Preview: Forbidden Lands

There’s something strangely comforting about the desolation and darkness that hovers around Forbidden Lands. There are no kingdoms to save, no princesses to rescue and no world-ending crisis to avert, leaving you to get on with the job of exploring dungeons, looting treasure and surviving to see the next dawn.

The game comes to us from Sweden’s Free League, who are probably best known for their love letter to 80’s kids’ adventure films, Tales from the Loop. However, while they both share a retro feel and even most of their mechanics, the two are almost complete opposites when it comes to the balance between storytelling and gameplay.

Where Tales was a storytelling game at heart, Forbidden Lands is almost completely driven by action and adventure. It’s a game designed around exploring a vast sandbox stuffed with dungeon-crawls and monster lairs, hikes through wind-swept wilderness and battles with hideous foes; a game where you don’t head out into the wilds to fulfil an ancient prophecy, but because you need more gold and looting ancient tombs offers a much better hourly rate than baking bread.

That doesn’t mean that the game is completely devoid of story, though. The world is packed with history and legends that slowly ooze their way into the adventures, building a sense for the world without hammering the players over the head with backstory. There’s plenty of scope for campaigns that may reshape the Forbidden Lands, but even then the game is built around free exploration and minimal steering from the GM

Above all else, the rulebook insists, the party should feel a sense of freedom, and if that means wandering into a death-trap then so be it.

Old-School Cool

This approach will probably sounds fairly familiar to many of you, because it’s exactly this blend of freedom and danger that keep people coming back to old-school Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, the entirety of Forbidden Lands feels like a tribute to the games of the 70’s, from the stark black-and-white illustrations to the long section on building and maintaining a stronghold.

However, there are several factors that keep it from joining the ranks of old-school revival games. The first of these is simply that it doesn’t take any real mechanical inspiration from early D&D, instead choosing to use the d6-based system that Free League have used in almost all of their games. Perhaps more important than this, though, is the simple fact that for all the line-art and dungeon-crawling it still manages to feel like a modern system.

Rather than a throwback or an attempt to bring old-school RPGs up to date, Forbidden Lands instead aims to capture its look and feel. Think of it as a brand new car that’s been decked out in chrome and candy-red fins, standing next to the OSR movement’s lovingly restored classics. It may not have the original suspension or match every quirk of design, but it compensates for this with air-conditioning and cruise-control.

On a personal level, I grew up with later editions of D&D and Pathfinder and have always struggled to enjoy the handful of OSR systems I’ve tried. When we sat down to our first sessions of Forbidden Lands, things flowed more smoothly and the mechanics felt more intuitive.

Perhaps this is because there’s less of a focus on GM arbitration thanks to the wider rule-set, or it might simply be that Forbidden Lands is different enough from the modern d20 games that I don’t blur them together and get caught out when things don’t work the way I expect them to.

Pushing the Envelope

On the subject of mechanics, Forbidden Lands has a couple of interesting quirks that further separate it from its many rivals. For example, there’s no such thing as HP.

Actually, that’s not completely true. Instead, it would be fair to say that each character’s stats function as their HP. Getting stabbed or slashed with a dagger might knock a couple of points off your strength score, while a psychic attack might target wits or empathy.

When you take damage to your stats this naturally has a knock-on effect on your performance – a warrior clinging to their last point on strength isn’t just in danger, they’re also much less effective in combat. This creates a true sense of flow and momentum to combat, where the side that starts losing is going to find it hard to turn things round as their ability to fight back dwindles into nothingness.

Being smacked over the head with a club or scorched by draconic fire isn’t the only way to lose health in Forbidden Realms, however. It’s perfectly possible that over the course of the game you’ll actually hurt yourself more than the monsters do.

The reason for this is a ‘push’ mechanic that allows you to re-roll failed skill checks, or just fish for more successes on an attack that has already hit, whenever you want. However, this comes with a cost – for every ‘1’ you roll on the check, you take a point of damage.

While you can’t actually kill yourself by pushing too hard (as funny as that would be), it does create a curious dynamic where every failed roll becomes an opportunity for a character moment. Does the sorcerer decipher the ancient runes by pushing her mind to the edge of exhaustion, or does she reach too far and go momentarily catatonic as her consciousness collapses?

Things get even spicier when you find out that every spell and special ability in the game is powered by points of willpower. And the only (practical) way to generate willpower is to take damage by pushing yourself to the limit.

Want to cast fireball in the next battle? Well, you’d better hope you smashed yourself in the face while prising open the door earlier.

Actually, while it sounds more than a little crazy, the system does feed back into the sense that Forbidden Lands is dangerous, dark and filled with the wonderful burdens of freedom. Do you choose to push recklessly in the first round of combat, hoping that the willpower you generate will be enough to finish your foes off? Or do you hang back and just plink away with a crossbow, ignoring the wand sitting by your side.

My naturally suspicious brain wonders if this system is open to some gaming – such as a fighter intentionally taking on mental challenges they’re likely to fail just so they can drum up some willpower for the next battle – but a few games should be enough to see if it works out that way.

And hopefully those few games should be happening sooner rather than later, because something about Forbidden Lands keeps drawing me in. Maybe its the art and the tone, which conjure up happy memories of running through old Fighting Fantasy books borrowed from the local library, or maybe it’s because after years of building epic story-driven campaigns I just want to shank a few monsters with my buddies. Either way, I’m going to have fun running through the ‘research’ needed for the full review.

You can find out more about Forbidden Lands on Free League’s website.

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