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…


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.


Forbidden Lands – Backstories

I am going come right out and say this. I love creating Forbidden Lands characters randomly. Before moving on to read the GMs’ Guide, I am reading the first half of the Legends and Adventurers booklet. Only the first half mind you, I will return to read about random legends and monster creation after I have read about the pre-created ones in the GMs’ Guide. I will admit, this is another thing that I read in beta, quickly rolling some dice and creating a Druid a couple of months back. It went well enough, I thought to myself that I wouldn’t normally choose to play a Druid, but I could get into it.

This time though, I imagined myself as a group of five, sitting round a table creating their party. The rules here are very simple and clear, with a checklist at the front to explain the process. First “we” rolled our Kin. It’s a d66 table, with results weighted towards humans: eight results get you an Alderlander; five, an Aslene; three, an Ailander, so sixteen chances of being human. Compare that with three chances each to be a half-elf, halfling or orc; four of being a goblin, and just two to become a Wolfkin; Dwarf or Elf. So, though I feel I am going to be trying to persuade all my players to roll characters this way, I might relent when it comes to Kin. If your player is desperate to play a Wolfkin, then I wouldn’t make him roll on this table. I should say that many of the steps say “Roll or choose”, so giving players the choice is Rules As Written, I am VERY tempted no make them roll though… Am I evil?

However my imaginary party turned out to be quite diverse. Player one rolled 54, an Orc and player two got 65, and Elf! Players three and four two got 21, and 16, making them both Alderlander Humans. Then 56 got player five another Orc.

Next you write down you Kin talent, from the Players’ Handbook and then return to the Legends and Adventurers booklet to roll your background. This is one of the few roles where RAW says you don’t get a choice. There is a table for each Kin, and it’s short and sweet, requiring only a d6. Player one’s Orc turned out to be brought up as a minstrel. Only the tiniest double take from me, before I remembered thinking, aged 17 how the Pogues’ Wildcats of Kilkenny sounded like music Orcs would play. The Elf was a fighter. The first Alderlander was a Hard Studier, the other one a vagabond. The other Orc was brought up a Loner. Remember, as we will see, these are NOT predictors of profession. But they do give you your attributes (totalling 15 points) and six points of skills. Some upbringings are more rounded than others – the Minstrel Orc for example got just four skills, including rank three in performance.

Then, you roll (or choose (but roll dammit, ROLL!)) your profession, followed swift,y by your professional talent. Player one’s stagestruck Orc became a fighter, the fighting Elf became a rogue. They got the Path of the Blade and the Path of the Face talents, respectively. The studious Alderlander became a Hunter, with Path of the Forest (already you can see him or her being one of those nature obsessed kids, growing up to become a ranger). The vagabond became a minstrel, and I my head I saw both his player, and player one, scowling at each other and complaining that the system isn’t fair. It’s worth pointing at that at this stage, the Orc Fighter has perform rank three, and the Human Minstrel has no Perform at all. I am also imagining the Orc player scoffing that Humans have no sense of rhythm. The loner Orc becomes a Sorcerer in the Path of Stone.

Formative events come next, with a roll (not a choice) on a table for your profession. It’s a d6. The orc Fighter became a scout, the Elf joined a gang of robbers. The hunter tamed a horse, and his fellow Alderlander wrote a popular song. The orc Sorcerer, true to his loner roots sought out a secluded location to study magic. Each formative event gives you two points of skills, a talent and some equipment. So for example, that sorcerer, living off nature’s bounty, got a point in survival, and the Quartermaster talent, a tent and cauldron and one rank in the Lore skill. The human minstrel got one point in performance, a point in manipulation and the lucky talent. Also ink, quill and a parchment – which, the orc fighter insists, is just as well, because it doesn’t make a noise.

And so the group, and the relationships, begin to form. I chose to stop there, with all the characters young. But if you want to become an adult you roll another formative event and drop one point from one of your attributes. If you want to start out old, you roll a third formative event, and drop another point from an attribute. When you have chosen how old you want to start, you can reassign one attribute point of your choice. I feel my orc fighter might take one of his Empathy, reducing it to two, to add to his strength, making it four. As an orc fighter, where Strength is a key attribute for both Kin and profession, some of this compatriots might have strength six, so four doesn’t make him massively strong.

Finally (almost) all one one player rolls on the How did you meet table. The orc fighter the Elf rogue, and the hunter all met on the run from the Rust Brothers. The two humans are bound by a shipwreck, and I imagine that together the players might suggest that it happened when they were very young, and though brought us as Alderlanders, they might share an unknown origin. That player rolls 14, suggesting he had been ambushed and saved by the Orc Sorcerer. But I imagine the two players agreeing that perhaps it was the Orc who was saved by the rest of the party.

God I love everything in this system. Do it. Don’t choose! Never choose!

Forbidden Lands – Gear (and Crits)

I won’t have much to say on this final chapter in the Players Handbook, because it’s very few sentences and many tables. I do like the very simple availability rule. If something is uncommon, you need to get a four or above on a d6 to find it for sale. If it’s rare, you need a six. I also like the fact that everything can be crafted, and that there is a simple system for doing so. Sometimes too simple – the fact that you need a forge to make arrows, when you could arguably purchase arrowheads, makes me cringe a little. But on balance I am in favour of simplicity. So the simple solution to more complex crafting is that you need to relevant talent to be able to make certain items. Or sometimes more than one talent. Our arrows require the smith and the bowyer talent. Gah! Why can’t there be an item called arrowheads that only a smith can make?!

There are wooden tipped arrows that you don’t need the smith skill to create. Armour counts double against them. But seriously, who since the bloomin’ Stone Age has used wood-tipped arrows?!

RIGHT! I am making my own house rule: arrows heads cost six copper and can be made with the Smith talent in a forge. You can make wood-tipped arrows with the bowyer talent, but if you have some arrowheads (six copper, remember, or made by a smith in a forge) and the bowyer talent, you can craft proper arrows, or you can buy ’em for twelve fucking copper!

/rant over

The other thing that slightly annoys me is the line “PRICE: The cost of an item can vary greatly from place to place.” Well, duh! But that’s it, there’s no indication how prices might fluctuate.

I am thinking with all these raw materials you will be sourcing, especially stone for your stronghold, you will need a cart. Let’s look that up. It costs fifteen silver, or with the builder talent, and 30 wood you can make one. Wood costs three copper a unit, so that’s 90 copper, or nine silver. So your labour will save you six silver. All you need is a cart to carry those 30 units of wood…

The gear chapter also includes all the critical hit tables. Or rather the gear chapter doesn’t end as such, but fades away into all the stables at the back of the book. I note with interest that a severed foot makes running a slow action permanently, but a severed ear only gives you a -1 to scouting for d6 days. A slashed eye doesn’t permanently blind you either. You are just -2 to scouting and marksmanship for 2d6 days.

The character sheet is pretty enough. There’s an index. And I am done with the Players’ Handbook. Next up – The Gamemasters’ Guide.

Forbidden Lands – Strongholds

You might argue that a game that is all about hex-crawling doesn’t need to include rules about building a base. But if you live long enough, you may end up in a similar situation to many players of first edition AD&D: lots of gold, and nothing to spend it on. In AD&D the gap between having too much gold to carry, and having enough to actually build a castle was pretty much impossible to bridge. The strongholds chapter offers an entry level opportunity to take over some adventure site you have cleared out, and gradually build it into an actual stronghold.

Even so, if still not cheap, and I won’t be encouraging players to take on the responsibility early in their careers. Otherwise they may look at the costs of keeping it properly defended, and decide to stay at home rather than go out adventuring. Actually taking over a place requires work, even if you have killed every creature that once called it home. It requires at least a couple of quarter days labour, and a Craft roll to clean it out. Failure on the craft roll will leave it with persistent problem that may make you decide it’s not worth trying to turn into a stronghold at all.

There are advantages to having a stronghold though. It’s a place where you can rest and sleep (surely just sleep?) without any rolls or mishaps. It also gives you a free will power point every time to return there for the night. Apparently these benefits can be got without even a Fireplace – but I think, for humans at least, a fireplace would be one of the essential features of a stronghold, arguably even more essential than a roof. Depending on the nature of the site that you have taken over, the GM will allow you one or two features for free. But any other functions you want will need to be (re)built, with your own labour (crafting rolls) or hired-in labour.

This is one chapter that I previously read in its beta version, and I had a good deal to say on it on Fria Ligan’s forum. Like many others, I thought there was too much dice-rolling, and indeed that has been much reduced in the version. Back then, the output of pretty much every function and hireling was variable, based on dice rolls. In this version, hirelings always succeed with just one success, and the output of most stronghold functions, if staffed with a hireling, is fixed. If a PC wants to roll on their own skills, then they still can. There is also a line in the chapter which I actually wrote, which is cool. No, I am kidding, but they do paraphrase an argument I made for a more abstract way of accounting for hirelings, to acknowledge that yes, most workers didn’t get paid in coin, but that’s how they are accounting for it in this game. And of course, I have to admit that part of the reason for having strongholds in this game is to have something to spend your money on. There is one suggestion I made which they did take up though – there is now the option to have a well in your stronghold.

Even with the simplifications, reading though the functions, I feel the rules are (uncomfortably?) bridging the gap between a neat little extension for a hex-crawl game, and a Sim City type game. Some functions produce raw materials for other functions, encouraging players to spend treasure (but also game time) expanding their stronghold and finding a sustainable mix of inputs and outputs.

I don’t think is my Gloranthan fantasies showing, but Pasture seems to be a no brainer function to add. Meat and vegetables supplied by other functions need to be turned into Food by someone with a chef skill or the Inn (if you build one) but the milk the cows produce counts as Food already! (There is no dairy function.) So you can add it to your Food resource die without faffing around and go off adventuring. I can only assume these cows produce not milk but cheese. 🙂 So, were I fortunate enough to build a stronghold, these are the functions I’d prioritise:

  • Fireplace: eliminates the effect of cold and darkness
  • Pasture (with farmer and cows): supplies up to 12 units of Food a day.
  • Shrine: an extra free willpower point for PCs
  • Stables: your horses are automatically sheltered and fed; and of course,
  • A well: drinking water enough for everyone, and fill up your water skins to d12 when you go adventuring.

Of course other people might want your stronghold, or at the very least, they might want to deprive you of it. So you might also want to bolster the defences. Ramparts, a moat, a portcullis and a watchtower can all help. But they are useless if your PCs are not there and you haven’t employed guards. After your first guard, hire guards in units of ten, because you always round up when calculating your defence value, so one guard is as good ten, and nine guards no better than one. Keep them well fed though, because hungry guards means one less defence die.

If the PCs are around they add one extra die, “regardless of number” it says on page 176. So five PCs only add the same to the defence as a single one. Although on page 177 is says “Each of your adventurers provides the stronghold with one point of Defense Rating.” So maybe five adventurers add five dice after all. Although the example (which generally features two characters says “The stronghold has RAMPARTS and 20 GUARDS, which gives a total Defense Rating of 5 (one for the adventurers, +2 for the RAMPARTS and +2 for the GUARDS).” So … I am a bit confused. Anyhow, you throw the same number of dice as your defence rating, and every success. Allows you to knock points off your opponent’s attack rating. There’s a chart to roll after every round to see what happens to one of the PCs. It’s only a d6 roll, so it might get a bit repetitive after a battle or two.

The chapter finishes with half a page about having armies with different attributes and skill ratings facing off against one another. I feel this is a place-holder for a battles expansion at some future point.

Forbidden Lands – Journeys

There was a moment of release, I think some time in 1980, when we were let out of the Dungeon. To be honest I can’t recall what system it was, it may have been Runequest, but it might just as well have been AD&D. I am sure the idea of open-world adventuring (the idea, not the name I just used) had already been introduced to us through Traveller, but to be honest I can’t even recall exactly when that was.

What I can recall was being presented with a map. Black and white, I think a Judges Guild publication that the GM had brought in, covered with a hex-grid, and absolutely chock full of potential. I remember clearly that moment of excitement, that we could go anywhere.

Of course, all that potential was unrealized. At thirteen (or whatever age we were) we hand-waved the encumbrance rules, and wandered around the map for a few sessions looking for a story, getting frustrated that we weren’t finding one, and wandering off to join a game of Traveller.

Reading the Journeys chapter it feels like the potential is there once more. The map is there. It’s in full colour this time, but still overplayed with a hex grid. Castles, villages, tombs etc are marked on the map, but mostly un-named. There will be stickers with the final version that enable your party to make it their own. It’s a quantum map, the adventurers will find an adventure wherever they chose to go, you just get to choose which adventure, when they get there.

This chapter systematises the journey, giving players a choice of actions in the wilderness. The most common thing they will do is hike. It takes a quarter day to cross a hex of difficult terrain, but open terrain hexes can be crossed at the rate of two a day, or even three on horseback. Hiking at night is difficult but not impossible, but it’s expected that your party moves for one or both the daylight quarters. But your journey will not be without incidents, some of which may delay you. Two of the party should take on different roles to minimise such problems. One should Lead The Way, becoming a pathfinder. Every time the party enters a previously unvisited hex, they must make a Survival Roll. If they fail, there is a d66 table of problems they encounter from inclement weather to blocked paths, wild creatures and simply getting lost.

These problems are not random encounters. There is a separate table of those in the GMs book, apparently. And to minimise the impact of those, the players should appoint a second character to Keep Watch. If the encounter is some sort of threat, the GM will ask that character to make a Scouting Roll to see how much warning the party gets.

The party can easily hike for two quarters a day. If they want to hike a third quarter everyone must make an endurance roll. Those who fail take a point of damage to agility and must let the others go on ahead, or persuade everyone to wait. Try and hike for four quarters and the endurance roll is at -2, and everyone gets the Sleepy condition. So the best thing to do is stop and make camp. Camping, fishing, hunting and foraging all require Survival rolls so it’s worth investing in that skill failure means a further roll on the mishap table for your activity. Mishaps vary from minor annoyances, the loss of items, rations and sleep to things that might cause injury. Food game med through foraging, hunting and fishing can be turned into preserved rations by a character with the Chef talent.

While all this activity so going on, it’s good to have someone resting, so that they can keep watch while the others sleep. It would also be good to have someone watching while everyone else of preparing camp or finding food and water. Note, there is a difference between Rest and Sleep. While both allow you to recover all your lost attribute points, you must sleep for one quarter every day, or start taking damage to Wits. So tight now, I don’t see why anyone would choose to Rest rather than sleep. Maybe the Rest activity is just there for when, though a camping mishap, you can’t get any sleep – thus you are rested ( you recover any lost attribute points) but Sleepy. Both rest and sleep need a whole quarter, if interrupted by “something dramatic, like combat” don’t count, you don’t recover your attribute points, and possibly end up sleepy too.

The chapter ends with a note on water travel, but sea or across/along rivers and lakes. But it doesn’t say much. For example it doesn’t say if it’s faster than walking. We do know that people with fishing equipment can fish while the boat is moving. The only time you can gather resources while on the move.

This s all feels simple enough to be fun, while making journeys an adventure. I feel that sense of potential once more.

Forbidden Lands – Magic

Magic users, in any system, change reality by force of will. Philosophically then, I have a problem with any RPG magic system where failure = no effect. That is not a problem I have with Magic in Forbidden Lands. Magic user’s spells always succeed,  the only question is, at what cost?

There are two potential costs. The predictable one is Willpower Points (WP) – you must spend at least one Willpower Point to cast a spell, and you can spend more to make it more powerful. You earn WP by pushing rolls and scoring 1 on your base dice. Which means that every WP comes at a cost of temporary damage to your attributes. A night’s rest will restore your attribute damage (as long as you are not hungry, thirsty or cold) but you can keep up to ten WP until you spend them, even between sessions.

Some people following the development of the game have expressed concern about this, feeling that magic users must effectively injure themselves before casting spells, and suggesting there are few examples of  this in the literature. But while it may not be “realistic”, or indeed conform to fantasy literature tropes, it works for me narratively – the magic generally comes out after a bit of hardship, and pretty much always involves a bit of sacrifice. Also this may be an issue during the very first session, when a player may want to cast a spell before earning any WP, but I  believe players will only very rarely finish a session with no WP to carry forward to the next.

The second potential cost is a lot less predictable. For every WP a caster spends they must roll a base dice. So if, for example, they choose to spend two WP, to heal a couple of points of damage of another party-members strength, they will roll two d6. They will not fail, but if they get one or more sixes, the power level of the spell goes up for every six they get: no sixes, the power level equals the 2 WP they spent and the party member recovers two strength points; one six, and the party member recovers three strength points. Hooray! But if they get any ones, a mishap occurs. There is an eight in nine chance that spell still works as intended, the party member still recovers two (or three) strength points, but something else happens. The caster must roll d66 to find out what.

It might (one in twelve chance) simply be that someone is impressed by the spell and the caster’s reputation increases by one step. There is also a one in thirty six chance that your character opens a rift to another dimension, and a demon pulls them over through. As they say “Time to make another character”. Between those two extreme the unintended consequences range from simply feeling hungry or thirsty to the spell doing the opposite of your intention, so for example, your healing spell inflicts further damage.

Such risks might make you nervous to use magic, but there are ways of minimizing the risk. Spells are ranked just like your magic talent, and for every rank your talent is, above the rank of the spell, you need roll one less die.  So a rank two magic user can make a rank one spell work without rolling the die at all, as long as they spend the WP and don’t want to increase the power of the spell. (The same rank two magic user can also cast a rank three spell but will trigger an automatic mishap.) Using the spell’s listed ingredient can also increase the power level of the spell without you having to spend a WP, and thus without having to roll the extra die that comes with each WP spent. So with experience and ingredients you can be more precise in your spell casting – you are less likely to overcharge the spell, and also less likely to have a magical mishap.

If you write the spell down in your grimoire, you can effectively make it one rank lower. So a rank one magic user can cast a rank one spell they have written down as though it was rank zero, and reduce the risk just as like a higher ranking spellcaster. Before you write it down though, you have to have successfully cast it without the grimoire.

A starting character gets one talent in the school of their choice (three for Druids and four for Sorcerers). I think its expected that you will spend XP going up in rank for that school rather than learning more schools at rank one, but I don’t think I have read anything to prevent you broadening rather than deepening your ability. There are also some spell effects that every school shares, such as sense or dispel magic. The idea is that you simply describe casting these spells in your schools vernacular. Dispel Magic is, by the way, one of just two Power Words in the list. These are spells that can be cast as a fast action, and so might be used as a reactive action. Another spell that is common to all schools is the Transfer spell, a rank three spell that allows you to charge up on WP from a willing donor, or drain WP from an unwilling opponent.

Readers who were concerned by the apparently deadly nature of combat, may be reassured to know that there is a Resurrection spell available to Druids of the Healing school. Its a rank three spell with a different power cost depending on how old the body is. If its older than a week, its too decayed. If you want zombies, that’s one a rank two spell available to Death Sorcerers.

There is an interesting note in the spell Deer’s Dash (for shape-shifting Druids). This spell increases your movement rate. It says “Roll for overcharge/misstep right before you actually move.” Does this imply that if you overcharge you must overshoot your target? Shapeshifting druids can also of course shift shape, taking on an Animal Form as a rank three spell. I like that shifting back to human form requires that you cast the spell again.

There are no ingredients for the Path of Signs, the Sorcerers Symbolism spell list, but its a nice feature that a you can draw a sign in the air it counts as casting the spell without ingredients, but actually drawing, or carving the symbol is equivalent to using an ingredient. Its in this realm that the other Power Word is, though its not a spoken word, but a wiggle of the fingers, In a nod to Star Wars, its called the Mind Trick.

Forbidden Lands – Combat and Damage

Hoo boy, this took some time. Not just to read through and understand, but also to reflect on. The reflection has mostly been about genre, what games like this do to emulate genre, what the rules tell you about the sort of play experience you should expect, and the stories you will tell. What prompted this reflection is my love for combat in Coriolis, which I have raved about before. It was the combat rules, when I read that game, which totally converted me to the system. It seemed to strike a perfect balance between speed and nuance, with dramatic extra effects like disarm earned though getting extra successes on your roll. But this system has disarm as a separate action. It seems more complex overall, and … whats this? There are advanced rules for making it even more complex?


I think the answer lies in genre. Coriolis tends towards the the space opera genre, with a healthy dash of horror. Its not military hard science fiction, and combat is not its raison d’etre. Combat does not need to be as complex because the fiction it emulates is not a fiction of detailed brawling, or mathematically precise space combat. Neither is it the science fantasy of Star Wars, so the combat should be deadly yes, and painful too. Firefly of course is a great example of the tone, Captain Mal often gets the crap kicked out of him, and yet sometimes manages to kick the bad guy into the engine too. Combat in Coriolis just about manages that tone.

I keep bring up the First Law, so here is an image by Andrey Vasilchenko, artist for the Russian versions of the books.

The more complex, slightly gritter rules of Forbidden Lands aim for a different feel. This is the fiction of the sort of brawls and fights described in the First Law books. So much of what I read in these rules points me in their direction. Were it not the for fantasy kin, I would almost argue that the residents of Ravenland stand in for the Northmen in that world. Fights here are short, injury comes quickly and death will follow soon after if your wounds are not treated. The dirty fighter, who gets his strike in first is the most likely to win. There’s no dishonor in escaping a fight, by whatever means. After all you are “still alive…”

Lets kick off by looking at your “hit points”. There are three things to note about hit points: they are few; you don’t get any more with experience; and each one represents a significant proportion of your ability to fight. Actually there’s a fourth or maybe first thing to note: there are no hit points. You take damage – it comes off your strength (in most cases). A young adventurer gets fighter points to spread among four attributes – that means you are likely to have three, maybe four points in strength. That’s your hit points. A two-handed axe deals three, which means it could break the average adventurer with one blow. And that’s before your opponent spends any extra successes they got on more damage. A professional fighter might have five strength, so yay! It might take two blows to break them, but and old fighter might not have enough points to allocate five to strength. Remember, you can’t spend experience points on increasing attributes. Your strength never goes up, you never get tougher.

But lets say you are wielding that axe. You have a strength of four, so that’s four base dice to add you your one skill die in melee (you never wanted to be a soldier), plus two dice gear bonus. You roll seven dice. This time… But after you were hit and took two damage, your strength is now only two, half your stregnth has gone, you are rolling five dice, and considerably  less likely to hit your opponent. This is what is known as a “death spiral”.

There are two things to take away from this:

  1. Don’t get hit!
  2. Wear armour

This is not your father’s D&D.

Let’s talk about armour while we are at it. It doesn’t make you harder to hit, like in D&D, all t reduces damage, and can get worn by damage. After damage has been totalled against you, you roll gear dice equal to your armour rating. Each six reduces the damage by one point. If you don’t manage to reduce all the damage, the any ones you rolled also reduce your armour rating. So remember,

  1. Don’t get hit!

Now let me reassure you, when you have been broken with one blow of a two-handed there is a very good chance you are not dead. You take a critical hit when you are broken (reach zero strength). You roll two d6, counting one as tens (d66) and only on a 65 or 66 are you properly dead. Of course, anything above a 42 means you are likely to die later…

So if this is a game wherein hitting first is a distinct advantage, what is the initiative system like? You draw cards, 1 to 10. Forbidden Lands cards are available but any will do. If there are more than ten combatants, group them. The key thing here is there can be no simultaneous attacks. If you are deemed to have surprised your opponent, you get to draw two cards, and choose which one you want, before shuffling the other back into the pack. I feared when i read this, that getting to choose two cards was all you got for a successful ambush, but later on the rules detail sneak attacks and ambushes, which on a successful sneak roll, give you a free action before initiative is drawn. A feint enables you to swap cards with your enemy, or you can swap cards with another player on your side, at the start of a round, if both characters are able to speak to each other, but otherwise the initiative order stays the same for the whole fight.

There is a slightly heavy section of zones and ranges which, I think, is to enable effective gritty use of terrain detail in the theater of the mind style play. Ranges are sort of fixed, arms length, a few steps away, 25 metres, 100 metres, and distant (as far as the eye can see) but zone can change size according to the environment and terrain – a room in a dungeon or about 25 metres in more open ground, a run action take you from one zone to the next, whatever the size of the zone (so you can’t run though two 10 metre rooms in the same time as it takes you to run 20 metres. There is a page on how all this works when running away, which I think is going to required reading for all players.

Every round you get one fast action and one slow action, or two fast actions if you prefer. You can react to another’s attack with Dodge or Parry, when its not your turn, but they cost one fast action. If you have spent both of yours earlier in the round, you can’t do either. If you parry a blow before your turn, you’ll only get one action on your turn, parry two, and that’s all your actions used.

Slow actions are: Slash, Stab (which as a fencer I slightly disagree with), Punch, Kick, Bite, or Grapple. Fast actions include, among others: Feint (yay), Disarm, Shove, and Swing Weapon (see above re being a fencer, but I sort of see what they are trying to do). So we are really talking about committed actions rather than slow ones, and opportunistic actions rather than fast. Slow and fast are easier to read and cost lest to print though.

You’ll see Disarm in that quick action list. Unlike Coriolis this isn’t something you get when things go unexpectedly well but something you have to plan to do. That the extra level of detail, try to shove your opponent off balance before you strike him, or try twice, if necessary, to disarm him? The choice is yours, and this the stakes so high, you had better make the right one.

Already more complex than Coriolis, there is an optional advanced combat option. Looking at it, and half-recalling the alpha version, think this may have gone though a number of revisions, leaving us with the husk of what the designer originally intended. Now, it isn’t a system for the whole fight, but rather for one round.

The choice of whether to use hidden combinations is not made for an entire combat – it’s made for each close combat attack. The GM has final say.

With hidden combinations, the defender doesn’t just get to react, they can if they so choose so both their actions. But both parties must commit to their actions before they know exactly what their opponent has chosen. Assuming the attacker hasn’t already lost an action, they chose two cards and lay them face down. I think that an early version of this mechanic had a card for every fast or slow action defined by the rules. Now however, each card represents a group of actions. A Strike card allows you to chose Slash, Stab, Punch or Grapple for example, and Manoeuvre let’s you Feint or Retreat. The Await card is available to the defender if they prefer to reserve an action for their own place in the initiative order, or of they have used an action reacting to an earlier attack. If they have already used both, there’s no point in using hidden combinations. And so we realise the whole point of hidden combinations, if the attacker doesn’t want their attack to be stymied by a parry, they can use the cards onto properly “feint” rather than simply use the term to swap initiative cards. I will wait hand see how often the option is used.

Ranged combat is much simpler. It’s also good to see social conflict in the combat chapter. Slightly more odd to find here is the page on riding animals. Though I guess they get damaged too.

We’ve talked a lot about damage to your strength attribute, but the other stats can take damage too. Monster have fear attacks that can reduce your wits attribute. And as we covered in chapter three, pushing a roll can result in damage to any attribute you are using. Rest or sleep can help you recover attributes, as long as you are not hungry, thirsty or cold. An opponent made helpless with zero strength or agility can be killed, if you fail an empathy roll, spend a willpower point, and drop a point of empathy. You might decide it better to let them live, or bleed out after all. Just thank your lucky stars you remembered the First Law:

  1. Don’t get hit!

Forbidden Lands – Talents

This post was delayed, not because the chapter is long, but because I am a busy man. Work and study and, yesterday, gaming took me away from the keyboard.

We learned in chapter two that it costs fewer XP to buy or upgrade Talents than it does to buy or upgrade skills. I am down this that, because I find the Talents list very inspiring. The combination of talents that you acquire as you develop your characters will make them truly unique.

So, what makes Talents so special in this game? For a start, these Talents have three levels, which is an idea we gave the guys at Fria Ligan back in … episode three, I think it was, of the Coriolis Effect. What it means in practice is that rank one talents might seem a little underpowered compared to their Coriolis equivalent.

For example, take the Executioner talent, which allows a character to swap the dice on a d66 Critical Injury roll, so the tens becomes units a vice versa. Thus a 16 becomes a 61 if you want. At rank one in Forbidden Lands, you only get a re-roll, so you might only replace your 16 with say, 12 if you are unlucky. You can choose which result to accept though. At rank two however, you get the re-roll and the ability to swaps the tens and ones around. So rank one may seem weaker than a Coriolis Talent, but rank two is definitely better than a Coriolis talent. And rank three?

RANK 3: When you inflict a critical injury on your enemy, you may choose freely from the relevant list.

Boom. Head shot. 66. Every time.

And if you want someone dead, it’s best to do it with a crit. Because it looks from the Coldblooded talent that it’s actually quite hard to kill people. Not because people are tough, you can break people, or be broken frightenly easily. But even though they are down, they might not be dead. If you want to finish them off, in cold blood, you normally have to make a roll to see if you can stomach it, and you have to spend a willpower point or take empathy damage. (I forgot to mention Willpower, you earn willpower for every one you roll when pushing.) Of course it’s all a lot easier if you have the Coldblooded talent.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The first talent you get you don’t chose. Or rather you get with your kin choice. Like in Star Trek Adventures, Humankind are “Adaptive”. Which kind of makes sense, if you think that all the other races, for all their back-stories, are all really a subset of what it means to be human, with some traits pushed to the fore. I don’t blame Fria Ligan for this, it’s the same for all games, which are (so far at least) all written by humans.

The first choice you get is picking one of three Profession talents. And each of these add a distinct “flavour” to your starting character. So, pick Rider for example, and you are a horseman. But there is difference between, for example, the Knights of Westeros and the Dothraki in Game of Thrones, and two of the Rider talents let you flavour your PC to feel more like one of those. The third, the Path of the Companion twists you more towards the Western trope of a lone horseman and his loyal steed, his one true friend.

But it’s the general talents that let you make your character your own. For example, there are three professional talents for fighters, but everyone fights in the Forbidden Lands so the fighting style Talents are open to all. Are you a Brawler, do you carry at Axe, or (again with the Game of Thrones examples – at least I am not still going on about the First Law books) like Grey Worm, are you a Spear Fighter? Using talents thus allows the game to keep the skill list to a neat sixteen, while allowing detail and diversification. So you don’t need to have sailing on the skill list for most characters or campaign even, but when you need it, it’s there as a talent. And level three of that talent, as well as the weapon specialisations, let’s you roll a d8 Artefact die, massively increasing your chance of success. Similarly, you might have the crafting skill, which makes it possible to have a go at making anything, but with talents, you can specialise, as a Smith, Tanner or Tailor.

To close, there are just a few talents I want to mention. The Berserker talent kind of does what I was trying to do with the The Nhamadan Talent or Neural Sheathing in Coriolis, but given that at rank three is only offers the equivalent of three hit points, maybe it does make my attempt somewhat overpowered. Players who don’t like the thought of being manipulated by other PCs or GMCs might want to consider the Incorruptible talent, which offer some defence or at level three means you simply can’t be manipulated. Fearless give you defence against fear attacks. And finally, Pain Resistant rang an alarm bell when I read that “if you take a single point of damage from a close combat attack, you don’t lose your attack in the same step”. I thought for a moment that meant that when I get to the combat rules, I would discover that people without this talent would not be able to counter attack when hit. “Wow” I thought, “this system IS deadly.” But then I noticed that it also says “This talent can only be used if you use the advanced close combat rules.” Phew!

Combat is the next chapter, and it looks like a long one, so again the post might not be out tomorrow.

Forbidden Lands – Skills

The skills chapter also offers the meat of the rules, if only because characters using their skills is the meat of a game like this. Another adaptation of the Year Zero Engine, this returns to its roots, and in doing so reinforces the idea that it’s a post-fantasy-apocalyptic survival game. The push mechanic, like the original Mutant: Year Zero, risks damage, to your character or to your equipment. Because of this, unlike Coriolis or Tales from the Loop (where you pay for pushes differently), you need six sided dice of three different colours – one colour for attributes, at second for skill ranks and another for your weapon or gear bonus. Sixes on any die are successes, ones on Base (Attribute) or Gear dice represent potential damage. Ones have no effect if you don’t push your roll, but if you do choose to re-roll, you can’t use Base or Gear dice showing ones (you can use Skill dice showing ones, as they don’t represent potential damage). Make you re-roll with the dice you have available, and any ones showing on Base dice mean a temporary loss of attribute points for the attribute you used. (There are sixteen skills, four related to each of the four attributes, for example Melee uses the strength attribute). Further more, any ones showing on the gear dice reduce that item’s gear bonus.

Some players might argue that the chance of failure, and the cost of pushing is too high. I have heard a lot of players of Coriolis (none of mine) express their distaste for throwing a handful of dice and getting no successes. I have little sympathy for them, but players of this game are in for a tough time. It’s feels gritty, hard, deadly even. Perhaps that is why the writers have said:

It’s hard to succeed in the Forbidden Lands. If you lack the right gear or friends that can help you, there is a great risk of spectacular failure. With that in mind, you should never roll dice unless it is absolutely necessary. Save the dice for dramatic situations or tough challenges. In any other situation, the GM should simply allow you to perform whatever action you wish.

You can improve your chances of success by getting up to three other characters to help. Each one lets you add a skill dice – the least risky – to your pool. Which raises an interesting question about something that is said under the stealth skill – if more than one PC are sneaking past a guard, only the PC with the lowest skill level rolls. But, can that PC be helped by the others? I like to think yes.

Another way to improve your chances is to use master-crafted or magical gear, which brings a brand new mechanic to the d6 centric Year Zero Engine. These weapons and artefacts can add an extra d8, d10 or d12 to your roll. Any result above five is a success. Eight and nine are worth two success, ten or eleven means three successes and a roll of twelve is equal to four successes, which means of course that a d12 has 50/50 chance of success on its own.

Even without a magical weapon, once per game you can add a d12 to any role related to your pride, after you have rolled and even pushed. But if you still fail you lose your pride, and can’t choose a new one to the session after next.

Most of the skills themselves are pretty self explanatory, but there are a couple that deserve a more detailed look at. Performance for example includes the ability to heal wits or empathy damage. Animal handling confers the ability not just to ride but to command tame animals, and even to tame wild animals. Crafting is a Strength based skill that every soldier should take a rank in. It includes the ability to repair your weapons after pushing them. And like so many things I have read so far, it makes me think of the First Law books and especially The Heroes – the day by day account of a single battle, wherein everyone who is any good at soldiering spends time maintaining their weapons. It’s not just about repair though, with the right raw materials and time, you can make things from scratch.

And with the right talent, these can very impressive things too.

Forbidden Lands – Your Characters

The first thing that strikes me on reading the chapter on character generation is a similarity with Symbaroum – humans are portrayed as the invaders. When I started playing these games, the fantasy trope was of humankind threatened by the “other” be it dark Lords, orcish hordes or whatever. There may be something clever to say here, about the American concept of Manifest Destiny, and post-colonial European guilt, but it’s too early in the morning to get my head around that.

Let’s stick to the simple things. The races or “Kin” players can chose for their character are human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, halfling, wolfkin, orc, and goblin. Most of these are par for the fantasy RPG course. Traveller’s Vargyr make an appearance as the Wolfkin (ie wolf-men rather than werewolves), relatively rare in other fantasy rulesets. Orcs or half-orcs are common PC’s in F20 games, but there are no half-orcs here. The goblins are an interesting addition, though I am sure you can play goblins in D&D, it’s not one the basic options in the players handbook. This games take on goblins is an interesting one too – goblins are the “dark” brothers of the halflings. Not that there isn’t a pretty dark side behind the halfling smiles, which comes out in their description.

Indeed each description is very much from the point of view of that Kin, and to read most of them it’s hard to believe anyone would co-operate with another Kin enough to form a functioning party. But you have to remember, these PCs are rogues and outcasts from their own societies, and will have to get along with each other to survive. You also get an idea that each kin’s story is their own foundation myth – elves dwarves and orcs all blame each other for failing to keep the invading humans in their place. Somewhere between all their legends might lie the truth.

Then you get to chose a profession. Your profession doesn’t limit your character development as much as a D&D except in one way – you can never learn another profession’s unique talents. But there is nothing stopping you learning their skills, as long as you spend the XP. Your choice of profession then allows you to start with some skills that you are good at – every profession has a list of thee skills that you can start at up to rank three. All the rest you choose can only start at rank one. How many points do you get o allocate? Well, that depends … Every PC except elves get to choose whether they are young, adult or old. Elves (not half-elves) are ageless, and so are all adult. Your age determines how many points you get to spend on attributes and skills. Young PCs get the most attributes points and fewest skill points. The older you are, the more talents you get too.

This a quick and easy character generation system, but they mention an optional method of randomly generating a character in the separate pamphlet named Legends & Adventurers, “if you want to spend more time”. I am not convinced it would take more time. I find most of the time spent in modern point-buy systems like this is in reading all the options. Rolling the dice takes that time away, you can read about what you have created later.

Anyhow, however you have chosen your kin and profession, and allocated your points it’s time to choose a pride and a dark secret. Your pride has a mechanical effect, once per session if you fail a roll related to your pride, you can roll an extra d12, with an extra 50/50 chance of success. Your dark secret is a hook for the GM to narratively mess with you, but if it comes up in the story you get an extra XP.

You need define to your relationships with the rest of the party. This sometimes feels a bit clunky to me, and in Coriolis, I have suggested to my latest party that they don’t need to do so until after a couple of sessions. I guess in Coriolis you can change the nature of the relationships, but in this game it’s made explicit:

After the end of a game session, you are free to redefine your relationships to the other PCs as you see fit.

You can similarly change your dark secret if you so desire.

Your profession itemises some gear that you have, and a number of things you can pick from the equipment list. You also get a small amount of money, and can spend that if you desire. And some consumables like food and water. But beware, the game has a simple but potentially punishing encumbrance mechanic. Encumbrance is a thing I have hand-waved in pretty much every game that’s had it. But not this one, which at its heart is a wilderness survival game. This system is maths free and easy to check. So it WILL be used, and woe betide the character that ventures into the desert over encumbered. With the wilderness survival theme in mind, the game uses resource usage dice, which I first saw in Cortex+ Firefly, but many credit to the Black Hack for consumables. The intention is to make resource tracking easy and pleasurable, and to add risk to expeditions without adding accountancy.

Finally players are prompted to describe their character and choose a name. There’s a nice little feature earlier in the chapter to help with this – each Kin has male and female name suggestions, and every profession has nickname suggestions. So together your Wolfkin Druid might be Kekoa Windwalker. Or if he is a fighter, Kekoa Grimjaw. A lot of what I have been reading makes me think of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series of novels, but nothing more so than the Rogue nickname Half-finger. (“Still alive…”)

Then we move on to Experience and Reputation. The XP cost of advancement is a lot more demanding than in Coriolis. In that game, each skill level costs just five points. In this version of the system, it’s five times the level you are aiming for, so mov8mg from level two to three costs fifteen points! Talents are generally cheaper, with a multiple of only three times the rank. Except magic – if you can’t find a teacher, the cost is tripled again!

There are narrative costs for other talents and skill too. For example:

Learning a new skill (at skill level 1) costs 5 XP. Also, you must either have used the skill and succeeded (without skill level) during the session, or be instructed by a teacher (at skill level 1 or more) during a Quarter Day.

The reputation mechanic looks better than the sledgehammer-nutcracker version in Coriolis. Young characters have zero reputation, old characters two. Those are the dice you roll to see if anyone recognises you (which makes me think that perhaps young characters don’t get a nickname until they have earned it, like the Northmen in the First Law books). Deeds you do, good or bad may earn you another point. Your Reputation may well impact Manipulate rolls just like they do in Coriolis, but in this game, the bonus will be well deserved.