Nostalgia Drives the Adventure with Forbidden Lands

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Sweden's Free League Publishing has just released Forbidden Lands, their take on the classic fantasy role-playing game. Free League calls Forbidden Lands an open-world retro sandbox experience:

You're not heroes sent on missions dictated by others – instead, you are raiders and rogues bent on making your own mark on a cursed world. You will discover lost tombs, fight terrible monsters, wander the wild lands, and if you live long enough, build your own stronghold to defend.

Nostalgia Drives the Adventure with Forbidden Lands
Courtesy Free League Publishing

Lore

Once, Zygofer the Spellbinder was one of us, leading the passage through the mountains into the new land. But when faced by the savage orcs, he opened dark gates to seek the help of demons. That was his undoing, Zygofer turned on us and placed himself on the throne of the Ravenland, his daughter Therania by his side.

The lore of Forbidden Lands is nice and grim, and evokes a region ravaged by dark magic and foul creatures. The Demon King Zygofer keeps an iron grip on the Forbidden Lands through his enforcers, the Rust Brothers. Other dangers await the unwary, including the demonic Blood Mist, which sucks the life out of anyone foolish enough to leave their homes after dark.

The Red Mist has recently lifted, allowing characters to journey forth and explore the Ravenlands. Players don't play heroes that are typical of the fantasy RPG genre; they are playing treasure hunters, scoundrels, and raiders of the Ravenlands.

Players are free to roam the Ravenlands as they see fit, but there is an overarching quest to track four ancient Elven artifacts that wield incredible powers. The Forbidden Lands boxed set comes with a full-color map of the Ravenlands, and it's a lot of fun to explore that map, hex by hex, just like the old RPG's from the '80s.

Nostalgia Drives the Adventure with Forbidden Lands
Courtesy Free League Publishing

Character Creation

Players first choose the Kin, or race, of their characters. You have the standard fantasy racial tropes to choose from, with good descriptions of what makes the different kin stand out from each other. Humans, Elves, Half-Elves, Dwarfs, Halflings, Wolfkin, Orcs, and Goblins are all available Kin for players to choose from.

Character professions also run the gamut of standard fantasy classes, with a few twists; there are plenty of professions to choose from, including Druids, Fighters, Hunters, Minstrels, Peddlers, Riders, Rogues, and Sorcerers.

Players choose an age for their character, which actually has some impact on how your skills and attributes work, an interesting mechanic that we'll explore later.

Characters have four attributes, each representing their physical and mental capabilities. Your attributes also determine the base of your dice pool used when your character attempts to do something. The attributes are Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy. Your character's age determines how many dice they start with when generating their character, with younger characters getting more dice than their elders.

Skills are also determined during character generation, with an allowable skill proficiency between zero and five. The level of proficiency chosen in each skill also generates a certain number of dice, which are combined with Attribute dice when a character attempts an action. Interestingly, older characters get a larger skill pool than their juniors, a nice balance from the attribute system.

Players then select talents, Pride (a once-per-game session special roll), and their character's Dark Secret, which is the driving force that makes the character tick. Players will also determine relationships with other members of the party, which helps build drama for the game sessions.

The last step of character generation is equipment, and then the player's character is ready for adventure!

Nostalgia Drives the Adventure with Forbidden Lands
Courtesy Free League Publishing

Game Mechanics

Whenever a character attempts to do something difficult, they will make a die roll to determine failure or success. Six sided dice are standard in Forbidden Lands, and the dice mechanic is very easy to remember: 6's are successes, and 1's can be detrimental. Nothing else matters.

Attributes, Skills, and gear all have a die number attached to them. So, a Fighter with the Strength Attribute of 3 and Melee Skill of 4 will roll 7 total six-sided dice in a fight: Three for Strength, and four for Melee. The dice should be different colors to show a difference between Attribute, Skill, and Weapon dice. Sixes are successes, and ones only count if the player decides to re-roll (or push) the dice in their die roll that weren't ones or sixes; after this roll, any ones rolled can cause damage to your Attribute, Skill, or Weapon ranks. It reads a little clunky at first, but really shines in play.

Combat uses cards to determine initiative, after which combat is resolved with a simple opposed die roll. The combatants roll their dice pools against each other, whoever gains the most successes wins that round of combat. Opposed rolls make up a lot of the game, with a Rogue rolling their Agility and Stealth pool against an enemy's Wits and Perception pool to see if they can sneak past them.

Nostalgia Drives the Adventure with Forbidden Lands
Courtesy Free League Publishing

Game Play

Game play is pretty straight forward, and the rules for Forbidden Lands are thought out well enough to help avoid a lot of rules-rummaging. Special skills make even similar characters unique enough to stand out, and focusing the game setting on exploration and plunder removes a lot of the moral "gray area" that can plague fantasy games. Your characters aren't meant to be particularly good or bad, they will do whatever they need to do to survive. Think Mad Max, but with monsters and spells.

The game is intentionally reminiscent of old pen-and-paper role playing games, and there are systems and charts in place for everything from character fame, progression, and even building strongholds and hiring retainers.

On paper, combat gets a little bogged down with special mechanics involving slow and fast actions, but a quick run through of a practice combat scenario should help smooth things out. It took our game group a few minutes to catch on, but once we had the system down, things moved along nicely.

There are two main books in the Forbidden Lands core boxed set, with a Game Master's book dedicated to tips for the GM, a full bestiary, and campaign information, while the Player's Handbook covers character generation, game mechanics, and stronghold building.

 

Design

The layout of Forbidden Lands relies on a lot of nostalgia for old RPG books from the early 1980's, with bold black and white artwork throughout. Most of the art is provided by Niklas Brandt, with a lot of old fantasy art blended in with a bounty of contemporary art. Most of the artwork is excellent, but a few older pieces might have been best left out.

The map included in the boxed set is a big, full-color affair, with a hexagonal grid covering the geography. There is a sheet of stickers included in the box that allows players to mark the map with different events and adventures they have had, which adds a really fun element to player exploration.

Nostalgia Drives the Adventure with Forbidden Lands

The books look great online if you go for the PDF option, but the physical books are where Forbidden Lands really shines; The books are very nicely bound and will look fantastic in any game collection.

Contents of the boxed set:

  • Hardcover Player's Manual with faux leather covers, including rules for fast character
    generation, visceral combat, lethal magic, dangerous journeys and for building your own stronghold – easily be ported to other game worlds.
  • Hardcover Gamemaster's Guide with faux leather covers, including a rich and detailed
    description of the Forbidden Lands setting, a large illustrated Bestiary, extensive random encounters, and three complete adventure sites.
  • The Legends & Adventurers booklet, that lets you flesh out your characters and give them unique backgrounds.
  • A large full-color map, that gives you the freedom to explore the Forbidden Lands any way you want, hex by hex.
  • A sheet with stickers for adventure sites and gravestones, transforming the game map to a living, permanent record of your adventures.
Nostalgia Drives the Adventure with Forbidden Lands
Courtesy Free League Publishing

MSRP on the boxed set is around $50, and there is a larger "Raven Bundle" that comes with a Game Master's Screen, special dice, adventure cards, and the main boxed set. The boxed set gives you a lot of bang for your buck; the books are gorgeously bound, with covers that look like volumes from a wizard's library. You can also pick up a PDF of the rules from RPGNow.

Final Thoughts:

Forbidden Lands is steeped in nostalgia and does an excellent job of evoking the look and feel of classic fantasy RPGs. Game play is fun, and there aren't a lot of cumbersome rules that can bog down play sessions. Forbidden Lands uses the game mechanics developed for the award winning Mutant: Year Zero role playing game and could be easily adapted for custom games.

Do you really need it? If you have a fantasy game system you really like, then Forbidden Lands might be a pass for you. But, if you're looking for a fantasy game that's not too hard to learn, has rich lore, and a fun progression system, you should give Forbidden Lands a shot. If you're an avid gamer looking for something new, Forbidden Lands is definitely worth picking up. Free League has already promised more adventures in the Ravenlands in the future, which is good news; the setting is richly imagined, and the potential for epic fantasy adventures is great!

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About Leigh Kade

Leigh George Kade is a writer, illustrator, and sculptor who lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and two small Skrulls. Leigh has also been a panelist on the wildly popular Geek Show Podcast since 2008. He has been an Entertainment Writer for Bleeding Cool since 2018.

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