Thursday, November 3, 2011
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.