From today, Forbidden Lands can be ordered from Fria Ligan, Modiphius or DriveThru . I was a Kickstarter backer and so have had early drafts, completed PDF’s and now the physical product for a little while, so I think it is worth publishing a review for those considering purchasing it. This is based upon experience of playing, reflection and, having the books in my hand.
Lets cut to the chase. This is what you really want to know. But if you want a little more detail, on how I came to these conclusions, there’s more below.
You might imagine that, as a Kickstarter Backer, and one half of the Coriolis Effect podcast, I may be predisposed to liking this game. And I am. But my expectations were high, and I have not been disappointed. Yes, obviously I would recommend this game. We played a one-off scenario, and my players wanted more. One of the starts running his own campaign on Monday.
Specifically I would recommend it for two audiences. For many around my age, the team at Free League have created the game were wishing for back when we were twelve. All the possibilities that the games of the early eighties offered us, are here finally realized. Intuitive mechanics make combat gritty and heroic, magic thrilling and even resource management entertaining and fun. For people starting out in the hobby, this is an excellent value box, that gives you everything you need (apart from dice and a pencil) to build your very own world of adventure.
Who is it not for? Well, I know somebody who hates dice pool systems, and prefers a d20. It’s not for him I guess. But even if you are wary of dice pools, let me reassure you that this one is simple, fast and fun.
The physical product
This is a boxed game, a conceit that reflects its origins. In Sweden many games RPGs are still boxed, in the way that early Dungeons and Dragons, Runequest and Traveller were. The publishers, Free league (or Fria Ligan), set out to create a modern take on the classic games that some of us remember from the early eighties. So by boxing this game, they are not just conforming to the Swedish market, but also asking the rest of the world to remember the good old days. Open the box however, and the old hands may be somewhat surprised the the quality.
In the eighties, the boxes would contain a few (maybe as few as two) stapled, softcover and slim books, plus quite a lot of air. (To be fair my D&D box also contained my first set of polyhedrals). In contrast this box is full, and heavy. Most of the weight consists of two hardback, faux-leatherbound volumes, with a tasteful dark-ages design in gold on the front. and nothing but the Free League logo (also in gold) on the back. The Player’s Handbook is burgundy red and 208 pages. The Gamemaster’s Guide has 264 pages bound in Green. each of these books also has a black ribbon bookmarker.
There is a lot of wish fulfillment in these books. Forfilling the wishes of a very niche part of the market. The staples on those early games rusted, staining the pages, and those thin softcovers were not really up to being referenced back and forth again and again by players and gamesmasters alike. I am sure that many of us who enjoyed those very first RPGs sometimes wished for a rulebook that better reflected the fantasy world we were playing in. Indeed I am sure a few people collected together their rulebooks and a few supplements and and had them bound together to make them look like the sort of tome that graced a gentleman’s library. If you didn’t have the money or the initiative to get them bound though, these are the RPG books you have been waiting for for almost four decades.
But that’s not all. If you want a book that more closely resembles the thin, stapled, softcover game books of yore, Free League has you covered. Under the hardbound volumes you will find Legends and Adventures a booklet with an alternative character generation system, and monster and legend generators. And there is even more – a folded, full colour map and a sheet of stickers. The map is double sided (though sadly with the same map on both sides) and the stickers are transparent hexes so that you can place them on the map as your party explores the Forbidden lands, and make the map your own.
This last component is the most disappointing production-wise. The printing on the stickers is a little muddy, and thus the icons and labels on them are hard to see. Also, the implication of the doublesided map is that you could run the campaign twice with two different groups, but there are not enough stickers to use both sides.
Opening the two main volumes, you’ll find a version of the map on the endsheets at the front and back. These are black and white, clear and beautiful and they almost make you wish that the the main map was black and white too. Which brings me to the illustrations. In creating their modern but retro game, Free League were inspired by the black and white drawings of Nils Gulliksson, who illustrated the first Swedish language RPG, a Runequest clone called Drakar och Demoner. Indeed most of the illustations are classics from the early days of Swedish gaming, complimented with newly commissioned pieces from the same artist. These have a certain beauty which younger gamers might find difficult to fully comprehend, especially when compared with the exquisite full-colour work of Martin Grip in Free League’s other fantasy game, Symbaroum.* There is certainly a degree of nostalgia in their appeal.
Playing the game
The heart of the system will be familiar with players of Mutant: Year Zero; Coriolis; and Tales from the Loop. Of the three, its closest to MY0. Which is entirely appropriate because it is a game of survival, in a fantasy world that has had its own apocalypse of sorts. Like that game, it is best played with enough dice of three different colours. There is a custom set available (more on that in another post) but MY0 veterans can play with those, and lets face it d6 are not something most gamers are short of. Most rolls are made by pooling a number of “base” d6 for your attribute, with a number for your skill and maybe one or two for your gear, and rolling. All you need to succeed is one six (which is marked with crossed swords on the custom dice) to succeed, but more successes improve the effect of your action – more damage in a fight, for example. If you fail, or if you want more successes, you can “push” the dice, rolling again. But the cost of this can be harsh – you can not re-roll any base dice or gear dice which came up one. And these, plus any more ones you roll on your base or gear dice, will do you, or your gear, damage.
This version of the dice pool might seem complicated at first, to those who have come from Coriolis or Tales from the Loop, but you soon get the hang of it, and it creates a wonderfully nuanced and narrative flow to the game.
Unlike MY0 or its sister games, Forbidden Lands also uses d8, d10, and d12, mostly for magical artefacts, but I particularly like the Pride mechanic, which enables a player to name one thing they are very good at. Once per game session, when a player has failed a vital role even after pushing their dice, if they can explain how their pride applies, they get to roll the d12. This has a greater than 50% chance of turning your failure into success, and not just one, but up to four success, which could mean a critical effect. The catch is, if you roll 1-5, your pride was obviously a false one. You strike it from your character sheet and must play a whole session before you can pick something to replace it.
Its a tough combat system, your strength attribute is your “hit points”, and only the most exceptional character will ever have as many as six. Given even a glancing blow from a heavy axe can deal three, your players will find combat short, gritty, exciting, and something to be avoided. A quarter day’s rest will restore all your attributes, but if you are broken in combat, you also take a critical hit, for the possibility of permanent damage, a slow death or, if you are lucky, a quick one. My advice to players is hit first, hit hard, wear armour, and take up archery.
Character generation is speedy and fun, especially if you use the random system found in the Legends and Adventurers booklet. If you do though, note that unfortunately a number of talents are named in that booklet that don’t appear in the Players Handbook. In Horseback Archer becomes Horseback Fighter, and we had to replace Scrounger with Quartermaster. I guess the talents named were in an earlier draft. If random generation isn’t your thing, then there is a simple point-buy alternative. One feature I particularly like is that you can start out, young, adult, or old (unless you are an elf – elves are ageless). As you get older you loose attribute points but gain skills and talents. Talents I should say, are specialisms and abilities that turn your relatively broad skill set into a very individual character.
I am generally not a fan of magic systems based on lists of pre-defined spells, but that said recognize the difficulties of creating more freeform RPG magic systems, especially in regards to spotlight balance in games where not everyone is a magic user. This is spell list based but flexible in the casting. Players should learn quickly though that magic is risky – a couple of unlucky rolls can see you cast into a terrible hell with no hope of return – as a PC at least. The risk can be mitigated with preparation though, taking time to write your spells down and gather ingredients.
Which brings me onto a key philosophy in the game. This system makes resource management easy and fun to play. By breaking activities down in quarter days, by using simple mechanics like resource dice for ammunition, food and water, and a carrying capacity defined by lines in your gear list the system neatly abstracts and gamifies the more simulationist tendencies of (what we used to call) wilderness campaigns. We’ve played a couple of adventures so far and my players have enjoyed the scavenging for roots to supplement their food supplies. The resource management has not got in the way or story, indeed its has informed the narrative.
There is one resource that you can only get through failure. When you push your dice and take damage (or wear for your gear) on ones, you also earn willpower points. Willpower powers magic spells and a good number of talents. There has been some debate about this mechanic. Some people are unhappy that only physical strain earns you the power to do spells (players start with no willpower and can only store up to ten points), or they can’t see a connection between taking damage and gaining resolve. It may not lend itself to immersion, but I like the way it builds the narrative beats – your triumphs are all the sweeter after failure, after all.
Part of me wishes the setting was a humanocentric one, like Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones or The First Law books, but this is a retro game, and so of course there are not just humans, but Elves, Half-Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Orcs, Goblins and (less obviously retro, except perhaps to Traveller players) Wolfkin. Swedish genre author Erik Granstrom manages to give us all the nostalgic fantasy tropes our heart desires but put a subtle spin of novelty on them which makes this world strange and beautiful. Part of the strangeness is due to this world being described mostly in myth and legend, with some of the stories contradicting each other and very little (but just enough) explaining the “true” ecology. The elves in this game have a marvelous yet non-game-break-y immortality that makes them seem truly alien. Halflings and goblins have a link that is both novel and yet a reflection of the Frodo/Gollum relationship, and Dwarves build the world as much as mine it. Humans in this world are the invaders, and orcs the (by no means hapless) victims. There is just enough cliche to recognise and plenty of novelty to explore and excite the imagination.
One of the best assets of the GM’s Guide (and the Legends and Adventurers booklet) is the help it offers in world building. There are three sample “adventure sites”, none of which offer an “on the rails” story, but NPCs, motivations, and opportunities that allow your party to truely create their own adventure. On top of these sites however there are random generation tables that enable any GM, even the greenest, to confidently prepare an adventure in advance. A quick thinking GM could even create an adventure on the fly, while it is being played.
As I was ready the GM’s guide indeed, I was thinking this might well be a perfect gift for a young and aspiring potential GM. It could be an ideal first RPG even. All you really need (apart from dice) for a world of adventure is contained in just one box.
If you want even more detail, check out my previous read-though of the PDFs.
* Free League and Jarnringen have merged.