The Legendary Kingdoms series from Spidermind Games is easily one of the most exciting gamebook projects to be announced recently: a massive, 6-book series of interconnected adventures – similar to the structure of the acclaimed Fabled Lands series – combining the best of interactive fiction with the narrative immersion of a full-party RPG campaign, into a printed, and lavishly illustrated, gamebook of unique mechanics and great scope.
Now that Book One, The Valley of Bones, is available for eager players to purchase, we spoke with author and game designer Oliver Hulme about what to expect from Legendary Kingdoms – seeking knowledge of the noteworthy features and gameplay elements hiding beneath the enticing covers of this epic, much-anticipated series.
Legendary Kingdoms appears to have been designed with a broad, multifaceted experience in mind. What was the inspiration for your approach, and the desired gameplay aims for the series?
Well, it was several things, really. I’ve been the designated Dungeon Master (DM) in my D&D games for a long time. I was nine when I ran my first game, and it’s been, ahem, 3D12 years since I first started. People seem to love my D&D campaigns despite the fact that they run for years and years (3 years for a campaign would be a short one). But then I encounter some people who say they’ve played an RPG once, and then never went back because their DM was boring. It sounds big headed, but I wanted to share one of my campaigns with the world – a game where you start small but end up as the most powerful people in the world, but not in a forced or sudden way, and never with the hand of the pushy DM forcing you into things. I think the magical moment in a long campaign is when you return to your starting place, no longer a common farmer, but the King’s champion, and those who doubted or ignored you suddenly hang on your every word. It’s when you look back and think, “remember when a pack of these sand lizards almost wiped us out, and now we can basically defeat them in a single round?” Without time and effort on the player’s part, these feelings are pretty hollow.
So the aim of Legendary Kingdoms is ultimately to replicate the feel of a full D&D campaign, but not one where you are led by the nose. It’s one where you can start where you wish, go where you wish, and take on adventures in your own sweet time.
To do this, the books interconnect with each other quite intimately. There are things you can find in one book that can only be used in another, or which provide secrets you can unlock halfway across the world. This means that the books feel like one continuous world, rather than separate chapters.
Your six pre-generated characters all have a range of skills developed for these adventures, yet players can also create their own characters. How difficult is it to set and maintain gameplay balance with this ability to build unique characters/parties of various skills?
There are two answers to this question. The first is that different areas of the gamebooks have differing levels of challenge. It’s fairly common to be pottering along feeling indestructible and then suddenly feel you’ve bitten off more than you can chew when you accidentally open the tomb of a death knight. Once you’ve got the lie of the land, you’ll get a feel for where the most difficult places in any book are hidden. In Book One, for instance, there are areas of the book that are really designed for ‘higher level’ party members – but those areas are always optional. They are places off the beaten track that you really have to poke around to find. So, if you’ve made what you feel is the ‘ultimate’ party, you can have a crack at those earlier than intended by the author and feel a bit smug at all the powerful gear you are walking away with.
The second answer is that it really doesn’t matter if you are ‘beating’ my game with your super party. Enjoy! To be honest, being able to kill things well is only part of the game. And if you are passing your skill checks all the time, that just means that you are missing out content. Sometimes, very interesting things can happen when you fail.
Why have you created pre-generated characters? Should players pick them over making their own?
The big thing about the pre-generated characters is that they all have their own story and character arcs. These characters aren’t just silent avatars, they have backgrounds, hang-ups, romances and individual plots. If you only play Legendary Kingdoms with your self-made characters you will never undertake the quest to make Akihiro a kensai sword-saint, or avenge Tasha’s betrayal, or seize the crown of House Dayne for Sar Jessica.
The content you miss by just making your own characters isn’t game-breaking; you can complete the book quests and the mega-quest without any of the pre-generated characters – but the experience overall is richer with them. I love these characters, and I think they provide a lot of the human soul into the experience. Indeed, the reason why I’ve stuck the character creation rules in the Advanced Rules is so that people use them after they’ve played a few games with the main characters.
Combat appears to be rather tactical, with skills, armour, health and spellcasting all playing important roles, and mass-combat requiring considered strategy. How do the included Advanced Rules then alter the base combat system?
The Advanced Rules in Legendary Kingdoms sort of run in the background. Initially I considered having the player decide at the beginning of the game if they want to play the Advanced Rules or just the Basic Rules, but I quickly realised that was a dead end. If you are sixteen hours into your first game and want to use the Advanced Rules, it’s a bit mean to make you start again!
Advanced Rules is probably a grand term for them, really. There are three of them: Making your own character, Skill Focus and Combat Focus. We’ve already talked about making your own character. Skill Focus is where you voluntarily sacrifice skill dice to make the overall difficulty of a skill check easier. It’s often a bit of a gamble, as there is something comforting about rolling lots of dice to overcome a problem!
Combat Focus does a similar thing, where you make an opponent easier to hit by sacrificing your Fighting dice. Both of these Focus abilities are really only useful for powerful, established characters. But one of the things about writing Legendary Kingdoms is that you have to make sure everything is set up in advance, even though these rules probably won’t be used until at least Book Three!
Robin Smith’s impressive interior illustrations feature a terrific old-school gamebook/RPG quality, with many picturing locations, action and large crowds that really set the scene. Was the visual component within the books equally important in Legendary Kingdoms’ conception?
Oh, yes! Part of the emphasis on so much illustration is just the Spidermind Games ethos. Jon, my producer, and Bruce Kennedy, our designer, were always keen to make products that are visually stimulating, whether they’re card games, books or physical products.
A thing to know about me is that I am a terrible artist, and this has been very frustrating for me. Robin has a real eye for movement in his work, and he can basically draw anything. That’s very useful for Legendary Kingdoms because the world is so culturally diverse. The Valley of Bones, for instance, combines Japanese, Nordic, Spanish and Arabian cultures, since before it’s ruin the valley was a cultural melting pot of many trade nations. That kind of mix would be a headache for most artists, but Robin takes it all in his stride. He’s an ex 2000AD comic strip artist (Judge Dread, Slaine, Rogue Trooper, etc), so he’s used to mashing it all together.
For me, the main reason for all the art is for rewards. There is a term in the video game industry called ‘Vistaring’, where you present a visual, non-combat reward for accomplishing a tricky part of the game. I use the technique when you have explored somewhere new, so you can get an immediate idea of what a place is like. It makes you feel like you have ‘arrived’ somewhere.
There’s another reason, and it ties in with the pre-generated characters. Lots of the images have the characters walking around in them, or fighting, or exploring. There is something very pleasing about coming across an image which has your exact party makeup in it. Even when the mix is wrong, I think it inspires you to play again with a different mix of characters, just so you can make the illustrations fit! But maybe that’s just me…
Did you reject, substantially modify or ultimately remove any features to restrict the game’s scope and create a manageable product?
Yes. It’s a fine balance. On the one hand you want people to do everything you can imagine, on the other hand the bigger the book the more unwieldy it becomes. Every choice you make increases the size of a book. For example, I could have included the option to buy your own houses, much like in the Fabled Lands books. Straight away that means about 25 sections consumed – in each and every book. After six books, you are talking about having something a quarter of the size of a Fighting Fantasy book just so your players can speculate on the property market.
It’s a painful business. Book One lost two mega-dungeons and a detective quest, just so I could keep it a reasonable size. Sometimes, as an author, you can get quite self-indulgent and think “well, this can be the first 2000 reference gamebook!” Then common sense kicks in, and you imagine what it would be like to be flicking through a 400-page gamebook, back and forth all the time. Not to mention the terrible postage costs and additional illustrations! You have to be a businessman as well as a creator, and think about the whole experience of the book, and not just your writing.
Exactly how enormous is the setting? What’s the actual size of these lands and how much travelling would be required to move from one distant point to another?
Exactly? Hmm … I don’t think I want to say exactly. Book One is certainly hundreds of miles across – it’s a long journey from one place to the other. Book Two, set in the county of Longport Bay, is much more closely set, but it’s also more densely packed with villages, cities and castles.
There is a world map (really a map of the region) where you can sort of see the scale of the different countries – but remember that cartography is an inexact science in Legendary Kingdoms, and that’s as good a reason as any to make travel distances as long as I want!
Players can become sea traders in Legendary Kingdoms, with Book Three seemingly offering ship owners some sort of advantage. What role does vessel and crew ownership play in the series?
Ships are the main way of getting from country to country. There are no land borders to cross in Book One (well, there is, but it’s quite hard to find!) Ship travel presents its own adventures, and also conveniently serves as a financial barrier to stop inexperienced players from traveling to lands too dangerous to handle.
Book Three, Pirates of the Splintered Isles, is definitely the most nautical of all the adventures. You need a ship just to experience it, so if that is your first book there is a way to get a ship early so you can go exploring. There’s a strong sense of the Odyssey about Pirates, where every island is a place of some kind of strangeness or adventure. One of the goals of Legendary Kingdoms is that there is nowhere that doesn’t have a purpose or an adventure in-game. Basically, if somewhere on the map has a name attached to it, there’s some kind of adventure going on there. Book Three is also where you can engage in a bit of armada action, but I’ll try not to spoil the surprise by elaborating further.
Is teleporting simply an instant transport mechanism included to reduce the grind of frequent travel, or does this magical ability provide other benefits?
Teleportation is generally a late-game way of zipping around the world. It’s expensive, so it’s really only the transport method of the rich and time poor. There’s a blog post that explains the basic mechanics, but you can either master pure Teleportation, or use a Teleport Circle network to get about.
Without spoiling anything too much – there are areas in some of the books you can only reach with teleportation. There are ways of sneaking up on your enemies by using teleportation. And there is a way, in Book Two, Crown and Tower, that you can gain teleportation much earlier than you are supposed to. Just saying.
A final mega quest will take players across the entire world, fighting a hidden, secret threat. This sounds like the ultimate conclusion on an epic scale! What will players need to have already achieved in the game before embarking on such a quest?
The mega quest is what you do when the game has become an absolute breeze for you. If all your characters have 12 or more on their base stats, if an individual is rolling 20 dice when attempting a solo skill check, and when you can slay a dragon in one round, you are ready for the mega quest. You will know when it starts, and I really don’t want to give much away.
Mechanically, there are areas in each book which are cordoned off until the mega quest activates. In other words, they are not linked by numbers, but by something else, which you will learn as you peel back the secrets of the world.
The final battles require large and well-organised armies and plenty of allies. It all ends in a super-tough mega-dungeon, which is unfairly difficult. Basically, don’t expect to win the Legendary Kingdoms mega quest on your first attempt. It’s the ultimate demonstration of player skill, ties up all the loose ends for the characters, and determines the ultimate fate of a world which, by now, you will know very, very well.
What’s the final page/reference numbers for The Valley of Bones, and your current timeline for releasing the six books?
The Valley of Bones is 903 references and 192 pages long. To give a clue over how long that takes to complete – when playtesting I could finish the main quest in Valley of Bones in eight hours of play. That’s using every shortcut, and knowing the optimum route through, and skipping things like the hidden mega-dungeon. For new players … if you are determined to explore every square inch, it’s going to be at least a week if you put aside two hours a night. It’s not a small thing, it’s a full campaign, and it’s only the first of six.
In terms of releasing the other books, the plan is for about one a year, but that might accelerate if we get good sales. I am keen to get number two out, because I think that it’s when you have more than one book that the series really comes alive.
Will each book consist of a similar number of references, or will one or more adventures be of a different length to The Valley of Bones?
I’m going to try to be disciplined and keep each book a similar size. There might be one book (not saying which one) which will be a trifle bigger, but probably only by 8 or 16 pages. It’s tough to cut, but I think there is some wisdom in having the books look a similar size on the bookshelf.
Where can The Valley of Bones be purchased?
You can purchase it at our own website, and we’d love people to buy it there first because it means we get to keep more of the revenue! However, so that people can come across it more easily, it will also be on Amazon by the end of September. But do buy from us if you can. It honestly will get Book Two printed quicker!
Is there any one aspect of the series that you’re most proud of, or a favourite gameplay mechanic, event or character that embodies Legendary Kingdoms at its best?
Gosh. I’m not sure. I think the concept itself is very exciting, and Legendary Kingdoms is great fun to write because of all the characters and different places you end up exploring. Can I choose several things and cheat?
Mechanically I like the Team based Skill Checks. Because most gamebooks are solo adventures, you don’t get that RPG sense of people working together. In Legendary Kingdoms, when you do a team skill check, two characters combine to help complete a task together. It creates a reason to have your party members be good at lots of different things, and not just rely on a single specialist.
I also like the idea that you can split up your party at various times. When you have more than one objective that needs to be completed at a time, you need to split your party to accomplish them all. It’s quite an exciting thought exercise to imagine who should team up with who, or who is capable of accomplishing a mission alone. Again, it breaks the game out of having one ‘stealth’ person or one ‘charisma’ person and encourages the whole team to improve.
My favourite character? Can I cheat again?
Book One: The Valley of Bones – The Everchild. There’s more going on with this little girl than meets the eye, but she’s still an inspiring leader.
Book Two: Crown and Tower – Sar Katherine Bailey. A great thug of a noblewoman, who makes a superb foe and a terrifying lover.
Book Three: Pirates of the Splintered Isles – The Suzerain. Probably the cleverest politician in the world who still has a soft spot for the weak.
Book Four: The Gilded Throne – I want to say St Elias, the renowned holy man, but I think I prefer the corrupt King Francis Goldwell. Bringing this monstrous man down is one of the most satisfying things you can do in the game.
Book Five: The Savage Lands – Arrinda the Silver. Bit of a gamble with this one, as she might end up getting cut out, but she’s easily the most daredevil character in the game.
Book Six: Drakehallow – REDACTED. There are no spoilers for Book Six. Ever.
Favourite Player Character: Tasha – I love them all, but Tasha just doesn’t care, and that makes her amazing. She looks amazing, she acts amazing … she’s just great. I can imagine her raising her middle finger during courtly debates and getting persistently drunk in every tavern. People think she’s lowborn, but the fact is everyone is a peasant compared to her. I definitely don’t have a crush.
Anything else you want to add?
Just to say that if you are not already text blind with my ranting about this game, you can find loads of blogs about it on legendarykingdoms.co.uk. There is a blog series called ‘Things you can do in Legendary Kingdoms’ that gives you loads more information. Also, you can download a FREE 140-reference sample if you’d like to try Book One before you buy. The good thing is that, if you do decide to purchase the full book, you can just carry on from where you left off with the characters you’ve chosen.
Also, thanks to Ian Livingstone, Steve Jackson, Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson for providing so much inspiration for this series with their amazing rules and writing.
I’ll … shut up now.
Thanks to Oliver Hulme for sharing his lengthy, entertaining and highly informative responses with GBN! You can read further details about the series on our earlier news post.
As noted above, The Valley of Bones, Book One of Legendary Kingdoms can now be purchased from their website, and will also be available on Amazon very soon.