If your imagination runs dry when you are about to describe an NPC or a ruin? Let a player describe it instead.
Review in Summary
Published by Free League and lead designer Tomas Härenstam in 2021, Forbidden Lands is a fantasy RPG in which the players play adventurers carving out an existence in a cursed world full of danger of all sorts. Adventurers are very human, monsters are very monstrous, you still need to eat to live, and success is nowhere near guaranteed.
Forbidden Lands isn’t quite as rules light (or as brutal) as Mörk Borg, but it’s also not as crunchy or superheroic as DnD or pathfinder. It hits a nice middle point in complexity while still managing to elegantly handle simulationist mechanics around travel, survival, crafting, and maintaining a home base which quickly turn into a series of spreadsheets in many RPGs. The variety of character options makes characters mechanically diverse and gives players clear hooks into the story of the forbidden lands, and there’s plenty of room for characters who enjoy the mechanical aspects of the game to explore without requiring less mechanically-inclined players to follow along.
Players are encouraged to make their mark on the world both figuratively and literally. The core rules come in a box set with a map, and players are intended to permanently mark the map as they play, creating a permanent and unique artifact for your group. Considering that one of the Ennies was for Best Cartography, a suitably well-used map might be a cherished piece of art for your gaming group worthy of decorating whatever space you play in.
Forbidden Lands took home 4 Ennies the year it was published, and I can absolutely see why. The game is cool, the rules are good, the books are beautiful, and reading the game got me excited to play.
Raiders and Rogues in a Cursed World
The Forbidden Lands are a dangerous place, and at times the adventurers will face overpowering opposition.
This isn’t DnD. This isn’t One Ring. Forbidden Lands makes no assertions that you’re somehow the heroes, and it doesn’t box you into an alignment to try and describe your characters’ philosophical outlook. The game is intentionally hard to survive. Combat is deadly. Travel is deadly. Starvation is entirely possible. You might have a rough day, catch lice, become Broken, and die cold and alone.
But this also isn’t Mörk Borg where characters are made of paper. You might go the distance. Raid enough dungeons, and you might live long enough to get rich and famous. You might build yourself a stronghold. Maybe it’s just a modest house, or maybe you refurbish an old castle or even build one of your own. Maybe you have ambitions about carving out a kingdom for yourself. But be prepared to defend it all.
Throwing the Bones
Sooner or later, you will end up in situations where the outcome is uncertain, no matter how skilled you are.
Forbidden Lands uses a slightly modified version of the Year Zero Engine’s dice pool system. Players will need 15d6 of three different colors for “base” dice, skill dice, and gear dice, plus one each of d8, d10, and d12 as “artifact dice”. Rolling dice generates “successes” and potentially skull symbols on a 1 which only matter if you “push” your roll.
Pushing your roll allows you to reroll any dice which doesn’t have a 1 (a skull) or a success symbol (6 or higher on a d6, d8, d10, or d12). This gives you another shot at succeeding at the cost of possibly taking damage and/or damaging equipment. This has the hilarious side-effect that you could make a skill check, push the check, take damage, and become “Broken”. This becomes extra funny when you do this while trying to heal an ally.
You suffer 1 point of damage per skull on your base dice and your items degrade by 1 for each skull on the gear dice, but you also get one point of Willpower for each point of damage that you take. Willpower is a generic resource spent to activate cool stuff about your character like using talents and casting spells. The rules specifically discourage rolling dice frequently because it makes it too easy to generate Willpower. If you’re a player, try to abide by this. I understand the temptation to intentionally hurt yourself then use Healing to rack up a bunch of free Willpower.
Character Creation and Advancement
Talk it through and let the whole group discuss what has happened.
Characters are built by choosing your Kin (race, ancestry, species, etc.), Profession (class), Pride (something your character is personally proud of about themselves), Dark Secret, Relationships to the other party members, Attributes (ability scores), Age, and Talents (feats). Attributes range from 2 to 6 and do not increase, so high starting attributes are extremely impactful. Older characters get fewer attributes but more starting skills and general talents, which is allows some interesting trades when building your character.
Advancement is point-based. Characters earn XP by answering questions at the end of a session (Did you play? Did your pride/secret come up?) similar to other Year Zero Engine games. Players spend XP to buy skills and talents, and must spend some time training and succeed on a Wits roll to learn new talents, so characters who aren’t very smart might need some help to learn things. Learning magic talents notably requires a teacher unless you spend a massively larger amount of experience, so spellcaster players either need to get really good at checking the XP boxes or they need to befriend other spellcasters within the game.
While characters can advance quite a bit via skills and talents, your attributes don’t increase after character creation. This presents a challenge because they also act as pools of hit points. Injuries commonly damage Strength or Agility, while mental effects drain Wits or Empathy. Reducing any to 0 makes you “broken”, which isn’t dead but you’re also not going anywhere. This means that even with a mountain of experience, your sorcerer might have 2 Strength and die by being stabbed with a knife by a disgruntled farmer.
Swords and Occasionally Sorcery
It is up to you as a player to describe exactly what your adventurer does, how they look doing it, and what they feel when they raise their sword to strike…
If you’ve read or played ALIEN or One Ring, Vaesen, or other Year Zero Engine games, the combat rules will feel familiar.
Forbidden Lands using the combat system largely common to Year Zero Engine games. Initiative is determined by drawing cards. Positioning uses zones and range bands. Characters have a small number of hit points before suffering critical injuries.
Gear is very similar to One Ring, but there are a few more armor and weapon options. Weapons deal a fixed number of damage modified by your successes. Weapons deal 1 to 3 damage plus any successes rolled, which is terrifying when characters might have just 2 Strength (Strength is also your hit points). You can get up to 6 Strength if you build around doing so, but most characters will fall in the 2 to 4 range, so getting hit even once might mean a critical injury.
Turns include a fast action and a slow action, which can be used for things like attacking, parrying, casting spells, etc. Talents can give you more ways to use the action economy, such as making it a fast action instead of a slow action to attack with a knife or allowing you to parry once for free each round. Stretching the action economy is crucial in combat, and being able to Dodge and/or Parry effectively is the difference between life and death.
Magic is mechanically simple, but very few characters can use it. There aren’t a huge number of spells (additional supplements have introduced more), but there are enough to get the job done, and what’s there will cover all your classic fantasy tropes like turning into animals, magical healing, raising the dead, and summoning creatures to fight for you. Magic is broken into “disciplines” which include a handful of related spells like the Healing discipline and the Blood Magic discipline. Spells are cast by spending Willpower, and spending more makes them stronger similar to upcasting a spell in DnD.
When every piece of food counts, you count every piece of food
It demands a delicate touch – the adventurers should have to struggle for the resources, but not so hard that the effort isn’t worth the reward.
Forbidden Lands certainly isn’t unique among RPGs which seek to make things like combat and traps deadly, but it sets itself apart with the simulationist aspects of the game. Characters need to track consumables like good using a somewhat abstract resource system that strikes a wonderful balance between counting every arrow and simply ignoring consumables as a concept, two extremes which people frequently embrace in games like DnD.
Fresh food collected in the wilderness spoils if it’s not cooked and preserved by a trained chef (either one of the players or someone running an inn). You need to properly make camp or risk the impact of poor sleep and the effects of cold weather. These dangers don’t go away as your characters grow more powerful, though greater skill in Survival can mitigate them somewhat by making failure mathematically unlikely, but that will take time and cost a lot of experience.
Consumables are tracked using “supply dice” ranging from d6 to d12 rather than tracking specific units of food, etc. Rolling poorly lowers the die one step (or removes the die if you’re at a d6), so a lucky character might limp along on a d6 worth of drinkable water for a few days, or an unlucky one might go from a d12 to dehydration in a few days. This makes consumables intentionally abstract but still meaningful. Carrying capacity is very strictly limited (mounts help), so players can’t haul barrels of water and beef jerky around to make survival a non-factor.
ALIEN uses the same supply dice mechanic, so if you’ve already read ALIEN this should feel familiar.
These rules become especially important while traveling. The rules for Journeys feel similar to One Ring, though where One Ring emphasizes more fantastic dangers like orc ambushes or being lost in unexplored lands, Forbidden Lands focuses more on how much it sucks to be outside. Swarms of mosquitoes, ill effects of cold weather, lack of sleep, and eating spoiled food are all things that can humble even the most powerful adventurer.
Strongholds and Hirelings
As your Reputation scores rise, the risk increases that your stronghold will attract unwelcome visitors
Experienced and wealthy characters may eventually acquire a stronghold. This permanent base provides several benefits including a safe place to sleep, train, and repair equipment. However, it also presents a persistent liability because an undefended stronghold is vulnerable to mishaps. Even a well-defended stronghold might also be subject to a siege (yes, there are siege rules, and they’re awesome).
To maintain and defend your stronghold, you’ll need to hire and pay hirelings. These hirelings have a range of roles, each providing special benefits like growing food, crafting arrows, defending your stronghold, and tending one of the “special functions” which you can build into your stronghold, such as gardens, libraries, and shrines.
In a way, getting far enough in the game to acquire a stronghold changes it from a low-powered dungeon fantasy game into a combination management simulator. The system is simple enough to not be a huge headache, and players are absolutely free to ignore if they prefer to remain murder-hobos.
This Box Feels Like a “Legacy” Game
There are also stickers for grave sites to be placed on the map if one of your adventurers dies.
If you’re curious about Forbidden Lands but not ready to take the plunge, start with the free Quickstart Rules (affiliate link). Once you’re ready to take the plunge, move up to the core rules box set.
The core rules for Forbidden Lands are published in a box set which includes the Player’s Handbook, the Gamemaster’s Guide, the Legends and Adventurer’s booklet (a soft-cover booklet of random tables to generate both random player characters and random monsters), a full-color map of the forbidden lands, and a sheet of stickers with which to permanently (yes, permanently) mark your personal copy of the map. Dice are notably omitted, but you’ll be just fine with existing dice unless you need some more click-clack math rocks.
If you’re fortunate enough to play in person, you can grab physical copies from Amazon (affiliate link). As much as I would love for you to click that affiliate link, it’s a much better deal to get the physical set, the PDFs, and Foundry VTT package all in one from the Free League store. The whole bundle costs less than the 5e Player’s Handbook.
If that’s not enough to keep you busy, Forbidden Lands has been out for a while and has several accessories and supplements to enjoy:
|The Bitter Reach||Rules expansion. New profession, new spells, new talents. Also a new setting and a full-length campaign||Physical||Digital|
|The Bitter Reach Map+Cards Pack||Map of bitter reach and item cards||Physical||Digital|
|Card Pack||Cards for items, mounts, combat, initiative, and rules reference||Digital|
|Crypt of the Mellified Mage||4 adventure sites||Digital|
|Dice||Custom dice for Forbidden Lands||Physical|
|GM Screen||Features art from Raven’s Purge cover||Physical|
|Raven’s Purge||224-page full-length sandbox campaign||Physical||Digital|
|The Spire of Quetzel||4 adventure sites||Digital|
Free League also recently kickstarted Book of Beasts and Bloodmarch.
In several places throughout the book, small amounts of text from a previous section spill over into the next section, leaving half a sentence of unrelated text orphaned at the top of a page. Headings for major sections are buried half-way down a page because the previous section wasn’t quite done yet. This makes reading and searching through the book frustrating at times. This could be simply addressed with a little bit of reformatting or very slightly expanding the page count to make more room.
The section on social conflict (basically the rules for talking to other creatures) are buried in the Combat chapter. I understand that it’s a conflict, but the text is sandwiched between the section on ranged combat and the list of weapon stats. If I didn’t already know it was there, I wouldn’t know it was in the rules at all.
Like many of Free League’s games, balancing combat for the players is basically guesswork. The Gamemaster’s Guide has a tiny section on “Opposition” which gives some extremely vague guidelines, but beyond that you’re on your own. Granted, the freeform nature of talents doesn’t ensure that players advance along any clear power progression as they do in level-based games like DnD, so it’s difficult to reduce this to a formula. I don’t know how I’d fix this problem, but it does present a challenge for GMs. Expect to kill a few players by accident. It’s a dangerous world.
Looking at the list of available supplements and accessories, the original card pack (which is discussed in the player’s handbook) is no longer available in physical format. Similarly, the original map isn’t available separately from the core rules box set. For players coming to the game late in its lifetime (like me) or for people who want to revisit the original map, having those items available for sale would be helpful. Of course, I’m writing this in 2022 in a world where global supply chains are a mess, so it feels unfair to complain about the availability of physical goods for a niche gaming product.
Conclusion and summary of personal opinions
Forbidden Lands has a lot to offer. It’s the first TTRPGs I’ve read in which the rules for survival actually feel functional, but also don’t feel like a nightmare to play. The rules for crafting feel less abstract than simply throwing gold into a pot and stirring until an item comes out, but still don’t require so much detail that a spreadsheet is required. The rules for strongholds are interesting, and add an additional aspect of play part-way into the game once the players have established themselves enough to support it.
The interior art of Forbidden Lands feels like an evolved version of the art from early editions of DnD. Black and white drawings of heroes, monsters, items, and fantastic locations. Depictions of goblins, orcs, and halflings are pleasantly reminiscent of the animated version of The Hobbit from the late 70’s. Some of the art has very clear Conan the Barbarian inspiration.
Many of the depicted characters’ hairstyles feel inspired by the ‘70’s. But all of that has been perfectly refined to carry that same adventurous feel of early TTRPGs but with a level of detail and artistry that feels at home among today’s games. The Player’s Handbook’s cover art stands out as the exception to this aesthetic, though it’s a wonderful piece despite deviating from the style of the interior art.
If you’ve been hunting for a dungeon fantasy game with interesting survival mechanics, this is it. If you need a break from high fantasy super heroics and want to spend some time crawling dungeons, hunting for food, and struggling to survive, but don’t want to go so far as Mörk Borg’s brutality and intentional hopelessness, Forbidden Lands is an excellent choice.