Nostalgia is an ingredient in the success of Dungeons & Dragons. There’s an appeal to adventures in a long forgotten land of knights and dragons that has fueled millions of imaginations. Lord of the Rings is often seen as an inspiration for these games but there’s another style of fantasy directly cited by creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson that also runs in the family. The sword and sorcery stories of Robert E. Howard’s Conan are just as much of an ancestor to D&D. They tell stories of adventurers who navigate a dangerous world and live to plunder forgotten tombs of their treasures only to fritter the gold away on silly things before to long.
There’s been several official Conan games, including a great miniatures game and a current RPG. There are many tabletop RPGs that delve into these worlds full of deadly traps, deadlier sorcerers and main characters that aren’t as heroic as one might think. One of the best is called Forbidden Lands, from Swedish developers Free League Publishing.
Forbidden Lands tells the tale of the Ravenlands, a cursed region recovering from the aftermath of a great war. A crimson mist that kept survivors cloistered in settlements has just recently receded. The players are rogues, ravagers and explorers wandering into the wilderness to see what’s changed and what’s remained the same. They wander from town to town, getting wrapped up in the drama of civilization and the adventure of exploring nearby ruins and dungeons. Finally, the players can clear out one of these sites and turn it into their home, doing their best to rebuild society in their image.
The first thing that impresses about Forbidden Lands is the presentation. The game comes in a boxed set with two faux leather hardcover books; one for players and one for the GM who is going to run the game. There is a panphlet that is full of charts to allow players to leave the details of their character to chance. There is also a fold-up complete with a set of stickers. This map is meant to be marked up, battered and personalized as the players discover their version of the Ravenlands. Folks who get itchy at the thought of legacy games and one use components can rest easy; there’s a second side that can be reused for a second campaign.
The mechanics are based on Free League’s house system which has powered games like Mutant Year Zero, Tales From The Loop and an upcoming RPG set in the Alien universe. Players roll pools of six-sided dice looking for 6s that count as successes. This is tough by design; each game lets players reroll those pools looking for more successes with consequences in the narrative. Combat is a gritty affair where a single hit or maybe two can hurt a character. There are also mechanics for things like finding food and water and getting enough rest. Not handling these bits of survival can give characters conditions that impair them once the players get to wherever they are going or cause them to be a liability should a wandering monster attack in the wilderness.
This is, in many ways, how people remember playing Dungeons & Dragons in its earlier editions. Forbidden Lands supports this style of play by leaving the structure of the game open. Information about the setting are handed out in small bits of legend that players can read aloud while their characters camp for the night. Very few places on the map are predefined and the adventure slots can fill in wherever the players wander. The systems that track supplies are cleaner and quicker while still creating the drama that survival stories need when searching for new sources of water. Forbidden Lands learned a lot of lessons from those games run decades ago and uses what its learned to provide an experience that feels even closer to the source material.
The game also has two supplements with a third currently on Kickstarter. The Spire of Quetzal offers more adventure sites written by some of the best and brightest retro game writers on the planet. They include everything from dinosaur filled lost worlds to the surreal mind of a sleeping demon. Raven’s Purge expands on the history included in the boxed set and draws upon it for a main quest line suitable for GMs who don’t have the time to sketch one out on their own. The Bitter Reach expands the game into a desolate frozen tundra with a new map and new expansions. The Kickstarter is also the most convenient way to get the boxed set as its currently being reprinted due to an awards fueled sellout during the summer convention season.
Forbidden Lands offers a great opportunity for players to start their tabletop adventures with a classic line:
“Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of...”