Fabled Lands Publishing, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-909905-03-0
Fantasy, 2013 (Reissue)
Once Upon a Time in Arabia was previously published in 1994 as Twist of Fate, and now it’s back into print almost 20 years later. It is part of the Critical IF series, which seems to be set in a fantasy version of Earth.
Okay, some degree of disbelief is needed when it comes to the premise. You are some guy in a historical fantasy version of Iraq, and you have recently inherited a fortune from an uncle you barely knew. If only we have more of these uncles in our real life, eh? Still, your new life ends up getting flushed down the sewer when you overhear the Caliph’s adviser, Jafar, telling his servant of his plot to dethrone the Caliph and are subsequently caught in the act. You barely escape with your life, and you swear that you will now travel abroad to amass enough fame and fortune, so that you can meet the Caliph and expose the Caliph.
As stories go, this one has enough plot holes to fit in a few warheads and a dozen of Death Stars as well. Why would Jafar tell his servant so many details about his plot? Why do you need to get fame and fortune to get back at Jafar anyway? Strangely enough, there are more efforts made to explain the various encounters in this campaign when the larger plot holes are hand-waved away.
The campaign is pretty basic. While there are combat encounters here, they aren’t numerous and you don’t need to roll dice in these encounters. This campaign is like a slightly more grown-up version of a Choose Your Own Adventure thing. You only need to worry about your Life Points, your possessions, and the four skills you choose for your character. While there are some pre-determined classes that come with their own skills, you can also create your own combinations. That’s what I did: my character was a rather reckless sailor, so I picked Seafaring, Cunning, Roguery, and Wrestling.
There are some combat-centric skills mixed with some utility skills, but given the lack of reliance of combat statistics during combat encounters, these skills end up being damage-mitigation in nature. They are useful especially in the final moments when things get heated up, but in the long run, the utility skills that give you special insight when making choices (such as Seafaring or Wilderness Lore), or a way to get out of sticky situations (such as Cunning and Roguery) may just be more useful. When it comes to the combat-centric skills, Magic is more versatile as it can also be an utility in sticky situations, but incorporating it in non-scholar or non-mage characters can be… odd, let’s just say.
The campaign has some sandbox qualities, with an unexpectedly wide range of choices available at certain points in the campaign. However, there are also some instances where you would be clearly railroaded into certain decisions and actions regardless of your past choices. This doesn’t affect the playability of the campaign much, but it does make the campaign seem inconsistent at times. Interestingly enough, the campaign allows you to be a total asshole or a coward without punishing you for it. This opens up some interesting options in this campaign.
The considerable number of options give this campaign a good degree of re-playability. However, the mix of reality (mentions of Christianity and Islam) and fantasy elements (djinn, ghouls, sorcerers) can be awkward, like seeing someone drive a Maserati in a fantasy movie. Some storytelling element is sacrificed to make way for the number of choices too, so the campaign can feel flat at times. Still, there are some humorous lines and self-depreciating playfulness throughout the campaign.
Once Upon a Time in Arabia is a pleasant gamebook, with some interesting moments that make it feel different in a good way from other gamebooks. However, the fragmented nature of the campaign, which focuses more on keeping your character busy through a series of encounters instead of building up a coherent and interesting story arc, is a let down.