Monday, January 10, 2011

Heart of Ice versus The Fabled Lands

Not too long ago, I was supposed to be completing an assignment and I got completely side-tracked by what at the time seemed like a great idea. What if we combined the world of Heart of Ice – the frozen Earth setting that Per Jorner (2007) calls “the best one-shot world design” – with the ongoing campaign system of the Fabled Lands series? I originally thought it might be a fairly amusing diversion for a few days, but it quickly became apparent that the project would be far bigger in scope. However, as my time at the moment is fairly constrained and I’m unable to develop the concept any further, I thought I’d post my notes up here, for comments and discussion. It’s also in the spirit of what Robin Laws (2004) named his Abandoned Ideas Clearinghouse:

Like most writers, I keep a file containing ideas for what might one day become novels or short stories. Since it takes a few moments to think of a project and months if not years to complete one, I now have more ideas than I could possibly develop for the rest of my life. It’s good to have a big store of ideas in reserve; you never know when one will come in handy.

Often a seemingly lame idea will become interesting when cross-pollinated with another one that isn’t quite working. But even so, I can tell that some of these entries will never see the light of day. Some of them are hypothetical books I’d like to read, without being books I’d like to write. Others just plain bite.

In a spirit of magnanimous amnesty, I will periodically use this space to free from its imprisonment a premise which would otherwise be doomed to languish forever in my idea file, alone and unloved.

So, if anyone wants to take this idea and develop it further, feel free (just credit me for inspiration, or something like that!).

The rest of this post covers the first two sections examining how you would convert Heart of Ice to a Fabled Lands style of play, in terms of the gamebook’s form, and its character design. Subsequent posts will look at further conversion details including combat, outdoor survival, gamebook structure, and various miscellaneous rules mechanics.

1. Gamebook Form. As we’ve already seen (Wright, 2011a), Heart of Ice is a ‘one true path’ kind of book, whereas the Fabled Lands are about as non-linear as you can get. They don’t even have a proper ending. How do we combine the two? Bear in mind we have to be especially careful because the storyline of Heart of Ice is one of the things that make it compelling, whereas one of the criticisms labeled at the more non-linear gamebooks is their “endless wandering” (Jorner, 2009). In my view, there are two real approaches we can take here:

a) Retrofit. We presuppose that our mash-up gamebook (hereafter known as Frozen Lands), takes place either well-before or well-after the action in Heart of Ice, and there is no effect on gameplay. Characters may venture to the Lost City of Du-En, but they will not encounter the Heart of Volent there. Instead we can create a series of other quests with which to tempt players. This approach has the virtue of simplicity, in not having to work Heart of Ice into the gameplay, but it lacks any over-arching plot or purpose.

b) Reworking. We incorporate the Heart of Ice plotline into the Frozen Lands gamebook, perhaps as the big final quest after they have built up their character exploring the cities of the Mediterranean region and the icy wastes between them. This gives immediate purpose to the book, but it’s going to take some work incorporating the story of Heart of Ice and the actions of its various NPC adventurers into the Frozen Lands. It also seems like we’re just repeating ourself, using an alternate rules system to tell a story that’s already been told.

I find myself alternating in favour between both of these ideas. Currently I’m leaning more towards the first though, after a long period of preferring the second. What do others think?

2. Character Design. Another danger of this project is that we lose the well-regarded character creation process of Heart of Ice (Jorner, 2007), and replace it with the Fabled Lands model, which has far less flexibility. The redeeming feature of the Fabled Lands system however, is that it is easy to scale up for a campaign game, and allows for a greater series of smaller progressions until the player/character feels up to trying a big challenge (like seeking the Heart of Volent).

As previously noted (Wright, 2011b), Heart of Ice gives us seven different character types, and twelve different skills. Converting this to a Fabled Lands system involves trimming the professions to six, and also compressing the twelve skills into six abilities whose numeric value represents how good each profession is at accomplishing the task at hand (Morris & Thomson, 1995, p. 5). What follows are suggestions for this:

a) The Professions. From the Heart of Ice list of starting character types (Morris, 1994, pp. 7-8), we lose the Trader, and keep the following:

Bounty Hunter

b) The Abilities. Converting the skills from Heart of Ice (Morris, 1994, p. 9) into abilities, yields the following:

TECH: Cybernetics, Piloting
COMBAT: Close Combat, Shooting
PSI: Paradoxing, ESP
LORE: Lore
SURVIVAL: Survival
ROGUERY: Agility, Cunning, Roguery, Streetwise

c) Combining the Two. Assigning abilities and their values to the professions is a tricky business, and I’ve revised my notes at least four times. The current iteration I’ve come up with is:


Bounty Hunter: COMBAT 6, LORE 1, PSI 2, ROGUERY 5, SURVIVAL 3, TECH 4





Although some of these match their corresponding characters from Heart of Ice, there are also a few shifts in emphasis. The Visionary for example becomes more of a dual LORE/PSI mystic type, whereas the Mutant becomes the strongest in PSI but also a decent fighter and thief. The Spy has also become stronger with PSI which is surely useful for their line of work.

That’s it for tonight. Tomorrow I’ll look at some other conversions issues, starting with combat and those dreaded barysal guns.


Jorner, P. (2007, May 31). Reviews part 18: The future’s so bright I gotta wear polarized goggles. Message posted to

Jorner, P. (2009, November 26). Notification of Results for the 2009 Windhammer Prize. Message posted to

Laws, R. D. (2004, March 29). Abandoned Idea Clearinghouse: Palindrome. Message posted to

Morris, D. (1994). Heart of Ice. London: Mammoth.

Morris, D. & Thomson, J. (1995). Fabled Lands: The War-Torn Kingdom. London: Macmillan.

Wright, A. (2011a). Heart of Ice (Part 3). Message posted to

Wright, A. (2011b). Heart of Ice (Part 2). Message posted to


  1. I think that it's interesting that you ended up with each profession starting with exactly 21 ability points. Was that on purpose? In Fabled Lands the characters don't all have equal abilities.

  2. Hi Swainson,

    It was kind of on purpose, like a sort of Sudoku-meme where all the numbers had to balance out for the professions (although they don't for the abilities). Like I said, it's my fourth revision, and I'm sure it won't be the last. Feel free to post any suggested revisions you have!



  3. Hi Andy, Its a great idea you've had to do this. About your thoughts on the format. I always thought that the last book in the Fabled Lands series would have some sort of conclusion. So that it would have small quests like the published books but at the end of the largest quest in the book you maybe achieve some sort of transcendence to godhead or sailed away on the Astral plane as the most powerful human that had ever lived. Something like that.

    And I believe that any non linear book or series would benefit massively from having a conclusion.

    I dont know what kind of size of work you are planning? 400 paras? 1200? Are you planning to section the world out in the same way FL's does and write a 'book' for each section?

  4. Hi Andre,

    I'd like to write it, but I'm not sure I've got the time. So, I'm posting my notes here to share, and if anyone else wants to write it, they can!

    If I did do it, I agree that having a conclusion would probably be better, but I don't think I'd write a book for each section. I'd probably look at trying to fit it all into one 'book', but the structure of how to do that will be in another future post.

    Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the other posts on the topic.



  5. I definitely think retro-fitting would be the way to go over reworking. Needing the player to have to power up before they can begin the story proper seems akin to having to grind your level up in computer RPGs before you can attempt the next section of the story.

  6. Yeah, you're right Kieran - I don't want any grinding, but I do want some questing as opposed to aimless wandering. I'm thinking I'll need a variety of interesting intro quests for the various professions, and one over-riding quest whose meaning will become clearer as one advances through the adventure.

    Also, if I did a retro-fit, I'd probably set it some time after the events of Heart of Ice. The Lost City of Du-En is thus an abandoned ruin (what happened to the Heart of Volent? Need to think about this), and the character(s) from Heart of Ice who ventured there could be encountered as some hermit or wanderer perhaps.



  7. It would be quite easy to have the main plot line as a series of smaller quests. The first one, when finished, would unlock the 2nd and so on. All the while with a nice load of one off (or smaller series) quests to keep the world interesting.

    When you think about it the Fabled Lands series kind of unlocks as you gain power. I mean, if you start as a L1 character in book 1 and wander straight into book 2 you will probably take a beating quite quickly. So you need to level up/get better equipment/stats before you can move to tougher areas. Not that I am advocating a similar system necessarily.

    I just played Heart of Ice thru as an Explorer (stock character) and went with Boche, ditched him at Venis, made my way with Gilgamesh to Du-En and destroyed the heart with the American agent. I am 99.9% certain that everybody died. Du-En also probably suffered some more damage in the Hearts destruction. What are the other endings (I think I have all the possibilities here that have the PC alive to the very end)?

    The PC or one of the others uses the Heart and destroys the current universe.

    The PC uses a stasis bomb to make him/herself an eternal guardian (everybody else dies).

    The PC leaves the Heart where it is and for anybody to approach if they can get this far again. Everybody else dies.

    Note that when I say 'everybody else dies' you get a body for everyone except Gaunt (unless you talk to him and dont have Gilgamesh in which case he is killed by Singh) but I would presume he dies at some point even if you dont see it.

    Maybe I've missed something but I think thats it for your options if you want to include Du-En in a post Heart of Ice world.

    Personally I would probably set it before. If the PC makes it to Du-En in this story then I would simply make it so he/she could do a bit of looting and fighting but not actually get close to the heart. Depending on whatever the main story arc involves.

  8. Thanks for the comments Andre, there's a lot of food for thought there. Looking at all the options you've posted, I'm thinking about a post-Heart of Ice world, where the Heart was destroyed, and Du-En ruined even further. There may have been one or two escapees, such as Gaunt, and another player-character (with a bit of retconning).

    I've got a decent idea for an over-arcing plot that fits in with the motive of a player character that may have survived the twin barysal bombardment explosion by arriving too late, and thus "rejecting" the chance for power. Though not through choice...