TRIAL OF CHAMPIONS
Reviewed by Mark Lain
The sheer popularity (not to mention, brilliance) of #6 Deathtrap Dungeon, combined with the fact that it was set in a wholly artificial environment, made a sequel book almost inevitable. Indeed, these factors made DD arguably the most franchise-able of all the books up to the point where number 21 appeared and when its imminent release was announced the news was greeted by me (for one) with considerable enthusiasm. Cynics might say that sequels are never quite as good as the first instalments and some may have quickly assumed that this would be the case here, but I welcomed this book with open arms. But is it a worthy successor to DD?
Firstly, there are many similarities to the first book, presumably to avoid accusations of there being no commonality of theme and approach:
- The dungeon is roughly divided into two sections, each ending with a Trialmaster encounter which requires you to demonstrate your fighting as well as mental abilities to succeed
- You are one of several contestants (five, rather than six this time, but the other four are far higher status than in the first book) and the true path requires you to encounter all of the other four
- It quickly becomes apparent that you are going to need a lot of items to get through this, especially trinketry (in the form of lots of gold rings this time)
- There are umpteen Skill tests (and several Luck tests too, mostly to avoid combats though) and having a Skill lower than 11 will give you no hope of getting anywhere at all
- Seemingly dangerous routes often turn out to be good to take (DD has a corridor that grows ever hotter but is on the true path, ToC has a dark corridor full of revitalising volcanic mud)
- There is a certain generosity and ready availability of stat bonuses, but this is tempered by loads of stat penalties, even on the true path
- There is an encounter where literally ALL of your equipment can be stolen, although it comes much earlier in this second book so is nothing like as depressing when it happens and you realise you must start again
- IL seems to be obsessed with pits again
- Certain creatures will cause instant death simply by winning an Attack Round
- The true path is linear, very tight, and allows no room for digression
- But, the incidents on the wrong routes are just as worth experiencing as those on the correct one so there is considerable re-play value
- There are many many traps (appropriately) and incidents designed to make an over-honest player part with their all-important trinkets
- Instant deaths are common
However, to avoid this simply being a re-tread of the first book, there is a lot of new material/ideas:
- Hidden codes (three in total) have to be found and victory is impossible without them – in a neat touch you actually find the second before the first which can leave you thinking you’ve gone wrong somewhere even though you are on the right path – which is a more “modern” approach in keeping with the direction FF was now taking in terms of cheat-proofing
- The reward for victory has doubled from 10,000 gp to 20,000
- Due to the nature of the backstory, you start with no Provisions or Potions (although food can be easily found en route and you can completely reset your Stamina at one point)
- There are far more items to collect this time and the majority of combats are tougher with Skills around 10 being the norm
- There is still one final combat to deal with AFTER escaping the dungeon (ie just surviving “The Walk” is not enough this time around)
- There are several (often lethal) moments where your fate is determined by rolling one dice as opposed to by saving throws against stats, making this seem rather more arbitrary
- The overall plot is dramatically different...
... and the change of plot makes for a very different-feeling Trial this time around. In response to a previous adventurer having beaten his Trial Of Champions (ie you are not the same character as in the first book, which is commonplace in FF sequels), Baron Sukumvit has licked his wounds and come back with a vengeance unleashing an altogether deadlier Trial on anyone foolish enough to attempt it. Enter Sukumvit’s brother (Lord Carnuss) who wants to get one up on him by finding an unfortunate sap who could beat the dungeon. This is where you come in – having been captured at sea and dragged to a slave colony on Blood Island, you are forced to undergo numerous gladiatorial combats to eventually leave one man/woman standing who has proved themself tough enough to attempt The Walk, and tough you have to be as, again, without a Skill of at least 11 you have no hope even in the prologue section. If you survive the arena you then head for Fang and the Trial proper. But, if you do beat the dungeon, a personal vengeance element comes into play when you have to kill Carnuss himself before being sent to paragraph 400. So the whole motive for playing is totally different this time around. You are not a glory-seeking chancer - instead you are playing for your freedom and for closure. This does add a more perilous angle and even getting to the Trial itself can take several failed attempts. This also explains why you start without the usual accoutrements of an adventuring hero. Naturally then, given all the elements that come into play here, even compared to the first book, it goes without saying that this FF is extremely difficult!
What made Deathtrap Dungeon so good was the sheer imagination that went into designing what was essentially an old-school dungeon trawl and ToC is no different in that respect, being another very inventive dungeon full of fiendish traps, challenging (but not impossible) puzzles to fathom out, and a whole catalogue of great encounters. Some may be disappointed to learn that no creatures return from the first book (ie no Bloodbeast) but is this really a bad thing? Yes, the Bloodbeast in particular is iconic, but this is a totally re-designed Trial Of Champions, so it makes sense that nothing has survived from the first iteration as Sukumvit (ie Livingstone) clearly decided that that one was too easy after all! The creatures this time around show a lot of invention, particularly the hideous Coldclaw, the manic Bone Demon, the very sinister and challenging Liche Queen, and the mysterious Xoroa. Add to these a few non-combat creatures to deal with such as a Siren, and you have a really wide variety of challenges on show. Most of the traps in the first book were of the gory type, and there are many again this time around, but there are a few moments that show advancement in the design of traps/tricks, especially the void that you can launch yourself into if you are not careful, and the teleportation room that sends you off-track and makes the game initially un-mappable until you develop some familiarity with the dungeon design overall. In a really neat trick, however, there comes a key moment late on where you in fact must teleport yourself otherwise you are trapped for good. This is a really good twist and is a nice change to the usual situation of just wandering around in search of the true path. Ok, overall there is a slight feeling of conceptual déjà-vu as you explore the sequel dungeon, but there is enough new material here to make this book stand on its own two feet. Plus the map is totally different too.
As with the first book, you need to run into your co-contestants, but the roles they play are rather more limited and this aspect is a let-down compared to the first book. Two of the other four are met in straightforward combat situations (which is hardly imaginative), the Elf is found in the grips of death and helps you out (as before), but the Dwarf is very unusually and much more effectively incorporated in that he is trapped in a trick box that you can fall foul of and consequently free him by accident. Although the book states that you enter second of the five, unlike the first book there is little real evidence of the other four having passed by anywhere, instead they just seem to sort of materialise, which is a shame. Equally (and unusually for a IL FF), there is no requirement to take a travelling companion which removes the heart-rending ethical moment where you need to kill a friend as there can only be one winner. I guess it would have seemed a bit too obvious to include this again, but the overall deployment of the other contestants is weak in this second book.
By contrast, this time around I found the pivotal Trialmaster moments to be much more interesting (bar the lack of ethical dilemma caused in the first book.) The first is not overly difficult (a tug-of-war Skill test, followed by an easy maths challenge, then a strategic exercise), but the second is hugely demanding and incorporates combat prowess with item checking, cheat-proofing, and pure random decision-making as you have to prove that you have found EVERY gold ring from within the dungeon (and there a nine of them which is a lot by any true path standard), then find three secret sections based on info, followed by a Fire Imp combat that then evolves into a somewhat tougher Fire Demon fight, and finally a lever-pulling choice (from four options) to avoid being crushed to death. To call this a relentless catalogue of potential fail points is an under-statement and this episode alone is enough to say that this book is way tougher than the first. If you survive this second Trialmaster’s test (and remember that the only way to reach it is via teleporting then using a particular key that can only be acquired by de-coding a word game early on in the book), you still then have another item check, a direction choice, and finally the combat with Lord Carnuss to overcome to be able to finally claim victory. Sukumvit was not kidding when he claimed that his new Trial was much more lethal than his first!
A really important element of the first book was the marriage of Iain McCaig’s superbly threatening artwork with Ian Livingstone’s urgent and forebodingly atmospheric text. Ian’s writing is equally as effective and snappy in ToC, but the use of Brian Williams’ oddly artificial imagery this time around is a bit of an own goal. There is something far less dangerous about the art in ToC and you do not get the same feeling of horror or awe. The fact that the Wizard re-issue edition used a much better-realised re-worked version of Williams’ Skeleton King on horseback (this time by the brilliant Martin McKenna) shows just how much more impactful the art could (and should) have been. The Puffin edition’s cover opts to show a moment from the slave arena prologue which, whilst not really the focus of what is meant to be Deathtrap Dungeon II, does add an element of intrigue and shows that this is more than just a return to potentially familiar territory. There is an effective sun-drenched quality to the very bold yellows and reds of the cover and, although very different in both effect and plot exposition than the Wizard cover, I think it works well. In fact, both covers work well, but in different ways, and it is rare that a Wizard cover has any merit at all, let alone the considerable impact of this effort!
Trial Of Champions is very much another Deathtrap Dungeon, but from an era when people were demanding more than just the simple pursuit of glory from their FF plots. This book is a worthy successor to the first, but it was never going to be quite as good simply due to it being a repeat of the same basic formula from the seminal first book and comparisons were always going to be made. But, if you play this for itself, or with no prior knowledge of DD (and none is really necessary), this will seem brilliant, and it is certainly still very good in its own right. There's even an open ending where you spend your winnings on assembling an army, which eventually led to another sequel, #36 Armies Of Death