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Friday, 16 October 2015

The first glimmer of the Fabled Lands MMO

I was talking recently about the RTS game Plague that I worked on with Sam Kerbeck and Richard Fletcher at Domark (later Eidos). Around the same time, Jamie Thomson and I were trying to convince the Domark/Eidos management to start development on a multiplayer CRPG based on our Fabled Lands gamebooks.

This was around May/June of 1996. The Fabled Lands Otherworld Game, as we called it, was destined to mutate considerably over the next couple of years as the technology advanced by leaps and bounds. We changed to an all-new setting, the continent of Abraxas, which you can read about here. We massively expanded the scale of the game into a true MMO and we abandoned the top-down isometric view for true 3D. We began to use Propprian theory to develop the idea of a "referee AI".

It was all too ambitious for the Eidos senior management, who by then may have spotted that they didn't need to develop games to make money. Many internal teams were hived off into private companies like Black Cactus, the FL team was laid off, and the Fabled Lands MMO never happened. But, for no better reason than historical curiosity, here is the original pitch document that Jamie and I showed to Ian Livingstone in mid-1996.

Fabled Lands "Otherworld" Gaming

We say "role-playing" when we're talking about solo explore-and-level-up games, and "adventure gaming" when we really mean boring old crate-stacking and puzzles, which means that when it comes to real role-playing for the PC games market we don't have a term left. So let's call this "otherworlding": realtime multi-player role-playing, given a new lease of life by the medium of software to create a new kind of gaming experience.

The Fabled Lands Otherworld Game anticipates the gaming styles that will have become current two years from now, while not abandoning traditional gaming forms. I'll start by describing how the game would play in its solo form and then go on to cover future innovations.

The Solo Game

On the surface FL won’t look much different from a traditional CRPG. You choose a character from a gallery of races, classes and clothing styles and assign starting skills. (These are mix-&-match to allow multiple options, eg in favourite weapon.) Then you set out on your adventures, your adventuring persona represented by an animated sprite on isometric city streets and landscapes. Dotted around the world are many lost ruins, wizard's towers, haunted castles and other areas where you can gamble risk against reward. In the cities you can spend your treasure on new equipment and magic, resurrection deals, buy a townhouse or castle – or even ships to go trading and privateering across the sea.

Where it differs from ordinary CRPGs is in having a number of special partially-scripted adventures that a campaign "referee" (in the form of the game's AI) can bring in to liven things up whenever your character is having too easy a ride. These adventures are templates with slots to accommodate friends and enemies you've picked up in the course of your travels.

For example: you take a bounty hunter's job and go hunting bandits. You round up most of the horde but the leader, Black Nat Varley, escapes. Later, while implementing a random attempt on your life, the AI fills in the assassin's identity as being Black Nat. If Nat survives your second encounter, he'll eventually show up in another encounter and so on. (Adversaries who survive more than three encounters are classed as "dear foes" and have their own level increases tied to yours so as to always give you a good battle.)

And the referee AI will also take account of your character class, deity, etc, when introducing new missions and encounters. It can also randomly generate adventure locations as needed. This means that every campaign will be unique.

The Home Campaign

A bunch of friends arrange to get together and play a Fabled Lands Otherworld campaign on a regular basis. Say I'm the campaign manager; this means the campaign data is kept on my machine. Players come round once a week with their laptops, or maybe they dial in – or the campaign might be run on an office network a couple of evenings a week.

Within the game, players can get together for adventures or split up and go their separate ways. Some magical objects allow you to spy on the progress of other players, possibly with a view to ambushing them and grabbing their treasure. The magic level is high, permitting frequent teleportation and communication at a distance. Alliances and rivalries are equally possible. The game moves more swiftly than old style pnp RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. This allows players to move around the world quickly and have plenty of adventures every session. (The best way to explain this is as a combination of an RPG and an adventure boardgame like Eric Goldberg's Tales of the Arabian Nights.)

The Open Campaign

Almost a Multi-User Dungeon, except with the AI referee throwing in plenty of plotlines to keep the adventure fizzing. The way this would work is with a company picking up the licence to run a commercial Fabled Lands campaign. Such companies might have a couple of hundred participants in one game, all paying-to-play with a percentage coming back to Domark. (Distributed processing through the network would prevent the game from being frustratingly slow.)

The character-to-character interface will mean that when two adventurers meet they cannot immediately start typing messages to each other. To start with they have to go through a menu of greetings and responses, which will be decided by factors such as class, race and deity. For example, an elf meets a human. They're given possible messages and responses that, if followed appropriately, allow both players to reach a point where direct messages can be typed in. However, a human meeting a goblin would not be able to do this (the two races being mutually hostile) unless one or both was accompanied by a dwarf or other "neutral" race. This effectively provides a kind of "Turing Test" interface when first meeting a character whereby you cannot know if you're talking to another human player or a computer-controlled character.

What happens if you can't turn up (on-line or in person) for a game? This is the bane of the old-style roleplayers life, because his character misses out on treasure and experience awards. The way Fabled Lands solves this is to get every player to choose a Downtime Mode for his character when logging off. If you opt for "Sanctuary" then your character is retired from the game world until the next time you play. He gets no awards but cannot be attacked while you're off-line. "Training" means your character is in the arena or library. He gets some experience for any campaign time that passes when you're absent, but there is a chance of other players stealing from or assassinating him. "Adventuring" makes your character available for dungeon expeditions or other endeavours, making him an AI-run NPC for the duration, but although this means you can get your share of treasure and experience you also run the risk of logging on next time to discover your character has been killed in action.

Game mechanics

By basing the game on our Fabled Lands world – which we have developed over several years for radio plays, gamebooks and role-playing adventures – we make sure to avoid the cobbled-together warmed-over fantasy typical of the usual CRPG output. Fabled Lands is as detailed and unique a setting as you will find in any fantasy novel.

Begin by choosing your race (human, trau, merfolk, mannikyn people or whatever), country of origin (the four continents and many islands of the Fabled Lands world all have their own character), deity (there are over a dozen with a complex interplay of antagonisms and associations), and a name for your adventuring alter-ego.

Next the player sets his expertise in the five abilities: Combat, Magic, Charisma, Wayfaring, and Agility. Each of these governs your potential scores in the skills which are sub-groups of that ability. (For example, Wayfaring devolves to Sailing, Riding, Scouting, Survival and Streetwise.) By focussing in one field you can make yourself a master, but at the expense of your other abilities.

Higher ability scores bring in hero-level skills and spells that the player had no idea were possible, maintaining the excitement of discovery that is at the heart of the real role-playing experience.

The display is isometric and characters move in real time. A whole gallery of animated figures can be custom-coloured in the way that tabletop gamers like to paint their own figurines. In combat you can preset your fighting mode (ie, how much is put into attack and defence) or key in manoeuvres on the fly. More experienced adventurers can perform more effective fighting manoeuvres with just one keystroke, or unleash more devastating spells.

Expansion disks would introduce new quests, encounter areas, and characters while extending the map and including additional storylines for the referee AI to use.

Whereas CRPGs up till now have copied the sillier and more tedious aspects of early DnD (one dungeon level full of orcs, another full of lizard men, and so on...and on), Fabled Lands will emulate and expand on the things that made role-playing popular to start with. This means building up a character history: exploring exotic worlds, encountering friends and deadly foes, discovering magical artefacts and the excitement of researching ever more powerful spells. At the highest levels players can occupy their own castles, hire armies, wage wars or create their own "pocket universes" using the mightiest magic.

It will be a journey to a whole other world.


  1. Oh how I'd love to see a true FL app which retains the core storytelling and game mechanics of the books, but makes it an immersive gameplaying experience. Something like FL meets (Sid Meier's) Civilisation would be a dream for me.

    On a (tenuously related) note, have you played or have any thoughts on the new(ish) Lone Wolf app, Dave? From what I gather from reviews and trailers, it seems to be a very nice shiny thing, but dominated by combat and not really using the character or storytelling from the books. So basically what I'm saying I think is don't repeat this. :)

    1. I haven't seen it, Mike, but I've heard others complain about the emphasis on combat. If we ever authorize FL apps I expect they would use the map as the top-level interface (like Sorcery, for instance) with short sections of text below that. FL meets Civ sounds like a good template.

    2. I played the first part of the new Lone Wolf app, and it didn't grab me. I don't know how much of the game Joe Dever personally wrote, but I suspect it was little or none - certainly, I spotted some clunky-sounding sentences that didn't seem his style.

      Re. the combat... yeah, it comes across as crazy complicated and frustrating. You have no tutorial, and no real way to know what you're doing the first time you launch into the game. I never got past my first combat before I gave up on it.

      I've read reviews from other people who've stuck with it, and found it very enjoyable and rewarding. Me, I only ever loaded it up two or three times before I removed it from my phone (with those combat graphics, it's quite a memory hog, as well - it eats up about a whole gigabyte of the phone's space).

    3. It really did seem that it was trying to target a new audience, one more accustomed to first person shooter games, than a more general strategy gamer audience. Maybe that's deliberate since the former audience would be much larger, but the game then doesn't seem to have retained much of the flavour of the books. Which then casts doubt on Joe's prediction that fans of the game would then discover and enjoy the books.

      Not so sure about Joe's writing style. I always found Lone Wolf to be written in quite a clunky, almost faux-literary style. Florid is the word I think (thought curiously his Freeway Warrior series is much better in this respect). The clunky style is quite apparent if you read LW and Blood Sword back-to-back, which I've just done.

  2. One wonders why, if that pitch was made 20 years ago, we still don't have anything like this? Skyrim, Fallout, and others of their ilk are great (given the number of hours I've spent on them, it'd be hypocritical of me to say otherwise), but the gaming experience is not really customised to your character or previous interactions (certainly not more than superficially, anyway). They also both suffer from high-level characters being largely clones of each other, regardless of the path you've taken to get there (from which a lot of classless RPGs, as well as computer RPGs suffer) - characters are only distinct in the early to mid-level range.

    There's a great text-based (Android) mobile app called Life of a Wizard, where choices you make early on continue to resonate as you progress through the chapters and whilst there is a fixed structure to the progression, it manages (in quite a simple way) to make all of your choices meaningful that encourages replayability. It's not perfect, but I'd recommend it. Turn that up to 11, add a graphical interface, and layer on some FL elements, and I'll gleefully hand over a chunk of money for it!

    1. Life of a Wizard is probably my favourite original gamebook app of recent years. I'd dispute your point that every choice is meaningful - the story is pretty linear. In many cases, you're really just choosing precisely how you want to overcome a specific obstacle, to hit the next story checkpoint (and by implication, which stat you want to improve as you do so).

      Where it shines is that it provides immense diversity in the types of character you can play. If you play through it six times, you'll likely create six vastly different characters by the end of the game. Very few apps, or gamebooks, provide that sort of flexibility in customising your character. That, for me, is the game's big draw - and why I've played through it about 40 times so far.

    2. Have you played King of Dragon Pass, Paul (or Dave)? This one has been on my 'really should get around to trying it' list for some time, as it seems to be a popular amalgam of gamebook and app-style world-building.

    3. I haven't tried KoDP but I hear good report of it. It seems to me that Fabled Lands would make the perfect gamebook app, as it's perfectly structured for a non-linear, fully personal experience. It lacks the fame of gamebook series such as Fighting Fantasy, true - but I'm doubtful if the fame of a series back in the '80s or '90s makes a lot of difference to the success of an app today. Most of the original fans of classic gamebooks probably don't even play apps, so what really counts is the content itself. On that score, FL is ideal... if we can find the right developer, that is.

    4. It's the perennial problem isn't it - developing something that appeals to the original fans (as they're obviously the most likely to purchase it) but also seeks out a new audience unfamiliar with the original. To be fair, that's clearly what JD was attempting with the LW app, but it does seem that little of the spirit of the books has been carried over as far as I can tell.

      I'm not sure about gamebook readers not playing apps. Personally I don't play first person shooter-style games at all, but do play strategy-based world-building games (like Civ or indeed anything from Sid Meier's stable). I'm picking that the 80s/90s gamebook readers will be playing apps, since (like the gamebook authors themselves) they'll have migrated onto computer games when those took off. They likely will be playing apps of some sort today, but knowing what types is difficult (maybe a blog post for you? Or even a survey - give away a signed book as a random prize and you'll be fighting off responses with a stick. Especially if it's Walls of Spyte!).

      Maybe the final product of Frankenstein Wars will give you some clarity on exactly what's likely to work and who would be best to develop it.

    5. If I were an app developer, I wouldn't think twice about the original fans. FF was far more successful than Sorcery when they came out as books, for example, but look at the app sales.

      We already know what works as far as "gamebook apps" are concerned. Inkle have shown that with Sorcery and 80 Days. It's not even a hard lesson to learn, but I see that other developers just haven't got it.

  3. I'm not sure where to post this question . I just got into reading the books and have bought all 6 .. My question is about book one . I'm doing really well but I'm finding a place where I'm stuck . It tells me to turn to a page and read a number well when I turn to that page it jumps into a middle of a story that has nothing to do with the previous number .. Is there a web site that has the number fixes ? Any help would be super appreciated thanks

    1. If you let me know the number, Joe, I can take a look and work out what the correct number should be.

  4. Okay great !i was on 259 and water to go east to the plans of howling darkness . Then it says turn to 365 and then it drops me mid plot into a story .. I'm also not sure why the words are. Italicized ? Thanks for the help

  5. Hi Joe, Actually it''s is correct as it is. If you look at the option in book one it says 'East into Nerech' and then when you turn to that para in the plains of howling darkness it starts with 'You ask the gate guard to let you into Nerech'.

    Whenever an option takes you to another book the title of the book is italicized, just to let you know you need the other book really. Just a style thing.

  6. Jamie's right, Joe. From 259 in book one you're going to 365 in book 4 (ie The Plains of Howling Darkness). Lucky you bought all six books as you'll need to go back and forth between them quite a lot to explore everywhere!