It’s been a good long while since I wrote the first part of this series on the upcoming Forbidden Lands from Fria Ligan (Free League). A lot has changed in my personal and playing life in that time – I started a new job that keeps me unbelievably busy, my wife has finally returned home with a fresh PhD and I’ve reached a certain point I’ve been at before – I’ve had my fill of D&D and its derivatives. It happens every few years, I’ve stretched the system to its limits and must explore other things before the probably inevitable return.

Which makes Fria Ligan and Forbidden Lands my absolute favourite thing in the world right now. Before getting to the meat of the matter, I want to start with the same opening as in part one:

It is a late summer evening in 1988 and I’m seven. I’m lying on a sofa at my grandparents’ house in a small town in northern Iceland and I’ve been reading non-stop for hours in a book I just received. I can’t stop. Every page is more and more exciting and fills my mind with ideas, even though it’s not in my native language and I have trouble with a lot of the new and complicated terms in the book.

What exciting thriller is this?

It’s a battered and heavily used copy of the AD&D 1e player’s handbook and I’m excited at all the possibilities and I just want to play, to try it right now.

Almost 30 years later, I’ve thumbed through countless other RPG books, new and old and from a bunch of different systems. I’ve often gotten excited and curious about the contents of these books and sometimes I want to try out their possibilities as soon as possible and try to gather some friends that might also want to try something new. But it’s never been quite the same feeling of wonder.

It’s the beginning of February 2018, it’s the high point of the Icelandic winter and I’m days away from my 37th birthday. And that feeling has returned!

I’m reading through the upcoming Forbidden Lands from Fria Ligan (Free League) and on almost every page I find something new that excites me more and more and more.

And I want to share why.

Every single word of this stands. I have not been as excited about an RPG system since I was a wee bugger. What has changed is that since I wrote those words, I’ve gone full force into Fria Ligan’s other systems (Mutant Year Zero, Coriolis and Tales from the Loop) and think I’m much closer to understanding their design philosophy and love of RPG’s. My D&D fatigue couldn’t have come at a better time.

What a time to be alive.

So without further preamble let’s get to it – combat, magic and exploration. Before going further I must stress that these are alpha rules, so there will be some changes before the game is released.

forbidden lands review, Forbidden Lands First Impressions – Time for Action, Yawning Portal

High Risk – High Reward

Fria Ligan’s games use a core set of rules dubbed Mutant rules. It’s a system I’m becoming more and more impressed by. It has that beautiful quality of being at once very simple and very deep.

A key component of these rules is the push mechanic – essentially, most rolls involve a dice pool where you get one die for each relevant attribute point, one for each relevant skill point and one for each gear point (if applicable). Circumstances and talents can add or decrease dice to the pool. Effectively, all you need is to roll a single 6 to succeed, but there’s a lot more to it. The only results that truly matter on the dice are 1’s and 6’s – the 1’s are only important if you choose to push. Taking a risk and pushing does bring a certain kind of reward, because 1’s on attribute dice result in both a decrease in the attribute and a corresponding number of Willpower points – an absolute key in fuelling magic and the more powerful talents in the game.

Before this gets too convoluted, let’s have an example of this in action:

Eryssa the Huntress has triggered a trap and a huge, rolling boulder is rolling towards her in the sloping corridor – her only hope is to run back and jump the pit on the other side before the massive rock crushes her. She has Agility 4 and Move 2 but it is a long jump so there is a penalty of -1 to roll, taken from her skill dice for a total of 5 dice for the jump. Her player rolls and gets two 1’s and no 6. She chooses to push and rolls the three dice that had neither a 1 or 6 – and gets a 6! She jumps, barely hanging on to the edge and almost exhausts her entire reserves before clambering up, just as the boulder rolls past her into the pit. She knows she was lucky and this will not be so easy the next time, unless she has time to rest and have a drink of water. Eryssa is now down to Agility 2, but she also has 2 Willpower points, which can mean the difference between life and death in a tight spot.

Half Lion, Half Scorpion. All Raging Beast. Time to Fight.

Forbidden Lands is a game of exploration above all else. But there will be plenty of times where you will have to fight. This was the one aspect of the game that had me worried for a while, until I started testing it with others and I can confidently say that the combat is smooth, fast and fun.

You basically have two action every turn, a fast action and a slow one. Slow actions are generally things like casting a spell, swinging a sword, firing off an arrow etc. Fast actions are movement, dodging or parrying and so forth. Sometimes, an action (generally a fast action) is required to react, such as blocking a mighty blow. Unless you have certain talents, those are the limits of what you can do, so you do not want to get surrounded in combat. Ranges are measured in Arm’s Length, Near, Short and so forth and you’d need a fast movement action to get in closer or further.

Weapons and armour have a gear rating, which corresponds to how many dice you add to your roll when using the item. Getting 1’s on gear dice in a pushed roll will result in damage to the item (losing a gear die) and when you attempt to let a weapon or piece of armour absorb a blow and do not fully succeed, that will also decrease its protection.

Initiative is not handled with dice rolls, but with cards. Talents can increase your pick of cards and there is the option to feint and effectively switch initiative cards.

As a rule, the trauma that will befall you in combat is damage – a decrease in Strength. This is a game where combat should not be entered lightly, as it doesn’t take all that much to down you or even kill you. Once you reach 0 Strength, you need to roll for a critical injury and those can be lethal, some even instantly. But there are other kinds of trauma, fatigue (Agility), confusion (Wits) and doubt (Empathy). Reaching 0 in an attribute means you are broken and cannot continue until appropriate means have been used to restore you. The healing skill is a vital one in this game, as is taking your time to recover.

Monsters in the Forbidden Lands can be very dangerous, far more so than opponents similar to PC‘s. While a character that is similar to a PC will be hurt the same way, monsters do not and are, if anything, even more dangerous when hurt. It struck me as odd the first time that you roll for a monster’s action each turn, but it actually made for very tense combat. While all creatures have Strength and Agility scores, not all of them will have Wits and/or Empathy, so there may be limited means of hurting them.

But you can use the manipulation skill in combat against many opponents and affect combat in that way. I found that to be a very smart way to let those characters that have a silver tongue but limited combat or magical abilities still be active members in a combat situation.

And speaking of magic…

Beware the Sorcerer

Magic in the Forbidden Lands is entirely fuelled by Willpower. You can only have a reserve of up to 10 Willpower points, so it’s best used carefully and when necessary. And a good thing it is too, because using magic is a risky business.

You determine how much power (Willpower points or WP) you use for each spell. While the actual casting of the spell is always successful, you roll an attribute die for each WP and you really hope you don’t get 1’s. A single 1 isn’t all that bad, it merely tires the caster. Rolling two 1’s means something goes wrong, such as catching an ally in the spell’s area. And three or more 1’s is catastrophic…

There are two distinctly different kinds of magic, Druid and Sorcerer magic. There are a few universal spells for both kinds of casters but there are currently three kinds of Druid magic and four for Sorcerers. Druids can be healers, diviners and shapeshifters, while sorcerers can use runes to manipulate reality, earth and stone magic, dark blood magic of fire and domination or necromantic death magic. Both kinds have a distinct flavour and make for many possibilities.

Learning magic is governed by talents, so there are three levels of each kind but there is one important twist – you cannot learn a new power level or type of magic without finding a teacher that already has that knowledge and is willing to share.


There is a vast, unexplored world out there

As already mentioned, the Forbidden Lands will be a game of exploration. And it’s really, really well done. While many RPG system claim to have a heavy exploration element, I’ve rarely found one that truly does it well. Far too often it simply revolves around one PC having survival skills and guiding the others through a series of rolls while nothing much happens for the other players or unless the GM decides or scripts what will happen. In the Forbidden Lands, not only do all the PC‘s have a role in exploration, it’s vital that they do.

Each day is split into quarters. Each PC picks an action for each quarter and rolls for success (if needed). Only two of these can be used for hiking without consequences and the actual resting period(s) are an important and fun part requiring roleplay and interaction. While travel will often be uneventful, there are in the current build a lot of possible encounters and a many of them can lead to a fun and unplanned interlude or side trek. When rolling for encounter, you are not rolling for which monsters or characters you will come across, but an event or site. There will be a lot more options in the finished product and I can’t wait to see the possibilities.

Many talents your PC‘s can choose from will have to do with exploration and while they may not seem all that exciting at first glance, they actually do make for a more fun game and interesting possibilities. During my largest play test to date, one of the players only picked those kinds of talents during the period they spent their hard-earned XP since he was playing a Sorcerer and doubted he’d have a chance to expand his magical knowledge. It made for a more interesting and fun character who showed more depth and played a bigger role in making the group comfortable while camping and augmented what the Hunter brought the group from his escapades.

For reasons I will go into later, when delving into the setting itself, the Forbidden Lands are almost entirely unexplored so there really is a vast world out there with plenty of opportunities, buried treasures and ancient secrets.

June cannot come fast enough

I use Kickstarter a lot to see what interesting things are going on out there. I often buy digital versions of new games and products so I can inspect them and find out if they’re worth the hype. I rarely splurge when it come to these things and generally am somewhat conservative about spending money. This was another story. I went all out and bought just about everything possible for the Forbidden Lands. I really am that excited about this game and setting. I’ve been voraciously reading what I already have and am bursting with both my own ideas for the game and to try the quite frankly astounding amount of playable things that will come with the box.

Forbidden Lands is scheduled for release in June. Until then, there will be more Yawning Portal previews, so stay tuned if you’re excited for this new game.