Free League Publishing makes games. Award-winning tabletop roleplaying games such as ALIEN, Mutant: Year Zero, and Tales from the Loop. Board games such as Tales from the Loop and Crusader Kings. And gorgeous art books that bring life to the game worlds.
Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Free League—or Fria Ligan to the Svenskar—has been riding high, and the success looks to continue. There are new editions of Twilight: 2000 and The One Ring and a brand-new Blade Runner RPG in the works. Not to mention adventures, expansions and other new materials for existing games.
Plus, there’s the Free League Workshop, which provides templates for enterprising gamers and writers to create their own material for Free League games.
Many of Free League’s games share the ‘Year Zero Engine’, so-called because it’s based on the rules for Mutant: Year Zero, the company’s first game. It’s a simple system that gets customized for each new release, meaning it’s far from a one-size-fits-all solution.
The shared rules also make it easy to pick up and play Free League’s games. Which makes them dangerous – once you’ve tried one, you’re highly likely to try another. And another, and another…
So just how did this publisher from Sweden become one of the industry’s major players? We recently interviewed Free League CEO and co-founder Tomas Härenstam about his company’s roots, current products and upcoming projects. We’ve lightly edited his words for clarity.
Welcome, Tomas and thanks for your time! Tell us a little about Free League.
We’re a passion-driven company founded by a group of gamer friends, still making the games we dream of playing ourselves.
The company was founded in 2011 when we took over an RPG project from another publisher that went out of business. In the early years, Free League was very much a hobby endeavor. We all had other day jobs and wrote RPG material in our free time.
Our first game published in English was Mutant: Year Zero in 2014. The year after, we had our first major Kickstarter success with Simon Stålenhag’s art book Tales from the Loop. The RPG based on that was another milestone, released in 2017. The same year, we released our sci-fi RPG Coriolis.
In 2018, we joined forces with another RPG publisher, Järnringen (publisher of dark fantasy RPG, Symbaroum). We also released our original fantasy RPG Forbidden Lands.
The official Alien RPG was released in 2019, and last year we released the new edition of Twilight: 2000. This year we will release both The One Ring and the Blade Runner RPG.
What were your favorite games back in the day?
Oh, those are just too many to list. Back in the 1980s, when I started playing RPGs, I was a huge fan of Warhammer, Cyberpunk, Twilight: 2000 and the James Bond RPG. Later, I was really inspired by the Forge movement of indie games.
You obviously love all your games, but do any stand out as particular favorites?
I’m proud of Twilight: 2000, which was a real passion project, bringing back a favorite from my early days of gaming. It was also a real challenge to create a crunchier system with more realistic combat within the Year Zero Engine framework, but I think it turned out really well.
Over the last few years, Free League Publishing has been very successful, with many award wins. Why do you think that is? What is it about your products that generates such broad appeal?
It’s hard to say for sure, but I think we really push the envelope on not only game design but graphic design and artwork as well. For us, all three aspects must be there for a game to really sing. Another thing we feel is extremely important is to have an active and responsive relationship with the community.
You’ve had some success with licensed games and have captured some big licenses (such as Aliens, Blade Runner and Lord of the Rings). How do you decide if a license is worth pursuing?
The one main requirement for us to consider a license is if we feel true passion for it. At least some of us in the team must really feel that the particular license is just the coolest thing ever. If none of us have that passion, we won’t pursue the license.
Publishing Outside Titles
You publish several games that originated outside Free League Publishing, including Symbaroum, Twilight: 2000, The One Ring, Mork Borg, Cy_Borg, and Into the Odd. Beyond the financial considerations, how do you decide if a game is suitable to bring in-house?
These are all a little different. Symbaroum was made by Team Järnringen who we knew since many years back. This was more of a merger of equals.
Twilight: 2000 is a licensed game, but fully developed by us.
Mork Börg, Cy_Borg and Into the Odd are all part of our program for externally designed games, under the Free League Workshop label. There, we are looking for top-quality indie games that we can help distribute and market. It’s been great to collaborate with these talented people!
Board Games, Art, and Beyond
You publish a small number of board games. Do you see that side of the business expanding?
Yes, but slowly. RPGs are our main business, but we are dipping our toes into board games and card games as well – mostly narrative games that tell a story.
You also publish high-quality art books. How do you choose artists and projects? Is relevance to gaming (as source material or a game setting) a consideration?
Yes, we started with Simon Stålenhag’s books, and it’s been a fantastic journey with him. We have since expanded this to Francois Baranger’s line of illustrated HP Lovecraft classics. There might very well be more in the future.
The Free League Workshop program encourages creators to produce and sell material for your games. What’s the rationale behind it?
The main purpose of the Free League Workshop is to offer a platform for all of the awesome community content being created for our games. Roleplaying is a uniquely creative hobby, and we want to really showcase that.
You’ve invested in support for virtual table top (VTT) platforms – what’s your view on the hobby’s digital side?
It’s here to stay, and it’s growing. We want to be where the players are. That’s why we are investing quite a bit in it right now. We don’t want players to choose between analogue and digital RPG gaming, though – we want to offer both.
What do you think has been the most significant recent change in the hobby, and how has Free League responded or adapted?
Not sure if it counts as recent, but the rise of crowdfunding definitely reshaped the RPG industry. We were fortunate to be early in on that. More recently, the shift to virtual tabletops is also very significant.
How do you see the hobby evolving, and how do you see Free League Publishing’s future?
Right now, the hobby seems to be growing bigger every year, which is really amazing! We hope to continue to make more games that we ourselves and hopefully many other gamers will enjoy for many years to come!
With the Cold War long behind us, it’s interesting that you’d choose to bring back Twilight: 2000. What inspired that decision? Did anyone at Free League play the original game? If so, what did you like about it, and what did you want to change?
Several of us did, including me! Twilight: 2000 was a big passion for me back in the 1980s, especially the first edition. Many years have passed, but I think the Cold War still holds a deep fascination for many of us, not least gamers. It’s a fascinating ‘what-if’ scenario and a perfect backdrop for a sandbox survival game, which is a favorite genre for Free League.
I loved the gritty setting and the open world of the game. Those are aspects we wanted to keep. The game suffered a bit from having very detailed and complex rules. We wanted to keep the feeling of the game but make it more accessible.
The new Twilight: 2000 uses Free League’s Year Zero Engine. Did you face any challenges adapting it for use in the game’s war-torn setting?
It was an interesting challenge! The Year Zero Engine had mostly been used for more narrative types of games before. We needed to make it work for a crunchy military simulation but still retain the narrative feel. It was a tricky balance, but we feel it turned out really well.
What do you hope that gamers will enjoy the most about the game?
Just the feeling of freedom of getting out there in the apocalyptic world and going where you want, building the story along the way.
Are there any plans for supplements?
Indeed! The first expansion, called Urban Operations, has just been announced, and several more will follow.
Thanks so much to Free League CEO and co-founder Tomas for taking the time to talk with us!
Free League Publishing Games
Free League Publishing have created and published a range of award-winning tabletop role-playing games, board games and art books set in strange and wondrous worlds.
The ALIEN roleplaying game is officially licensed, with two styles of play: cinematic, for one-off scenarios where peril lurks around every corner; and campaign, where there’s less immediate danger (and characters might survive for a session or two). On a meta level, knowing it’s an Alien game makes it even more scary and moody – you’re waiting, just waiting for the xenomorph(s) to arrive. And when it or they do … let’s just say that while your character might not live, you the player won’t be disappointed. Not at all.
The Arabian Nights in space? Yes please. Coriolis’ sci-fi setting is familiar enough to be accessible and exotic enough to be interesting. It’s a fresh take on the genre and it’s inspired gamers around the world to do something a little more interesting with their sci-fi.
Forbidden Lands is an old-school hex-and-dungeon-crawl fantasy game with great art, a system that can be as streamlined or as crunchy as you like, and unique takes on familiar fantasy tropes and races. What’s not to like?
Dark castle. Sombre castle. Murky castle. Award-winning design combines with simple rules to create a heavy-metal fever-dream of danger, death and doom. If you think you’re prepared, then you’re probably not – but you should play Mork Borg anyway, because it’s both awesome and unforgettable.
Tales from the Loop
A moody, atmospheric game about teenagers discovering the world isn’t as simple or as safe as they’d been led to believe. Think The Goonies meets Stranger Things – with robots, dinosaurs, dimensional travel and more. Tinged with melancholy, your inner 14-year-old will love Tales From the Loop.
The One Ring
Is Tolkien the grandaddy of modern fantasy? He sure is. Does this game make you feel like you’re inside one of his stories? It sure does. The One Ring is a great example of how game design choices can help recreate a mood and a style of play as well as a setting.
If Nordic folk horror doesn’t sound like an appealing RPG setting, then clearly you don’t know your Nordic folk horror well enough. Whether you want whimsy and mystery or carnage and terror, Vaesen has you covered.
Mutant: Year Zero
In Mutant: Year Zero, every day is a lovely day in the Zone. A lovely day to get contaminated with rot, attacked by Ghouls and robots and risk further mutation by using your existing powers. Plus, you’re running out of bullets, you’ve got no water, and you think that telepathic tree you met is out to get you. Think fast, mutant…
The forest is dark and dangerous and full of riches. The elves say you have no right to be there; that you risk awakening things that are best left sleeping; that anyone can be tainted and become an abomination. Guess what. They’re right. Explore Symbaroum today!
Turn-of-the-millennium survival, intrigue and combat as you scavenge the blasted ruins for food, ammo and clean water. Amidst the destruction in Twilight 2000, can you find hope for humanity’s future?
Free League Publishing has a number of projects currently in-progress.
Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That is what it is to be a slave.
[Honestly, we just can’t wait for this!]
Imagine a cyberpunk game that’s as heavy metal as Mörk Borg. Nano technology, punks, cyborgs and a grim corporate future make for one hell of a ride. Don’t complain, just cyber up and start wrecking things. You know you want to.
Into the Odd
Can we call it a cult classic yet? Yes, I think we can. This new edition of Chris McDowall’s hit indie RPG brings fantasy-style cosmic industrial horror to the table. Be prepared for things to get … odd.
Free League is best known for its immersive and speculative fiction roleplaying games. However, in recent years they have also released two board games, which are getting great reviews!
Based on the well-loved PC strategy game of the same name, Crusader Kings brings grand strategy, empire-building and dynastic tensions to the tabletop in a lavish production with gorgeous art, quality components and detailed but accessible rules.
Tales from the Loop
Can a boardgame tell a captivating story while capturing the danger, melancholy and mystery of Simon Stålenhag’s artistic vision? In a word – yes. The Tales From the Loop board game does justice to the rich fiction of the rpg.
Free League Workshop
Want to create new material for your favorite Free League game? Using official templates provided by Free League? Of course you do. The Free League Workshop is the company’s umbrella program covering third-party productions – visit the website to learn more.
Written by Michael B.
Michael’s from Sydney, Australia. Over the years he’s organized game conventions, contributed to magazines, and written supplements for White Wolf and Dream Pod 9. His new goal is to run or play every game he owns at least once. At the current rate of progress, he’ll be finished with his unplayed ‘pile of shame’ about eleven years after he dies.