Last Tuesday we played our fourth session of Forbidden LandsMy heart was — is — so heavy. But on we played.

Last week I decided to go all-in on FL’s procedural generation and ditch everything attached to the Raven’s Purge campaign. It eliminates my prep time and lets me discover the world alongside the players. That real-time discovery is fun. My players showed up on time like always, ate their gyros and Wendy’s chilis and Weight Watchers like always, joked and caught up. So great. It’s half the reason we’ve have a standing date on Tuesdays for the past, um, decade? More?

Mostly I just listened while they got their clipboards and notes and started studying the big map. Are we going to the woods north of the lake? Braving the swamps south of the lake? How much better kitted out can we get before we try this? And so on. They’re getting excited, probably. I just didn’t care.

Most of my players aren’t connected to internet RPG crises and have no idea at all of who’s behind the games we play. I talk about these folks from time to time, sometimes around new releases, usually after I get back from hanging out with them at conventions. But otherwise my folks are blissfully ignorant of anything other than the games and our experiences. I sat there mostly in my own head, stewing on bullshit that’s a degree removed from me but raining misery on folks I know. Other folks. Not my folks.

I’ve also been wading through a string of middling-scary health issues the past couple weeks, adding froth to the churn. I don’t talk about those a lot in public. They’re fine, I’m fine, but it’s made this week of pain and rage more than it would have been, I think.

The players settled on a game plan for the session: haul some rotten old shit back to The Hollows to sell or trade, rest up, head into the forest along the north of this lake they’re near because they’ve heard it’s full of interesting stuff. My folks are generally more interested in melodrama and big emotional arcs, so getting deep in the weeds of logistics and risk assessment is interesting to observe.

Do they enjoy it? I honestly don’t know. Because I can’t draw my magic circle.

They’re working out their carrying loads and I’m thinking about liberal circular firing squads forming up online to murder our own. They’re getting pumped about exploring a new chunk of map and I can’t stop thinking about the pernicious trap of moral purity tests and self-appointed inquisitors. They — we — are all investing real time and energy into this adventure, and all I can think about this adventure is, how utterly trivial this is. How utterly trivial we are.

Still: randomized numbers await my deft touch. Let’s begin the rolling of the dice and the connecting of the dots.

Back a couple sessions, when I’d run The One Ring and Forbidden Lands back to back, I found myself really missing the journey vibe from TOR. It turns out, once you get moving on the FL map a bit more, it deploys in a similar way, but from the other end of the telescope. Each terrain type has its own encounter table, and those encounters definitely bring a certain color, a certain vibe, to the terrain.

More travel also brings more rolling, therefore more opportunities to generate mishaps along the way. Our super-pathfinder, a wolfkin with two levels in the Pathfinder talent, fucks up his find the way roll and begins what will become an all-night fail train. His boots get ruined and he gets the Cold condition for as long as he’s not around a campfire, until someone can make a Craft roll and repair his boots. Spring nights still get cold in the forest, dog boy!

They run into a huge revenant knight wandering the forest for…something. Who knows? It’s weird and obviously dangerous and they do the right thing and don’t engage. But now they’re a little scared of what else might be in the forest. Then they run into a weird singing fox, which our poor cursed wolfkin decides needs a closer look-see and magically extends his senses at it. That breaks the illusion hiding a bored and dangerous demon, and it’s a shitshow of failed escape rolls and desperate death-avoidance until everyone can break free. The wolfkin also generates a magical mishap, costing him five nights of sleep. Because of course.

The players are breathing sighs of relief, high-fiving themselves for their lucky breaks, bemoaning their unlucky breaks.

I’m wondering if this aneurysm near my heart is going to explode tonight. Or tomorrow.

I’m thinking about friends tearing friends apart online, everyone’s head fucked up by an ugly pustule that’s finally been lanced.

I’m definitely not thinking much about the game.

Are these little maudlin interludes bugging you? Then know how I felt for most of Tuesday night. Get over yourself, self!

The young Elf fucks up their camp-setting roll and sets their entire site ablaze, damn near killing the poor wolfkin. Between the cold, the lack of sleep, and now smoke and fire damage, he’s ground down as close as anyone’s gotten to straight up dying in this game. He’s done nothing wrong! I feel a small pang of sympathy.

The halfling succeeds in patching up the wolfkin just enough for him to recover (everything but his Wits — being sleepless for days has put him right on the verge of breaking by then, despite the rest of his stats being reset with some rest). Their ambitious travel plans through the forest are torn asunder. What looked like an easy traipse across the map has turned into a death march. So delicious!


Was that my magic circle appearing? Finally?

They push on. The human night watch stumbles across an encamped orc war band they’ve encountered before, and his Dark Secret drives him to try and slip into their camp and murder one of them. It’s a fuckup, per the session’s theme, and he ends up hiding in the moonlit woods as the warband turns the tables and starts hunting him. Stupid and hilarious and as close to a Burning Wheel style Trait event that we’ve had so far. (By the way: Burning Wheel Gold revised edition is on its way!)

We’re laughing. We’re laughing. 

They wrap up this leg of the journey by stumbling into a recently abandoned cottage. The less principled characters see a safe sleep opportunity. The more principled ones want to know where the inhabitants went off to. So they split up, the elf staying back with the cottage while everyone else follows footprints deeper into the forest. Slavers! The players feel good about ambushing the slavers to release the family, but when it comes time to deliver the final blows, well. The human, who fancies himself a Hard Man, fails to fail his Empathy roll (with two dice, even) and cannot do the deed. Which is great. The little halfling kid completely fails his Empathy roll (with four dice, even) and goes on a chilling killing spree. The family is more terrified of the bloodthirsty halfling teenager than of the fucking slavers, and they go screaming off into the night.

At just about the four hour mark, ahh. There it is. The magic circle is drawn anew. I’m in that space where I trust everyone here, I feel free to feel, I’m transported.

I’ve spent the past couple days thinking about this moment.

On the one hand, yes. Objectively, we’re doing something pretty trivial. Forbidden Lands is pure escapism. The game has no ambitions to be important. It’s not providing any kind of valuable insights or opportunities to empathize with real people and situations. It’s not woke (but to its credit, it’s also not horribly colonized, and there’s a thread of intersectionalism throughout).

On the other hand, no matter how aspirational or progressive or important — or lack thereof — all these games are the product of hard work, uncertainty, insecurity. Certainly much moreso once you get into the indie side of things, where we spend a lot of time in creative isolation. But the experiences we create with the help of this hard work and uncertainty, anywhere on a spectrum from absurd to heartbreaking, is meaningful, it is important. The older I get and the more real-world my concerns become (i.e. the world in which I’m raising my daughter), the more tempted I have been to dismiss all gaming everywhere as trivial.

I also think it’s tempting to dismiss that gaming but not this gaming. This gaming facilitates learning and empathizing about important real-world issues and that gaming is base empowerment fantasy. This gaming celebrates the DIY creative spirit and that gaming is an exercise in performative liberalism.

We’ve all done this. I’ve done this. I’m done doing this.

My heart is so heavy for the real pain folks I know and love are going through, and with the ongoing fact of my own mortality and the introspection (or self indulgence, you pick) that brings. But thankfully we can all continue to draw our magic circles because the circle is and always will be valuable.

We were missing our fourth intrepid adventurer for last night’s Forbidden Lands game, so I busted out Plaid Hat’s Gen7. It’s the next board game in their Crossroads series, the first being their two Dead of Winter games. While we were playing, I could not help but notice how much playing Gen7 feels like playing a freeform tabletop RPG.

There are important differences, so don’t go buying Gen7 thinking it’s the next Montsegur 1244What I’m talking about is a strain of boardgame design that evokes emotional responses via many of the same evocations that RPGs have been doing for a while. The methodologies are merging and we’re getting some interesting stuff.

The first time I experienced a strong story-feels vibe from a board game was playing FFG’s Battlestar Galactica. In that game, there are one or two Cylons hidden among the human crew and nobody knows who is in which faction. Players in both factions wind up paranoid and panicky while they try to outmaneuver each other and signal which side they’re on. Yes, fine, I’m sure there are plenty of players who reduce the exercise to pure social deduction. Nobody I play with does that.

Story time!

My favorite BSG moment was playing with my niece. She was, oh, probably 14ish at the time. We had a table of 6, which is perfect because you have two Cylons hidden around the table. Her character started the game as President, which is a vital role for both the humans and the Cylons: humans need their President to make human-friendly calls about various crises that arise during the game, and the Cylons need their evil toaster President to screw over the humans and smile the whole time.

But our President’s player is 14, right? And it’s her first game. And oh boy has she gotten swallowed up by the game’s paranoia. So has everyone else! There comes a point, after she’s made a couple not-optimal calls that have left the humans worse for wear, I turn to her and say “I’m not sure if you’re a Cylon or not. And I’m pretty sure I can’t get together enough votes to get a new President. But you’re bad for humans no matter what, so I’m gonna vent you into space.”

This is me, telling my 14 year old niece, that she’s bad at her job and she’s better off dead than screwing things up for humanity. She’s horrified that I can even think that, much less do it. If that’s not pure storynerd drama fuel, I don’t know what is.

Gen7 reminded me quite a lot of the BSG board game experience. In Gen7, you play the commanding officers of a generation ship hurtling through space toward Epsilon Eridani. It’ll take hundreds of years and many generations to get there. The players are the seventh of, I think, 14 generations (??) that will live and die on the ship before it gets to where it’s going. And of course something has gone wrong.

The killer app of Gen7 is the Plot Book. It’s a branching-narrative game, with eight possible endings. The game lasts exactly seven sessions. Each session is probably 2-3 hours long. We played the first episode last night, and it took about 3 hours. Lots of that is because the game reveals itself as you play, so the rules are scattered between a rulebook, a rules reference section, and rules cards that are being added to the table every session, legacy game style (think Pandemic Legacy or Betrayal Legacy.)

The Plot Book essentially stands in for a live facilitator. The branching approximates simple if/then decisions along the way, much like some larp scripts mandate that certain events will take place in the course of the session. The point isn’t to solve the plot, it’s to experience the events as they are revealed. We’re playing to find out.

In our first session, we were told (via box text read aloud) that we’d just awakened from cryosleep, there’s some minor problems with our robot helpers, and we needed to get our round of ship management started. It’s a learning session, so just completing one round of play is how it starts.

Gameplay comes down to addressing a number of crises, drawn from a large-ish deck, while pursuing our own secret objectives. The tension between cooperating to keep the ship operational and pursuing our own goals feels similar to the structure of some freeforms and larps I’ve done. You know, the ones where you have a stated role (the commander of the fortress, the head of a religious sect) and hidden questions you’re working toward answering in play.

The Plot Book introduces wrinkles to this tension, further stirring the pot. In our game, near the end of the first session, we’d had to decide by vote whether to disengage our ship’s AI from running our life support, or carry on with our normal operations. Do we trust HAL? That was our first branch, and (not trusting our AI, nosiree) we ended up taking our AI offline. Doing that introduced new and interesting pressures, further drawing us away from our own goals.

Pursuing our own goals have a tangible payoff in both “stars” and “merit.” Stars buy you perks, which you’ll accumulate across sessions. Merit helps you gain new ranks (think 3:16!), which allows you to hold more perks and gives you more votes when crew votes come up. If you end up “top officer” (i.e. earn the most Merit), you also get to be the “star” next session. The point of that is to give you more draws from the Crossroads deck, little narrative decision points that impact you, or the ship, or future events as you start adding new secret cards to the various decks in play.

On the table, fully laid out, the game looks like it’s going to be a worker placement thing. And it is, basically: on your turn, you’re choosing how to deploy your faction’s (barracks, which are responsible for various ship operations: data, robotos, manufacturing and biology) colonists, a small pool of d6es. There are “seats” all over the table where you can send your colonists, as well as a growing list of crises that require sets of colonists as well as external resources to solve.

If someone deployed such an elaborate set of dramatic and procedural inputs in a freeform game, it’d be an utter failure. I mean that’s obvious and uncontroversial. But if you get past the elaborate stuff — most likely by internalizing the game’s procedures to the point where it’s all pretty smooth, much like we do with complicated RPGs — the feels are right there, waiting to be felt.

I was about to tick off the “obvious” differences between feels-forward board games and feels-forward roleplaying, but every time I came up with one, I had to stop and think about it.

Shared Imagined Space (SIS): This is the big one. Like, when you’re playing BSG or Gen7, the crises that arise don’t really fictionally “matter.” I have an operations goal I’m trying to achieve called, oh, “population census” or whatever. The name doesn’t matter, you’re not “actually” rooting around in computer records, I’m not play-acting any of that and having a scene around carrying out my census duties. But what I’m doing looks less efficient to my fellow players than, you know, jumping on that busted generator down in engineering that’s threatening the whole ship with permanent disaster. The SIS isn’t about exploring the fiction, it’s about exploring the relationships between players and that imagined space is very much shared. And if we’re really being honest, I think we can point to lots of RPGs (larps, freeforms, all of them) where exploring relationships matters more than exploring fictional elements.

Characterization: There’s no mandate, or even suggestion, that you come up with a distinct character for your role. And yet you still have a role. Gen7 does the mouse-cloak color thing where you get a little character ownership early on, by naming your character. You’re also assigned a relationship with one of several NPC cards, which impacts certain Crossroads cards as they come up. Again with the honesty: Many, maybe most times, at a tabletop RPG session, characterization is pretty weak too. Like, fine, you’re a moody elven hunter but not really. You’re just Joe the Roleplayer, being Joe.

But what about the stoooory: Since events are advanced by movement through the Plot Book, no, there is no facilitator shaping events into meaningful drama. But there’s still definitely drama as players argue about things like whether to trust our AI or whether to let our chems lab get damaged because, hey, I’ve got better things to do with my time. I can feel the edges of meaning as those arguments happen! This is where games like Gen7 feel a whole lot like scripted freeforms/larps: we bring meaning to the events that are going to happen no matter what, and driving “the plot” isn’t the point.

In the end, though, Gen7 is not an RPG. It is mechanically so elaborate that most of my bandwidth was taken up trying to work out my play in terms of efficiency and advancement. (Side note: I’m also aware of freeforms that use similar bandwidth-engaging tricks to distract, misdirect or focus the players.) You can’t really explore the fiction in an RPG-y way. But it definitely licked a bunch of emotional and intellectual spots that get licked in similar ways when I’ve played feels-forward freeforms that have similar constraints.