“There’s this one character who’s immune to damage, and one that deals infinite hurt every turn! I can’t challenge them without also annihilating the more reasonable players! What do I do!?”
I see this quite often in the Symbaroum communities. Often it’s because an inexperienced GM has allowed the players to make characters using the Advanced Players Guide and they don’t know what to do with a troll that can tank 3D6 damage and regenerate on top of that, or an archer with rapid fire who delivers 30 damage per round. But it highlights some fundamental and recurring things that people seem to find difficult, so after running Symbaroum for a couple of years I thought I’d share my thoughts on the issue.
Players and Game Masters who come from other games are often accustomed to a system that treats combat as a sport, with a steadily ramping scale of difficulty where the players deal more damage and the GM gets to play with monsters that have more hit points. There is a general expectation that characters will survive several hits, and that there will be an exchange of blows lasting several rounds.
Symbaroum isn’t a game like that. Symbaroum is a deadly game where a soldier who knows how to wield a greatsword can outright kill any human with one swing. It’s also a game of definitive expectations, where a tough-skinned troll can know with full confidence that the approaching regiment of men with swords pose absolutely no threat. Symbaroum treats combat as war, but also spectacle. You can tell which side is going to win an engagement in one or two rounds of combat, because one group is going to go through the other like a hot knife through butter – and it’s usually going to be the players slicing straight through your bad guys.
Trying to balance encounters solely by the Toughness and Damage of the opposition will get you nowhere. You need to sit down, read through all the abilities, powers, and traits available to you, and then you need to get creative. Or you can read this post, because that’s what I’ve done for you!
It’s important to note that Symbaroum’s system inherently stacks the odds in the players’ favour already from the start.
A player with a one-handed weapon deals a random 1D8 damage, and an NPC with that same weapon deals a fixed 4 damage. But this is not fair, because the average roll of 1D8 is not 4 – it’s 4.5 (write out all the numbers on a line, and then circle the middle value of that number line).
This is important to know, because you shouldn’t be under the impression that Symbaroum is meant to be fair. As the GM, the odds are stacked against you, so you need to fight dirty.
Knowing how to quickly average the players’ dice is also very useful in estimating their capabilities. For example, if you have a player with a character that has Natural Warrior Master and Iron Fist, you know that they make two attacks that deal 2D6+1D4 damage each. That’s (3.5+3.5+2.5) 2 x 9.5 average damage that you must take into account in the encounter.
Player Characters are the starting point
First of all, you need to take stock of what you can expect the player characters to do in a combat turn.
If there is a character who can tank 1D10 or 1D6+1D4 or more damage, you can expect them to shrug off most mundane weapons.
If there is a character who can deal 20+ damage per hit, you can expect them to kill one mortal creature per turn.
If there is a character who can keep enemies out of the combat, you must expect that one or more adversaries will never even have an opportunity to act.
All of these points are quite easy to reach in Symbaroum. For a group where the characters are beyond 100 XP, you must accept that this is what your players are capable of. It’s not something you can nerf your way out of, because there are dozens of paths to reach these optimized points. And your players have spent time and energy and effort to put together these characters. If a player has a character who is great at violence, it’s probably because they want to play a character that performs great in combat.
You just need to know how to account for those characters and build engaging scenes around them.
A Privileged Ambrian can start the game with a suit of full plate armor and Man-at-Arms and expect to have 1D10 armor from the start of the game. They may have a Theurg or Symbolist in the party capable of casting Blessed Shield or Protective Rune, giving another armor die.
An Ogre can start the game with Robust and Berserker and a Light Armor and always drop three armor dice on every hit – functionally making them totally immune to every adversary that deals 3-4 damage. That is the vast majority of adversaries in the cultural beings and beasts categories.
Reinforcing the Tank
As the Game Master, your job is not to nerf this. It’s your job to acknowledge the choices your players have made and to reward them for their ingenuity. If you panic and force them to backtrack every time their build trivializes your encounter, it’s going to be less fun than actually trivializing your encounter.
Instead, consider what sort of absurd situations the build could survive, and let the player show off!
Are there twenty cultists pursuing the group? The tank can safely keep them occupied while the rest of the group takes up positions.
Is there a group of trolls coming in? The tank needs to step up and take the blows because anyone else in the team is going to be flattened.
Is the ruin full of blade traps? It might be worth sending the tank in first to just trigger everything and walk through the hazards unscathed.
These are not examples of builds breaking the game. These are examples of a player knowing what their character can handle and confidently using that to the group’s benefit.
It’s important that you demonstrate what kinds of threats the tank can safely weather. That will give the player confidence in their role and allow them to make decisions based on their role in the group.
And once they are confident, you can plan their downfall.
Challenging the Tank
Damage isn’t going to bring the tank down. Adding more opponents that deal more damage is only going to risk flattening the entire crew – but there are a few edge cases that could be worth exploring. If you have a player with a knight character who only relies on one or two armor dice, a herd of mare cats might eventually get a claw in and deliver a dose of poison. That could be a dramatic moment for an overconfident character, showing them that there are insidious threats out there that will exploit every weakness.
In general though, damage is not how you challenge the tank. It’s what the entire character is build to resist.
Take a look through the abilities, powers, and monstrous traits available to you and you will see a number of options to explore:
Ignores Armor and deals damage to an attribute other than Toughness.
Creatures that deal Alternative Damage are a good option to challenge the tank because the threat is equal across the party – it won’t threaten to flatten a squishy character just because it’s built to challenge the tank. You can even target attributes that other party members have in abundance but the tank has sacrificed for their build. Alternative Damage (Resolute) for example will probably be a bigger threat to the tank than the party’s mystics – but the mystics will still not want to get hit because every point of damage reduces their casting chance.
A powerful paralytic power. On higher levels it will even deal armor-ignoring damage and it leaves the character more or less ineffective. As with many of these tools, it engages a character’s Resolute rather than their Defence to make them ineffective for a while. That said, the tank will still be reducing the damage of all the hits they are suffering even while paralyzed, so this doesn’t really defeat the build as much as it takes them out of the fight.
Once the tank has become confident enough to wade through hordes of enemies on their own, throw in a few enemies with the Strangler ability. It attacks vs Cunning and unless the Tank has help he will take continuous armor-ignoring damage, and cannot do anything else.
Picture the Ogre or Troll wading through a mass of goblins with simple weapons, and then a daring clan warrior scrambles up their back and wraps a chain around their neck.
Master Two-Handed Force, Master Marksman, Larvae Boil
Some of the main abilities that grant armor-piercing attacks. No matter which interpretation you subscribe to of whether damage reduction from Robust and Berserker still applies after these powers, they still represent good abilities for elite enemies to use with great success against the Tank.
Like Strangler, it’s always useful to lasso someone around their neck.
All the attacks from the Pyrotechnics ability ignore armor, and also have stunning effects.
Sure, the Tank is likely to have very high Strong, but if their opponent manages to get a grip on them the throws from Wrestling deal damage that ignores armor and also stuns.
This advanced Mystical Power sends the target to an alternate dimension for a period of time. The armor does nothing.
Any intelligent spellcaster will recognize that the Tank is a problem, and send them elsewhere while they deal with the rest of the party.
Master Spirit Walk
This Mystical Power allows a mystic to fade their weapon through armor, making a mystic a dangerous foe for the Tank.
This could be a great power to give to a spectral undead boss.
When a player wields a Massive weapon, they roll damage twice and pick the better result. When an enemy wields a massive weapon, the players roll their armor twice and pick the worse result. This is worse for the player character the more armor dice they have!
There are so many ways to optimise Symbaroum characters for dealing damage. It’s easy to be frightened as a GM when you realize that the Core Rulebook only allows you to push a creature’s Toughness to 18 but a player with Iron Fist Adept, Two-handed Force Novice, Robust Novice, and Berserker Novice (60 XP) can deliver 1D12+2D4+1D6 (3-26, avg 15) damage per turn.
An archer with Marksman Novice, Backstab Master, and Rapid Fire Master firing from an elevated position with +1 damage arrows can deal 1D10+1D8+1D4+1 (+1D4 bleed) & 2 x 1D10+1D4+1 damage per turn (4-23 plus 3-15 plus 3-15 and 1-4 ongoing damage).
It’s a challenge to keep enemies alive in Symbaroum, and you should never expect an antagonist to survive contact with the players.
Reinforcing the Slayer
As with the Tank, your first job with the Slayer is to acknowledge the player’s build and reward them for it. On an average combat turn, they should kill something. If they don’t kill something in one turn, it should be a notable moment. And it probably will be, because you are going to have to go to some trouble to set up threats that the Slayer can engage with for number of turns.
Because it’s so easy to optimise characters for damage in Symbaroum, you can expect any given player group to have several Slayers. You can even see Tanks that are Slayers!
As such, they’re simply a fact of life which you need to learn to handle.
Consider setting up elaborate combat scenarios with objects that must be destroyed in order to proceed. Maybe there is a dark crystal that is summoning an endless stream of daemons – forcing the group’s Tank to deal with the horde while the Slayers pour damage into the objective.
Also, keep in mind the Pain Threshold mechanic. Slayers are going to be hitting this most of the time, and it will make them even deadlier than they are on paper. A Pain Threshold hit can let you make a Free Attack, which a solid Slayer should be able to use to finish off most targets. They can also just knock down a troublesome enemy and let the entire party attack them with Advantage. You need to keep this in mind both so that the players can feel powerful, and so that you don’t get surprised when it happens to your elaborate boss character.
Challenging the Slayer
The easiest way to make sure that important characters get to act before they die is to give them top-of-the-round Initiative. If you have a very Cunning antagonist, consider giving them Tactician to dramatically improve their Initiative, Defence, and Attack rolls.
If the Tank can do it, so can you! Since you’re playing with fixed values, your NPCs will never be quite as tanky as a player character, but you can as least pump the brakes on the Slayer’s torrent of damage. Eventually the Slayers are going to have armor-piercing attacks, invalidating some of these enemies, but keep track of how many armor-piercing attacks you can expect in a turn and build around that. You can also give your NPCs Man-at-Arms Master, giving them a chance to roll armor anyway.
Acidic Blood and other Retaliation
So your players love hitting stuff? Make it hurt. Make the enemy explode in a gush of acid, or have them wearing a Hallowed or Desecrated armor, or have them employ the power Retribution to establish a death link with a player character. There are things you can do to make the players think twice about employing their usual tactics.
Swarm and Spirit Form
Your players dealing too much damage? You have traits at your command that make enemies literally take half or zero damage from physical attacks. Just make sure that someone in the party has some means of dealing with this type of threat.
Also, keep in mind that artefact weapons deal magic damage, so as soon as you drop a bunch of mystical treasures on your players this option may be out of play. Use it early, prove that you have tools at your command that the players need to react to, and then give the players magic damage afterwards.
All abilities that stun, throw, paralyse, confuse, enthrall, terrify, or otherwise disrupt a player character will also delay the damage output of the Slayer.
Wings and Levitation
Does your group have a bunch of really deadly melee Slayers? Let’s see what they do when they can’t reach the enemy. A gaggle of Winged enemies with Terrify can disassemble even the most veteran of player parties.
Acrobatics and Bodyguard
There are abilities that can let you redirect hits onto other targets. You can have an adversary who grabs their minions and throws them in the way of the players’ weapons, or you can have your boss surrounded by loyal underlings who dutifully leap in the way of arrows and battle axes – all to keep their leader alive for one more turn.
This might feel slightly cheap to use against a player since it’s sometimes a hard power to contextualise, but employed by a Persuasive enemy this could stop a Slayer entirely from attacking their preferred target.
Bend Will and Confusion
These are your “break in case of emergency” tools. Bend Will and Confusion can make a Slayer turn on their friends. Considering that an optimised Slayer can one-shot most non-Tank characters, this can very quickly lead to a total wipe for the party.