Old-school roleplaying for a modern world
The dark dungeons and fog-grey morality of Forbidden Lands offer a delightfully old-school take on the traditional fantasy RPG, creating a sense of freedom that rewards GMs for a hands-off approach and allows the players to truly forge their own destiny.
The game comes to us from Free League, the Swedish studio probably best known for 2017’s Tales from the Loop. Though the tone of Forbidden Lands is about as far as you can get from the doe-eyed wonder of that RPG, it shares the same retro approach and charming take on childhood memories – in this case the awe and excitement so many of us felt when we first encountered fantasy gaming.
Almost every aspect of the game, from the beautiful black-and-white design to the enormous map found in the starter set, sparks happy memories of leafing through old D&D books or daydreaming epic adventures sparked by Lord of the Rings. The titular Forbidden Lands are stuffed with all the magic swords, abandoned castles and horrible monsters you could wish for, and the rules are designed around allowing the players to explore and quest to their hearts’ content.
While it’s certainly aiming for an old-school feel, the mechanics that propel the game along are thoroughly modern and supported by a few rather fascinating innovations. The core ruleset has stats and skills that feed into a dice pool that will feel very familiar to anyone who has played other Free League games; even newcomers should be able to get a handle on things within a few minutes.
Perhaps the biggest quirk to the system is the complete absence of hit points or any other kind of health score. Instead, any damage you take cuts into your stats, so physical damage reduces your strength while emotional trauma slashes away at your empathy. As you rely on these stats to defend yourself from damage in the first place, a battle can very quickly push you right to the edge.
This may not be such a huge problem, however, as forcing your character to the limit of their abilities is the only way to gain ‘willpower’ – the resource used to perform special abilities and cast spells. The most practical way to generate willpower is to re-roll a failed check, which comes at the risk of taking damage while boosting reserves of inner strength.
It’s a strange system that seems ripe for abuse, but once you get it onto the table it works surprisingly smoothly. The fact that magic is a product of desperation and defiance in the face of death fits well into the world, which is another way that Forbidden Lands sets itself apart from the crowd.
The setting, and indeed the overall tone, manages to be both unrelentingly bleak and strangely liberating. The entire game is set in a kingdom that was effectively walled off from the rest of the world and left to die at the claws of a demonic mist that killed anybody foolish enough to leave their homes after dark. Anything resembling a shining bastion of civilisation has long since rotted away and countless ancient manors and treasuries lie empty save for the dead and the desperate.
The game kicks off a few years after the blood mist mysteriously disappeared, leaving the land free to explore for the first time in centuries. How the players shape this dangerous land is entirely up to them.
While the lore is incredibly compelling, it does have a few weak points that might leave readers scratching their heads, most of which revolve around the surprisingly limited impact the blood mist seems to have had.
Many of the backgrounds suggested in the players’ guide involve travelling extensively as a child, which in theory would have been near impossible, and the towns and villages seem plucked straight from a conventional dark fantasy world rather than one where settlements were forced to survive in near-isolation for hundreds of years. These may seem petty concerns, but the blood mist is such a fascinating idea that it’s frustrating when it fails to gel with the details.
This doesn’t change the fact that Forbidden Land is a beautiful game that offers a chance for players to experience something that captures the feel of old-school adventuring but still feels fresh. It’s well worth a look for anyone looking for something different to their fantasy gaming.
PLAY IT? – YES
It’s like someone took hazy childhood memories of a classic D&D game and mixed them with a dash of bleak Scandinavian darkness.
Designer: Härenstam, Granström, Granath, Karlén, Kostulas
Artist: Gulliksson, Stålenhag, Brandt
This review originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.