Fria Ligen’s Symbaroum, like all media, does not exist in a vacuum. To consider its place in the works of western, roleplaying games, we need to consider both its textual and metatextual elements, something which is obscured in a way by the unreliable narration of the text—save for the sparse sections set aside to explain game mechanics, every product in the Symbaroum line is written with a diegetic voice to purposefully immerse the reader in the setting, much like any other work of fiction. Just as a book implicates the reader, so does a game with its player(s): Although the authors didn’t write this game as a political commentary, it is one.
To read Symbaroum is to read a western perspective on the world at large—a centered perspective looking toward the periphery—one in which the west has colonized much of what is not the west. This is foundational to Symbaroum even though it is not an explicit part of the text and why I do not call it a subtext: There is nothing subtextual about the coloniality. It is right there on the page; it is a metatext, too, how a white understanding about the world and history we inhabit informs the creation of another world.
Obscured as the metatext is, we can use the text as it is presented to reflect back to us the circumstances of our world that center a particular culture, one side of a narrative, within the game—a recognizable center where there does not have to be one, from where it presumes the player will look out toward the periphery.
I’ll summarize Symbaroum’s setting and discuss “white fantasy” as a metatext; an enabled narrative-object that can (and does) cross product lines. (Before I begin, let me note: The product is called Symbaroum and there is an empire within the game named Symbaroum. I’ll italicize the product’s name and not the empire’s name.)
The story of Symbaroum begins with the eponymous empire, which stretched far across the continent through its imperialistic reach. Eventually, because of Symbaroum’s (ruling class’s) abuse of magic—and, further, their abuse of the corruption that their abuse of magic caused—the empire collapsed on itself, its power convulsing inward very suddenly and destroying itself. This, naturally, left regions and communities unmoored, suddenly untethered from a central identity. The manner of collapse left an existential wound on the continent, which the elves, from the indeterminate west, were swift in coming in to contain the corruption that could easily destroy the world.
The elves will be reintroduced in the history of the setting, but I include them here to comment on the timeline because elves are very old and humans, in their short lifespans, are very forgetful.
After generations, humans have essentially no recollection of Symbaroum and have developed separate ethnic identities with only a guess that they could be related. In this time, the elves had planted a forest to contain the corruption of Symbaroum—named Davokar—and kept watch over it. Not all of the elves, either: a special volunteer force named the Iron Pact, who willingly left their homelands to clean up the humans’ mess. Aside from the elves, some humans remained who divided into a tribalistic society, related but never creating any sort of bloc or, really, claiming any land. They knew, somewhere in their histories, and trusted the elves.
South of Davokar, a mountain range. South of that, Alberetor, a kingdom in the classical, western European sense. Wholly separate from Davokar, the elves and the humans north of them; separate to a point of ignorance. A magical catastrophe strikes in the form of war with Dark Lords—sorcerers practicing the same sort of magic the ruling class of Symbaroum did (yes, the historical recursion is a literary device). Alberetor is devastated in this war, the land literally killed off and unable to grow even the hardiest plant. The king had been killed and the crown princess had been kidnapped, ultimately rescued. The war ends and the Alberians look north because they cannot survive in the devastated Alberetor.
Past the mountain range, they find a rolling, verdant plain. A couple of clans of other humans. And then, 20 years later, the now queen of Alberetor decides that is where her kingdom will be relocated. She invades, commiting genocide against one of the clans that inhabited the region and subjugating the other, assimilating them completely. The queen names the region Ambria.
It is important to recognize that the Alberians were refugees fleeing a dying land. They were not welcomed into the region by the clans who already lived there—they swept in, swinging swords and never thinking to ask questions. If there were some discrepancy in how a refugee population could muster or maintain such a fighting force to conquer a region, it is is mostly handwaved, but there is an important change in religion for the Ambrians (formerly Alberians): Near the end of the war with the Dark Lords, Alberetor abandoned the pantheon of deities it worshipped in favor of one of them, named Prios and given the epithet “the lightbringer.” The text is very clear to establish zealous fervor as the reason why.
This fervor is used to sanctify and rationalize a manifest destiny, finding not only the genocide and assimilation forgivable (acceptable; natural), but, further to the central conflict of the setting, also the looming conquest of Davokar itself—painted as a manifestation of the evil of the world that must be burned out literally or figuratively.
Let me emphasize that all of this is presented from an Ambrian perspective. Those humans who are not Ambrians are referred to as “barbarians” throughout each product’s text. There is no attempt to give them an identity beyond one palatable for the Ambrian narrators, which is evident with the sparse material written from a barbarian’s perspective (in that material, they refer to themselves as “clanfolk”). Elves are viewed as alien and treated with an abundance of paranoia for their aggressions against Ambrians who presumed to control and exploit Davokar for their own ends. Goblins are at best indentured laborers and the text readily admits they are abused for menial labor.
The text continues like this, laying harsh truth after harsher truth of the Ambrians in front of the reader, but it also never complicates that. Everything written is presented as the state of the world; simple truth. There is only one way of understanding the world of Symbaroum and that is from the center looking out—the text cannot imagine a barbarian perspective, much less an elven one, even if it does give their reasons. All of them, to include other peoples found deeper in Symbaroum’s lore, are literary devices; complications to the proposed moral quandaries that the player characters might encounter.
This is the line, however, that is drawn from the text to the metatext, from the writer to a greater sociocultural understanding of truth in storytelling (to include historical accounts). If a game is written from a western perspective, it defaults to a colonialist perspective. A western perspective requires a construction of the world that has both a center and a periphery—in so many other binaries: An occident and orient; global north and global south; and so on. A required construction of an other and/or subaltern. It is a worldview constructed on systems of power and hierarchies of control.
It is Alberians conquering a region and giving it a name when its previous inhabitants hadn’t named it…or the Alberians simply didn’t ask. It is Alberians renaming themselves, but never asking for the names of the barbarians.
The text is inextricable from both its writers’ perspectives and the forced colonialist perspectives of its Ambrian narrators. The writers’ perspectives are inherently colonialist because it defaults to presenting the world from a hegemonic, imperialistic society and culture and reinforces that by othering the non-Ambrians of the setting and the setting itself by what is included and the choice of how to include the information. The Ambrians become a player vehicle for colonial fantasies like touring and conquest.
“Symbaroum invites you to join in the adventure! Explore the vast forest of Davokar in the hunt for treasures, lost wisdoms and fame. Visit the barbarian clans to trade or to plunder their treasuries.” — Fria Ligen
However, I think Symbaroum is a successful roleplaying game precisely because it lays its imperialistic cards on the table, coloniality and all. One of the most glaring criticisms, though, is that it does not make this metatext explicit.
This metatext is white fantasy, a genre distinct within the greater science fiction and fantasy umbrella and cousin to dark and heroic fantasies. The white fantasy leverages the proliferation of cultural identifiers and modes through imperialistic soft power. The widespread translation and sale of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Wizards of the Coast’s market dominance with both Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering, … These works and others are so intrinsic to the (western) fantasy canon that they create a common ground—a center—from where it is easy to reject peripheral stories. How else could humans, elves and goblins be portrayed? To do otherwise would be radical and would rob white fantasy of its vehicles that are able to convey the reader through and across works.
There is no guide for how to engage with Symbaroum as game masters and players, which is a failure of the product. This failure is repeated across products as well, far beyond Fria Ligen’s catalogue. Was it avoided to prevent alienating a demographic of consumers? Was it even considered? As we increasingly see with games across mode, most are unwilling to engage in this critical work and to ask or expect their consumers to do it.
There are ways to engage players critically without overloading them. It begins with asking them what it means to come from an imperialistic culture, to include their own in real life. If a player chooses not to be Ambrian, then what does it mean to be(come) subaltern?
- Haake, Mattias Johnsson, and Mattias Lilja. Symbaroum. Translated by Mattias Johnsson and Alexander Fahlander. DriveThruRPG, PDF: Free League Publishing, 2019. https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/163293/Symbaroum--Core-Rulebook.