Ruins of Symbaroum – A Review

Review in Summary

Ruins of Symbaroum is a 5e conversion of the original d20-based system of Symbaroum released in Sweden in 2014 before being translated to English in 2016. The project is designed by Swedish developer Free League, helmed by Lead Game Designers Mattias Johnsson Haake, Mattias Lilja and Jacob Rodgers. 

Symbaroum is a unique setting that seamlessly blends nordic, slavic and celtic mythology into a horror-survival themed soup. Our ancestors were terrified of the woods as they were said to hold unknowable creatures and be host to the enigmatic faefolk who meddled in the lives of men. More than perhaps any other attempt in 5e, Symbaroum feels like one of those archaic legends brought to life.

As a hack for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, Symbaroum builds its foundation on the bones of 5th edition while changing the overall structure. New classes are brought in to replace the familiar DnD offerings, and unique mechanics such as corruption and extended rests are also introduced. The book adds a host of new character options including new feats, spells, and backgrounds. All this creates a product that holds a ton of depth and elevates it past the usual supplements and setting books you will find for 5th edition.

Don’t Get Lost…

Symbaroum takes place in an old world. The ancient kingdom of Symbaroum has long since fallen and, in its place, are those who would fight for the scraps. The setting eschews the usual huge fantasy world map, choosing to instead focus on a limited area centered on the huge and mysterious forest of Davokar. It is here where the ruins of the fallen kingdom lie, begging to offer up their secrets to anyone willing to risk life and limb to claim them.

But things are not so simple; three major groups find themselves competing over both the forest and their different ideologies. One of these is the human kingdom of Ambria, a newcomer to these lands. After a two decade war with the mysterious Dark Lords that left their lands ruined, the humans chose to pack up from the south and reclaim their ancestral lands at Lindaros, near the southern tip of Davokar. Led by their Queen Korinthia, the kingdom has begun to carve out a place for themselves in the plains between Davokar and the Titan Mountains to the south, with their capital at Yndaros. 

While Korinthia and her people believe the secrets of Davokar and Symbaroum are theirs to claim, they are opposed by the dwindling community of elder folk (elves, goblins, ogres and trolls) that inhabit the forest. Known as the Iron Pact, the group lays claim to the forest and defend it fiercely from Ambria and its rangers. To swell their dwindling ranks, the elves of the Iron Pact frequently steal human children, replacing them with changelings. Though lately more and more Ambrians are choosing to join them of their own free will.

Lastly are the various tribes of barbarians, descendents of the original Symbaroum civilization with a deep respect and fear for the forest which they describe as a living entity. Led by a high chieftain and the numerous clans of witches, the barbarians both help and hinder their fellow humans and the elves as they see fit. But there are more than mere mortal races inhabiting the dark depths of the forest. Old guardians, blighted abominations, and worse stalk the tree line, swiftly putting an end to any would-be treasure seekers.

A Dangerous Existence

Character creation in Symbaroum works very similar to how it does in base 5th edition. There are races, classes, backgrounds and feats you can take to customize your character. However, 5th edition races and classes are abandoned in favor of a host of new ones that fit the setting and the system. 

There are five classes or “archetypes” in Symbaroum: Captain, Hunter, Mystic, Scoundrel, and Warrior. But don’t be fooled: Symbaroum’s classes are incredibly robust. Each class has several unique subclasses (called “approaches”) that dramatically change how the base class works.

Think of “archetypes” as an umbrella term encompassing a set of classic RPG character playstyles. Hunters are a blend of fighters and rangers, scoundrels are your classic rogues, warriors combine fighters, barbarians, and paladins, and mystics encompass all the spellcasters (artificer, bard, cleric, druid, warlock, sorcerer, wizard). Captains don’t have a direct analog 5e and can be best compared to warlords from 4th edition.

In addition, there are 8 base races in Symbaroum: Humans, Abducted humans, Changelings, Dwarves, Elves, Goblins, Ogres and Trolls. Each race has its own unique set of abilities and attribute bonuses distinct from their equivalents in 5e. Uniquely, each race has a set of backgrounds that are tied directly to them, adding additional features to the character. Your hit die is also determined by your race instead of your class, though options do exist to change this. 

As if that weren’t enough, Symbaroum adds a host of new feats divided into Boons & Burdens as well as class and racial feats, similar to Pathfinder. Boons and Burdens are general feats that anyone can take, with burdens being an optional free feat at first level that increases one of your attributes by +2 but gives you some sort of detriment to deal with. Class and racial feats expand your character as well but are tied to specific races and classes. 

How Much Will You Pay For Power?

Symbaroum is a setting where magic is rare and powerful. Mages have a ton of power at their disposal, but need to think carefully about how much they are willing to sacrifice for that power. While half casters do exist in Symbaroum, the majority of the spellcasting is done by the Mystic class. Instead of using spell slots, mages instead need to balance their corruption level. Casting too much too quickly can spiral, leaving the caster heavily corrupted and susceptible to negative effects and making certain saves for them more difficult.

The game is also more heavily oriented towards short rests and several classes have mechanics to aid with that. Hit dice are much more valuable in Symbaroum than in base 5e. Long rests are rare, so both conserving hit dice and recovering them are crucial to success.

Certain classes, such as Captains, have the ability to grant more health per hit dice spent for the party or even restore a certain amount of hit dice for each player. This ensures that even martial classes, who get most of their features back during a short rest, thrive in Symbaroum and are invaluable additions to the party. Contrast this with base 5e, where they tend to often get outclassed by spellcasters, especially in the late game.

A Stain on Your Soul

Adventuring in the world of Symbaroum is no easy task. Not only are there hostile elves and abominations to deal with in the deep dark, the very earth itself corrupts all that journey through it with ill intent. The main subsystem Symbaroum introduces to 5th edition is its unique corruption mechanic. Every character has a certain corruption threshold, marking how much they are able to tolerate stains on their souls before it becomes too much to bear (full spell casters have a higher threshold than most).

In Symbaroum there are two types of corruption: temporary and permanent. Temporary is relatively easy to get. You gain it from casting spells, certain environmental hazards, or through fighting certain monsters. Temporary corruption can be removed every rest by spending hit dice. Permanent corruption is much harder to get and even more difficult to cleanse. You gain it through using powerful magic items or casting reckless magic as well as through more dangerous encounters. 

When a character surpasses their threshold, through a combination of both permanent and temporary corruption, they must make a d20 roll. If they roll equal to or less than the difference between their threshold and their current corruption level, they must roll another d20 on a mark of corruption table. This table has a number of effects that last until you get your corruption back below the threshold. These can be rather innocuous, like growing horns on your head, or more debilitating, like gaining a level of exhaustion if you don’t drink warm blood every rest. 

If you are particularly unlucky, you will instead get permanent corruption from this table. Once a character’s permanent corruption reaches their threshold, the character is lost to their own madness and becomes a blighted beast, making the character into a DM-controlled NPC as your friends may be forced to fight you.

Every class interacts with corruption on some level, creating an elegant system that feels immersive without being detrimental. Spellcasters need to constantly weigh whether casting powerful magics is worth the cost to their souls, while non spellcasters must still be careful to avoid receiving corruption from outside forces.

Setting Book Bundle

Ruins of Symbaroum released recently and, while there is no starter kit as of yet, you can get the setting book bundle which includes the Player’s Guide, GM’s Guide, and Bestiary on their website. The Player’s Guide introduces the world of symbaroum as well as the various races, classes, new spells you can use in addition to the base 5e spells, and feats. It also goes into detail about the corruption mechanics and how to use them. The GM’s guide expands on this, helping GMs to run games in this new system, as well as giving them tips and campaign hooks for the setting. Lastly, the Bestiary comes with a plethora of new beasts, monsters, and humanoid adversaries for use against your players.

Pain points

While overall a very robust and elegantly designed system, I do have some reservations about some of the material. While mainline D&D seems to be pulling away from attributes that are tied to racial choices, it seems Symbaroum is doubling down on them. In addition to the normal attributes tied to races, it also ties health to a character’s race, though the option to use class hit dice is there.

My biggest sticking point though is with the “Pariah” races that Symbaroum introduces. Certain races (aka non-humans) are given disadvantage on charisma checks with members of other races. While I appreciate the concept, it carries with it unfortunate implications and makes playing characters of that race particularly unforgiving. While I understand that it makes sense in the context of the world Symbaroum takes place in, if you are adapting this system for your own world, I would suggest maybe leaving this feature out. 

Additionally, I feel there are far too few new spells. The Player’s Guide adds just 25, which doesn’t provide a lot of variety for spellcasters. If Free League were to publish additional supplements in the future, I would encourage them to add more. The spells they do have are excellent, which just made me hungry for more of them.

Also, the way that spells are allocated to certain spell lists feel arbitrary. (No fireball for Sorcerers??) I get that they were maybe going for balance but it did cause no small amount of frustration from my players at the table.

And lastly, a consequence of being a new system means that there are certain edge cases that will be hard to arbitrate. And, while I get that balancing for multiclassing in this system would be a challenge, I feel adding optional rules for that would help players customize their characters just a bit more.

Conclusion

Overall, I love Ruins of Symbaroum. Its positives far outweigh the drawbacks. The corruption system is unique and elegantly designed. Because all the classes interact with it to some degree, it feels like part of a larger system rather than a token feature tacked on. The mechanics of corruption feel threatening and interesting without being unforgiving. In the past when I’ve used corruption mechanics, I would always hear groans from my players when they were forced to roll on the table.

But with Symbaroum, my players were excited whenever they got to roll. The effects feel interesting without fundamentally changing the character, and players never feel like they got a detriment because of something that was outside their control.

The best comparison and compliment I can give to Symbaroum is that it is the Dark Souls hack of 5th edition. The system is tough and at times unforgiving, but every victory feels earned and every loss feels like the fault of the player being too greedy or not careful enough, rather than an unfair system working against them. The setting and the creatures that inhabit it are uniquely dark and menacing. Like Dark Souls, Ruins of Symbaroum takes classic fantasy tropes and twists them into something threatening and nightmarish. The whole thing feels like a bad nightmare one of the developers had.

If you enjoy dark fantasy and systems that encourage careful planning and working for every inch, then you need to check out Ruins of Symbaroum. It is genuinely one of the most fun hacks for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition that I have ever had the pleasure of playing.

Physical and digital copies of Ruins of Symbaroum are available now.

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