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The effect states:

Fear: Each target must make a Wisdom saving throw and becomes Frightened for 1 minute on a failed save. While Frightened, the target drops whatever it is holding and must move at least 30 feet away from the glyph on each of its turns, if able.

The "if able" is where I'm getting hung up. Yes, the creature is able to move 30 feet by dashing, however I'm not sure if that is intended, as it would severely limit certain PCs. If a creature only has 25 feet of movement, such as a gnome or halfling, are they forced to use there dash every turn to make that 30 feet minimum?
This was ruled in my game as no, since it meant 3 members of the party were still functional while the fourth would have been completely useless with having to dash every turn.

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The spell requires you to move if you can do it, whatever it takes.

If the spell had intended to say "You must move your speed away from the symbol", then it would have said that. Since it doesn't say that, but instead gives a minimum movement distance, a creature that's capable of dashing and needs to dash in order to move 30' in a turn is required to do so.

Your DM might disagree.

I personally think this particular spell is poorly written and requires a great deal of DM decision-making to determine how it's meant to operate, and I tend to agree with your sense that the symbol of fear impacts slower creatures more seriously than faster ones in a really strange way. While the "fear" text seems pretty straightforward and clear, the fact that the spell as a whole appears to be poorly edited makes me, as a DM, less likely to adhere closely to the text. I would instead make a ruling based on what seems fair to me and what I feel the spell was intended to do, even if the text doesn't exactly say that.

I suspect what they intended was that the target has to move its speed away from the symbol, rather than a fixed 30 feet that reflects different degrees of haste to different creatures -- but that's just speculation on my part. If I were you, I would feel entirely free to have a discussion with everyone at the table about what the spell means and how we'll agree to run it in this particular campaign.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I want to vote for the first part of this, but while symbol is poorly written the fear part really isn't. It's quite clear, as you point out. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 7 '21 at 11:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri The fact that the spell as a whole is poorly written makes me less inclined to accept the parts that seem pretty clear as being rock-solid reflections of intent. There's a lack of editing here that makes me mistrust the entire spell. I added some commentary to that second section to clarify what I'm saying. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7 '21 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ What about difficult terrain? Is a character with 30' movement forced to dash in that case? If the intention was "must move its speed away", would that make any difference in that scenario? \$\endgroup\$
    – Herohtar
    Jan 7 '21 at 22:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I suppose they would be forced to dash, since 30 feet is 30 feet regardless of the terrain or how much movement that costs. "Move your speed" would presumably mean going as far as you can with the movement you have in the prevailing circumstances, but asking for a ruling based on a hypothetical DM ruling is a bit pointless. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 8 '21 at 1:19
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Features tell you if they require dashing.

Compare to the fear spell:

While frightened by this spell, a creature must take the Dash action and move away from you by the safest available route on each of its turns.

When a feature requires you to use your action to dash away from the source of fear, it will tell you.

If your speed is less than 25 feet, you might not have to move at all.

If your speed is 25 feet (and we assume the above ruling) you are not able to move 30 feet, then a strict reading of the ability means you don’t have to move at all. But, I would rule you still have to use all your movement to move away from the source of fear.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I am not sure fear and symbol can be compared in this way, just because fear forces the dash action doesn't mean it isn't optional for other spells when needed. With fear you would just run away further, it's is scarier. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 7 '21 at 10:59
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The wording of the spell prevents loopholes

Assume the wording of the spell said

You must use all of your movement to move away from the symbol on each turn

A clever player could then drop prone, and then crawl half as far as otherwise.

Or,

You must move your base speed away from the symbol on each turn

In that case, what about those whose movement is slowed by heavy armor? They are now the ones forced to dash. What about the dwarf in my campaign how has Boots of Striding and Springing? They will just have to move 25 feet, even though they could move 30 feet.

My point is that the wording of the rule may seem poor, but it actually prevents abuse by players and avoids unclear instructions in special situations. It says move 30 feet, so you move 30 feet.

It's harder for gnomes and halflings to fail this save

Gnome:

Gnome Cunning: You have advantage on all Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma Saving Throws against magic.

Halfling:

Brave: You have advantage on Saving Throws against being Frightened.

Each has advantage to avoid the effects of this. If they fail, too bad for them. They have to struggle to keep up with the rest of the group, because the terror from the symbol is just as strong.

Dwarves, however, have no such ability (although lore-wise, most settings seem like they should have advantage against fear, but I digress.) So, I can see a valid complaint from dwarves.

So, a couple of the races with a 25 foot or less base movement speed already have means to help them resist the effect.

Powerful spells are powerful

Beyond that, Symbol is a very powerful spell, being 7th level. Looking at the effects of the other options the caster could use, it doesn't seem unreasonable at all to have this hard 30 feet movement, and so require some characters to have to Dash.

After all, if your hands are empty, you are already pretty much limited to screaming in terror and casting spells with only a verbal component. With not being able to keep anything in your hands, you aren't going to be able to do much with your action anyway. (Unless you want to litter the floor with all your equipment as you draw it use it once, before dropping it next turn.)

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