My first venture into the Fabled Lands (Harkuna and its surrounds) ended poorly. Hard winds and bad luck deposited me on the southern shores of Uttaku, also known as Old Harkuna, just west of Ringhorn and the River Rese delta. I bore little more than the shirt on my back: a scimitar, a suit of chain mail, and 65 shards, the universal currency of the Fabled Lands. I knew little of the lands to which Fate had brought me, only that Uttaku is known elsewhere as “The Land of Hidden Faces” and that the mages of Aku might possess the knowledge to send me back to my home, a distant time and place.
It seemed like a good idea, then, to begin in Aku, capital city of Uttaku. Aku lay west, so I headed in that direction, diverting from my path only to stop at a likely-sounding inn, the Hall of Heroes. In my experience, a few rounds of drinks at the local inn opens up many possibilities. The denizens here, though, were obsessed with just one thing: Grindel, a monster that terrorized the local farmers and had slain dozens of would-be champions before me. The tavern-keeper, one Byllewyn Buskle, seemed eager for me to try my luck for the 300 shard reward on Grindel’s head. I didn’t like my chances much, but rumors are often overblown–I once slew a child-eating monster that turned out to be a man in a costume–so I followed Buskle’s boy out to the Mixen Sumps wherein lay Grindel’s.
The monster, as it turns out, was rather pleasant, although quite capable of tearing a man’s head from his shoulders if provoked. Grindel did not eat farmers, though, his kind being strictly vegetarian–the initial rumor had been started by none other than Buskle himself, who was making a tidy profit by looting the bodies of brave but foolish adventures who challenged Grindel and lost. I thought that by exposing Bundle, some of those dishonestly gained goods might make their way to me, but calling him out in front of all his clients with no actual proof turned out to be a bad call. I was beaten within an inch of my life and stripped of all my possessions, then thrown out on the street. I entered Aku destitute, pawning my scimitar just so I could afford a cheap room to rest and recuperate in the lower districts of the city. (Aku is built on a sheer cliff wall and situated such that the more affluent manses are positioned directly above the shacks of the less fortunate.) I thought I’d hit my low, but that point was still well ahead of me.
As I soon came to discover, nobody in Aku would give you the time of day if you weren’t an initiate of their religion, the Church of Ebron. Of course, becoming an initiate required ablutions in a special spa, and entry to the spa required shards. I’d heard that anybody with a bit of talent could set up a stall in Aku’s Grand Bazaar, so I got myself a soap box and offered to perform tricks for the locals, calling myself the greatest wizard that had ever lived. Basic showmanship.
My luck turned sour when an Uttakin noble–you could tell from the expressionless mask that covered her face–brought me her recently deceased son and demanded I resurrect him. When the miracle failed to go off, she called the Expungers, the terrifying keepers of order in Uttaku. I managed to slip out of their grasp, but I knew that I’d have to leave town for a while.
I left the city, heading north–maybe I’d have better luck in Kunrir on the western coast. On the way there, though, Fate dropped an opportunity right in my lap: some noble couple was packing for a vacation in the countryside, and they’d just happened to leave a box of jewels unattended on the back of their cart. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I was broke and desperate. Not quite sneaky enough, as it turns out–I was caught and, as punishment, forced to work the slave pits far below Aku, a grim place known as the Hall of Never-Ending Toil.
I spent my days pushing a large gear next to another slave. The odd thing was that he had blue skin–a sign of nobility in Aku. I asked how a purebled aristocrat ended up in the slave pits, and the only answer he’d give was “Supreme heresy.” Were it not for the color of his skin, his fate would have been worse, execution in the Red Garden. I shuddered; I’d visited the place when I first got to Aku, expecting something to do with roses rather than an execution pit where the high-born watch the convicted slowly and painfully drained of their life by carnivorous plants.
After working the pits for a while, I caught my break: I and a few other slaves were assigned jobs in upper Aku as scribes for the Cathedral of Ebron. I was good at my job, and learned a thing or two about Ebron, hoping I could perhaps work my way out of bondage and use my new religious knowledge to infiltrate high society. My dreams crashed the day the Soulwatch burst in. An error had been made in the transcription of the holy texts–an error that amounted to supreme heresy. It wasn’t my doing, of course, but the higher-ranking administrator who had committed the error needed somebody on which to pin the blame. Thus ended my first venture into the Fabled Lands: executed in the Red Garden for a crime I did not commit.
The last you heard from me, I was raving about gamebooks, a blend of Choose Your Own Adventure novel and role-playing game that proliferated in the ’80s and ’90s, to my complete ignorance. (My 10-year-old-self might have loved these even more than my 30-year-old self does.) But I wasn’t really talking about gamebooks in their pure strain; that post was about gamebook apps. And yes, an app can do a lot to enhance the atmosphere, from music and sound effects to little animations to holding your place each time you have to get up for a second. But the actual, physical gamebook was another story. I’d never read (played?) one at that point. I’d seen a few nostalgia projects on Kickstarter, but I was pretty sure they weren’t still publishing these things as physical objects. Right?
As it turns out, I was very wrong. I mean, you are not likely to see these on the shelves of a non-specialized bookstore or library, but apparently there’s enough general interest to keep the old standbys in print. Typing “gamebooks” into Amazon’s search bar captures pretty much all the ones I’ve heard of, though the organization is a bit of a mess, and a surprising number of them show as in stock, sold and shipped by Amazon themselves. Well, there went my excuse.
One series in particular caught my eye. The Entropy article linked above mentions a Kickstarter project for Frankenstein Wars, a digital gamebook conceived by Dave Morris. I’d never heard of this Morris fellow, but around the same time, I learned about another Kickstarter project to produce a new book in the Fabled Lands series, of which the selfsame Morris man was co-author and co-creator. I thought it would be fun to have and help bring about a physical gamebook, but I wanted to look into the series before making any kind of commitment.
My research left me as flabbergasted as I had been when I heard about gamebooks in general. A 6-book series (conceived as 12 books but abandoned for various reasons) published in a 2-year span in the mid-’90s, Fabled Lands attempted something that had never been tried before and, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been tried since. The concept was to create the feel of an open-world RPG like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, but in the form of a book with only a single reader. This quote from Dave Morris’s Fabled Lands blog sums it up better than I can:
The players gather around the table. Even as the Coke cans fizz and the bag of tortilla chips is being popped open, somebody looks at the map and says, ‘I hear there’s an abandoned fortress out on the tidal flats.’
The referee consults the rulebooks. ‘Many claim it’s the stronghold of the legendary hero Hrugga – though that’s surely just a myth.’
Plans are made. Ships bought and outfitted. One of the players has the sea captain skill, and he plots a course. Another considers the supplies the party will need. Soon they’re ready to set out on a new expedition. And all because one of the players happened to spot the symbol for ruins in a corner of the map.
That is the feeling Morris and co-creator Jamie Thomson (for whom Fabled Lands was something of a pet project, being set in the fantasy setting of Harkuna he’d conceived for an earlier project and was keen to explore more deeply) set out to convey.
It was too much for me to wrap my head around at first. The books seemed more and more ludicrous the more I learned. Each book represents a slice of the Fabled Lands world map: the first one is set in Sokara on the east coast of Harkuna, the next is set in Golnir just to the west, and so forth. Regions are separated in logical ways, like rivers and mountain ranges, but they are also totally porous: you can start out in Sokara in Book 1 and walk north until you reach the Great Steppes, at which point you’d swap to Book 4 and keep on reading. There was no arc story, no way to win. Quests could take you across 2 or even 3 books. Like in many modern RPGs, you could buy town-houses in the major cities of the world, store your possessions there, bank your money at the Merchants’ Guild. The buy and sell prices of goods varied based on the region, so you could set up a mercantile operation of your own. You could buy a ship, outfit it with crew, and make a living hauling cargo across the ocean.
How could any of this possibly work? Wouldn’t the writing suffer for all those gameplay minutiae? Was it actually any fun? And if it did somehow work as described, how come I’d never heard of it? Why hadn’t it spawned a host of imitators? Why, oh why did the series get cut short, leaving half of the known world unexplorable, leaving some quest trails with uncertain dead ends?
There was nothing for it but to see for myself.
I returned to the Fabled Lands many times after that. Sometimes I was the same wizard in search of his home dimension. Other times I was a priest whose goal was to learn the ways of the Soulwatch, Aku’s religious police. Once, I was a warrior, then I went back to being a mage again. Most of my adventures were short–even shorter than the one described above–and almost all of them ended the same way, with me being sold into slavery and languishing in the Red Garden. There was always a different reason for my arrest–either I lost at a game of Bokh, a chess-like game so beloved by the Uttakin that they use it to decide legal matters, or I wore the wrong kind of scarf on one of Ebron’s many holy days. One time, I was killed by a water dragon, but that was the exception to the rule.
On one occasion, I was brought before the masked Arbiters of the Word of Ebron to speak my defense. After an unconvincing apology, they cast some bones to determine my fate. I rolled a 6. “Finally, some luck!” I sighed. “Ebron has honored you!” I was told. “You will join him sooner than expected.” Then I was hauled off to the Red Garden for execution.
As I played out this same scenario again, and again, and again, I began to get a feel for my surroundings, where the opportunities were for the wet-behind-the-ears hero and which locations I should avoid until I had figured them out. If you let the faerie kiss you, you would sprout ridiculous donkey ears but be rewarded with buried treasure, enough to make a start in Uttaku. Still, it seemed like it would take a major windfall to even see the inside of the Court of Hidden Faces.
Then, that windfall was literally dropped into my lap. The trip had started out as usual–I went to see a fortune teller, who turned out to be a fraud, and somehow that led to me being sold into slavery. This time, though, I got a pretty cushy job in the Garden of Exotic Fragrances, where I got to observe the ways of courtly life, and I was eventually able to escape via a trash chute after my master mysteriously died in his sleep. This left me destitute, though, so I started pacing the roads, looking for a way to earn money. That’s when a well-dressed man calling himself Prince Azim swooped down on a magic carpet, dropping a sack of 2,000 shards in my arms and bidding me to look after them. I figured this was a lone, not a gift, but it was just the ticket I needed to enter Uttakin society.
Once inside the Court of Hidden Faces, my life became a lot easier. By performing trifles for various members of the court, I could rise in estimation until I was deemed worthy of an audience with the Faceless King himself–and, perhaps, a noble seat of my own. I helped the Conjurer of Amusements put on a performance for the court, which mostly involved me acquiescing to being lit on fire. The Master of Shung-bat taught me that ancient Uttakin ceremonial martial art, and as a result I actually became worse at combat, but it did earn me a few points of recognition. The Blender of Spices wanted some extinct abzu seeds for the Celebration of the Subjugation of All. This sounded like a tall order, but there was a wizard he said could send me back in time to collect the seeds. I’d met this fellow on my earlier travels and knew he was looking for some Selenium Ore, so I just had to figure out where to get that.
As luck would have it, my first encounter outside of the city was a smoking crater created by a recently fallen meteorite. That seemed as likely a place as any to find Selenium. And I was right–I could have retrieved some of the ore from the meteorite, but I hadn’t reckoned on fighting the storm demon who had ridden the rock down to earth. Needless to say, that’s where my journey ended.
Oh well. At least it wasn’t plants this time.
It’s good. It works. It’s not perfect, of course–there’s a bit too much ticking and erasing boxes, especially when death is always so close on your heels–but damn if it’s not satisfying. For reasons I can’t quite describe, being able to trace roads and geographic features on a map and read my way through those same locations, but full of people, weather and birdsong, just feels great.
I didn’t have to buy the books, of course. In fact, you can do the whole Fabled Lands thing for free on your computer thanks to a devoted coder and the generous permission of the co-authors. The Fabled Lands Java App, also known as JaFL, contains the full text of the 6 published books, plus some cool extras like color maps and automated bookkeeping. It’s totally free, and I recommend it to anybody whose interest is piqued by this article.
One thing JaFL doesn’t have is the ability to carry progress over to the as-yet-unwritten books and back again. It also doesn’t have the tactile sensation of riffling back and forth through a book as you move through the map. It’s a full-menu sample platter, but it won’t satisfy true connoisseurs.
JaFL also doesn’t give you any way to…how to put this tactfully…cheat. I mean, you sorta need to. This series is Nintendo hard, and one of the best things about analog games (or game-ish book-ish things) is that you don’t need a Game Genie to get under the hood. You could start with inflated stats, more shards, or a few free Blessings, which typically allow rerolls. Heck, even the tiniest conceivable boost–letting tied rolls count as successes rather than failures–would have saved my bacon numerous times. Yet somehow, I can’t bring myself to do it; continuing to read after knowingly bending the rules would feel hollow. And so I keep washing up on the shores of Harkuna….
We could always approach things from a different angle.
One of the most enticing things about Fabled Lands is the way that every book provides a way in. Each book is a microcosm of the same world, and while they get progressively more challenging with each successive release, there is nothing narratively that compels you to read them in order. In anticipation of Fabled Lands 7: The Serpent King’s Domain, set in the faux-Mayan jungle continent of Ankon-Konu, I chose for my second entry-point into the Fabled Lands the book most likely to bring me to that sweltering region: Fable Lands 3: Over the Blood-Dark Sea. Over the Blood-Dark Sea fills in the central ocean of the Fabled Lands’ world map and therefore acts as an important conduit between the other books. While Books 1-5 (this one excluded) are united by a single land mass, you simply can’t get from Harkuna to the Japan-inspired Akatsurai of Book 6, the Hellenic western continent Atticala planned for Book 10, or Book 9’s Chrysoprais, presumably inspired by the diverse cultures of the Indian subcontinent, without crossing the Violet Ocean.
As I quickly found out, however, the Violet Ocean is no place for a wet-behind-the-ears adventurer with no ship and no belongings. If you choose Book 3 as your starting point, you are at the mercy of Alvir and Valmir–patron deities of the seas–from page 1. It begins, as do most Fabled Lands books, with your character dying of thirst in a rudderless open boat. However, while most books have you wash ashore in walking distance to a major city, Over the Blood-Dark Sea leaves this up to chance: based on a die roll, you can find yourself on the classic desert island, a port village cursed by gorgons, a pirate stronghold, or on the wrong side of the cursed Bluewood Forest of the Sorcerer’s Isle.
None of these offer many hopeful prospects. Many times, I was captured pirates before I’d even gotten my bearings, and that is pretty much a death sentence and is, regardless, a dead end unless you own Book 4. Trying to enter the essence-sapping Bluewood is another big no-no, as I quickly learned. The desert island scenario typically worked out the best, but it also left me at Dweomer (the settlement on the other side of Sorcerer’s Isle) with no further guidance. Trying to explore the town got me mugged, and without a ship of my own, I could only beg passage about somebody else’s, and 4 of the 5 outbound ships were headed for books I didn’t own. I took the one to Smogmaw, on the north coast of Ankon-Konu, where I was torn apart by cultists of the unspeakable god. Other than getting back on another boat, all paths out of town just directed me to the as-yet-unpublished Book 7.
So not all ways into the Fabled Lands are equally inviting. This frustration seems inherent to the risky scope of the project and the decision to write a book encompassing the ocean that lies between the other books. That’s cool in its own way, but this fact doesn’t make it less frustrating–come on, if 90% of the map is water, start me out with a cutter or something. Lords of the Rising Sun, the first Fabled Lands book set entirely ex Harkuna, ditches the old open boat routine in favor of a totally new introductory passage involving amnesia and a platinum earring, which the protagonist can sell for some seed money. This and countless other evolutions the series underwent from Book 1 to 6 suggest that to a certain extent, co-authors Jamie Thomson and Dave Morris were figuring things out as they went along–what worked and what didn’t, what sounded good on paper but readers hated, et cetera. Now that The Serpent King’s Domain has lit the braziers for the series to finally be completed, it makes me giddy to imagine what the past two decades might have taught them.