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!

Wait.

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.

Yesterday I had an unexpected opportunity to run two similar games side by side. My friends Ralph Mazza (Ramshead Publishing, created Universalis, Blood Red Sands) and Jahmal Brown (indie con rock star, wrote Clockwinders for Fate Worlds, writing Cortex Prime: Supers) were in town for a week of gaming and escaping their icy wastelands. We had been batting around the idea of firing up a rolling campaign of The One Ring –– as in, whenever we’re together in the same place, we can pull it out, bring in some guest players, and have a session. I was inspired by Morgan Ellis’ (Atomic Robolots of other stuff) rolling Fate Star Wars campaign he’s been running for years. I got into that game at last year’s NewMexicon and it was super fun.

With practically no prep, we tossed together a couple Middle Earth badasses (the two super-classes from the Rivendell supplement), a standard-issue Wood Elf from the core rules for my buddy Robert to slot into (he probably won’t be present when we play again this April in Albuquerque), and we started into the campaign presented in Ruins of the North

But, being Tuesday, they played as guest stars in my ongoing Forbidden Lands game as well. Yikes! Ugh!

Running two trindie fantasy games side by side was super interesting! I had thoughts.

Characters

We made our Forbidden Lands characters a couple weeks ago, so the process was still fresh. In the interest of saving time and the challenge of playing something unexpected, we used the Legends and Adventurers supplement — everything randomized. The mechanical bits came out just fine, but now that we’ve made, what, six characters using L&A? The fiction it generates is just dumb. Ralph said it was pretty obvious that the mechanics, the backstory/setting folks, and the adventure folks almost certainly never talked to each other.

The Forbidden Lands conceit is that a vast killing curse has kept every settlement constrained to a day’s travel, right? Three hundred years have gone by. There’s nothing bigger than a village of perhaps a few hundred, and they’ve been incommunicado except where traveling minstrels and itinerant monks (the “Rust Brothers”) have somehow not suffered from the Blood Mist. Okay right? So one of our randomized characters turns out to be a human fighter (ho hum). We didn’t have any “old” characters, so Ralph went through and did that. Somehow, in five years, he had belonged to three separate standing armies, all of whom had been slaughtered to the man. And he’s “old!” As in, you know, he lived in some village somewhere until he was 60 or whatever, and the past five years apparently have been the entirety of his absurd career.

Pretty much every history that comes out of L&A is just dumb. It would have been trivially easy to have two sets of tables and have them stretch back in time, you know? The set everyone rolls on, young through old, is what happened in the past five years. The next set, for adults and olds, is what happened prior to the lifting of the Mist. Either the designer didn’t actually read the game’s premise, or they honestly didn’t think anyone cared about boring stuff like character histories.

The “how you met” tables are just as bad. Ye gawds. Not one item on that table feels like it could have happened in the Ravenlands.

But more to the point: in Forbidden Lands, your kin is your culture. Humans are alike no matter where you find them, as are Wolfkin and Halflings and Elves and all the rest. Their main difference comes in the form of a single kin-based Talent you get. Otherwise? You start the game a total blank and it’s your profession that shapes you going forward. There’s no consideration given at all to what your village might have been like, how you spent your days before the curse lifted, any of that. None of my players have any sense of where they’re from or what they should care about.

Our characters in The One Ring are, at least, more varied by culture. Every culture has a pick-list of starting abilities, and as you advance you continue to pick from your culture’s own set of stuff. There are a few general-purpose talents, but the good stuff continuously ties you back to you folk and your history. The two games couldn’t be more different. Then again, TOR has the advantage of thousands of pages of Tolkien to draw from and distill down. I get that, I do. But whatever the game’s starting advantages, it clearly cares more at the mechanical level about where you’re from and what you’re about.

Journeys

Both games have robust travel minigames, which I think is the place they’re most like each other. In The One Ring, there’s this elaborate interlocking system of needed equipment, road exhaustion, the change of the seasons, exploring and learning an objectively knowable map, and the constant struggle to maintain your Hope (an in-game resource) and keep the Shadow (an in-game bad-shit-happens countdown) at bay. Oh and if you use the Rivendell supplement, which I do, the Eye of Sauron itself is slowly becoming aware of the fellowship’s movement and activities, moreso if it’s comprised of Elves and if the heroes do anything involving magic. The themes of TOR are centered entirely on the journey, fighting exhaustion both physical and spiritual.

The travel game in Forbidden Lands is quite a bit more objective and straight survival-oriented: you need to eat, drink, sleep and keep warm or start suffering penalties. At first the penalties are small and the resources plentiful, but much like in Torchbearer, those grinds start to add up fast.

Our FL session last night didn’t involve travel, but they moved three hexes on the big FL map last session and it’s still fresh. Procedurally, both games are pretty similar! In The One Ring, as you get fatigued you might trigger a hazard, which targets one of four established traveling-party roles (leader, lookout, scout, etc.). Those roles are similar in FL (except they’re “actions” you choose to take each quarter-day) and events are generated there as well, on tables keyed to terrain types. The result is pretty comparable. I think I like Forbidden Lands’ version better, because there’s kind of an outline of little mini-stories buried in its encounter tables. You don’t just run into “a monster,” you run into a specific clan of orcs hauling a different clan’s orc as hostage. If you ever roll that result again, you’re instructed to pick up where the last bit left off. That’s nifty, feels more alive. When I generate a hazard in TOR, I’m either making Tolkien shit up (which is fine), referring to tables in Journeys & Maps, or interpreting a card draw from Hobbit Tales. It’s more, or maybe just different, lifting.

Adventures

In both games, I used pre-designed adventure material in part of each game. The differences become quite a bit more stark here.

In The One Ring, I’ve started the fellowship through the linked adventures in Ruins of the North, which centers the action west of Mirkwood in the Eriador region — you know, Angmar and Rivendell and the Shire, all that. I know the setting material less-well there, but Ralph, Jay and Robert all know Mirkwood too well, so this is fun for all of us to explore. The way C7 designs TOR adventures is that they’re usually kind of on rails: first act is when the fellowship arrives and susses out the situation, then something happens and the next act is triggered, then whatever happens the third act is triggered and so on. You can bend events such that future acts become irrelevant but as a practical matter that kind of doesn’t happen. When we ran The Darkening of Mirkwood a couple years back, the bigger danger was the accumulated impacts of each year’s vignette on future years — very much like how The Great Pendragon Campaign plays out. Major NPCs might have died or had their contexts changed too much, so I’d need to swap in someone similar. But history marches on, and events happen with or without the fellowship’s input.

I started Forbidden Lands with every intention of working through the Raven’s Purge campaign that came with the Kickstarter. It looks on its face to be kinda-sorta like how the campaign in Mutant: Year Zero spools out: a combination of physical artifacts, procedurally generated zone encounters, and pre-seeded map locations come together to unveil the storyline in a very organic way. It’s magical, it works great, I’ve never run into another game that does it. I thought that’d be Forbidden Lands, but it just … isn’t.

One big difference is that Raven’s Purge is bigger, more complex. It’s mostly delivered via “adventure sites,” where the characters learn legends surrounding places and artifacts, and slowly piece together the history of the land as it existed before the Blood Mist. It’s ambitious, but they’ve also made it too fucking complicated. There are numerous world-shaking players on the map, each with their own agendas. You can’t really know how things are advancing without fully internalizing all of Raven’s Purge, despite their best efforts to encapsulating that stuff. The storylines behind the eight campaign-important artifacts are, gosh, more complicated than I can keep up with. But the greatest sin the game commits is how they organize their adventure sites.

There are three such sites in the core rulebook and a bunch more in both Raven’s Purge and Spire of Quetzal. Each comes with a keyed map, a player’s version of the map, a GM-facing history about the place, an explanation of what all’s in the physical space, a breakdown of the NPCs, and then a list of events that could take place in the location. It’s quite different than a traditional D&D module, less detailed but also broken up really badly. Each time the players wanted to explore a place, I needed to flip between three different areas to get the full picture.

The goal, I’m sure, was to make adventure sites in Forbidden Lands flexible and dramatic, but as a practical matter, jeez, I have no idea what’s going on in any given location. I didn’t have this problem with the Special Zones in MYZ. I need to go back and see how they’re different.

After fumbling through the ostensible campaign start in a town called The Hollows, I thought long and hard about just running the game Mutant-sandbox style, randomly generating locations as the characters go, executing the travel grind, and discovering the world alongside them. Maybe the campaign will reveal itself anyway? I have no idea.

Theme thoughts

At some point, debriefing after the night was over, I said something like “Well, I feel like The One Ring supports its theme more tightly.” And then I had to think long and hard about whether Forbidden Lands has a theme at all.

It does, of course, but I’m not sure the game is about its theme in the same way. Forbidden Lands has a gritty survivalist vibe, not as desperate as in Torchbearer but in that vein. The world is out there for you to explore, and you can probably survive in it with a little forethought (unlike in Mutant: Year Zero, where events could very well conspire to kill you no matter how well you planned). Having a known, knowable map to touch helps that a lot. If the players didn’t have that to work from, and just traveled blindly from hex to hex, it would feel much different. Forbidden Lands doesn’t care if you murder and pillage your way across the land; it’s much darker than The One Ring that way. Amoral fortune-seekers versus deeply moral do-gooders!

I feel like Forbidden Lands is trying to serve too many masters, and thus far it serves none of them well. It splashes the phrase “old school” all over the place, but in actual play there’s not much old about it without outright ignoring its many indie inspirations. Other than the blank-slate characters whose backgrounds really have no impact, which is no small thing. Its adventure sites feel like they’re trying to be both “dungeons” and dramatic opportunities, but I can’t make both those things come together at once yet. Maybe I’ll learn! It might very well be that I came to the game with expectations that were not met, and I need to do a better job of meeting it on its own terms.

We’re still playing! Everyone was excited to get going last night, and despite a pretty mediocre session (beyond the adventure site problems, I was just flat exhausted) everyone’s good to go next week. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say The One Ring has reminded me just how freaking great it is.