Symbaroum is a game system that is weighted heavily towards fighting. You may not always run a combat-heavy game, but there are few avenues for character advancement that aren’t about becoming better at killing people. However, as I touched on in my previous Encounter Design article, there are ways to frame combat that allows your players to use the combat rules in alternative ways.
The Expectations of Battle
The game sets up a certain number of expectations about how fighting should work and what the inherent consequences are. For example:
- You hit people with Accurate or your alternate attribute, and you dodge with Quick.
- You use your best weapons and your best armor to deal and reduce damage.
- Damage reduces Toughness and when someone is reduced to 0 Toughness they’re dead.
- When you get into a fight your goal is to take the opposing force out of the fight by killing them.
As the game master, you should feel empowered to alter these expectations to expand the variety in the game. If the game is just “walk into fight, use best abilities, win, loot, move on” eventually the players are going to feel that it grows stale – or rather they may feel like there is only one optimal way to resolve things. So let’s present a few alternate ways you can use the combat rules to open up for new types of encounters.
Scuffles & Brawls
Fights don’t have to be to the death. In fact, the first example of combat in the intro adventure the Promised Land is just a quick demonstration of competence by fighting to first blood – which usually only lasts a round or two. This is a perfect example of altering the conditions of the combat! The Game Master (in this case via an NPC) says to the players: “This scene will be using the combat mechanics, but it will not be a fight to the death.” The players and the caravan guards swing their weapons and winners are determined by whoever takes damage first. Then the combat ends, and the scene might move on as a social encounter where some characters need to plead their case to join the caravan despite losing their bouts.
The example I gave in the introduction to the previous article presented a similar condition: “The fight will last for a single round, then negotiations will continue based on however the situation has developed.”
Tavern brawls and riots could work in a similar way, but should also impose strict limits on “brandishing.” It may be a chaotic melee where people are swinging bottles and throwing chairs, aiming to deal very real damage to their opponents, but the minute that someone pulls out a two-handed sword the situation is going to change dramatically. A thrown bottle or a chair leg is unlikely to kill someone, and a brawl with improvised weapons should represent that. Characters should be finding ways to apply their specialised fighting skills to the improvised weapons they have available, and if they instead choose to draw steel they should be very much aware that they will be considered instigators if the brawl turns into a deadly combat.
Brawls could make liberal use of the Disarm and Knock-Out manoeuvres from the Advanced Players Guide, and you could even say that a brawl would use a separate non-lethal Toughness pool that when depleted leads to being knocked out rather than dying, and doesn’t significantly detract from the character’s ability to get into a real fight later on. You could even opt to use a “Temporary Damage” approach like with Temporary Corruption – damage that wears off at the end of the scene.
This way you create situations where players can make (possibly sub-optimal) use of their normal Abilities while leaving room to escalate or de-escalate the combat.
- You may not be able to rely on your regular weapons
- Damage dealt and taken can take characters out of a fight but not kill them
- The goal of the combat is something other than killing the opponents
A notorious drunkard has come into the Beamon’s Grotto – a seedy tavern full of aspiring adventurers down on their last shilling. He has been bragging about his new map to an untouched ruin in the forest, and the bar’s patrons have been investing jugs of stout into the man hoping that he’ll drink the map away. When he finally passes out, a disagreement immediately breaks out over who should get the map.
Fists start flying, friends leap to friends’ aid (also in hope of grabbing the map while everyone is distracted), and soon the entire bar is involved in the melee.
Can the players navigate the chaos and get their hands on the map? They don’t have their weapons (Mr. Sargos doesn’t allow them inside) or any armor heavier than medium, but Mr. Sargos’s pet ogre will rescue anyone who gets knocked out in the melee (Mr. Sargos will put them to work cleaning the place up after the brawl is concluded).
Sports & Games
If you want to take a brawl and give it slightly more structured rules, or if you want to have a jousting tourney or an archery championship – the combat rules still work just fine for that! Sports like Torchbearer, or the violent games where goblins are throwing rocks at people, or pitched wrestling matches at the Abomitorium are all things that can be played out with the combat rules but with even more variants rules.
Sports and games should have specific goals that set them apart from brawls and outright combat, like getting control of an item and delivering it to a goal, getting the most points, enduring longer than everyone else, or putting on a great show for the audience.
Unlike brawls, these types of encounters should also have strict agreed-upon rules, standardised equipment, and expectations. Sports are also a great way to allow highly specialised characters to show off their prowess.
If the party has a skilled marksman, you can set up a Robin Hood or Ivanhoe scenario where the character sneaks in to the duke’s archery competition or knightly tourney to upstage the lord’s champion and win the adoration of the crowd (and provide a distraction from the rest of the party infiltrating the duke’s pavilion).
Nobles love hunting, so a mounted archery challenge to bring in the biggest stag in the count’s woods could be a crucial part to a negotiation or other social challenge. Duels can have many variant rules and a skilled swordsman might require a similar test of the blade to ensure that a party is worthy of their attention – let the loser come out of it with a wicked duelling scar and a social consequence.
- Equipment is standardised and/or provided as part of the challenge
- Might be team-based or individual competition
- The primary goal may be something other than inflicting harm (scoring goals, hitting targets, earning points)
The Karohar tribe has a tradition where teams of even size (5 vs 5 for example, base it on the party size) compete in a series of challenges over a course of several days. A group of travellers that runs into a Karohar camp and lives to tell the tale might be able to win the clan’s favor by competing in one of these challenges.
The parties are offered no armor, but are equipped with throwing spears, spear slings, and battle claws.
On the first day they must kill and bring back beasts. The team whose combined prey weighs more than the other team’s prey wins the day. (Bushcraft and Vigilant to find and track beasts. Standard combat mechanics, prey is weighted by their Strong values, with a bonus from their Robust values.)
On the second day they must tie their colors to their spears. The two teams must then climb two opposing trees, and try to pin their spears as high up on the opposing team’s tree as possible. The climbers of the teams try to climb up and remove the opposing team’s flag-spears. The team with the most flags on the opposing team’s tree wins the day. (Throwing spears at the opposing tree should be about a -3 ranged attack, and climbing up to get an opposing spear should be a -3 Quick or Strong test, -0 if the character has Acrobatics. Alternate approaches should be encouraged.)
On the third day they must face off in bare-handed fighting. The fight takes place in a ring with two fighters on each side. If a fighter is knocked out or leaves the ring, they are eliminated, there is a break in the fighting, and each team again puts forward two of their remaining fighters. If a team is reduced to a single fighter, the format changes to one-on-one. This continues until one team has had all their fighters eliminated. (Standard combat rules but using no weapons or armor. Knock-outs can be attempted. When a character reaches 0 Toughness they are eliminated from the match.)
On the fourth day there is a feast to honor the winning team. The losers have a chance to redeem their honor by beating the champions in drinking games. (Allow the players to find their own methods to this, or demand increasingly difficult Strong tests to resist 1d4 Resolute damage. Steadfast, Recovery, Regeneration, and Robust will help.)
Chase & Capture
Chase scenes are sometimes called the “forgotten action scenes” of roleplaying games. It’s easy to default to fighting for an action scene, but chases open up for so much more dynamic content. The sheer fact that everyone is moving through the environment can allow for much more interaction with the scenery and creative problem solving.
The game already has a suggested Hunt & Flight system where characters try to chase each other down, but I feel like this ought to be combined with an Alternate Combat approach that opens up for employing a wider array of character abilities to ‘solve’ the hunt and facilitate the capture. A large creature or character could smash through walls as shortcuts, mystical powers and creative ranged attacks could similarly open alternate paths or create blockages.
The chase should also have a knock-out end rather than a lethal finish. The chase shouldn’t be about trying to kill the target, it should be about subduing them to get information out of them or to acquire an item they’re carrying. Or one character is being pursued by a monster and another character is chasing the monster to delay it so the first character can escape.
Establishing this premise means that attacks and damage have a different goal than ordinary combat. Much like brawls the focus is on putting the opposition out of commission rather than killing them, and using lethal force should escalate the scene to a severity that neither party wants. Like sports, there is also a greater performative angle and a focus on using abilities creatively to navigate the premise.
Chase & Capture can also be used as a way to showcase overwhelming opposition and hugely threatening monsters without it being a life or death situation. If the players are defeated, the monster might carry them back to its lair, or force them to surrender a stolen treasure.
- Greater focus on ranged attacks and interaction with scenery
- Damage dealt is used to slow targets down, or to engage the environment to open shortcuts
- The goal is to escape or to subdue a target alive to secure something of value
The giant lindwurm Zaoravastis is awakened from its century-long slumber when a group of intruders break into the vault of the ruin she occupies with her brood and steal the magical amulet she has sworn to keep out of human hands.
Along with her younger kin and goblin minions, she will pursue the intruders and do everything in her might to recover the amulet. She is large enough that she can smash through the walls of the ruin and cunning enough to find paths to intercept the thieves, and she can wield her enchanting tongue to entrance or confuse the interlopers.
The players have to make a hasty retreat through a labyrinthine dungeon, while avoiding lindwurms, kanarans, goblins, and Zaoravastis herself. If they are unable to escape her, she is keen to bring the plunderers back to her cavern where she can interrogate them to find out where they learned of the Vault of Zaor. Does she have enemies out there still? Could these mortals be turned to aid her against her ancient foes?