Monday, 30 October 2017


There is a beautiful majesty to art, the way it can represent mood and atmosphere to inspire emotion and imagination. Symbaroum is a Swedish role playing game produced by Järnringen in Swedish and distributed by Mōdiphiüs in English. What drew me to this game more than anything else was the art. Evocative and otherworldly, it paints, in muted tones, a world and setting which is wild and mysterious, fay and dangerous. 

The setting itself is a fantasy built into the vacuum of a collapsed great empire, the main protagonists are people fleeing their old lands which were corrupted by death. The themes are environmental, primal and elemental. Much iconography and mood feels drawn from old myths and stories like the Edda and the Kalevala. The wild is unknowable and dangerous, corrupting and vigilant. The forces of the world are driven by powers that mere mortals do not, and perhaps can never understand. 

The artistic style carries through into the muted tones of the maps and book, naturalistic colours dominate the palette. The history and setting match the visual style beautifully, and while the tropes common to fantasy are present, they hearken back to their primal roots more than they lean on modern variations. Elves and trolls, wild beasts and dragons, all are there in plenty if you venture into the forest deep enough, but they are not the elves and trolls of the Lord of the Rings, nor those more modern versions typified by Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer. They are the elves of folklore, elemental and fay, wild and dangerous. Dragons will as soon manipulate, fool and trick as they will roar with fury and power. There is much to like in this setting.

The rules are light and easy, encounters dangerous and over quickly, even between powerful adversaries. Special abilities allow characters unique talents that can be fun and interesting when employed well, and provide lots of ways to substitute one stat for another, meaning combat doesn't need to be the exclusive province of the stereotypical tank. It is possible to game the system to some extent, and GMs and players alike need occasionally to be ready to make a best judgement and move on. But it is an engaging and quick moving game engine that allows heroic action and story to come before the minutia that dominates many game systems.

I won't go much further in detailing the mechanisms and setting, Symbaroum is a game with an evocative and stylized world. A setting that is challenging, dark and fay. The rules are relatively simple, roll a D20 and get below your modified stat. One of the more unique elements is that only the players ever touch the dice: they roll for the damage they inflict while enemy armour simply soaks X, they roll their armour while enemy attacks simply inflict X. It is a system that took a game or two to get used to, but works, and works quickly and well. This is a game I have thoroughly enjoyed, and while we're only around 8 sessions in, I am looking forward to playing more.

As of writing this Järnringen are running a Kickstarter for their version of a Monster Manual. It looks great. If you're interested at all in the game - I'd recommend checking it out!

I should note - while I freelance for Modiphius I have never worked on the Symbaroum line (though of course, it would be awesome to do so), I am recommending this game purely as a fan. 

Friday, 27 October 2017

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen

I may be late to the party, but apparently this book is some sort of classic. Looking for something new to read to my class I stumbled across a copy of Hatchet on the shelves of the library. My mind immediately cast back to the many times others had recommended the book, and lacking any other concrete ideas, I pulled it from the shelf.

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, is a survival book. It is about a young boy called Brian Robeson travelling by aeroplane to visit his father when disaster strikes. Over the Canadian forests the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. While Brian does his best to keep the plane on course, it eventually crashes, leaving an injured Brian to take care of himself in the wild.

I doubt I needed to even write that much, Hatchet is one of those books that everyone bar me seems to have read in high-school or at some other point in their lives. It has a reputation that makes the book feel ubiquitous, like it's something I should have read, even if I hadn't. Looking over Goodreads, it also seems to fall into the love/hate dichotomy. I can understand.

Hatchet is written in a very striking style. It is written in short sentences, and makes much use of repetition. The book makes statements, makes statements and then repeats them, repeats them and slightly expands them each time.

If I were reading the book to myself I think I might have found the style interesting, but occasionally stilted. As it was I read the book out loud to my class, and the repetition and mixture of short and longer sentences gave the book a rhythm. As if it was always meant to be read out loud. The story had a beat, it rose and fell, was tense and interesting, engaging and dramatic; I enjoyed it immensely.

Story wise Hatchet is is relatively simple, a tale of survival in a harsh and unrelenting wilderness, an alien world to the city-dweller Brian. This is not to criticise the narrative arc, the story is as much about the evolution of Brian as it is about the trials and tribulations he suffers while fighting to survive. The continual mistakes, set-backs and fell chances that befall Brian are counterpointed by the successes and discoveries he makes as he learns to get by. The book is primal; Brian's failures and challenges are keenly felt, and his successes permits us moments to bask in celebratory warmth on our protagonists part. As a reader I felt compelled and engaged the entire time, and my students seemed to enjoy it a lot too (many borrowed later books in the series).

If you, like me, are one of the few people who has not read Hatchet, I would thoroughly recommend it. If you find the writing style off-putting, I suggest reading it as if it is being read out loud, a story told over flickering flames rather than processed silently. I'm glad I read Hatchet, it was captivating in both its use of language and its classic survival story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it'll make my regular cycle of reading material for my classes.