Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson's Fabled Lands was an obscure cult classic that had the bad luck to hit shelves just as the last rumbles of the great gamebook boom of the 80s and early 90s were dying away. It was a cheekily ambitious project that attempted to do something with the gamebook genre that had never been done before, and foundered after the lavish first editions, with their glossy covers and their cool fold-out maps, failed to recoup production costs.
Still, as Machiavelli once said, "Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth." Fabled Lands found itself a small yet devoted fanbase, despite having only six of a planned twelve book series out in the world (soon to go out of print) before the project was canned. And after long years of fan badgering and creator plotting and planning, the original six books were re-released in 2010 and 2012, now in handy-dandy pocket-sized editions, with the tantalizing hope of the long-lost books 7-12 following someday.
The reason these little numbers were and are so beloved of committed gamebook nerds is that they spurned anything as dull and prosaic as a single plot. Instead of having a Fighting Fantasy-type rent-a-hero on the trail of some gloating warlock, with many paths converging on a single “victory” destination, Fabled Lands presented a sprawling and creatively-realized fantasy world to explore at whim, with each volume in the series corresponding to a different area. The player picked a character class and wandered around looking for adventure, finding wealth and fame or failure and death according to their choices, skills, and the roll of the dice. It was like a low-tech version of all the huge videogame RPGs that are so popular with the kids at the moment, with an intuitive system of code-words to keep track of outstanding quests, enemies with grudges, or other consequences of the player's interactions with the teeming civilizations of Harkuna. The whole experience was made worth your while by the excellent descriptive writing, which conjured up a real sense of the exotic fictional landscapes you were supposed to be trekking through, and by the wealth of options for making mischief that encouraged replayability, allowing you to be a master thief plundering luxurious temples and villas in one life-time, and a decorated, chivalrous warrior in another.
The first book, The War-Torn Kingdom, was set in a troubled realm clearly modelled on the aftermath of the English Civil War. You had the option to side with the royalist rebels, or go the other way and join the forces of the flint-hearted general now in control of the battle-scarred nation of Sokara. Of course, if you didn't want to risk your neck in local politics, you could stick to doing favours for local temples with interestingly dangerous problems. The writing emphasised that Sokara was being tightly controlled by the military, making travelling around relatively safe, but there were still a few unspoiled or untamed corners where you could have more fantastic encounters.
Book Two covered Sokara’s immediate neighbour, Golnir, a Merry England-type place of peasants, merchants and knights. It was a more colourful place to explore, with plenty of charm and flavour, but profitable quests seemed harder to come by than in bustling Sokara.
The third book covered a vast and forbidding ocean of uncharted islands, which gave plenty of scope for naval exploration. Fabled Lands allowed you to become a ship owner (assuming you’d amassed the cash) and lead your crew to an uncertain fate, battling pirates, venturing onto islands or trading valuable goods between ports.
Book Four dealt with the steppes of the far north, where cold and hunger sapped your Stamina score in a huge wilderness inhabited by monsters, beasts, and fierce nomads.
Book Five was possibly the best of the bunch, depicting the tyrannical theocracy of Uttaku. The Uttakin were a memorable mob of fantasy villains, a flashily cruel court of decadent nobles presiding over a small empire of religious fanaticism and strict hierarchy. You could jump through the hoops of their byzantine law codes to earn the chance to win favour and patronage from the ministers of the Court of Hidden Faces, but with the constant threat that a single mistake could see you gruesomely executed or condemned to slavery.
Finally, Book Six was an obvious pastiche of feudal Japan and its folklore, with the backdrop of a looming civil war between powerful clans. While this had some of the best, most atmospheric writing in the series, it was also by far the hardest, with near-impossible fights, a harsh policy on failure and scant chances for social advancement. It mixed a cultured civilization with dark forests and plains as perilous as any in gamebook history.