Forbidden Lands is a retro open-world survival fantasy roleplaying game written by Free League Games; its core comes from their Zero Engine. I have not done much retro gaming, and what little I have done I honestly don’t remember because I was around 8 or 9 years old. Reading this game was an opportunity for me. Like many RPGs in this space, Forbidden Lands released in two books: a player character-facing (or PC-facing) book, and a GM-facing book.
Expectation management is one of the most important things game writers can do for their players. In Forbidden Lands, the PC-facing book instructs the player not to read the GM-facing book, stating that it would “rob” you of an experience if you did so.
This seemed a unique opportunity to discuss what expectations the PC-facing materials telegraph to me as I read through it to prepare for an upcoming series scheduled to be run on Gauntlet Hangouts by Lowell Francis.
First of all, I really like that, unlike many modern fantasy RPGs, Forbidden Lands seems to signal it is not about killing monsters and looting treasure. Instead, the game describes the PC raiders and rouges as “not heroes sent on missions dictated by others.” Forbidden Lands seems to be more about PCs raiding tombs, make their mark on a cursed world, exploring and, if they live long enough, building up a stronghold. I think this is great; it removes the overused “murderhobo” trope. However, I was disappointed to note that PCs are called adventurers for the remainder of the text. As this is a translated game, I am hoping it is nothing more than a translation issue as “adventurers” are something like “raiders”. “Adventurer” doesn’t have the negative connotations “raider” for many native English speakers who play RPGs, at least in my opinion.
In play the PCs, call them adventurers or raiders, navigate a hexagonal map encountering monsters and obstacles. Within some of the hexes are specific locations called Adventure Sites that PCs interact with. There are a few types of Adventure Sites and the GM chooses which one PCs experience as play progresses. If the PCs can, they develop a stronghold. But the real selling point for me is this notion that my character doesn’t know much more about the world than I do. In fiction, something called the Blood Mist has prevented exploration. The Blood Mist only recently receded enough so that people can go out and discover this new world.
I am personally concerned branching out into the previously unexplored areas could become colonial in a bad way, but the mechanics do seem to give the PCs some control so they do not have to perceive the colonialism as a good thing. The PCs can speak lore and tell a story about the world, adding to the fiction. For example, a PC may recall a legend and can talk about it. But it is not just open narration left to the PCs imagination. Instead, Legends are GM handouts that are discoverable. I think that this, a sort of scaffolding framework for legends, is a good idea for PCs, especially those who don’t want to make up the whole thing but would prefer to contribute to it.
The story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion as the players choose to explore the aforementioned legends. A grander scheme in which PCs hunt for artifacts that have elven gemstones unfolds in the background of the game as well. If the GM uses the Raven’s Purge campaign frame, PCs can amass these things and change the fate of the land.
I like the idea of nonlinear story exploration; however I am skeptical as the implementation of it in previous Free League Games (such as in the new Coriolis campaign book Emissary Lost) leaves something to be desired. The problem I have seen develop is that many scenes only make sense when they were experienced in sequential order. Without reading the GM-facing material, players are just left hoping for the best. I personally don’t mind experiencing someone else’s story (especially if it is a good one) but I prefer there be space for me to contribute to the world and story at least in limited ways.
Character Creation in Forbidden Lands
PCs choice of Kin is between Elf, Half-Elf, Human, Dwarf, Halfling, Wolfkin, Goblin, and Orc. Each of these peoples are pointed at each other with some brief history text. There’s a lot of lore to explore in the text, but my takeaway was that humans are described as the ancestral invaders of these lands; elves were betrayed by humans and were attacked, “with demons in tow”; half-elves are described as the “crown of creation,” and “the best of both kin”; PCs who choose halfling can’t stand their own duplicitous family so they opted adventurer; Orcs were enslaved by elves and dwarves; and finally, goblins, ostensibly, are the dark brothers of the halflings and are sort of wild and free, doing whatever pleases them.
While some of this stuff subverts tropes associated with these peoples in Western fantasy, it’s something that would be more interesting to engage with if each Kin didn’t come with a Key Attribute and Kin Talent associated with it. Reducing the populations of these peoples into these two key things feels weird to me. Every halfling has the Hard to Grab Kin Talent and their Key Attribute is Empathy. Every Elf has Inner Peace and Agility. This all seems like much more like the Western fantasy trope. It begs the question: Why bother with historical flavor text that kind-of sort-of subverts it? How pertinent is this history? I am concerned it means PCs may not be interacting with other Kin based on the history.
Professions seem in line with what I expected, with one exception; the Peddler seems quite novel. The full list of choices for PCs is Druid, Fighter, Hunter, Minstrel, Peddler, Rider, Rogue, or Sorcerer. Professions give another Key Attribute to PCs and it gives PCs access to a list of other benefits. One example of this is Pride which a PC can use in the game to augment a roll with an additional d12. If a PC uses it and the roll fails though, the PC may have to go a whole game session without using Pride again and choose another to redefine Pride, among other consequences.
There are many Talents and Skills, most of which are dedicated to fighting in some way or another. A couple aren’t and that’s nice to see, but unfortunately the non-combat Talents and Skills don’t appear too enticing. For instance, Fisher, which helps during a Survival role when you Fish only gives a +1 at the first step of the Talent. The crafting ones are more interesting, but unfortunately look like they will be difficult to succeed with. One last word on Talents and Skills: PCs learn magic by word of mouth in this game and have to have a teacher, the PC must also have a Talent for one of the four types of magic.
PCs choose a Dark Secret, assign relationship statements to other player characters which serve much like Bonds do in Dungeon World, linking characters together in a backstory.
The core stats are Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy. Strength affects PCs stamina and physical strength, as well as how much gear they can carry. Agility affects PCs speed, motor skills, and body control. More interestingly, Wits affects PCs sensory perception, intelligence, and sanity (apparently, we are going to be seeing some shit in this game). Finally, Empathy affects PCs empathy (gasp), charisma, and ability to manipulate others.
A quick side note here. I love that in this game if a PC wants to kill someone who is defenseless that PC must make an Empathy check and fail. If it’s really important to the PC that this does not matter to your character there are Talents which bypass this restriction, but the default state of a character, even an “adventurer,” is that it is hard to commit murder against the defenseless. I truly like the line this draws in the sand for PCs and the implications this rule has for the tone of the game. Slam dunk Free League Games.
Next PCs decide on an Age for their character, which has a surprising impact. Age actually informs how many points PCs can distribute to Attributes. PCs choose between Young, an Adult, or Old. The more youthful, the more Attribute points the PC has to spend. I guess more youth means more potential? On the flip side, the older the PC, the more Skill points and Talents. Do you want to have more Attributes or more Skills and Talents? That’s the trade off between being younger or older, mechanically.
There is bunch of Gear PCs can get which must also be selected at character creation. There are the usual suspects like consumable food, water, torch oil, etc., all tracked with one die. It increases and decreases with use of any of these things. The reason I bring this up is because when one PC shares their stuff, the sharing PC die goes down and the borrowing PC die goes up. I love this idea.
Finally, there is reputation, which could precede you. PCs roll d6s equal to their score and if you get a hit someone has heard of you and your deeds, negatively or positively as decided by the GM. The highest reputation in a group is rolled when PCs travel.
The Reward System: What are the Players Incentivized to do?
What a game is about is, in my opinion, largely defined by the reward system. In Forbidden Lands, experience is the currency of choice. At the end of each session PCs get XP when they: participate in a game session; travel through at least one hex on the game map that they hadn’t visited before; discover a new adventure site; defeat one or more monsters; find a treasure (worth 1 gold or more); build a function in their stronghold; activate their Pride; suffer due to their Dark Secret; risk their life for another PC; or perform an extraordinary action of some kind. PCs spend XP to increase a Skill, move a Talent up a rank, or learn a new one (including magical Talents). In short, PCs are rewarded for showing up and interacting with pretty much everything on their character sheet. I think this is fine but doesn’t unfortunately it does not goal post the fiction as much as I’d like because it’s very broad. What I do like is that it incentivizes use of your Pride and Dark secret. Both of these aspects being regularly utilized could be used to inject some backstory and control over the fiction, even if it turns out a failed roll hurts their own character.
Reputation may also grow; examples in the book include: a predominate NPC is killed or saved from death; a feared monster was slain; a legendary treasure or artifact was found or stolen; a deed will have significant consequences for one of the major powers in the Forbidden Lands; or the PCs build a certain function in your stronghold. The GM decides if your reputation goes up due to these deeds, but a settlement is more likely to hear about it if you are the same Kin as that settlement, so presumably It’s harder for the settlement to notice or care about a PC if they don’t look like you. This seems like a weird mechanic, as presumably everything is spread by word of mouth. People don’t talk about these epic deeds much unless they look like you? I am curious if the cultural ramifications are explored in the campaign.
Rolling the Dice
PCs make a roll when it’s absolutely necessary, forcing a dramatic moment where the PC faces tough challenges. PCs total up their Attribute, Skill, and Gear dice together in a pool, roll, and look for 6s and 1s. Any 6 and the PC succeeds. Extra 6s are spent for more positive effects. If no 6 is rolled, the PC can push their luck rerolling any dice that aren’t 1s and 6s. The risk is that 1s decrease your Attributes, temporarily, and can break your Gear. To remedy broken gear, a Crafting roll is required. Beware though, a failed Crafting roll and the gear is broken forever. Note however that Artifacts are the only Gear not affected by this. In fact, Artifacts have their own larger die to roll, rather than the regular D6. Additionally, if the PC get 1s and an Attribute is reduced to 0, the PC suffers what’s called a Break. Each Attribute breaking does something specific to the PC, often with dire consequences. For instance if a PC’s Strength breaks, the PC dies.
It’s important to note that PCs will likely need to push their rolls frequently to have a decent shot at success. Statistically, for a PC to have close to a 50/50 shot on their roll they need to have a die pool of at least two or more and push the roll. To not push the roll and have the a similar chance, the PC needs to roll four dice. Now, granted, Attributes always have at least two dice.
Interestingly, the GM can modify a PC’s dice roll with a difficulty modifier depending on the task, granting between -3 and +3. Help from other players also give you an increased modifier. If PCs help in combat it will use up their action, but gives a +1 for each PC who gives up their action, to a maximum of +3. Clearly teamwork matters in this system; I like that. I do wish it was an extra die added to the pool rather than a modifier.
Forbidden Lands has Initiative: and I like it!
Initiative is neat. Everyone draws from ten cards, 1-10, lowest numbers going first.But here is the neat part: if the PC makes a surprising action, then the GM may tell them to draw more than one initiative card and keep whichever they prefer. On top of that, Players can spend their turn to swap initiative with whomever or whatever they’re fighting. Even though it costs the turn, it may well be worth it because it is a guaranteed outcome: the PC gets the initiative they traded for. In combat, everyone is encouraged to embellish descriptions of actions; there are slow and fast actions and even an optional, more granular combat with cards sold by Free League Games (which appears to be influenced by Mouse Guard).
There are social conflicts with a custom procedure for negotiating position, reminiscent of Burning Wheel. Everything is rolled with Manipulation and the PCs modifier has mechanical factors, such as if the PC has people on their side or if the PC has helped the opponent previously. There’s a list of positive and negative ones. I like this. It’s better than just roll the one relevant skill and try to hit a target number.
Forbidden Lands has a fair number of rules dedicated to survival as well. Mechanical things happen when a PC is hungry, sleepy, cold, and thirsty. PCs can get frightened when they run into horrifying beasts. There are rules for darkness, falling, drowning, poisoning, disease, medical aid, riding animals, and, of course, the four kinds of magic.
A substantial chapter is set aside for a Journey (including ten types of terrain). What I like from these rules is choosing what your character will do that day from a pick list. Hike, lead the way, keep watch, forage, hunt, fish, make camp, rest, sleep, or explore. Each comes with a specific procedure and interacts with other choices people may select. While granular, it sets my expectations for what exploration looks like and why it’s important to me. The answer is if I don’t care, I will probably die. It’s as important as combat. The abstracted hex map doesn’t do much for me but this is more interesting. There are random tables for mishaps along the way for each activity. I like that a sizeable portion of the book is reserved for what it says its about: the journey.
Lastly, the rules regarding the Stronghold are detailed. PCs can build a lot of stuff. Libraries, bakeries, and I mean a LOT of other stuff. This appeals to the Sim City addict in me. Most games that are mostly about combat don’t typically have a meta aspect like this where the players get to make a town. There are rules for managing and protecting the Stronghold and sieges when it’s threatened.
Final Thoughts and Expectations
The art throughout game texts is usually indicative of the tone and what everyone should expect to be doing. The layout in the PC-facing text is great; there’s a lot less “see page XX” than other core books in Free League Games’ line, leading me to think that splitting this book into a PC-facing book and GM-facing book was a good choice. Additionally, I think it’s worth saying that they’ve ordered the sections in a way that makes sense and is easily found with the index and table of contents.
I think the PC rules as written is going to lead to a predictable gameplay loop that will be broken up by upgrading and interacting with the Stronghold. I expect a pretty granular experience that doesn’t make much mechanical room for freeplay roleplaying. To be fair, I am less interested in what the game is about and more interested character moments; they’re my favorite part of playing and it’d be nice to see that play more incentivized.
If pages dedicated to mechanics are any indication, then I expect PCs to be fighting most of the time. If PCs are not fighting, they are likely travelling, all the while Gear is in peril of breaking and the PCs are subjected to the dangerous forces of nature and difficult terrain. But, when PCs aren’t fighting or traveling, They may just be building something with the treasure, Sim City style. These all seem like great design choices considering the intended audience.
After I play in the series I’ll write about my experience; the “reality” side of these expectations.