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.