Echo Bazaar Inspirations: Fabled Lands

By Failbetter, February 15, 2011 · Tagged with

It’s not hard to draw a line from Echo Bazaar back to adventure gamebooks. You know the stuff: “You are in the wizards tower. If you go down the clear, well-lit passage that certainly doesn’t contain inescapable death-traps of any sort, turn to paragraph 278 you gullible fool. If you go through the door with the cheerful music behind it, turn to paragraph 40 and be prepared to throw the book against the wall in frustration.” There are those of us with fingers worn thin – thin! – from spending hours reading with them lodged in a previous page as insurance should, say, turning left instead of right prove to have been the act of a reckless lunatic.

Many of the form’s most interesting experiments came from the minds of one or both of Dave Morris and Jamie Thompson. They and their collaborators played with making a solo hobby social, giving us co-operative gamebooks and competitive ones. They let us command armies. They made us kings. And in the mid-90s, right at the end of the hobby’s craze, they released a series of books called Fabled Lands.

Fabled Lands can be imagined as a primordial MMO, one without the ‘M’, the other ‘M’, or the ‘O’. Rather than leading you through a pre-determined story, they laid a world full of trouble at your feet and expected you to dig in. Each book covered a different region, like Sokara – torn by civil war – or Golnir and its cruel fairytales. When your wandering feet took you across a border you just swapped your current book for the next one and played on. Connections between the books were frequent. A good deed in one would be repaid in another, or a map you found would lead to a treasure halfway across the world.

And they made that world your plaything. Adventuring was just one of the things you did in it. Go shopping. Become an initiate in a temple. Make offerings to win the blessings of the gods, or secure resurrection arrangements to insure against death. Buy a house. Buy another one. Buy twelve. Keep your spare stuff in them so that when disaster strikes (and disaster will strike) you’ve got a stash to fall back on. Buy a ship. Fill its hold with commodities to trade at far-off ports, or explore the furthest isles of the sea. Invest in the markets. Some of this peripheral activity was aspirational (who doesn’t want to own a ship?) but all of it helped convince the reader that the Fabled Lands depicted a robust world; a place worthy of your time. It could stand up to a little poking.

Actually, a lot of poking. The Fabled Lands remembered what you did. Through a system of checkboxes and codewords, the changes you made to the world were recorded. Free a wizard from his imprisonment and you could visit him at his home to call in the favour. Restore the true heir to the throne of a land torn by civil war, and see the character of his city change. Your actions had consequences.

The paragraphs were short and punchy. The locations were vivid. The quests were inventive. The art focused on the places you travelled through, again contributing to that sense of a believable world. The whole series was illustrated by the incredible Russ Nicholson: the gentleman who illustrated The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and in so doing fixed what fantasy looked like in a generation of 10-year old brains.

A fair amount of that probably sounds familiar to our Delicious Friends. While Fabled Lands might not have been a massive influence on Echo Bazaar, for those of us who played it its lessons are lodged deep in our brains.

There’s a hundred other clever little things to talk about. How custom encounter tables are used to keep travel surprising and give every corner of the map its own flavour. The way all conflicts allow you at least two chances of success. The careful balance of risk and reward. The books stand up today as a remarkable achievement of interactive fiction. There’s nothing else quite like them.

Sadly, though twelve Fabled Lands books were planned, only six were ever published. We never got to visit the City in the Clouds or the Underworld (so tantalisingly glimpsed when you sailed your ship off the edge of the world). Lately though, the first four books have been rereleased and are available through Amazon: The War-Torn Kingdom, Cities of Gold and Glory, Over the Blood-Dark Sea, and The Plains of Howling Darkness. There are murmurings that the Fabled Lands aren’t done with us yet. Handy links and further information can be found on the Fabled Lands blog.


Leave a reply

James Marshall Jun 9, 8:17am

Where and how do you find The Sea Green Lens needed for a quest that will advance 3 of the 6 professions in book 3

James Marshall Jun 9, 8:15am

Very good review. Keep up the good work

Chittorgarh Mar 20, 4:04pm

Nice read. May I include this post on my personal blog? Please allow me: Here's the blog address. Thank you.

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Mihai Nov 26, 2:21am

I cant wait to read much more from you. This is really a wonderful site,I enjoyed it.Thank you for posting such a nice thing.

Chris Gardiner Mar 3, 7:03pm

Delphine, [quote]Thank you again delicious people to help me discover so many great games.[/quote] Sweet, sweet music. Our pleasure, and thanks for spreading the meme!

Delphine Feb 26, 4:40pm

I bought and played it thanks to this post! Plus, I was able to talk about it on GeekMom ( Thank you again delicious people to help me discover so many great games.

Chris Fox Feb 17, 9:03pm

Woh, these sound pretty amazing and I am very tempted to get those four reissues. The only choose-your-own-adventure I remember playing was a Asterix and the Vikings tie-in where I tended to die a lot.

The Bathyscaphist Feb 16, 3:59am

They have a beautiful Fabled Lands HD app available for iPad too!

Tom Feb 16, 2:29am

I loved the fabled lands. Only ever had the 3 though... war torn kingdom, land of the rising sun and over the blood dark sea. You can get a free emulator of the books that were released (and I'm fairly sure I heard that Dave Morris has personally given it his blessing, piratewatchers!) here: great for nostalgia, or even just to see a fantastic rpg!

Ranakel Feb 15, 11:12pm

Oh my does this brings back memories. Not the fabled lands as I haven't enjoyed them... yet. But the interactive books in themselves... I even still have the Warlock of Firetop Mountain ! French version. Its cover now has a yellow tint, there are many cracks, the glue on the side of the book is almost gone, and there are traces of many compass' spike, probably due to an overwhelmingly frustrating moment where my handy finger slipped. There is even still character sheet... Almost unreadable now as my writing was quite terrible... I read at the back. Legally finished in November 1983. Printed January the 16th of year 1986... This book is older than I am by about eleven months. My oh my.

Triumph Feb 15, 10:46pm

Apologies for the atrocious spelling and grammar. WHne I get enthusiastic my fingers often move quicker than my brain.

juv3nal Feb 15, 10:44pm

For anyone unaware, there's a fabled lands program that keeps track of your stats and checkboxes for you (it even has the official blessing of Morris & Thomson:

Triumph Feb 15, 10:44pm

Delicious Friends, If any of you have the skills, I believe choose your own adventure books and Kindle need to meet head on. In the mean time I think I may renew my childhood friendship with such books... my entry into the world of RPGs, LARP, MMOs etc was all thanks to a supply teacher I had in the 4th year juniors, for a week she read us (and had us make the decisions in) the Fighting Fantasy book, The Forest of Doom... this would probably have been the tear it was published too... I often wish I could thank that teacher. More recently on a charity shop rummage I discovered a complete set of Tunnels and Trolls books, they are so much fun... I honestly think they'd be great, though and Echo Bazaar choose your own adventure e-book :D Get Francis Hardinge on the case ;)

blackic Feb 15, 10:14pm

Oh God, the extent to which you guys are awesome. The Fabled Lands books were probably my favourite gamebooks too (closely followed by the Knightmare gamebooks). I had no idea they'd been re-released. Time to pick up the copy of #2 I'm missing :) And Dave Morris is releasing a roleplaying system for the world - squeeeeeee!

John Evans Feb 15, 10:05pm

This is really neat! I read a few of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, but the Fabled Lands are a new one on me. I might even have to buy one or two of those...