Friday, March 11, 2011

My Fabled Lands review - the game system

Double 6 for Fabled Lands?

I'm posting this on Friday as I'll be away this weekend.

So there is a lot to explore in the Fabled Lands, but what is the gaming system like?  What characteristics are measured?  What rewards and penalties can you get?  Are the die rolls fair or is Fabled Lands made impossible by difficult tasks?

You begin the game as a lowly first rank character.  Your rank goes up when you complete quests and overcome great odds.  A higher rank character is harder to hit in combat and is better at succeeding at certain tasks that are especially difficult.

An example of an adventure sheet.

In addition to rank, you have six primary ability scores.  The descriptions are taken from the book:

Charisma - the knack of befriending people.
Combat - the skill of fighting.
Magic - the art of casting spells.
Sanctity - the gift of divine power and wisdom.
Scouting - the techniques of tracking and wilderness lore.
Thievery - the talent for stealth and lock picking.

You also have a stamina score, which determines how much damage you can take before you die.  You start this book with 9 stamina points.

The last statistic is your defence score which determines how hard it is for you to be hit in combat. 

Your defence = your combat score + your armour's defence score + your rank.

What would you like to do when 
you grow up?
You then have to choose your profession which determines your six primary ability scores.  You could choose to be a priest, a mage, a rogue, a troubador, a warrior and a wayfarer.  Each profession has a high score in one of the primary abilities with medium and low scores in other abilities. 

Your profession also determines how certain characters in the book respond to you and which quests you can embark on.

The citizens of a small nation used
actual shards as currency.  They are
also famous for bandaging their
hands a lot.  
Finally, you can carry up to 12 items of equipment.  You start with a weapon, some armour, a map of the lands you are about to explore and 16 shards (the currency, which are not actual shards, they're coins).

Tasks are given a difficulty and require a certain ability.  You roll two dice and add the result to your ability.  If the result is higher than the difficulty, then you have succeeded in the task.  If it is equal to or lower than the difficulty then you have failed in the task.

Combat is similar.  If the sum of your combat score and the result of two dice is higher than your opponent's defence, then you reduce your opponent's stamina by the result of that score minus your opponent's defence.  Your opponent then attacks you in the same way.

I didn't know that would happen.
Sometimes, however, you do not know what action you are going to take by rolling against this ability.  Combat, thievery and charisma are quite clear through their connotations but when you are prompted to use magic, you may not be told what effect you will produce.  This is not a huge thing as succeeding at a magic roll always produces a positive effect (it would be mean if you succeeded at a magic roll only to be told that it was the wrong effect when you didn't know what you were doing) but there is no spell system and so you can't really work out what your plan is unless you are told what you could do before hand.

He's got a high sanctity score.
Whatever that means.
Sanctity has the same problem - after a while, it becomes clear that sanctity can be used to destroy undead, banish spirits and lift curses amongst other things (including getting you barred from the a wizards' school for being too closed minded).

He's go a high scouting score
He should stay outdoors.

Scouting covers climbing, tracking and finding your way - it is a general outdoor skill.

It takes a few experiments to work out which ability will be useful in which situation, but eventually, you will find out which tasks require which ability.  Once you know this, it will be easier to pick quests that you will    succeed at.

From the point of view of someone who writes amateur gamebooks, a lack of clear rules on what your abilities can do, which situation requires them and how difficult the task should be means that it can either be easy or hard to write an amateur gamebook involving this system.  If you are the sort of person who worries about making a system tight and waterproof and knowing exactly what kind of spell a magic roll with a difficulty of 10 can cast, then it will be quite difficult.  I think the best way to approach an amateur Fabled Lands adventure is to work out what you wnat the character to do first and then apply the difficulties and the abilities to it.  Of course, the RPG could clear up some of those problems.

So the system isn't too complicated - it is mainly based on your ability scores so it shouldn't take too long to get started.  However, you will soon realise that the Fabled Lands series is like chess - easy to master the basics but this opens up an infinite variety of strategies and approaches.

Where does the horsey thing go again?
The difficulty is quite appropriate for you assumed level and the consequences of failure are rarely instant death, depending on your quest.  Quests with high stakes and high rewards (an increase in rank) are a lot more dangerous.  For example, slaying the provost marshal of Yellowport might get you sold into slavery and being stripped of your possessions if you get caught.

Most quests can be completed in a variety of ways which means you could complete a task with a roll against magic or thievery.  Or you could just fight your opponents.  This means that all professions havea good chance of completing several quests.  The rub is in finding out which quests are best suited to your abilities.

1 Item slot.
Scouting +1.
There is plenty of opportunity to increase your ability scores.  The most common way to do so is to buy items that raise a particular ability score.  For example, an amber wand increases your magic score by 1.  You can only use one item to increase each ability score.  However, these items take up an item slot in your inventory which leads to some interesting decisions.  Should I take the wand or leave the slot open in case I find something more powerful?

May give you magic +1.
If you are lucky, you can also find places and people who train you in certain statistics.  For example, there is a monastary in Cities of Gold and Glory where you can increase your magic score.  However, it will only increase if you can roll higher than your magic score on one die.  This means that the better you are, the less chance you have to learn something new and you will get to a point where you will have learnt all you can from your studies.

If you are really lucky and you complete certain quests, you can increase any ability score you like, no questions asked.  This is when you have to very careful in your decision.  Opportunities like this don't come along every day.

You can go from outcast
to duke.
If you do something fantastic, then you will be able to go up in rank.  The immediate benefit of this is that your stamina score increases by 1-6 but there are also critical tests of strength and character which are determined by a roll against your rank.  For example, if you slay the provost marshall in his own base, you will be pursued by a horde of his soldiers.  You need to roll on your rank or less on 1 die (modified if you are a rogue, wayfarer or troubador) to see if you can elude them.

Other rewards include being given a title which may garner favour with certain people, given a blessing which will allow you to reroll a failed ability roll for one ability (good if you want to complete a quest where there is a task which requires an ability you are weak in) or protects you from storm, being given a resurrection detail which allows you to continue with the same character if you are killed or being made an initate to a religion which is a type of title.
The main benefit to that is that blessings and resurrection deals are cheaper from temples of the same religion.

Would you store a
treasure horde in here?
If you are really after material rewards, you can collect a horde of valuable items and money, but beware!  You can only carry twelve items and there are very few places that are completely safe to store items.  You can't carry all your money around as you could get your purse stolen but merchant guilds charge you to withdraw money and every time you visit a house you have bought, it may have been burgled or it may have burnt down.

In addition to possesions you could carry around, you could also buy a house in most settlements and a boat in ports along with trade goods with the idea of selling them for a higher price.  Or you could invest some money with a merchants' guild in the hope that your investment pays off.

I've probably forgotten some way of getting rich, famous and powerful but that is because there are so many ways to achieve all of these things.   If the huge list above is not enough for you, then nothing will be. 

The Dragon knights aren't as
belligerent as this one.  Apart from
the black dragon knight.
You can also pick up codewords which are markers to show that you have been part of certain events.  For example, you get the codeword anvil if you defeat the dragon knights three times in a non lethal combat.  This is an indicator that the knights are sick of you being much better than them and that they will not accept any challenges from you any more.  Conveniently, all the codewords are written down on the adventure sheet at the back and you just have to tick the box for the relevent codeword.  All codewords in book 1 begin with an 'a'.  In book 2, they all begin with a 'b' and so on.   

Your choice of profession provides a very different playing experience in the books.  In the War Torn Kingdom, each profession has their own quest to complete that no other profession can, but it does not stop there.  Since your ability scores are different, then you will want to do the quests that can be completed with socres that you have high values in.  For example, you are not going to go to the Castle of the Dragon Knights and challenge them to combat if you are a mage unless you have found a way to increase your combat score.  This adds to the already huge replayability factor in the book.

Don't get trapped in a
gamebook Skinner box.

The scope of the book is so big that there are bugs and infinite loops which could be exploited.  For example, if your combat score was high enough, you could kill an infinite number of thugs in Yellowport in a sort of Groundhog Day style loop in order to get 15 shards each time but it is not really in the spirit of the book to take advantage of these.  If anything, it distracts you from the more interesting challenges in the book.  And is it really fun to do the same thing over and over again?

Harry started Fabled Lands in
1984 and has killed over a
million thugs for 15 shards a
kill.  He left them in his house.
It has just been burgled.
To be honest, if you want to exploit an infinite loop in a gamebook, it would be more expedient to just write whatever values you want in your
adventure sheet.  It's not a computer game, so you can manipulate it and you won't be cheating anyone else (this won't apply if you are playing a multiplayer gamebook).  So if you're going to cheat, do it smartly.

Sure, he's invincible and he can kill
you with a thought but is he
actually having fun?
Also, if you change your stats or get an infinite amount of money and buy all of the best equipment then the book will just become too easy and it will lose its thrill.

You could also adjust your situation to make the gamebook more challenging.  You could start with no possessions or not have a profession.  You could reduce your stats by a certain value or start book 2 as a level 1 character.

The best way to play this book is to explore, explore, explore.  Sure, you're going to come across situations that you are ill equipped or prepared for but the best way to play Fabled Lands is to create a narrative for yourself, not to 'win' as there is no big end to the book.  Instead of trying to grab victory, you should just sit back and enjoy the experience.  

I should know because I have done both as my next two posts will illustrate.

What has Fabled Lands taught me about game systems?

Give heroes many tools to complete their tasks.  

Unlucky?  That's good.
There is nothing more frustrating in a gamebook to have a tiny chance of winning despite everything you do.  This is usually done by having to succeed at lots of difficult rolls or combats.  In some gamebooks, you are required to fail certain rolls in order to win.                                                      

Fabled Lands goes out of its way to help you succeed.  Your character will not be good at everything and there are so many tasks that you will almost certainly come across something that requires an ability that isn't your speciality.

However, the book provides ways in which you can succeed.  First of all, most quests give you many ways to complete their tasks, each one requiring a roll against a different ability, or if you are lucky it may just require an item, a codeword or some money.  So you are able to complete at least a few tasks, get more rewards and become better at succeeding at the harder tasks.  

Secondly, if you do come across a task which requires an ability that you are not very good at, there are many ways to make your roll easier.  There are many ways to increase your abilities.  You can increase them permanently through rewards for tasks or by buying ability boosting items or you could increase them temporarily through potions.  You can also obtain blessings which allow you to reroll a failed ability roll.  

There are plenty of religions to join.
In case you are worried that it all goes badly and you do end up on the wrong end of a spear, then you are able to become initiated to a temple and make resurrection arrangements at a temple, at a lower cost if you are an initate.  You will wake up in your temple.  You would have lost all of your gear, but you are alive again.  You are also able to store spare equipment in a cache or house, so you can still pick up all the basics after you have died and continue your adventure.          

It is important in gamebooks to make tasks challenging but if the player fails them, then the penalties should not be too crushing so that the player can recover.  Then they should be given means to succeed through their decisions and strategy and if it goes wrong, at least to reduce the effects of their penalties.  There is nothing more frustrating than dying horribly for failing a single roll or by making a single decision where you think that the consequences are going to be good.

Make the system work for the gamebook, not the gamebook for the system

I have looked at dozens of RPG sourcebooks and I can't begin to imagine how difficult it must be to have such a wide variety in the skills and abilities of characters and be able to come up with a consistent system which allows the DM to be able to look up an appropriate skill or ability to roll against with the correct difficulty to almost every eventuality (which is good because player characters probably try to attempt all kinds of crazy stuff).  It must take ages to come up with a consistent system.

Did Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson come up with a
table like this?  (From SRD DnD)
I am a little unsure as to whether in Fabled Lands, the difficulties assigned to each task are consistent.  That is, I am unsure if the authors made a big list of tasks and assigned a difficulty to each one with the relevant ability that should be rolled against.  They must have decided on which ability covers which task but I think it would have been unnecessary to make a list of difficulties.   Rather, I think they
decided on the difficulty of a task based on which book it was in.    

He's as confused as anyone about 
what his rank actually is. 
Book 1 is for a rank 1 character, book 2 is for a rank 2 character etc.  The difficulties and combats seem appropriate for each book.  For example, the Black Dragon Knight, clad in full plate armour (+6 defence) and made out to be quite a formidable opponent in book 1 1 has a combat score of 5, a defence score of 9 and stamina score of 11.  However, a drunken mutineer in book 3 has a combat of 6 a defence of 9 and a stamina of 9.  So a drunk mutineer can take a knight in plate mail apparently.

Looking for a ghoul in a huge city requires a scouting roll against a difficulty of 9 in book 1 but trying to follow three mutineers through a city in book 3 requires a scouting roll against a difficulty of 14.  

In a gamebook I think it is better that the tasks are do able rather than consistent with some system.  After all, if the tasks were all consistent in their difficulty, then book 1 may be full of tasks that are impossible and it will just be frustrating for the reader.

Questions gamebook authors do not have to consider:
What happens if I cast magic missile on this door?
What happens if I cast magic missile on my dinner?
What happens if I cast magic missile on this cat?*

Also, unlike tabletop RPGS where players tell a human DM what they want to do and the DM has to come up with the consequences of pretty much any idea for an action, gamebooks offer a limited range of options where other alternatives are not considered.  It is because of this reason that coming up with a comprehensive and consistent game system for a gamebook is not necessary. Is it consistent that a knight, Sir Leo in book 4 has a defence of 20 when a dragon in book 2 has a defence of 11?  No.  Is it important because heroes in book 2 will have a lower combat score than heroes in book 4?  Absolutely.
The inconsistencies may annoy hardcore world builders but I am grateful that all the difficulties are balanced by book.

They're both invulnerable.  Sit back.
It's going to be a long fight.
This is now leading into what makes a good system for a gamebook, which needs a whole new post of its own.  On quick reflection, I believe that you need a system to be quick and simple or it will direct attention away from the story and make the reader focus on die rolling and book keeping.  When I mean quick, I mean that most tasks can be determined with a quick roll of a die.  When I say simple, I mean that there are few things to memorise.

Fabled Lands meets this criteria as the rules are 7 pages long.  The authors deal with the problems of determining difficulty of tasks so that you don't have to.  The rules are definitely simple.  Most of the time, the system is also quick as when you roll dice, you do so once for a result.  However, some combats can drag on if both you and your opponent have high defence scores compared to your combat scores as this means that you will be unable to hit each other.  There is no way to overcome this stalemate.  This topic is discussed here.  So Fabled Lands falls a bit in this respect.

Fabled Lands offers all of these goals
to your player.   
A good system can also provide options to the player.  Fabled Lands definitely provides options.  You can accomplish most tasks with more than one ability.  you can buy many many items and you have many choices of career and which abilities you can focus on improving.  There is also an encumbrance limit which forces you to make decisions.

A good system would also be able to allow the player to progress.  Fabled Lands does this.  My first post in the series lists the many rewards that you can obtain.

Overall, the Fabled Lands system is excellent.  There are tiny flaws (infinite loops but with tiny rewards, difficulty based on book rather than how hard the task should be and the high defence problem) but they will not take away from the enjoyment of the six (and hopefully twelve) huge interlinked gamebook series.  It has  taught me a lot about what a good gamebook system should be like.

Go to the Fabled Lands Blog in order to order the Fabled Lands books in many different media and to read the latest news on the creations of Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson.

*No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

It's OK, Midori.  No one would harm a cute cat like you.


  1. Hi!
    Great review!
    I really like your blog! It’s very good!

  2. Hi Ikaros! Thanks for the kind words. :)

  3. Great blog. Im playing the books