of the Americas. The Ambrians, as new people to region of Davokar, barely know who the Clanfolk are (they don’t even share a language) and had probably never seen an Elf, if they’d even heard of them.

From here, a tripartite conflict emerges as tacit diplomatic maneuvering and balancing between the Ambrians, Clanfolk and Elves. The Ambrians, since losing their homeland, have converted almost entirely to a monotheistic religion that perceives the overgrowth of Davokar as a personification of evil, which must be (literally, to some) burned out. You might draw connections to the Crusades.

The Elves have an ancient imperative to keep the corruption of Symbaroum guarded and controlled, which they do through Davokar, the very same “sprawling overgrowth” the Ambrians want to destroy. The Clanfolk are closely aligned with the Elves, since they have lived close by (but never integrated) for all of time, essentially. It’s important to note that the Elves have told the Clanfolk and Ambrians why Davokar exists and shouldn’t be messed with, but the Ambrians simply don’t believe them and think they’re wrong. The Clanfolk just don’t have the memory to know it’s true (being short-lived humans and all).

Let me reiterate that all of this is presented from an Ambrian perspective. The Ambrians feel they have a god-given right to the region they claim as Ambria and that the “barbarians” are lesser peoples. They think the Elves are combative and aggressive, another type of “barbarian” who are just pushing against them because of rumor and conveniently anti-Ambrian sentiment. The history as I presented it is not written out so plainly by the Ambrian narrators.

The text is inextricable from both its Western writers’ perspectives and the forced colonialist perspectives of its Ambrian narrators. The writers’ perspectives are inherently colonialist because it defaults to presenting the world from a hegemonic, imperialistic society and culture and reinforces that by Othering the non-Ambrians of the setting and the setting itself both textually and metatextually (by what is included and the choice of how to include the information). Davokar is foreign and impossibly dangerous, despite Clanfolk, Elves, Goblins, Trolls and Ogres living in the forest. The Ambrians become a player vehicle for colonialist fantasies like touring and conquest. Even from Fria Ligen’s pitch: "Visit the barbarian clans to trade or to plunder their treasures!"

Now, that is a heavy critique of the system, but I think Symbaroum is still good precisely because it lays its colonialist, imperialistic cards on the table. The only problem it has is not making this explicit; there is no guide for how to engage with Symbaroum critically as GMs and players. That’s another argument for if a game has that responsibility — I think yes, however, because this game is infinitely richer for everyone at the table if they hold each other accountable to this default perspective. If you want to see what I mean (and if you have time), I recommend listening to the seven session series I did for the creators’ introductory adventure “The Copper Crown:” https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8DZ9ihhxSJzMG-mSnVTGNsEjeZ5vL7Lk. There are ways to engage everyone at the table critically without overloading players, but still asking them to engage with what it means to come from an imperialistic culture — or, if a player chooses not to be Ambrian, what it means to be(come) subaltern.

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As for your question of whether all trad rpgs are colonialist, I think not. If we are presuming all traditional rpgs are Western, then perhaps yes. Colonialism and colonialist ideology is (in)arguably a part of Western culture and society, as much of Western society is literally built upon the colonies established by the hegemonic powers of Western Europe. How do we disentangle a history and culture founded on a binary worldview, the Orient and Occident?
If D&D is a sort of trad urtext, that game is certainly colonialist: an age of human expansion and rule, “daring” adventurers from society (there are some breaks in tropes here: the barbarian and druid classes, namely – these, however, are idealized colonialist fantasies: the barbarian becomes lovable and nuanced, the druid uses nature to advance the party’s goal, which is often to force their way through nature, …) who set out in the world to “discover” and “claim,” often by force, a treasure or victory. Not to mention the role of non-human “races” (the fact that race is even used!) in the setting.

There’s a far larger discussion here, but I think, at the core of it, we can either ignore histories implicit in any media and engage them without critique as entertainment or we can challenge our preconceptions in order to engage with them critically and elevate the media – swing the sword, but also ask why you’re swinging the sword, you know?

I recommend picking up Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist if you’re interested in some critique following this line of thought! Don’t forget to check your library if you don’t want/can’t afford to buy it!

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Mechanically, ignoring all of the above, I actually really, really like this system. There are many variations on character creation that can be as easy or involved as your table would like. Rolling and modifiers are really elegant, imo. As far as success/fail systems go, I’m a huge fan of Symbaroum’s simplicity. Combat is by far the most trad-y part of it and there are options from the Advanced Players’ Guide to make it even more complicated – I’d recommend Vampire: the Masquerade 5e’s advice of three turns and done. Make it three rounds and then just finish things up so you aren’t mired in rolls for a single conflict (if your table’s not into it, that is). The main criticism I see, aside from the ease of min-maxing a character, is that Symbaroum is heavily combat-focused, so you’re a little strained if you’re more interested in a social or political game. That can still be done, but the mechanics hand wave it all as a roleplaying challenge, which doesn’t require dice. I’m into that, but with a system that accounts for everything else? Why not also the social and political?

Sorry, for yet another reply, just wanted to move this mechanical blurb to its own post (it deserves its own space!)

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I’ve not read, or even played, the game, but I was discussing it with some friends at a convention last weekend. They commented exactly the same thing, despite what seemed to be uncritical play of the game. A few sessions in, the players started picking up on the colonialist tropes in the setting and questioning whether their PCs’ culture, Ambiran, was actually the colonialist baddy in the game.

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I like Symbaroum because although it’s based on northern European fantasy tropes there’s a freshness there and it’s not seen through the lens of D&D. It helps that the books are gorgeous.

There’s nuance there. The elves are protectors of nature and shielding everything from the dangers of the ancient world and various monstrosities. But they’re also alien to humanity, with a habit of snatching children. They’re out of folklore more than Tolkien.

And the Ambrians… almost a generic high Medieval fantasy people. Their home is ruined, so they came into the North as refugees. More refugees are coming. But those who first came became conquerors and plunderers, asserting their rules on a land they don’t understand, and as said where they don’t listen. It’s already a critique of colonialism to me, and highly engaging for all that. The refugee angle is definitely interesting too, as well as a way to introduce new characters to the setting.

I also see the clans as more like the Germanic and Celtic tribes conquered by the Romans than native Americans, but that might be as much me and my influences as the game.

Anyway, yes it’s deliberately colonialist, not in the sense of taking such tropes for granted, but putting them in the foreground where they can be criticised. It knows what it’s doing.

Another point is that there are horror as well as fantasy elements. Corruption is a big theme, and there are monsters, many undead or themselves corrupted.

The other compelling part of the setting is the Dakovar forest. It hides treasures best left undisturbed, and monstrosities. It’s there to guard against ancient evils. The clans know enough to leave well alone, the elves are its protectors, but the Ambrians see a resource to exploit. But the forest is great… it’s Mirkwood, it’s the dangerous woodland out of fairy tales, it’s the Teutoberg forest across Germany which supposedly absolutely terrified the Romans.

As for the system it’s pretty simple. A bunch of stats, d20 roll equal to or under, modified by the ability of an opponent if applicable. Advancement is gaining special abilities in various areas. The twist is that magic is corrupting if overused, and any character can take on corruption for a reroll.

It’s decent and serviceable, but the setting is the real selling point- and for me what a selling point it is.

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Have the designers explicitly said this at some point or is this an assumption on your part?

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I can’t recall the designers making an explicit statement on colonialism, though they’ve explicitly said they’ve aimed for a nuanced and relativistic view of the cultures, and they don’t see the Ambrians as the “good guys”.

But yes, much of what I’ve said is through my interpretation. There are definitely parts of the text I’ve read as implied critique, but that’s more implicit and needs a tiny bit of teasing out. I think it’s definitely there, but I’ve not seen it stated upfront, in or out of the game, by the designers.

One designer statement I found interesting was that elves play the role in Symbaroum that orcs do in some fantasy settings.

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Don’t mind me, just here to revive a dead thread to link to a relevant article:

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I just wanted to say that this was an exceedingly excellent summary/critique of the setting and themes of this game.

I had honestly intended to give this game a miss, but now am giving it a second look. Additionally that article is likewise fascinating. Thank you :smiley:

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