Thursday, 28 December 2017

Forbidden Lands Alpha PDF - First Impressions

Thursday, December 28, 2017

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The other day Fria Ligan, aka Free League Publishing, released the Swedish alpha PDF to backers of their upcoming retro fantasy game Forbidden Lands. Of course the English version should be available soon as well. Still as the game draws heavily from the art of Nils Gulliksson, who was the illustrator of Swedish rpgs in the eighties and nineties, as well as some general themes and vibes from those games it just feels right for me to read it in Swedish. Also, my thoughts and impressions of the alpha pdf might tide over non-Swedish speaking backers until the English PDF is out.

Full disclosure, I'm friends with a couple of the guys at Fria Ligan and I've heard about some of the development of Forbidden Lands, but this is the first time I've actually read anything from it. I'll strive to be as unbiased as possible. :)

The alpha weighs in at 186 pages and is comprised of most of the Rules/Player book with some parts from the Campaign/GM book added as well. I won't go through in detail simply what's in the book as that will be known to all in just a week or two, but rather what is different from earlier Fria Ligan games using the Mutant: Year Zero engine and what I think of the additions and changes.

But first, a few words on how it looks. This is an alpha so I'm sure many things will change. However, Gullikssons images are central to the game and since they're all in black and white the game had to be in black and white. I really don't see any other way of doing the art justice as having the rest of the book in colour would just make the images look off and colouring them now would be... an abomination! So what we have is a very old school looking book, which for me personally is just as evocative and inspiring than any of Fria Ligan's earlier, full colour books. In a way maybe even more so! On the other hand I've seen a couple of people react negatively at how "simple" the book looks. Of course, this is still an alpha, but I don't see the look changing too much now.

Anyone who has played Mutant or Coriolis will be instantly familiar with the rules and character creation, although there are a number of large and small differences in Forbidden lands. You choose your stock first, with all the regular fantasy races represented, but also wolf people and orcs. Then your profession, giving you access to certain skills and your second talent (the first came from your stock). When choosing your profession you also choose your point of Pride and your Dark Secret. The former can give you a bonus once per session while the latter is more meant as GM fodder. You also create relations to the other characters and receive your trappings, as in Mutant.

Speaking of trappings, one addition here that I really like is the concept of resource dice for
consumables like food, arrows and torches. They work by dice denomiation with a D12 being the most plentiful and a D4 the least. Whenever you use the item you roll the die and if it comes up a 1 or 2 it is downgraded to the next lower denomination - 12-10-8-6-4 - or simply running out if your rolled a 1 or 2 on a D4. I love these kinds of abstract resource management mechanics as they both make it easier to keep track of your stuff and, more importantly, bring fun and drama to the game! It's more fun to run out of something when you least expect it.

During character creation you also get to set your starting Reputation, higher the older you are. And it will be an important stat as you adventure through the lands. People might have heard of you or your group of adventurers and decide to help your hinder you, or simply seek you out for help with some crazy quest.

Skills are for the most part unchanged. What is new are Artefact dice which you can receive from really powerful objects. Skill rolls are always made with D6 in this system, but Artefact dice allow you to upgrade dice to higher denominations, but still count anything six or higher as a success, or even multiple successes! So a legendary sword would allow you a D12 with 12 counting as four successes. Neat!

Here is also where your Pride comes in. You can use it once per session in a situation where your Pride would matter, after pushing your roll you get to add a D12 to the roll. But if you still fail you have to erase your pride and choose a new one later. So if my Pride was "I can shoot the ring out of an elf's ear at 40 paces" I could use it when attacking with my bow. Personally I think this sounds like a fun little detail to add to your character but would much prefer something with more of a mechanical anchor, like an Aspect in FATE or a Belief in Burning Wheel. Hopefully it gets expanded upon before release. Again, this is an alpha. :)

Talents are basically analogous to your mutations in MYZ and you fuel them by using Power Points that you get when pushing yourself while rolling for skills. This is the core mechanic of this rules engine and it works beautifully from a systems perspective, although I can sometimes feel there's a disconnect when trying to explain how it works when trying to explain why the Halfling suddenly can't escape his enemies just because he didn't push himself hard enough when trying to climb a tree earlier. Mind you, this is a very, very minor quibble as it simply works so well in play. Power Points are also used by wizards to cast spells, which I have some thoughts about, but more on that below.

Generally Talents fit well with the stock or profession that gives them and are generally not as powerful as Mutations in MYZ, which would be more akin to magic in Forbidden Lands.

Combat and injuries are similar to earlier games in the series, although melee has been expanded on quite a bit. There are now different attacks like Swipe and Thrust as well as different ways of defending, like Parry and Avoid with different bonuses or penalties being given as a result of which weapon is being used with which attack and which defence is being used. Weapons also have a number of special charactersistics, like Edge or Point or Blunt that interact in combat in different ways. For example, it's easier to Avoid a Swipe and Parry a Thrust than the other way around.

Crits are handled slightly differently in that you get an automatic critical damage when your Strength goes to zero and you are broken. There are a number of very retro feeling (in a good way!) crit tables that you get to roll on to see what kind of injury you've sustained and how it will hamper you during healing.

There is also a secondary, advanced, combat mode where you use cards to battle it out with your opponent. Basically each of you play two cards (one per long/short action) face down on the table and then flip them over one at a time. The cards are fairly broad, so the Attack card allows you to either Swipe or Thrust and the Prepare card allows you three different actions. It's a little bit like a mix between regular combat and the "advanced rock-paper-scissors" of Tochbearer and Mouse Guard (which I like very much!). It seems interesting, although my first thought is that I would probably limit it to one-on-one melees. It's not as elegant as in Torchbearer but on the other hand also much less abstract. Really need to try it out to see how it actually feels in play.

Magic works similarly to Talents but spells are generally more powerfull. There are some general spells but most are school specific with four belonging to traditional magic and three being druidic magic. There are three levels of spells and you can actually cast magic from a higher level than you know, but at greater risk. You don't roll for casting spells like you do with Skills, you always pass, but you do need to roll to see how it goes and spells can potentially blow up and become more powerfull or miscast and have nasty side effects, sometimes both at the same time. The more Power Points you feed a spell with the larger the chance/risk of something unforeseen happening.

As I mentioned above I kind of wonder how well the Power Points will work when you use them for
wizardry as well. I thought maybe that Wizards would have some special Talent to allow them to generate Power Points without pushing their skills rolls, but this doesn't seem to be the case. I might just be overthinking it but my spontaneous reaction has me wondering if a wizard will have enough Power Points to cast spells enough to feel "fun". Especially considering you can't roll for and push your actual spellcasting. Well, this is one of those things that will shake out when actually playing the game. Generally I think the magic rules work well and can make for fun little surpises, but I also think there's room for both more personality to the magic (as it feels quite generic right now) as well as more fun ways to interact with magic. I have a feeling this will turn up in a proper magic expansion down the road though.

Travel gets its own section, which should come as no surprise seeing this game has its roots in hexcrawls of old! The system used here is somewhat similar to the one introduced in The One Ring mixed with what we've seen in Mutant: Year Zero - each person has a role during travel and need to roll to fullfill that role. It is a bit more detailed and less abstract (and no corruption roles, obviously) with each day being split into four time slots and characters choosing travel roles for each slot. So you could decided that everyone marches during the morning and day, then making camp and hunting during the evening and sleeping and keeping watch during the night. If you fail your roll there are of course consequences that you roll for on a chart, again similar to TOR.

I think more games should have rules for journeys so I'm very happy to see more of it here. At first glance like this, it seems to me like the journeys here will be more focused and more personal than in The One Ring where they can sometimes be boiled down to a long series of dice rolls. You can cover six hexes (60km) when riding normally, and potentially 120km if you really push yourselves and your animals through the night. That is quite far, about a fourth of the map. I really like this travel system and look forward to experiencing it in play!

The bestiary contains a selection of what we'll see in the finished game and you can find most of the standard fantasy critters here. Each monster has a chart with different kinds of attacks that the GM can choose from or roll for. I find stuff like this great both for world bulding and simply as a nice fallback for GMs. Having just a stat line can sometimes lead to the "well, it tries to bite you again" thing which can make combat boring. Having harpies that heckle the heroes, or rip at their eyes, or simply poop on them gives much more tone and drama to a scene instead of just having them "swipe with their claws", yet again. Good stuff!

Finally we have one of the three adventure sites from the Campaign book. It's called Vädersten (Weatherstone) in Swedish but that might be something else after translation of course. I won't spoil anything as I hope people get to play it and report back to Fria Ligan what they thought. But overall I think it's a nice introduction to the world, with many retro call backs, but also some more modern twists that you would normally not see in actual old games. There's a ruin, promises of richess and a rival adventuring group thrown into the mix. Hopefully I can try ut out myself, in which case I will of course report my thoughts.

That was actually a lot more detail than I had intended to write! I hope you found it worthwile. There are many OSR games out there and even more gams that simply try to capture that vibe, both in English and Swedish. I've read quite a few of them and played a couple, but besides Torchbearer none of them have really caught my full interest. And the thing with Torchbearer is that it is a very specific kind of experience that simply won't work for some players. Forbidden Lands has that dungeon crawling, murder hobo-ing feel to it, but with a much lighter system under the hood. The kind of system that anyone would enjoy.

I have a feeling it could easily become my go to no-prepp fantasy game whenever I want a less focused experience than say, Torchbearer or WFRP. And I mean less focused as in easier to get into and with room for almost anything.

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