Transcript of our podcast from 18 July 2009

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Fabled Lands

by Moritz Eggert

As a long-time fan of gamebooks I always had a dream: What if there was a gamebook that...never ended? That enabled you to keep on adventuring as long as you wanted, without having to fulfil a specific plot? That wasn't limited to 400 paragraphs?

In the mid-90's, during the afterglow of the gamebook craze and long after books like "Warlock of Firetop Mountain" were bestsellers rivalling the works of Stephen King, this dream was fulfilled by Jamie Thomson and Dave Morris, two veterans of the genre. They started an ambitious project called "Fabled Lands", a complete fantasy world that gave the players complete freedom to do what they wanted. The project was planned over 12 oversized books, each with 600-800 paragraphs. If a player reached certain points in these books he could "cross over" to another book, mostly when he reached the limits of the inherent maps of each book. It would then say for example "if you continue down this road turn to paragraph xxx of Book 1, THE WAR-TORN KINGDOM". Of course it was also possible to backtrack from that book if you wished to do so.

This kind of open-ended structure had never been attempted in a game book series, but the two authors who favoured a short, precise but very colourful prose, were more than up to the task. The quality of these books was amazing - they were published in lavish editions with fantastic title graphics and many further great drawings throughout the book. Each book also had a map that was essential to finding your way around the game world.

"Fabled Lands" was not a dungeon adventure that had you open doors and encounter a succession of rooms, even though it was possible to find dungeons in the game. Instead the authors tried to create a full fantasy world consisting of a large continent with several regions and an island speckled sea around it. Each book featured a totally different culture and an endless number of side- and subquests that sometimes even changed the history of the game. So it was for example possible in the first book to support either the ruling empire or the rebels, with different consequences depending on which side you helped to win.

To keep track of your various exploits the books introduced codewords that you collected when achieving certain tasks. If you later encountered that particular situation again a codeword check reminded the game that you had already resolved it. Sometimes you also visited one area several times and left a check in a box each visit, if you visited again a fourth time and all boxes were ticked something new would happen, which came close to simulate the actual passing of time. Sometimes you would return to a place which you thought you had already explored only to encounter new exciting developments. This avoided the usual choose a number and turn to page x dreariness that sometimes bogs gamebooks down.

"Fabled Lands" used a relatively simple roleplaying system similar to Fighting Fantasy, but with the inclusion of skills and character classes as well as levels. Whenever you fulfilled a particularly important quest you would advance to a new level, but that was a very difficult thing to achieve and rare indeed. Combats would be resolved with 2 dice and also featured armour protection and sundry magic.

In fact the amount of options in this game was staggering, as was the high difficulty level. You could adventure as a common hero, but being a trader could also be interesting. You could wander the different cities and try to make a profit by peddling wares, but it was also possible to buy a ship and hire a crew and navigate the treacherous waters. Each character class had also special quests that only they could achieve. If you ran out of space to carry your stuff you could buy various town houses to store your loot. Unique to gamebooks it was also possible to buy a resurrection charm that worked a little like a save point in a computer game. And boy did you need that charm often! It was also fun to explore the different religions and deities in the game, each giving you different abilities and advantages.

I know only one game that tried to do something comparable in scope, and that is the computer game series "The Elder Scrolls", where you also have complete freedom in your adventures. But I always found the Elder Scrolls lacking in story and atmosphere, whereas Fabled Lands was incredibly detailed and internally consistent in a way that no computer game ever achieved.

Most gamebook fans agree that Fabled Lands was the best series that the genre ever created - but unfortunately the idea came a bit late. The books were published at a point were the gamebook genre was already waning, and even though there were hardcore fans the books didn't sell well enough to have the publisher commit to them. This means sadly that the full 12 book series was never completed - even though the titles were listed in the back of the books and the authors had most certainly planned ahead only 6 books were published. Don't make the mistake of thinking this isn't enough - actually these 6 books could keep you busy for weeks to explore in full detail, but still at some point you would encounter a paragraph that lead you to a non-existing further book.

The books are long out of print and expensive to buy, but don't despair: There is a webpage with a lovingly created computerized free version that has all the original content of the books and is also officially endorsed by the authors as the text is now public domain. Even better - fans are working to complete the Fabled Lands project with their own content. This means that at some point one will be able to play the full Fabled Lands cycle in all it's glory - but even now the amount of adventure that awaits is immense. I can only recommend you visit or just google Fabled Lands or "The Holding Pattern" to check it out - you will be amazed by the fantastic worlds of the... Fabled Lands!

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2009, Westpark Gamers