Fiddling While Rome Burns or Drawing the Magic Circle Anew (probably both: Forbidden Lands session 4)

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.

5 thoughts on “Fiddling While Rome Burns or Drawing the Magic Circle Anew (probably both: Forbidden Lands session 4)”

  1. Hang in there, Paul. I wrestle with the meaningfulness of gaming and I have come to a few conclusions. Most, if not all my friends right now I made through gaming. There is a level of intimacy in gaming with people that isn’t there in anything else I’ve seen. Moving out during my first divorce I had like 12 people show up to help. My gamer friends, emphasis on the friends. It humbled me in so many ways. There’s more to this thing we love than just playing make believe. I know people through games that I would drop everything to come help if they needed it. You are on that list, BTW. It’s totally bug nuts crazy but I’ve been on the receiving end of it. It’s magic. Pure and simple.

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