Forbidden Lands – The Gamemaster

This has to be one of the best opening chapters to a GMs book (or nowadays, GMs section) that I have ever read. Let me tell you what I particularly like. First of all the authors take a leaf out of Powered by the Apocalypse games and set out the Principles of the Game, from the second page of the chapter. These principles are maybe not as tight as many PbtA games, maybe a little wordier, but they do try and define what makes this game different, and how the GM should make it feel different. For example the first principle is: “1. THE WORLD LIES BEFORE YOU” and the text beneath it says (among other things):

Place the large map in the middle of the table and allow the players to ponder and discuss where they want to go. Don’t steer them; instead, answer questions and inspire them.

In fact, I can’t do any harm, and I won’t spoil the game if I just share the other six principles, with some of the text that inspires me, and that should inspire you to want to play this game.

2. THE LAND IS FULL OF LEGENDS … Every monster, every artifact, every adventure site and every character of importance in campaign modules like Raven’s Purge have their own legend. All of these are available to download as player material that you can present to the players when they get to hear or read the legends in their travels…

3. THE ADVENTURERS MAKE THEIR OWN FATE … As GM this means that you have to listen to the players and build on the story of the game based on their choices and actions…

4. NOTHING IS FOR FREE … Life is hard in the Forbidden Lands. The adventurers will have to struggle for the bare necessities like food, water and a roof over their heads. Hold back on the treasures and rewards…

5. THEM THAT’S GOT SHALL LOSE

6. DEATH IS PART OF THE STORY …The rules are written so that it’s relatively easy to become Broken, but rather difficult for a player character to die… Yet, sooner or later, player characters will still die. Allow it to happen – the players need to be reminded now and then that their adventurers aren’t immortal…

7. THE END IS NEVER SET … Never decide how the story should end ahead of time.

Then, there is some really good advice for GMs particularly so because it stresses the difference between the first session and subsequent ones. The advice eases the GM into the role gently, saying things like “Don’t plan too much. Don’t devise a grand intrigue for the first session. It will emerge later. Keep an open mind.” I love this bit in particular:

Let it be tentative. During the first session, the players feel out their characters. Let it take its time. Listen more than you talk. Use random encounters to advance the story, but don’t rush. Ask questions. Make notes. See the first session as a prologue, before the real story begins.

Don’t rush, they say, you might not even get to the adventure site you chose for their first encounter. They might only have played through the random encounter they suggest your prepare “if you want.” Which is exactly how every session one should be played, no matter how extensive the session zero prep work has been. There is really good advice for handling consumables later in the chapter, that makes it clear that in this game, PCs should find mere survival a challenge. Perhaps the first session is an opportunity to this those mechanics a real test. But later on, “when the focus lies elsewhere” you should allow the characters to get hold of Food more easily.

Subsequent sessions should be built on the events on the previous one, of course. If they are still heading for the adventure site you chose previously, great. If not, give them access to another couple of Legends, so they they have a choice about what to seek out next. But most importantly:

Avoid preparing too much – the risk is that your plans may become difficult to adapt to the players’ actions. 15–30 minutes of preparation is plenty most of the time.

There is great advice on handling NPCs too, including a reminder that your players will break, but likely not kill some of their enemies, and that these survivors should return in a later context. My favourite bit of advice is not to let your player characters get to an important enemy to easily. Because we all know that if it is an important NPC, they will kill it. They suggest that , otherwise the game is quite a balanced, that you don’t need to work about an antagonist’s “challenge rating” or anything. If they players are winning conflicts too easily spend a little will power on your NPC. If they are finding the conflict too difficult, don’t spend the willpower.

Finally, the chapter finishes of with the stronghold events table. To be honest, this feels a little misplaced in this very first chapter, considering that it will take a while for the players to acquire a stronghold. But perhaps there was no-where else it could go.

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