Forbidden Lands

Posted 18 Apr 2021 to Fantasy

Sword and sorcery ruleset with a good survival game loop and some base-building mechanics.


XP Card

Sessions GM'd: 23
Sessions as Player: 0

I Used

Physical books, 209 page Players Handbook and 265 page Gamemaster's Guide.


Inspired by the praise showered upon this game (Silver ENnie for Best Rules and Product of the Year, Gold ENnie for Best Cartography and Best Production Values), I purchased the box set. I ran two one-shot test games and then launched a campaign set in the Dark Sun world. I wrote up a bunch of D&D monsters and creatures for it. I'll happily return to this game and run it again one day.


The Good

  • Excellent hexploration system. If this is not your thing, you can probably disregard it and not use it. Each day of travel, PCs declare what activity they are doing and roll for it. They can go hunting, or make camp, or move. There are tables to tell you what animal you hunted, and what happens if you fail. The failure of these skill rolls can trigger a whole scene which is fun to play out. Resources, like food, are tracked using dice that deplete. In Roll20, I had the map concealed by darkness, and then revealed hexes by dropping a small light source into each one. Gradually the map was revealed.
  • Love the encounters. As the party travels, an encounter can be triggered. There are about 40 of these encounters, and each one is a half-page roleplaying scene or dilemma. They aren't just "2d6 bears". They cleverly introduce factions in the world, NPCs and give the PCs compelling stuff to do. I'm adding this technique to my toolkit for any future game. I made my own custom list of encounters for my homebrew Dark Sun game, and it was fun.
  • Exciting monsters. Each monster is a page, with basic stats and 6 moves. In any combat, the GM can pick or roll which move it is going to use. The moves do fun things like knock players to different zones on the map, and some of them are more powerful than others. They really make combat feel dynamic and varied, and not just a hit point race. I easily reskinned some of the monsters from the GM book as other things.
  • Good sword and sorcery vibe. By the end of our campaign, our warrior really felt like Conan. He could activate his various abilities to synergize them in a way that made him feel like a legendary swordsman. The I really liked the feel of the game.
  • No hit points. When you take damage, your stats temporarily decrease. This really helps to make a fight feel desperate and the damage you take has real consequences. The stats recover quite quickly with rest.
  • Level-less. Pick and choose your abilities from a buffet. Most abilities can be taken by anyone, but a few signature ones are reserved for specific classes. This gave players great freedom to design their own characters. It's quite possible to have a sorcerer who is a skilled spear wielder, for example.
  • Strongholds system. Every item in the equipment list is craftable, with listed ingredients and skill check needed. The players are encouraged to be self-sufficient and create their own base, with a forge and farm animals and everything. This is new territory for me, and the players were keen to do it.
  • Zones and theatre-of-the-mind by default. This suits me. A lot of the time, a GM will need to quickly improv a scene when an unexpected Encounter was rolled. It was not necessary to pause the game and draw up a battle map. I simply dropped some zones onto our roll20 screen and said, "This is the bar area", "This is the common room", "This is the street outside". It was quick and worked great.

The Not-So-Good

  • PC progression was wildly imbalanced. As expected in any classless and level-less system, the players can choose to spend their XP on whatever abilities or skills they want. Very soon, I had some PCs who had hyper-specialized in killing stuff, and others who had spread their points around in a variety of niche non-combat activities. The super-killer PCs easily wiped the floor with whatever threats I could come up with, including some of the tougher Monsters in the book - monsters that the other PCs struggled to even hurt.
  • Magic system can be abused. The magic system is about risk avoidance and mitigation. Every time you cast a spell, you roll some dice to determine if there is a mishap. There is a chance you will have a mishap every time you cast a spell, and if you do - a 1 in 36 chance you will die. This sounds harsh, but in practice it did not deter my spellcasters in the slightest. Some of the combat spells were basically useless, doing hardly any damage at all - equivalent to a melee dagger attack. Some other spells were open to clear abuse (e.g. One PC burned 8 WP on a necromancy spell which created a mega-zombie, another liked to use mind-control spell which allows no save). Creating magic items is very easy, and seems to be the obvious way to go about spell casting. It costs 5 willpower to create a permanent magic item that can cast a spell daily for you. No more chance for a mishap when using that spell, nor a need for Willpower. So the world should be full of wands. PCs can abuse the hell out of the magic system in various ways, and I didn't find a the mishap mechanism to be a significant enough risk to discourage the abuse.
  • Resources tracking is not really an issue. Things like Food and Water are tracked with a dice. If you are full up, you have d12. Each day, you roll that dice and if you get a 1 or 2, it depletes one dice. So if you have d12, on average it lasts 18 days. You can travel, on average, 72 hexes in this time. The entire map is 40 hexes across. If you encounter a settlement during that journey, you flick some coins at the nearest peasant and refresh both food and water to d12, thereby reducing the usefulness of a bunch of survival-focused PC abilities.
  • Strongholds require a spreadsheet to track. You can construct 32 kinds of buildings and generate 21 different types of Resource, 3 kinds of livestock, and employ 17 kinds of hireling. Build a Sheepfold so you can have 12 Sheep, which can produce d6 Meat and 2 Wool per sheep every 180 days, which can be used by a Innkeeper to make Food, and then build a Tailor Shop and hire a Tailor so you can transform Wool into Cloth at a rate of 12 per Quarter Day, and then make Clothes. Are you kidding me? This is a medieval economy simulation. My players were quicker to flick 1gp at the nearest shop and BUY a new cloak than go through the admin of the sheep -> wool -> cloth -> cloak transformation. And I was happier with that too.
  • Default setting is boring. Mainly, I found the Elves + Dwarves + Orcs trope to be tired and unexciting. There is a plot about a Blood Mist that has covered the region and a campaign about a special elf crown that broke into pieces which are scattered across the land. I didn't find it compelling and didn't use any of it. Luckily it is easy to build your own races and transplant the rules to another setting.



I'd definitely play this again. It's been a year since I last played it, and this box calls out to me from my shelf. It would make a good system for a sword-and-sorcery Conan game. I would disregard the Stronghold system, and I'd add heavy encumbrance loads for carrying d12 food and water.



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