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Ruins of Symbaroum [5E] - The Promised Land: An Interview With Free League Publishing

Free League is converting their award-winning dark fantasy tabletop RPG, Symbaroum, to use the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition system. To start a conversation about the conversion, they’re offering a free, 92-page preview and offered to speak with me about the project. What follows is my conversation with Mattias Johnsson Haake, Mattias Lilja, and Jacob Rodgers about the mechanics, community feedback, and what’s next for this project.

Symbaroum - Core Rulebook.jpg

EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thanks for reaching out to discuss this. You’re bringing Free League’s award-winning Symbaroum to the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition ruleset. However, instead of jumping off with a full conversion and crowdfunding, you’re offering a free preview. There’s a lot to setup so let’s start with, what is Symbaroum?
MATTIAS JOHNSSON HAAKE (MJH)
: Symbaroum is a fantasy tabletop RPG, often described as dark, gritty and deadly. It was first released in Swedish in 2014, then translated into English for a worldwide release in 2016. Since then, we are happy to say that the game has captured the imagination of an ever-growing number of gamers and that the game-line today encompasses a dozen hardcover books, along with several support products in the form of card sets, maps and more.

EGG: Symbaroum originated with another Swedish publisher before they merged with Free League, correct? The game does not use the Year Zero Engine. For the original game, can you talk about the original system?
MJH
: Yes, the game was designed by a game studio called Järnringen, that merged with Free League in 2018, bringing along Symbaroum and its core team of creatives, including two of us who are involved in the 5E conversion. The Symbaroum rule set is a d20, roll under, fully player-facing system, designed to be quick, punishing, and easy to get into. Also, it is highly flexible and modular, so those who want more complexity are offered numerous optional rules, or can easily introduce their own house rules.

Symbaroum - Monster Codex.jpg

EGG: Symbaroum uses a solid system, has won awards - Symbaroum Monster Codex won Best Art, Interior (2019 Silver ENnie) and Best Layout and Design (2019 Gold ENnie) - and has a following. Why redesign the game for 5e?
MATTIAS LILJA (ML)
: 5e is the world’s largest system and we want Symbaroum to reach as many players as possible, of course. We have played 5e a lot ourselves and realized that a conversion could do the Symbaroum setting justice, as well as offer some new class variants to tickle players used to 5e. So, we decided to give it a go.
JACOB RODGERS (JR): Really, I think many folks underestimate the mutability of the 5e core system. There are very few assumptions actually built into the system and we’ve been able to make choices about how we build things mechanically to represent the dark and gritty feel of Symbaroum.
MJH: It should be added that this conversion is partly done in response to questions from GM’s, raised at conventions and on social media. From what we gather, many Gamemasters who love the original Symbaroum game still have a hard time convincing their gaming groups to learn a new rule set. With Ruins of Symbaroum, we want to invite those and others to explore the game’s setting, using a familiar system.

EGG: What design challenges have you encountered as you’ve converted this from the original system to 5e?
ML
: Mechanically it’s not such a stretch as it might first seem to be. Many of the rules used in the original Symbaroum game are mirrored in 5e or are easily recreated within that rule set. The core Symbaroum mechanic of Corruption ties in nicely to leveled spells and attunement of magic items, for instance. Symbaroum does not use a leveling system as such, but still gauges player power and matches challenges to that, so it’s not that much of an issue. Some things are different, like how 5e aims to balance things more than the original Symbaroum system, which instead has a lot of freedom and thus opens up for system mastery; in original Symbaroum you can create a PC that really sucks, which is way harder in 5e. Creating Symbaroum classes in 5e that capture the Symbaroum vibe and also match the d20 expectation on classes being balanced was fun and challenging. I think Jacob really has pulled this off in a great way.
JR: Thank you! Of course, there are always certain challenges, for example building the class structures such that players have nearly as much choice about character progression as they do in the original system. 5e’s subclasses have done a lot of the heavy lifting there — a Ruins of Symbaroum character might have many of the same abilities as a Symbaroum character, the subclass just provides a guided path for certain character archetypes.

EGG: Will the 5e version incorporate any Symbaroum mechanics or other new-to-5e systems?
ML
: Yes, the Corruption mechanic is key to the Symbaroum setting, as seen in the free preview. We’re also tinkering with an influence system to capture the interplay between PCs and the various factions of Symbaroum - we are still trying that out. We also have an innovative rest mechanic for 5e, that we think matches the treasure-hunting in Davokar forest better than the 5e standard system.
JR: Yep, we’re having fun exploring how to bring the mechanics of the two systems together and also offer something exciting for 5e players with some new class options. Also, the resting and Hit Die mechanics are built to reinforce the feeling of the setting. A higher-level character in Ruins of Symbaroum has more options and abilities than a lower-level character, but, due to the resting mechanics and how difficult it is to recover Hit Dice, can easily overextend themselves and be in very real danger.

Ruins of Symbaroum [5E] - The Promised Land.jpg

EGG: Let’s talk about the free PDF on DriveThruRPG, Ruins of Symbaroum [5E] - The Promised Land. This is “a proof of concept, or a trial-balloon – meant to provoke a reaction from you, the potential players, from within the established Symbaroum community as well as from the broader family of tabletop roleplaying gamers.” Why trial this instead of leap right into a full conversion?
MJH
: There are many benefits to be gained from reaching out to the community, as we have learned after working with games for over two decades. Aside from receiving helpful suggestions and general feedback on works-in-progress, it involves and engages those who are going to play the game, making them more eager to spread word and help make the community grow.
ML: Yes, there is nothing automatic in converting a game from one system to another, and we need to be humble about 5e being a very well established and well tested system. We got Jacob Rodgers on board to merge the Symbaroum setting with 5e, and he has proven very well suited for the task, and with early feedback from knowledgeable and passionate fans we stand a way better chance of succeeding here.
MJH: Also, not to be underestimated – getting feedback and constructive criticism is a real energy boost; knowing that people care about what you are creating is extremely rewarding.
JR: I agree, it is extraordinarily rewarding to get feedback, especially from the fans of the original system who are best placed to judge how well we did in the conversion. But we also expect the trial product to be evergreen: it provides a full six levels for three major archetypes for both of the human groups and the goblins, so it will always be a good way to dip your toes into the Ruins of Symbaroum waters, even if the Gamemaster wants to run additional scenarios.

EGG: In terms of content, what parts of Symbaroum did you choose to share in the preview? What are the important details of this world that you’re shining a light on with this preview?
MJH
: The preview is first and foremost composed to provoke feedback on whether or not we are succeeding in capturing the feel and style of the Symbaroum setting within the limits set by the open game license. That said, the core conflicts and themes of the game world shines throughout the preview PDF, in the additional rules, in the suggestion to leave alignment out, in the new character classes, and not least in the tutorial adventure called The Promised Land.
JR: Exactly. It was important to us to make sure it wasn’t just a single adventure with pregenerated characters, we wanted everyone to have a taste of the setting, a direct look at the mechanics and bring everything together in the adventure. That way we could get an accurate assessment from folks about whether or not we were on the right path and, so far, we’re very excited by that feedback.

EGG: Assuming this gets the positive response I expect from any Free League product (you do amazing work), what comes next?
MJH
: Thanks for saying so. Based on what we have heard from the community so far, we certainly feel confident enough to continue according to plan – the plan being a full conversion, starting with a Player’s Guide, a Game Master’s Guide and a Monster Codex. If those books are well received, there is a wealth of supplements and adventures awaiting the same treatment, not least the six-part, epic adventure chronicle The Throne of Thorns.

EGG: Beyond this project, what else are you working on?
MJH
: There are always lots of pots seething or boiling at the Free League studio. In regards to Symbaroum, we are working on a boxed starter set which will hopefully hit the shelves before the turn of the year; also, episode five in the Throne of Thorns series is currently being written, set to launch next year. Other than that we are in the midst of running a Kickstarter for a new version of the classic TTRPG Twilight: 2000, and there are several releases planned for the second part of 2020 – including a boxed starter set and a cinematic scenario for the Alien RPG, and a massive adventure supplement for our sci-fi RPG Coriolis.

EGG: I really appreciate your time and talking to you about this. For fans interested in more information, where can they follow you?
MJH
: For information and discussions about Ruins of Symbaroum, you should find your way to the Free League forum. Other than that, there is a lively Symbaroum community on reddit, a steadily growing Discord channel, and several Facebook pages for various languages. Facebook is also where you should look for news from Free League in general, if you don’t head directly for the horse’s mouth: the Free League website where you can subscribe to our newsletter.

Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
 
Egg Embry

Egg Embry

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
Dang, only reason I didn't pick up Symbaroum was because I didn't think my group would go for an entire new system for fantasy. This looks great.
 




NerdyBird

Villager
Dang, only reason I didn't pick up Symbaroum was because I didn't think my group would go for an entire new system for fantasy. This looks great.

The original game's rules are d20 in nature, but they were designed to fit the setting. Setting came first and it shows.

If you want to get your players on board to play this game, even the 5e conversion, start with the description of the setting. Read them the entirety of page 7 of the conversion doc but maybe change the forst sentence or two so it sounds more like you're reading an ancient historical text. Have music in the background (there are a lot of playlists online that suit Symbaroum. Even a couple made specifically for it) and if you can turn the lights down.

I promise, they'll be chomping at the bit to play. Mine were.
 

schneeland

Explorer
Not so much interested in the 5e conversion of Symbaroum, but it's good to hear that the Throne of Thorns campaign will progress. This thing is so massive that it's quite intimidating to think about running it, but I'm still tempted to try it once the campaign is complete.

Also, more content for Coriolis in 2020 is also good news.
 



Stacie GmrGrl

Adventurer
If they use the bog standard 5e 20 level class structure for this conversion I'm not interested.

One of the great benefits of Symbaroum is how much freedom of choice there is in building characters, which doesn't exist in 5e. The last thing I want to see Symbaroum turned into is another theme park 5e game with hardly any real choice that holds your hand through 20 levels of play.

If they actually change the class structure (like that's been done in the Stargate rpg) so there is some truly good customization available for 20 levels, than that would be cool.
 

Lilja

Villager
If they use the bog standard 5e 20 level class structure for this conversion I'm not interested.

One of the great benefits of Symbaroum is how much freedom of choice there is in building characters, which doesn't exist in 5e. The last thing I want to see Symbaroum turned into is another theme park 5e game with hardly any real choice that holds your hand through 20 levels of play.

If they actually change the class structure (like that's been done in the Stargate rpg) so there is some truly good customization available for 20 levels, than that would be cool.

For those who prefer the original Symbaroum system, rest assured we will continue the good work there! The d20 conversion is added for those who love the Symbaroum setting but don't want to switch systems, or can't get their players to switch.
I would also like to quote fellow designer Jacob Rogers as saying "many folks underestimate the mutability of the 5e core system". We can actually do quite a lot within 5e to capture the pecularities of the Symbaroum setting and rules, as shown in the Ruins of Symbaroum [5e] - The Promised Land.
 





CapnZapp

Legend
I haven't spoken out (not on English-language forums anyway), but having played a long Symbaroum campaign, I must emphatically refute the "Symbaroum uses a solid system" claim.

It might look solid at first glance, and it is pretty good - when you start out. However, it soon completely devolves into a game of rocket-tag. Symbaroum fails to retain any semblance of balance once heroes amass greater amounts of experience. Very briefly, heroes start dealing so much damage using only the default rulebook talents, equipment and so on that monsters are completely trivialized. Anything but the biggest and baddest monsters are instantly killed by one hit. In order to present a challenge to our experienced heroes, our GM basically had to multiply the hit points of top tier monsters by four, six or even more! The game's "high level" content came across as completely untested.

(To get a rough idea of what I'm talking about, imagine if your level 20 D&D fighter dealt 200 or 300 points of damage each time you hit the monster, or a backstabbing rogue could do 400-500 points of damage on a solid hit. Then imagine how you would feel as the GM when you realized even a CR 24 Ancient Red Dragon needed many many times more hit points than its listed 546 if you want it to fulfil its role as a solo big bad in no need of underlings)

Our group absolutely adores the way Järnringen writes adventure campaigns (considering their masterpiece Undergångens Arvtagare almost equal to the very best English-language campaigns such as Enemy Within or Masks of Nyarlathotep) and it was a great sorrow when we realized the system is unusuable as written for the Throne of Thorns campaign, since we would not want to play such a long campaign without any meaningful character power progression.

PS. If you have questions about this, please start a new thread. I will not reply further on this subject in this thread, since one good answer is apparently soon "but use 5E then".
 
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zedturtle

Jacob Rodgers
If they use the bog standard 5e 20 level class structure for this conversion I'm not interested.

As Lilja pointed out, we're doing a lot in the system to give folks choices. Now, we love the original system too and Ruins of Symbaroum will have lots of familiar touchstones for 5e players, but it also will present a lot of choices for players to bring their characters to life. As said above 'a Ruins of Symbaroum character might have many of the same abilities as a Symbaroum character, the subclass just provides a guided path for certain character archetypes.'

If you're interested in the development process we do post developer's notes at least every other week at Symbaroum forum.
 


imagineGod

Adventurer
If they use the bog standard 5e 20 level class structure for this conversion I'm not interested.

One of the great benefits of Symbaroum is how much freedom of choice there is in building characters, which doesn't exist in 5e. The last thing I want to see Symbaroum turned into is another theme park 5e game with hardly any real choice that holds your hand through 20 levels of play.

If they actually change the class structure (like that's been done in the Stargate rpg) so there is some truly good customization available for 20 levels, than that would be cool.
From the sample document, I only saw 6th level being the highest available in The Promised Land Campaign.

So this is a good place to ask for clarification. What is the maximum level cap on PCs in the new Symbaroum rules set?

1600434303435.png
 

zedturtle

Jacob Rodgers
The Starter Set goes to 6th level because we found that provided a good sampling of each of the provided Approaches. The complete game will offer many more options and full set of rules up to 20th level. A GM can choose, of course, to cut off a planned campaign at a lower level but since rests are redefined in Ruins of Symbaroum, a 20th level character can be worn down by threats much like lower level characters. The only difference is that they start from a higher place (and have more room to fall).
 

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