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Ruins of Symbaroum is one of the best D&D 5E adaptations yet, but it comes at a cost

Gain 2 permanent corruption for using the Fifth Edition ritual.

Two characters face down an Liege Troll deep in the forests of Davokar in Free League's Ruins of Symbaroum, a tabletop RPG compatible with Dungeons & Dragons 5E.
Image credit: Free League

In 2017, dark fantasy TRPG Symbaroum invited players into a forest that inherently abhorred their existence and led them on journeys that cared just as much about survival and tough choices as it did about adventure and wonder. Ruins of Symbaroum, the newly-released version that comports to Dungeons & Dragons 5E’s rules, manages to mimic a large portion of that dangerous world at the cost of handrailing player expression and cutting predetermined trails through Davokar’s shadowed woods.

Publisher Free League launched a Kickstarter campaign in April 2021 that promised to adapt Symbaroum’s gritty, harsh world into the familiar mechanical language of the world’s most popular tabletop RPG, and fans funnelled nearly $500,000 (£388,000) into realising that plan. 5E adaptations are not new by any definition; many players wait to bring a title to their table until the publisher - or enterprising fans - releases a version that has six core stats, saving throws and a chunky list of skill proficiencies.

In that regard, Ruins of Symbaroum is a successful trio of books. The standard set of Game Master’s Guide, Player’s Guide and Bestiary all profit from excellent layouts that are a sight cleaner and easier to parse than the original core rulebook. (Free League fixed that issue itself in Symbaroum’s advanced book releases.) The designers claim they “tried to walk a middle road”, according to the Player’s Handbook, by porting over the spells, skills and abilities from D&D 5E as directly as possible and running their own system of character classes and approaches through the RPG translation machine.

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Unfortunately, those classes show this endeavour’s first foundational cracks. The original Symbaroum - plus the Advanced Player’s Guide - showcased classes as archetypes with generally advisable abilities sorted by the game’s eight attributes: accurate, cunning, discreet, persuasive, quick, resolute, strong and vigilant. Players could follow these archetypes and come out the other end with an extremely useful character, but the option to dabble in other directions was always present. Perhaps your warrior was allured by the mystic arts by their time in Davokar’s ruins, or a rogue might pick up some more in-your-face abilities to bolster their prowess in larger skirmishes.

Ruins of Symbaroum lifts a lot of delicious text straight out of the original books when describing the wild locations, numerous factions and notable individuals.

Ruins of Symbaroum cements those archetypes into the 20-level ladders that 5E players will know well. Every level unlocks certain advancements, and the path your character follows is preordained by the book. Gone, too, are abilities’ three ascending levels of mastery. Instead, characters will gain an increasing amount of spells, feats and skills as they climb the ladder, likely ending up with the common late-game 5E glut of tools for every situation. Symbaroum’s mastery levels, purchased with experience earned on excursions into Davokar’s angry depths, kept player characters lean and rewarded their investment in key abilities with extra oomph and broader effects. Why own six different knives when one extremely sharp blade does the trick?

Another sticking point is how Ruins of Symbaroum handles magic. The source text spills much ink describing the destructive nature of corruption that follows any use of magic in Davokar or the human kingdom of Ambria, and how the necessity of its use to combat the abominations and other threats makes life on the frontier a constant balancing act. One of Symbaroum’s core themes surrounds the excuses civilisation will create for its exploitation, and how that dominant model trickles down to individual actions - is it worth letting the Iron Pact destroy this ancient weapon when the duke could use it to secure his border against a horde of blight beasts?

A pair of explorers ponder a ruin deep within the forest of Davokar, the central location of D&D 5E compatible TRPG, Ruins of Symbaroum.
Ruins of Symbaroum comes in three separate volumes but also requires D&D 5E's volumes for reference. That's a lot of books for one game. | Image credit: Free League

That power - and its resulting corruption - was an ever-present temptation for all players in the original RPG. Ruins of Symbaroum instead restricts access to spells and rituals to those who chose one of the Mystic approaches. While the 5E port does still offer a broad range of classes, from martial staff mages to troll singers and corruption-embracing sorcerers - it feels as though the ever-present threat of magic’s taint has been relegated to a sub-system that can be ignored if you just stick to more mundane implements of violence.

Ruins of Symbaroum felt more like a crossover than a true melding, and the illusion further broke down the deeper we waded into 5E’s mechanical particulars.

Because of these restrictions and the more general alignment with D&D 5E’s high fantasy predilections, playing Ruins of Symbaroum can feel like watching an edited-for-TV horror film. All of the same beats and plot elements show up, but the holistic experience comes off a little muted, its edges sanded down to fit a format better suited for hack-and-slash romps through dungeons than scrounging one’s way across 70 kilometres of unmapped wilderness.

I want to avoid dinging Ruins of Symbaroum simply for being a 5E adaptation, though it’s important to interrogate why a system would necessarily benefit from the translation. The combat-heavy focus of 5E works surprisingly well in a world that wants to kill you eight different ways before you finish breakfast, and the stat blocks on the creatures in the bestiary does make it easy for DMs to construct encounters suitable to their party’s level.

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My group played through Where Darkness Dwells, a 2nd-level adventure that sends the party into a crypt festooned with corruption and the undead. It offers a fantastic overview of the kinds of challenges Symbaroum will throw at players, all neatly packed into a graveyard several dozen kilometres from the safety of the nearest settlement.

It feels as though the ever-present threat of magic’s taint has been relegated to a sub-system that can be ignored for more mundane implements of violence.

Yet, my players met these obstacles the same way one would any Wizards of the Coast-branded supplement. We didn’t have Symbaroum’s roll-under attribute tests to prompt inventive or unorthodox solutions. Instead, we perception-checked and fought our way through every encounter. We earned experience towards a predetermined level-up. We roleplayed without any insight from abilities, descriptions from Shadows or more formal rules interactions. It felt more like a crossover than a true melding, and the illusion further broke down the deeper we waded into 5E’s mechanical particulars.

Ruins of Symbaroum is an excellent adaptation that shows Free League tried to sacrifice as little of the original game as possible as it was alchemised into a 5E shape. I’d even go so far as to say it excels in its class, proving the act of aligning oneself to the popular giant can be more than a cynical ploy at a larger audience.

Two characters attempt to wrangle a lindworm in Ruins of Symbaroum, a 5E-compatible adaptation of the Free League's dark fantasy RPG.
The full illustrations in Ruins of Symbaroum's bestiary paint an awesome and frightening portrait of Davokar's denizens, from ancient Lindworms to cunning Arch Trolls. | Image credit: Free League

The Swedish publisher also preserved an admirable amount of its gorgeous worldbuilding - Ruins of Symbaroum lifts a lot of delicious text straight out of the original books when describing the wild locations, numerous factions and notable individuals. The books are almost worth the price of admission for their twists on classic fantasy tropes and a decidedly Scandinavian view on colonialism and the role of organised religion.

But if you’re anything like me and my group, you’ll end your first session more interested in exploring the dense forests of Symbaroum’s first sourcebook than another jaunt down already well-heeled paths.

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