When people think of fantasy settings, it can be difficult to get away from the image of old ivy-covered castles and rickety towns that have stood for centuries – a land where the people have always been the way they are, and where the biggest upheaval is a change of colours that fly from the banners on the keep.
Symbaroum isn’t like that.
Ambria as a kingdom has only existed for 22 years at the outset of the game. There are ruins of previous peoples scattered around the landscape, but there are no old castles or towns where people have lived for generations. This means that a lot of fantasy tropes have to be thrown out before you sit down to play this game.
The new kingdom is a bountiful virgin land where settlers are pouring in by the thousands, displacing the native peoples while the new inhabitants also struggle to find what the new power structures and sources of stability will be in this new order.
That’s also the backdrop of every Western story.
Without the comfort of fantasy tropes to rest on, I’d argue that Symbaroum could (and should) instead pull heavily from the heritage of frontiersmanship of the American West, and the countless Wild West adventures that are out there.
You will be hard-pressed to find any building in Ambria that is older than ten or fifteen years. Projects like castles and city walls aside from palisades would be mostly pointless to the ambrians without any serious external threats.
Just like in the West, most towns will have their own power structures that are mostly independent of the greater kingdom. Without even a single generation having passed, a town will still be governed by whoever had authority when the place was founded, and the towns will have been founded with a particular purpose in mind. Many towns in Ambria would be prospecting towns with a singular task to extract a specific precious or necessary resource, or waypoint towns set on the roads between the cities of the kingdom. Then farming communities would grow around these towns, with a mixture of independent homesteaders and wealthy ranchers making their living civilising the countryside.
Thistle Hold is for all intents and purposes an overgrown prospector town for the strange people who go into the forest to mine ruins of their treasures using their weapons. The entire town is built around serving these gold miners and skimming as much wealth from them as possible.
An even more obvious example of this is the small adventure Fever of the Hunt, where new hopeful treasure hunters can buy plots and digging equipment from the local authority just like you may have seen at an early California gold mine.
Bandits and the Law
One thing that the Wild West and the classic medieval setting have in common is the absence of law and order. When people push beyond the bastions of civilisation, they have to fend for themselves – because there will always be other people out there trying to take your stuff and your life. Legitimate settlements will be in competition with bandits and other lawless agents, and it will be up to the community to find a way to organize their collective effort to defend themselves.
In the Western, you of course have the familiar roles of sheriffs and their deputies representing the legal soul of a community, but also state agents such as marshals, Pinkerton agents, and army officers. These don’t have any obvious one-to-one parallels in Symbaroum, but it is reasonable to expect that towns would have elected or appointed reeves responsible for the enforcement of law. The main quirk is of course that the church of Prios maintains primacy when it comes to the interpretation of law, which might mean that the role of local priest and sheriff could become conflated in Ambrian towns. Ambria is of course also a feudal system, where different nobles may have different ideas for how to use the legal system to further their own ideals, which might put their appointed men at odds with representatives of the church and agents of the crown.
The definition of what makes a bandit is of course also a murky subject. Given the quagmire above, one could imagine a situation where the town’s priest has deputised a number of townsmen to hunt down a bandit that has been harassing the area – but it turns out that the bandit is actually one of the men working for the local count and now the deputies have a hard choice to make.
The secretive nature of the Queen’s Agents also makes for great parallels to the occasionally stealthy marshals or pinkertons who get close to their targets by posing as something they are not.
One of the most entrenched tropes of the Western is of course the eternal conflict between cowboys and indians. Native raiders striking against innocent homesteaders, and the nation’s brutal army ruthlessly massacring tribes of savages are expressions of these two cultures coming to a head – one faction of nature fighting for its survival and one faction of civilisation fighting for its manifest destiny. These tropes carry over one to one into Symbaroum.
The Ambrians are hardened survivalists. They endured a devastating war that traumatised an entire generation and annihilated their entire country. When they found a pristine land across the mountains, it must have felt like Prios offered them a reward for their hard-won triumph. When the local natives proved to be ineffective against a gruelled army, this sense of destiny was only reinforced. When the barbarians attempted to stand up against the foreign invaders, the Ambrians employed the solutions they had developed in the war: kill everything that moves, and then burn everything that doesn’t move.
To the barbarian clans, the arrival of the Ambrians must have been terrifying. They were offered the option to kneel and abandon their cultural heritage, or to be destroyed. Even when they make themselves friends of the Ambrians, the foreigners refuse to change their ways to respect the fragile nature around them.
So who can blame certain barbarian factions for trying to continue the war against the Ambrians? Who can blame the Saar-Kahn for rejecting the diplomacy of appeasement that the High Chieftain has chosen and instead forging an alliance to end the Ambrian threat?
And what would have happened in the Wild West if the native americans had access to desperate, forbidden kinds of magic…?
The War Veterans
Another part of the backdrop of the Western is the aftermath of the Civil War. Defeated Confederate veterans can be seen trying to drown their sorrows, or struggling to restore their personal honor by lashing out at the society around them. Meanwhile, the victorious Union army shifts to wage brutal war against the natives.
In Ambria, the streets and taverns are always littered with pained war veterans struggling to exist in a peaceful world. The mental scars of the war with the Dark Lords will be significant, and such massive haunting trauma will do dark things things to men.
With no real organised enemies, Ambria no longer needs to be a fully militarised nation. Countless war veterans were likely released from their duties and granted plots of land in the new country to help develop the Ambrian nation. But shifting from a lifetime of war against dark sorcerers to being a farmer is not a transition that many people can handle. Ambria’s roads are full of aimless travellers and refugees, trying to find a place where both their body and mind can come to rest – but the reality is that many of them will probably find no peace from their demons.
Some veterans may take to banditry, finding familiarity in continuing the atrocities of the war and preying on the weak. Some may be one step better, finding work as mercenaries, sellswords, and enforcers for the new gentry, holding ambitions that a new land offers new opportunities to climb the ladder of social position.
Others remain with the army, never fully switching off the new identities they constructed to deal with the dark acts of the war. Rather, they leverage their hardened minds to help the kingdom drive out the barbarians and any others who stand in their way.
And a few strike out into the forest, because the one thing they know best is how to destroy undead and abominations, and they may as well get rich from it.
In Symbaroum, a soldier’s sword is the same as a Klondike prospector’s pickaxe.