Forbidden Lands: Cultural Context

A couple things have been nagging me about Forbidden Lands since our first session. They are entirely tied up with the fiction, not the procedures.

First: the creators went through a lot of trouble to design a multi-faceted, robust, living setting. It’s like a mini-Glorantha in some ways. There are detailed demographic breakdowns on the map, lengthy writeups about the various kin, deep history (1200 years worth!), and religion. The GM’s Guide tells us that religion, for example, is super important to everyone in the Forbidden Lands. But then there’s no on-ramp for any of that for the players.

We have one character whose backstory, generated via the Legends & Adventurers booklet, includes a reference to one of the gods. So, sure, I went ahead and read the bit about Clay out loud from the GM’s Guide. There isn’t even, like, a quick little breakdown of the religions in the Player’s Book iirc. I should probably just designate who worships what, following the kin and history materials, and provide that stuff to the players.

That’s kind of a theme of this game, and it feels a lot like their other games (in particular Coriolis): lots of talk about how important culture is, but very little to actually make that happen in the game. Not even a player-friendly setting dump. So the characters feel like fish out of water, rather than deeply embedded into the setting. Combine this with the lack of family or kin ties, and you’re left with either lots of GM heavy lifting or just letting the players discover the world as they go.

Second issue, much smaller: I have no idea what fictional justification there is for the big pretty map they have. In Mutant: Year Zero, only the GM has the full map. The players need to draw out their map as they go. But the big pretty map in Forbidden Lands is explicitly a player tool. Where did it come from? How do they have it?

Dunno. It just bugs me. They could and probably should have made ’em map as they went, maybe providing some ranged scouting like the zone stalkers can do via tall buildings and radio towers in MYZ: climb a very tall tree on a hill, or a mountain, or the walls of a major structure. That would change the nature of the food/water/sleep/cold grind a whole lot, though, especially since they don’t really have a home base to operate from (other than The Hollows, if you’re following the official campaign).

8 thoughts on “Forbidden Lands: Cultural Context”

  1. I used to love big, fancy player maps in fantasy games… and then I started learning about historical cartography, and… whoah. I’m now almost offended when PCs in fantasy worlds have detailed setting maps.

    Despite all of it’s many historical problems, one thing that was pretty good about _Kingdom of Heaven_ is the bit about how to find the Holy Land: “You go to where the men speak Italian, and then continue until they speak something else.” The maps of that period made essentially no claims to cartographic accuracy; they were merely illustrative. This is west of this and north of this, y’know, roughly. You’re French and you want to find your way to Jerusalem? You hire someone who has been, and hope they don’t rob you and leave you stranded. Or, you know it’s “East,” so you go east on whatever trade route or road you’ve got, and you get to your next destination, and you ask. I love the feeling of strange discovery this engenders, even amongst the people who are from that setting.

    It was actually a bummer for me running _The One Ring_, because I felt like I shouldn’t give the players the full map. Maybe a handful of hexes around their home areas, plus the hexes for whatever route they had taken to Lake-Town. If they wanted anything else, they would have to ask around, or just go for it. Buuuut one of my players is an old Rings-head and knew the general layout like the back of his hand. A new world, like FL, well, that might offer some opportunities!

  2. Well, speaking of TOR and LotR, I can get behind the idea of players having a rough map. Even the sheltered hobbits in LotR had a rough idea of what was in each compass direction; it was the details and the paths of which they were unsure, and that seems to be kind of what you unveil as you play and put stickers on the map.

    Not to mention, it’s a helpful contrivance so players can plan. “Here’s where the walls of the sandbox are.”

  3. This is one of my unwritten essays!

    Here’s the synopsis.

    Religion is bullshit. That, I think, is a key intended “fruitful void” of the game. The game SAYS how important religion is. But the god’s are totally not real.

    You can see it in the ridiculous nature of the religious schism between Raven and Wyrm. It’s a flat out “tastes great / less filling” “green vs purple” set up. They present it very seriously rather than satirically, because people take it seriously and people die over it. But it’s nonsense. In fact, in my preferred setting variant (that I’ll probably wind up using) this distinction arose organically as part of the 250 year Blood Mist isolation and was projected back via made up history. It was never actually a thing.

    You can also see it in the utter absence of clerics as a class. There’s magic, there’s sources of magic, there’s no actual divine source of magic. It’s just bullshit.

    You can see it in the Dwarves. Their religion is literally about building the world bigger so they can reach the sun. Really? Over 1200 years of recorded Raven Land history there’s no mention of that at all. There’s no story where an army marched across a plain full of pillars one year and came back 10 years later to find the plain had become a giant hill built atop those pillars by industrious dwarves. There’s no mention of how, after the blood mist, an entire Forest is now a mountain range, and it’s raw bare rock because with the elves largely withdrawn there’s no one to make the woods grow…because that’s the mythical division of labor right? There’s no adventure sites that lead down into the Earth that depict onion like layers of successive ages of the world built up, and then covered over as the dwarves make the world bigger. There’s none of that, right? But there is a mention of the primitive proto-dwarves (dwelvers?) who live deeper and are revered as ancestors. Huge is just as much a bullshit made up god as all the others.

    And I so dig that. I mean, it’s kind of hard to have actual religious conflict in a fantasy game where the gods are literally real. I mean, no faith is required to worship a diety when the game gives you their AC and HP and what spells they can cast. But in FL…there are no literally real gods. There’s just myth, and the problems people create for each other when they fight over whose myth is better.

    The game could have given hierarchies and ceremonies and tenets and stuff to flesh out the 3 competing human churches. But I kind of dig that it didn’t. Because eventually it will come up. Exactly what are the holy sacrements of the Congregation of the Serpent? Do people get married by Rust Priests in the Rust Church? At some point that will matter if you play long enough, right?

    And what will drive home the idea that “religion is bullshit” more, than when you just make that shit up on the fly…exactly like (IMO the game is saying) any religion did.

    As for the map. That’s easy. There’s a whole pre blood mist history of war and crusade and invasion. There’d have been maps aplenty. Campaign maps, tapestries hanging in halls, atlases. Lots of them. Some would survive.

    It would have been nice if the player facing map was more rustic with distorted distances and more precision around Alderstone and less in the unconquered east. More like a period map than a game map. It would have nice if there were differences between the maps; maybe some rivers that changed course, almost certainly a lot of very expanded forests…that would have been a super cool bit of extra effort. But it’s understandable why they didn’t bother.

  4. Wow!
    I hadn;t thought of that before. I totally love the idea of making the religion a part of the player’s lives somehow.

    @Ralph – is that info in the Forbidden Lands book? (I have not read/bought it yet but I will if it is.) That sounds so cool.

    1. Well, yes and no.

      Yes, in that there are three religions and the history is full of wars between them and the Rust Church will persecute Raven Witches, etc.

      But all my comments above are my own layering gleaned from what is not said. Like there is a bunch of stuff on the importance of religion…the Psychopomp of the Congregation of the Serpent, the Ferrale of the Rust Church. But there’s no Clerics. There’s no divine magic at all (there are a couple of events that are attributed to miracles, but in a magic rich setting can be lots of other things). So if you’re like me and like to explore “why is that…what could that mean in the fiction” then it’s all there. But you have to find it in the negative spaces.

      For instance, the 1200 history of the forbidden Lands, really isn’t. It’s not a history at all really. It’s really the biography of an evil wizard. Everything in there is either prelude for context or historical events that he largely shaped.

      So once I detected that, I began to think of the three religions as reflecting 3 different responses to the wizard. The Raven Church are those Zygofer opposed and crushed. The Congregation are those who initially set Zygofer on his path of destruction and then were horrified at how far he took it and tried to reel him in. The Rust Brothers are those who threw in with Zygofer whole heartedly and became him minions. The game doesn’t present them in these terms…but when I read between the lines that’s what I see.

      Correlations to modern politics being obvious here. Intentional? Accidental? Or my own baggage coloring what I see. For game juice purposes…doesn’t really matter.

      Each of these groups have their own religious flavor…but did those flavors exist from the beginning? Was it really 3 different organized religions who each interacted with Zygofer differently? Or was it just that after 100s of years of magically imposed isolation, each group remembered their past and drew solace and inspiration from it, and turned those memories into a faith that, of course, they believed goes way back…cuz that how churches do it.

      1. Thanks for the response.
        I usually read and take things at face value but I’m going to try applying this ‘negataive space’ to the next couple of games I read.

  5. Re: textual onramps for players: I would argue that the play style of Forbidden Lands advocates exposing players to the fictional culture only through play at the table. No homework. That is part of the game function of the Blood Mist, to make it so that every adventurer is in some ways a cultural outsider to begin with. From the Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 6:

    The Forbidden Lands may be unfamiliar ground to the adventurers, who have lived isolated in villages and other settlements, but it is a land with a long and rich history.

    To convey the history and myths of the Forbidden Lands to the players in-game, you use legends. Every monster, every artifact, every adventure site and every character of importance … have their own legend. … In this way, the players build their own knowledge of the Forbidden Lands and its denizens.

    Given this design, the referee tools for translating history and fictional place to players will bear a lot of the load. From what I’ve read so far, there are some solid efforts to provide useful tools (such as treating “legends” as a first order game object rather than an informal fictional element, as mentioned in the quote), but I have yet to get it to the table. I would be curious to hear about your experiences with this aspect of Forbidden Lands.

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