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Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Time to decompress

There seems to be a buzz around the Critical IF gamebooks, and in particular Heart of Ice. Here's yet another rave review, this time on the Solo Adventures with Livi channel. You want spoilers? OK, it ends with, "Solidly a 10 out of 10."

You can't please everybody. One comment below Livi's video was "Let the buyer beware." Yikes! Well, actually that's always good advice when picking up any book. Another comment, this time about Fabled Lands, raises an interesting point. Kosteri X said: "I found the Fabled Lands demo devoid of any emotion and all the NPCs were lifeless words. [...] A few more adjectives can go a long way of painting a scene or motif. Most story writers for board games fail to put any effort into painting a picture."

The template Jamie and I used for writing Fabled Lands was Eric Goldberg's boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights. The descriptions therein are economical but effective, allowing Mr Goldberg to fit hundreds of quests into the space most gamebooks use for one little dungeon. Since each Fabled Lands book has to cover an entire country and allow freedom of choice and almost unlimited play, we knew we couldn't write it the same way we did books like Down Among The Dead Men or The Renegade Lord. It's like the compressed vs decompressed storytelling in comics.

I'm thinking a lot about this at the moment because I'm trying to recapture that compressed idiom for the Vulcanverse gamebooks. They're like Fabled Lands in having an open-world structure and each book being set in an extensive region. But, conscious that some readers miss the strong character relationships you get in books like Heart of Ice, I'm using much more dialogue than in Fabled Lands. So the Vulcanverse books (which I talk a bit about here) will weigh in about 50% heavier than FL even if we can keep them down to around 750 entries each. Hopefully that will strike the right balance for all tastes. You'll be able to judge for yourself in just a few months.


  1. I really liked the sparse writing style in Fabled Lands. It let me fill in the blanks to suit my own journey, which helped with the free-roaming feel. I couldn't say whether that would work as well for, say, a Fighting Fantasy Style book, but for Fabled Lands it worked well.

    I think you made a good observation before Dave when you noted that with Interactive Fiction there is the underlying tension that the choices get in the way of a good read, and lots of text gets in the way of the interesting choices (I'm paraphrasing here).

    Still, different strokes and all that. Eurogamer once made a good comparison between Readable Videogames where you follow someone else's plot and Writable Videogames where the "stories" tend to be emergent from the gameplay.

    I feel like Fabled Lands fell on the Writable side of that balance. It wasn't about hitting plot beats, but constructing your own from the tools available. I had a log of my character's movements, and would do things like returning to town after a harrowing adventure, or striking off to another country after some ill-judged defeat left me being resurrected in shame.

    Maybe that was going too far, but still. I enjoyed it!

    1. That Eurogamer article nails a really interesting distinction, Ray; thanks for sharing it. I certainly aim for the "writable" type of interactive story, both in my roleplaying scenarios and in most of my gamebooks. People sometimes ask me which is the right ending of Heart of Ice, for example, and I assume they mean which ending do I favour -- but that would just be my opinion. All the endings are equally valid.

      The risk of an extremely writable gamebook is that a reader who wants to be told a story can feel rudderless. Writable gamebooks depend on you being somebody who can set their own goals and judge their own success. I've been asked if FL book 12 will tie everything up into one world-shaking quest. But no, this isn't about getting item X into volcano Y to defeat baddie Z. FL is meant to simulate an entire world in which each player's story is whatever they make it.

      Jamie strikes a good balance between the two types in his FL books. In The War-Torn Kingdom, for instance, where you can opt to be a royalist or a republican, and loyal to your side or a double-agent. That allows him to insert all the story beats that satisfy the player who wants to be narrated to, but still give meaningful freedom of choice to the player who wants to shape their own life story.

  2. Whenever I start A New Fabled Lands Character I'm either A Rogue or A Warrior or A Mage, I'm always Female and I name myself after 1 of my favorite characters by other Books by you or Jamie, here's the names I use. What do you think?

    For The Rogue she is named after Csaky, who is Avengers Cousin and appears in Way of The Tiger Book 7

    For The Warrior she is named after Cassandra who appears in Talismen of Death and Way of The Tiger Books 2 and 6 and maybe Book 7, I can't remember

    The Mage is the only one not named after A Way of The Tiger Character and she's named after Kim Monksilver who appears in The Mage of Dust and Bonr

    1. I'll confess I haven't played Way of the Tiger so I'll leave it to Jamie to comment.

    2. You haven’t played Way of the Tiger?! For shame Mr Morris! For shame! 😁 One of the absolute best and highly innovative gamebook series there is. As you well know! Geez if a good friend didn’t read/play something I’d written I’d be a bit peeved! No doubt you have a good reason for this outrage?! 😆

    3. It ain't personal. I just don't have the patience for solo gaming, so I haven't played many gamebooks. I did have a go at the Sorcery books when they first came out, and I played Steve Jackson US's Fantasy Trip solo adventures, but it wasn't until Jamie and Mark released the Duel Master series that I really grokked gamebooks. I'm pretty sure that Jamie has never played any of mine, if that counts in mitigation :-)

  3. Ooops by mistake I put Bonr rather Bone. Sorry

  4. If you like Tales of the Arabian Nights, I strong recommand you to check Curious Expedition and World of Horror: