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Friday, 19 March 2021

Legendary Kingdoms

When no less an authority than Guy Sclanders says he's "blown away" by a new open-world gamebook series, it's worth taking notice. And even as I write this several thousand Kickstarter backers have done exactly that, propelling the second Legendary Kingdoms book to more than fifty times its funding goal within two days.

The campaign runs until April 15, so if you're into multi-part solo gamebooks set in a modifiable sandbox world with all the traditional fantasy trappings (and if you're not then what brought you to this blog?) then you might want to give this one a spin.

Still need convincing? Take a look at Marco Arnaudo's review on YouTube. I'll just cover a couple of points Mr Arnaudo raises there. First the use of "you" to refer to a party of characters in a gamebook. I did that in Blood Sword, where up to four people can play together, and in English it presents no problems. It's how you address a group of characters in a roleplaying game, after all: "You advance along the chamber towards the sound of chiming and the smell of musty cinnamon" or whatever. Of course, in a gamebook it calls for judicious phrasing. "You take a sip of wine and lean forward to address the king" sounds ridiculous if applied to several characters at once -- that's synchronized sipping, an Olympic event! But most of the time it's fine. Indeed, how else could you address the players as a group?

Mr Arnaudo also raises an old bugbear for Fabled Lands players, namely the way that fights in later books are impossibly tough for those coming from Book One, and fights in earlier books childishly easy if you start in, say, Book Six. Well, we thought about it. If I was writing the books now I'd probably not have characters get so powerful, D&D-style, as they go up in rank. The challenge would be flatter across all the books. You don't get to superhuman skill-levels in Dragon Warriors or Tirikelu, where any fight could always be deadly.

What I wouldn't do is the combat matrix Mr Arnaudo suggests, where the monsters scale up in proportion to the player-characters' power level. All that achieves is breaking the suspension of disbelief. If you're going to do that, far better just to make combat ability fixed or nearly flat, as I said. It achieves the same effect without rubbing the reader's nose in it.

That said, the Fabled Lands books are numbered; the difficulty level is right there on the spine. If you want to play without cheating you can just take a character in Book One and work your way out from the safer and more civilized lands to the more dangerous ones covered by later books. I'd rather have had a series where you can start anywhere and play through in any order, and that would have meant rules that added more versatility as you levelled up rather than increasing your raw power. But I don't think the way the FL books did it is a fundamental flaw.

In other news, Jamie and I are hard at work on the Vulcanverse gamebooks. These have a Graeco-Roman fantasy vibe that at first didn't excite me; I usually prefer either original worlds like Tekumel, Abraxas or the Dying Earth, or else historical settings like Sparta. But Jamie reminded me that Greek myth isn't the defanged heroes-and-monsters playground of kids' picture books. The real myths are dark, bloody, nightmarish tales full of vengeance and atrocity. I should have remembered that from the haunting Wrath of the Gods comic strip (falsely attributed to Michael Moorcock) that was filled with stuff that would give you cold sweats in the still hours of the night. That's the flavour we're aiming for, not the literal myths but a new and twisted version of them that evokes the feel of God of War and Assassin's Creed Odyssey.

The Vulcanverse gamebooks are open-world, like Fabled Kingdoms and Legendary Lands, but there's an overarching plot that builds over the whole series as you uncover an ancient mystery that threatens the stability of all the realms. Jamie's first book in the series is called The Houses of the Dead and is set in the mist-shrouded underworld of Hades. My own contribution is set in the Desert of the Sphinxes. We're yet to settle on a title for that but I can tell you it's going to be twice the size of a typical Fabled Lands book -- and as the series is backed by the Vulcanverse online project we're confident that it won't take us twenty years to finish it. In fact, the first two books will be out by this summer. And in the meantime don't forget the Fabled Lands CRPG, which should be released in just a couple of months from now.

1 comment:

  1. I notice that there have been grumbles from a few (well, one) of Legendary Kingdoms' backers about the existence of slavery in parts of their world. I fully support Jon and Oliver in tackling that and other real subjects such as "prostitution, sexual assault, serfdom, murder, torture, pregnancy, religious and civil corruption, and other topics that might make you feel queasy, nervous or unsettled." Quite right. It is not the job of art to reflect the world as we'd like it to be but as how it really is. Part of the point of interactive stories is that they confront you head-on with difficult and disturbing choices. Gamebooks are not children's books anymore, and even children's books should never shy away from an uncomfortable truth.

    And incidentally, the history of slavery is a lot more diverse than the egregiously toxic recent example of the American South would suggest. If you're interested here's a discussion of the Roman version: