Review: Forbidden Lands

Imagine a child of maybe ten years old sitting halfway up their stairs, staring down in wonder as their older cousins crack open one of the old-school D&D box sets. They can’t make out the rules or details about classes and spells, but they absorb every story about battling malformed demons, questing for treasure in crumbling ruins and treating with powerful mages.

Now imagine them, 30 years down the line, trying to build a game that captures those same feelings of dreadful freedom and thrilling darkness. Congratulations, you just imagined Forbidden Lands.

At first glance the game looks to be yet another entry into the long list of old-school, D&D-esque fantasy RPG’s that have slowly developed into their own specific genre known as OSR. The stark black-and-white interior art certainly helps to build the illusion, as do long sections on building strongholds and the lengthy lists of random tables.

However, once you dig below the surface it becomes clear that Forbidden Lands isn’t quite as old-school as it appears. Rather, it’s probably fairer to describe it as retro – taking the look and feel of those games from the 70’s and 80’s but not using the same form and substance. For some people this will be a disappointment, but as someone who’s grown up on games without needing to look up a ‘save against wand, rod and staff’ the more modern design is very welcome.

Exploring the Forbidden Lands

The base game is set entirely within the titular Forbidden Lands, a huge stretch of roughly northern European forests, plains and swamps. There are thousands of years of history laid out in the GM’s guide and a deep mythology concerning gods and sorcerers, but by far and away the biggest event in the setting centres around the mysterious ‘blood mist’.

For 300 years this demonic curse brutally killed anybody foolish enough to be outside their home after dark. Overnight, any attempt to organise or control the region was utterly destroyed, and villages and towns became havens in a desolate wilderness where only the mad or desperate dared travel.

Naturally, the game kicks off a couple of years after the blood mist has mysteriously vanished. Communities are making tentative steps beyond their borders, and all those castles, tombs and treasure vaults abandoned during three centuries of darkness are just waiting for the right adventurers to come along and claim them.

This leads into 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. Indeed, the player’s guidebook is almost completely lacking in any kind of lore beyond the bare minimum needed to get a campaign going, though while this is a cool idea it does place a lot of emphasis on the GM’s ability to constantly worldbuild.

There’s plenty of scope for campaigns that may reshape the Forbidden Lands, with the initial Raven’s Purge campaign already on shelves and offering potentially world-ending battles against the forces of darkness. Even then, however, the game is designed around free exploration and minimal steering from the GM.

Darkness and Dice

On the subject of design, the game comes to us from Sweden’s Free League, and the core mechanics will be instantly familiar to anybody who’s dabbled in their love letter to 80’s kids’ adventure films, Tales from the Loop, or the post-apocalyptic Mutant: Year Zero.

Like those games you make checks by assembling a pool of d6’s built from your character’s stats, skills and gear, and attempting to roll at least one six. Any ones can lead to bad results, even on a successful check, while extra sixes can provide nice little benefits.

The combat can get a little bogged down by minor mechanical differences between slashing and stabbing, or dodging and parrying, but overall it’s a solid, effective resolution system that makes for a fairly smooth evening of gaming. However, this isn’t what makes the ruleset so interesting.

The first, and perhaps the most striking, of these is the fact there are no hit points to be found anywhere in the rules. Instead, when your character gets their shoulder ripped open by a sword they lose a couple points of strength, while a magical shriek might sap their 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 one 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.

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.

Comfortably Deadly

There’s a lot to love about Forbidden Lands. It’s a slick system that packages up the feel of old-school gaming in a format that feels modern and professional, and has a whole heap of interesting mechanics that lend themselves to long campaigns of scrappy adventures in the wilderness.

It’s not a totally perfect system – it’ll take several battles before your group really flows in combat, and the setting fails to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the blood mist’s isolation – but it truly brings something new to the dark fantasy genre. And these days that’s really something to celebrate.

On one final note, if you get a chance to pick up a physical copy of the Forbidden Lands core box-set, do it. The books and maps it contains are beautiful constructions that would probably be reserved for special edition slip-cases in other systems.

★★★★☆

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