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Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Other OSR: Forbidden Lands

The Ravenland was once ours, lands beyond the mountains which represented virgins ripe for expansion and settlement, but then the savagery of the Orcs was unleashed on the settlers, forcing their leader, Zygofer the Spellbinder to turn to foul means to drive them back. He opened dark gates to let in the demon help he sort and set himself up as king of Ravenland, but in response the wise king walled off the lands and forbade all to talk about the Spellbinder’s domain which became known as the Forbidden Lands. For centuries, they have been under the demonic control of both Zygofer and his daughter, as well as under the curse of the Blood Mist, which sucks the life out of anyone who strays too far from their door. Yet now, even while Zygofer and his daughter remain still on the throne of the Forbidden Lands, the Blood Mist has lifted and men and women of all races have flooded into a realm untouched by their hands for centuries. They are not valiant souls, but scoundrels, treasure hunters, vagabonds, adventurers, fortune seekers, setting out to make their mark on the new land—there are dungeons to be plundered, great treasures to be found, and strongholds to be claimed!

This is the set-up for Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, a fantasy roleplaying game published by Free League, following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It comes as an imposing boxed set which contains two hardback books with faux leather covers—the Player’s Manual and the Gamemaster’s Guide, a large full colour map of the Forbidden Lands, and a sheet of stickers. The roleplaying game is described as a ‘Retro Open-World Survival Fantasy RPG’ and designed to be played in the style of the fantasy roleplaying games of the seventies and early eighties, with the player characters free to roam as they will across the Forbidden Lands as a sandbox. The stickers play a role in this too, for they can be applied to the map to mark the location of sites across the Forbidden Lands, whether they are villages, strongholds, or dungeons. In this way, Forbidden Lands becomes a legacy game, in that playing through a campaign means that both map and campaign will be unique to each gaming group, the same as playing through board games like Pandemic Legacy or Gloomhaven.

Forbidden Lands is a roleplaying game of exploration, in which the player characters, like others, set out to see a land which has long been forbidden to them, to escape the bonds placed upon them by the deadly effects of the Blood Mist. In doing so, the player characters will discover adventure sites—villages, castles, and dungeons. To varying degrees, at each of these will be found intrigue, horror, and treasure. Initially, villages will bases of operation for the player characters, but in clearing out both castles and dungeons, they can be turned into strongholds and developed into long term bases for the player characters. As they find more treasure and develop sources of income, this can be spent to restore and rebuild facilities that have fallen into disrepair, to build new facilities, and to staff the new stronghold. In the process, the player characters will discover both the history and the secrets of the land, revealing legends and investigating them further, perhaps ultimately to find one of the great artefacts that have been lost during the centuries in which the land was covered by the Blood Mist.

A character in Forbidden Lands is defined by his Kin, Profession, age, attributes, skills, talents, Pride, and Dark Secret. There are seven Kin—or Races—Human, Half-Elves, Dwarf, Halfling, Wolfkin, Orcs, and Goblins. Of these, Wolfkin are a bipedal wolf-like species who have a pack mentality and love the hunt and the wilderness. Each Kin has a key attribute, a talent, and typical profession, though when creating a character a player does not have to adhere to this. For Humans, the key attribute is Empathy; the Kin talent is ‘Adaptive’, which enables a player to substitute another skill in a situation by spending a Willpower point; and typical professions are essentially any… There are eight Professions—Druid, Fighter, Hunter, Minstrel, Peddler, Rider, Rogue, and Sorcerer. Each also lists a key attribute as well as skills; suggestions for a source of pride, a dark secret, and a relationship. A character has four attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy. There are just sixteen skills to choose from, but a player will begin play with either eight, ten, or twelve points depending upon his character’s age. 

Talents are tricks and abilities which give a character an advantage in play. Each Kin has its own talent, which has just the one rank, but the other two types, professional and general, have three ranks each. Each Profession has three talents given, except for the Sorcerer, which has four.  For example, the Fighter’s Path of the Blade enables a character to spend a Willpower point to bypass armour during an attack at Rank 1, spend a Willpower point to gain another attack at Rank 2, and multiple Willpower points to increase damage inflicted at Rank 3. A character begins play with a Kin talent, a Rank in a Profession talent, and a Rank in up to three general talents, depending on age, of course.

Lastly, each character has a Dark Secret and a source of Pride. The former is primarily a narrative aspect for the Game Master to work into the play of the game, earning the character Experience Points when it comes into play, whereas the latter can be invoked once per game session after a player has failed a roll—even if he has Pushed the roll—to roll a twelve-sided die and hopefully get some or more Successes. The larger die types have more Success symbols on them, including multiple Success symbols on some faces. However, should a character still fail after his Pride is rolled, he loses that Pride and must come up with a new one in a later session.

To create a character a player selects a Kin, Profession, age, talents, Pride, and Dark Secret and assigns points to the character’s attributes and skills. The process is relatively quick, a matter of making a few choices. Our sample character Solga, a Goblin who got thrown out of her tribe for her snide remarks and being suspected of poisoning her husband. She helped Gaverin escape when she made a run for it and they have travelling together ever since. He is interested in uncovering the legends and secrets of the Forbidden Lands, whereas Solga is along for the company.

Name: Solga ‘the Rat’
Kin: Goblin Age: 26 Gender: Female
Profession: Rogue
Attributes
Strength 2 Agility 5 Wits 4 Empathy 3
Skills: Melee 1, Stealth 3, Sleight of Hand 2, Move 1, Manipulation 2, Scouting 1
Talents: Sneaky (Kin), Path of the Poisoner (Rank 1), Fast Footwork (Rank 1), Sharp Tongue (Rank 1)
Willpower: 0
Pride: No one has a softer step than you
Dark Secret: You compulsively steal valuables you catch sight of
Reputation: 1
Relationship: Gaverin treats you like a child to be chastised . Very annoying.
Gear: Dagger, grappling hook, lockpicks, 3 silver
Resource Dice: Food d6, Water d6

Mechanically, Forbidden Lands uses the same mechanics as Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, Coriolis: The Third Horizon, and Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was. Called the Year Zero Engine, which uses a dice pool system based on six-sided dice. These dice are divided into three types—Base, Skill, and Gear (or Weapon) Dice—and coloured white maroon, and black respectively in the custom set available separately for Forbidden Lands. Alternatively, a playing group can substitute dice of three different colours. Sixes—or crossed swords on the custom dice—are counted as Successes, whilst ones—or skulls on the custom dice which appear do not appear on the Skill Dice—are counted as Banes.

What matters is that when a player rolls dice for his character’s action, he needs to roll at least one Success to succeed. Successes rolled greater than those needed can used to achieve further effects, such as fully repairing gear back up to the number of dice they add in any action. If the dice are rolled and there are no Success, then this is considered to be a failure. Alternatively, a player can decide that he wants to push his character’s action. In this case, he reroll any dice that have not rolled Successes or Banes in the first roll. Even if a roll is successful, any Banes a player has rolled from either the first or second roll, are triggered and will damage or exhaust either the attribute used if rolled on the Base dice or the gear used if rolled on the Gear dice. Rolling Banes has a positive side though. For every Bane rolled on the Base dice after a roll has been pushed, a character receives one Willpower Point, which can then be spent to fuel a character’s Kin and Professional Talents.

What the Game Master does not do is set a difficulty number or target in terms of the number of Successes a player needs to generate in order for his character to succeed—one is enough, and of course, any extra go towards effects that benefit the characters. Intead, the Game Master can modify the number of Skill dice a player rolls, for example, a Hard task levies a -2 modification, reducing the number of Skill dice a player has to roll by two.
For example, Solga and her companion, Gaverin, were ambushed by bandits and Gaverin was captured. Solga managed to escape the ambush and has tracked the bandits to the ruined tower they are based and are holding Gaverin. After some hours, Solga has found a way into the tower—an embrasure high up on the wall. The Game Master states that this will not be a test to see if Solga can climb the tower, but to see if she can do it silently. Otherwise, this might be a Move check, but Solga’s player states that the Goblin will be taking her time. Solga’s player assembles his dice pool, which will consist of five Base dice for her Agility, three Skill dice for her Stealth, and one Gear die for her grappling hook. This gives Solga’s player nine dice to roll, but the Game Master states that this task is Demanding and modifies the number of Skill by one, so now Solga’s player only rolls eight dice. Unfortunately he only rolls one Bane on the Gear die and no Successes, so Solag’s player decides to Push the roll. Taking up the seven dice which came up blank—the Gear die cannot be rerolled because it rolled a Bane—he rolls again and gets two Success and another Bane, this one on a Base die!
To sum up, Solga’s player has rolled enough Success to succeed, but has rolled two Banes, one on the Gear die and one on a Base die. The Game Master rules that the Bane on the Gear die means that one of the tines on Solga’s grappling hook has broken, meaning that it cannot be used effectively until repaired. In other words, it will not grant the +1 bonus to all climbing rolls until then. The Bane on the Base die temporarily reduces Solga’s Agility to 4 and gives her a Willpower Point, but at least the Goblin has succeeded and is inside the bandit’s tower.
Combat uses the same core mechanics, but adds tweaks to both initiative and actions. Initiative is handled by both players and Game Master drawing from a ten-card deck, numbered one to ten. Initiative then proceeds in ascending order, though some Talent allow Initiative to be changed and players can swap initiative cards if one character needs to act before another. Otherwise it remains the same throughout a fight. In combat itself, a character can perform two actions—a Fast Action and a Slow Action. The first might be a dodge, a parry, a swing of a heavy weapon before an actual attack with a heavy weapon, run, aim, and so on, whereas the second might be a slash with an edged weapon, stab with a pointed weapon, a taunt or persuade attempt, and so on. Fast Actions typically do not require dice rolls, whereas Slow Actions typically do.

Advanced combat in Forbidden Lands makes use of the combat cards from the Forbidden Lands: Card Deck to bring a tactical element to the game with hidden combinations. Essentially the combat cards give manoeuvres and actions that a character might take his combat attacks and before each attack, both defender and attacker take two and decide in what order they will be played, so not only does this add a degree of tactical back and forth to a fight, it also adds a degree of uncertainty. (The Forbidden Lands: Custom Deck also adds Artifact Cards, Mount Cards, and a Reference Card as well as Combat Cards and Initiative Cards.)

When an attack is successful, the attacker inflicts damage equal to the weapon, plus any extra Successes rolled. Damage can be blocked by both armour and cover, the defender rolling a number of dice equal to the armour or cover value, with every Success rolled blocking a point of damage. Weapon damage typically affects a character’s Strength Attribute, but other forms of damage can affect the other Attributes. Notably, in social situations, characters can use their Manipulation skill against an opponent’s Insight; damage to Agility represents physical fatigue and exhaustion; damage to Wits represents fear, confusion, and misjudgement; and damage to Empathy represents callousness and distrust. Damage has two effects. First it reduces the number of Base dice a player can roll for the damaged Attribute, and second, if reduced to zero, it means that the character is Broken, the exact effects of which vary from attribute to attribute, but essentially it means that a character cannot act. In combat, it means that an enemy can attempt to deliver a coup de grâce.
Continuing the example, Solga has successfully climbed the tower where the bandits are holding her companion, Gaverin. She sneaks down a corridor, checking several rooms and eluding the guard before finding where the bandits are holding the prisoner.  Slipping into the room, the goblin grins at the bound and gagged Half-Elf, and quickly goes to work, loosening the ropes and the gag that hold him silent and immobile. Almost as she finishes the task, Gaverin snaps a warning to his liberator—the guard has swung back on his rounds and discovered the escape attempt. Solga has her blade drawn, but the Guard does not. Both react at the sight of each other and a fight ensues.
Everyone involved draws an Initiative card—the Game Master draws a 9, Gaverin’s player draws a 7, and Solga’s player draws a 4. This means that of the player characters, Gaverin will go first, but all the Half-Elf can do is escape his bonds, which means that the Guard could attack him before Solga can act. So, before the round begins, the players swap their Initiative cards, making the order now the Guard, Solga, and Gaverin. The Guard’s first action is ‘Draw Weapon’, a Fast Action which enables him to attempt a Slash’ with his axe as his Slow Action.
The Game Master rolls three Base dice for the Bandit’s Strength, two Skill dice for his Melee skill, and two Gear dice for the attack. She rolls two Successes and one Bane on the Base dice, though the latter does not count because the roll has not been Pushed. The hand axe inflicts two bonus Success, so Solga is about to take four damage to her Strength. This is a lot of damage, but Solga has the Fast Footwork Talent which gives her a Dodge beyond any Reactive action. Solga’s player rolls four Base dice for her Agility—it should be five, but she took damage during the climb into the tower—plus a Skill die for her Move. Since this is a ‘Slash’ attack, Solga’s player would two extra dice, but Solga wants to remain standing, which would penalise her by two dice, it simply negates the bonus. Solga’s player has to Push the roll, but eventually gets two Success and a Bane on a Base die. Since the two Success are equal to what the Game Master rolled for the Guard, Solga avoids the attack. In the process though, she bangs an elbow and reduces her Agility to 3. She also receives a single Willpower Point.
Now it is her turn to act. Solga’s first act is a ‘Feint’, a Fast Action which will allow her to exchange Initiative cards with the Guard. So on Round 2, Solga’s Initiative will be 9 and she will act first! Then her Slow Action is to ‘Stab’ the Guard with her dagger. Solga’s player rolls two Base dice for her Strength, one Skill die for her Melee, and a Gear die for the dagger. Her two Success are enough to hit and as the Guard has already acted, he cannot take a Reactive action. With the bonus damage from the dagger, this would inflict a total of three hits on the Guard, but the Game Master rolls for the Guard’s armour and gets a single Success. This means that Solga’s blade slips past the Guard’s armour and inflicts two hits. His Strength is reduced from three to two. As the Goblin darts in with the blade, Gaverin behind finally frees himself from his bonds and readies a spell…
Magic in Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World is organised into Talents and like other Talents, is organised into three ranks. A Sorcerer or Druid who knows one of these Talents at Rank 1 is able to cast all of the Rank 1 spells in that Talent. This is in addition to a number of general spells that all spellcasters know which typically have to do with the general manipulation of magic itself. Mechanically, a player never rolls a skill check for his spellcasting character to cast a spell, as it is automatic. Instead, he spends Willpower Points to charge the spell and then rolls to see if the spell can be overcharged. For each Willpower Point so invested, the player rolls a base die. Each Success rolled overcharges the spell, whilst each Bane indicates a magical mishap. Now this is open to abuse, the player of a Druid or Sorcerer attempting to Push every roll in order to generate Willpower Points, so a Game Master does need to keep a check on this as really, whilst magic is not a one-shot thing, it is powerful and it does take effort and its use should reflect this.

Name: Gaverin 
Kin: Half-Elf Age: 106 Gender: Male
Profession: Sorcerer
Attributes
Strength 2 Agility 3 Wits 5 Empathy 3
Skills: Crafting 2, Melee 1, Sleight of Hand 2, Lore 3, Insight 2, Manipulation 2
Talents: Psychic Power (Kin), Path of Signs (Rank 1), Fearless (Rank 1), Incorruptible (Rank 1), Lucky (Rank 1)
Willpower: 2
Pride: Whoever threatens you will die a painful death
Dark Secret: You are haunted by visions of the world beyond the veil
Reputation: 1
Relationship: Solga doubts your magical powers. The fool!
Gear: Knife, crystal ball, 7 silver
Resource Dice: Food d6, Water d8
It is now Gaverin’s turn to act. Not wanting the Guard to cry out or alert his fellow bandits, he casts the spell, Paralyse. This is a Rank 1 spell which causes a target to lose one or more of his next actions. Gaverin’s player decides to invest two  Willpower Points into the spell, but his Pyschic Power Talent adds another Willpower Point to the total, giving Gaverin’s player three Base dice to roll. He rolls two Successes and one Bane. The Successes increase the Power Level of the spell to three and prevents the Guard from taking his next Fast Action and Slow Action. The Bane though means that Gaverin’s player must roll on the Magic Mishap table. The result of this is that casting the spell causes the Half-Elf pain, his losing a point of Strength. As the guard suddenly finds himself unable to move, Solga looks back at the Half-Elf who is now slightly wincing in pain, and says, “Well, ‘e ain’t mivin’, we betta do though.” The two quickly move to tie the Guard up and make their escape.
Overall mechanically, characters in Forbidden Lands are not incompetent, but they do often have push themselves in order to succeed and that increases the possibility of a player rolling Banes. As deleterious as Banes are, they have a positive effect in also generating Willpower Points, which are necessary if a magic using character wants to cast spells or to activate some Talents. Thus, this is not forgiving system and it is one that reflects the harsh nature of the Forbidden Lands.

Two big aspects of Forbidden Lands are Journeys and Strongholds. Journeys covers not just travel, but also exploration. Each character on a journey undertakes a particular part of the trip, such as ‘Lead the Way’ or ‘Keep Watch’. All characters undertake the ‘Hike’ action. In keeping with the dangerous nature of the Forbidden Lands, there are plenty of mishaps that can befall travellers should the roll be failed for any one of the journey’s parts, though no rolls are necessary for the simple ‘Hike’ action. Strongholds are bases that the player characters find, clear out of foes, rebuild, defend, and improve. At its most basic, a stronghold provides a place to rest and sleep in relative comfort and safety to the point where a character can gain a Willpower Point, but different facilities provide different benefits. So a Bakery provides food if there is flour, a Library a bonus to Lore rolls, a Shooting Range somewhere to practise Markmanship and so gain Experience Points towards that skill, and so on. Instead of being a game of exploration and discovery, the addition of strongholds add economic, planning, and battle elements to Forbidden Lands as well as further opportunities for roleplaying. It enables a campaign to develop, the players and their characters to have a stake in the world, and because funds are needed to build more, provides further reason to go out and adventure.

All of this so far, has been in the ‘Player’s Handbook’ for Forbidden Lands. The ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’ essentially gives the deeper secrets and background to the setting. As well as advice on running the game right from the first session, it gives the history of the Forbidden Lands and how they gained such a name, presents the gods and faiths of the region, and provides more information about the Kin, much of which will only become apparent during play. The bestiary includes lots of classic fantasy monsters, from Death Knights and Dragons to the Undead and Wyverns, although there are plenty of monsters unique to the Forbidden Lands. Every monster gets a table of six attack actions which the Game Master can choose from or on roll on. In terms of treasure and loot, most of the time, the player characters will find coins and things that they can sell. Magic items are extremely rare, but can be very powerful. These are artefacts, of which there are eighteen described in the book, each with illustration, an associated legend, and a suggested location where they might be found as artefacts are not just some random loot drops. Many have drawbacks, but all have an associated Artifact die. This is a dice type larger than a six-sided die, with the faces higher than six being marked with Success symbols or even multiple Success symbols. When a character uses an artefact, his player gets to roll its associated die instead of any Gear dice. (All of the game’s artefacts, including those associated with the Raven’s Purge campaign, appear on the Artifact cards in the Forbidden Lands: Custom Deck.)

In addition to extensive and detailed encounter lists and tables for creating adventure sites, which a Game Master could use to create locations and adventures on the go if she wants to run her game like that, the ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’ describes three adventure sites in detail—a village, a castle, and a dungeon. The Hollows is a village which is just opening itself up to trade and the wider world, which has divided the villagers; the castle of Weatherstone stands atop a rock promontory that stands separate to the walls of the gorge it is in and is said to hide the war chest of its last lord; and the Vale of the Dead is said to be where Zygofer the Spellbinder practised his necromantic arts! Together these provide multiple sessions of play, the player characters first exploring the village and then going out to explore the other locations, perhaps claiming Weatherstone as their own as their first stronghold. Each location has their own plots, but much of the action and roleplaying will be very player-led. They also work as a campaign’s first adventure sites before a group beings playing the Raven’s Purge campaign itself.

Physically, Forbidden Lands is very presented and put together. Both books are presented as old tomes on off-white paper and illustrated in pen and ink throughout, which given that most modern roleplaying games are presented in full colour, gives Forbidden Lands the look and feel of a roleplaying game from decades ago. The artwork, primarily drawn by one artist, is excellent and helps give both the books and the setting a very uniform look. One lovely touch is that the same weapons are redrawn again and again, each time to illustrate the types typically used  by the different Kin in the setting. There are no mechanical effects to this—an Orc sword works exactly the same as an Elf sword—but it adds a degree of verisimilitude. The cartography, more illustrations than maps, is also good. Lastly, the game’s box is deep enough to hold both the Forbidden Lands: Custom Dice Set and the Forbidden Lands: Custom Deck as well as the two books, should the Game Master purchase them.

From the start, Forbidden Lands has certain ‘Old School’ feel. It comes in a box, like all good games of yore did and the look of the books similarly echo an old style look. The fantasy of Forbidden Lands also echoes that of the traditional fantasy of the first roleplaying games in the types of player characters, the monsters to be faced, and in the exploration of dungeons—though it expands that to take in exploration of the lands too. Mechanically, Forbidden Lands has an ‘Old School’ feel too in that the Year Zero engine is far from forgiving, enforcing the fact that life in the Forbidden Lands is cruel, and that any attempt to explore and claim them involves danger and the possibility of both failure and death. Yet while there is still room for heroism and even quests too given that artefacts in the setting are unique things of legend and grant their wielders great power, the tone of this game is not heroic fantasy, but rough, gritty, and bloody with more than a lingering sense of menace.

Superbly packaged, Forbidden Lands is a pleasing combination of ‘Old School’ nostalgia and fast, simple mechanics with unobtrusive narrative elements designed to bring aspects of the character into play. Its setting offers scope for the player characters to develop not just personally, but also in terms of their place in the world. Overall, Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World is a brutal and modern take upon ‘Old School’ play in a land still under the influence of a great evil.

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