First things first, I love Symbaroum!
Second things second, I know some people, who also love Symbaroum, might not like my ideas here, but bear with me – if you don’t like my ideas then that’s just fine!
Third things third (although this should probably be first) – sorry Mattias, Mattias and Martin: I hope you forgive me for mucking about with your excellent game mechanics!
But how about dice pools, in Symbaroum?
The default roll for any skill check in Symbaroum is, and remains, a d20 roll against the relevant attribute with any necessary modifier. Roll under the target and you succeed: roll above it and you fail. Cool. Fine and fair enough.
But some players find the binary “succeed or fail” dynamic just that: a smidge too binary. And as a GM of many years experience of many different RPGs I think I agree. Life isn’t black and white, yes or no, one or zero (well, not much of the time anyway). And as a GM I love the options, the gradient, that scaled success can give you.
So, for those who love Symbaroum (like me and my players) but aren’t totally sold on all the game mechanics (like me and my players) I’ve tweaked the rules to add just a little more complexity to the skill checks. These tweaks simply blur the lines a bit: you can have different degrees of success, but how you approach a challenge or a task dictates how well, or how badly, you might do at that task.
These tweaks fall into two categories:
1- Immediate and instant actions (like striking someone in combat, defending against an attack, climbing a tree or steering a boat on choppy waters);
2- And extended actions, where you might take many minutes or even hours to resolve a task (such as gleaning information from the population of a village about legends, planning how to storm a stronghold, scouting the area around a site, or building a ship).
Instead of only having the option of rolling one d20 for every challenge, a player can choose to roll either 1, 2 or 3 d20s. However, the more dice you roll the more desperate to succeed you are, and this brings a down-side: your character is getting nervous and takes even more and more care to get the action right. But the character is almost trying too hard, and that can take the instinctive edge that a confident move might have – that anxiety means that even if you succeed you won’t have done as well as you might, and if you screw up you may well screw up badly.
- If you choose to roll one d20 a success is simply a success, and a fail is simply a fail, just as it is in Symbaroum RAW.
- If you roll two d20, you’ve increased your chances of being successful but you need two successes to succeed fully. If you only get one success you still succeed, but the effect of your success is about half that of the full effect you would expect (you inflict half damage or climb half as far, for example) and you might suffer a minor consequence (decided by the GM and dependent on the situation).
- If you roll three d20 you need three successes to succeed fully, but two successes still give you a half success, and one success means you don’t fail but your success is just one quarter of that it might have been (again decided by the GM, and again with the chance of a complication, dependent on the situation).
So, rolling more dice boosts your chance to succeed but the impact of that success will likely be less. But remember, no matter how many dice you roll you might still get no successes at all.
If you roll more than one d20 and get no successes something bad is going to happen.
If you roll two dice and fail to get even one success you are going to suffer something bad, what I call a Minor Problem. Maybe you drop your weapon, spill your money bag all over the floor, trip, slip or lose an item. It’s up to the GM, but this should be an irritation, or a narratively interesting problem, rather than a game-changer or a direct life-threatener.
If you roll three dice and still get no successes you have screwed up badly, and you get a Major Problem, again decided by the GM. Unlike the failure with 2 dice, a 3 dice fail will – over and above any damage the character will take – be something that’s genuinely dangerous, or put your character in a vulnerable and deadly position. That’s the risk you take when you try too hard to succeed.
I think this general principle should work pretty well and logically for most tasks a player might want to attempt.
The one area that might need a bit more attention is a PC’s Defence Roll. For the Defence Roll it may be blindingly obvious that a player will want to boost their chances of success: Symbaroum is an unforgiving and deadly game, after all.
If a player rolls 3d20 for their Defence Roll they are going fully defensive: everything other than keeping that ogre’s axe from splitting her in two is dropped by the wayside. They lose their own action that round. On three successes they keep the enemy at bay. On two successes they take no damage but they get a Minor Complication (they might fall to a knee, get pushed back or lose their helmet or shield). On one success they get to choose: either take 1/2 damage and get a Minor Complication, or take no damage and a Major Complication (disarmed, knocked from their feet, stunned or momentarily blinded). This is decided before armour is taken into account.
If a player rolls 2d20 for their defence roll they are being defensive, but not discounting the chance to strike back. They keep their own action that round. On two successes they keep the enemy at bay. On one success they get to choose: either take 1/2 damage or get a Minor Complication (they might fall to a knee, get pushed back or lose their helmet or shield). This is decided before armour is taken into account.
If a player rolls 1d20 for their defence roll it plays out as per the RAW.
Finally, on immediate actions you can only get a crit if all the dice you have roll a 1, so if you roll three dice all three have to roll 1 to get a crit. Again, you’re trying too hard to succeed that a big success is really hard to achieve.
Sometimes the players will undertake a task that takes longer than one combat round to achieve. As a GM you should work out (in advance if possible) what information or outcome is possible, and then rate that outcome on a spectrum of “just succeeding” to “total success”. Rate the range of information based on how many successes you need to get each piece of information (from 1 success to 3 successes) and then allow the players to make a roll on the relevant attribute with 3d20. You can give a bonus die for good roleplaying by the players in trying to achieve this outcome, but then give information based on the level of success the players had.
I intend to try these rules when I next run Symbaroum, and you can hear that on The Coriolis Effect special “Symbaroum Effect” podcasts, coming in the next few weeks. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments, especially if you try it in your game.
I could not be bothered with the rules anymore, so we moved to Heroquest. We found many abilities to vague in there interpretations unless you are a long time player of the rules. Leader was the last straw.
I assume DnD 5e (or most other iterations of that game) isn’t on any favorite lists as either.