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Thursday 20 July 2017

Fabled Lands rules, old and new

Recently Jamie and I had a chat about the forthcoming FL book 7 with Paul Gresty (who wrote it) and Richard S Hetley (who is editing it) and an often-asked question arose...

Paul Gresty: “The precise calculation for Defence in Fabled Lands came up on the FL Facebook page about a month ago, and it’s come up again during playtesting of The Serpent King’s Domain as a point of ambiguity. To quote the books: ‘Your Defence score is equal to: your COMBAT score plus your Rank plus the bonus for the armour you’re wearing (if any)’.”

Jamie Thomson: “The question a lot of people ask is whether that COMBAT score includes weapon bonuses – that is, does your Defence score factor in bonuses from weapons and armour, or just from armour?”

Paul: “Right. And with the release of book 7 we’ve got the opportunity to nail this point down. Given the new mechanic for spirit combat, in which Defence is calculated a little differently, it’s important to be specific as regards weapon bonuses.”

Jamie: “If weapon bonuses counted then players could too easily become unbeatable. We should have made it clearer in the rules that you’re supposed to use your innate COMBAT score when calculating Defence.”

Dave Morris: “Also, if the rule worked that way, then logically magic weapons should cost twice as much as magic armour, because they would count for Defence, just like the armour does, and for attack too.”

Jamie: “Right. So to be clear: weapon bonuses do not count towards Defence, ie when calculating your Defence you use your native COMBAT skill without weapon bonuses. Which also makes calculating Defence straightforward, as it doesn’t change every time you switch weapon.”

Paul: “If you use the wrong calculation for Defence, it’s possible for your character to become untouchable in combat. Notably there’s an opponent in FL6, a giant called Big Boy, who is really dangerous in combat, and who inflicts permanent damage to the player’s Stamina with each hit. I’ve found that it’s possible to beat him without taking a scratch - although it seems that the player is supposed to find the clever, non-combat way to beat him.”

Dave: “Jamie and I just assumed players would take it as read that they were to use base COMBAT when calculating Defence. In other words, we didn’t notice there was any ambiguity. It’s no excuse, of course. If there is any point to rules at all, they need to be unambiguous. If an ambiguity makes no difference, the rule itself is superfluous.”

Jamie: “Well, we’re kind of fixing it now. Though in retrospect the system breaks down at these very high levels anyway.”

Richard S Hetley: “I’ve been playtesting all the physical fights in Serpent King’s Domain using the rule that weapon bonuses don’t add to Defence.”

Paul: “I think it’s safe to assume that 95% of players coming to SKD will already own and be very familiar with books 1-6. The new mechanic of spirit combat is intended to provide a few fights in which the player’s combat ability is determined in a much more closed and manageable way. Rank has no bearing on these fights, and only certain items are permissible. The only real advantage that very high-Rank characters get is that they’ll go into these fights with a much higher Stamina. There aren’t so many of these spirit combats in the book, but they should provide a challenge to even very powerful characters.”

Dave: “I’m reminded of spirit combat in Runequest. That was always hair-raising, seeing as if you lost the fight you were annihilated.”

Paul: “Just on the basis of the Dunpala demo, I’ve already had an email about with a rules question asking, ‘Can I use my +8 White Sword in spiritual combat? I think I should be able to, because it was created by a god.’“

Jamie: “Hah! Worth a shot, I guess. What did you tell him?”

Paul: “I gave him a variation of that opening to the Blood Sword books, something like, ‘I’d personally say no – but it’s your book, play it however you want.’” 

Richard: “In spiritual combats in this book, Sanctity or Magic of at least 9 is required to defeat the weakest enemy you’ll face. A starting character in The Serpent King’s Domain can reach that without effort, or can make up the difference by finding high-powered spiritual weapons and armour. But to overcome the strongest enemy you need to have the highest possible Sanctity or Magic and the strongest possible arsenal from this book, as well as a healthy amount of bonus Stamina.”

Jamie: “Which is how it should be. Players want to face a real challenge. The ultimate boss in a book mustn’t be a pushover.”

Richard: “Just as we expect the player to become unbeatable in physical fights by gaming the system, in spiritual fights the player is eventually going to max out stats just the same. On top of which there’s the modifying factor of Lone and Level Sands. Even if this enemy is the strongest in Serpent King’s Domain, what happens if book 8 comes into existence and then the player gets an arsenal even stronger than that here? Now the boss fight in this book becomes easier.”

Jamie: “Maybe some bosses are so tough that you need a multi-book quest before you can face them. We might need to do that to make later books a challenge.”

Dave: “As long as you get the chance to turn away from those fights if you’re not tough enough yet. If you only find out you weren’t ready for the fight by getting killed, that’s a swizz. I know we have resurrection deals but even so you should get plenty of hints beforehand so you can judge the power level needed.”

Jamie: “Or the chance to run away and come back when you’re tough enough.”

Richard: “All this does mean that a player who expects to be invincible but has Sanctity or Magic topped at 5 or 6 is going to be mighty disappointed. I propose telling the fans this before the book is printed and seeing what they say.”


  1. I'm the one who sent Paul the e-mail about the White Sword. For my part, I'm ruling it as counting as a +2 Com weapon due to its nature.

    As far as Book 8 and Book 7 toughness, that's always been a thing with FL. You can created a character in Book 6 and take him almost immediately into Book 1 to run the table, combat-wise. If there ever was a Fabled Lands Second Edition (and I don't see it happening) it probably would be better to provide a mix of encounters for all Ranks in all areas. That way whatever nascent demongod starts Book 12 couldn't head to Book 1 and kill everyone in Sokara with a particularly loud fart.

    1. Levelling and areas is always a problem with open world games.

      Elder Scrolls IV just levelled everything, which seems OK but then gets weird. In Fabled Lands terms, you'd start out in Book 1 fighting Ratmen, get a bit stronger, then fight Trained Ratmen, get a bit better, fight Ratmen Commandoes, then SAS Ratmen, then SAS Ratmen/Ringwraith hybrids or whatever. And that breaks immersion and sense of progress.

      Fallout 3 does the same thing (to an extent), but it fixes the level to when you first enter an area... so in FL terms, you're fighting basic Ratmen in Book 1 if you start there, and whenever you go back. When you sail into Book 3, you might be fighting Zombie Ninja Pirates, but they won't get better.

      Dark Souls just goes "here are some areas. If you die a lot, maybe come back later".

      That'd be tough to do in paper format!

      Grinding some encounters in FL becomes difficult because you have to throw under your rank on two dice.

    2. One of the problems is being able to start in any book, and having starting characters get tougher because of that. It would have been better to have low-level encounter areas in every book, as John suggests, and start everyone at 1st rank.

      But the escalation of foes does break immersion. In my role-playing games we tend to use systems like Tirikelu or GURPS where it's very hard to get superhuman. Two or three ordinary street thugs are a tough fight for one lone hero. But FL is closer to D&D in making its high-rank characters more like demigods. If I were doing it over again I'd change that.

    3. One of the interesting things about Dark Souls is that even the weakest enemies, the basic Hollow, can kill you, especially in numbers. I've gone through areas stabbing giant enemy knights to death, and come across a few naked dead dudes in a corridor.

      "I'll just kill these and..."

      Whoops. They mobbed me and murdered me to death. Repeatedly.

      You never want to fight more than one on one if you can. Remember the lessons from Dragon Warriors Book 1: Dragon Warriors. When fighting more than one opponent, back up against a wall or better yet, in a doorway where they can only attack you one at a time!

    4. Regarding scaling Abilities and Rank with later books:

      Need a character starting in Book 8 (should such be printed) start at Rank 8, with elevated abilities, or could he or she start at a lower Rank, with lower Abilities in general, save for the 1 class-dependent one?

      Various characters taking different paths through the books end up with different Ability spreads than the pre-gen ones of a given Rank, after all. Also, Rank should have some cachet to it, especially if earned.

      "How did you come by your Countship?"

      "Oh, I woke up in a Dunpalan hovel."

    5. I agree it would have been better to do it that way, Muir. Rank should be earned as part of a character's story -- and escalating power levels breaks the game, especially when those undeserving high-level characters can pop back to the relative safety of Sokara and Golnir to collect armfuls of free gear.

      If I ever wrote another open-world gamebook like Fabled Lands I'd put a lot more emphasis on interesting choices rather than dice rolls and power gaming -- neither of which feature heavily in my own role-playing games, after all. Professor MAR Barker's Adventures on Tekumel gamebooks are a better template.

    6. I get why you did the Rank thing. You can't predict when someone would enter the series or how many books they'd have. It'd suck to go into Book Six as a Rank One character only to die all the time because most combats and skill roll would be far beyond their capability.

      I do wish that Experience rank and Noble rank had been divorced. Just because somebody's really experienced as a Warrior or Rogue doesn't make them nobility. That said, you're telling me that if my Rank 3 (but really high stat) character is not a noble even though she's Hatamoto for the Moonrise Clan, holds Senior Court Rank in the court of the Sovereign of Akatsurai, is a Masked Lady of Uttaku and a Paladin of Ravayne, I'm still not considered to be a noble and have to make a Charisma check to fast-talk my way into Castle Ravayne?

    7. That's true, John. In my favourite fantasy roleplaying world, Tekumel, there are plenty of unskilled folks who are high nobles and plenty of extremely tough bodyguards who are the scum of the earth.

      Really we shouldn't have escalated the power levels so much. Higher level characters could have been rewarded with more versatility without so quickly becoming unbeatable. Well, we'll know if and when we tackle another multi-gamebook open world :-)

    8. I think I'm going to do something a bit weird for my next FL run-through and tie Rank to Titles. Basically my character can only rise to a Rank equal to his Titles - 1. So, if my character has Illuminate of Molhern, Hatamoto, Jr/Sr Court Rank and Paladin of Ravayne she can be up to Rank 5. If she was Rank 5 and lost a title (say Jr or Sr Court Rank) she'd lose a Rank (and Defense and Stamina) and could not progress beyond Rank 4 until she got another Title.

      If you gain a Rank in game without having enough Titles you note that rise in Rank (and the accrued Stamina) but it cannot take effect until you gain enough Titles to support it. Losses in Rank are taken from unsupported Ranks first.

    9. Now that sounds interesting, and it gives me an idea for a post that would list all the customized variant rules players have come up with.

  2. For me one of the main problems for challenges comes from the closed dice system. One can fairly easily run into situation where Skill rolls can't be failed even on a 2 or combats where a character's Defense is too high to hit.

    Let's take Big Boy with his Combat of 15. Say I'm Rank 9 in Book 6 (easily possible) with a Com of 9 and some Heavy Plate Mail Def+6 and Defense Through Faith from Book 5. My Defense is effectively a 27. Even on a 12, Big Boy can't hit me.

    So I changed things up a little. For a Snake-eyes (natural 2) roll on a skill or attempt to hit, it's an automatic failure.

    For Boxcars (natural 12) it's a bit more complicated. Roll 1d6, subtract 1 from the roll (for a 0-5) and add the result to the 12. If you roll a 6 on the single die, roll again and add as above, repeating until you stop rollings 6s. So, if you rolled 12, 6, 6, and 4 you'd generate a 27 (12 +5 +5 +3). Which is great, if your character did that. Of course, if Big Boy just did that to you, well, looks like you're kissing a pretty big chunk of your Stamina goodbye for the foreseeable future.

  3. When you said use your Combat score for defense, I interpreted it as your current Combat score (including weapon bonus). And someone on the Facebook page stole my argument on the Jade Defender, which clearly says the +3 Combat bonus given by your weapon adds to your defense, plus a bonus +3 defense bonus for the mythic sword.

    It may not make sense for a sword to increase your defense like armour. But I fanwanked it this way: if you have a magic weapon that greatly increases your fighting skill and/or how much damage you can do, your opponents will be a LOT more careful in how aggressively they attack you. Hence the defence bonus.

    Still, your point, about weapons being worth much more gold than armour if they also add to defence, is sound. If you clarify in Book 7 that weapon bonuses don't add to defence, I'll roll with it.

    1. Once I real the fan-made Book 9, I went ahead and applied weapon bonuses only to offense. Prior to that I allowed myself to designate them to offense, defense or split. Say you have a +4 Sword. At the top of the round before dice around, you can put +3 to offense, +1 to Defense but the bonus couldn't add to both.

      Ultimately I went with weapons attack and add to basic Combat skill checks, while armor added only to Defense. And of course I added the Snake-eyes/Boxcars rule to keep things more challenging at all levels.

    2. That sounds quite like my Tirikelu RPG, John. There you get the option to put all your Combat Value into attack in a round, or all into parrying, or you can do a half-n-half. It turns out that leads to some very interesting tactical choices.

  4. It seems that back in the day we must have followed the same line of reasoning as you, Todd. The rules in the old edition of books 5 and 6 specifically stated that weapon bonuses add to Defence. So this is a bit of a retcon to stop later books from becoming too unbalanced. Jade Defender will still (uniquely) add to Defence twice over, though, as that's baked into the text now.

  5. Emm Sorry for butting in for this has nothing to do with this discussion but to inform you Dave, Jamie, Paul, Richard that I've lost my usual gmail/facebook/blog/etc. log ins and have had to resort to new email if you ever want to connect at the moment - Thanks.

    1. Urk - that sounds bad. Can't you get them to send you new log-ins, Russ?

  6. Dave, what you talking about here?

    Dave Morris: “Also, if the rule worked that way, then logically magic weapons should cost twice as much as magic armour, because they would count for Defence, just like the armour does, and for attack too.”

    Weapons generally already cost far more than armor

    Armor Bonus Price

    Leather +1 50s
    Ring +2 100s
    Chain +3 200s
    Splint +4 400s
    Plate +5 800s
    Hvy. Plate +6 1600s

    Compare that to the weapons price and we'll call the weapon an ax.

    Weapon Bonus Price

    Ax +1 250s
    Ax +2 500s
    Ax +3 1000s
    Ax +4 2000s
    Ax +5 4000s
    Ax +6 8000s

    Now, granted there are a couple of places, specifically in Book 6 where Weapons (really swords) can be found cheaper. However, you have to qualify for them and in one case jump through a couple of moderately difficult hoops to get it done. The prices I quote above are standard throughout the main six books.

    1. My main takeaway from all this is that I shouldn't comment on rules that I wrote 20+ years ago :-)

    2. Nah, just do the occasional reread to refresh your memory. For my part I still think the price differential is fair enough even if weapons don't add to Defense. They still add to Com checks and this way characters don't become invulnerable in battle quite as quickly.

      Besides the cost of anything really isn't that much of an issue given banks and the fact that there are so damn many ways to make butt-loads of money in the Fabled Lands. You can easily end up with houses in every city and galleons in every port. Hell, just having a +1 weapon and walking the road back and forth between the Chambara swordsmith and the Mukogawa armory will give you all the money you could possibly need.

  7. Being able to consult with Dave and Jamie on the interpretation of the rules is how the US Supreme Court would operate if the Founding Fathers were still contactable via The Blogosphere ; )

    1. The difference being that FL readers all make eminently sensible suggestions, whereas if the Founding Fathers could see what's happened to their country in the hands of the deplorables they would be spinning like tops.

    2. I think we've already discussed the Founding Fathers Take Down Trump, which is definitely a game of some variety I would like to own !

    3. I believe Dave himself while playing Empire of the Petal Throne had to contact Professor Barker about inheritance rules for a metal weapon.

      Professor Barker turned to his own role-playing group who did it like a court case and ended up sending an elaborate document from the Petal Throne.

      (The story was on here somewhere, and is awesome).

    4. I don't know if the full story is online, James. It did appear in the Tekumel Journal, so it might be. This gives the merest glimpse of the fun we had:

    5. And via letter of course, which is so much more appropriate. Wifi connections from pocket universes being notoriously unreliable ! ; )

  8. One thing occurs to me and that's to consider the environment in terms of stuff the player wears/carries. It's a bit late in the day to do much with FL7 but consider that much of FL8 will take place in a hot desert environment. In FL4 the player had to make Scouting checks to feed himself and wear appropriate protection from the cold. Suppose in FL8's desert sections the player is instructed to take Stamina damage equal to Armor protection -1, so the best protection (without a Ring of Defense or Magic Shield) they can wear without damage is Leather. The dude strapping on his Hvy Plate will be taking 5 pts of damage from, you know, wearing heavy plate mail in the boiling desert. Like that.

    Maybe do something like taking penalties to Scouting checks for swimming equal to armor protection (try swimming in heavy plate mail). Like that.

    1. That's a good point, and reminded me of the rules given in the Dragon Warriors scenario "Mungoda Gold" (from DW book 6) when the characters have to explore a steaming jungle:

      "The Mungoda basin is noted for its heat and humidity. Someone who tried to wear full armour would quickly boil alive. 'Stripped down' armour for use in this tropical climate gives reduced Armour Factors. Magic armour provides half its normal AF bonus when stripped down."

      In my own RPGs the PCs wouldn't really even get to wear stripped-down armour -- or they could, but they'd suffer the fatigue penalties listed in GURPS 4e.

    2. Heat penalties for armour have been addressed in The Serpent King's Domain, though they apply only in the hotter areas, such as deep in the heart of the Weeping Jungle.

      Essentially, the people of the Feathered Lands have specifically created certain types of light armour that can be worn in hot environments without penalty. The Defence bonus for these doesn't really go past +2 (although they can theoretically be enchanted to provide a higher bonus). Other types of armour – plate mail, chain mail, even 'normal' leather armour – can still be worn, but their Defence bonus is subtracted from the player's COMBAT score. That is, in real terms, they're more or less useless.

      Thinking about it, I wonder if it would be more realistic still to completely disallow these 'standard' types of armour within hot environments. Thoughts, anybody?

    3. So if the Defence bonus is subtracted from the COMBAT score, does that also have the knock-on effect of reducing Defence?

      I'll get my pelisse...

    4. Looking at the 'game' side of it (as opposed to the realistic side), I'd have to say that it reduces COMBAT only when attacking. Otherwise, if the penalty to COMBAT also reduced Defence, the Defence bonus would always be annulled by the COMBAT penalty, and every piece of armour that incurred a heat penalty would have a value of +0 to Defence.

      Maybe this is all a step too complicated. Maybe it's easier to say that only certain types of armour can be worn in hot environments.


  9. I never like to say "No, you can't do that" to players. "Sure, you can do that, but this is what it'll cost you" is more fun. For my part, I like the damage effect better than the Combat penalty because it's a cost-benefit thing. Figure in the heat of battle a character's adrenaline will compensate for wearing armor and they'll fight at full effect. However, if they've been wearing heavy plate their Stamina will likely be much reduced when they fight those battles. Plus, the damage thing just feels faster and simpler to implement rather than recalculating Combat/Defense every time there's a fight.

    1. I agree. The D&D approach is to proscribe certain weapons, armour, etc. My preferred approach is to let players know what the penalties are and then it's up to them. So in Tirikelu, for example, each 2 points of encumbrance worn by a Ritual Sorcerer means a penalty of -1 to casting skill. You still have the option of wearing armour, it just makes magic much harder. Same with penalties for wearing heavy armour in hot and humid conditions.

  10. On the writing / game rules side, the stamina loss approach to heat-inappropriate armour throws up a few complications. Is it necessary to write out a long, repetitive sentence each time the penalty occurs? 'If you are currently wearing armour that incurs a heat penalty, subtract...'? Could a shortcut for that be established: 'Each time you come to a paragraph marked by an asterisk, if you are wearing armour that is inappropriate for hot environments...'? Where would such a rule be established, if the player is potentially entering the book via a number of different routes?

    Conversely, if the penalty only occurs in combat, it need only be referenced in combat, which is much easier to do.

    On the 'reality' side of things, if we're talking about a cost-benefit approach, the cost should far outweigh the benefit in such a situation, I feel. A 'real' jungle adventurer would never walk around in heavy plate mail, because the cost (utter heat exhaustion, all the time) would far outweigh the comparatively rare protective bonus. If the game rules render heavy mail fairly useless in the jungle, then that's approaching the reality of the situation, I feel.

    1. Maybe the penalty only applies during combats or athletic skill use, as John suggested? So if you try to climb a cliff inside that sweltering hot tin can, that's harder.

    2. I can see climbing being difficult as well as swimming. Honestly, stealth/sneaking should be harder in any armor aside from Leather and that should apply to all the books, but it's a bit late for that now.

  11. A different Defense-related question, that I hope gets seen:

    Where does the Regal Helm (Defense +3, gained in the Forest of the Forsaken) fall? Is it armor? Does it stack with armor? Can it be sold as +3 armor?

    1. It is armour, can be sold as such, and therefore doesn't stack its bonus with other armour. That's what I think, anyhow, but I'll see if Jamie, Paul or Richard want to weigh in with a different ruling.

  12. I suspect that the rule should be that you can only have one item of apparel that gives you a defence bonus. So the regal helm is effectively just another piece of armour and could be sold as such.

  13. It seems a little problematic to be differentiating between 'innate' Combat and Combat influenced by a weapon bonus. If the concern is weapon bonuses to Combat and armor bonuses to Defense adding up to make a character almost impossible to hit in a fight, then maybe the better rule would be that an armor's Defense bonus be limited by a weapon's Combat bonus in that the only part of the Defense bonus that would count is that which exceeds the weapon's Combat bonus. So if I had an enchanted sword that was Combat+2, leather armor and ring mail would be ineffective as they only add +1 and +2 to Defense respectively, but chain mail would increase Defense by 1 as it's Defense bonus exceeds the weapon's Combat bonus by 1. That way weapons with Combat bonuses would still increase Defense along with Combat, but certain armors would be redundant unless they were more effective at Defense than the weapon. For example, if a character had a Holy Sword that was Combat+6 and Vulcanium Mail that was Defense+7, the overall bonus to Defense would be 7, not 13. Just a thought. I still think the original way is fine and made perfect sense.