RPG First Impressions: Symbaroum and Mörk Borg

These are two RPGs I’ve tried out in play-by-forum (PBF) and thought to share my first impressions. For the record, I GMed an adventure for Symbaroum and was a player in a premade adventure of Mörk Borg.

What is Symbaroum?

Symbaroum is set in a dark, gritty fantasy world. It’s by a Swedish company, and they’ve put a lot of Swedish folklore into it. Humans have fled their homelands after the land was engulfed by dark powers, and enter new, largely unsettled regions north, surrounding a giant, primal forest called the Davokar. This new human land was dubbed Ambria. Elves, barbarian tribes, and other threats inhabit the Davokar, but the Ambrians built new cities and towns in the plains south and west of the Davokar. The forest is said to be home to many strange monsters and the relics of a lost civilization that are now protected by the elves.

The system almost looks like a typical D20 system, but you don’t have modifiers and you don’t add to the d20 roll. When rolling, you want to roll under your attribute score. PCs also have a lot of freedom in choosing their abilities and gear during character creation.

The Adventure

I GMed a game and put together my own scenario. There were a couple of reasons I made my own. One being that I had watched a playthrough of the adventure in the core rules and found it to probably be too long for PBF (based on my experience running PBF games), and I wanted to try something else that maybe explored some of the setting more. The premade adventure was a pretty standard intro scenario that left a lot of the cool stuff out, assuming players would be playing a campaign. I wanted to run a one-shot before committing to a campaign (and I’m glad I did).

We played with a number of the optional rules, though I don’t think we actually used many of them. The adventure started with the party en route, with some miners, to a village at the base of the mountains bordering the Davokar forest. When they arrive in the village, it’s empty. The party gets into the first fight with some ghosts in the watchtower. These enemies are labeled Weak in the rules, the lowest difficulty of enemy, but it ended up being probably the most difficult fight, and they had to flee the watchtower. This was in part because one of the PCs is a sorcerer with one spell (Bend Will, a mind-control spell) but he fumbled his first cast, and because he took Epileptic as a burden (think disadvantage), he was knocked out for multiple rounds.

They go about exploring the village for a while, then setup camp inside the church for safety until morning. Just before dawn, a pair of trolls are spotted roaming the village. The party sets up a trap and lures the trolls into the church. This was an easier fight despite the more challenging enemies because there were only two of them and one was instantly mind-controlled. However, the very high damage resistance proved to be a problem. But they kill one and tie up the other, then do some more exploring, finding clues and getting some items. When they get back, the troll has escaped. Then they head into the Davokar, following a trail.

They find the skinned corpses of the villagers put on display along the trail and follow until they come to a mound where an elf and the troll are standing. The party successfully sneaks around into position and charges into combat. This was meant to be a climactic fight, but even after adding in some jakaar (wolf beasts), the party barely has any trouble. Again, the troll is mind-controlled. And one of the party absolutely melts the elf with his multiple attacks per round. That’s where the adventure was supposed to finish, but after the limp climax, I added some more.

When the elf dies, there’s a strange artifact that seems to activate and the party destroys it. When they return to the village, the miners have sent back some soldiers to help, and after giving the soldiers a de-briefing, they all head back into the Davokar to see about the bodies and destroy the mound (which seemed to have some sort of dark magic). They have an intense encounter with elves, but combat is avoided with some miraculous bargaining by the sorcerer. The elves agree to help destroy the mound and collect the dead to deliver them to the village so they can be put to rest. The party then heads up to the mining outpost in the mountains for some rest and reward.

Thoughts

The first issue I have is with the rules. They’re not well organized and have some areas that could be clearer. How long weapons work has apparently confused many people, in large part due to how the wording is and where the rules are (the rules for them are scattered in different sections). It’s also not immediately clear how armor works because the section that includes armor doesn’t explain it. You have to go into the combat section and read damage to get a sense of how armor works (and it’s never even explicitly stated, you have to infer how it works). There are other similar issues, namely with abilities. They try to keep the abilities brief so they can fit onto the character sheet, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. The GM will need to make a lot of calls on how to rule things when the rule book doesn’t yield an answer.

The second issue has to do with the seemingly careless balancing. The enemies are broken down into categories roughly based on how difficult they are to fight. But these categories aren’t exact. The Weak ghosts gave the party a lot of trouble, but the trolls and the elf didn’t for the most part. The elf especially didn’t have high damage values or good armor, or high health; he seemed much weaker than his rating indicated.

Then there’s the damage and armor values. One of the PCs dual-wielded small weapons, but that meant dealing small amounts of damage. The trolls had high damage reduction, meaning that character really couldn’t hurt the trolls. Meanwhile, because enemies don’t roll for anything, when they deal damage, they always deal a set amount. For some weaker enemies, that means possibly doing no damage most of the time because even poor armor has a chance to completely negate the attack. And for enemies like the trolls, the damage is high enough that two hits on a character could kill them. And armor values for PCs get swingy fast as some might only roll 1d4 while others might be rolling 1d8 at level 1. It’s as if they were trying to reverse how damage is dealt in something like D&D, but the health values aren’t high enough for such swingy numbers, and armor doesn’t seem to overcome the swingy nature, only make it worse. Most PCs and enemies will only have about 10 health, and this number is difficult to increase—it doesn’t go up per level like in D&D. This makes gear tremendously more valuable than in D&D.

I think part of the problem is that character creation is very open. You have complete freedom over which abilities to take. You don’t choose a class, really, you make one. However, that means that one player might make a sorcerer that only has 1 spell, another character might be a min-maxed powerhouse, and another might be an unfocused character that can neither deal much damage or take it. And they’re all in the same party. It’s not like D&D where every class has abilities or spells that help give them an edge in combat; you can make characters in Symbaroum who are terrible in a fight. I think the GM or the players have to agree on what sort of game they want to play, then everyone makes characters appropriate to the game. If you’re running a traditional fantasy adventure, all PCs need to be good at combat. This seems like a simple thing, but I don’t recall ever seeing it spelled out in the rules. Players are given complete freedom to make any character they want and the GM runs the game like normal.

And from what we saw in our little adventure is that it’s possible to make starting characters who are incredibly powerful. One of the PCs was even going to have really good, expensive armor at the start, but I ruled against it because he would have been god-like compared to the rest of the party. And from reading about the game online, this is fairly typical of Symbaroum and it gets worse as a campaign goes on. I’ve read that even the official campaign suffers from this as PCs become practically unstoppable. The rules even mention that money rewards are very strong early because the gear upgrades are powerful and not too expensive, but that eventually, gear upgrades aren’t as drastic but become much more expensive, resulting in money becoming rather useless to experienced adventurers. Some players might not have an issue with that, but that’s not the sort of experience I’m looking for.

All-in-all, there’s some cool things that the system has, but it really needs a second edition to iron out the rules, get more editing in there, and tackle some of these balance issues. I would love to revisit Symbaroum if they released a second edition to clean things up.

What is Mörk Borg?

Mörk Borg is the doom metal RPG. If you don’t know doom metal, then that doesn’t mean anything, but if you know, you know exactly what to expect from Mörk Borg. It’s dark, full of weird and terrible monsters, morbid themes, set in a bleak world, and it’s full of death.

The system is a stripped down D20 system, very OSR in style. You roll your ability scores with 3d6, get some modifiers, maybe a class ability or feature, and off you go. Very streamlined.

The Adventure

I’ll keep this part short since we played one of the official adventures, I don’t want to spoil too much.

We start with the PCs about to be hanged (I did say it was a bleak setting), but they are set free by the Shadow King on the condition that the PCs agree to venture out to save the King’s son who has been taken captive.

It’s a short ways to the dungeon but we had our first battle in the woods. After entering the dungeon, we soon got into another combat. Mind you, no one in the party has more than 4 health, and only one PC has armor. So we’re terrified of every engagement. And then we have our first death. Luckily, it was early enough that the GM found a suitable place to introduce a new character so the player could keep playing.

After that, we got lost in the dungeon, wandering around, getting into more fights, going in circles. Somehow, we survive to make it to the boss. It didn’t go well. 3 of the 4 PCs died in battle (my Mad Lady Belum among them, feasting on her own ripped entrails). That far in, there’s no introducing new characters, so the last of the party (the 1HP man-boy) has to try and find his way through the rest of the dungeon and rescue the Shadow King’s son. He didn’t make it either.

Thoughts

The setting is really cool, and there’s a lot of flavor to character creation. However, mechanically, it’s a little too stripped down for me. It’s a very basic D20 game. And there’s nothing really new in here mechanically other than a neat time-keeping mechanism that only comes into play in a campaign. Yes, they think 4HP characters can survive more than one adventure.

That brings me to the next sticking point. It’s a very deadly system. Basically, everyone has the HP of a D&D wizard, but no one gets a cool assortment of spells, even the caster who I think gets one spell? Everyone is extremely squishy. We didn’t even survive the intro adventure (and one of us had 2 characters since the first died so early). I think the game would need some sort of resurrection or reincarnation mechanic for such a deadly system to work as a campaign. But really, it’s just a super deadly D&D. It’s good for a one-shot as long as the players are prepared to give their character a glorious death and have a backup character ready.

On a minor note, parts of the intro adventure were confusing (such as the dungeon layout). It felt like we were skipping side quests because we couldn’t figure out what to do. But not having read the material, I can’t say for sure if we missed anything, but it certainly felt like we did.

Other than for another one-shot, I don’t think I’d want to return to Mörk Borg.

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