Friday, September 4, 2020

Interview: Erik Granström

One of the most interesting fantasy roleplaying games to have been released in the last few years is Forbidden Lands, published in English by the Swedish company, Free League. Described as a "sandbox survival roleplaying game" about "raiders and rogues bent on making [their] mark on a cursed world," it's a terrific take on hexcrawl fantasy of the sort championed by the Old School Renaissance. I've been playing in a Forbidden Lands campaign for the last year and have enjoyed it greatly, in large part because of its compelling setting. That setting was created by fantasy novelist Erik Granström, who graciously agreed to answer the following questions.

1. How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying? When did you start writing for roleplaying games and what were some of your most notable designs?

I started a long time ago, late seventies I believe (I'm 64), with the very first editions of D&D. I remember reading the Greyhawk and Chainmail leaflets by Gary Gygax. A guy, Lennart Karlsson, that I still regularly meet at our monthly nerd pubs (alas suspended until post Corona), brought home these from the US, and he was my first Dungeon Master. After perhaps a year or two I thought it would be fun to DM myself, so me and a friend, Magnus Anå, started building a dungeon (rather than a world). Traditional old dungeons were getting tougher the further down you went, but attempting to be original, I made a mountain instead and then got the idea of actually building the mountain in foam rubber. Still have it.

I then progressed to AD&D and built more of a world, or part of a world that we played in. When RPG gaming came to Sweden as Drakar och Demoner (Dragons and Demons), which was built on RuneQuest, my friend Anå co-wrote one of the first adventures. He then suggested that I write an adventure from the stuff we were playing (he was then one of my players). This I did, and called it Svavelvinter (Winter of Sulphur, or The Brimstone Sleep, which is the English title). This adventure was commercially published, and became the first in my series Chronicles of the Fifth Conflux (1987-1993) that actually still is played and has considerable cult status in Sweden. The original adventures are readily auctioned off for $100-300 US nowadays.

Since I'm a writer of fiction and had already published a novel in 1980, in 2004 I started to write a series of fantasy novels built on the game setting and story. These were concluded in 2016, consisting of four novels totalling 2300 pages. In 2012 Free League published their very first RPG called Svavelvinter which was built on the novels, going full circle with the original story and setting. Concluding the novels, I discovered a Swedish death metal band called Svavelvinter, started by former RPG-player Christian Älvestam, and we made a full length album set in the polar island Marjura from the game and novel setting, released in 2018. I wrote the lyrics and Christian made the music. It's on Spotify etc, and you can see a nice video with one of the songs here:

(The Elvenspring half-elves in Forbidden Lands are actually named after Älvestam since they are called ”Älvestamlingar” in Swedish, Älvestam basically translating to "of elven ancestry.")

Apart from this I dabbled a little in a cyberpunk game, I believe from ICE.

2. Since most of my readers are English speakers, they're likely unfamiliar with the world of Swedish roleplaying games. How would you compare the Swedish and English language scenes? What are the similarities and differences between them, particularly when it comes to subject matter?

I don't really have much experience of different games, sad to say. That is, I'm more of a writer than a gamer myself.

What I think is remarkable is that the Swedish RPG scene is so big compared to how big our language area is. After all, only about ten million people speak Swedish, while English is spoken by 1.5 billion persons. I believe the explanation for this is the big impact RPGs had in Sweden in the 1980s and 1990s. I meet grown ups (?) everywhere: doctors, researchers, plumbers, politicians, farmers, artists etc, that have been RPG-players in their youth and still are very nostalgic about it. I think the second wave we currently see mostly consist of these players having grown up and now taking Swedish RPGs internationally and to their kids.

Also, the Swedish market has always been varied. While D&D is very dominant in America, there has always been several popular games and genres in Sweden.

3. What was the origin of Forbidden Lands? Was the idea for it entirely your own or were you approached by Free League to create it? What previous media, whether books, comics, movies, or games served as its sources of inspiration?

Forbidden lands
was first born as a stretch goal in a Kickstarter for an artbook with art by Nils Gulliksson from the initial Swedish golden age of RPG. I got Gulliksson's portifolio from Free League with the instructions to use the pictures for a game, but basically do what I wanted as long as I built upon them. The game was aiming to have old school fantasy flavour but with modern rules. I wrote the setting and the campaign Raven's Purge before there were any rules at all. This was fine by me, since I'm more of a narrative guy than interested in rules. So the initiative came from Free League, but I had very free hands in the setting.

I take my main inspiration from history, but basically use anything that inspires me, often music, and not seldom satire of our current days. In everything I write, I dislike doing what's already been done, so I try to come up with new twists and generally avoid inspiration from settings that others created (whether comics, movies, games and novels) – after all there's plenty around elsewhere. (I was very amused when somebody accused me of having stolen, but misrepresented  Tiamat from D&D, when in reality I had gone back to the 4000 years old Mesopotamian myths where Tiamat is the primal mother). 

I hope my ambition to be original shows in my work, for instance in the description of the "classical" kins, like halflings/goblins, elves and ogres. I love starting from ”what if …?” The reason I suggested ”kin” instead of ”races” in the game is more due to me being trained as a vet than anything else. Elves and dwarves basically are different species rather than races. I'm not however afraid of picturing racism or other bigotry in what I do, but then try to give the perspective from both sides in a matter of fact way, rather than moralizing. To my own surprise, orchs turned out to be perhaps the most sympathetic kin in the game. This said, I like to make nods towards things I like from other artists, but often in a different context. For instance, the demons Merigall and Krasylla in the game are vaguely based on Neil Gaiman's Sandman siblings Desire and Despair. I will probably use a couple of the other Sandman siblings as demons for the upcoming Aslene expansion and hope Gaiman can smile at this if he learns of it.

4. As an avid player of Forbidden Lands, I think you succeeded admirably in offering original takes on traditional fantasy elements. Are there any aspects of the Forbidden Lands setting that you're especially proud of?

I think overall the Forbidden Lands game came out surprisingly good and that the rules and setting and flavour seem so go very well together. While this partly depends on skill, I also think we got lucky that things fell into place. I might feel extra satisfied in having brought the jolly halflings and noble elves down in the gutter while still hopefully making them interesting to play and not just paraphrases or parodies.

5. You mentioned ”old school fantasy flavour” when you described Free League's instructions for creating Forbidden Lands. What did you understand they meant by that?

I assumed that Free League wanted the familiar and nostalgic feel of an old game, while also making it fresh and full of unexpected twists. That is very much how I work when I write fiction and it suits me. A reviewer of my novels said that ”it is like Granström cuts up our own world and reassembles it into something totally new. I like to do that.

6. You mentioned above that you also wrote Raven's Purge, the first campaign module for Forbidden Lands, which provides lots of additional details about the setting. Did you plan to write this from the beginning or was it a later development?

The campaign was developed in parallel to the setting, so it was natural to put some additional depth in it about the world.

Something that grew during the writing is the fact that the land's history in the basic books really isn't objectively true – it has a human centered perspective and is in all probability biased and even untrue here and there. I personally like that and think it reflects how history mostly has been written in our own world, but it wasn't really planned from start. I hope to expand this aspect in Aslene. The challenge now is to add depth, so that what earlier has been said still is important, even thought it might be challenged. If for instance something extremely compromising surfaced concerning the grounds of one of the major religions, the church would probably not embrace it but try to cover it up and persecute those claiming truth as heretics.

7. Are any of your novels available in English translation?

Alas no. I hope they will be someday, but so far they're only available in Swedish and Danish.

8. I know you said that you're more of a writer than a gamer, but have you had the chance to play any RPGs recently? If so, which ones?

Yes, my two grown-up daughters wanted to play Forbidden Lands with me as game master, so we are now running the Raven's Purge campaign with my son-in-law and two of their friends. It's really fun.

9. Do you have any other projects in the works at the moment?

Nothing RPG-related really. We've made a crude road-map of expansions for FL and I might do another one: Alderland south of Ravenland.

I'm also listed in a stretch goal for a Swedish SF RPG for kids, but that seems unlikely to materialize.


  1. James, are you still playing Forbidden Lands? Im curious as to its long-term viability, particularly when it seems attributes never increase but PCs can acquire more ranks in skills and talents. Are they eventually rolling two fists full of dice with little chance of failure?

    1. I stopped playing Forbidden Lands earlier this year, so my insights into the long-term viability of the game system are limited. Our characters had become fairly experienced, with more ranks in both skills and talents, but failure still seemed to happen often enough. Not as often as at the start of the campaign certainly, but success was far from guaranteed. I suspect that has something to do with the way the dice are used, but I'm no expert on probablities.