Forbidden Lands is a Swedish fantasy game with elves, orcs, goblins, wizards, druids, and rogues, full o abandoned dungeons, ruined mausoleums and crumbling castles. It’s not the role-playing game you’re thinking, though. This might be an ancient land, but it’s also brand-new for everyone in it. You see, for three hundred years, these lands were pretty much isolated by the deadly Blood Mist, a phantasmagoric miasma that isolated communities in small pockets. Now the mists have lifted, and the entirety of the land is available again — to roam, to explore, to trade, and for untold dangers to stalk the wilderness again.
This brand-new yet ancient land is home to your player-characters. There are no heroes here, only people trying to make a living and, perhaps, some glory in the process. From the get-go, Forbidden Lands is presented as a place of adventure, a sandbox where the players, not the Gamemaster, determine when, why, and how to go. The game gives the Gamemaster all the tools they need to generate an adventure according to whatever direction the player-characters are going, session by session or even moment to moment. Of course, it is still the Gamemaster the sole guardian of all the knowledge and secrets of the Forbidden Lands, but the book itself brings very little on facts; instead, the Gamemaster is presented with a sleigh full of rumors, legends, myths — some even contradicting each other. More than any other RPG I played, Forbidden Lands is your game.
Except for hit points. You ain’t got any. Damage is dealt on your stats. This is a modern game afterall, and you can see some modern expectations and sensibilities in its mechanics. So no arbitrary hit point score: you see your character waisting away because you take hits on Strength, Wits, or Agility. You really feel you’re hurting when you don’t have enough strength to lift you heavy axe. It’s also pretty straight-forward when making the rest of your character: there are only 16 skills, 4 per attribute. To complete a task, you roll d6 equivalment to the adequate atribute plus the skill (if any) plus any equipment bonus you have. All you have to do is roll at least one 6 — but mind the 1s! You see, Forbidden Lands is a dangerous and mortal game. Anytime the Gamemaster will ask you if you want to “push your roll”. Pushing means that you make an extra effort and can get extraordinary results, but you will also risk overreaching yourself, for when you push, the 1s are activated. You still keep any successes you roll, but the each 1 damages your equipment or your character. It’s a high-risk, high-reward system, and I always ask my players “you got one success. Wanna push that?”. I love this!
Forbidden Lands was originally released in 2018 and comes in a slipcase with the Player’s Manual and the Gamemaster’s Guide, both encased in faux-leather hardcover with some cosmetic wear and tear to make them look like old books. There’s also the booklet Legends & Adventurers, which lets you flesh out your player-characters and give them unique backstories with a few dice rolls. And the booklet also comes withe random tables for creating dramatic legends and dangerous monsters in the Forbidden Lands.
Just like Tales from the Loop and it’s follow-up game, Things from the Flood, Forbidden Lands started out as an artbook. You see, there’s this awesome Swedish illustrator called Nils Gulliksson who, in the 1980s, inspired a whole generation of Swedish kids and teens with his drawings, all in the very best style of the old AD&D and the Savage Sword of Conan Marvel comics. He’s amazing. Then, Free League’s Erik Granström developed a ton of lore inspired by Gulliksson’s art and the Free League team added the rules for this RPG. They call Forbidden Lands a retro game because it rescues old gaming traditions from the beginnings of fantasy RPGs. Forests and mountains are inhabited by elves, orcs, and dwarves; the tiny villages that dot the landscape are places of rest and also of opportunities for employment (the adventuring type). You don’t play heroes, but brigands and reavers only interested in finding out lost treasures left behind by long-dead warlocks, ancient generals, or forgotten lords.
If you’re an old-timer longing for some real old-school fantasy RPG, or a relatively new gamer that wants to see how the old folks used to play, but would never actually return to that outdated rules style, you should definitely check out Forbidden Lands. The rules system is simple, instinctive, straight-forward and out of the way like I rarely seen before. And the interior art is gorgeous.
Free League just crowd-funded a mega-campaign for Forbidden Lands called The Bitter Reach. With the Kickstarter, they also raised money for a second printing of Forbidden Lands, with some tweaks in the text and the rules. You should look for this amazing game at your friendly local game store or straight from Free League. You’ll get more adventures than you can shake a seven-part rod at!