Thursday, November 3, 2011

REVIEW: Fabled Lands



I don't think anyone involved in the hobby back in the 1980s is unfamiliar with "gamebooks," a hybrid between choose-your-own-adventure books and traditional tabletop roleplaying. I've talked about gamebooks before and I even did a retrospective on one of the most famous of them. I read a lot of them during the mid to late '80s, but I largely stopped paying attention to them after I graduated from high school in 1987. Consequently, I had assumed that, like the larger roleplaying hobby out of which they sprang, gamebooks had mostly died out by the 1990s, never mind were alive and well today. How wrong I was!

As it turns out, between 1995 and 1996, Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson released six gamebooks as part of a series entitled Fabled Lands. These six books were only the first half of the twelve gamebooks Morris and Thomson originally planned, but the series was canceled before the remaining volumes could be published. Now, Fabled Lands is again available, with the first four books already in print and with plans for the rest to follow. As I said, I hadn't paid any attention to the world of gamebooks since the late '80s, so I was completely unaware of Fabled Lands when it debuted. I was, however, familiar with the name of Dave Morris from Tékumel fandom, where he was an editor and regular contributor to the excellent fanzine, The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder in addition to having designed the Tirikélu rules for playing in Professor Barker's alien world. With a pedigree like that, I was quite intrigued when I learned about the re-release of Fabled Lands.

In many ways, the four available Fabled Lands gamebooks are quite similar to earlier series like Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf. In all of them, you created a character not unlike that used in a tabletop RPG and kept track of his statistics and possessions as you navigated a series of numbered pages/paragraphs based on the choices you, the reader, make in response to the situations you're reading about in the gamebook. Unlike straight choose-your-own-adventure books, gamebooks included random elements, such as combat, that were adjudicated through the use of dice, so it was possible, for example, for a character to die from having been slain in battle or having fallen prey to a trap, in addition to other choices whose dire consequences you can read about on the page. This random element is part of what made gamebooks so much more attractive over simple choose-your-own-adventure books, at least for me, since, while randomness did introduce a greater number of ways to fail, it also held out the possibility that one might somehow beat the odds and achieve an unexpected -- and possibly undeserved -- victory.

What makes the Fabled Lands books so fascinating to me, though, is that, unlike other books of this kind, they're completely open-ended. That is, there's no overarching, epic quest, no grand narrative to provide structure to your characters wanderings. Instead, in sandbox-like fashion, you get to travel across the titular Fabled Lands, going wherever you wish and taking up whatever activities you desire from among the many, many opportunities presented to you. Each gamebook describes a different region of the Fable Lands setting and the books are set up in such a way as to facilitate travel from region to region and book to book. It's a very clever set-up and one that I find all the more intriguing nowadays than I probably would have in my youth.

Note that I said "sandbox-like." Inevitably, there are limits to how many options can be offered through the printed word. Even so, the Fabled Lands books do offer a large number of options, as there are between 600 and 700 separate entries in each book on average. Though perhaps paltry compared to a "true" RPG, it still provides a remarkable scope for individual action, far more than any other gamebook I've read (and far more than even some computer RPGs). Similarly, Fabled Lands introduces the concept of "code words." Code words are acquired as your character adventures and achieves certain objectives. They're noted on your character sheet and then, later, as you go to other places, they may come into play. For example, an entry might note "If you have codeword X, go to entry number such-and-such now; it not, keep reading." In this way, your past deeds, as represented, by the codewords, can have consequences, for good or for ill, later on. Again, it's a simple yet clever way to create a sandbox-like environment without the need for a referee.

The writing of the books themselves is straightforward and solid, more conversational in tone than novelistic, with regular forays into gaming jargon. In that respect, I don't think these books are much different than earlier gamebooks, but, given the vast palette of options available, I didn't mind at all. The books all have attractive color covers by Kevin Jenkins, while the interior artwork is by the always-superb Russ Nicholson. Nicholson's artwork is dark and moody, providing a terrific counterpoint to the fantastic realism of Jenkins's covers, a combination I like very much and that gives the Fabled Lands series a unique flavor of their own -- neither too gritty nor too epic.

Of the original six books published, four are currently available: The War-Torn Kingdom, Cities of Gold and Glory, Over the Blood-Dark Sea, and Plains of Howling Darkness. Each book is self-contained and they can be read in any order, the only significant difference being that, if you start off with one of the later books, your character begins at a higher rank (level) than he would have had you started off with one of the earlier ones. There's thus no need to purchase more than one book to start, though, if you enjoy them, I can pretty much guarantee that you'll want the others, as they greatly expand both the world setting and your character's adventuring opportunities.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're a fan of classic fantasy gamebooks and are interested in trying your hand at a very ambitious and well-done example of the form.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in gamebooks or prefer your gamebooks to be less sprawling and more focused.

13 comments:

  1. Does anyone else remember a book with a gamebook-like part in it called 'Planetfall'?

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  2. Thanks for this review, and for spreading the news that these books are available again.

    I vaguely remember seeing these books during the 1990s, but never picked them up. Now that I'm away from my gaming group for a stretch of time, a 'sandbox' solo FRPG sounds quite intriguing.

    The promise of some enjoyable solo gaming aside, I'll get these books for the Russ Nicholson art alone!

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  3. These books are the 'clipper ships' of gamebooks, the zenith of the art achieved when the market had already peaked in the 1990s. There is a free app (java) available which contains all of the text and illustrations of the original six books (http://flapp.sourceforge.net/). That's the only way I know to access books 5 and 6 which haven't been reprinted. It also rolls the dice for you and keeps track of your character. Books 1 and 2 have also been released with new images and music as iPhone apps (http://megara-entertainment.com/). Dave Morris has a Fabled Lands blog too (http://fabledlands.blogspot.com/)

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  4. My online game Age of Fable was significantly inspired by Fabled Lands, as is obvious from the title.

    Smartphones seem to have led to a small rebirth in the format. You mostly hear about new versions of old books, but there are some original titles as well.

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  5. Very interesting - I lost interest in gamebooks as a teenager by the late '80s, so I had no idea there were sandbox gamebooks, other than homourable mention for the semi-sandbox Scorpion Swamp Fighting Fantasy gamebook by the US Steve Jackson. I assumed computer games killed them off in the '90s, which seems to have been partially the case.

    I would buy these, but in my heart I doubt I'd actually play them.

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  6. I picked up the first 2 of these at Books-a-Million for a couple bucks about 5 years ago, and they've sat on my shelf since then. Perhaps I'll give them a look.

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  7. In the USA these gamebooks were titled Quest. Same illos, same covers, everything else the same except the title. They also came with two dice attached to the cover, held in a clear box. I stumbled across them in a book store in the late 90s.

    The authors, Jamie Thomson and Dave Morris, were authors of several gamebooks in the Fighting Fantasy range, as well as other solo gamebook series. Thomson, The Way of the Tiger, and Morris, BloodSword, to name just a couple.

    The first book in the Quest series, The War-Torn Kingdom, pictured above, was good, new, fresh. At least at the beginning. After a couple of hours of play, and in subsequent books, the gameplay became quite dull, as the "sandbox" format of wandering around with no goal in particular in mind, but to explore the land and find adventures, became terribly boring. Solo gamebooks, like crafting a novel, need to be focused, and need to utilize the tools of creative writing--establish mood, atmosphere, have evocative, immersive prose, etc. A lot of the entries in this book, and its follow-up, were terse, perhaps due to its sheer size, and having to account for space, the authors limited their prose on many entries. The authors of this series can write well, and can immerse their readers. They did so in the past in their Fighting Fantasy titles and other series, but this series in trying to be different, missed the mark. The goal of being "open-ended", which was to be its originality, was it's undoing, and the series was cancelled after two books (in the USA).

    Nonetheless, the first book, The War-Torn Kingdom, is worth having a look for any fan of solo gamebooks, such as Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf. Just don't follow its lead. Write well.

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  8. @huth

    I remember Planetfall, the interactive fiction computer game that was published by Infocom, the same folks that produced the famous Zork series. I recall it being a bit campy, fun, and quite good. There was also a full-length sci-fi novel they published by the same name that was based on their computer game.

    I do remember Infocom published some books that were in the same vein as their computer games, maybe a gamebook was one of them, but I only recall the text-based computer game and the novel.

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  9. The prose in Fabled Lands is very well-crafted, with mini-quests a-plenty. The primary aim of the Fabled Lands is to convey the immense freedom of exploring whole continents to discover the fantastical people and places that lie just beyond the horizon - and the series still stands as the pinnacle of free-roaming gamebooks. If you are going to buy then I'd advise you to get the first three books, as buying only one makes little sense.

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  10. Thanks for the review, James. The idea behind the FL series came about because Jamie and I don't go in for "authorial" roleplaying (where the GM gets players to jump through story hoops) so, although we've written about two dozen traditional gamebooks, these sandbox-y ones are the nearest to our own RPG sessions. Of course, there are plenty of quests in Fabled Lands - some of them just as epic as in traditional single-story gamebooks - it's just that we don't tell the reader which to pick or how s/he should feel about them.

    As some of the comments note, writing well without the verbosity of a Fighting Fantasy style gamebooks isn't easy. It's like an artist who has to learn how to do a really detailed anatomical drawing before he can depict a character in just a few lines. With FL, we aimed to be the prose equivalents of Carl Barks! Our templates were the elegant descriptions that Eric Goldberg used in Tales of the Arabian Nights - as well as deft wordsmiths like those guys Shelley and Coleridge :)

    Overall, FL is the series that taught me less is more. I just wish we'd have the chance to do all 12 books - well, never say never...

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  11. Dave Morris was also co-author of Dragon Warriors, along with Oliver Johnson, which is another jewel in his game-writerly crown.

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  12. FYI:

    The winner of the 2011 Windhammer Prize for gamebook fiction has a very Fabled Lands style to it. You can download it for free here:

    http://www.arborell.com/seaofmadness.pdf

    cheers

    Andy

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  13. I don't recall seeing any connection to a videogame, but it was a long time ago. The gamebook part of it was a survive-on-an-alien-planet kind of thing, completely separate from the main storyline, which was about an alien observer hanging out with kids in Suburbia.

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