Monday, 1 June 2015

#6: Deathtrap Dungeon







DEATHTRAP DUNGEON

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Successfully following the superb FF #5 City Of Thieves was not going to be an easy task and IL’s follow-up book in a semi-linked trilogy that started with CoT would have to be a borderline masterpiece or seem rather inferior by comparison. When Deathtrap Dungeon appeared on bookstore shelves in 1984, the book that in the intro section finds us travelling from Port Blacksand to Fang to compete in Baron Sukumvit’s Trial Of Champions (aka “The Walk”) would prove to be the yardstick by which all subsequent role-playing dungeons would be measured, and would indeed prove to be the FF masterpiece that it needed to be.

What is fundamental to this book’s brilliance is the fact that this is a manufactured designer dungeon and that your character is purely out for personal glory. As it is a synthetic creation rather than a naturally occurring environment just about anything goes, which means that the logic issues that blighted so many of the other earlier FF books are negated simply because whatever you encounter has been put there as part of the trial, rather than you stumbling across something’s lair that would otherwise need a context. The only context here is your own ambition and the main focus of the book is clear from the outset – get in the dungeon and get back out again as a hero. Starting with a carnival atmosphere, the introduction describes your arrival in Fang and your being treated as a celebrity as one of this year’s contestants in “The Walk”. However, as soon as you enter the dungeon and turn to paragraph 1 the whole tone changes to one of foreboding as you step into the unknown. So there really is no messing about from IL here – no handful of prologue sections that make you negotiate your way to the Trial itself via a few potential pitfalls, no contextualising of YOU in social or status terms, just straight in and off you go. The whole point of this book is to pit you against the GM’s imagination in the tradition of old school Dungeons & Dragons, requiring you to kill just about everything in sight, as well as use your cunning and guile to negotiate some of the more cerebral moments (ie puzzles and traps.) You are even told from the outset that it takes both brawn and brains to be victorious in the Trial Of Champions and the sheer enjoyment factor of just dungeoneering purely for the sake of it makes this refreshingly different to the usual FF fare of either assassinating an evil baddie, getting some sort of personal closure, or doing some good deed or other. Not that there’s anything wrong with these more serious types of missions, but it’s undeniably fun to just be able to smash up a completely fake dungeon every now and again.

...And what a dungeon this is! The sheer inventiveness of what Livingstone throws at you makes every turning you take and every door you open worthwhile. Indeed, even the wrong turnings and incorrect routes offer as much variety and excitement as the intended correct ones, rather than being throwaway filler material eg: the brilliant and tough Mirror Demon which you can only encounter by going the wrong way. In keeping with the theme of this being essentially a “game” devised by a devious mind (for Baron Sukumvit read Ian Livingstone, surely) the initial sections are fairly undemanding with minor perils, easy encounters, and simple to figure-out traps. The deeper you go into the dungeon the harder it becomes, culminating in three super-tough Skill 11 monsters, followed by your ultimate test at the hands of one of two Trialmasters. This final section bares testimony to the need for physical strength as well as intelligence, forcing you to use your Skill and Stamina scores to the max, then your ability to use cryptic responses to unravel the correct combination for the lock to finally escape the dungeon. The two Trialmasters themselves appear at pivotal points in the dungeon, the first at slightly more than halfway, the second at the final test as above. The first Trialmaster’s test is mostly physical (two combats) but also involves a dice-rolling game where the result is based on actual dice rolls so can effectively have any outcome rather than just an arbitrary pre-determined solution, which adds both fairness and variety. Equally, the first of Trialmaster #1’s combats is affected by your decision-making (and puzzle-solving, although the puzzle is very easy) and subverts expectation wherein a Minotaur is easier to fight than a Giant Scorpion (that has to be treated as two opponents), which is an interesting angle. The second combat is rather more of a test of your morals in that you have to fight another contestant who you cannot have made it to this stage without agreeing to work in conjunction with. Ok, this is IL’s ever hit-and-miss companion stunt again, but it does create a good dilemma for you and works well here: on the one hand you had no choice but to befriend him, but on the other hand you know there can only be one eventual victor so either you or he must die at some point.

Which brings us to the other contestants themselves. When you arrive at the dungeon entrance (and shown in the illustration too), five NPCs are presented as your competition: two Barbarians (who both look cast from the Conan mould), a female Elf, a Knight, and a rather shady-looking Ninja. There is a great touch of continuity that runs throughout the adventure in that you can meet each of these (once) along the way and can also see evidence of their having passed by in certain places ie footprints in corridors, a missing jewel, and actually finding them as you progress. Interestingly, only the true path allows you to encounter all five of them, but their fates and/or ways of interacting with YOU are nicely varied: the Knight is found petrified having failed a puzzle question that you have to get correct or meet the same fate (being turned to stone); Barbarian #1 is impaled on a spike trap (handy as it completely avoids you suffering the same fate, unlike the turning to stone episode); the Elf is found half-dead in the coils of a giant snake (and turns out to be helpful as she gives you important info with her dying breath); the psychotic Ninja is the last one you find, very close to the end and is rather hard to locate (but you have to find and kill him as he yields an essential item); and Barbarian #2 (Throm) befriends you and then dies at your hand in a moving moment as mentioned above. Incidentally, you are told that you enter fifth in line ahead of a Barbarian, so presumably Throm was number six and just got ahead of you?

As this is an IL book, the adventure has only one true path but in this case this makes perfect sense. This is a game designed as a challenge so there is inevitably going to only be one correct route through to victory. The intro even tells us this! Similarly, there is a fairly long shopping list of essential items but, again, this is to be expected as the dungeon would logically be laid out to allow you to find an item and then use it further along the path. Of particular importance are gems and you must find three in particular (emerald, sapphire, diamond.) As with most IL FFs the first one is to be found very early on, with the final one (the one the Ninja has found) coming just before the end. What is a very canny touch is that there are also red herring gems to be found, including a fake diamond, a jewel where the correct diamond was once mounted but has now gone, a ruby, and two topazes. This makes finding the true path all the more challenging and adds to the gradual unravelling of the dungeon’s layout. It is laid on pretty thick that you need to find gems to succeed and, although you are eventually told this outright by a NPC, you will probably have realised by then anyway due to the number of them that you can find and the emphasis on your disappointment at finding a fake or an obviously stolen one. Also, as with all IL FFs it is simply impossible to win without having very high starting stats. You are subjected to an endless catalogue of Luck and Skill tests (including a combined test of BOTH Skill and Stamina) and will almost certainly suffer a Skill penalty even on the true path. Add to this the three Skill 11 combats that come very late on and a starting Skill of anything under 11 will almost certainly give you no chance of winning. Ditto, a low Luck, although you will die much earlier on in this case. Consequently, this is one of the rare FFs where selecting the Potion Of Skill at the start is probably the best option. Additionally, you must be careful how you use Provisions (which you will need to do as small Stamina losses are very common due to traps, stings, etc) as, again, you must lose some through soaking at least once, if not more than once. On that note, there is also a very harsh moment where you can have ALL your equipment stolen by a Leprechaun if you are particularly unfortunate, but if this happens you will probably realise you need to start again!

As with all IL FFs, though, the difficulty level (and this is a very hard adventure for obvious reasons) is tempered by moments of generosity. There are many opportunities to eat and drink along the way, Baron Sukumvit has put several items (eg: Gold Pieces) around the dungeon to deliberately help those who will risk being curious, and there are several Luck and Skill bonuses to be had. Of the three aforementioned ultra-hard end combats, one (the Bloodbeast) only has to fought for two Attack Rounds (assuming you can find its weakness) and another (with the Pit Fiend) can be avoided completely, leaving only the vicious Manticore as a mandatory fight to the death. Dealing with three “specials” in close succession is quite an ask of any character no matter how strong, but the end should be tough and it certainly is!

There are, however, a few moments that do seem unfairly weighted against you, especially the combat with the Mirror Demon (although if you have found it you have gone the wrong way!) where if it ever has a higher Attack Strength than you, you die instantly, which is bordering on irrationally difficult. Many of the traps (of which there are loads) give the illusion of difficulty, but a high Luck score and a certain amount of knowse will get you past them. There are many moments where taking dangerous risks is essential (including passing two pit traps), but, again, this is a test of your worthiness so risks should be part of it. As regards the final trial to open the door (Trialmaster #2), you, in theory at least, have as many chances to get the combination of gems right as you need. So often, FFs are blighted by your only having one chance at guessing something or other correctly at the final analysis, but here you a) don’t instantly fail by getting it wrong, and b) even get some slight clues as to how to get it right. At least, you get both of these for as long as your Stamina holds out as this would be neither a trial nor an IL book if you did not suffer the consequences of getting something wrong and each incorrect combination results in a 2-7 Stamina point penalty. In other words, having fought two or three very tough enemies you will probably only have a few chances at this before you die.

However, re-play is essential in a book which is designed in the way this one is and mapping is key to revealing the labyrinth. It will take many many attempts to find all the items you need and to simply be alive long enough to use them all, but you will want to re-play (even after beating it) just to see how truly inventive and fiendish this dungeon really is as there is a huge amount of excellent material on offer here (a similarity this book shares with #3 The Forest Of Doom and #5 City Of Thieves.) Indeed, this book really does have everything you could possibly want from a dungeon: monsters to kill, umpteen traps to negotiate, items to find, and riddles to solve. Add to that its excellent pacing and you have a rip-roaring ride that you will want to experience over and over. There are a few minor errors eg: I cannot find a Ring of Wishing anywhere, but these will not detract at all from the enjoyment. In the final gem trial each section allows you to select the section you are on but this might just be to make sure you are paying attention to the hints and to penalise you in Stamina loss for simple stupidity so we’ll let these go too.

Livingstone’s prose is always atmospheric and this is certainly the case here, but it would not be the same book without Iain McCaig’s superlative art. From the terrifying and justifiably-legendary Bloodbeast on the cover to literally every image inside, this has to contain some of FF's greatest art work ever. If only it were in colour as that is the only reason why I would rate IM’s art in Casket Of Souls above the art here. It is a huge shame that Wizard Books chose to replace Puffin’s Bloodbeast cover art with what is almost a replication of the Skeleton Warrior internal image which, whilst still very impressive, does not have the same impact (or focus on a key moment) as the Bloodbeast cover does. For gamebook historians and/or completist collectors there is also another cover image (of a skull on a black background) that was only used on the edition that was included in a boxed set released with the PC version – again, an impressively scary cover, but it isn’t the Bloodbeast and we all love the Bloodbeast, don’t we!

There can be no doubt that this is one of the best gamebooks ever written (both in FF and in gamebooks in general) and is the dungeon to beat all dungeons. If you want a lesson in gamebook design then #24 Creature Of Havoc remains the greatest FF book ever written, but if you want a lesson in fantasy gaming in its purest form then you will struggle to find a better read than Deathtrap Dungeon. Its influence is huge, having spawned an official sequel, several fan-written sequels, a Warlock follow-up campaign, a PC/PlayStation game (that bears no resemblance to the book, incidentally), and even a few muted attempts at film adaptations. I never fail to be amazed by this book no matter how many times I re-read it. In a word, brilliant.

19 comments:

  1. The computer game has a few of the same enemies - especially towards the end, where there's the bloodbeast and a pair of pit fiends, but weirdly ends on a dragon. Still, it was made by Eidos: Ian Livingstone's software company.

    My favourite level was the rat-men trench. Siege weaponry & sneaking? Yes please.

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    1. You've got much further in the computer version than I ever have then lol

      To be honest I found what I've seen of it to be fairly wretched. I'll review it at some point, but I need to get a decent way through it first!

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  2. Mark, this is a great resource and your reviews of the FF books are brilliant! Is it safe to say DeathTrap is your favorite FF book of all time?

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    1. Thanks for the positive feedback David!

      All things considered I'd say Deathtrap probably is my favourite, although there are many others that I really rate but all for different reasons. I like some of the more cerebral stuff like vividly designed environments, big game maps with lots to see on multiple routes, historical elements, etc, but I also like the more original books and also the ones that just go for all-out meaningless fun. I tend to dislike the ones where the author obviously hates the player and/or can't be bothered to put any effort in.

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    2. :) Hi Mark. I have many FF books 1-55 and for pure nostalgia wanted to read a few again but my time is limited. DD is the first on my list with Legend of Zagor the next. As a matter of interest what is your Top 5? . Looking to Start DD tonight :)

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    3. Difficult question - I can probably just about whittle it down to a favourite 10!

      I'd say (in no particular order): Deathtrap Dungeon, City Of Thieves, Spellbreaker, Vault of the Vampire, House Of Hell, Dead Of Night, Howl Of The Werewolf, Creature Of Havoc, Sword Of The Samurai, The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. Honourable mentions also go to: Temple Of Terror, Robot Commando, The Forest Of Doom, Spectral Stalkers, Night Dragon, Midnight Rogue, The Crimson Tide, Demons Of The Deep, and Seas Of Blood. But it all depends on my mood, of course :-)

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  3. So many to choose from, so little time :D

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  4. Finished Deathtrap Dungeon last night and got all the way through with all three Gems.
    After fighting the ninja, pit fiend, Bloodbeast, Mantikore (Which pretty seemed just one after the other) my stamina did fail..... Did I start again? no! Failed on the final combination, took 3 attempts. Enjoyed it nonetheless :) Great read!

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  5. There are a few minor errors eg: I cannot find a Ring of Wishing anywhere
    That one's reader error, unless there's something wrong with section 251 in your copy of the book. ;-)

    A bigger problem with the ring is that there's only one situation in which you can use it, though there are plenty of other wishes you might want to make (e.g. 'I wish I had an emerald', 'I wish the Ninja would drop dead from heart failure'). As it can only be used to get rid of the Mirror Demon, it would have been better to make it a Ring of Demon-Banishing and have the restrictions on use make sense.

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    1. You might be right about the Ring of Wishing in that I must have missed it, but the statement does read "I can't find a Ring of Wishing anywhere" ie it is ME that can't find it so I probably missed it when I re-played the book recently. Given that the Mirror Demon is on the wrong route it is an academic problem anyway I'd say

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    2. Incidentally, I've just checked section 251 and it says you receive a gold ring - how do we infer that this is a Ring of Wishing? Only Ian Livingstone and (presumably) yourself seem to know this so I consider this to be a continuity error (but that is just my opinion, of course.)

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    3. Hi Malthus - I realise this was a while ago, but I have to ask - what version of Death Trap Dungeon are you playing? Is it one of the newer ones?
      I ask because in my one (an older one) when you Say "Sukumvit is a worm" and get the ring, the disembodied voice specifically says it may grant you one wish.

      Furthermore you can eat whenever you like (except in combat) in almost all of the earlier ones.

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  6. One thing struck me as particularly clever about this book when I went through it recently. Right at the beginning, you can be complemented for not being afraid to accept help. And accepting and offering help turns out to be genuinely the way to win this!

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  7. You planning to review "Howl of the Werewolf" any time soon?

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  8. Thanks very much for these reviews. Rememer buying DD in a bookshop in Oxford whilst on a school trip back in 84. Got me into roleplaying and haven't looked back since. It is still my favourite after City of Thieves and House of Hell. I bought a copy for my nephews and they have asked for more. It still has a grip even 32 years on.

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  9. Nice review, glad I've found your page. Having just replayed DD, I promise you there is a clearly labelled wish ring to be had. Make sure you declare "Sumkimvit is a worm!" When prompted! 😀

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  10. The only problem with the premise is that the prize is both too small and impossible to carry (Titan describes the gold piece as being 80 or 90 grams). A pity there is nothing like a bank anywhere on Titan. The prize should perhaps have been a box of gems like in Forest of Doom.

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