Forbidden Lands is perhaps the best iteration to date of the Year Zero rules system by Free League Publishing, paired with a setting that brings forth scenes and scenarios reminiscent of certain black metal or old school prog rock album covers' art. As a Kickstarter backer, I had been eagerly awaiting the game for some time, and after my first full session running the game yesterday, I'm glad to report that it does not disappoint.
The game is focused on exploration, with hex-crawl style play, punctuated by visits to villages and strongholds as well as dungeons and ruined castles. The exploration rules remind some players of a lighter version of The One Ring's travel rules, with different roles to be fulfilled in terms of one player character using survival skills to lead the way through the wilderness to avoid the party getting lost or running into hazards, and one player character keeping watch to avoid ambushes and make any random encounters along the way optional. There's some light resource management (you don't track individual units of rations or water but rather roll resource dice with each use to see if your supplies are running out) that may prompt other party members to forage, hunt or fish to avoid conditions like Hunger and Thirst. Party members might also fulfill important roles such as cooking the food others have caught or found (otherwise it won't last to become a resource), making camp (if a campsite isn't built in a good place or done well, you might wind up getting soggy or setting up your tent on an insect colony), and other chores. With each 10 kilometer hex you enter, you roll to see if you safely navigated the wilderness and if the lookout will spot any random encounters that the gamemaster might have rolled up, but there's plenty for everyone to do in this mode of play, although it's probably a good idea to make sure everyone is involved in decision making.
The map of Ravenland, the titular Forbidden Lands, is covered in icons where a hex will have a village, castle, or dungeon. It is up to the gamemaster to place the highly detailed adventure locations Free League and freelancers working on the game have come up with in those hexes. There are three locations in the Gamemaster's Guide, one each of a village, a dungeon and a castle. These can be used on their own, but they also play into the Raven's Purge campaign, which can be bought separately and has a great deal more locations. They say that the gamemaster can place these locations anywhere there's a corresponding icon on the map, and technically you can (technically, you can do anything you want at your game table) but every location has a legend and a history, and might have geographical features or suggestions for where it should be placed that in some cases - if carefully considered - lend the location to being placed in only one or two places on the map. Narrowing things further, the gamemaster's guide has a map showing where each Kin (fantasy race or subrace/clan) has settled. For example, if you're placing the laboratory and stronghold of a certain villain who called forth demons from a demonic portal, there's only one castle icon on the map adjacent to where history tells you there's a demonic portal. If you had a village that was a burial ground for officers killed in the Alder Wars that should be along a river, well, you've got several villages along rivers on the map, but there's a certain area between which Zygofer's forces would probably have met Alderland's in battle. Some locations are more flexible than others, if you want someone who understands the full history and context of the location to feel it makes any sense. This is possibly my one semi-criticism of the game, although the lack of labels on the map adds to the replayability of the campaign and makes it easy to reskin the game world as you please.
The feeling that only certain spots on the map felt appropriate for certain locations hardly mattered to me, though, because reading through the lore scattered throughout the gamemaster's guide and figuring out where best to place all of the locations in Raven's Purge and the Gamemaster's Guide was probably the most entertaining game prepration I've ever done. The history of the Forbidden Lands is full of secrets, betrayals, false narratives, unreliable narrators and legends that contain only a shadow of the truth. The native inhabitants of Ravenland were the elves and dwarves, with humans arriving later on as interlopers reluctantly given half of the land to keep the peace, negotiated via what's considered a protector god. Of course, humans being humans, they soon find themselves transgressing into the half of the land that is still reserved for elves, dwarves and other Kin due to religious persecution, overpopulation, a long period of poor growing seasons, in pursuit of the persecuted, and so forth. A series of migrations, wars and intrigues occurs over hundreds of years, up to the point where a demonic Blood Mist stretches across the land, devouring anyone who wanders from home and hearth at night. The Blood Mist rises each night for 300 years, until just several years before gameplay begins. This is why the lands are unknown to their inhabitants, and where all the constant exploration comes in. The player characters are among the first brave souls to go out to the wilderness and seek fortune, fame, knowledge, or even just a break in the monotony of not being able to leave the lands your family has lived on for 300 years, where your restless dead ancestors moan and mill about your family burial plot or the village graveyard, and you spend your life farming turnips.
The system is similar to Mutant Year Zero, also by Free League. The dice system can be punishing, but in actual experience not as punishing as one might think when first reading it. Each character has attributes, skills, and equipment that lend dice to a pool of d6s. Only sixes are successes. You can 'push' a roll, representing your character pushing themselves body and/or mind to succeed at a task where they must, re-rolling all dice except for sixes and ones. However, any dice that came up as ones on your attribute dice also cause harm to that attribute. You strain your muscles, tire yourself out, become frustrated or mentally fatigued. But the desire to triumph over adversity also gives you the rare resource Willpower, and you gain one for each 1 rolled on an attribute die in a pushed roll. So you damage yourself, but also gain a certain sense of determination. "Yeah, I did that, I'm capable of pushing myself to the limit if need be." Unless your party builds a stronghold and stays the night there, this is the only way that you will get Willpower. Willpower is used for racial abilities, professional (class) talents, and for all magic. If anyone is playing a druid or a sorcerer, they're going to want to push rolls right away.
The system works well if the gamemaster moderates it and heeds the game's advice. Don't let that spellcaster do every silly thing they can to roll dice and push themselves. They should get a decent amount of willpower from regular gameplay. My partner played a druid, and wanted to push his first roll even though he had a basic success. I told him not to, there was no need. He still had willpower when it came time to use the Path of Healing to save another PC, pretty early on. Likewise, as a sidebar early in the game says, you don't need to roll for everything. Think of this like an old-school fantasy roleplaying game without skills, even though this system is based on skills. In other words, think OSR, think basic D&D. Don't do "perception" based checks to search rooms and find things... if the party needs to find something to move the plot along, they should. Otherwise, they should tell you specifically where they're looking (I look in the wardrobe, I look in the desk), and if something is there you tell them about it. Use the Scouting skill (the perception-like skill) as directed to keep watch, oppose stealth, or otherwise as outlined in the book. You should only roll where there are consequences for failure, and if someone rolls and fails, there should absolutely be consequences for failure. Unlike the way modern D&D is often played, if someone rolls to climb a wall and fails, they aren't just standing at the base of the wall going 'unnnhhhh, can't reach' and unable to begin. They probably got partway up the wall and fell at some point, perhaps painfully or making noise. All of the advice for running the game, while brief and to the point with little exposition on why it should be done, is worth heeding: the core principles of the game, advice sidebars like don't roll for everything, rolls have consequences, etc. This will make or break this game system (and honestly, it can only improve other systems you apply these principles to, as well.)
There are random tables for generating monsters, villages, castles, and dungeons that are actually surprisingly good. You'll have a few dozen monsters in the gamemaster's guide, but the thing to understand there is that (1) monsters are a big deal, they follow their own rules and if PCs don't approach things very carefully and with preparation, they will probably die, so monsters should be used sparingly, (2) the conflict of the Forbidden Lands is such that you'll probably be facing humanoids built similarly to the player characters more often than monsters, (3) locations detailed in the campaign and various other places will have their own monsters, and (4) monsters are easy to come up with or convert for the system, even without the random generator, as it's not hard to see how everything works in this system. There's no hidden balance to break per se.
Legends and Adventurers, the handout included in the core set, also includes an alternative method to randomly generate a player character that I was shocked every single one of my players used, sticking with the characters as they rolled them randomly for the most part. It also includes tables for a gamemaster to randomly come up with a legend for a person, place or artifact. Most of these tables are d66 (roll 2d6s, one is the tens digit and the other is the singles digit), but surprisingly flexible and providing a good number of options.
The combat system is decent, but fast and brutal, and you might see character death from time to time. If a fight is one humanoid person vs another humanoid person, there is an alternative advanced melee system that adds some more dynamism to combat, involving combat cards. A character in arm's length of another, with a full set of actions available to them, can force the character they're engaged with into advanced combat, if the gamemaster agrees. Both characters act at the same time, picking two cards to represent their actions. The attacker reveals his first action, and resolves it, then the defender, then the attacker, then the defender. This can "lock down" a combatant, forcing them to defend themselves or spend their actions fleeing melee or trying to fight back when they may not be much of a close combatant, and thereby allow someone to 'tank' an enemy. I have a feeling this will lead to a lot of people trying to immediately melee sorcerers and druids. However, the tables can be turned on the attacker if the defender throws caution to the wind and decides to fight back, because if one or the other side is hit first, pain prevents them from attacking later in the same round of combat. I only got to use this mode of combat for one exchange, as the bandits I had attacking the PCs and a caravan started attacking at range, and then went down quickly. I tried to manuever the NPCs into a situation where advanced combat could be invoked to demonstrate it to the group.
Eventually, we started off a round with two combatants in arm's length, and I decided on what the NPC would do and drew cards, and the player did as well. It turns out we both wanted to shove the other to the ground with the first action, me because I decided the NPC was panicking as the last bandit standing and the player because his PC was hurt and had diminished strength with which to attack, and wanted an easier target. The PC missed their shove attempt, I hit with mine, so the wounded PC and the scared bandit grappled briefly, and the bandit threw the PC to the ground. Then, we revealed our second actions. Unfortunately, the PC had chosen to attack, and couldn't do so while prone. The bandit's second action was to run. So he knocked the PC down and tried to flee. That sort of thing could happen in any system, but the simultaneous struggle, the PC's frustration at being unable to stop the last bandit, that came out of the advanced combat system.
Four bandits versus four PCs, resolved in just few minutes, with all the players describing their actions. As they 'broke' each of their opponents (taking them out by reducing an attribute to zero with an attack) I let them roll on the critical charts to give them something to work with in terms of describing how they took down the opponent. (Later in the game, a PC would take out a named Rust Brother (evil priests who gather sacrifices from villages) with a single arrow to the groin at a village, and I let it ride because it was just too perfect. It will also complicate things for that village.) Everyone was happy with the combat, but eager to buy more armor and some shields, and placing orders with the first blacksmith they met.
Overall, my first session running the Forbidden Lands took a group that mostly wanted to talk about Dungeons and Dragons 90% of the time, and engaged them in an old school, more narrative game of exploration, intrigue and gritty combat, and they were happy when it was done, ready to come back for more. I was probably more satisfied having run the session than I ever have been running games, which I've been doing for decades with a large collection of RPGs. The session went in directions I wasn't prepared for, but it was easy to read out whatever encounter or location the players had taken us to without disrupting the game. As the players have begun to explore and discover this new fantasy world, I got to experience their story, the unique order of events that sprung up from their explorations, what they decided to engage with, the consequences of their actions and rolls, and how they decided to deal with various NPCs and places. It gave me the kind of experience I feel every GM should get from running a game. In all RPGs, the gamemaster is another player at the table, but a lot of games can make the gamemaster's role feel like work. This game lets you feel like you're also a player at the table, in somewhat different ways than things like the Powered by the Apocalypse system or Modiphius' 2d20 system, but in a completely satisfying way.
If you like the One Ring this can give a dark fantasy change of pace. If you like OSR games, this feels like an old school gold box RPG cranked up to an HBO original series level of 'Woah, WTF?". If you like gritty combat... the combat monster among my group of players started out the first encounter cracking a man's skull and shattering another man's leg, then got nearly sliced in half by a broadsword. If you like intrigue and complicated plots and narrative games, there's something for you in here, too. If you like survival games, this is definitely something to get into. If you just need a change of pace from your group visiting another magically cosmopolitan, Disneyland version of a medieval fantasy metropolis, check this out. It does 'points of light setting' in a way that the game franchise that introduced us all to the phrase 'points of light setting' never did.
Highly recommended. Trust the game and its advice and you'll have a great experience. DriveThruRPG, please increase the scale for reviews so I can give this 10 out of 10 stars.
[5 of 5 Stars!]