Zeitgeist in Ravenland

Gustave Doré, engraving for The Works of Rabelais

This post has two interconnected parts. The first is how to hack a GM-less game of Forbidden Lands. The other is an informal case study of doing exactly that. The first two sections discuss mechanics, the third and fourth address additional materials, and the fifth and sixth contain my own personal reflections.

The Game

Forbidden Lands core box set
Forbidden Lands comes in a box. That’s how you can tell it’s a game. Image © 2020 Fria Ligan.

Forbidden Lands is a GM-light, exploratory sandbox game in a gritty sword-and-sorcery setting. Instead of prepared adventures and campaigns, players can pursue their own agendas, and the GM can populate the world with encounters, monsters, legends (pretexts for quests), dungeons, towns, castles, and NPCs. All of these can be generated on the fly, in session, rather than beforehand.

The game’s medium-weight rules and built-in tools make Forbidden Lands easy to convert into a GM-less, cooperative RPG. It’s ready, right out of the box, to provide a deep, character-driven experience. All you need is …

The Mythic GM Emulator

Mythic GM Emulator
The game is Mythic. The emulator is pretty epic too. Mythic Game Master Emulator by Tom Pigeon. Word Mill Press, 2006.

The Mythic Game Master Emulator is stand-alone module for solo and group GM-less play. Its collaborative and non-arbitrary approach to decision-making grants players the opportunity to collectively guide their own stories without directly determining the overall course of events.

Decisions normally made by a GM are instead handled using a probability table. The X-axis’s metric is the chaos rank, a measure of how out-of-control the overall situation is. (My group started out adjusting the value every quarter day, but that quickly stagnated; daily adjustments have proven more robust.) The Y-axis’s increments are odds—degrees of probability that a given event will occur.

To find out, a player asks a yes or no question, and each player chooses a degree of likelihood. The average likelihood and the chaos rating together determine the numerical percentage of a positive answer; just roll d100 and compare the result to the table.

The emulator’s mechanics include additional rules for running scenes, maintaining plots and subplots, introducing random events, and modifying scene setups. The first two aren’t particularly necessary in Forbidden Lands, which does its own scene-setting, and players can be largely self-directed. The random event table is useful as a tool to establish what’s occurring “offstage” in the rest of the world, and the modified scene setup roll is a handy way to introducing the game’s built-in random encounters (substituting them for Mythic’s scene modification templates).

The Map

Travel and exploration are huge components of Forbidden Lands; characters roam around long-lost locales seeking treasure and trouble. As a result, the world map is the game’s primary set piece.

But instead of using the map provided in the core set, you can use a terrain table to procedurally generate a map on blank hex paper. When entering a space bordered by blank hexes, roll to see what’s on the horizon. As with the randomly generated dungeons and towns, no one is quite sure what to expect, keeping the game fresh and interesting for all players.

Randomly generated Forbidden Lands map
Our randomly generated corner of the world. This is less than a quarter of the whole map.

The official Forbidden Lands map is approximately 28” by 20.5”. I’ve cobbled together blank hex paper to make a map about 43” square (with a slightly higher number of hexes, which are larger than those on the official map). These particular dimensions maximize the space we have to explore while keeping it at a manageable size that fits (barely) on my kitchen table, and it can be rotated so it’s oriented toward a different player each session.

My terrain table is available to download (click on the image below) under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. You’re welcome to use it in (and adapt it for) your own games.

random terrain tables
Terrain tables. Use at your own risk. Bring a raft. (See the comments below for more information about using these tables.)

Journals

At the start of the first session, each player in my group received a small kraft notebook. Within a modest budget, these make great props—exactly the sort of item you’d find in an adventurer’s backpack. (I considered using journals with unlined paper but decided that was a step too far into verisimilitude at the expense of usability.)

I intended the journals as a player tool to support the map, allowing us to keep notes about locations and events. But these journals were immediately (seriously, within the first half-session) adapted to in-character journals recording private thoughts and experiences (similar to bluebooking) as well as synoptic interpretations of the shared story.

In Forbidden Lands, characters begin with prides and dark secrets that provide individualized depth and personality, have mechanical impacts, and reward roleplaying with XP (which is spent to purchase skills and talents). The journals gave us an opportunity (or maybe just a pretense) to refine those traits and delve deeper into our characters’ personalities, motivations, and backstories as much or as little as we liked and prepare ourselves for more in-character roleplaying at the table.

Engagement

Together, the map and journal have created a level of collective creative engagement I’ve not experienced in some 21 years of tabletop gaming. The journals in particular incited a Trinity-grade creative explosion that rapidly advanced our characters from numbers on a character sheet to three-dimensional personas with well-defined concerns and desires.

But everyone also takes an active role in world-building as well. For example, while pursuing a legend pertaining to a castle in a forest, we explored (surprise) forest hexes, which are more likely to generate adjacent forests and so provide more chances to find our prize.

The discovery of every adventure site is an occasion for new exploration, as characters and as players. The adventure site generator provides solid frameworks and curious characteristics that are open-ended enough to be built upon in the moment. So more than just participating in the physical creation of the map, the players have the opportunity to shape the larger landscape and the fine details within it.

On Not-GMing

Initially, your game will probably have a de facto GM (unless you have a few players possessing greater-than-passing familiarity with the books, mechanics, and setting). In my group, this was me, so I’m going to speak from direct experience here.

In this role, I took on the jobs of resolving the behind-the-scenes mechanics, keeping the game moving at an acceptable pace, and trying to ensure all voices were heard. As the other players have become more familiar with the mechanics, they’ve participated more with rolling and running NPCs—but I haven’t opened it up as much as I should have, and there are multiple consequences to that.

First, the more people you have serving as the CPU, the less weight there is one single player. This lets you be less computer and more character, which is the point of running Forbidden Lands without a GM.

At the same time, it helps to mitigate tacit bias. As someone who GMs 99% of sessions for multiple groups, I struggled with facilitating instead of game mastering. I caught myself trying to guide the action and story in certain directions, often without even realizing it. And even after I realized it, I’d catch myself doing it again. And I still do (but I think I’m getting better).

And based on that experience, my best advice is to be mindful of your choices and actions as a facilitator. Invite the other players to participate in the crunchy side of running the game. Most importantly, be willing to actively, consciously relinquish your instinct toward control. That’s the fun of being a player, after all. The game and your fellow players will reward you with a richer experience.

Pursuant to this, I recommend exclusively using randomly generated adventure sites rather than the towns and locales provided in the core set and in supplements like Raven’s Purge. The random adventure site generator is robust enough to keep locations interesting and diverse, and as long as it’s used transparently, it ensures symmetry of knowledge amongst all players.

Taking this approach means characters won’t get directly involved in the game’s overarching master-plot. Instead, they’ll discover their own paths and storylines. Like all Forbidden Lands characters, they set out as a motley band of raiders and rogues, but their mutual struggle for survival will forge them into adventurers worthy of the epithet.


This post has been made possible by Anamaleth the rider, Tinnúviel the druid, Dung the dwarf, and McGillicuddy the peddler. F*** yo’ fox, Pupkin. F***. YO. FOX.

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3 thoughts on “Zeitgeist in Ravenland

  1. Greetings! I love your approach towards towards a solo-roaming on FL-themed hex map. It is maybe because of my newbie-ness, but may i ask for some help about reading the table you shared above?
    If i understand correctly, every time the player(s) enter a hex, they roll 5 times d100 to build up the adjacent hexes.
    How to use then the middle and the down part of the sheet?

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    1. An excellent question, and one I’ve been expecting for a while.

      That table was an experiment on my part. It doesn’t fully explain how it’s supposed to be used. That was intentional, because I wanted to see if people would 1) figure it out on their own, 2) take it as raw materials to hack, tinker with, and do whatever they wanted with it, 3) ask me how the hell it’s supposed to work.

      I don’t know if anyone’s done 1 or 2, but you’re the first person to do #3. So here’s a fuller explanation.

      When you enter a hex that has any blank hexes around it, roll d100 to see what’s in one of those adjacent hexes. You’ll typically use the the top table (“Terrain”) for that, unless there’s a river running between the two hexes–then you’d use the bottom table (“River”). These tables are both based on an analysis of the official game map with some small adjustments to create a bit more consistency.

      The table on the mid-left (“River Run”) is used to determine a river’s course across the landscape: whether it turns left or right at a vertex, branches, or ends. Rivers are generated on the main terrain table.

      The other two tables are used when you’re entering a previously unexplored hex; roll d100 to see if there’s an adventure site, and if there is, generate it using the tables in the core rulebook. The probability of adventure sites on land is based on proximity to and availability of water, since settlements and populations historically develop in places that have easy access to clean water for drinking and agricultural purposes; and for adventure sites in the water (maybe a floating town, maybe a submerged dungeon), the probability is based on proximity to land.

      Hope this helps! If you have any other questions, don’t be a stranger.

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