The Redrunners

Who are the Red Riders? Elves of course, I knew that. And I remembered, from my initial read through of the books, something about them protecting the ruby red crystals that were elf souls, denuded of flesh. But that’s all. So when our party were attacked by a corrupted, undead elf, and recovered her blackened crystal heart. I thought I should pull together everything I knew about the elf faction that might make an appearance, should my party try to take the crystal to the still mist, trade it, or do something with it that I hadn’t yet imaged.

Eschewing the books, I turned instead to the PDFs, where I could search for words, and find every mention of it listed. And my first problem was that they were not mentioned at all. Not mentioned in the Gamemasters’ Guide, not mentioned in the Players’ Handbook. I was puzzled, where has I read about them? I turned to the Ravens Purge campaign book. Not there either? It took me a little while to realise that I was searching for Red Riders, not Redrunners. I gave myself a mental slap for stupidity and started my search again.

The Redrunners were founded by the elf Gemalda in an effort to reclaim the heart of her sister, who had been eaten by the Giant, Scrome.* So their founding purpose was indeed to recover the crystal hearts of fallen elves. They are named for the star that (legend has it) rained Elven hearts upon the world. Ashamed at humanity’s invasion of the Ravenlands, and angry at the Orc’s failure to obediently defend their realm, they have chosen not to retreat with their brethren into hidden Elven enclaves, but to roam the Forbidden Lands, defending life from Demons and Rust Brothers. I am sure they see themselves as heroes, but to the rest of the world they seem arrogant and condescending. Indeed, they despise the other kin, even when they see them as allies. They must, occasionally be able to befriend people of other kin though, as they maintain a network of spies. That said, as that network is said to consist of animals as well as other kin, perhaps in the eyes of the Redrunners, everyone else is an animal that can be easily trained…

The Redrunners maintain their intelligence gathering operation on behalf of the wider elf community, such as the Druidic order of the Golden Bough, and they are sometimes seen as the Druids’ boot-boys, tasked with demonstrating Elven strength when some-else has something that the Golden Bough druids want.

Kalman Rodenfell is a leader of the Redrunners, but I am not sure he is THE leader. An old elf, “his stone heavy with age, his feet rooted like trees in the blood of his enemies”, he spends most of his time in the Stillmist, but he is not adverse to wandering the Forbidden Lands if the need (or opportunity) is great enough. Adventures are more likely to meet his lieutenant, Ulmaya or her lover Alsuro. These centuries old elves, her skin like polished wood, and his hair like silver, are very different from each other. Alsuro is vicious, racist and warlike, but his lover, and commanding officer Ulmayer, while being a dutiful soldier, prefers to find more peaceful ways to complete her missions. Another Redrunner is Malina Redwing who has adapted her flesh to be able to fly a little, but who, like Alsuro, despises anyone who isn’t an elf, even Elvenspring.

And that’s about as much as anybody knows about the Redrunners. Which is a little disappointing. One of the things I loved about Coriolis was the deep and inspiring, and often contradictory history of the factions. Every paragraph, it seemed, could be a springboard for adventure. In contrast, the Redrunners are somewhat one-dimensional – haughty, militaristic elves. But Forbidden Lands is a young game, and the world and it’s Lore is young too. The intricate detail of the Third Horizon was created not just by its authors, but also its fans, some of whom became Fria Ligan. It’s up to us fans to add nuance to this fantasy.

And so, let me add a little here. Remember those Red Riders I was looking for? The ones that don’t exist? Well, they do now. Gemalda’s most trusted lieutenant, on that first fateful mission, was a young Elf called Lilya Redfox. Lilya came to lead the Cavalry division of the the Redrunners, which fought alongside the swordsmen and archers, mounted on fast, aggressive red deer stags. Eventually she was entrusted with Gemalda’s Entwood Flute. This long but simple, rustic flute was the war-horn of the Redrunners. Silent to any other kin, it could be heard by Elves wherever in the world they are. To most elves, it sounds like sweet musics. But to the Redrunners, the tune is a code, which can call all the Redrunners together to form an army, and in battle can direct that army’s manouvers.

However, Lilya fell out with the other Redrunners. Their oath to defend life in the Forbidden Lands, meant all life, she insisted. Even the orcs and invading humans. “We do not despise the Fox for eating the rabbit,” she said “so who are we to judge when humankind seek to farm the Ravenlands?” Eventually she could tolerate the Redrunners’ arrogant racism no longer, and left, taking with her her loyal cavalry and the EFG (Entwood Flute of Gemelda). Considered a traitor by the Redrunners, it is said that she and her warband still roam the Forbidden Lands. There are stories of the Red deer riders interceding in disputes, and defending villages from Demons, but otherwise they keep themselves to themselves. Some whisper that Lilya might maintain contact with Mergolene, but the Elven Druid denies it.

Lilya Redfox

STRENGTH 4, AGILITY 5, WITS 4, EMPATHY 5

SKILLS: Endurance 3, Melee 4, Stealth 4, Move 3, Marksmanship 5, Insight 3, Survival 2, Crafting 3

TALENTS: Inner Peace, Horseback Fighter 3, Path of The Companion 3, Bowyer 2, Fast Shooter 3

GEAR: Shortbow, broadsword, dagger, leather armor

Rådur, Lilya’s WarDeer

STRENGTH 4, AGILITY 4

SKILLS: Move 4, Scout 4, Melee 3

Antlers Damage 1, Bludgeon or Stab

Movement rate 2

*Scrome the giant is very long lived. He was guardian of the Shadowgate pass, when Zygofer had a run-in with him, during the Third Alder war of 833-845, and now guards the Vale of the Dead.

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Random adventure site creation in Forbidden Lands

Some GMs may be wary of random encounter tables, worried that they will throw up something that makes no sense within the developing story. I hope this shared experience will convince you to try creating story entirely at random. It’s what I did last November. Which was an emergency situation: I had not been planning to run Forbidden Lands for a while, but after our one-off (which we released last year as the Ravenland Tales Actual Play) the party wanted to continue, and more than that they wanted me to run an extra game at our gaming retreat.

At first I thought that I could simply use a Ravens Purge adventure, but the party had already decided to head to the ruins of Wailers Hold, and I did’t think any of the published adventures really fitted that place. Of course my first error had been that I had not fed the party any legends which maybe would have tempted them to one of the published adventures. Now they were headed to somewhere I hadn’t planned, so I needed to work out what they would find.

Still feeling the chagrin of not givin them a legend or two, I started with the legends generator, to see what it might say about Wailers Hold. So I turned to page 26 and started rolling dice

“A long time ago, (roll … 32) during the Alder Wars, there was a (roll …44) beautiful (roll … 21) Druid (I immediately decided it was a Elven Druid) who sought (roll … 33) an enemy (hmmmm who I wonder) because of (roll … 24) a promise (made to a dwarf I thought, given that once Wailers Hold was a Dwarven city) and travelled to (I chose all of the following as I knew where they were going, and where they had got to, last time they played): a hill a days march away in the ruins north east ,

And the legend goes she (roll … 24 again) was never seen again, and that there is (roll 65!) an Elven ruby (which is cool because my Druid is an elf … this all fits!), but also (roll … 24 AGAIN!) cruel (roll… 66… ooh, roll again, just one dice … 3…oh just one) a cruel Demon. Aha! The enemy my elven Druid was searching for.

So a demon is my big bad. I went straight to the Demons section of the Gamemasters’ Guide to create one. But I am NOT going to tell you about that, as my players have not yet met him, and they, especially my co-host Dave, might read this.

Instead, let’s move to the village. I had decided, given the size of the ruins on the map, to make two adventure sites, I rolled the d6 twice and discovered that a there would be a village among the ruins, and a dungeon. I must admit I had hoped for a castle, but rather than ignore the rolls (which I could have done), I decided to run with it and see what developed.

I started by rolling a d6 to see what type (how large) the settlement is. A six – the village in the ruins of Wailers Hold is large. It was populated (d66, a 43) during the bloodmist. It’s is worth noting here that “during the bloodmist” is the most common result in this table, which gives me an insight into how the authors envision the world – very few of the settlements that existed before the bloodmist survived the demon invasion.

The ruler of the village is a (roll… 54) stern (roll… 43) oh, there is no ruler. It must be the people of the village who are stern.

The village problem is (roll… double one) Nightwargs… aha, probably because of that Demon the legend refers to. It’s famous for (roll … 56) worshiping demons. Aha, the villagers worship that demon in the legend! No wonder the Nightwargs prowl around. The village oddity is (roll … 14) an incomprehensible accent … hmmm, they must get that from communing with the demon. Now, I note here there is nothing to help you choose the kin. The assumption must be that villages are human, I guess, but or maybe I should refer to the map on page 46. Anyhow, I selected Alderlanders.

The village generator includes between zero and eleven “institutions”, larger villages get 1d6+5, which, for me, was Eight. They included two taverns, one inn (they drink a lot here), a mill, stables, smith, trading post (aha, I thought, this is one that buys and trades in stuff people manage to find in the ruins), and a militia. Quite how the milita is organised, given no system of civic government, I am not sure. I imagine them as a sort of “neighbourhood warg watch”.

Now here, I think I made a mistake. You can get some colourful detail for your Inn, but I used the same tables for the taverns too. The first had Barrels instead of chairs, planks instead of tables (15) served stewed turnips (24) and was frequented by old war veteran (37 – but I curious about this, surely the blood mist prevented most Wars for the last 300 years.) it was called (roll … 32)The Happy (roll … 35)Dog.

The second, The Old (16) Boar (32) Tavern was almost exactly the same, but instead of the … modest… furniture, it had a (roll …47) grumpy owner.

The place our adventurers actually went to, though, was the inn. Having had two places that randomly served stewed parsnips, I just assumed that the village grew only parsnips, so the inn served that too. I did roll (18) for its special guest and that turned out to be a “Scarred Treasure Hunter”. I had a name for him already, Wynchcliffe (no idea where that came from), and thought he would be the person who offered the location of the dungeon to the party (in return for a cut of what they found), having been scarred by whatever defended it. The inn’s oddity (63) was a birthday party, which I didn’t actually use when we played. The journey to Wailers Hold had taken enough play time, and I thought I would reserve it for the next session. The inn’s name was good though – 65 and 41, the Boisterous Girl.

Next, the dungeon. It is (roll … 4) an average dungeon with (roll … 9) ‘rooms’. It’s a (roll …61) tomb, built by Dwarves (I didn’t roll for this, as Wailer’s Hold was a Dwarven city). Neither did I roll for its history. I was having an idea, “it’s a tomb for the elven druid from the legend”, I thought, “built by her Dwarven lover, to whom she had made the promise… or maybe its HIS tomb. He was killed by the demon, and she came to avenge him… yes that’s it!” I did roll for the current inhabitants though, and got a 46 – Nightwargs. That fits with Nightwargs being a problem for the village, this is obviously where they are coming from. Is the demon trapped in the dungeon by the Nightwargs I wondered? But if it was, how do the villagers get to worship it? Still I did think then that our heroes might discover the demon as a big bad in the dungeon. That’s not how it panned out in the end though.

My notes, scrawled during dungeon creation.

The entrance to the dungeon is (roll… 26) down a hole. Right, so the scarred treasure hunter dug the hole. Its not the “proper” entrance to the tomb. It’s fresh, there may even be a rope dangling down. In my head I was already thinking he might have left one or two dead companions down there.

I won’t take you though all the rolls for the rooms. The hole led down through the ceiling of a corridor. At one end of which was a room with a creature, which I decided had a Nightwarg in it. And a valuable silver altar. This was (it would turn out) the most valuable treasure in the whole dungeon, in the (likely) first room the party would explore. I went off on some idle speculation that dwarves maybe built their tombs close to the surface because they live deeper underground and were tasking with building the world bigger to reach Huge’s hearth.

At the other end of the corridor was a stairway – a roll of six on the random room chart, which I rolled four times in a row… so it was a VERY long deep spiral staircase. That left only three more rooms in my dungeon. Thankfully they were all actual rooms, (well two rooms and a hall) not more staircase. But I was worried that this dungeon would not be big enough. Two of the rooms had multiple doors though. One had had two, one blocked and one trapped (I had the body of the scarred treasure hunters companion in this one to give my players a clue). The other had room three doors, I made one of those connect to the Hall but decided that, I could extend the dungeon through the other two, or deeper down the staircase, in play by rolling dice as the players explored. To do that though, they would have to defeat the two night wargs I put in that room. Actually I should be honest. I wrote “x? Nightwargs”. I’d decide how many exactly when I saw the challenge that the one upstairs gave the players.

The hall no items or traps in it. Just a creature. I rolled a 37. Undead. Not good enough. By now I had a story in my head about the elf who came to avenge the death of the dwarf and was cursed by the demon that killed him and now inhabited his tomb. I imagined the elf dancing for centuries with the cadaver of her Dwarven lover – and that’s what the players found.

As it turns out, by this time we were playing late into the night, so I had no need to extend the dungeon through those doors. Indeed I edited one encounter out … the Players were meant to discover the demon in that hall too, watching the cursed elf dance. But I decided the elf herself was threat enough for my players’ injured characters. The demon was … elsewhere. Perhaps they’ll meet it the next time we play…

Democracy in Action

A few weeks ago after episode 2.6 we ran a poll (or three) on whether we should play (and record) Coriolis or Forbidden Lands. We don’t play on line, and we don’t get together often, less than once a month, to play around a table. Given that we have traditionally taken turns GMing, it means that we might only play a couple of sessions on each game a year. Dave is running Symbaroum, Tony runs L5R, Andy, Savage World of Solomon Kane, so this poll has been about what I run. We are all enjoying both games, so this is a real quandary.

So, we asked our listeners. I put a poll on Facebook, Twitter and G+. It’s interesting to see how differently each “constituency” (users of each social platform reacted).

I put the poll on all three platforms in the same day. People responded quickly to the ones on Twitter and G+, less quickly to Facebook. I automatically shared my poll post on G+ with the Coriolis and Forbidden Lands groups, but I didn’t think to do that at first on Facebook. When I noticed how low the response rate was on Facebook, I shared it with each game’s group and the respondents came – in the end Facebook returned the most answers.

Twitter responses started well, outpacing Facebook on the first day, but in the end returned the fewest responses. You can set how long the poll lasts on Twitter and Facebook. For Twitter I thought it wouldn’t not last long, and set it for three days. I might as well have set it for one day though, given the nature of Twitter, most responded on the first day, I might have got a couple more on day two. Nothing in three.

As you can see nine people voted Forbidden Lands, six Coriolis. A win for Forbidden Lands it seems. But Twitter is our smallest constituency. Let look the next largest. G+ doesn’t let you set a time for polls. To end it, you just delete the post. Which isn’t very satisfactory – people can’t check if I am telling the truth about what the vote was. I would write to Google to tell them to fix it, if they weren’t shuttering the whole thing. Anyhow, the G+ poll lasted over a week. And saw the scales tipping one way, and then the other before:

The G+ poll was the last to close, and before I finally deleted the post I took this screen grab. Thirty two votes for each game. The G+ constituency was just as divided as we were.

And so we turn to Facebook. I already mentioned that, in the end, the Facebook constituency returned the most votes, enough to tilt the scales back in the Coriolis direction, or was Facebook too more balanced?

97 votes, and another small but clear majority for Forbidden Lands.

So Forbidden Lands is the clear winner. It’s also interesting to note that the Forbidden Lands AP episode that we released a month or two ago, are already becoming out most popular downloads. Session Zero, for example, is already our sixth most downloaded episode ever. So the next game I will run in the new year will be Forbidden Lands. We won’t forget Coriolis though, in fact the next AP to be released will be our Coriolis adventure Song to the Siren, which we recorded back in November, just as soon as I get round to editing it.

So in conclusion: this is what we are expecting to put out over the next few weeks

  • This week: The fifth and final episode of our current Symbaroum adventure Troubled Spirits
  • Next week: Episode 2.7 of The Coriolis Effect, with reports and interviews from Dragonmeet
  • Then: weekly releases of only our second Coriolis AP. The crew find themselves marooned on a prison planet in Song to the Siren
  • After Christmas more The Coriolis Effect, and from Dragonmeet, The Grindbone Slave Tournament

Review – Forbidden Lands

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.

Conclusion

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.

The World

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.

Further Reading

If you want even more detail, check out my previous read-though of the PDFs.

* Free League and Jarnringen have merged.

Forbidden Lands has arrived

No podcast this week as we are preparing for #DragonMeet ~PodcastZone tomorrow Saturday 1 December. But in the place of our dulcet tones, a quickly made video of my Forbidden Lands unboxing. There may be other boxing videos out there (I was one of the last of the Kickstarter backers to get their copy, earlier today), but do they show the GMs screen? Didn’t faff around mixing the sound for this, so I am quiet, but its not what I say but what you see that counts.

Forbidden Lands – Artefacts, Encounters and Adventure Sites

The potential spoilers come think and fast in the last three chapters of the Gamemasters’ Guide. And so, we come to the last instalment of my “Where I Read…”

There is hardly anything I can say about the artefacts chapter without spoiling anything. Eighteen artefacts are described, potential sites of discovery suggested in each description. But the authors stress that’s its entirely up to you, where your players actually find these things. Unlike the demons in the bestiary, there is nothing randomly generated I can get excited about (Though there is a d66 table if you want to randomly decide which of the 18 artefacts your players discover). If you want to know more you’ll have to get out there, exploring the Forbidden Lands. Or volunteer to be GM.

The Encounters chapter starts with a table, cross-referencing d66 with terrain type, to provide a number between zero and 43. Zero means nothing happens, each of the other 43 encounters are subsequently described, with stats where required, or pointing you to stats elsewhere in the book. These encounters are not just wandering monsters. They could become adventure hooks. Some are repeatable, but others, once played through, couldn’t really happen to the same party twice. That’s not a problem though, if you had nots about what happened last time, and one of the NPC survived, you could continue the story, or take inspiration from the encounter but change the details, or simply re-roll. There are some intriguing references to SIMPLE, VALUABLE and PRECIOUS finds, suggesting, a random treasure table.

And indeed, in the final chapter, Adventure Sites, we discover a number of such tables, beginning on page 186. There are d66 tables for Simple, Valuable and Precious Carried Finds, and Finds in a Lair. Each lists the item, it’s value in coin, and its encumbrance. The items range from coin (the most common result – a few coppers in simple carried finds, to gold silver and copper in precious finds in the lair) to, on a roll of 66 on the precious lair table, an artefact, which explains the random artefact table in the chapter. When the encumbrance column shows a number rather that usual light, normal or heavy, that’s the number of people required to carry it. There’s a supplementary table of oddities, which modifies the items you rolled in other tables: it might be bent, burned or have bite marks in it, for example, each of which halves the value. Or it might turn out to be twice as valuable to a dwarf.

All these tables though are preceded by extensive tables for creating a random adventure site. The chapter starts off with a very important note, which applies to both the pre-written sites, and the ones you may generate.

An adventure site is not a scenario in the traditional sense. It has locations, NPCs and events – but it does not provide a pre-determined narrative for the adventurers to follow. Instead, they can interact with an adventure site in many different ways

In fact there may well be more than one narrative opportunity at each site. It’s up the players, and the GM to make the site into a narrative of their very own. Over them, the player character actions might well change sites so that when they return, other narrative opportunities are on offer.

You start off creating a new site by defining it as a village, dungeon or castle. In play this may well be prompted by what’s on the map, but if you want, for example if there are ruins marked on the map, you can roll randomly. a village is then defined by its size (population) and age, before moving on to how it’s ruled. You can roll twice on a d66 to create a bickering Rust Brother or Brutal council, for example.

Other d66 roles give the village:

  • a problem, including widespread drunkenness or Bandits;
  • a claim to fame, delicious bread or strange disappearances; and
  • an oddity like inbreeding or a Old Burial Site

Then depending on the size of the village you roll for between zero and eleven “institutions” such as inns, stables, militia etc. There are an inn generator too, with randomly rolled names like The Rumping Druid or The Singing Jar. A few more rolls provide each inn with an oddity, speciality and special guest. So you might see a singing sister serve blood soup to a secretive spellbinder (shouldn’t that be “Sorcerer”? Ed.).

Your Dungeon on the other hand can be anything between d6 and over 1,100 years old. With between d6 and 6d6+50 rooms. It could have had one of seven original uses, one of ten builders, elves to a demon (with ten motivations, vengeance to passion) or developed naturally. You can discover one of ten fates for those original builders too. It might nave have between one and three different inhabitants (or groups) from a choice of 24, and one of 36 oddities. There are seventeen different types of entrance (shades of #D&Dgate).

There is even a dungeon room generator, that allows you to create a dungeon on the fly, with treasure and traps, as the players are exploring it! (Or in advance if you prefer)

Similarly, Castles can be defined with random rolls to determine:

  • Type and size;
  • Age;
  • Original purpose;
  • Founder (and the founder’s Reputation)n
  • Condition;
  • History;
  • Inhabitants (including an “Is it really empty?” table or a “Who has moved in?” table);
  • It’s Oddity of course (gotta have an oddity); and,
  • It’s name.

But wait! We’re not done with the random generation. There are stat blocks here for typical NPC, and else where of course for other kin and followers of religious orders. But here too is the table for discovering a their occupation, defining characteristic (from eye patch to unkempt eyebrows, which on reflection doesn’t seem far enough for a “from … to” example) and a personal quirk.

Reading though the adventure sites themselves, you can imagine them being created by rolling on these tables (well maybe not for Inn names), and they demonstrate what a powerful tool set this is. Part of me really wants to run a totally emergent story, relying on dice and the imagination of the players to create the narrative. With just a little note taking after each session, a savvy GM would quickly work out when to forgo a dice roll in favour of reintroducing a NPC or developing situation from a previous adventure.

So this is the last of my posts in this “Where I read…” and I have to say, I am very excited for this game. We played an adventure already (and recorded it, so you will soon have the opportunity to hear us groking the rules), and o think we all love it. It was meant to be a one-off, to fill a gap in our schedule, but my players already want another session and are growing into their randomly generated characters.

All hail the return of the dice!

Forbidden Lands – Bestiary

At the end of this chapter there are lists of normal animals, from Bear to Crocodile, and Dog to Scorpion. I am a bit disappointed that there are not more exotic mounts – the lists include only Horse and Warhorse as obvious mounts. I hope we might get some more when the cards are published. For now though, I have let my goblin ride a wolf, and my Elf a Stag. But you don’t want to read about those. You want monsters.

Now we are getting into spoiler territory. I am going to keep my notes on Monsters to a minimum, because such creatures, their abilities, behaviours and weaknesses are things that players should discover in play.

But to begin with it’s worth talking about rules for monsters, or rather, how the rules are different for monsters. You generally can’t parry, grapple, or feint monsters, and being xxxxxxxx, they are immune to xxxx attacks (actually that last might count as a spoiler, so redacted). You can disarm and shove some monsters but you will need multiple successes to do so, depending on their strength. The key difference is that they Strength rating behaves more like traditional hit points. Unlike player-characters they don’t get less effective as they take more damage.

Although actually their melee attacks are not based on strength anyway – one of the coolest features of the bestiary is that each monster has six monster attacks. Six, so that you can choose to roll randomly, although if you prefer your monsters to be more tactically astute, you can choose which attack to you. Each attack tells you how many dice to roll, and how much damage a single success does. Extra successes each add one more point of damage.

As I said, I am going to keep most of the monsters secret from any players who might be reading. But by way of example, let’s imagine you see a huge figure with a bulls head approaching, carrying a two-handed axe. This isn’t a monster unique to the system, but a Minotaur. the creatures monster attacks range from Bull Fist (using eight base dice to deliver at least one point of damage and blunt force crits) to:

STOMPING ATTACK! The Minotaur jumps high in the air, landing hard on top of the adventurer. The victim is felled to the ground if hit. The attack is performed using twelve Base Dice and Weapon Damage 1 (blunt force).

A demon, but probably not the one you are going to meet…

My favourite monsters though are Demons, and I can tell you a little bit more without spoiling your players’ fun, because Demons are randomly generated! Five tables, each d66, with some results asking for a further random roll, means you are unlikely to meet the Demon I just created. It looks human, but when it opens its eyes or mouth it in filled with a blinding inner light (Fear attack, 9 base dice). It’s fingers are calcified into fearsome claws (7 base dice, 2 damage) but it also carries a trident. Don’t let it touch you or it could take you over (works like Rank 3 Puppeteer spell). Only music will drive it away so make sure you have perform skill.

Forbidden Lands – Kin

This is a meaty chapter, but already I find it more accessible than the earlier history. Why? Because it’s about geography. It starts with a double page spread, showing a version of the map with labels indicating the distribution of kin. We learn that there is a notional division between East and West, with most human communities in the East under the protection of the Shardmaiden, while those in the West look towards the Rust Brothers and Zytera. We learn indeed that the Shardmaiden, Rust and Heme are more vital to everyday life, and that Wyrm, Wail, Flow and Clay are regarded as “the old gods”.

The traditional Congregation of the Serpent can be found everywhere, but often keeps its head down so as to not challenge the newer faiths.

Alderlanders, Aislanders and Aslenes are lumped together with half-elves (both Frailers and Elvenspring) and the Misgrown as “Humans” in this chapter. Each culture though gets a summary of its origins, history, aesthetics and attitudes and a “typical” stat-block.

So if half elves count as human, the elves themselves must be pretty homogenised, right? No so, even other kin recognise there are two types: Stillelves – normally those who have lived a long time, and now spend years “lying under an oak tree to observe the changing seasons of the year or the slow withering of a rock”; and The Unruly – more active elves which the authors hope players will choose to be, because they haven’t written any mechanics for watching rocks erode. But within the Stillelves and The Unruly there are other groupings of elfkin, druids of The Golden Bough; observant Melders and violent and arrogant Redrunners.

The Stillelves lovingly tolerate this rage, saying that all elves tend to go through a few centuries as Unruly while they are young. Wisdom comes with age.

Which somewhat contradicts the Players’ Handbook where, on page 31 it says “Elves don’t age in the normal sense of the word. Technically, they all count as adult.” Reading that book, I had thought that all elves appeared when the red star dropped its rubies on the world, and the only “young” they had were half-elves. This chapter does reveal though, a method by which a Stillelf might be broken apart to create more new elves. It’s important to note that elves are not the elegant pointy eared bodies we see, but the ruby crystals they have for hearts. Stillelves may choose to meld they hearts with trees to become ents. Or just hang around as rubies in a temple chatting (silently) with each other. It’s said that even if their body is totally destroyed, the ruby can grow a new one.

There is an interesting thread running through these cultures that reveal an awareness of the cosmos. The Elves understand the Redrunner as s shooting star or comet, the Dwarves understand the Earth as a sphere, and the sun as the nearest star. When they have built the earth big enough to reach the sun, they expect to reach beyond that to the more distant “hearths”.

They do not think of themselves as miners as we imagine them, quarrying stone with which to build, but creators of stone. And given some of the spells in the Players Handbook it seems likely that they are. For the first time we hear of “massive ruins across the Forbidden Lands, seemingly useless constructions the dwarves claim are the foundation for the next layer of the world.”

The Dwarves are organised into clans, who argue with each other about “how to perform their great work and where they will be seated at the god’s table in the next world and the next.” The Beldarrians consider themselves the royal clan, and the Meromannians the ones who have most conflict with humans. The Canides or Iron Hounds though are the ones who someday most time on the surface world, and are darker skinned that their very pales cousins. They fought alongside the Meromannians when the humans invaded. I the impromptu game I ran at the weekend, I gave Andy’s goblin rider a Canide Warhound. I see I shall have to fix that in the next session. The final clan named are the reclusive Crombes. There is also a mention of Dwelvers, who Dwarves regard as their forefathers.

Ogres are the dependents of dwarf/human half breeds, and very much a law unto themselves:

Ogres love their freedom and celebrate life and are as erratic as they are curious. They are also brutal beasts who take whatever they want using brute strength. For entertainment, they might rip the arms of a prisoner, let him go free, and then wager stolen kegs of beer on how far the unarmed prisoner can run before bleeding to death.

However, as has been hinted at before, not all dwarf/human hybrids behave this way. Without naming them, the text refers to the Valondians who stay with the dwarves as blacksmiths and craftsmen. I begin to get how Fria Ligan works with these little unexplained mentions – perhaps the Valondians will feature in Ravens Purge.

I have a lot of love for the Orc story here, because they are slave race, righteous in their anger at how they have been treated. What I like in particular are how some of the popular (post-Tolkien) tropes of Orcs in games and media, are given reason in this imaginary society. I like their matriarchal leadership, because only one in eight Orcs are born female, and only half the males survive to adulthood. Half of those survivors, any who show fear and will not fight, are enslaved by the others. There is no dishonour in losing a fight, though winners are of course the highest ranking.

There are some contradictions. Though clans are run by the females, they do so though the most dominant male Orc. So, for example the Urhur, or purple, clan “is ruled by the self-proclaimed Emperor Hroka the First and the Greatest.” Hroka’s imperial ambitions mean this is the most outgoing, “civilised” clan. General Archa’s Roka clan are the most militaristic, but it’s the Isir clan who hate the other kin the most. The Viraga are the glue that hold the clans together. A group of female Orcs who are dedicated to increasing the knowledge and power of the Orc kin. So far, in my read-through, it’s the write up of the Orcs that has inspired the most thought of stories I might add to the campaign, or characters I might want to play. But there is a bit missing piece of the Orc story – do they worship gods?

The Wolfkin worship Heme, and like the Rust Bothers, were somewhat immune to the terrors of the Blood Mist, and do their is some affinity between the two groups. They are despised by pretty much everyone else, many of whom consider them to be some failed experiment of the Sorcerer Zygofer. The of course take exception to such slurs.

They despise civilization intensely and believe they have found their way back to nature and the original form of their ancestors, away from the weakening and destructive ways that caused the human kin to lose their fur and distort the land.

The marsh dwelling Saurians use crocodile as beasts of burden, and trade with the other kin for metal tools which they can not make themselves. Whiners are a sentient kin, hunted by both Orcs and humans for their “sweet meat” and for their ability to grow gold when it inserted under their skin. I think, to be honest, this just shows us how unlikeable the humans of the Forbidden Lands are. The entry on halflings and goblins teaches us very little new, except that goblins have night vision, and suffer one point of damage to agility every quarter day if daylight, which players of goblin characters might want to know.

Forbidden Lands – Gods

Are the gods of Forbidden Lands real within this world? Or are they just old stories, told and retold until they take of different meanings, different names even?

We know the icons of the Third Horizon in Coriolis are real, because if you pray to them you are rewarded with an increased chance of success. But in the Forbidden Lands, characters find the strength to succeed within themselves. That said, characters with a stronghold can gain willpower if they have a shrine…

One thing I like about the pantheon of gods described here is the idea that a number of the gods are not a pantheon at all, but rather a different understanding of, or name for, a god who may or may not exist. When things are going badly, it natural to desire, or to ascribe your survival to, a Protector God, and so it is for the humans of the Forbidden Lands. They all agree that such a god exists, but they can not agree on its naming or shape.

According to legend, he flew before the ships in the form of a raven with a snake in his claws.

The first schism is over which of these two creatures is the actual god. Was it the snake, Wyrm, carried by a holy but not divine bird? Or was it Raven, who carried the mother of snakes and words across the oceans to prepare the land for humankind?

So two human churches are pitted against one another: The Congregation of the Serpent regards the Raven Church as heretics, and their persecution of the Raven Sisters drove the first human, or Ailander, settlement in the Forbidden Lands. That migration caused the Raven church itself to split – an offshoot cult, the Reapenters or Blackwings, believe that they must rid the Forbidden Lands of humankind, by killing themselves only after they have killed every other human in Ravenland.

A more enlightened school of thought might suggest that perhaps Raven and Snake are aspects of the same divinity. As such a school does exist. However, they use different names. Believing the bird made of iron, and the snake wood, they think it is the materials themselves, not the animals that are divine, and call them Rust and Heme.

But so far we are talking only about the god(s) of humans. The kin who lived here before Wyrm (or the Raven, or Rust and Heme) led humankind here have their own gods, and the Dwarven god is Huge.

That’s his name.

The dwarves have their own creation myth, which gives them a task of building the world big enough to reach Huge’s Hearth, the sun. I note with interest that they are charged with “expanding the Earth” – note that capital E, does this suggest we are playing in some far future or aeons old version of our own planet? Theirs seems a fascinating religion, which I want to know more about. They believe in reincarnation, but also “in a parallel spirit world, where their soles rest and are trained by Huge for their next work shift in the world.” This of all the new takes on the “standard fantasy” racial types is the one that intrigued me most.

“Clay is the god who shaped the world at the Protector’s behest,” worshipped by the Elvensping, but only also by “many elves”. Which suggests that though Clay is a product of elven society (Elvenspring are half-elves from elven culture remember), some elves may have grown beyond worship. That said “all elves” honour Wail. Wail is, according to the Raven Sisters, the wife of the Raven, who carries him and all other birds through the sky. So, Wail is the wind, and weather, and Flow is the water goddess “worshipped by elves, Elvenspring, and villagers.” Maybe the elves are not as enlightened as I thought they might be.

The Nightwalker is the oldest of all the gods. “Normal people do not worship him but may seek to appease him to avoid bad luck and disaster, sometimes by blood sacrifice.” I like that, “normal people,” implying that there may well be weird psychopaths who definitely do worship him.

The final god named is Horn, brought to the Ravenland by the Aslene. Or rather, since Horn is a volcano in their homelands, they have brought the worship of him, as a god of fire.

I like this pantheon. I like it enough to wish there was a mechanic, like prayer in Coriolis, that encourages characters to demonstrate their devotion to one or more of them. But I also like the gritty, direct cost of re-rolls in this system.

You can’t have everything.

Forbidden Lands – History

Up front, I have to admit, I hate chronologies. Despite working in heritage for … wow … for a long time, I am not a fan of “this happened and then this happened”. In fact, at school I much preferred Geography to History. And I’m remembering that I have already said pretty much is same thing in one of the earliest posts on this blog. So I will shut up about that now.

Now, many of you readers will love a chronology, but I have to be honest, when I looked at the the second chapter of the Gamemaster’s Guide History, my heart sank. I knew I was in for a chronology. I did get a pleasant surprise though. The whole thing is set out in about a page and a half of text. And if you like chronology as much as me, you will be heartened by the paragraph that follows that brief summary:

The text above explains the Forbidden Lands’s history in broad strokes, enough for you as GM to run the game and understand the connection between the places and people of the Forbidden Lands.

So, you only need to read the rest of the chapter is you want more detail. Or maybe you can flip back to the chapter when you want more detail about some legend the PCs have heard, or something they come across in an adventure. If I wasn’t doing a “where I read…” I could, and would, skip the rest.

But I am. And I can’t.

It’s taken me a while to get through. I simply can’t be bothered to read it for long before finding something else to do. Chronologies aren’t written like novels you see, they don’t entice you but dangling questions in front of you that would hope will be answered later. Reading a novel, you find you self asking “why?”, reading a chronology, all you get is because.

And while I was reading, I realised there’s another problem with writing this post. How much can I reveal here without spoiling it for players?

I can say this though. There are no goodies and baddies in this story. Well, there are no goodies anyhow. Every bad thing that happens in this story can be pinned on somebody being, well, selfish. The most blameless of all the peoples in this history are the Ailanders, and their rivals for that position are the Orcs. Which should tell you everything you need to know about pretty much everyone else. No everyone though … I have only just realised that the chapter doesn’t mention the Wolfkin, at all. The only time the word is mentioned is in the short bit of introductory fiction that starts every chapter.

Round the beggar from Varassa all sat in a ring, and by the campfire they sat and heard his song. And about walkers and wolfkin and every terrible thing, and of his fear he sang to them all night long

Well, the beggar from Varassa might sing about “walkers and Wolfkin” but the authors of this chapter don’t. The omissions go both ways though. The players guide introduced us to half-elves and more about their origins in explained more here, but the history also tells us about half-Dwarfs, which are not mentioned in the players handbook. Most of these are ogres, which I guess will feature in a creatures chapter. But, there is also an enticing mention that some human-dwarf hybrids were “called Valondians and were highly regarded in the forges and workshops.” What happened to them I wonder?

I could argue that the history focuses too much on personalities, and smacks of “great men” history rather than “history from below” or psychogeography, but great men is how history has been written for centuries in the real world, so why should this be any different. Anyhow, most of the action takes place in the ninth century, and involves a good deal of allies turning against each other and the rise of a Frailer (a half -Elf of humanocentric culture) into what we might call a “Dark Lord” although, by the end of the history he is no longer a “Lord” … or even a “He”. Then comes the blood mist, and three centuries of isolation. The history reveals a fascinating aspect of the blood mist, which I dare not reveal because … spoilers.

I will reveal these three secrets however, with as little context as I can, just because I like how the words come together. If you don’t want to see them, look away now:

Soon oddly twisted beings, completely or partly from other worlds, moved throughout Harga.

and

The messenger returned with a living pig head attached to his shoulders.

and finally

When Zytera stepped in front of Alderstone’s Misgrown and half-demons for the first time, it was hailed as a horrible god.