Developer interview: Ruins of Symbaroum 5E

If you’re a tabletop enthusiast, you may have caught the recent news about the world of Symbaroum being adapted for the 5e ruleset. Opening up this acclaimed world to the massive crowd of D&D players out there is a big step, and the community has more than warmed to the new and upcoming version, dubbed Ruins of Symbaroum. The Kickstarter has already met its goal ten times over and there’s still a week left on it! Time to check in with co-creator and game writer of Ruins of Symbaroum, Mattias Lilja.

Mattias, how did you get involved with Tabletop RPGs, both as a fan and creatively?

My first experience with TTRPGs was with a Swedish game called “Drakar & Demoner” (Dragons and Demons), a Basic Roleplay clone. My first character was a dwarf named Gimli, and my second one was an elf named Legolas. They both died horribly, and I had a blast. This was in 1983, and the same year I got my hands on the Mentzer red box of Basic D&D. I didn’t understand much of it, but using a dictionary made me and a friend able to play it, and we had a ton of fun. We played a lot of Mutant, Swedish post-apocalyptic games inspired by Gamma world and also tried Advanced D&D, the Warhammer RPG and then – this would be the early 90ies – Vampire the Masquerade and the other Storytelling system games. I was a Gamemaster from early on and created homebrew content from the start as well – we ran out of content in Swedish and I had little money to buy English modules.

Paradox Interactive
Mattias Lilja. Paradox Interactive. Photo Daniel Roos

In 2001 we formed Järnringen, and released Mutant – Undergångens Arvtagare (Heirs of Doom) In 2008 we launched Coriolis, wherein one of the factions was called the Free League, which became the name of another company of some note… In 2016 we released Symbaroum, and in 2018 we merged with Free League Publishing. And here we are!

How far back does your own experience with Dungeons & Dragons go, and how have you seen the mechanics evolve over the years?

Well, I mentioned the 1983 Basic boxed set with the Larry Elmore cover and interior art, and then we played Advanced D&D 2nd Ed, Forgotten Realms for the win. Third Edition D&D launched in 2000 and we played that a lot – it did away with many of the quirks of the 2nd Ed, and brought the game “back to the dungeon” in a mostly good way. I am also one of those people that played 4e and enjoyed it; we used miniatures and maps to the point of it becoming a skirmish game with a campaign. 5e came along in 2014, and I like it better than… well, it reminds me of Basic D&D in the mid-80ies, in all the good ways.

What I liked about that? Well, with the risk of becoming technical; Simple mechanics that govern most things in the game (I actually prefer Ability checks rather than skills), bounded accuracy and limited stacking of bonuses, which keeps weaker enemies relevant for longer during level progression. Think of AC and to hit bonuses scaling slower than hit points, meaning a goblin can still hit a high level PC but not do a lot of damage).

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Having been with the Symbaroum franchise for so long, what drew you towards making a 5E adaptation?

We started talking about a 5e version of Symbaroum early after release. It might seem odd for someone on the outside, but for us it made sense; the systems share some similarities, and Symbaroum has even been described as “Pathfinder meets Apocalypse World”. 5e being arguably the biggest RPG in the world meant we could likely find new fans there, and to be honest we knew we had fans there from people reaching out to us to ask for a conversion of the setting. At this moment in time, the timing just fit our schedule, and Jacob Rogers (Adventures in Middle Earth 5e) came on board to help us.

For those not playing with the 5E ruleset and ‘regular’ Symbaroum at the same time – what are the major differences?

It’s the same setting, with the same mood and theme, and I would say that the two versions are similar in spirit but not always in detail. Ruins of Symbaroum 5e has levels; the original Symbaroum does not. A core mechanic that is very similar is Corruption – it plays very similar, even though some of the details are not exactly the same. 5e in general does a lot of handholding, to ensure that players don’t have encounters where they are outgunned, but the original Symbaroum experience does not care as much. We see this as more grim and in line with the setting, and at the table it makes players more cautious, which again fits the setting – snaking past, negotiating or fleeing are all viable options, in addition to fighting. We will bring this to Ruins of Symbaroum too, and have added changes to the rest mechanic in 5e to make sure even experienced adventurers dread long journeys in the dark forest of Davokar. Long and Short rests are now joined by Extended rests, which is where you can spend Hit Dice to recover Hit Points or remove temporary Corruption – and Extended rests are only possible in safe places, and these are few in the depths of the forest.

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How easy or challenging will it be for players to make the jump from 5E to Symbaroum, or vice versa?

Rules wise it’s not that hard, because both systems are quite basic and in parts similar. Converting adventures and monsters will be relatively easy for the GM, but exporting characters between the systems will require more work – and again, it’s a matter of keeping the spirit as you change the details.

What have been some of the challenges in writing a Symbaroum game for a different rule set? Have you collaborated with other writers and designers for this one?

We are lucky to have Jacob Rogers on the Ruins of Symbaroum team. Jacob is an award-winning writer and designer of roleplaying games, best known for his work creating content for Adventures in Middle Earth 5e (The One Ring) and Beowulf. Together we have worked through the challenges and found nothing we can´t make work.

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The Kickstarter has been a massive success already – congratulations! What did you expect the community response was going to be ahead of time?

It’s always hard to guess the outcome of Kickstarters (KS), but we are in line with our expectations, and they were high! It’s super exciting to see so many new faces on a Free League KS, but not surprising given that we aim for people who prefer 5e when exploring the Symbaroum setting rather than the original game. We had some worries that players of the original Symbaroum would feel that we were about to abandon them, and the question did come up, but our assurances that Ruins of Symbaroum will run parallel and not cannibalize resources from the original game seems to have been heard – which is good, since that is the honest truth!

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