Forbidden Lands

I was made aware of an RPG system published in Latvia that is called “Forbidden Lands” and claims the following:

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Characters

Forbidden Lands characters have four attributes and points to spread over various skills.

Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy.

To those, you add skill points that you put in various skills, which are attached to these attributes.

Now if you shoot an arrow, you add your Agility Score to your Marksmanship Score, and roll that number of dice. Let us say, 4 for AGL and 2 for the skill, is 6. If you have a special bow made of good materials, you get one or two dice for the equipment on top. So let us say it is a well crafted bow and you get two dice on top. That gets you to 8.

In addition to that, characters have 1 or 2 special talents, one for their race, one for their class. These talents are unique powers that can be unlocked by spending a form of stress tokens on them. In other words, you earn the use of your talents by getting damage or fatigue first.

Core mechanics

Skills are rolled with a pool of six-siders. Every six counts as a success. Only one six is needed for a success, more sixes can give extra advantages. No sixes means failure. There are custom dice with crossed swords on sixes and skulls on ones; rather good looking too.

If there are no sixes or if there is some other reason why the player would want more successes, there is the option to “push” a roll. That means that the character invests extra effort and risks fatigue. All sixes and ones stay, all results that are not 1s or 6es get rolled again. After this roll, all 1s, those from the first and those from the second attempt, count as damage to the attribute in question, or to the gear that was used.

There are two up-sides to this damage: Characters cannot get killed by this source of damage, no matter how many 1s they roll. (So you cannot die from too much effort at Reading Books) And every 1 that gives a character damage also adds 1 point of Willpower – a resource that can be used to activate “Talents”.

Combat

The combat rules are at the heart of every RPG – they are generally where the game mechanics are showcased most clearly — because combat is the one activity where handwaving things will be the worst thing that can be done.

So how does it work if Joe and Jill go to town?

For initiative the rules suddenly suggest drawing cards from 1 to 10. That is presumably a leftover of the time when everyone went on explaining how cards are so much more intuitive and faster than dice. I always assumed that was just a ploy of card-enthusiasts trying to push dice out. But this is the first time I see a mix: Cards for init, dice for other stuff. Odd.
Anyway, low is good in init. So Jill draws a pik 2, and Joe draws a pik 6, Jill goes first. This holds through all rounds of combat and is not re-rolled or re-drawn like in some other systems.

In every combat round, characters can throw out two actions, one slow action and one fast action, or two fast actions. They can also hold back the fast action for defense. Drawing a weapon is also a fast action, while stabbing or slashing is slow. So Jill draws her sword and stabs Joe, that are her two actions.

Joe has his axe still on the belt, so he can’t parry, but he will dodge to avoid her blade. That is one of his two actions, the fast one. He will keep one slow action for his own move.

Jill is tough and knows her way around blades, so she rolls 4 dice for her strength, two for melee, and two for her blade quality. That is eight dice. To dodge, Joe rolls his move score, which is three for his agility and one for his move skill, which is four dice to neutralise her successes.

She has two sixes on her strength, one six on her skill, and no six on her weapon quality. That is three sixes.
He has no sixes at all. Bad for him, he gets stuck for three points of strength. Some weapons deal extra damage, but not Jill’s shortsword.
Armor would reduce the damage. We will say both wear leather, so he gets two armor dice to roll. A two and a one — the one means that his armor gets damaged and degraded, the armor rating falls from 2 to 1.

Joe has a strength of four, like Jill. The three damage are harsh for him, and he wishes, retroactively, that he had pushed his roll to avoid some damage. Pushing the roll is a two-edged blade though, as ones would reduce his attribute just like a hit would. Or almost like that, as he cannot die from exertion.

With 1 STR left, Joe is still up, and he can act. Albeit only with 1 strength instead of 4, so his attack is diminished already. But he has only one action left and no weapon in hand. He can either draw, or grapple her, or retreat. He decides that drawing will spell disaster when she attacks again next round, so he throws himself at her to grapple her. She has already spent her actions and can’t well escape him So he rolls one die for his strength and one for his melee skill to wrestle her down.

He rolls no six in the strength but one in the melee part, so one successes. Joe grabs Jill and they both roll around on the floor. She can’t use her shortsword now or do anything except if she breaks free of Joe. So yay, win.

Jill tries to break free with an opposed melee roll. She rolls no successes, he rolls one, so he keeps her in check.

Joe keeps holding Jill like a madman, trying to do damage, as grapple works like punch/kick. He rolls no six though. She tries to break free again, and again without success. He tries to do damage again, also no success. But he pushes for a re-roll. Bad idea, he rolls snake eyes. His strength gives out, he is “broken” and can’t act any more. And he must roll critical injury, which is, for the blunt force of all this struggling on the floor and a 16, a “concussion”. His scouting rolls will be harder now.
*If* he lives. Because now that he slumps down, Jill can maybe shank him.

But the rules do not support such brutality. She will have to, you guessed it, roll. She must roll to fail on Empathy.

Her empathy is three. She rolls three dice. Two sixes! Success. That means, she cannot do it. She must let Joe live to fight another day.

Time Management

Days are divided in four time segments (Q), and these time segments are how activities are measured. Q1 is morning, Q2 is daytime, Q3 is evening, and Q4 is night. Rinse, repeat. Most slow activities, like hunting, cooking, painting, or shopping, take one Q. Overland travel takes 2Q per day to just travel, or 3Q to travel with extra effort to get farther.

Resources & Risk

The system employs the Resource Die, like Macchiato Monsters or The Black Hack; however, in those systems the idea of the Resource Die is to reduce bookkeeping: You have Rd8 arrows. After a fight you roll a d8, and if it is 3+, you still have Rd8 arrows left. If it is 1 or 2, you have lost enough arrows to go down to a Rd6.

In Forbidden Lands, you roll the Resource Die after every single arrow you shoot. In other words, you have the same amount of bookkeeping you would have if you were to strike off one arrow after every shot; the difference is only that you never know how many arrows you still have. With bad luck on the dice, you have only three arrows left. With good luck, you have 12 or even 20. You just don’t know. Resource is turned from a bookkeeping chore into a game of chance.

That is not good.

She

It is customary to write “he” for players and “she” for GMs (standard solution), or to alternate “he” and “she” (a bit annoying because inconsistent when referring to the same person in different ways), or to say “them” (a bit annoying because it can sometimes befuddle readers about the number of characters involved).

Forbidden Lands goes all ally and calls everyone “she”, except for nameless NPCs, who are “he”. That sounds very feminist; and yet, the pencilwork still has lots of classic attractiveness and pretty lithe girls flashing bare shoulders, so the game book will annoy everyone who finds gender roles important. To turn the ship onto the political plus side, they call “races” “kin”.

Strongholds

The game speaks of building strongholds, and that is a very good goal to have. Whenever you go to sleep you have to roll dice to see if something bad happens to you, except if you sleep in a hotel room or in your stronghold.

And strongholds are a strong point of the game: The authors have managed to get together some sensible rules for domain management, which cover building, upkeep, salaries for the guards, and other functions the stronghold can perform, like selling bread from a bakery or raising sheep.

Most roleplaying games cover only the cost of strongholds, basically making it the sensible choice to say “no thanks” to the idea. Forbidden Lands has those costs too, and they are steep and painful, but on the other hand, the stronghold gives the player and the people around it actual benefits.

So applause for the stronghold chapter.

Actual Play Test:

You are here. Which direction do you want to go?
North.
Roll Survival.
Success, you do not meet a mishap. Where do you want to go next?
Northwest.
Roll Survival.
Fail. You meet a mishap. Roll what kind.
It is a wild animal.
Roll if you spot it in time.
Success. You spot it. Try to sneak away before it spots you. That is a contested roll.
The animal wins. It attacks you. Roll initiative.

Another scene that happened in the playtest was a hunt. I have Rd8 food and Rd12 water with me. I am in an area with a river, and hunt. After rolling for survival twice and on a random table once, I learn that I have successfully killed a fox. Now I have 3 units of meat and 1 unit of pelt. I can decide to eat the fresh meat, but I cannot prepare it – I have to eat it raw, because my character does not have the “Cooking Talent”. Every character has 1 race talent and 1 professional talent. So only a professional cook can prepare food. No ranger, no hunter, no housewife can roast a dead animal over fire, they have to either eat it raw or go and pay a cook to change 1 unit of meat or 1 unit of vegetables into 1 unit of food.

After eating, I have to roll a Resource Die to see if I have depleted my food supply (despite eating freshly hunted meat), and I have to roll the Resource Die for my water to see if my water supply goes down.

Then I go on my merry way, moving another hex. “Roll survival.”

When I want to go to sleep, I roll survival to set up camp, then half the night is already gone before I can go to sleep.

So the best chance to survive a week in this game is to be the only professional cook who lives in a village, where everyone else has to bring raw materials to you so you can turn it into food in exchange for a cut of it and live in a house so you don’t have to make camp for hours every day.

Old School?

The system claims that this is the Old School way, harsh, unforgiving and deadly.
However, Old School is a lot about decision making. It is about stacking the situation in your favour, preferably so that you do NOT have to roll at all, because you avoid the risk and just reap the rewards.

This, on the other hand, feels more like Roulette.

True, I can decide if I go north or west, but ultimately it does not matter. Any direction I go will demand a survival roll every step of the way. What happens is mostly decided by the dice.

Verdict

The core mechanics are actually quite sensible, but the system needs a certain measure of house ruling and GM intervention to elevate it out of a snakes & ladders level of continuous competitive dice rolling and into the realm of actual roleplay.

It is contradictory in this:

On the one hand it says:

On the other it explicitly demands the constant rolling of resource dice.

Not to speak of the roll-fest that is combat, when you are not busy drawing cards.

And this continuous rolling, born, most likely, out of an understandable infatuation with the system’s own special dice with beautiful little skulls and roman numerals, is what breaks the game over time. Seriously, I love dice and I love dice rolling even better, but it has to make sense, and this does not.

Never become so enamoured with your system that it begins to be an obstacle that stands in the way of actual play.

What to do:

If you get the chance to play Forbidden Lands, do so!

It has a lot of good ideas and lends fresh perspectives. (Remember: Strongholds!)
But for the love of ye gods old and new, houserule some of the dice-rolling away, handwave some survival and camp-setting, count your arrows one by one, and avoid combat whenever possible, so you get some actual roleplaying in between all of the dice rolls.

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