Sunday, March 6, 2011

My Fabled Lands review - the setting

The doorway to a new world.
I wish I'd found it sooner.
When I was about 11, I made a map of a country, fitted it with random encounters and events based on the terrain and played a random adventure based on die rolls using the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system. 

I realise now that I was crying out for Fabled Lands.

Fabled Lands was written by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson and it is now being re-released as physical books and as apps.  There are also two Fabled Lands RPG sourcebooks, a blog and a yahoo group.  

She also seems happy at the sight
of the Fabled Lands title. 

I am gutted to read on Wikipedia that the series was written in 1995-1996. That means that  it has been around for 16 years without me reading it.  Back then, six books were released with the intention of releasing another six.  However, books seven to twelve were never published (don't forget its entry on TVtropes).

Recently, the first four books have been republished physically.  At the time of writing, the game has been released on the iPad and will soon be released on the iPhone with some great artwork including pieces by Russ Nicholson.  Two RPG sourcebooks have also been released.

I bought the first four physical books as soon as I found out.  I started reading them and quickly became immersed in the world I entered.  In my next post, I will write about my first explorations of the Fabled Lands, but here I will give a brief overview of the setting and the game system. 


Where shall I begin?
The Fabled Lands are a place of infinite variety and opportunity.  You could travel across sea or land, climb mountains, explore forests, traipse through bogs or trudge across plains.  On your travels, you may experience some good or bad events, but you it will be a different event each time. 

The big things happen in the settlements.  Each village, town and city has its own character from the stinky, sulphur choked Yellowport to the ashes and rubble of Trefoille to the fortified Citidel of Velis Corin.  The writing and the illustrations really bring out the atmosphere of each place.

What could happen in this city?
Literally anything.
Each location has its own colourful band of people, some who can help you, some who may need your help and some who can just provide some interesting experiences.  Yellowport alone contains a provost Marshal who  has helped overthrow the king, a sneaky thief, a cult of cannibals, a sage in need and many others.  Talking with these people can open up a wide variety of opportunities which may lead you to go on quests. 

For example, a sage in a tavern in Yellowport will pay handsomely if you go to Scorpion Bight (which does contain scorpion people) and return a book to him.  Fabled Lands is full of these opportunities which involve varying levels of complexity and difficulty and the more you explore them, the more these opportunities will become apparent to you. 

Take your pick.  I wouldn't recommend
taking the dragon, though.  
The rewards are many and varied.  They range from money (coins known as shards) to trade goods, weapons, armour and equipment to the use of a friend's services (very useful if they are wizards) to having a stat increased to going up a level and therefore increasing your stamina and making certain tasks easier for you.  If you are super lucky, you may find a way of teleporting all over the world.

As well as material rewards, you can also obtain titles, become an initiate to a religion, obtain blessings and make resurrection deals.  The titles can make other characters react more favourably towards you.  Being an initiate to a religion enables you to get favours from that religion, the main two being cheaper blessings and resurrection deals.  Blessings allow you to reroll an ability roll if you fail or they may protect you from storms and disease.  Reurrection deals allow you to wake up in a temple if you are killed.  I like they way that they are described as 'The last word on insurance'. 

Can't we just do a bit of sightseeing,
Mr Frodo?
Unlike most gamebooks, you are not told of any aim at the beginning.  There are no quests to save the world and there is no way to 'win'.  It is not for people who want a set narrative and a quest to save the world, as this is not what Fabled Lands is about.  On the flipside, it is kind of comforting that your character does not have the world on their shoulders and instead they can explore some inconsequential part of a mountain without the sands of time running down.

Instead of the book telling you that you have succeeded or failed, you decide the criteria for success.  This is one of the ways that the books provide a good role playing opportunity.  Speaking of which, there are now two Fabled Lands RPG rulebooks which Dave Morris said in this interview  was what he would like to see.

Your choice of initial characters. 
 Your choices to reach your success are also many and varied - will you be a sneaky character or someone who fights creatures?  Will you earn money by being a merchant and sailing from city to city with trade goods braving pirates, storms and strange beasts?  Will you achieve greatness by magic or by being pious?

You could also explore the wilderness where you will find all kinds of strange beasts and goings on.  The more remote the area, the stranger the the encounter.  They can range from bandits to scorpion men to dragons and faerie folk where all kinds of wierd things can happen. 

Merfolk are just some of the
unpredictable nonhumans
you could come across.
The world certainly has a fantasy feel, but it is not over the top.  Magic is quite prevalent as any character has a magic score and can attempt to cast a spell.  However, low magic characters can't do very much.  There are also plenty of wizards and magical items in the world.  Some magical items can be bought and sold for money such as potions that increase an ability score by one for one roll.  Most items that increase your abilities are also described as magical.  However, the game never degenerates into getting the shiniest toys.   

Humans occupy most of the world with non human races living in the remote wilderness.  There are no towns of orcs, elves and dwarves randomly dotted around the land and few non humans live in the human settlements.  The geography also makes sense to me.

Live in a castle, buy a ship, go around
 the world - it's all possible.  
A lot of thought has gone into making this world into a believable fantasy world by allowing you to potentially become a part of its aspects - merchants sail to and from cities and trade goods, people travel between towns, disasters strike, such as having your house burn down.  Most of the people have believable desires and lives rather than just being 2D fantasy stock characters and although there is magicand non human races, they have been added in a way as to not derail the world and just make it a big pot of fantasy cliches. 

Each land has a
distinct character.
The Fabled Lands have been meticulously constructed.  Some of the descriptions are not too detailed, which the fans of epic narrative might not like, but part of the fun could be coming up with your own narrative.  The book provides the events and you can fill in the details in the form on how your character feels or what they say or how other people respond to you. 

So basically, the setting is a whole fantasy world chock full of all kinds of people and monsters.  And you can do anything you like in that world and aspire to go from a lowly outcast to become anyone you want to be.  Which should cover what most people are after.

How should I approach reading Fabled Lands?

The best thing about Fabled Lands is its huge world full of opportunity to get into all kinds of shennanigans.  It lacks in some areas, but no series of gamebooks can match it for its huge sandbox style set up.

The best way to approach Fabled Lands is with the mindset that you can create your own story for yourself using the books as a guide.

Where will you end up?
As I stated, there are some things that are not everybodies cup of tea.  There are no epic, over the top descriptions, espicially on areas which do not describe 'quests' such as the roads between large settlements.  . 

There is also no storyline in which you have to save the world or in depth description of your character's feelings. 

However, as I stated above, the best way to approach the game is to make up your own epic story as you play it.  There are all kinds of quests that you can complete with six different characters with six different outlooks on life.  How would a wizard feel about slaying the provost marshall of Yellowport?  Would a troubador want to climb Devil's Peak?  Would a wayfarer want to stay in Marlock City?  Write down your thoughts and feelings in your narrative.   

DARTH VADER:  Where's the Fabled Lands series?  Is it safe? 
Is it alright?
DARTH SIDIOUS:  I'm afraid it died...It seems, in your anger,
you axed it. 
Another thing is that you need to make sure that you have lots of time.  Once you start to complete some quests, increase your ability scores and go up in rank, more of the world will open up to you like a big black hole as you will soon get sucked in, desperate to discover and explore more.

You will then be begging for the other books.  BEGGING!

And then you will find out that books 5 and 6 are out of print, books 7-12 are out of print haven't been printed yet and you will scream in anguish and frustration.

However, if sales of the relaunch are good then they might be released, so we have a new hope.

What has Fabled Lands taught me about setting in gamebooks?

Creature of Havoc is
great gamebook
despite its narrow
path to victory.
Some gamebooks have 'one true path'  where the aim of the book is to find out how you can achieve victory. You then work out what story your character experiences.  You probably move from one scene to the next or one location to the next with no chance of going back and if you miss something, then tough, you lose.  

Fabled Lands is the opposite to that set up.  You can go where you want when you want.  If you do not complete a quest the first time around, you will just take a penalty and be able to attempt it the second time around.

Scorpion Swamp is quite
open ended, but it
didn't have the same
atmosphere as Fabled Lands.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the sliding scale and there are some great gamebooks that have one true path and some not so great open ended ones.

The main reason that Fabled Lands is so easy to get immersed in is its logical consistency.  Cities have the same kind of options - markets, temples, taverns, exploration etc.  However, their features are also influenced by the location of the city and its inhabitants.  Cities on coasts have harbours.  In one city, full of rogues, you do not get well thought of if you hand over a pirate captain's head for a reward.  A small village on a wooded island has a temple to the nature goddess, Lacuna.

Although he likes to play with his
pets, Death appears in most books.
It's a busy schedule.  You could say
that he's worked to the bone.
 Sea voyages have the risk of pirates or storms.  They also have the risk of supernatural encounters such as a ship belonging to DEATH.  Sailors refuse to land in Scorpion Bight (where Scorpion men live) because the authors have thought about how the sailors would feel about Scorpion Bight and so the sailors are not just automatons that do what you want.  They do what you'd do if you were a sailor.

Does Tregard actually do anything
 in his spare time?  Everyone needs 

a hobby to stop them losing their heads.

People aren't just there to stand in a place and give you an item or some advice.  People across the Fabled Lands know of each other and may help of hinder you depending on what they know of you.  For example, if you have the title King's Champion then soldiers loyal to the King will revere you and help you.

People you come across may pop up in other situations too.  You will make allies and enemies who will help or hinder you all over the Fabled Lands.

The maps show us that the layout of the Fabled Lands is also very logical.  Cities are on rivers which flow into the sea, mountains are in ranges and the weather makes sense with the latitude.

A different experience, every time.
All aspects of life appear in Fabled Lands.  You don't have to save the King or support the usurper.  You could just buy a boat and become a trader.  Or you could make a pilgrimage to a temple of your god.  Or you could try your hand at mining silver.  Or make some investments in a merchant's guild.  Or go to a sulphur filled lake and steal treasure from the Sea Dragon.  It's all there from the fantastic to the mundane.  However, within this setting Morris and Thomson have provided tons of variety.  There are temples but there are lots of gods to choose from.  There are settlements but each one has its own special features.  You travel on a lot of roads, but each road will have a different set of events on it.

I never had a moment where my reading was interrupted by a thought that something doesn't make sense.  The book has a set of rules which it follows well. The Fabled Lands is a very well thought out living breathing world.  And that is a huge achievement considering how big this world is.

So get out there and explore it.
You can buy Fabled Lands from Amazon and searching for Fabled Lands or by going to the Fable Lands blog where you can buy the books and see the other books that Jamie Thomson and Dave Morris are selling.  You can also download Fabled Lands from iTunes.

Here's a blogging tip

I started this post in February.  When I posted it, the post appeared below my March posts on the date it was drafted, not the date it was published.  I needed to change the date in the post options box below the post on the edit post box.

The instructions are here (and they also contain a lot of  instances of the word post)


  1. Thanks for the big plug, Stuart! I will just say that the iPhone app is already out:
    and it is selling incredibly well, which is a good omen for the series finally getting completed. (Not that any new players need to wait for it to be completed btw, because each book is self-contained. The later titles will simply open up new quests and new areas of the world.)

  2. At the risk of repeating myself, (for I prepared a comment earlier today and because I was in such a rush, I may have cancelled the post rather than posting it - Apologies Stuart if you have already received this.)

    this series (Fabled Lands) is one I have kept in the back of my mind for a while, but have never acted beyond that.

    In a manner similar to Fabled Lands, I would like to someday write a (single) gamebook that is made up of a plethora of optional mini-quests, that can be completed in any order, depending on where you go or what you do. I have a story plot in my head that will enable me to carry this out. It is one that will fit my Woodland Forest Chronicles series, but, at this stage, the timeline for Woodland Forest needs to advance, taking in a few more significant historical events before it will be appropriate for me to write this story.

  3. Enjoyed reading that Stu! I've posted a link to it from the Yahoo groups:



  4. Since you mention temples and gods a few times, the thing I like about the way they're handled is that while you can dedicate yourself to one god, you're able to (and it seems the default course, unless you want to limit yourself) pray and seek blessings from all of them. It's a refreshing change from all the generic "polytheist" fantasy settings where people are more likely to pick a single god and stick with them, instead of praying to whichever makes sense for what they're doing.

    Even a priest of the god of kittens and puppies would want to be on good terms with the god of the sea if they were on a boat, after all.

  5. @ Dave: That's great news and thanks for linking to my post on your blog. It certainly bought a lot of traffic my way!

    @Jasan: I would like to read your Woodland Chronicles series. Are you shipping to the UK?

    @ Andy: Many thanks for the traffic that your link bought too, Andy. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

    @user: That's a good point that I had not considered that and you are right that it seems more realistic that anyone can get a blessing from any God despite whichever God they follow. The Fabled Lands Gods must all be very chummy together.

  6. Hi Stuart,

    The below site ships the first book in my WFC series to the UK.

    My second book in the WFC series (Part 1 of a two-part duology) is complete and is with my publisher awaiting preparation and release.

  7. I read Fabled Lands only recently, but I liked them a lot. My game Age of Fable ( was partly inspired by them, and the related Virtual Reality gamebooks.

  8. @ Jasan - I've joined and I'm awaiting my membership email.

    @ Anarchist - I've played Age of Fable and found it very enjoyable. It also has a huge variety of quests and encounters. I should play it again as it has probably been updated since my last attempt.

  9. Great! Thanks Stuart, I hope you enjoy it.

  10. This is an oldie-but-goody, but a great summarization of the Fabled Lands! Kudos, Lloyd of Gamebooks!