Forbidden Lands: gritty survival fantasy in a world of endless exploration (review)

Last month, I wrote a post about three great games that aren’t D&D. Turns out I missed one!

I first got a glimpse of Forbidden Lands at London’s Dragonmeet convention last December. I was drawn to the faux leather covers, the elegant, easy-to-read layout, the old-school black-and-white art on the insides, and the wonderfully evocative isometric dungeon maps. This was cool. It felt like an adventurer’s journal or an old chronicle. If D&D is Monopoly, Forbidden Lands feels like Jumanji.

The visuals are rather important, actually, as in many ways the choices Free League are making with the layout echo what the game is trying to do with the mechanics. This game feels old school but has all the elegance of a modern RPG. In fact, as I delved deeper the mechanics, I realized more and more that Forbidden Lands was doing many of the things that I wanted D&D to do, and doing them better.

So what’s the premise, anyway? Here’s the Player’s Handbook:

You are 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 wander the wild lands, discover lost tombs, fight monsters, and, if you live long enough, build your own stronghold to defend. During your adventures,
you will uncover the secrets of dark powers lurking in the shadows and, in the end, you can be the ones to decide the fate of the Forbidden Lands.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Onto the mechanics. There are only four ‘ability scores’ (called Attributes) in Forbidden Lands, and interestingly, they work very much like hit points. Thus, if your Strength goes to zero, you are ‘broken’, and possibly dead. Because Strength also powers your melee attacks, you get physically weaker as your life force saps away. This just makes sense. Hit points in D&D are a necessary abstraction, but it always felt jarring to me that a fighter could go from full combat effectiveness to unconscious after taking 1 point of damage. Also interesting is the fact that you will basically never increase your ability scores. Forbidden Lands is more like Dungeon World or Blades in the Dark in that you don’t so much level ‘up’ as sideways: sure, you get better at stuff, but very gradually, and you’re still pretty mortal. By comparison, the power jumps between tiers in D&D feel like huge lurches.

Forbidden Lands is all about exploration. Now, this is a tricky one to get right. Oversimplify it too much and it becomes repetitive and meaningless; add too much gritty detail and it becomes procedural, an exercise in book-keeping. Forbidden Lands has a nice balance between the two: more involved than D&D (and better communicated, frankly) but not so complicated that you get bogged down in detail. It’s wonderful to pore over a huge map, choose where to go, and see where the dice take you. No railroads in sight. What you find is all down to random tables, but these are full of flavour and provide an excellent variety of things to do.

Random tables are a real perk of the system, actually. There are ‘mishap’ tables for magic, leading the way, foraging, hunting, fishing, making camp, sea travel . . . There are all sorts of things that can go wrong, but that’s part of the fun. There are also some truly brutal tables for critical injuries: think ‘gouged eye’ and ‘cleft skull’. I’m reminded of ‘FATALITY!’ from the Mortal Kombat series. The dice giveth and the dice taketh away.

Speaking of dice, this is a dice pool system. Most of the dice are d6s, and only rare items allow you to roll other dice. 6s are always successes and 1s are potentially bad news – more on this in a minute. Generally speaking, you roll a number of dice equal to your ability score, your skill level, and your gear. A nice feature of the system is the option to push your roll: you reroll everything except your 6s and your 1s, and at that point your 1s start to eat into your ability scores. In D&D terms, it’s like paying for inspiration with hit points. It’s fun.

This art is from The Bitter Reach, one of a number of expansions to the base game. Isn’t it great?

I really have very few gripes with this system. I wonder if all of the ‘talents’ (feats) are equally balanced, but I’m also not too worried about it. There’s a rather complicated advanced combat system, but it’s optional. Zone-based movement takes some getting used to, and might have been better explained, but as someone who happily uses theatre of the mind more and more, it’s something I can live with. The only other thing I haven’t got a sense for yet is the stronghold rules, so jury’s out on that one.

Forbidden Lands is published by Free League Publishing, the Swedish designers behind Tales from the Loop, Alien RPG, Mutant: Year Zero, and Mörk Borg, which is probably the most metal RPG ever made. Their second edition of The One Ring RPG is out this week, so I probably should be reviewing that, but hey, I’m my own boss. Rather nobly, Free League have also been running a charity sale this week donating 50% of all website sales to the International Red Cross as humanitarian aid for Ukraine. This is a games company I can get behind.

Full disclosure: Free League sent me PDF copies to review, for which I am very grateful, but I would still be saying positive things regardless!

Next week I’m going to be playing Forbidden Lands on Foundry virtual tabletop: my first attempt at using this platform. Is it better that Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds? I’ll let you know.

Have you played Forbidden Lands? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

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