First Impressions of Forbidden Lands

I recently had a conversation about how I am sooo over the D&D Fantasyland and the various assumptions and structures that are baked into the rules of all editions, and how there’s actually not a lot of medium-weight rulesets for generic heroic fantasy. But to my surprise, I discovered that Forbidden Lands is actually a Year Zero game, which I recently found to be really promising looking in Coriolis. I think I got Forbidden Lands years ago, quickly decided that it’s a weird D&D, and then completely forgot about it. But now that I am specfically in the market for “anything but D&D”, it’s actually looking much more interesting. It still has elves, dwarves, and halflings for PCs and the monster section, and the druid is clearly inspired by D&D, but that’s easily reflavored to your setting of choice.

While it basically has classes, skills, and talents like in recent D&D editions, Forbidden Land doesn’t have levels. You gain a small number of XP any time you play, but these don’t track progress but rather work as advancement points to spend. Your four attributes (Strength, Agility, Wits, Empathy) remain fixed, but skill increase cost 5XP per new skill rank (1 to 5) and talents costs 3XP per new talent rank (1 to 3). Each class has three class-exclusive talents, and there are an additional 46 general talents available to all characters. So you’re not going to max out your character any time soon.

The game doesn’t have hit points and instead damage goes directly to your attributes. Injury is Strength damage, exhaustion is Agility damage, fear is Wits damage, and despair is Empathy damage. Attributes can go to 6 at the highest, but attacks typically only deal 1 or 2 damage. So combat isn’t going to turn into long slugging matches. (Assuming you land hits.) When an attribute falls to 0, the character is out of action, and in case of 0 Strength or Agility suffers a crticial injury. There is a 20/36 chance that the critical injury will be nonfatal, a 14/36 chance of dying in the next days, hours, or rounds without treatment, and a 2/36 chance of immediate death. (Druids with rank 3 in the healing talent can revive the dead within a few days, but that permanently reduces Empathy). If you survive a critical injury, you’re still crippled in some way for a few days.

Magic is one of the most interesting things about the game, and from what I gathered looking around about the game, one of the most divisive. The talents for the different magic paths have three levels, each level giving you access to more advanced spells. The level of the spell determines how much Willpower you need to cast it. The spell automatically succeeds, but you still have to roll dice equal to the Willpower spend, and every 6 means the spell gets an extra boost, and getting a 1 means you suffer a mishap. Most of the mishaps are not so bad, but there’s a 1/36 chance that the character gets pulled to hell and basically instantly dead with no chance or recovery. Which sounds to me like spellcasters might have an life expectancy of about 100 spells. Which can work for short campaigns where characters might only cast 30 or 50 spells in total, but for longer campaigns I think something like demonic possession until exorcised might work better.
Willpower is another thing where it gets a bit odd. Willpower is used to power spells, but also by various other talents used by other characters. But the main way to get Willpower is to suffer damage to an attribute when you pushed a skill check and a 1 came up. The only other way is to get 1 Willpower point when you return back to your base after an adventure. 1 point. If you play a spellcaster and don’t want to get all bruised up by plenty of dangerous exercise, you need to find opportunity to cause yourself mental stress. Making checks for Lore, Insights, Manipulation, Performance, or Animal Handling can get you Willpower points if it drains your Wits and Empathy, but you only get to make a roll in situations where there is real pressure, and you only get to roll once for any action. Also your Willpower maxes out at 10, so you can’t build up a big pile of Willpower to prepare yourself for big awesome magic duels.
I have to see this in action, but I think this could work pretty well if you have a campaign that assumes infrequent uses of low-level magic as the default. I would guess as a sorcerer you’re probably more an occult scholar than a flashy spell-slinger. Which for certain kinds of campaign would be very appropriate. It had me thinking that this might even be a good fit for people who want Sword & Sorcery campaigns where magic is pricey and risky.

2 thoughts on “First Impressions of Forbidden Lands”

  1. I’ve had Forbidden Lands for a while but haven’t had a chance to delve into it. And I doubt I’ll get to play it. If you do get the chance to check it out I’d be interesting to see how it went. Particularly if it’s well suited for S&S.

  2. Just stumbled across this blog post, which is why I’m replying so late.

    I’ve been running a Forbidden Lands game for the last couple of years, and my group is having a lot of fun with the system. The ones playing spell casters ran the numbers, and came to the same conclusion you did about their character’s life expectancy. That just prompted them to dig deeper into the rules, which provide ways to cast spells without risking a dice roll, such as Safe Casting, using the right ingredients, and casting from a Grimoire (all found in the Player’s Handbook, Chapter 6). These rules favor the well-prepared spell caster, but don’t entirely remove the risks associated with magic.

    The combat system is appropriately deadly, with its own risk and reward tradeoffs. Pushing a combat roll has the potential upside of taking an opponent out of the fight quickly. But the downsides of the character hurting themself or damaging their weapon add real weight to combat decisions.

    I’ve been playing RPGs since 1976, and Forbidden Lands is a throwback to those long-gone days. It’s not a clone of the original D&D. In fact, the system has little in common with D&D beyond the concept of a role playing game. If you’re looking for something like that in your fantasy RPG, I suggest giving Forbidden Lands a shot.

    Just in case anyone is wondering, I don’t have anything to do with Free League or the Year Zero system beyond backing some of their Kickstarters.

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