A wolf tears an adventurer from horseback, leaving the adventurer at 1 HP. A mind flayer death-lord looms over an unconscious adventurer with brain drill raised high. Some decisions confront the referee. Have the next wolf attack the unhorsed? Crack open that skull?
Ruthless actions can sometimes feel like an arbitrary referee choice, even if demanded by best move game logic. Considering the integrity of the imagined world, objectives other than pure ruthlessness may make more sense. For example, in the wild predators often attempt to separate the weak from a herd, withdrawing from combat with a prize, rather than following the completion-oriented impulse of reducing all opponents to zero hit points. In the context of a game, however, avoiding scorched earth can sometimes read as a pulled punch.
Conversely, the strongest game move can sometimes feel like the referee (rather than the integrity of the game world) has personally decided to kill your character in particular, even if it really does make the most sense in the game world context, unless the referee makes decisions in the same way for all opponents. This is because, as a matter of psychology, given incomplete information people infer intent from behavior. Also suboptimal.
Ideally, there will be some ruthless opponents, some merciful opponents, some strategic opponents, and some inscrutable opponents. As a referee, it is all too easy to fall into patterns. You might find all your opponents acting like they are playing battle chess or that adventurers keep getting captured.
Below are several approaches to determine opponent ruthlessness impartially.
Generally speaking, my principle is to follow the thread of imagined necessity until some aspect becomes uncertain and then call for a roll. And that is the way I would see deploying any of these approaches, probably transparently and with the player rolling the dice.
Situation-Agnostic Behavior Table
Vindictive sadistic gleeful viciousness
Continues attacking the adventurer with intent to kill
Changes target, attempts to attack a different adventurer
Attempts to capture or restrain adventurer
Maintains hostility, but switches to display of aggression/intimidation
Objective met, cautious retreat (maybe something spooked the opponent?)
Make a reaction roll, using whatever system your base game chassis provides. Here are the classic outcome bands from B/X (page B24):
2 Immediate Attack
3-5 Hostile, possible attack
6-8 Uncertain, monster confused
9-11 No attack, monster leaves or considers offers
12 Enthusiastic friendship
You would need to reinterpret these dispositions relative to the question of whether the opponent fights with maximum intent to kill or not, but that should be an easy exercise for the reader, and has the advantage of reusing a system.
Call for the player of the threatened adventurer to make a charisma check. Failure means focused fire, attack to kill, whatever. Success within four points means continued attack but letting up or switching targets. Success by more than four points means the opponent has made a point and is looking for an out. Set the DC (if that is a thing in your ruleset) based on how mean the opponent is.
In addition to persuasiveness, charisma also represents force of personality, confidence, and so forth, attributes that may dissuade attackers both animal and intelligent. There were cougars in the hills where I grew up, and if you encountered a cougar the best approach was supposedly to stand still and make yourself as big as possible. I never had to test that, but I imagine that standing tall in the face of a wildcat would take some charisma.
On my last grocery run, I listened to the first episode of Alex’s podcast Text to Table, which is a discussion of Troika with David Wilkie (Anxiety Wizard). One detail jumped out at me, which was the dynamic of play that David described in his Troika game. The focus of play seemed to be more interaction between player characters rather than exploration or problem solving.
The characters in the party included a lonesome monarch, a zoanthrope, a chaos champion, and maybe some others but those are the ones I recall. In the game the zoanthrope tried to eat the king’s crown, triggering some sort of existential crisis regarding kinghood, and then there was some interaction between the king and the chaos champion, details somewhat unimportant. What I want to highlight here is the interaction of player characters as more autonomous entities as compared to a team working together to accomplish some goal. (Please read this as descriptive rather than judgmental; the game sounded memorable and fun.)
I am always on the lookout for key play aspects that distinguish different modes and cultures of play. (For example, degree of proceduralism.) Whether players form a team working together to confront challenges (or not) seems to be another one of these key aspects of play, more interesting for the fact that it is rarely described explicitly, even in games that try to discuss things like play agendas explicitly. Looking at another game, in many ways Apocalypse World is a highly traditional design (each player controls a single character with stats, there are rules for fighting, characters improve, and so forth), but many or most of the rules (and examples in the text) seem geared toward priming confrontations between characters, resulting in a kind of soap opera dynamic. That is, much of the play seems to involve generating drama between player characters rather than navigating challenges between player characters and the fictional environment. In contrast, in TSR D&D and many OSR games, the (never? rarely?) stated assumption is that player characters form a band of picaros or commandos intent on dungeon heists. There seems to be some highly influential spectrum between autonomous interaction and team-based problem solving.
Discussing this with Eero Tuovinen, he mentioned some terminology around drama versus adventure or PvP versus PvE, which are relevant but don’t seem to quite capture the differences on this spectrum. For example, PvP seems to connote a degree of conflict that may be absent from autonomous character based games (it certainly didn’t seem like the player characters in David’s Troika game were trying to kill each other or competing directly in any way). Further, there was probably some adventure going on, so saying that the Troika game was not (categorically) an “adventure” game seems like a mistake, though maybe prioritizing drama versus prioritizing adventure gets part of the way there. This distinction does seem to underly at a deep level what it is that players are doing when they play however.
Unlike D&D, Troika ties advancement to using skills successfully rather than to a clear gameplay goal such as recovering treasure, defeating monsters, or completing event milestones, so there is some textual support underlying this mode of play, whatever your opinion on causation between text and play experience. Troika differs in many other ways from traditional play assumptions, such as the surrealist setting prompts, so there may be additional dynamics at play here, but encoded incentives seem unambiguously relevant to the question of shared goals at the least. I also think that it would be a mistake to oversimplify this to broader play culture, where “story games” are about drama based on interactions between autonomous characters and “OSR” games are about goal-oriented team play, given that the player base of Troika is probably mostly located in the OSR (or what have you) play culture.
Personally, my default mode of play tends toward team-oriented. The elements of play I enjoy most are exploration and problem solving, both when I run games and when I play games. Some media touchstones of action in these kinds of games (to reference a few TV shows) include seeing how the characters of early-seasons Lost explore the island, or how the characters in The Walking Dead manage to carve out a niche for themselves in the apocalyptic landscape. These are the team-oriented aspects of these stories. I think there are some practical advantages to team-based play in that teams support varying degrees of engagement whereas the mode of more autonomous player characters requires all players to be on point as needed, somewhat like improv, though I imagine perhaps systems could help here (providing tables of voluntary action prompts relevant to character backgrounds, for example).
I last played Final Fantasy VII when it came out originally. I liked the original, and probably count as a fan of the franchise generally, though my favorite iteration remains Final Fantasy VI, and I have slightly less experience with the modern action-leaning incarnations (X, XII, XIII, XV, and various spin-offs). Playing Final Fantasy VII Remake was probably the most sustained attention I have directed toward a video game in the past 10 years, taking about 40 hours total. While this may partly be due to the current shelter-in-place pseudo-quarantine context, it nonetheless speaks to the engaging spectacle and beauty of the reimagined Midgar. So keep that in mind as you read on. There may be spoilers throughout regarding the original FF VII storyline, as well as some spoilers near the end about the way the remake approached the material.
The original game was linear—almost all FF games are linear to some degree—and especially so during the initial Midgar sequence, which is the only material the remake covers, ending as Avalanche leaves the city. Since I started writing this review, I also played through the Midgar sequence of the original on Nintendo Switch, which took me about six hours, meaning the expansion/inflation is about sevenfold. Though lengthy for a prologue or tutorial section, the Midgar sequence works well in the original partly because the railroad feels subjectively like it opens up once the player finally reaches the overworld map and can begin to explore the mysteries of the Ancients and Sephiroth in a more self-directed manner (though this is somewhat illusory, as there are often a limited number of choices and a clear next step). In contrast, the Remake is one scene—quite literally—after another, leavened somewhat by numerous side quests (though many of the side quests are thematically weak “find lost cats” style collect tasks). The side quests seem inconsequential most of the time, and are limited to particular chapters. The strongest aspect of Remake is the visual care with which it was clearly constructed. In comparison to the original, the way the developers maintain and add detail to the original designs is impressive. Even putting aside the new plot elements—which I will discuss more near the end—the game aspect of Remake also has some shortcomings.
These gameplay shortcomings include some strange difficulty/balance issues, intrusive minigames, and confusingly modeful play. As a brief aside, Remake offers three difficulty modes: classic, easy, and normal. Hard mode becomes available after you beat the game. “Classic” is a nod to players desiring something closer to the original combat system. This is realized by replacing player controls with AI for basic attacks, dodging, and blocking, leaving the player to only select special moves and spells when the stamina bar (or whatever it is called) fills. Hard (which I have yet to try) only becomes available after beating the game; hard mode prevents the player from using items and makes rest areas only restore HP (no MP replenishment). Classic mode makes the combat much easier, rather than just changing the style, to the degree that it almost feels like cheating. I would say that the combat difficulty is moderate near the beginning of the game (probably easy for anyone even slightly better than me at action RPGs) and gets steadily easier. I defeated every boss on the first try except the Airbuster robot and the motorcycle sequence monster truck thing (which uses a different combat mode). So, the game has to be pretty easy, even on the highest difficulty mode available initially. I deferred to Classic mode twice early on, once with the rabid dog quest and once with the first Reno encounter (because he is twitchy AF). This is a long way around to say that the goal of FF7 Remake seems to be more sumptuous visual novel than gaming experience.
The minigames are either forgettable or mildly frustrating. Further, they tend to be separate from other gameplay skills and unique to the particular minigame, rather than building on previously developed skills. In the Remake’s defense, the minigames in the original are just as distracting (and far more prevalent than I remembered, even just limited to the small portion I replayed). However, the original generally has clearer breaks between game modes, allowing the player to easily predict how the game will behave, whereas in the remake gameplay, cut scene, minigame, and in-between modes blend together and functionality sometimes disappears or shifts confusingly. The Remake also has issues with communicating contingency to the player, by which I mean connection between what the player does and what happens in the game world. Sometimes it is unclear whether you are just pressing a button to advance or performing some skilled action. For example, I still have no idea whether Tifa’s progress in jumping chandeliers in the Shinra building had any connection to what I did with the controller, but I ended up with a keycard in the end so whatever. I suspect the Remake would be improved without most of the minigames. (It seems like the developers recognize this at some level, because one of the perks unlocked by beating the game is the ability to skip the motorcycle sequences when replaying chapters.)
The combat is satisfying, and fits the FF VII style, especially once you get the hang of some basic tactics. There is a slow motion, bullet time effect that occurs when you pause the action to issue commands, which is realized beautifully. Most of the strategic decisions involve distributing materia—the items that enable casting spells or using other abilities such as summoning—between characters. There is a subsystem with a separate experience point economy for upgrading weapons, but the choices seem hard to get wrong so the whole subsystem could probably have been automated and hidden from the player without loss.
Now I am going to discuss the Remake-specific aspects of the story. The game has a lot of potentially meta content, as in communication from developer to player directly rather than through storytelling, so much that it has to be intentional. Throughout the Remake, mysterious ghost things (“whispers”) intercede to shape the narrative, and while a final interpretation will need to wait on the next installment, it seems like the whispers will be an excuse to write a new plot going forward, especially given the final premature encounter with Sephiroth which, no matter the direction future games take, short-circuits some of the slow burn of discovering the nature and power of Sephiroth in the original game. The strange title and marketing also makes more sense in the context of future divergence; it is not Remake part 1 because part 2 will be a different story. I suspect the subtitles of future games will make this clear; perhaps the next installment will be called something like Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. The closest analogue to what I think the developers intend is the rebuild of Evangelion, the first installment of which roughly kept to the original anime. However, the second and third Evangelion Rebuild movies became steadily more baroque additions with new plots and characters.
The neo VII project more broadly—perhaps a series, perhaps a nascent “cinematic universe”—is ambitious and as yet unclear, though it seems from the signs in Remake that the creators are comfortable taking a demolitions approach to nostalgic fandom. While I have no trouble maintaining distance between the new and the old—after all, the previous game remains unchanged and cheaply available on many platforms—I suspect that many other fans feel differently, so this seems like a strange stance to take on the part of the developers. In total, the game was enjoyable and visually striking enough that I can see myself playing it again at some point, but as such a small portion of the original plot and with cumbersome retcon groundwork, Remake also feels like a opportunity missed.
(All images are screenshots I took during my play-through.)
What are the most influential works of adventure fantasy? If you consider, somewhat arbitrarily, the last 10 years, I suspect the list would be something like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones—all due to Hollywood and television. Recently, I was thinking about Game of Thrones, and how it seems in many ways to lie apart from other influential works of fantasy, despite sharing tropes both in terms of content—dragons, sorcery, undead—and narrative—sword fights, heroism, prophecy. So what distinguishes Game of Thrones? The Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy, but also updates the medieval form of tapestry romance1. The Harry Potter stories have many epic fantasy elements, drawing as well from coming-of-age Bildungsroman and mystery traditions. Acknowledging the futility of thinking about genre in terms of essences, Game of Thrones still seems to wander alone; I think this is because it draws more from a different major narrative tradition.
Game of Thrones is cynical regarding human nature, grim in aspect, and employs a soap opera chronicle, but none of these elements seem to account for the difference in feeling. Most works of fantasy live primarily within the narrative traditions of epic and romance. Game of Thrones, however, works more like a tragedy; the fantastic elements occasionally take center stage, such as with the dragons or the fight against the Night King, but then fade, with less influence on the broader story. Examining the patterns, the core conflict in the story is basically Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses cycle (the eight play sequence of Richard II through Richard III), with the ending and ultimate theme of Julius Caesar—sic semper tyrannis. If the ending is unsatisfying, I think that is due to the joining of these disparate elements. People expecting the satisfying reveals and perpetual curiosity of a well-crafted soap opera were betrayed by the political moralism of the Caesar ending; adventure and heroism are taken up and discarded with little sense of cosmic resolution or advancement.
The epic tradition generally celebrates the deeds of a hero, possibly as prototype for a nation, such as the Aeneid (for classical Rome) and the Kalevala (for Finland), or a culture, such as, arguably, The Lord of the Rings (the Shire as preindustrial England). The traditions of epic, romance, and myth fit together more comfortably, compared to soap opera and tragedy. In terms of popular culture, Game of Thrones was one of the biggest shows in the US of 2018, number three after Big Bang Theory and Roseanne2. The rest of the top 10 are all sit coms, procedural dramas, and talent shows. This ranking is America-specific, but the popularity looks similar cross-culturally. For example, Game of Thrones is popular in China3, South America, and Europe4. Game of Thrones will probably shape for a long time how people everywhere think about fantasy.
I used to enjoy The Wheel of Time, another extended fantasy epic, though I never got past book seven, as at some point I made a personal rule to avoid unfinished multi-volume works of fantasy. After thinking about this, I was curious what my reaction now would be to Jordan, so I read the first part of The Eye of the World, book one in The Wheel of Time. One thing that strikes me now is the generic feeling of many aspects of the setting, common fantasy tropes through a lens of Americanisms, though presented with consistency using invented vernacular and mythic resonance, mostly with Christian apocalyptic eschatology. I also wonder how I could have seen Jordan’s story as so distinct. The first third of The Eye of the World shows a sorceress who comes to protect a farm boy of cosmic significance, pursued by riders in black sent by the Dark One. Apart from some minor variations, this basically recapitulates the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, and even back then I had already read The Lord of the Rings. I mean this more as description than negative evaluation—there are many worse things than echoing an effective narrative structure.
Part of Tolkien’s triumph was to make as few concessions to the modern taste for realism in narrative as was necessary to entice contemporary readers. Game of Thrones goes exactly the opposite direction; the aspects that hang together best make up the chronicle of who sleeps together and who gets betrayed or defeated. Sex and gangsters. So the realist mode of political struggle replaces the mythic cycle. Martin manages to avoid the bore of speculative fiction using magic as technology substitute; the magic and mythic backdrop of his setting is wondrous and compelling—winter is coming, the queen of dragons, and so forth. But none of that really seems to matter much in the end, which is more concerned with the Machiavellian heart of darkness. Realpolitik maneuverings could provide the basis for a game, but it seems like such a game would be far from the picaresque pleasures of discovering Vance’s Dying Earth or delving into Moria on the way to fulfill a mythic quest.
1. Thomson, G. (1967). “The Lord of the Rings”: The Novel as Traditional Romance. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 8(1), 43-59. ↩
We closed the gateway RPG survey today. Below is a brief description of the survey items, number of responses, and some questions we can ask based on the data. If you think of other questions that you are curious about, leave a comment below. I have yet to look at the data for the final set of responses beyond some descriptives.
Following are the items in presentation order. The bold text represents the concept, behavior, or whatever, that we were trying to measure. Italic text represents the exact item text participants saw. Parenthesized text describes the variable type (numerical scale with label, free-response text, and so forth).
I have also included descriptive stats for some of the items (N = number of responses for the particular item, M = mean value, SD = standard deviation). Keep in mind that for the seven point scales, 4 = Neutral, 5 = Somewhat Like/Agree, 6 = Like/Agree, and so forth. 2764 responses provided the correct answer to an attention check item near the end; the stats below only include responses that answered the attention check correctly.
So: Concept—Item text (description of variable type); maybe some descriptive stats.
First RPG—What was the first tabletop roleplaying game you played? (Selective list of options that we brainstormed, along with an “other” option permitting free-response text for anything we missed); N = 2549, top three: Dungeons & Dragons, any edition (n = 1658), Other (n = 508), Pathfinder (n = 120). 65.05% of respondents that answered this item started with an edition of D&D.
Attitude toward first RPG—Think back to the first tabletop RPG you played. How much do you like that game now? (1 = Strongly Dislike, 7 = Strongly Like)
If first RPG was D&D: First D&D Edition—Which edition of D&D did you begin with?N = 1827, top three: 3/3.5E (n = 487), 5E (n = 382), B/X (n = 318).
Ownership—Do you own any tabletop RPG materials? (Books, box sets, and so forth.) (Yes, No); N = 2764, Yes = 2688, No = 76 (97.25% Yes)
Still play first RPG—Do you still play the first RPG that you started with? (Yes, No); N = 2764, Yes = 1049, No = 1715 (37.95% Yes)
Delay trying another RPG—How long (in years) after playing your first RPG did you try another RPG? (non-negative integer free-response)
Attitude toward D&D—How much do you like Dungeons & Dragons? (For your favorite edition of D&D.) (1 = Strongly Dislike, 7 = Strongly Like); N = 2028, M = 5.27, SD = 1.63
Belief about effect of D&D on the hobby as a whole (item 1)—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons attracts new tabletop RPG players. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2618, M = 6.25, SD = .94
Belief about whether D&D crowds out other RPGs—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons makes discovering other (non-D&D) tabletop RPGs HARDER. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1613, M = 4.16, SD = 1.88
Belief about the effect of D&D on the hobby as a whole (item 2)—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons is good for the tabletop RPG hobby. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2676, M = 5.64, SD = 1.34
Favorite edition of D&D—If you have played D&D, which edition is your favorite?N = 2348, top three: 5E (n = 1121), B/X (n = 440), 3/3.5E (n = 270). 47.74% of respondents that answered this item said that 5E was their favorite edition of D&D.
Preference for designer authority (item 1)—There are a lot of house rules (customization) in RPGs games that I run or play in. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)
Belief regarding whether system matters—When it comes to tabletop RPGs, a well-designed rules system is an important factor in enjoyable play. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2217, M = 5.86, SD = 1.13
Preference for designer authority (item 2)—I prefer to play RPGs “as written” rather than adjusting, customizing, or hacking the rules. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)
Preferences in play style—For satisfying play, how important are the following aspects to you? (Aspects included: In-game shenanigans, Generating a satisfying story, Acting in character, Hanging out with friends, Challenge Exploration and discovery, Creative problem solving, Character optimization, Improving my character, Meticulous plotting; 1 = Very Unimportant, 7 = Very Important)
Preferences in game materials—How important are the following elements to you in tabletop RPGs? (Elements included: Fictional setting, Hackability, Mechanical innovation, Ease of use, Art, Genre emulation; 1 = Very Unimportant, 7 = Very Important)
Pleasure reading—I read tabletop RPG materials for pleasure, apart from intention for direct use in play. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1300, M = 5.81, SD = 1.37
Play usage—I have played most of the tabletop RPGs (systems, modules, adventures, etc.) that I own. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1327, N = 4.16, SD = 2.08
RPG play literacy/promiscuity—I have played a wide variety of tabletop RPGs. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1370, M = 5.41, SD = 1.64
Age started—At what age, approximately, did you start to play tabletop RPGs? (integer from the set [1, 200]; due to a typo, some respondents were only able to enter starting ages from the set [10, 200]); N = 2754, M = 15.93, SD = 6.79
Year started—In approximately which year did you start playing tabletop RPGs? (Drop-down menu with year options); N = 2721, M = 2002.04, SD = 12.25, min = 1971, max = 2019
Other feedback—Optional: Is there anything else you would like to share with us? (free response text)
You may notice that we measure several concepts using more than one item. For example, presumably playing with lots of house rules and preference for playing rules as written should both tap into a preference for designer authority (and they correlate, as expected, at r(2437) = −.62, p < .001). Another: “D&D attracts new players” and “popularity of D&D is good for the hobby” (r(2550) = .46, p < .001).
(The number of observations for pleasure reading, play usage, and literacy/promiscuity seem systematically somewhat low: ~1300 compared to ~2700 for most items; I need to look into that.)
One (somewhat) surprising point that jumped out at me from the descriptives is that for people that started with an edition of D&D, 3E was the most common.
Some possible questions:
Do player preferences for game aspects cohere into conventional clusters? Are those preferences consistent with what you might expect? (For example, are people starting with 3E more likely to have a preference for character optimization?)
Is starting with an edition of D&D (compared to other RPGs), controlling for years played, associated with greater or lesser RPG play literacy overall?
Is starting with an edition of D&D (compared to other RPGs) associated with any of the preferences for aspects of play style or elements of game materials?
According to consensual belief, does system matter? (At least based on the mean, the answer here is yes: M = 5.86, roughly = Agree).
Is starting with an edition of D&D associated with preference for designer authority in rules?
What else would you like to know based on this survey?
Addendum: I just did a tally of referrer URL to see where respondents saw a link to the survey. To roughly summarize, about 30% came from Reddit, 30% came from Twitter, and 30% came from YouTube, with the remaining referrer URLs a smattering of other sites. In detail, N = 1167; the top five: YouTube (n = 363), Reddit (n = 358), Twitter (n = 311), survey.ascolais.com (n = 59), Facebook (n = 50). Referrer URL data only exists for some responses (1167 out of 2764), but preliminary checks indicate that referrer URL is missing at random (meaning it is probably reasonable to think of it as a random sample and representative of the respondent population at large).
The great war, the hungry hordes of the Dark Lords—a nightmare that lasted for two decades … Twenty-one years have passed since the Dark Lords were vanquished and the Queen realized that her realm was dying. She was forced to lead her people to safer grounds … [venturing north of the old world, over the mountains known as The Titans] … they encountered a small barbarian settlement …
(Symbaroum Core Rulebook, p. 16)
In my take on Symbaroum, the scene opens earlier than as presented in the text. Yndaros, the name of the new capital settlement, is little more than an armed camp, crouched in the shell of a looted barbarian valley fortress. The Queen struggles to maintain cohesion among her people following a near death march exile, adrift in an alien land, threatened by barbarian tribes, hostile elements, and the lingering corruption that was the doom of the previous grand empire Symbar, the ruins of which remain blanketed by the seemingly endless forests of Davokar. This is Ambria by way of Roanoke; the winters long and mist-shrouded horizons mysterious.
In lost Alberetor to the south, the old, ruined homeland, dark magic, incautious industry, and terrible engines of war blighted the land. Were the “Dark Lords” true paragons of evil, crept up from the abyss to feast on the corrupt souls of men, or convenient wartime propaganda to justify the horrors of war and a conclusion that ultimately stranded the victorious Queen and her exiled people in a verdant but perilous new land? The Ambrians are simultaneously explorers, colonists, conquerors, and refugees, hardened and made ruthless by war, Queen Korinthia an unburnt, masked Joan of Arc.
The uncrowned king of Ambria’s treasure-hunters, Lasifor Nightpitch, established the town of Thistle Hold … a safe haven for Ambrians exploring Davokar [the great, haunted forest] … full of natural resources and rich remnants of long lost civilizations … and … rampant abominations …
(Symbaroum Core Rulebook, p. 17)
Here, Thistle Hold is a frontier boom town, a fantasy Deadwood with only a handful of muddy streets clustered around a beacon tower, the one building of any permanent aspect, all surrounded by wooden palisades and chevaux de frise, huge wooden and rusty iron stakes driven into the mud, angled outward against cavalry charges. Thistle Hold is as much barbarian trading post as colonial outpost and settlers have a deep ambivalence, torn between the untramelled freedom of the frontier, but also yearning and planning for the protection, certainty, and industry that would come from annexation by Yndaros and joining the young realm of Ambria.
When the Ambrians arrived in the region south of Davokar, thirteen barbarian clans were living in the area. … The barbarian High Chieftain, seated on Karvosti, is elected for life during a gathering at the Thingstead … not elected to rule. Instead the role of the High Chieftain is to arbitrate or, when necessary, act as a judge in conflicts within and between the clans, and only if requested to do so by the clan chieftains. …
(Symbaroum Core Rulebook, p. 27)
The barbarian clans believe themselves descendants of the lost empire Symbar. Though the Ambrians’ weapons and organized ways of war generally defeat clan warriors in direct conflict on the battlefield, the barbarians see the interlopers as opportunities just as much as a threats. One clan already, through alliance with the Queen’s soldiers, annihilated their blood rivals clan Jezora, driving the few remaining survivors into the uncharted taboo depths of Davokar. When the curtain rises on the campaign, there has been no High Chieftain for generations. Many barbarians see the newly arrived people from the south as a means to solidify or advance their position, toward the ambition of claiming the High Chieftainship, perhaps even founding a regime of New Symbar.
I had the occasion to run a game for five players that, in addition to having never played a tabletop RPG before, barely knew about D&D at all. I ended up “running” 1981 B/X using Save vs. TPK pregens and The Tomb of Black Sand, with spells from Wonder & Wickedness—more on the scare quotes around “running” below. As it happened, I made the final decision about the ruleset and module about 15 minutes before leaving my apartment, and I have to say: OSR nerds, we have a grimdark problem. We have made strides toward more usable modules in terms of format, but perhaps there are more inviting introductions than reading out of a book called “Fever Swamp” for a casual Friday night game (great module, by the way).
There were five players, and from a stack of pregens they chose an elf, a fighter, two magic-users, and a thief. I explained the basic play loop—I describe the situation, you tell me what your character does, occasionally we roll dice to resolve an uncertainty—and the objective—recover as much treasure as possible without dying. A brief interchange was required to explain how the game was cooperative rather than competitive. Then I read a few sentences from the module about how Vincent Bine the necromancer was using foul magic in pursuit of immortality/ascension to set the stage and started the characters by the entryway of the dungeon, describing the blighted land around the heavy bronze doors.
The players fell quickly and naturally into heist mode, immediately treating the door as hostile ground, with the thief crouched above ready to drop down on any threat, the magic-users and elf arrayed firing-squad style behind the armored fighter, wands poised (because apparently all magic-users have wands, presumably Harry Potter style). Additionally, they immediately deployed ten foot poles to test for danger (be aware that 10”/10’ pole jokes are virtually unending with a table entirely composed of gay boys).
I scare quoted the word “running” above because, in terms of mechanics, the Moldvay book was little more than a prop (though a useful prop for communicating an aesthetic). The only rules that directly manifested during play were ability checks, spells, and thief abilities (which I ran as dexterity checks). Speaking of ability checks, the system I used for spell casting was unlimited spells, but to cast a spell without complication required passing an intelligence check. On failure, the intended spell still fired, but also came with a roll on the Wonder & Wickedness catastrophe table. I find this works well for a one-shot game because it pushes players out of the hoarding mindset that comes with having limited spell slots and also provides the temptation of a variable reinforcement schedule. After ability checks, the mechanic that saw the most table time was the output from the random appearance generator, which is built into Ram’s generator and is an amazingly useful tool for giving players some details to riff on. Bald magician, badly-dressed muscular fighter, and obese elf are immediately more engaging characters than a collection of abilities, and more immediately available than background details (failed careers are good prompts as well, but also have less immediacy).
Following successful entrance, there was some anxiety about the seeming shift in the room size, along with back and forth about whether to explore side chambers or go deeper right away (the initial determination was that side chambers were distractions). Casting rockspeech disarmed a spear trap in carved stone faces (with the faces coughing and sputtering as they vomited mechanisms and spear heads), though the the conversing spirit was greatly discomfited by the corruption caused by the festering tomb, and asked the adventurers to help remove the blight if possible. A spell catastrophe created a storm outside, however, and made it so that the magician could only speak by yelling, making further spells somewhat incompatible with stealth (so it goes).
The centerpiece of the next room was a pool, which of course led to a debate about whether the adventurers should strip down and wade into the pool or exercise greater caution. Despite discovering a bas relief of naked people frolicking in a pool, caution prevailed and one of the magicians dribbled a few drops of holy water into the pool. I rolled some dice to help with a ruling about how banshee tears should react to holy water, determining that there would be a non-explosive antimatter kind of situation, and had some of the tears hiss away into arcane steam. The players proceeded to boil away the rest of the pool with holy water and (totally on their own) discovered the hidden gold box. Somewhat wary due to the earlier spear trap discovery, the adventurers rigged the box with rope, taking care to avoid touching it, before taking cover above and pulling the box up from a distance, which in this case probably avoided a TPK given the resulting chain lightning detonation. (It still knocked everyone on their asses.) And additionally—I swear I avoided giving anything away directly—they found the double-concealed locket, which one of the magicians determined was a necromantic artifact of incredible power. (I only described the alcove with the box as set with a different kind of tiles, which were cracked by the chain lightning.)
At this point, the players decided to go back and explore a side chamber. One of the magicians cast read magic on some of the runes, in the process learning some details about Vincent’s ritual in progress. Some other spell (details of which I forget at the moment) triggered a consequence that the next door the magician would open would lead to a location determined randomly by a table in Wonder & Wickedness (keep that in the back of your mind for a moment). After determining to help the still-living “willing” sacrifices on the way out, the party decided to return to the (now-drained) pool chamber in order to explore more of the dungeon.
The thief broke her lock picks trying to unlock the big bronze double doors leading deeper into the complex, so one of the magicians decided to use his portal spell to connect one of the other doors in the room to the chamber beyond. Casting this spell led to (catastrophe) summoning an imp which stole the magicians eyes (meaning the eyes vacated the magician’s head, appearing in the imp, so the magician could see through the eyes of the imp rather than the now-empty sockets in the magician’s own face, without being able to control the actions of the imp). And, the adventurer that opened the now portal-linked door was the one that would trigger a random location, which in the event ended up looping back to the pool room itself. Then, the other magician lost his soul to a spirit (another spell catastrophe!) while trying to charm the imp that now controlled the first magician’s eyesight. I determined that the spirit in possession of the soul was the banshee, who the players encountered in the chapel room. The adventurers struck a deal with the banshee: the soul to be returned in exchange for the locket from the pool.
The banshee then tried to convince the adventurers to help Vincent complete his ritual, as she was sure that Vincent could help restore normal eyesight to the imp-afflicted magician in payment, and that is where we left the session.
In preparation for running a Symbaroum game, here is an overview of the system, particularly the player-facing side.
First, an oversimplified summary in D&D terms:
HP = strength score (sort of, with little to no improvement over time)
Attack rolls are dexterity checks
Ability checks are roll-under (1d20 <=)
There are no classes or levels
Archetypes (and associated occupations) provide recommended packages of starting abilities (which are sort of like feats)
Spend XP to learn or improve abilities
Using magic causes corruption (basically: spiritual damage with varying degrees of transience)
Another ability score determines how much corruption a character can absorb before bad things start to happen (basically: spiritual HP)
There you go, if you have familiarity with some version D&D you should now have a working grasp of Symbaroum basics. Read on for more detailed comparison.
The system is mostly what I have called “monological” in the past. For example, players roll to defend rather than opponents rolling to attack.
Symbaroum formal game terms below are in bold. Though I have a few planned house rules, to improve the general usefulness of this post, all of the following info applies to the official rules as written, to my knowledge. I make no claim to completeness—for example, I have ommitted mention of races—but these are the most central rules in my opinion.
Generation: 2d6+3 per attribute, in order or arranged to taste (yields scores in the range [5-15])
Test: roll 1d20 <= score value (often adjusted by an opposed Attribute)
Test outcomes are generally binary (success or failure)
Adjustments are penalties or bonuses applied to the player character Attribute score rather than to the roll; for example, if a player character has a score of 12, a -3 penalty means that the player must roll less than or equal to 9 for success
Accurate versus Quick
Persuasive versus Resolute
Discreet versus Vigilant
Strong versus Strong
(The default attribute generation method is assigning values from a default set or point-buy, the numbers for which result in similar expected values)
Default set: [15, 13, 11, 10, 10, 9, 7, 5]
(M = 10, SD = 2.96)
AC/Armor Class (⇒ Defense)
Symbaroum uses Defense tests (performed by players) rather than opponent attack rolls
Three levels of armor: light 1d4, medium 1d6, and heavy 1d8
Impeding penalty to Defense tests: light -2, medium -3, heavy -4
Roll the armor die to decrease incoming damage from physical attacks (opponent damage values are static, so rolling for armor replaces what in D&D would be the referee rolling monster damage)
Attribute test: Accurate, adjusted by opponent’s Quick
Then you roll damage, based on weapon, just like D&D—see the weapons entry below—but for referee-controlled combatants armor is static damage reduction (no armor die)
Some Abilities allow the use of other stats in place of Accurate for attack rolls (this is one of the few bits of system mastery you probably need to maintain combat effectiveness, if you care)
Classes (as in Fighter, Cleric, Thief, etc.)
Rather than classes, Symbaroum provides a starting Archetype (representing the classic three of Mystic, Rogue, and Warrior), each of which is further specified by Occupations (such as Duelist, Theurg, Ranger, and so forth)
Initial Archetype & Occupation provide recommended packages of starting Abilities
Player characters start with one of the following two options:
Two Abilities at Novice level and one Ability at Adept level
Five Abilities at Novice level
On each turn, a player character may perform one of the following:
1 Combat Action + 1 Movement Action
2 Movement Actions
Dying (★ will be house ruled ★)
Zero Toughness → unconscious & dying
Each turn: Death Test, three failures → dead
Death Test: 1d20
1 = recover with 1d4Toughness
2-10 = success (no change)
11-19 = failure
20 = immediate death
HP (⇒ Toughness)
Toughness = Max(10, StrongAttribute)
(So the HP equivalent is basically just the same as an ability score, but with a minimum of 10)
Toughness almost never increases—there are a handful of Abilities which will increase toughness slightly—so Symbaroum has a much flatter power curve in this regard compared to all versions of D&D
Combatants act in order of Quick scores (highest first)
Levels & Advancement (★ will be house ruled ★)
There are no levels; player characters spend XP to learn or improve Abilities
Each ability has three tiers: Novice, Adept, and Master
Learning and improving Abilities:
Novice level (new Ability): cost = 10 XP
Novice → Adept: cost = 20 XP
Adept → Master: cost = 30 XP
(So the full cost of learning a new Ability and improving it all the way to Master is 60 XP.)
Magic Items (⇒ Artifacts, p. 186; ★ will be house ruled very slightly ★)
Using an Artifact first requires Bonding, which imposes permanent Corruption (generally one point)
Activating an Artifact’s power imposes some temporary Corruption (generally 1d4 points)
(See Corruption Threshold below)
Spells (⇒ Mystical Powers, p. 119, p. 176)
Mystical Powers work much like Abilities—with Novice, Adept, and Master levels—but learning a Mystical Power outside of a tradition (also handled at the rules level as an Ability) imposes one permanent point of Corruption
Casting a spell (using a Mystical Power) causes 1d4 temporary Corruption
Advancing in the ranks of a mystical tradition can mitigate this cost (Corruption is the mechanical system resource that replaces spell slots or magic points)
See Corruption Threshold below
Weapon damage works similarly to D&D
Damage: Heavy 1d10, Long 1d8, Single-Handed 1d8, Short 1d6
Projectile: crossbow 1d10, bow 1d8, sling 1d6
Long weapons provide an initial free attack versus opponents armed with shorter weapons
(There are a few other properties of specific weapons which work relatively intuitively)
XP (★ will be house ruled ★)
The text about XP is more guidelines than rules, but the expectation seems to be that surviving a scene involving challenge is worth 1 XP for each player character
Rules Without Direct D&D Analogues
Symbaroum also has a handful of rules which lack direct analogues in D&D:
Derived stat: Strong / 2, round up
Combatants that suffer damage equal to or greater than Pain Threshold in a single hit experience some additional deleterious effects
Derived stat: Resolute / 2, round up
Capacity to tolerate Corruption is the primary player character resource that constrains use of magic
When total Corruption—permanent + temporary—equals or exceeds the Resolute score, the character turns into an abomination (worse than character death, because this essentially creates a new hostile monster)
Temporary Corruption dissipates at the end of each scene
(★ may be house ruled ★)
Tolerating Corruption also constrains the use of Artifacts as doing so requires Bonding with the Artifact, which imposes some permanent Corruption (generally one point)
Roleplaying, taken descriptively, is a means, which can be applied to a wide variety of ends. Before proceeding to expand on this claim directly, consider the following analogy with another activity, in the physical domain, that is also a means: running. Apologies in advance for the exceedingly literal discussion that follows, but it will be useful later. First, descriptively: running is locomotion which includes an “aerial” phase during which all feet are above the ground. The activity is recognizable on a treadmill, in a forest or alley fleeing a predator, on an athletic track, in the context of a competition, alone or in a group, on a sidewalk toward a bus leaving soon, in quadrupeds, and so forth. Learning how to run well in one context likely translates to others, though perhaps incompletely. Varieties of running exist, such as sprinting and endurance running, which activate different biological energy recruitment and waste management systems (aerobic and anaerobic respiration, for example). Running well can include both comparative performance, such as speed or duration, but also technique, judged on aesthetic other grounds.
Descriptively, roleplaying is taking on the role of a fictional character, either through direct narrative acting—speaking “as if” the player was the character or pantomiming, perhaps incompletely, physical actions that a character performs. Or, with reduced immersion, through explanatory puppeteering—my character opens the door, my character reacts with surprise. The activity can be recognizable in a military war game exercise, a mock trial, the behavior of a digital game avatar, acting in a play, as an exploratory or practice exercise during a therapy session, and, of course, playing a tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D. Similarly to running, roleplaying well can include both performance, such as inflicting damage, recovering treasure, or solving puzzles, but also technique, judged on aesthetic grounds—coolness, sincere and expressive performance—or in the quality of tales recounted after the game between human players.
I suspect this is so far noncontroversial, but consider the different kinds of satisfaction that people can experience by means of the same activity applied to different ends. For example, compare a 20 minute sprint that raises the heart rate to a specific point and proceeds at a given pace, in one case pulled by a bus schedule and in another case pushed by a pursuing mugger. The physical description of the activity in terms of vital readouts, shorn of context, might be identical. The difference, then, comes from, at least: contextual constraints, situational expectation, and personal goals. Another: running across a room to meet a loved one returning from a long trip compared to running across a room to catch a teetering vase.
Now consider a roleplaying example where the agreed end would be to play through the events of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps with minor variations, but hitting all the major movements of the story. Especially within the OSR (or what have you) tradition, this may seem unsatisfying, perhaps barely even roleplaying, due to the highly constrained, almost entirely predetermined, set of narrative outcomes. Yet, the activity is still descriptively roleplaying, obviously so, despite the lack of playing to find out what happens. Considering the prospect of playing such a game incites little enthusiasm from me, but if I take a step back I can see how someone might experience satisfaction through reenacting The Lord of the Rings by means of a tabletop roleplaying game framework.
The term “reenacting” is perhaps a clue; why might someone take pleasure in putting on a production of Hamlet? Wages are one reason, but other motivations also likely exist. One might object that reenacting The Lord of the Rings might be roleplaying but that doing so lacks some sense of game since failing is by hypothesis difficult or impossible. It is easy to modify the case to handle this objection by, perhaps, awarding points for remembering textual details, persistence attainments for reaching milestones, creative reinterpretations, or clarity of self-expression through the constrained vehicle of Tolkien’s plot (notably distinct from Tolkien’s literary accomplishment). Is Super Mario Brothers any less of a game because all players must proceed through the stages following broadly the same sequence?
Could reenacting Rise of the Runelords, or Gygax’s G-D-Q modules, provide a similar form of satisfaction? Would introducing the possibility of character death and replacement substantially vary the experience, or would it remain reenactment even if particular details of how the players proceed from episode to episode varied? I pose these questions less to express my personal interest in playing or running such a game and more as a thought experiment to understand unknown pleasures. Many players seem self-evidently to enjoy compartmentalizing the game elements of roleplaying games in different parts of the activity, whether in the deck-building subgame of character build optimization, the tactical chess of 4E grid combat, the accumulation of loot, the collection of relationships with non-player characters, the exploration of bonds with other player characters, the uncovering of campaign secrets, the skillful, entertaining performance of character acting, or another accomplishment of your own devising.