Close encounters with death in the Forbidden Lands

Involving mishaps, con artistry and copious fruit knives

A damp evening settles in over the Forbidden Lands as a caravan pulls up to a walled village to pass the night. The walls mark the years spent living within grasp of the Blood Mist, where stepping foot outside your door could be the first step to doom. With the mist now dispersed and the decades of isolation ended, three newfound friends walk away from the caravan and set out for a taste of adventure. Adventure, as they will find, has a taste for flesh.

Forbidden Lands is a brand new roleplaying system and setting created by Free League Publishing and based upon their previous system, Mutant: Year Zero. Inspired by eighties roleplaying aesthetics and the art of Nils Gulliksson, its rulebooks are packed with fantastical drawings, plenty of world information and, of course, details on how to play. Currently open to late pledges on Kickstarter, the boxed and PDF versions will be ready to ship soon.

An image of the Forbidden Lands core set — an illustrated box, a map, a GM guide and a player rulebook.
Forbidden Lands’ core set should be ready to ship soon. Image credit: Free League Publishing.

We’ve been lucky enough to take a look at an early version of this ruleset and managed to bring together a group of players to go through one of the premade adventure sites. The thoughts we’re about to share with you are based entirely off the digital assets — we hope to continue our campaign and tell you about additional products closer to release.

The setting — The Forbidden Lands

While Forbidden Lands, like many roleplaying systems, can be applied to any setting you choose, it comes with its own world history and a separate campaign, Raven’s Purge, that ties into current affairs.

History

We won’t reveal too much of the history here — that’s what the books are for, after all — but it’s got all the key components. You have tales of how each species came to the land (along with different interpretations on the same myths, which inevitably lead to violent differences of opinion). You have a history of enmity amongst species, of one kin using another for their own gain, of sideways glances and gruff superiority. You have kings; you have warfare; you have betrayal.

And among it all, the dark thread of sorcery weaves the stories of Forbidden Lands together. A spellbinder once unleashed demons upon the landscape and they continue to terrorise the valley to this day. Sealed off and banished from the rest of the world, the Forbidden Lands have become home to monsters: man, demon and sorcerous experiment alike. Most recently, a mist descended that prevented extended periods of travel, isolating communities even more.

Races

Living amongst this mess are the survivors of history’s strife: dwarves, elves, half-elves, humans, orcs, halflings, goblins and wolfkin. While these may sound quite standard at first, their descriptions hold some interesting variations from the norm. Of particular interest is the fact that elves’ lives are contained within a gem set in the centre of their body and they can be regrown from it — with difficulty — even if their body is destroyed.

An illustration of an orc by Nils Gulliksson.
If you’re up for a role-playing challenge, try playing an orc. Image credit: Free League Publishing.

Orcs are what may be considered the ‘hard mode’ option, as they were made to fight for the elves and dwarves against humans. Now free, they are feared and hated by most others — and freely hate in return. Halflings and goblins have a surprisingly dark relationship, but we don’t want to spoil it. Wolfkin are wolven humanoids who believe themselves to be the natural humanoid form. Don’t try to tell one otherwise.

Adventure sites

As we mentioned earlier, the Blood Mist has receded and people are free to travel the land once more, if they dare. This means there’s plenty of scope for adventure, so Forbidden Lands provides a framework for you to easily create your own adventure site by rolling — although of course you can be more flexible in your approach.

Free League Publishing have also produced an overarching campaign book to go with Forbidden Lands, which contains a large number of premade adventure sites, which presumably fit into the story made available in the campaign itself. If you don’t purchase the Raven’s Purge campaign book, however, you still have access to a handful of premade adventure sites in the GM’s guide. We chose one of these to base our session around.

But what is an adventure site? Well, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin — a two-page spread details the appearance of the site in the same artwork as the rest of the book, with each area of interest numbered. You can refer to these numbers in the notes, which give a more detailed description, including mention of any characters or events that might be there. The characters and events themselves have their own descriptions, along with any stats you need should you end up fighting them. There’s even a legend you can have the adventurers hear about beforehand.

Wendin the dwarf dips his toe in the moat. ‘This had better not be one of those moats with monsters in it,’ he says. A tentacle pulls him into the depths.

Our only criticism with regards to these is that things can be a little bit vague in places. In the site we played, a fallen bell was described lying in detritus in the ravine underneath a drawbridge, but it wasn’t clear where this corresponded to on the drawing. An extra label (perhaps 7a) would have made this more obvious without having to squint at the description during the session.

On a similar note, having a key on the same page as the diagram would have been incredibly useful — the notes stretch across many pages, so you can forget which number corresponds to what location if you’re viewing a PDF version (you can just stick a finger in the physical copy, but it would still help).

Creating characters

Creating characters for Forbidden Lands is thankfully about as simple as in standard D&D or Pathfinder and comes with an option to make things simpler (or more interesting) still. We sold our souls to the will of the dice and, for expediency’s sake, decided to roll completely random characters using the Legends & Adventurers booklet.

This process takes around half an hour — probably a good deal less if you’re already familiar with the rules. The booklet takes you through your character’s entire life to date: their kin (race), childhood, profession and a formative event, among other categories. In combination, these decide your starting attributes, talents and skills.

You could start the game as a young character then, but there’s also the option to roll another formative event to become an adult at the cost of one attribute point. You can do likewise to transition to an old character. In this way, you gain extra skills and talents, but lose some of the raw value underpinning them. There are different tables to roll on for each kin and profession, so there’s a good mix of characters you can end up with.

So it was through this process of randomness that we ended up with Wendin, the incredibly racist dwarf; Thl’Chalpo, a human con-artist also known as ‘EA’; and Tom, a human druid with serious mortality issues. They became friends whilst huddling together under an overhang for shelter as their caravan was halted by a violent thunderstorm, a situation that quickly turned into an all-night bender and left them hungover for the beginning of the adventure (somehow to no ill effect).

This trio of circumstances may seem a far-fetched meeting, and in hindsight, it is possible that I misread one roll as three. In any case, it was a fun process and a part of me prefers random generation to custom characters, as it can better force you out of your comfort zone with new and varied characters. I was a little sad no one rolled a wolfkin or a goblin, though.

Playing characters

So, it’s time for a whistlestop tour of what Forbidden Lands’ characters are all about.

A set of black cards with illustrations of objects such as a crown and a sword.
A set of custom cards will enhance the gameplay experience when Forbidden Lands releases. Image credit: Free League Publishing.

More important than anything else are the four attributes: Strength, Agility, Wits and Empathy. Each point in an attribute is an extra die rolled for relevant abilities. All damage in Forbidden Lands is attribute-based, so they also serve as a kind of hit points for each category. Drop to zero and your character is broken. Further damage, other conditions or the passage of time may then kill you, but more on that later. All in all, it’s a nice system that leaves a variety of strategies open to players, depending on the type of damage they can deal.

There are, of course, a few skills based on the core attributes — sixteen in total. You can take levels in each, which affect the number of dice you roll for checks. You can make a check with a skill you don’t have levels in by using zero skill dice.

Confident in his healing abilities, Tom the druid wraps Wendin’s shattered foot with ease. A little too aggressive when tying it off, his elbow jerks back and breaks the dwarf’s nose. This was, categorically, not a success.

What you’ll spend the most time on when levelling up, much like feats in Pathfinder and D&D, are talents. These cover a wide range of abilities, from herbalism to necromancy, and each has three levels with additional benefits as you reach them. In general, these make certain actions easier; provide resistance to certain attacks or conditions; grant access to a higher tier of spells; or unlock certain abilities, like crafting advanced items. Magic is split into a number of different disciplines, each of which can be taken as a talent with the proper instruction.

Because of the varying effects of talents, it’s useful to note them down on your character sheet to remember them. Other than that, they’re suitably functional, but very expensive to level up in — especially magic. While we have no problem with the relative expense, we think experience itself could perhaps do with a little boost in places.

There are two meters to consider for your character: Willpower and Experience. Experience is what it says on the tin, although it comes in the form of points awarded from a checklist after the game session and you can spend these points on improvements for your character. It is rather pricey to level up, though — after two four-hour sessions, our characters only had enough to learn one new skill. This is probably meant to highlight the difficulty of improving, but some GMs may want to add an item or two to their checklist if the session covers different areas of gameplay to those addressed in the standard list.

A photo of Thl'Chalpo's filled-in character sheet.
The character sheets create a fun space to keep track of everything that’s going on — and there’s an equivalent sheet for any strongholds you decide to build.

Willpower, on the other hand, is rather more fundamental. It’s the basis for all spells and some talents, but more on that later. Suffice to say, you need to keep track of it.

When it comes to roleplaying, two features to pay attention to are your character’s Pride and Dark Secret. The Pride is something they are proud of and can be used to grant an extra roll in situations where the Pride is applicable — if you’re proud of being able to track anything, you can use it to reroll a tracking roll. But if you fail, your faith in your ability is shaken and you have to choose something else to find pride in.

Dark Secrets are fuel for roleplaying only and dealing with them can lead to extra experience at the end of the session. They also act as a convenient hook for the GM to work player-centric stories around, in longer campaigns. They are secret though, so you must replace them once they’re revealed.

Another roleplaying aid is Relationships, which are updated each session and describe what you think of each character in the party. The character sheet only has space for four of these, so parties with more than five players will need to use the margins or divide the space in half. The example relationships in the rulebook can be quite fun to work with — our human con artist believed the racist-to-humans dwarf was his ticket to riches. Surprisingly, this came true rather early in the session.

Thl’Chalpo keeps a beady eye on Wendin as he heads out of the door. Unconsciously fingering his coin purse, he smiles at the thought of conning the old women around the fire out of their savings. He loves it when a plan comes together. Time to ‘kill’ a troublesome dwarf.

Required materials

This is where it can get a little tricker with a digital copy, but a little bit of improvisation goes a long way.

The rulebook recommends playing with one or more sets of: one eight-sided, ten-sided and twelve-sided die along with ten to fifteen six-sided dice in three different colours. Having played with that combination, we’d say you may want more six-sided dice, at least if you’re the GM. If you don’t buy the official set (we’ll let you know if there are enough dice in there when we see them), getting a few different colours of those cheap sets of twenty-four six-sided dice is a good idea. That way you have enough for you for certain, and can lend extra to the players as needed.

A photo of the set of dice recommended to play the game. In total there are 10D6, 1D8, 1D10 and 1D12. The D6 are in three different colours.
Dig deep in the dice drawer — you’ll probably want to use more than this.

You can print character sheets straight from the digital rulebook, although we hope they will be made available as a separate document upon release, as the paper size gave us some issues trying to print them in the right position on the page. An A4 version in particular would grant a few more lines, but it may be too late to make a bigger variant. In any case, the sheets are well laid out, with a handful of eye-catching icons and every inch designed to fit the theme.

The rest of our experience had two drawbacks from using the digital version — we had no physical map and no quick-reference sheet. We improvised the map by revealing hexes one at a time, drawing them by hand on a hex board, but that was difficult to keep on top of. With the quick-reference sheet, we tried to note down everything important on our own improvised GM screen, but ran out of time.

Both map and GM screen will be available for physical purchase upon release, so this isn’t a big issue, and it’s not too difficult to improvise a map if you’re really averse to buying one (but considering the maps look like they’ll be great quality and the box set includes two, we’d recommend getting one). The screen’s cover image looks good, but we’re not sure what information it contains — we would have been grateful for a couple of summary pages in both the player and GM guide, as it takes a few reads to get everything right in your head and having a recap would have made remembering easier. It’s doubtful this would affect screen sales — they’re always a nice thing to have, especially when well made.

Exploring the world

Exploration takes more of a regimented appearance than in D&D (or any session we’ve played, anyway). Your party decides their activities every morning, daytime, evening and night. It can be difficult to keep track of at first, but you soon get used to it. There are many activities to choose from each quarter day, including foraging, making camp, sleeping and exploring an adventure site. This passage of time serves as the basis for several illnesses and conditions. You have to sleep, eat and drink every day, after all.

For the sake of brevity (which we haven’t exercised much so far in this review), we’ll mention in passing that Forbidden Lands has a wide selection of random-encounter tables for several different scenarios, including guarded and unguarded strongholds. There are also several rules for different climates, seasons, terrain and sightlines for different activities Both are open to expansion (for instance there isn’t a rule for deserts yet, but you could easily sandwich this in). Your characters also possess a reputation, which affects how many NPCs have heard of them when first they meet.

At the sudden and toasty appearance of a nearby forest fire, Wendin and Thl’Chalpo leap to safety. Perhaps distraught at the loss of so many trees, Tom the druid runs straight into the flames before making a hasty detour to the river.

A map of the Forbbiden Lands.
The varying terrain and seasons of the Forbbiden Lands leads to different effects as you explore. Image credit: Free League Publishing.

To save space in your inventory (which is pretty cool and simple — every line holds a regular-weight item, with lines equal to double your base Strength score), resources work on a different system. Food, water, arrows and torches each work via resource dice. Each time you consume something, you roll to see if you drop a die category or not. We forgot to do this for arrows, but it worked well for food and water. It does lead to an odd situation where, if you rolled ridiculously well, you could eat for days with one unit of food and not run out for a week.

Forgetting to eat, drink or sleep can lead to disaster, as well as exposure to the elements or over-exertion. This is where Forbidden Lands has some brilliant conditions for your characters to suffer. Many of these mean you can’t heal one or more attribute while you’re suffering. All of them lead to death if you don’t address them fast enough. Again, this is open to expansion (like heat exposure instead of just cold exposure).

Staying alive

Having an attribute reduced to zero means you’re broken, and can mean you have to roll for a critical injury (which is always fun and sometimes lethal). It also provides some interesting roleplaying opportunities for the type of damage you take. Broken Empathy may seem akin to a nervous breakdown, while broken Agility can see your character become a wheezing mess on the floor.

Tom and Wendin crawl across mounds of shifting debris, groaning as they drag themselves along the ground. Nearby, a desperate Thl’Chalpo draws yet another fruit knife from his bag of trade goods and lunges past a stabbing scorpion tail to attack the monster it belongs to.

All injuries can be healed and broken characters restored, but there’s always a risk of failure. Spells are guaranteed successes but require willpower to activate and could feasibly suck your spellcaster through to another dimension, never to be seen again. The healing skill, or attempts to emulate, it can also do some good, but is more prone to outright failure. The risk is there. If it isn’t urgent, a full rest will heal all attribute points.

Fight or flight

Coming into the game for the first time, the most long-lived issue for game masters will probably be working out what to throw at players. Of course, the Witcher-style ‘run if it’s scary’ approach applies, but if you want a fight your party will almost certainly walk away from, you’ll have to eyeball it.

One monster seemed to be a hard fight for a party of three, but each monster is different. It would be nice for some indication of difficulty for a monster, especially as it’s easier to make things stronger than it is to make them weak (the GM guide recommends adding actions per turn to increase difficulty).

Combat itself is quite standard. You draw initiative, then have (as standard) a couple of actions to take (choosing from fast or slow actions). Initiative is different in Forbidden Lands; you draw numbered cards from a pack of ten and go in order from number one. Some abilities let you draw two and choose one. This could become an issue with large numbers of both enemies and players, but you could always add another suit to the deck or group enemies.

It’s a bit tricky for players to get used to the dice system at first, if they’re more familiar with D20 systems. In Forbidden Lands, you roll six-sided dice for every point or level in your base attribute, the skill you’re using and any weapon or gear bonus. This is why you need all the different colours. And each die has a different effect when you roll a one. With enough practice, it could make for quite fluid gameplay, but there’s a steep learning curve.

An illustration of a draconic monster by Nils Gulliksson.
Keep an eye out for monsters as you travel — and be prepared to run. Image credit: Free League Publishing.

Success is indicated by a six. As long as you’ve got one, you pass, although more can have extra effects or do more damage, so more is preferable if the enemy has armour that can negate some damage. Helmets can also negate some critical wounds. As mentioned earlier, spells always succeed but extra sixes increase their power and ones cause magical mishaps — these can do anything from making your character paranoid to summoning a demon.

We won’t go into too much detail about the particulars of combat, but one of our complaints with it was that the default Dodge action always left your character prone unless you suffered a -2 modifier (which means you roll two dice against your normal roll and sixes cancel out). You could say that whether an enemy hits in the first place is the result of light dodging and the Dodge action is a more drastic, panicking measure, but our players felt it was too much a penalty, as you must then get up from the floor.

Thl’Chalpo dives to the ground and the tail slices the air above his head. Now out of the way, he gives Wendin just enough time to see the deathly blur before it catches him full in the face.

Forbidden Lands does have an advanced combat system which adds a bit more spice into the standard mix. We read through all the rules and it seems an interesting optional ruleset, but we didn’t try it out in our session. This is for two reasons:

  1. The rules say it requires the deck of cards available upon release (we reckon we could improvise).
  2. They’re advanced for a reason. New players already familiarising with the combat system would probably have a hard time adjusting to this on top of that.

In any case, the advanced combat system is best described as a kind of rock, paper, scissors, where you pit hidden moves against your opponent and hope you get the right one.

Pushing your luck

We’ve mentioned that success is a six, but what happens if you don’t get the result you want?

This is when you can push the dice, rerolling in the hope of a better outcome — but this comes at a cost. While ones don’t mean anything on your first roll, they have consequences on a push. This depends on which die it’s on, hence the number of colours required. Ones either mean some gear deteriorates or you take some attribute damage. Thankfully, reaching zero in an attribute while pushing can never kill you, but it does mean you’re broken. Tom the druid was particularly fond of pushing himself over the edge.

Gear can be repaired, but you need to have the right materials and skills to do so and a failure there can mean permanent damage.

The thing with pushing dice is that the act of doing so can grant your character a point of willpower. We got this completely wrong in our session (boy oh boy do we hope the rules around this are on the GM screen somewhere) and had it so pushing your roll always gave you willpower points. This shouldn’t be the case — you should only gain them when you take attribute damage from a pushed roll. This clears up a conundrum we faced whereby Thl’Chalpo could summon infinite trade goods as long as he pushed his luck all the time. The stakes with the proper rules are suitably higher.

Ah, well. It was fun killing monsters with an infinite pool of fruit knives while it lasted. Still, this just goes to show that getting used to the combat/dice rules can be a significant challenge for GM and players alike.

To sum it up…

Forbidden Lands is, to our minds, a great system to pick up and start playing, fantastic in its brutality and depth. There are a few minor details we feel could be improved upon, but overall it’s a solid experience delivered with a generous serving of style. While it will doubtless take a little while to get used to the rules, for GM and players, we consider it well worth the task. If you order the physical set, especially with the GM screen and card deck, you’ll be well placed to take your adventures out into the wilds and into the dark.

Forbidden Lands has been successfully funded on Kickstarter and should begin shipping some time around November. You can put in a late pledge to receive your copy on the campaign page.

A banner advertising the Forbidden Lands Kickstarter campaign.
Image credit: Free League Publishing.

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