We spun up our Forbidden Lands game last night, creating four characters and doing some simple map-wandering to start shaking the system out. I think it’s gonna be pretty fun!
We added a fourth player to our regular group. It’s so interesting to me to watch how the interpersonal dynamics change from things like this. I feel like we had built up some bad/acrimonious habits throughout 2018 and I’m still thinking about why, but one of my end of year takeaways was that I wanted to start the year with a party-oriented, everyone-against-the-world-together kind of game.
There are, broadly, two ways to make a Forbidden Lands character. One is to just go through the book and build a character. You get the stats you want, the skills you want, the talents. It’s all very hands-on and conventional. And then there’s the “Legends and Adventurers” supplement, a slender volume that semi-randomizes your PCs (and has tables for monsters and legends). The L&A version is nifty to me because it doesn’t provide perfect control over your character: you get to pick your kin and your profession, but in both cases you follow those decisions with rolls on tables. If you’re a child, you roll a childhood event for your kin choice (which sets your stats and skills). If you proceed to adult, you roll on the profession event table (which sets the second set of skills, your talent, and some gear). The result, I think, really puts everyone in a head of not knowing themselves or this strange world. Top marks, I recommend it.
I totally get that this also frustrates players who came to the table with a firm idea of what they wanted to play. The player who usually grates against systems like this – he hated King Arthur Pendragon for similar reasons – grated against his fighter result. He wanted to be a big brutish Conan-esque figure, but ended up a fast, twitchy horseback rider better suited to scouting and sniping.
One twist to Forbidden Lands characters I don’t love but is probably necessary is the character relationship choices. Every profession has three starter ideas for relationships with other PCs. You know, stuff like “I fear X is drawn to the dark arts and I must save them” type stuff. Way back in Mutant: Year Zero, this helped shape your Buddy choice, and was tied into the XP system. Here, it’s pure color and eminently ignorable. Like, I had to remind the players to go ahead and write down their relationship narratives. Literally nobody ever referenced these in play, and I guarantee they’ll just be gone in a session or two.
There’s some nifty stuff buried in character creation, and I’d love to just make a shitton of characters to try it all out. Two of the characters start the game with Mounts, so we went through the card supplement and they picked out rides with names and stats and backstories – neat! We already have two NPCs mentioned as a result. Two of the characters (the Halfling sorcerer and the Wolfkin druid) use magic, and that’s nifty. And, because advancing magical talents is super-duper slow without instruction, they’ve already got incentives to seek out NPC mentors in the world. The other two characters are an Elven hunter and a Human fighter. Oh! Additionally, the Halfling and the Elf chose to start as children, while the Wolfkin and Human are adults. Nobody went for “old” and I has a small sad, but it’s fine. Someone’s gonna die early. I can feel it.
We decided to start the game literally the morning after the last of the “how we met” rolls. So like: the Elf was the one character who didn’t roll (it’s a rule that, I guess, means everyone kind of accretes around them). The Halfling had survived a shipwreck with the Elf, then got picked up by a caravan where the Human was working as a scout, then they all got drunk together with the Wolfkin who had just found item #66 – the highest and most valuable item on some treasure table or another, a completely ridiculous gigantic silver statue – on the “valuable finds” table he rolled on from the professional events. It worked out great, kind of gonzo and funny, and they were off to the races. I offered a spot on the map in the plains that dominate the center of the map, alongside a river.
The hexcrawl grind of Forbidden Lands is at the core of the play experience, very much like the dungeon grind is in Torchbearer. It’s lifted straight from Mutant: Year Zero, with the difference that there is no home to go back to and recover in. If you want to recover, you either set camp out in the world or you find a settlement. But it’s all very wandering vagabond type action, exploring and foraging and poking around where you find places.
This early on in the game, there’s a lot of ugly form factor in my face. Honestly, the learning curve feels a lot like learning my way through Zone exploration in MYZ. I learned it there well enough that I was able to create Zone areas on the fly, which was fun for me and the players. The grind is a bit more detailed in FL, though. Like, there are 10 different terrain types and that impacts hunting, foraging, movement, and the encounter table you roll on every quarter day. Well, maybe not at night. I’m not sure! MYZ was equally fuzzy on that. Probably you do, honestly, which is why you need to have someone on guard (thereby making Resting an important consideration). Oh, and there’s also the seasons, and that tells you which quarter-days are light and dark. It’s fussy but I think 100% necessary to get it all nailed down. This is where the bulk of your wandering-around story stuff takes place.
Anyway, that form factor. Forbidden Lands comes in two books, one for players and another for gamemasters. But marching-order rules (who leads, who is on lookout, etc.) and movement rules appear in the player book, while all the encounter stuff appears in the GM book. It’s a lot of two-book juggling. It won’t be forever, because next session I’m handing the player book over and they can figure out their own marching order stuff.
The point of our opening session was just to give the system a spin. They were 4 hexes away from the nearest village, which is great because they immediately discovered the map isn’t nearly as big as they thought it was – you cover 2 hexes through “easy” terrain on foot every quarter, which means you can probably get 6 hexes on foot each day. Happily the reality of the Blood Mist conceit, that you just fucking died if you were more than a day away from town, is reflected by the distribution of stuff on the map.
First quarter they did lots of foraging and scouty stuff. The Halfling learned all about the crafting rules, mostly discovering he doesn’t even have the tools necessary to make stuff! Which is just fine. He “discovered” he was a sorcerer maybe a week ago and washed ashore with almost nothing, so that’s great. The Elf and the Wolfkin both did the foraging and fishing thing, got to roll some dice, faced whether to push their rolls to start banking Willpower. We fumbled around looking for how to recover lost stat points, and I think it’s just a matter of resting or sleeping while not hungry, thirsty, or cold. So that’s a nice prompt to go ahead, what the heck, push a bit because it won’t be that hard to recover from that night. The hunter went poking around the hex they’d woken up in, and found a nice camping spot they probably should have settled in the night before, rather than partying around the only tree on the open plain.
But of course the next quarter of the day was more dangerous, and there were quite a few lowered stats they hadn’t had time to recover yet. Anything-grind games, I think, demand some real survivalist discipline. The lookout spotted a band of orcs hauling another orc tied to a pole, singing and bashing their shields with their swords. He tried to slip away but they noticed him and gave chase. He wanted to pull the whole warband away from his people, and I called that a Manipulation while he argued it was Riding. He missed that roll in any case, with half the warband splitting off to accost the Halfling and Elf kids and their Wolfkin grownup, and half the warband chasing the scout.
That gave us a chance to spool out the initiative system and experiment with conflicts. The orc warbands went first and closed distance from long to near, both against the kids and against the scout. The Elf tried to talk the orcs down but completely fucked it up. The Halfling just ghosted the whole thing, disappearing behind some nearby rocks. Finally, the Wolfkin offered their foraged fish if the orcs walked away, or death at the point of his spear if they didn’t. I liked that! And it fiddled with the Manipulate dice pool calculation enough that he ended up with a good-sized pool. He succeeded, the orcs failed their Insight resistance roll, so they took their fish and wandered off. It played out just fine, nice outcome, and it showed the players they can intermingle social and physical conflict in the same continuum. This is one of my favorite aspects of the MYZ engine, and I wish more games did this.
Hmm. Oh yeah, I had everyone roll Lore to know about the village just beyond the hills they were due to arrive at that evening. Everyone failed. The Halfling’s Pride was something like “I’ve read a lot of books” so he rolled his d12 on the push and failed that roll as well! So good. That means his Pride got erased and he’s going to have to write a new one, and go without his Pride next session. It also means he got an XP for using it.
There are a lot of character gewgaws to remember to use. The character sheets aren’t much help. Like, all your talents are on the back of the official character sheet. The Wolfkin remember to use Pathfinder while taking the lead, because that’s an easy +1d modification. But there were lots of other talents, both kin and professional, that nobody remembered.
Finally they arrived at The Hollows, a well built-out adventure location that is the notional start of the Raven’s Purge campaign. We stopped as they walked into town, reading the weird sign at the gate. I got to add the first map sticker!
You may also see in the picture that I’m adding a small ink dot to the corner of each hex they’ve been to. Going to hexes they’ve never been to is an XP, so it’s important they be able to track this. I really wish the hexes were numbered, too, so I could add notes about permanent features, like the old inn ruins they came across on that very first hex. That could be nice to remember in the future!
I’ve always liked the checklist style of XP distribution in the Mutant games. FL has a pretty long list! Then again, advancement is relatively slower in FL than Mutant. Thank goodness, I found my players had outrun the world within about 8 sessions of Mutant. Don’t see that happening in FL, not only because of the tweaked XP scheme but because it’s very sandboxy. There are challenges in the world you just don’t fuck around with, even after lots of advancement.
The Halfling bought the Chef talent, which is 100% in line with his background, being a Halfling, and what we discovered during the hexcrawl – you really need a chef to render raw food “units” (which you just eat and erase) into better food resource dice (which you roll and only reduce on a 1).
And that’s that. I think we played, for real, about two hours. Hopefully our sessions will run 3ish hours in the future.
Last First Thoughts
Forbidden Lands feels a lot like my favorite parts of Mutant, and that’s very reassuring to me. It also tells me it’ll be three or four sessions before I’m fluent with the rather long formal punch-list of this game’s grind: all the hexcrawl stuff, all the terrain modifications, eating/drinking/sleeping, all that. It’s more detailed than Mutant but there’s also no Ark aspect. Well there sort of is once they build a Stronghold, but that’s a good long ways away.
I don’t love how well the game apes the fantasy tradition of relationships not mattering. Not only is there nothing mechanical to try and incentivize relationships, but the hexcrawl itself demands a lot of bandwidth and discipline. In that way, it feels most like Torchbearer to me. But in Torchbearer¸ there was the Goal, Belief and Instinct areas where you could pursue interpersonal stuff. I’m thinking (hoping!) relationships will emerge via the Pride system, which looks a lot like Burning Wheel type Beliefs.
I was so busy grappling with the procedures that I spent literally no time at all thinking about the campaign stuff. I’m going to need to read up on The Hollows before they dig in next week. There’s also the fact that players start with a very, very blank page setting-wise. I have no idea where anyone’s from. I have no idea if they have families or friends or, like, anything they might tap into through play. Another place Torchbearer does it better.
I’m gonna put together my own hexcrawl cheat sheet so I don’t have to go between both books to get all the rules in one place. That is by far the most irritating handling bit of the game.
A lot of the pleasure of the MYZ games is the mechanical stuff. I won’t lie, the dice are fun! Leveraging talents and skills and Willpower and pushed rolls, all that stuff comes together in a really satisfying way. It requires my players learn and master their options. That’s funny inside my head because we’ve come off a string of PbtA style games where the best advice is often “just talk and I’ll tell you when you run into a move.”