7/10 Enjoyable and unique but not without drawbacks.
I’ve played bits of book 1-4 in the Java version and books 1-2 in print.
Fabled Lands is a series of gamebooks that continue the tradition set by the Fighting Fantasy books of the 80s. For anyone unfamiliar with the term “gamebook” it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure and D&D had a baby. So you get to make choices that alter the story, but you also have a character sheet, stats, and items, and there are usually rules to govern combat among other things.
So how does Fabled Lands work? You first choose a Profession, what RPGs often call a “class.” This establishes your starting ability scores. You then receive starting stamina and items. Once you’ve finished the rules section (which is brief), you begin your adventure on entry 1. As you play, you will reach a point where you are given multiple choices of numbered entries to turn to, flipping through the book to find them and continue on. You can try out Fabled Lands for free using the Java version of the game.
What does Fabled Lands do well?
The biggest draw, something that for years only Fabled Lands did, is the sprawling, open world sandbox which you are free to explore. Think of it as Skyrim, but a book. And not only is the world large, there are many things to do in it. There are quests to discover, monsters to slay, treasures to snatch, goods you can ship between cities for profit, mining, fishing, houses to buy, stocks to invest in, even some puzzles. With a unique tick-box system, areas you visit can even change or events trigger, creating the feel of a living world. And that’s book 1. But if this seems overwhelming, the other good thing about Fabled Lands is the low rules overhead. You don’t have to worry about how fishing or mining works, the game will explain those when you come across them. You learn only what you need to get started and off you go.
As mentioned, there’s a lot to do in book 1, and there are now 7 books in the main series and even a couple side adventures you can buy. You will not be left wanting for content. Each new book adds a new countryside or an open sea, or far-away island to explore, with new quests and stories. Many of them also bring a new culture and theme to the world, such as a fantasy interpretation of the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan or feudal Japan. The series is an old school fantasy setting with great black and white art throughout each book.
What are the drawbacks?
While the simple rules mean it’s easier to get into, it means the game is very basic. You don’t have special powers or resources to manage. When you need to test an ability, you roll 2 six-sided dice and add your ability score. You either succeed or fail. And combat is no different. You roll the dice and add whatever modifiers you have and hope you rolled higher than the enemy’s defense. That’s it. This extremely simple approach was very popular with early gamebooks but has lost favor among many players. It’s not for everyone. Even other activities like fishing and mining boil down to a random table you roll on to see if you got something. And you can expect some, not many but some, instant death events that cut your adventure short.
The writing starts off detailed and immersive but drops to brief paragraphs with minimal information. This helps keep the pace up for the gameplay, but detailed passages are reserved for important moments such as pivotal quest junctures or when visiting major cities. Equally sparse are the role-playing options. It’s not often you will find opportunities to make a decision based on character motivations; it’s “do this quest for rewards or don’t.” Major quests are the primary place you will find these moments of role-playing but don’t expect many of them. And it may take some wandering around and exhausting locations to find some of these quests.
Lastly, the sprawling open world can also be a downside, as each book is rather short. There’s a good amount to explore, but many of the quests will require additional books to continue them, forcing you to stop and turn around when you hit one of these walls. If you have the other books, it feels epic, but otherwise, playing only a single book can start to feel like a demo. For this reason, I recommend trying the Java version, and if you enjoy it, buy the first few books together. This will give you a larger space to explore and more quests you can play to completion.
Fabled Lands appeals to old school RPG fans and Skyrim fans looking for that open world experience offline. If you’re willing to accept some of its outdated flaws like the all-or-nothing dice rolls, you will find a lot to enjoy.
Another way to check out Fabled Lands is by seeing it played. The YouTube channel, How to be a Great Game Master did a lengthy playthrough, exploring multiple books you can find here: