Free League recently released a brand new starter set for Symbaroum, entitled Treasure Hunts in Davokar. It’s been our introduction into the rich world of Symbaroum, and after our first few gameplay sessions we can’t wait to dive deeper into the world through the many additional campaign books already available for this award-winning game. It also prompted us to reach out to Mattias Johnsson Haake, one of the co-creators of the game, who also helped found Järnringen. In additional, Mattias has a PhD in Behavioral Science and has already written five novels to date in addition to his work on numerous RPG adventures and sourcebooks. Here is the result of our conversation, in which we delve deeper into the creative process of crafting something like Symbaroum, and look at Table Top Role Playing Games (TTRPGs) in a wider context as well.
You have experience both as a writer and as a game designer. What are the biggest differences between writing for a novel and writing to carve out a setting and narrative for a tabletop game?
A very interesting question, indeed. Aside from the fact that both are about composing sentences and conveying some form of message or exploring some kind of theme, I view them as drastically different, especially when it comes to the imagined recipient. When writing a novel I am picturing a reader that I want to immerse in the enfolding events; when writing stories/adventures for a roleplaying game, I write for a game master (or similar) who will use the content to build stories together with his or her friends. In short, writing novels is about telling a story, writing an adventure is about enabling/supporting collaborative and interactive storytelling.
With so much room for imagination and fantasy, are tabletop RPGs a fantastic creative outlet for writers? Or does the gameplay element actually make things more challenging?
I’m going to take that as two separate questions, if I may. First, TTRPGs truly are an amazing medium for me as a writer and a designer of fantastical settings; they give me the freedom to let my imagination run wild and they (typically) have a scope that allows for both broad strokes and nuances. Second, the level of challenge depends on how modular or interactive you want your setting and its stories to be; the less linear, the greater the challenge. And that’s actually what I love about roleplaying games and other forms of interactive storytelling (where the “consumer” is meant to have an impact on how the story turns out) – the extra fun is in the extra challenge!
Symbaroum was originally created back in 2014 – (how) did the setting and mechanics evolve since that time?
The broad strokes and the general theme of the setting are still the same. The Symbaroum game world is designed around the conflict between nature and civilization, which gives rise to its main factions and is rooted in its history. But on a lower level, the setting is in constant motion, since we are primarily describing and developing it within the framework of an adventure chronicle called The Throne of Thorns. So while the Core Rulebook introduces a form of historical starting point for the setting, each episode in the chronicle will remodel the “stage”, to a larger or smaller extent, leading up to the grand finale where the players/characters will play a part in deciding the future of the game world.
As for the mechanics, Symbaroum runs on the first iteration of an original rule set, so with the first five reprints of the Core Rulebook we have made both smaller adjustments and clarifications. Also, since the system is very flexible and modular, we have added lots of optional and alternative rules in later publications, most recently in the Game Master’s Guide. So while the core mechanics remain, we have been able to both polish its components and add support for different styles of play.
For newcomers to the genre, tabletop role playing games can be daunting to get into – why do you think this is?
The greater the challenge, the greater the reward! I believe this to be true, at least when it comes to TTRPGs. Just how daunting it is to get into a particular game can vary greatly; some TTRPGs are very much like boardgames, with the added joy of creating your own in-game-avatar. But Symbaroum does not count among those games – it is, for various reasons, not meant to be boardgame-like. Sure, you only need the Core Rulebook to start playing, and if you follow the guidelines you can create your first character in 15-30 minutes. But to fully appreciate the game as a whole, you really must be prepared to invest a bit of time, reading and playing. And this is true for many other TTRPGs as well. Why? Well, I believe that if you want to present a rich and complex setting that you can immerse yourself in, that you can actually care about and long for in-between gaming sessions, it needs to offer you a compelling and interesting stage for the stories you will create with your friends. And such a stage takes time to both build and appreciate.
The recent Symbaroum Starter Set, “Treasure Hunts in Davokar”, is specifically aimed at newcomers. How does it differ from the existing experience?
This question ties right in with the previous one. The Starter Set gives you the full core mechanics, but a scaled down version of its elements and only a selection of optional/alternative rules – a selection focused on one of the main play styles of Symbaroum: exploration and treasure hunting. The same focus explains which parts of the setting are introduced in the set. While the big picture is touched upon, to give game masters and players a basic understanding of the game world at large, most attention is directed towards the town of Thistle Hold and its next door neighbor: the dark, mysterious and enormous forest of Davokar, with its ruins and monsters and corrupting darkness.
Moving on from the starter set you can, simply put, expect more of everything – more character archetypes, more abilities, more monstrous traits, more settlements and ruins and prominent individuals. The core rulebooks also support other play styles, introducing more political/moral intrigue and warring factions. And should you want to delve even deeper, you have the epic Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns waiting for you and your friends – an adventure campaign that when finished will feature six episodes.
How, in narrative and gameplay design, do you approach notions like replayability in a tabletop game?
Having worked with settings and story for videogames, the concept of replayability is no stranger to me. However, in roleplaying games this clearly depends on what kind of product you are working on. A core rule book, for instance, should give the gaming group tools to make up their own stories and adventures, meaning that you can use it again and again, for as many sessions as you like. In contrast, an adventure supplement is rarely meant to be played more than once – when the story has been told, it isn’t super fun to play it a second time. Then again, there are ways to make adventures useful in a longer perspective. You can describe locations and characters which are possible to revisit/meet in later adventures; you can introduce tables and guidelines for making travels and encounters more varied and/or random; you can design it so that events will unfold in different ways depending on what the player characters do. So yes, while I wouldn’t use the term “replayability” in TRPG design, “reusability” is important if you want your players to get good value for their investments.
What do you feel are the biggest differences (or similarities) between the mechanics in a pen and paper RPG like Symbaroum and those in board and/or videogames?
I believe there are many TTRPG designers who view their creations as something similar to a board game, but I am not one of those. To me, pen and paper RPGs are something else – they are first and foremost about the story, and the mechanics are there to make the telling of that story more intense and engaging. But, again, this is purely a matter of taste. Most (if not all?) mechanics you find in different kinds of boardgames and videogames may be introduced into a TTRPG framework, depending on how “boardgamey” you want your roleplaying game to be.
As with board games, tabletop RPG are closely tied to social gatherings – how do you feel the current pandemic affects tabletop players worldwide, and have you seen any interesting developments in this regard over the past year?
For sure, the scene of virtual table top platforms seems to be exploding. This development has also influenced us as publishers; we are currently working on several new VTT modules for all our games, including Symbaroum. Also, I have a feeling that more and more gamers are purchasing TTRPG games and adventures just for reading, as a form of literature, but if this is really the case is difficult to actually know. At any rate, I cannot see that restrictions and lockdowns have affected the hobby in a very damaging way. From what I understand, gaming in general, and TTRPGs in particular, has never been stronger than they are right now.