Forbidden Lands is a gritty but magic-rich fantasy roleplaying game Fria Ligan (designers of Tales from the Loop and Mutant: Year Zero). Unlike many fantasy games, Forbidden Lands does not tell stories of adventurous heroes saving the world (or, at least, a small part of it). The protagonists explore, fight, plunder, and build their own power base in an inhabited yet uncharted part of the world.
There are a lot of fantasy roleplaying games out there, including several great ones. So it’s probably helpful to know what most distinguishes Forbidden Lands from the existing offerings:
- Things are gritty and mean. This is an overall vibe that is played out in mechanical ways as well. In flavor terms it might be best exemplified by the halflings, whose traditional cheerfulness has been transformed into a cover for endemic addiction, abuse, and misery.
- Exploration, and not the Numenera kind. Forbidden Lands features a pretty open world to discover. But this isn’t a ‘see what wonders lie beyond the horizon’ exploration. It’s more of a ‘deal with wilderness, track our travels on a map, and when we find something we’re as likely to kill it and take its land as we are to help it’ sort of exploration. Find an ancient tomb? It’s explicitly something you’re just going to loot – there’s no pretense of the looting just taking place secondary to some more noble objective.
- Resources are important. In a world where many fantasy games have moved entirely away from bothering to track things like travel rations, Forbidden Lands has a distinctive system for tracking supplies of all sorts. And supplies aren’t just for individual character use (e.g., food, water, arrows), but also for crafting and stronghold maintenance.
- You will have a stronghold. The pitch for Forbidden Lands talks about getting a stronghold if you survive long enough, but there’s too much emphasis on having one for it to be delayed for all that long. There are mechanics for building them and for staffing them. They might be attacked while you’re away. If you don’t have enough pay for your hireling they may steal your stuff and leave. They need to be supplied. There’s too much there to set it aside until Month 3 of the campaign.
The Ravenlands were once cut off from the rest of the world. They were inhabited, but every night the Blood Mist would come and kill those who were out of doors. This meant that every settlement was isolated, and over the centuries had lost much memory of each other. With a change in the supernatural balance of power, the mist is gone, leaving the Ravenlands open for exploration and hostilities.
The basic roll in Forbidden Lands is a stack of d6s – attribute dice + skill dice + gear/weapon dice (if applicable). They are all d6s, but must be different colors, as there are some different rules. A six is a success. A 1 is a “bane” (which may or may not do anything). On the custom dice these are replaced by special success and bane symbols (and on the speciality skill dice there is no bane symbol because banes have no effect for skill dice). Tasks that are easier or more difficult result in rolling more or fewer skill dice.
If the initial roll is a failure (or less of a success than is desired), the character can “push” the roll. All dice that were not 6 or 1 are rerolled. After that reroll, the character will take damage for banes on attribute dice and gear will be damage for banes on gear dice.
Forbidden Lands even has a handy table showing exactly what the chance of success is for different numbers of dice, so I don’t have to do the math myself. One die means, of course, only a 17% chance of success on the initial roll. Six dice means a 67% chance of success. Pushing the rolls has the biggest effects at 3-6 dice.
In addition to the d6s, characters may discover artifacts that add a d8, d10, or d12 to the mix. The are vastly more powerful than normal dice. Not only do they have successes on 6+ (and are therefore much more likely to roll a success), the highest numbers count as multiple successes. So while the average number of successes rolled on a d6 is 0.17, the average number of successes on a Legendary d12 is 1.33 – eight times as effective.
In each round of combat, characters get either one “slow” action and two “fast” actions (or can take two fast actions). This generally follows the now familiar breakdown for many RPGs – one attack or spell and one move. Fast actions other than ‘move’ include preparing to parry, ‘swing weapon’ (a lead-in to a big heavy weapon attack), aiming, and a typical selection of combat maneuvers (disarm, feint, dodge, etc.).
There is no vanilla “attack” action in Forbidden Lands. Rather, slashing, stabbing, unarmed attacks, and shooting are their own actions. “Slashing” covers attacks with edged and blunt weapons, while stab covers attacks with pointed weapons. Slashes are easier to dodge. Stabs are easier to parry with a shield, but harder to parry with another weapon.
Movement and range are reminiscent of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars/Genesys range band system, which characters classified as at arm’s legnth, near, short, long, or distant. The standard move action (run) shifts distance by one range increment).
Combat damage is typically damage to the strength attribute (a hit from a typical sword is 2 damage plus extra successes on the attack roll, but even leather armor will negate the first two points of damage), but all attributes can be damaged. Agility damage represents exhaustion. Wits damage represents fear and poor judgment. Empathy damage is cynicism and callousness. Dropping to zero in any attribute is debilitating until the damage is healed. Dropping to zero in strength or wits will also produce a critical injury. There are about five pages of critical injury tables, with different tables for blunt force wounds, stab wounds, slashing wounds, and horror (for when wits drops to zero).
Druids and sorcerers have fairly extensive magical options as well, depending on their talents.
Forbidden Lands is not a game that will let a party get away with just moving from point A to point B to get to a new adventure site. When engaged in overland travel, each character must pick an action every quarter day. When the group is moving, everyone needs to take the Hike action, except one character each will be using the Lead the Way action and the Keep Watch action (unless you want to get ambushed, I suppose). At other times characters will need to Explore or engage in more mundane activities such as Forage, Hunt, Fish, Make Camp. Even Sleeping and Resting are formalized as actions.
These journeys are conducted over a hex map with a variety of rules about movement rates based on terrain and transport. The game includes a hex map of the Ravenlands, waiting to be marked to represent what the party has discovered.
Normally this sort of thing wouldn’t warrant discussion in a review, but since supplies are so integral to Forbidden Lands, the distinctive consumables system is worth a look. Rather than tracking a specific quantity of a consumable, each resource has a die (form d6 to d12). Whenever the consumable is used, a die is rolled. On a 1 or 2, the level of the die is reduced (a 1-2 on a d6 means the resource is fully depleted). This means that you’re never quite certain when you’ll run out of supplies. It also means that a d12 is generally way more stuff than a d6 – not only it four reductions away from being expended, it’s much less likely to go down at first (so, while you can share with someone else, you should think carefully – reducing your d12 to a d10 to give someone else a d6 is not an even transfer of goods). However, the system also means it’s possible to run out of arrows after four shots, even when carrying “as much of the consumable as a single individual can.”
Strongholds can be built from scratch, although I think there’s a good chance that a party’s first stronghold will be seized from someone else. Strongholds provide a safe place to sleep and recover willpower, and serve as a base of operations for later exploration.
To do their thing at peak efficiency, a stronghold needs “functions” and hirelings. Functions include mundane operations such as a bakery, garden, pigsty, mill, or root cellar, as well as defensive features like guard towers, a moat, or portcullis. Construction of each of these requires obtaining raw materials. Most of these buildings require something else as well. For example, a bakery requires a fireplace and the builder talent, while opening a dovecote requires a successful handle animal roll to gather the doves. Most of the buildings also require appropriate hirelings to be helpful – unless a character with the chef talent spends time in the bakery, a baker hireling will be needed to convert units of flour into units of food.
Note that strongholds require upkeep of several sorts. Hirelings must be paid, or bad things happen. The stronghold must be guarded when the party is away, or bad things happen. And not paying for maintenance means that, you guessed it, bad things happen. Enemies might also lay siege to a stronghold, and there are rules for that.
Players will choose a kin, profession, and age; point buy attributes and skills; determine starting talents; and pick a Pride, a Dark Secret, and starting gear.
Mechanically, starting kin defines only a key attribute and provides a kin talent. The options are human (adaptive), elf (inner peace), half-elf (psychic power), dwarf (true grit), halfling (hard to catch), wolfkin (hunting instincts), orc (unbreakable), and goblin (sneaky). Elves and dwarves are the ancient races, tasked with different parts of creation. The humans are the long-ago invaders of the Ravenlands, and many of the other races made up the bulk of the ranks of the elven and dwarven armies. The orcs, in particular, were enslaved and pressed into service. The halflings and goblins live rough existences, while the wolfkin lurk in the woods, hungry for blood. Nobody really likes anybody.
Professions provide a key attribute, five skills, access to talents, and some starting gear. The options are druid (healing/shapeshifting/sight), fighter (the blade/the enemy/the shield), hunter (the arrow/the beast/the forest), minstrel (the hymn/the song/the warcry), peddler (gold/lies/many things), rider (companion/knight/plains), rogue (face/killer/poison), and sorcerer (blood/death/signs/stone). These are all pretty close to what their names suggests.
Age can be freely chosen (except for elves, since they don’t age) – being older gives more skills, talents, and reputation, but reduces attributes.
There are only four attributes – strength, agility, wits, and empathy. The minimum value is 2 and the usual maximum is 4. The key attributes from kin and profession allow this maximum to be exceeded. Average values are 3.5 for an adult.
On the skills front, the typical adult gets 10 points to spend among the 16 skills – Might, Endurance, Melee, Crafting, Stealth, Sleight of Hand, Move, Marksmanship, Scouting, Lore, Survival, Insight, Manipulation, Performance, Healing, and Animal Handling.
Talents are mechanical edges beyond attributes and skills, and are in much shorter supply – the typical adult starts with their kin talent, a profession talent, and two other talent levels (each talent has three levels). The kin and profession talents are listed above (the druid and sorcerer talents are spells). There are almost 50 general talents, ranging from combat styles to mundane professions (chef, tailor) to utility (sixth sense, lockpicker, wanderer, etc). Talents can be pretty much anything, but often fueled by Willpower, preventing them from being used constantly.
A character’s Pride is expressed as a phrase. When the phrase applies, the character can attempt to avoid failure by throwing an extra d12 into the mix. However, if the roll still fails, the character loses their Pride (don’t worry, they’ll find a new one). Dark Secrets are primarily roleplaying aids, but can generate extra xp.
Most of what I’ve discussed above pertains to the 200-page player’s guide, but the basic Forbidden Lands purchase also comes with a 260-page Gamemaster’s Guide. This includes a more detailed history of the world, gods, more information on kin, a bestiary, artifacts, and some sample adventure sites (there is also a campaign book, the Raven’s Purge, that can be purchased separately, and includes more adventure sites).
For this review, I’ve only had access to core book set PDF (provided by the publisher for review purposes). However, this is a game that might get some extra kick out of physical products (which Modiphius will be happy to sell you). Sure, there are the by now semi-standard custom dice that every RPG issues, but I’m thinking more of the map of the Ravenlands. Yeah, the PDF has a copy of the map and, sure, you can print out your own version (big or small, depending on how much paper/ink you want to go through). But the fancy published version of the map, plus the stickers to mark up your version of the map? That seems pretty sweet to me, given the game’s focus.
The art in Forbidden Lands is like the game in that it’s got a distinctive feel that will either strike a resonant tone, or won’t, depending on the viewer. It feels like old-school RPG art – line drawings, rather than full-color images. You can see some samples in this review; all of the art is in that style.
While I provided more detail throughout this review, whether Forbidden Lands might be interesting to you will probably depend on what you think about those core themes I mentioned at the top. Although there are a lot of fantasy creatures and magic, the tone of the game is gritty. Forbidden Lands will appeal to players who want to get a certain sort of old-school vibe, while not hewing closely to the mechanics first employed decades ago. It will appeal to players interested in dirt-level exploration, resource management, and a hardscrabble world – even at higher power levels, characters in Forbidden Lands are never going to be able to just relax in a lap of luxury between adventures.