Forbidden Lands is a Fantasy Role Playing Game from Free League Publishing, the folks who brought us Mutant: Year Zero, Alien and Tales from the Loop. The game uses a variation of the Year Zero system, a system they are using in a lot of their publications. Some have called Forbidden Lands an OSR game which stands for Old School Revival which is sort of an unofficial term people seem to be using for games that are Retro-Clones of the older editions of the classic Fantasy RPG. Unlike many of the retro-clones out there this is a totally modern system and not only is the system very new and modern, but it takes some old gaming ideas and does some really new modern innovative things with those. For this reason, I have a hard time seeing how this game is considered “Old School” at all.
The Box Set
Let us start with the box this comes in, since that will likely be the first thing you will encounter should you pick this game up and play it. Forbidden Lands is a great deal for the price in comparison to other games on the Market. The current edition of D&D has three core books for $50 a piece making it about $150 to get started, but these can be found on sale for as low as $90 for the set if you keep your eyes open. Unlike many other games, Forbidden Lands comes in one nice box with everything you should need to start playing for about $50. In the box you get a map, stickers, the Players Handbook, and the Gamemasters Handbook with a small booklet for quick unique character creation. The box is beautifully printed and sturdy. The two main books are even more impressive printed and bound in a sturdy faux leather hardback cover with amazing art and layout on nice heavy paper, this book is what I would love to see all game books printed like. The art is some of the best art I have seen in an RPG in ages. Some say it is like the art of older editions, but I do not see that. The art of many older editions just cannot hold up to the art in Forbidden Lands. That is almost to be expected as Free League who published this has a reputation for the top quality art they crank out with their RPG books. Truly all together the box is one of the best-looking highest quality RPGs on my shelf. There are quite a few books out for it as well and all of the standalone books are every bit as masterfully printed.
The setting and world is written into the main books. This is not a generic fantasy system to be used for any game you want, it is structured to be a well done hex crawl game in the setting as presented and written by Erik Granström. He does an amazing job of creating a unique world that will inspire many ideas and adventures to come. This world really stands out from other fantasy settings. Certainly, the box, the system and the game can be used to do most any fantasy you want to do, but it also seems to know it’s strong points and by weaving the unique world into the core books it stands strong. Just reading the manuals is fun like reading a novel.
Set after a catastrophe where the world was covered by a blood mist where demons ran the earth, the game starts as the characters emerge from the blood mist to find what horrors await. The players choose the kin of their characters. Kin is what other games of old would have called race, and here you get some out there kin. Goblins and Wolfkin are some of the options. You are not heroes in this game, more marauders and by the definition of other games it seems at times you might be making the monsters from other games. In this way the setting and setup seems to create almost what we might have once called a ‘reverse dungeon’ where players take on the roles of the baddies we normally kill.
The kin also deviate in the lore and the cultures in creative fun ways. Elves are incredibly unique here. The Elven lore says they rained down on the world as crystals. Elves are at their core magical gems and their flesh and body can be regrown around the magical gems if the gem remains intact. Some elves take other forms with their gems. One I found fascinating was the Entes, tree entes are pretty much just big walking trees, defenders of forests and in this setting they come about by fusing an elven gem to a tree. Goblins and Halflings also are unique in this setting as they can parent either goblin or halfling and the children are given to communities of goblins or halflings depending on which they are born. There really is a lot to work with here in crafting some fun unique stories for your campaign.
The mechanics of the game use the Year Zero system with some unique elements thrown in. It is structured to be a sandbox hex crawl and the system is set up amazing to make that happen in your game. The idea is that the story and game is crafted around the characters, the players have autonomy that other games often lack in this style. They determine the direction of the game, the game is built around the PCs. The character creation process gives the GM a lot of tools to craft the adventures around unique plot points of the characters backstories. The structure of the books lean heavily into creating random encounters and adventure sites that they can rummage through.
The mechanics themselves are centered around a dice pool of six sided dice. You essentially take the number of a skill and the number of an attribute plus any additional bonus from equipment used and you roll that many D6’s. a roll of a 6 is a success and a 1 is a failure. You do not take damage from hit points like many other fantasy RPGs, instead the damage goes directly to the attributes of the character. The damage also has lasting impact on a character. One can heal their attributes but still suffer ill effects from the damage which impacts their rolls and makes it harder to accomplish tasks. Damage makes it harder to succeed and it is not just physical but mental and emotional as well.
One of my favorite rules found in the book is for Coup de grace. A coup de grace can only be done after an empathy check if the check has failed. There is damage one does to their empathy by outright killing another, and there can be a lasting impact emotionally and mentally on your character for doing such a thing. As a game that has the potential to become a murder hobo game, I find little rules like this scattered throughout which really give it a nice edge compared to other games. The negative impact of actions are built into the mechanics not just the story the GM is telling.
Playing the Game
We recently played another Year Zero game Vaesen from Free League, so this is the second one I am posting about here. The character creation is fast in comparison to other games. It took our group a bit with the technical glitches because we played online with COVID, but at the table this could easily go much faster, especially if you use the booklet that helps you roll up a character quick. Year Zero characters are just easy and fast to create and not nearly as complex as many games.
I had a lot of fun running the game. The random encounters I rolled for the group were creative and unique and gave us a good start, and after one session I have tons of threads to put together as we go forward to build a really strong campaign centered around our characters. We used a character sheet and the dice roller included with it from Roll20. This was my first time trying Roll20 for game, and I had a few hiccups with it, but I hope to figure it out in the sessions to come. The game itself works great, and I was able to run with it and come up with what was needed for checks and rolls as the game went on pretty easy for my first time running it. Overall I am very pleased and strongly suggest playing Forbidden Lands. It is easily the best new fantasy RPG I have seen in forever.