Gamebook store

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Gamebooks are growing up

Some gamebook news today, and here's one that ought to be of interest to Fabled Lands readers. Apart from the Steam Highwayman series (excellent and highly recommended btw) there haven't been a lot of open world gamebooks, in the sense of giving complete freedom to travel where you want, go back and forth without limit, and pick up whichever quests appeal to your character. But here's a new one called Alba with a post-apocalyptic setting, and it must be doing something right because in fund-raising terms it has far surpassed other print gamebooks (open world or linear) of recent times.

I haven't seen the book myself, but from the Kickstarter page it looks like it has a lot of legacy game elements such as stickers that mark items or locations on the map. (And to think players used to grumble about having to tick boxes in Fabled Lands books back in the day.)

The writing style is of  higher quality than the purple prose of yore, and it looks as if the blocks of prose between choices are longer, making this more of a weighty novelistic experience than a CRPG in book form. Think Telltale Games' The Walking Dead rather than The Witcher. Here's the author, Harley L Truslove, talking about the books.

One obvious difference from old-style gamebooks is that in Alba your character can't die. That's a gripe about FL that we still hear. Somebody on Facebook recently was disgruntled because the skeleton pirates in Over the Blood-Dark Sea had carted them off to a life of undeadtured (sic) servitude with no hope of resurrection:

It used to be that whatever happened to you was part of the story, even when that story ended in tragedy and/or horror. But those were times when PCs in roleplaying games might get killed at the drop of a bascinet, and when we could reasonably expect Bucky to stay dead. We're in different times now, and Jamie and I have taken that on board with our new Vulcanverse gamebooks, which should eventually consist of around a 4000-section adventure in which you cannot die permanently, not even if the Furies and Nemesis team up against you. The worst you'll suffer is being sent to the naughty corner (aka Tartarus) for a brief spell.

I'm being facetious, but the Don't Kill Me players are right. A single-story game (Heart of Ice, say) shouldn't require trying-&-dying till you find an optimum path through. Every time the PC snuffs it in a book like that it's a failure on the writer's part. And even in an open-world gamebook, where death might be the appropriate ending for a given character's story, it can't just be random and unavoidable. Good god, that would be too much like real life.

But it's not just the legacy features and the immunity from death that have propelled Alba to unprecedented success for a print gamebook. The main difference is that it's not the usual hokey old '80s-era D&D kind of fantasy, but instead a vivid, gritty and character-driven narrative in a setting that feels contemporary. (The excerpt is quite well-hidden on the Kickstarter page, but you can download it here.) If Alba was a TV show it'd be a talked-about cable drama, whereas most gamebooks would be a cheaply-animated Saturday morning cartoon that you dimly remembered from your childhood.

In the '80s heyday of CYOA and Fighting Fantasy, gamebooks were hugely successful. Pretty much every series was guaranteed to sell in the tens of thousands per territory. Gamebooks could still matter to a sizeable readership if they moved on from their origin as kids’ books. Interactive stories like The Walking Dead can deal with whether you’ll commit murder to save a friend. Firewatch can tackle loneliness and hope. In games from Assassin's Creed to Bioshock the player is confronted with real feelings and choices more intense than any movie.

And meanwhile gamebooks* are mostly still about which key opens which chest or which item will defeat the Big Bad. Who cares? Crosswords and sudoku already have the puzzle market covered**. It's time for gamebooks to grow up the way that computer games have. That's what makes Alba exceptional. It's about an emotional journey, as all the best stories are. Only connect, that's the way forward.



* Print gamebooks, that is. For some time now Choice of Games have been producing interactive stories with more depth in digital book format, not the least of their titles being The ORPHEUS Ruse, a superbly gripping adventure by our own Paul Gresty.

** Unless you go full-on puzzle book, that is. I'd probably quite enjoy something like Journal 29, but it has stripped out all the story. And Alex Bellos's column in The Guardian satisfies my brain-training needs.

47 comments:

  1. Thanks for the mention!

    IMO, it's not just a coincidence that electronic gamebooks tend to have more emotional impact. When a gamebook needs earlier choices to have an impact on later outcomes, computer games can just use a variable. Print gamebooks (or ebooks) require the reader to track their variables by hand, trusting the reader not to "cheat."

    Tracking variables with stickers is certainly more fun than printing out a character sheet and marking your stats in pencil, though!

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    1. I still remember my delight when I was writing Frankenstein using the Inkle system and I realized it automatically kept track of every section a player read. That allowed me to build in hundreds of cases of conditional text that reflected earlier choices, just one of those being whether Victor refers to the Creature as he or it.

      I sometimes think of making a print version of Frankenstein, but all that conditional text would be lost. And having the reader keep track of earlier choices, and stats like Alienation and Trust, would destroy the sense of immersion, as you say, Dan. If I ever do get around to it, I think I'd have to completely restructure it to make the print version more of a novel with occasional choices amid longer chunks of text. That way I can restrict it to just the really meaningful choices, but the fact remains that the print version would in every way be inferior to the digital version.

      Similarly I think that Prime Games' Fabled Lands CRPG does everything the print books did and it does it all much better. I hope one day they'll convert Blood Sword too. That's a series that should never have been in print; it was always going to be better as a CRPG.

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    2. Inklewriter or Twine's inbuilt tracker of all a reader's previous choices is really the gold standard: no need for codewords, trackers or any explicit route checking, if used properly. I've experimented with both and found it tricky not to get carried away with making every minor event consequential... Getting carried away.

      Anyway, I think it could be done with print with some sort of passage tick tracker- but laboriously, whereas the magic of twine etc is that the reader has to do nothing!

      I agree that Alba will change things, possibly by opening up the readership and hopefully getting online rpg backers to consider gamebooks too.

      And thanks for the Steam Highwayman mention :-)

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    3. Frankenstein was fun for the tweaking text: it was too subtle to notice in lots of places for the first few breakthroughs, but then really nice to spot.

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    4. Yes, I just liked being able to have Victor say, "Remember when we talked about X" or "But I already told you about Y, didn't I?" Not for solve-the-plot purposes, just to add layers to the imaginary relationship you're building with him.

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  2. Bloodsword CRPG?! Please please take my money!

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  3. For those taking the gaming element seriously, Dave, I can see why the deaths would be an irritation. Otherwise, some of the fun back in the day was exploring the grisly endings, to then cheat and go back to the last entry!

    Following on from recent thoughts on marketing, gamebooks possibly just need the right tie in and then a bit of weight thrown behind it. I can well imagine the popularity of Harry Potter, Star Wars and Avengers as gamebooks for example, for others to then perhaps ride the waves of. I can also see what they've tried to do with the last few FF entries, although whether they're any good and constitutes taking gamebooks forward, is another matter. It's good to see Alba seemingly doing so well anyhow.

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    1. To be honest, Andy, you can sell literally anything with a formidable licence attached. So an Avengers gamebook might sell, but I don't think many of the people buying it (or being given it) would bother to play it -- or buy any other gamebook series.

      FF nowadays seems to be aiming younger. The '80s readers of Deathtrap Dungeon would have sneered at covers with cute magical puppies, but for 6-8 year-olds it's probably ideal. (I say that, but 8-year-old me had no truck with cute.)

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  4. My personal belief is that what makes the gamebook medium so unique was at direct odds with the publishing industry of the day.

    In the 80's gamebook boom nearly all gamebooks were small rectangles of black and white, with tiny illustrations on bad paper, created to fit neatly in a bookstore shelf. They often relied on second person, which absolved the book of any narrative sensibilities. They were ephemera whose presentation added nothing to the diverse tales they were trying to tell.

    Gamebooks can be visually lush, full color, large format, tactile experiences. The board game comparisons are apt, because there are an infinite amount of ways to approach creative tactile play.

    *In sharp contrast, wacky books of all sizes and formats became popular mid-2000's. The challenge is these mish-mashes forgot to have content worthy of the form and they collapsed again.

    Additionally, gamebooks had two primary sources: D&D and video games. You either played math against an invisible DM (Fighting Fantasy) or against a paper God (Choose your own Adventure). They were dripping in failure states, because replayability was something a segment of the hardcore audience desired. Their short length ensured their narratives were often confusing or disjointed. So they were catered too in making them more puzzle-y, more random, more obtuse, and more finicky to get to the satisfactory finish.

    Alba is a great example of what happens now that the bookstore is virtual and selling direct to consumers. Stickers and maps of quality weren't easily possible before the kickstarter days, so having them as optional features is a way to reward a smaller segment looking for a high-quality immersive narrative. Death can go away, like games, into something that optimizes for fun. And cost can increase, while still being profitable for a publisher to continue to invest their time.

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    1. Excellent analysis, Josh. It's ironic that our publishers for the FL series back in the '90s were complaining about the production costs involved in having large format and foldout covers. They refused to put the price up from £4.99 (equivalent to £8.10 or $11.25 today) whereas now the trend would be towards having a much more lavish production (stickers, colour interiors, etc) for $20 or more. I say ironic because publishers had 200 years' experience in getting readers to reveal how much they were willing to pay for a book. There would be the expensive hardback, followed a year later by the paperback, then 6 months or a year after that the cheap mass market paperback. Publishers got so fixated on gamebooks being targeted exclusively at price-sensitive customers that they failed to see a premium market was evolving. The team behind Alba have identified 10,000 readers willing to pay an average of £27 (=$38) and that's something the traditional publishers could have done at any point in the last two decades. Except that they're dinosaurs.

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  5. I’m against any trend towards gold stars and success for everyone no matter how poorly they do. Without the chance of failure where is the achievement? If a book is written well any initial irritation I might feel at being beaten is then balanced by my desire to know where I’ve gone wrong, did I miss any clues, did I make proper use of my resources? And so on. If i failed because i simply went left instead of right out of pure chance, then that can be annoying I grant you. In that respect I do rely on the author’s sense of fairness and honour (and work ethic!) to craft a book that minimises this to some extent. But take the Steam Highwayman as an example. There was a character in that I’d played for hours and hours in Book 1 and taken into Book 2. There’s a big (and voluntary!) mission to hijack an airship that has a couple of routes to success but I failed to prepare properly and it ended in total disaster. I swore a bit, then had a think and created a new character because that one was dead.
    That is how it’s MEANT to be.
    I totally agree on the necessity for gamebooks to ‘grow up’ for all the reasons you’ve already said.
    Side point: Is it #really# that much of a bind to copy out a character sheet and fill stats in with pencil, make notes and roll dice? The setting aside of time and space and getting a bit of peace and quiet to sit and read is part of the enjoyment for me. Do others not find this to be the case? I don’t go in for ebooks and have a built-in aversion to paying to rent pixels off a server so I am conscious I am not a good example of the future market. If the future of gamebooks is what is being proposed here, I suspect I will either stay permanently behind or else grudgingly move to the new system as everything continues to be ‘internetted’.

    And another thing. Are we sure book publishers as an industry know what they are on about with gamebooks? Jackson and Livingstone’s concept for their first book was met with derision by senior executives and it was a relatively junior editor, Geraldine Cook, who went around them somewhat and got the books published. Then during the decline of the 90’s we see the publishers coming up with such brilliant ideas as ‘reduce the number of paragraphs in the book from arbitrary number x to arbitrary number y’. Though the sales numbers had decreased, did they decrease to such an extent that the books needed to be pulled from the shelves?

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    1. Nobody ever dies in roleplaying games either these days, or so it seems, but maybe I'm just going by my own increasingly disenchanted roleplaying experiences. As long as you can see that you're taking a risk, and have the option to avoid it or plan better, I have no problem with my character getting killed. That example from Steam Highwayman nails it.

      Publishers are utterly clueless about everything, I've found. My first gamebook publisher decided on a whim they should be 300 sections, apparently simply because the wildly successful FF books were 400 sections.

      I could go on and on, but my favourite example was when Leo Hartas and I showed publishers at the London Book Fair in 2010 how apps could transform their industry. A typical response (you must imagine an arrogant, lisping, posh type called something like Jocasta) was: "As publishers we do NOT have a direct relationship with our readers. That is for bookshops." The following year they were all scampering around saying: "Now we must have direct relationships with our readers."

      They're idiots.

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    2. It wouldn't be the only industry that struggles to adapt, Dave. National Hunt Horse Racing as an example. Trainers biggest moan? Rubbish prize money. The Blue Riband Gold Cup is on a Friday. Some of the main opponents to changing it to a Saturday? Trainers. I suppose FF is at least trying to maximise its reach and it will create a future audience as a result.

      What with some of the other eloquent posts on here, I realise I’m a bit of dinosaur myself! ROOOARRR!

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    3. You've got me wondering how the FF books sell these days, Andy, now that they're targeting them to younger readers.

      My wife has a few choice anecdotes about "horse people" that make me think publishers aren't the only dinosaurs out there. (I'd better add that she says only good things about the folks who run her own stable!)

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    4. I would guess middling, Dave, judging by the quantity of Amazon reviews and number of releases at least. Probably enough to warrant keeping the machine ticking over, not enough to properly grasp the nettle. On the wider point, are we measuring success on quality on quantity? What was the question again?!

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    5. There might be a lot of parents buying the FF books for their kids, and I suspect that's why the new titles are a bit cosier -- today's kids would be traumatized by the bloody deaths that were lapped up by kids in the '80s. But sales must be a tiny fraction of what they were back then, so it's hard to see why Ian Livingstone is bothering to write new titles. He's a millionaire many times over so it can't be for the money!

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    6. Further thought: every new book boosts the sales of the backlist titles, like the Stones releasing a new album when everyone is actually buying the old ones. But rock bands get to make most of their money on tour (or used to) and old gamebook authors can't do that.

      Btw I was pleased to see that on Amazon the FF books with proper covers far outsell the ones with a little circular vignette in the middle. Cheapskate publishers, take that!

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    7. Livingstone is writing new titles? Are you serious? Do you actually mean he is writing new titles, or do you mean he is 'writing' new titles the same way he used to write the White Dwarf editorial?

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    8. I'm glad that hijacking debacle didn't put you off, Adam. By and large, my philosophy with Steam Highwayman is that failure is possible, death rarely is, but that the route down through a failure and back into the saddle should be just as interesting as a string of perfect successes. I don't know whether I've succeeded in writing that, though, so it's be great to chat some more about how SH is working for you, perhaps on the fb page or somewhere if you're up for it.

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    9. Paul -- as to that I couldn't say, but since Jamie didn't write it I assume Ian must have done it himself.

      Martin -- the hijacking death seems fair enough to me, in fact I'd feel cheated if there was no way to die. It underlines the risk the character's taking. But it's a fine balance and we can't please everyone.

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    10. I must admit I've kept the FF collection going, Dave. I decided to take a look at Crystal of Storms earlier today and see exactly what you mean. To pinch a line off Stewart Lee, you know, I don't think they wrote this with me in mind. Being not more than a few weeks after looking at Paul's entries, possibly exacerbated the marked difference in tone and content!

      I did dredge up a memory of writing a gamebook when I was at school, entitled Palace of Doom. My mate programmed it as a game for the Spectrum computer. Unfortunately, he wasn't the best at graphics, so it read as the slightly more original, Palace of Ooom. Perhaps if I dust off Ooom, it may help reinvigorate the genre.

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    11. My first ever gamebook (really a gamestory) was written for my mate Steve Foster when he was stuck in hospital in Tooting. It can't have kept him occupied for even as long as a bunch of grapes, it was so short. I don't even think it had a title (this was years before Fighting Fantasy) but it it had then how about "The Oarlock of Firetop Mountain"?

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    12. The Moorcock of Icy Valley?

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    13. Martin - I was perfectly fine with the catastrophic failure that was the airship hijack. I was playing a character that had gone all in on The Compact for Workers Equality and anarchism route - derailing trains, buying and using explosives, stirring up workers into action, and all the rest of it. Eventually luck runs out for people like this, in reality. It was a fitting end in that respect! I am not on facebook or social media in general, could you direct me to an alternative form of contact, is there one on your blog?

      As regards FF, I agree, they are going for the younger readers. Anything that gets youngsters reading is a good thing especially gamebooks in my opinion. Having said that there's going to be a strange contrast between books normally aimed at 8-12 year-olds and, say the Warlock of Firetop Mountain which has passages in it like this: "The ghoul dances with glee around your body, lays it next to the others on the ground, turns you over and sinks its teeth into your rump. It is not often it gets fresh meat to feed on." In a state of paralysis, you are essentially being eaten alive. Ha!
      I dont know about anyone else, but my gamebook-inspired pieces of creative writing used to get good marks in primary and junior school!

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    14. Today's 8-12 year-olds are a very different species from those of the '80s, but I'm sure that a few years living in post-Brexit Britain will toughen them right back up.

      On a serious note, I'm not actually sure anymore whether just getting youngsters reading does do any real good. Back in the '90s I defended my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books to journalists on that basis, but did the TMNT books actually serve as a gateway to reading in later life? The majority of the roughly 250,000 British kids who read at least one Fighting Fantasy book probably never read anything else after that. As they said in the 16th century, “A man may well bryng a horse to the water, but he can not make hym drynke without he will.”

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    15. Keep the faith Dave.
      My wife and I are currently in the middle of a sort of Stalingrad, a battle of attrition with what I am going to call our children’s ‘screen addictions’ coupled with what I perceive to be their alarmingly shortening attention spans. We’re trying to counter these with books [including my old gamebook collections], multi-player boardgames and pairs of walking boots. You may be pleased to learn that some of your books, namely Eye of the Dragon and the first two Bloodswords have already been pressed into service and have been enjoyed.

      As for being gateways to reading, I suspect in my case I was always going to enjoy books. Anecdotally I can tell you that gamebooks were quite a craze in my school year and that they were read by all sorts of children, and certainly not just the ‘bookworms’. Whether it led to life-long love of books for my classmates, I can’t say. Maybe not. But they certainly did no harm, gave us something in common, and got children who normally ignored books to actually read voluntarily.

      Another anecdote. About three years ago or so, we moved house and had a lot less storage room than in the previous one. As a result I needed to shed some of my books, which included some extra copies of gamebooks. My wife, who works in a school, took them into the school library and left them for the children to take or read or just have a look at. She watched as they all went really quickly - the children flocked to them.

      In their heyday in the 80’s and early 90’s, gamebooks were definitely gateways to roleplaying games. And they also acted as stimulators of imagination and continue to do so, whenever and wherever they are still read.

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    16. Oh, I like those. Oarlock must be close to a 10 of 10. Lovely stuff! Ooom was short as well, Dave. It had hundreds of paragraphs, but the flowcharting passed me by, so it could be completed in five minutes! A computer game of Rebel Planet (FF18) was released at about that time as I remember, and in fairness to us, it wasn't that much more advanced than Ooom!

      There was an unfinished sequel to Ooom. It was initially entitled Tunnels of Terror. However, my mate and I had started playing Magic Knight/Spellbound and Universal Hero (I was MAD for Mastertronic), so decided to try and rip those off instead. My mate's graphic ability had improved slightly by then, to the point he could get a blob to bounce across the screen. I cut my writing cloth accordingly and thus Blob and the Evil Wizard was created. It didn't have legs thought (the game, and Blob).

      I agree with everything Adam has just said and I think we've touched on that before, Dave. Do you actually have the copyright to Ninja Turtles, Transformers and Knightmare etc incidentally? If you re-release those, I'll get them under the auspices of buying for my son, to complete the Morris collection!

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    17. And on a related note, Christmas Day 2020, I was seconds away from capturing a perfect picture on my phone of my wife reading Crypt of the Vampire to my son and nephew on either side of her. I wasn't quick enough and the dinner bell scuppered the moment!

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    18. Adam -- thanks, I'm heartened to hear that kids today still enjoy those old books. And it reminds me that when I was writing Mirabilis for the DFC comic, the publishers used to grumble that it was too scary and wordy for kids, but friends told me their kids really enjoyed it. So maybe it's just publishers who imagine that kids today want dumbed-down and/or cosy fare.

      Andy -- if I had the copyright to the Ninja Turtles I'd already be retired and enjoying lockdown from my own tropical island!

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    19. Just eliminating the obvious, Dave! :)

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    20. I can't not leave this wordplay one. I was watching The Last Leg on TV about a month ago. They try to get something trending every week around a topical subject. I can't remember the exact ask, but it was something like come up with a film or book title relating to lock down and the vaccination programme. I turned to my wife and said Jabberlocky. I don't do social media so the moment was lost.

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    21. My wife and I inflicted a mixtape with a punning title on our friends over lockdown summer, Andy, and we have another one planned for this year as the lockdown eases. For the full effect I'd have to post the CD cover we did too, though.

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    22. Still, there's no bettering Jabberlocky...

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    23. I'd love to have those inflicted on me, Dave. If not, a collectors item for the future perhaps.

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    24. Having several people in the same household having Google accounts is problematic it seems! I'll try and build in a cursory sense check of the "Replay as" button before posting in future!

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  6. Yeah - so the link to the text doesn't seem to work; document keeps coming up as unopenable....

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    1. It's working fine for me, Anyone else? You have to have a Google account, obviously.

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    2. Failing that, take it up with them on their Kickstarter page. Obviously if the link is actually broken they'll want to fix it.

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  7. My wife for one was EXTREMELY upset about the skeleton-ship-sudden-death scene when we ran into it (we’ve been playing Jonathan Mann’s app; one of us sits at the computer and reads out loud while the other folds the laundry or bounces on the Peloton or something. Perhaps handsfree gaming with voice recognition software is the true future of CYOA. Perhaps we’re losers. Whatever). Anyway, I had to reverse engineer the XML and add a whole escape-quest where you can at least achieve the sweet release of death. I felt bad about ruining Dave and Jamie’s pristine vision and all, but you know women

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    1. Oh yes, I know what you mean. I have a rule that has served me well through more than twenty years of married life: my wife is always right.

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  8. I just got into Fabled Lands and found this blog after lurking online for a bit.
    Interesting that sudden death is something I'm homeruling when playing the book. I am enjoying it quite a bit, but I just don't have time or patience to replay (re-read!) a large part of the book once again. So I just do it CRPG-style, assuming a free save point every time I visit a town.
    Another thing along these lines that I ignore is sudden loss of all possessions. This never happened to me in any single RPG I played and I'm just too old now to deal with this (maybe when I was a teenager I would find this to be a cool challenge - but now losing all of my stuff just because I went to the beach (receiving no warning signs whatsoever!) and rolled poorly just doesn't make sense to me).
    In any case, maybe I'm playing it not the way you intended, but the experience is great - so I ordered all the books in the series.

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    1. I fully endorse you house-ruling the books however you most enjoy them, Andrew. I think Jamie and I originally intended that the setbacks like losing your items or losing your memory would have an interesting story payoff. Sometimes we managed that -- losing your memory leads to hints about what happened in the missing months -- but often the books were such a rush that we put in outcomes that just weren't enjoyable. Feel free to ignore them!

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  9. A friend of mine has created A RPG that combines the best parts of both The Fabled Lands and Fighting Fantasy and has been playing it over Skype with a friend, but he has a question and wants me to ask you

    His question is about how to stop very bad luck from running A Great RPG that everyone's having fun playing. What should he do?

    His group were carrying out a dangerous task but several of his players had Skills that would be useful, they'd only fail if they rolled A 5 or less, before modifiers, on 2D6 and even if they failed their failure would only be fatal if they again rolled A 5 or less, before modifiers, on The 2nd 2D6

    The problem is that the player rolled A 4, before modifiers, on 2D6, they figured no problem they won't get killed but 1 of the other players rolled A 3, before modifiers, on The 2nd 2D6 and the entire party was wiped out. What should he do?

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    1. If we're talking about the chance of rolling 5 or less on two consecutive 2d6 rolls, it's just under 8%, so it's a small but significant risk. Whether dying that way is fair or not depends on circumstances. Adam in the comments above mentions dying in the Steam Highwayman books. It was a high-risk mission, he didn't have to undertake it, and he knew he'd embarked on a path that gave little chance of old age, so Adam has no complaints. A real-life equivalent would be becoming a Spitfire pilot in WW2 -- as Jamie's dad was, as a matter of fact; he was one of the lucky ones and did live to a ripe old age. There are good tips for running situations like this in roleplaying games on Guy Sclanders' YouTube channel:

      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1F4eMw3W_rHBfxf9_m1hbw

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    2. Can I ask something?

      I want to post full detail on my Best Ever Fabled Lands character but the word limit on this site makes it difficult. Is their another site I could use?

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    3. The best place for something like that would be the Fabled Lands group on Facebook:

      https://m.facebook.com/groups/fabledlands/

      There's also a gamebooks group:

      https://m.facebook.com/groups/180779145950/

      and one for Fighting Fantasy:

      https://m.facebook.com/groups/2347541406/

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