Wednesday, November 2, 2011

#8 - "Scorpion Swamp", by THE OTHER Steve Jackson (1984)

So yeah, Fighting Fantasy was actually a massively successful series. My copy of Scorpion Swamp is a 1988 re-print and the inside cover reads like this:

First published 1984
Reprinted 1984 (three times), 1985 (twice), 1986 (twice), 1987, 1988 

That's ten printings in four years - undeniable evidence of a public that was just clamouring for GOBLINS. In the face of this kind of success, an early challenge for Messrs. Jackson and Livingstone was that they simply couldn't write books fast enough. So, they brought in other authors to work on the series, slapping a big "Steve JACKSON AND Ian LIVINGSTONE PRESENT" logo on the cover and relegating the actual author's name to page 3. When I was a kid I assumed that this was because they were egomaniacs, but to be fair I think it was because the names Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were as much a part of the brand as that dagger with the shrieking monster-face handle.

This is the first book in the series to be farmed out, and it seems that the prototype solution was to just find authors who were already named "Steve Jackson" anyway - hence we have "Scorpion Swamp", written by another, completely different man who is also called Steve Jackson. He went on to do a couple of other books later in the series, notably the wonderful Robot Commando which from memory is set in a society of cowboys who use giant Gundam-style robots to wrangle herds of dinosaurs (something to look forward to).

But this cover is not one of the classics I'm afraid. It depicts a creature which is called the POOL BEAST, because plainly the most distinctive thing about it is that it lives in a pool.  In terms of creature design it is a poor man's BLOODBEAST, sitting in the bath all day, lashing out at passers-by. The one intriguing detail about this animal is that it has a precious gemstone embedded in its forehead, which some enterprising jeweller has already had the patience to cut and facet in situ. But besides that, the POOL BEAST basically looks like the artist added a few teeth and eyeballs to a Rorschach inkblot and then spent the rest of their time making sure the POOL looked right.

The POOL BEAST is just a random encounter in the book and I didn't even see it in my play-through. In subsequent pressings the book was retitled as The TRANS (heroic autobot) FORMERS: Swamp of the Scorpion and POOL BEAST got bumped in favour of CYBER-CROC.

I didn't see that helicopter in my play-through either.

Swamp has a pretty basic hook. You're a....... (wait for it)............ wandering swordsman (!!!), for whom "defying evil wizards and slaying giant wolves are all in a day's work". One day an evil wizard specifically asked you not to slay his giant wolf, which meant you could get your day's work done before lunch and you were able to knock off early. On your way to the pub that afternoon you discovered an old lady passed out on the road, so you gave her a drink of water and helped her get safely home. In classic folk-lore fashion, she turned out to be a decently powerful witch and she rewards you with a brass ring - pardon me - a Brass Ring.

The Brass Ring has a couple of nifty features, notably its wearer can always tell which way is North, and also it warms up in the presence of evil people. I did wonder if it activates strictly in the presence of those who are inherently evil, or if it also heats up when society is to blame. But Scorpion Swamp doesn't really explore these issues.

Having discovered the Brass Ring's eerie powers, our protagonist decides the best possible use of his new powers of orienteering would be to explore Scorpion Swamp, a territory feared and avoided by all right-thinking people because it's really easy to get lost in. The paths are all twisty, compasses don't work there, and there's too much "evil fog" to navigate by the sun and stars. Other factors: it's a swamp, scorpions.

Let the orienteering begin!
Rolling Up My Dude

SKILL - 11 (again!)
LUCK - 10

Rules are standard, with the addition of a number of Good, Neutral and Evil spells that you can cast (though you don't start with any). Also there's no Provisions, and I don't have a shield.

The Adventure

It begins with your arrival in the town of Fenmarge, which lies on the fringe of Scorpion Swamp. Or on the margins of the fen, if you like. When you explain the locals at the pub that you're going into the swamp to dash all around the place while knowing where North is, they look at you like this:

That's an incredible photo-bomb from homie in the lower right corner.

They are genuinely concerned for your safety, and warn you that a number of animal-themed magicians called "The Masters" have recently taken residence in the swamp, unaware that this actually sounds quite rad and will only encourage you. As you saunter towards the door, scoffing at their rustic ways, you are accosted by a fellow with the hilarious name of Gronar, who looks like a farmer, but "seems more interested in you than any farmer should be!" This suspiciously interested farmer-looking gent takes you aside, sits you down, and raises a pretty good point:

'If you really intend to brave the terrors of the swamp' he says, ' you ought to have some purpose, rather than random mapping and beast-slaying.'

After gasping "WHAT" and "NOOOO" you reflect for a moment and find yourself agreeing. Gronar explains that there are three wizards living in Fenmarge who have need of someone to run errands in the swamp - the virtuous, Good wizard Selator - the shady old dirty old rotten old Evil wizard Grimslade - and some guy called "Poomchukker". So naturally I chose to go and work for Poomchukker.

Poomchukker turns out to be a tubby man with bright red skin and a passing resemblance to George R. R. Martin.

Poomchukker, the greatest living author of fantasy fiction.
Inset: with hat and glasses.

He explains that he is not actually a wizard, just a rich, bright red man in a robe who collect magic items and is happy to let people leap to their own conclusions. He has a business proposal for you - he wants his caravans to be able to take a short-cut across the swamp from Fenmarge to the town of Willowbend on the other side. If you can blaze the trail and return to him with a neatly labelled map on graph paper, he will "pay you half the money that [he saves] during the first year" - which is a pretty suspiciously phrased offer if you ask me. I mean, it might be a short-cut, but once again: SWAMP, SCORPIONS, you know the drill. Not a great environment through which to drag a wagon-load of frankincense and Taiwanese microwave ovens. But since the protagonist's initial impulse had been to just map the whole swamp for the fun of it, I thought this was the kind of offer he'd be into, and so I accepted.

Like a true baller, Poomchukker then tips a whole big box of single-use Spell Gems out onto the table and lets you take any five that you want. I chose one each of Fire, Ice, Illusion, Luck, and Stamina. They more or less do what it says on the label.

So, into the swamp then. Before getting any leeches on my dick I decided to take stock and drew up a strategy, which I then crow-barred into shitty rhyming aphorisms:

1) If you gonna go forth, make sure it's North! - the book told me that Willowbend was to the north somewhere, which was helpful because I got a Brass Ring that tells me where North is. Can't lose really.

2) Don't be a sap, you gotta draw a map! - the book is geared around mapping, it even gives all the locations their own numbers. I couldn't really be arsed, but I sighed and fetched a pen nevertheless. I drew the line at going out to the shop for graph paper though - the back of a letter from my insurance company would do.

3) If the ring gets hot, beat them into snot! - The magic ring detects evil, so I resolved that if it ever warmed up I would lay a Forest of Doom style psycho smackdown on whatever or whoever I happened to be facing at the time. Seems reasonable. And yeah I know the idiom is "to beat the snot out of" someone not "to beat them into snot". But do you honestly expect me to run with: "if the ring gets hot, out of them beat the snot"?  I'm already pretty embarrassed about these aphorisms as it is. I regret sharing them. I mean what the fuck else rhymes with "hot" anyway, seriously.

4) If the ring stay cool, discretion's the rule! - i.e. avoid fights under all other circumstances. Negotiate, retreat, whatever. I recall from Lizard King that there's no guarantee of coasting through the book on 11 SKILL. This rule is kind of a corollary of the next one:

5) Play it safe, stay out of the... graaaaay... fe. Stay out of the (cough) grafe. - Well, okay. If you're wondering: yes, I do feel ashamed of myself. But I come from a country where we rhyme star with war in the damn national anthem, so what can you expect really. Anyway, I figured that since my mission was just to get from A to B and back, I wouldn't need to scour about for any improbable reagents and gadgets to off the boss or collect code-words and gemstones to get through a big locked door in the middle of the swamp, or any crap like that. So, no Bizarre Search Behaviour, no jumping down wells, no sticking my arm into badger holes, etc, etc. Just keep moving, follow the rules, and stay alive long enough to get to the other side.

Oh, and most importantly: "HAVE FUN!"

Having set my mind for victory, I cracked my knuckles and got stuck in. First thing I noticed when I got to Scorpion Swamp was that there are pretty obvious trails to follow. Bear in mind that this is supposed to be the notoriously unnavigable, monster-haunted swamp that everybody stays the hell away from. Someone even took the time to paint "STOP! SCORPION SWAMP! TURN BACK!" on a boulder. But as we'll see for a shunned hell-hole it gets quite a bit of through traffic. I mean it's busier than Queen Street on a Sunday, I'll say that.

The first challenge I faced was that there was a "soft part" on the trail. Do I want to jump over the soft bit or step carefully around it? Hmm, okay. This has happened to me a number of times when hiking - in real life! -  so I think I can deal with it. "♫ Play it safe, stay out of the grafe! ♫" I hummed to myself and gingerly stepped over to an adjacent dry spot. Brutally, I then had to Test My Luck and lose 1 STAMINA if I was unlucky, which I guess correlates to the real-world experience when your foot skids into the mud and some of that nasty shit soaks into your sock and then you have a blister by then end of the hike.

On the other hand, I took a peek later and if you jump over the soft part, you have to roll against STAMINA with the loss of 1 SKILL point at stake (from falling over and spraining your wrist), which is a much worse penalty. So it seemed my game plan was working so far - I had made it past the first clearing unscathed.

Then I came to a junction. "♫ If you gonna go forth, make sure it's North! ♫" I sang to myself, adding "doo-dah, doo-dah" as a coda. (I should explain that as an aide memoire I had set my five aphorisms to the tune of 'De Camptown Races'. There's a couple of bits where you gotta sing a line real quick, or conversely, stretch a vowel out to cover like three beats, but I'm not trying to win any awards over here)

Only problem is, there was no way to go north, so I went East. Next thing I saw was a tree with a hole in it.

 Oh man I bet there's all kinds of great stuff inside that tree.

Nah, fuck that mess. From here, I could go north, so I did. Pretty soon I started noticing cobwebs all over the place. Generally a bad sign when you're in the fantasy genre. Turns out the next clearing is home to the MASTER OF SPIDERS, the first of those neat animal-themed Masters that the townsfolk mentioned. He's just cooling out on a cobweb-themed throne in a big pavilion made of spider-silk, letting spiders crawl all over him like a boss.

The homie even rocks the spider-theme medallion with the spider-theme belt-buckle.

 'Just an innocent spider enthusiast?', you may wonder. Nope, the ring got hot as soon as he looked at me, so I hit him with my Fire spell. (Readers can sing the relevant aphorism themselves if they like, I got tired of that joke already).

It turns out cobwebs burn pretty well - not only does the MASTER OF SPIDERS go up in smoke, pretty soon that entire section of the swamp is ablaze. This caused me to "loose" 3 STAMINA from burns incurred in the course of my escape (yes that one made it past the editors somehow). Not a terrible trade-off though, I was on my way.

I kept heading north wherever possible and veered east or west when blocked. Skipping a few encounters, the next interesting thing that I found was a guy having a picnic:

A cheese picnic.

Consider once again that this is the notoriously unnavigable, monster-haunted Scorpion Swamp, where a foul fog obscures the sky, those who venture in are doomed to wander lost amidst the trackless marsh until they collapse or are devoured, a darksome place that right-thinking men fear as much to mention as to enter, et cetera, and so on. And this fruitcake's having a picnic.  "Good day, fighter, will you share my meal?" he asks. Now bear in mind, that archetypal wedge of Swiss cheese looks just as tasty as it does in every single cartoon starring a mouse. But then the Brass Ring got hot. So you know the sword gotta come out. "Let me cut that cheese for you, friend", I said in a menacing rasp, drawing my blade. I hesitated momentarily as it occurred to me that he might think I was alluding to farts for some reason. Maybe I should say something equally tough-sounding that would also clear up any misunderstanding. Or on the other hand, I could just murder him. So I did - a fairly tough opponent at SKILL 10, but the dice didn't go his way. As Steve Jackson II puts it: "The body of the Thief lies at your feet. He was not as clever as he thought he was!" - damn straight he wasn't - this genius set a picnic trap for travellers in, you know, the middle of a swamp that all travellers avoid upon peril of their lives. And I dunno how he thought he was gonna find his way home again either.

You can take his Red Cloak with you, and you also get to eat the cheese, though surprisingly it doesn't cause any of your wounds to start sucking in blood and sealing themselves up. After this encounter I came to point where, to keep going north, I would have to leap twenty metres off a cliff, into water of unknown depth, in plain sight of the GIANT CROCODILES lolling about on the far bank.  At this point I decided that the rule about not doing stupid shit was probably more important than the one about always going north. From my vantage point I could also see a bridge somewhere off the east, so I doubled back to try to work my way over to it.

And here we have one of the nice features of this book - it's designed so you can re-visit the same locations - the paragraph for each clearing instructs you to turn to another paragraph if you've been there before.  So when I went back to the THIEF clearing, the book asked me if I had killed the THIEF already and since I had, it let me skip straight to the direction-choosing. Nicely handled there, Scorpion Swamp.

Fast-forwarding again, I made it to the bridge and got across to the north side of the river. Round about this time I was starting to wonder why they called this place Scorpion Swamp. "You would expect there to be scorpions" I thought to myself. Well, good things come to those who wait. There's one clearing which is pretty much all scorpions.

The boiling carpet of scorpions at the heart of Scorpion Swamp.

An elite strike team of these little rascals swarmed up my pant leg and stung me for 6 STAMINA, which luckily I could spare. Interestingly, the Brass Ring also gave a 'prickling sensation' in their presence, which would indicate either that these SCORPIONS are slightly evil, or the ring has some undocumented features.

"So that's why they call it Scorpion Swamp!" I thought to myself as I squirmed a horrified Cosby dance into the next clearing, slightly evil scorpions still tumbling from the cuff of my pant leg.

No, THIS is why they call it Scorpion Swamp.

You step round a tree to see a GIANT SCORPION fighting a Dwarf who is wearing leather armour. The Dwarf is in trouble. As you rush towards the fight, the Scorpion catches the Dwarf's neck in one of its claws and throws him to the ground, where he lies still. You doubt that you have any magic spells which would be worth using on this enemy. If you leave the clearing while the monster feasts on the Dwarf, turn to 88. If you --

Yeah, yeah - that one, 88. Rule #4. Let's go.

After that amusing diversion, the next time I "stepped round a tree" I bumped into this playboy:

Laying it on a bit thick aren't ya mate?

I pause a moment, but the Brass Ring stays cool.
'I serve the shareholders of the Poomchukker Trading Company' I say, after some consideration.
'Huh. Neutral.' He turns his head and spits. 'What are you doing here. Don't you know this swamp is a pitiless wasteland, where all who enter perish, without hope of escape? Apart from me, obviously.'
'Yeah you and about a dozen other folks I met, out and about on they Sunday strolls.' I mutter. 'One guy had a picnic basket!'
'Well, look. Suit yourself. But it's not very safe here. What are your intentions?'
'Oh right okay well I'm making a map to Willowbend.' I admit with a little why not? shrug.
'Willowbend...' he hisses, and his eyes narrow. I suddenly notice his resemblance to Kevin Costner in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
'I see', he continues, 'in that case, go south, then west at the crossing of the paths. Stay on the path!'
'Sure. Thanks for the directions.' I hoist my pack to my shoulder and turn to leave.
'Wait!' he calls 'Should you meet anyone Evil... send them this way.' He looks to the horizon. A breeze stirs his hair. 'I'm going to jump off this rock and hit them with my sword.'

So anyway I decided that this guy was unlikely to be misleading me and I followed his directions. Along the way I was attacked by a SLIME, which I decided to cast a spell on. Then suddenly I won the game!

Paragraph 400... at last.

Okay, so that was a bit misleading. After my initial excitement I realised that since this book has three possible missions to choose from, there should be three "victory" endings, and they can't all be 400. So I guess that convention went out the window for this book.

But I suppose this is as good a time as any to let you know that I actually did win.

Failure, and -- wait a minute, VICTORY!

Here's how it happened. If you're wondering, I cast Ice on the Slime and it turned into something a little reminiscent of lime ice-cream left in the deep-freeze for a year past its best-by date. I tip-toed around it and went on my way. I knew I was close to my destination. But there was one more group of guys incongruously hanging out in the death-swamp to contend with - five BRIGANDS.

The Brass Ring stayed cool so I figured I'll just roll up to them and say what's up. Turns out these fellers are the most genteel BRIGANDS ever:

The Brigands are accustomed to asking for money from passers-by, but they are not murderers. Although they could attack you, the odds would be five-to-one, they do not feel that would be very sporting. Finally, the leader suggests a solution. 

He suggests that you duel to first blood. You get free passage if you win, if he wins, you give him "something of value".

I suddenly notice his resemblance to Errol Flynn in 1938's "Adventures of Robin Hood".

I gave him a little stab in the leg that drew blood and laddered his tights. He congratulated me on my win, and his mate gave me a swig of water. Then we "all laugh and joke as though you are old friends".

'Hahahahahahaha... oh boy. You guys are cool.' I say, wiping a tear of mirth from the corner of my eye. 'Hey, how's business out here in the swamp? Get many scores? I mean, I had the impression that folks sort of avoid this place.'
The leader frowns, he glances about quickly to check if his companions are listening. 'Yes, it hasn't been easy. More than once our dinner has been nothing more than an unidentified fungus that I noticed growing on a log.' he says in a low voice. 'But the fact is, if we set up on one of the main highways we'll be up against the evil brigands.' His voice now drops to almost a whisper. 'Those dudes are killers!'
He sighs and shakes his head.
I feel sorry for the dejected Brigand Leader. 'Well, word to the wise, mate - I got a hunch there might be some rich caravans coming through this way in a couple of weeks. You just keep your head up and practice your duelling.' I say with a wink.

He thanks me and tells me that Willowbend is near. He even recommends an inn. Once again my game plan has paid off - if you refuse to duel, or otherwise act hostile to the BRIGANDS, the Leader hulks out and you have to fight them all to the death.

"The sword is for gentlemen. DOGS GET THE AXE."

Sure enough, I follow the trail to Willowbend, where I celebrate my success with a night at the Bent Spear and splurge on a Stamina Spell Gem from "Halicar Dealer in Potions & Spells" in case I need it for the trip back. My main worry is that I will have to fight the GIANT SCORPION on the way back through, but it turns out to have waddled off somewhere, leaving only a few scraps of leather armour to mark the spot. I do have to contend with all the baby scorpions again - they're still milling about furiously, but I'm able to hopskotch my way through them. Other than that I'm able to retrace my steps to Fenmarge with little incident. Poomchukker is thrilled with my crappy little map and awards me a great big emerald on the spot. I'm also invited to hang out in his house for the next year so I can collect my share of the caravan profits. Victory at last! Hooray.

Monsters, Combat, Noteworthy Encounters

Okay, actually my journey back from Willowbend was a little more eventful than that. I had to take a detour, which also happened to contain some of the more interesting encounters that I haven't mentioned so far. You see, when I tried to go back through the MASTER OF SPIDERS' clearing, it was still on fire. Even though it was the next day. (It turns out that regardless of whether you use a Fire spell or not, there's no way to get through that clearing without setting it permanently on fire).

I decided to loop back around and try to approach Fenmarge from the western side. I was pretty nervous that I'd meet something horrible and deadly on the way, but the first thing I encountered was a lovely UNICORN!

Look at that little smile! Look at that gleam in his eye!

Unfortunately it was angry that I wasn't a virgin or something because it charged me - and it turned out to be the toughest opponent I faced with SKILL 11, but fortunately that little scratch you can see on its flank had already taken it down to STAMINA 4. Had I been working for the Good wizard, Selator, I might've had a Friendship spell I could've cast on it instead, but I wasn't. I was working for money. I did try to observe Rule #4 and run away at first but I could only go back the way I came, so really it was unavoidable that I slaughter this rare and noble beast. "Damn, that's a pretty Neutral thing to do" I thought to myself as I stepped over its corpse.

So that was probably the book's most dangerous, and poignant, encounter. The next clearing to the south had what is easily the book's dumbest encounter: SWORD TREES.


How did these trees get those swords? The book implies that they've grown them. I think we can agree that's pretty dumb.

So yeah, I chopped them up. Then, finally, as I drew near to my goal, I came upon a log cabin. I notice a WOLF growling as I approached - then the front door swings open and out pops the MASTER OF WOLVES.

This guy was a dick to me. 

Me: "Hi there!"
Him: "You. Get the fuck outta here."
Me: "Er..... okay."

As I go on my way, glancing back over my shoulder, I get angry thinking about how the MASTER OF WOLVES was rude to me. I get a serious case of espirit d'escalier and start thinking about what come-backs I could've made. Like:

"Oh, Master of Wolves, is it? That right? You know I kind of thought you'd have more... wolves, yeah. I mean if one of these guys were to eat some bad meat then you'd be Master of Wolf, wouldn't you." 


"Look the average wolf pack is oh, about six or seven wolves, innit? And you've got... two? I bet there's wolves out there, you know, actually wild ones, that see you coming and say to their mates, they say watch out boys, here comes the Master of Having No Mates! I bet they have a proper laugh, eh?"

And so on, in this vein. I just about resolve to go back and say these things - because this is Scorpion Swamp, and you can go back to places where you've already been - but then another thought occurs to me: Why does he have an axe hanging next to his door, on the outside of the cabin?

Is it in case he loses his key? Or is it a message? Has he left an axe hanging by the door as an open invitation to visitors to cleave his skull? It hangs there, mutely stating: "JUST TRY IT"

The MASTER OF WOLVES is a badass.

As these troubling thoughts were rolling about in my mind, I arrived at the outskirts of Fenmarge and realised "I've won!", so my next thought was: fuck that guy anyway.


The SWAMP SKELETON is a pretty classic archetype - he has green lichen hanging off his bones and will rise up out of the water and such. But, regrettably, he's nowhere to be found in this swamp.

But I thought you guys might be curious about how many MASTERS there are in the book. There's five.  Here's a complete list, along with their ethical orientation:


The MASTER OF FROGS seems to have been basically born into the role. 

Final Thoughts

Well, given that I won this book, I think we can probably say that it's too easy. This might be because I took Poomchukker's mission, which I suspect is the easiest of the three available - the hardest is probably Grimslade's, in which you have to find all the MASTERS and kill them for their disco medallions. But there's a few general features that make the book easy:

  • the victory conditions are very clear, so you can play conservatively and just avoid anything that doesn't appear to directly contribute to winning
  • the Brass Ring's ability to detect evil eliminates ambiguity from most encounters and makes it obvious when you should be aggressive and when diplomatic
  • you can just opt out of many encounters (e.g. the GIANT SCORPION or the MASTER OF WOLVES)

By playing accordingly to my five corny aphorisms I pretty much breezed through (incidentally this risk-averse play style is probably closest to my real-life personality - except of course I wouldn't have gone near the dang swamp in the first place, would probably just have stuck around in Fenmarge and got a job composting garden waste for Selator or something).

From a technical point of view, I rather admire this book. The exploration and mapping mechanism works well - it's almost as if Steve Jackson II had played through the terrible deja vu sequences in "Forest of Doom" and thought - "now how would I fix this train wreck?". The feature is mostly used just to remove encounters the second time you enter a clearing, but it's elegant.

I also like that you have three missions to choose from, which gives the book replay value and a reason to go back in and expand your map (no, I'm not going to play it again, but I recognise that I could play it again and still get something out of it).

On the other hand, it's not a particularly inspired book in imaginative terms - there's a few interesting ideas scattered through it, but in the main it's pretty generic. And if you haven't picked up on it yet, let me point out that I was bothered by the inconsistency between the Swamp's reputation and the fact that there's all these idiots hanging around in it, having a great time, without apparently getting lost/doomed.

All up, an okay book I suppose. I feel relieved that I finally won one - if you get through all 60 books without winning any, it's a compulsory down-trou. I'll be back in a mere handful of weeks to churn through Ian Livingstone's Caverns of the Snow Witch.

Friday, August 19, 2011

#7 - "Island of the Lizard King", by Ian Livingstone (1984)

Okay so the cover of this book is another one of them Cistine chapel joints. It's deep. I'm pretty sure that the original portrait is in a vault in Switzerland, it probably belonged to Mubarak's cousin or something. I heard there is a task force in the British Museum set up only to find this picture and bring it back for HRH the Queen's boudoir. This thing is like a bargaining chip in international diplomacy. Folks is like "okay you can keep your plutonium refinery but first you gotta give us back the OG print from Island of the Lizard King". You might think I'm joking, but this is too important.

The focus of this masterpiece is the boss of the book, the Lizard King, putting in a good run at the title of History's Most Menacing Nudist. His reptilian tackle is mercifully obscured by his snarling pet - you might take it for a panther or puma, but it is in fact a mighty BLACK LION. And, I hope, genuinely black and not just a normal lion that's been doused with a poisonous dye like that poor tiger from Beastmaster (it died, you know).

The only plausible criticism is one of accuracy. According to the book, the Lizard King is supposed to wield a "flaming" sword - he has a collection of them, which is a bit surprising since they're the only weapon in the world that can actually damage him, but I suppose he felt safer knowing where they all were. Anyway here on the cover he has a scimitar that is just kind of gleaming, I mean I'll grant that it is really gleaming a lot, but it's a far cry from honest-to-goodness flaming. Then again, as we saw back in Forest of Doom, flaming swords can be pretty hard to draw - perhaps it's better to just draw whatever kind of sword you're good at, rather than over-reaching and winding up with basically a feather-duster.


The set up of this book is that you're on your way to the small coastal village of Oyster Bay. Why? You want to take a break, visit your old friend Mungo, do some snorkelling, dig up some pipis and whatever.

BUT WAIT A MINUTE - was that the sound of a needle skipping across a record, universally recognized signifier that "the game done changed"? I certainly hope so, because the game HAS done changed. This is the first time we have seen any indication that a Fighting Fantasy protagonist has a friend, or indeed any kind of normal human relationship. Ian Livingstone tells you how to feel about Mungo in typically straightforward prose:

You think about the good times you used to have with Mungo, his constant cheerful nature and willingness to help people in need. You find it difficult to believe that so much evil exists in the land when there live the likes of Mungo. 

You plainly have some pretty sappy feelings for Mungo. But while having the two of you lay around on the beach explaining why and how much you value each other could qualify as an adventure in friendship, the Fighting Fantasy seal always signifies adventures of the significantly more violent kind.

Your guarantee of stabby times since 1982.
Therefore, you arrive at Oyster Bay, polystyrene surfboard tucked under your arm, only to discover that your holiday has already gone badly awry. LIZARD MEN from nearby Fire Island have twice raided the village, kidnapping several young men and kicking over some buckets. Your buddy Mungo bursts out of a hut and announces that he's going to sail to Fire Island to mount a rescue, and then "stares at you in silence". You reluctantly set aside your beach-ball and remove the knotted handkerchief from your head. Then you button up your aloha shirt and kick the jandals from your feet. And then you take the snorkel out your mouth and ineffectually try to scrape the bright orange zinc from off your nose. "Alright Mungo you old son-of-a-bitch... let's go save those villagers" you growl and you both grin wolfishly and laugh like men, and then, old brothers-in-arms that you are, you and Mungo do the Predator handshake.

Mungo lays on some ill hospitality by boiling up a lobster and then he explains the setting of the book as the two of you tuck into that bad boy. Your destination, Fire Island, is basically an aborted gulag that was set up by some   jerk-off called Prince Olaf who doesn't get mentioned again. He built a prison on the island and shipped a bunch of "undesirable characters" (read: political dissidents) over from the mainland before suddenly losing interest in the whole venture. After he stopped paying the Lizard Men, they re-purposed Fire Island as a commercial concern and gave the former prisoners a chance to learn marketable skills by having them dig a bunch of gold mines. Unfortunately these mines don't have a great Health and Safety record and there's a bunch of administrative and governance issues all round. At the bottom of things, it seems like the whole situation is Prince Olaf's fault, but nevertheless it's the Lizard King that you're clambering into a boat to go and murder despite that fact that he has really just been carried along by circumstances and is pretty much just playing the hand he was dealt. But he did kidnap and enslave those villagers I suppose, so there's that.

Rolling Up My Dude

LUCK - 10

These were good numbers. Standard rules again, I paid careful attention this time and remembered to mark 10 PROVISIONS on my Adventure Sheet. And just as well, because this book is just filthy with combat. I basically had to keep a sandwich in my free hand even as I was sword-fighting. I got beat up so many times I had to eat nine meals a day, four of them simultaneously. Just shoving a taco into one corner of my mouth and smashing a watermelon slice against the other. All sitting cross-legged on the bare ground post-fight to wolf down a big bowl of instant mashed potatoes, right next to the steaming guts of some barely-slain abomination. That's when you know you're on the ropes. That's when it's tough.

The Adventure

Paragraph 1 kicks off with the boat trip to Fire Island, which the book uses as another opportunity to remind you of what good buddies you and Mungo are. In what may be the longest continuous speech by any Fighting Fantasy character (eight sentences), Mungo relates the story of how his father, a circus strongman, entered the Trial of Champions one year and predictably died. "At least he tried" Mungo notes with callous good cheer. Let the record show that I have retroactively decided that my protagonist in Deathtrap Dungeon was actually Mungo's dad.

Strangely, when you come in sight of the island, Mungo leaps to his feet and "shouts 'Land ahoy!' at the top of his voice, as though he were yelling the news to the crew of a galleon".

"Shit, Mungo, I'm right here. And Fire Island looks like it's all of five miles away, it must've been visible for hours. What the hell is wrong with you."
Mungo beaches the boat and once again the book's first choice is to go either left or right. Given the option of "scrambling" over rocks to the left vs. "clambering" over rocks to the right I went with scrambling since it sounds easier, if marginally less dignified. So, after scrambling with vigor and pizzazz to the next cove over, you make it about halfway up the beach before Mungo is snatched up and mercilessly dandled by a GIANT CRAB that just pops up from under the sand. The intense pathos of this scene is slightly undermined by the fact that the illustrator didn't trouble to find any reference material for what a crab's face looks like.

Crabs, crabs.... they got like googly cartoon eyes, a big old  mouth like a catfish, and little Martian antennas, right? Or am I thinking of alligators?

You're given the option of abandoning Mungo and fleeing but such tactical good sense cowardice is immediately punished as you blunder into quicksand and are forced to see your friend devoured while you slowly drown. For added poignancy Mungo yells "Why!?", "No!!!" and "I forgive you!!!" as he is drawn inch-by-inch into the creature's anatomically anomalous muppet mouth. 

Not that aiding your friend does him any good. It might look as though he's on a mildly thrilling fairground ride, perched daintily up there on the claw, but apparently he was getting 100% of his internal organs crushed. You murder the crab just quickly enough to hear him gasp his last. In the book his dying words evince the same "easy-come, easy-go" attitude he displayed to his father's proxy-suicide - "Oh well! A lot of use I've been!" - which didn't really ring true for me so I wrote my own version. 

Mungo's Last Words
(the remix)
"Ah... my friend... my friend... it got me... that... that fucked-up looking crab... I swear that thing had eyelids... it's killed me, it's killed me dammit... all up to you now... you get that lizard, that Lizard King... PROMISE ME YOU'LL GET HIM, YOU PROMISE ME DAMMIT ... ah... shoulda gone right... back when we landed... I told you... clambering... much.... easiaaaaaaaah........... "

Of course if you do decide to go right instead of left at the beginning, you run into some PIRATES who are partway through the hilariously stereotypical act of burying a treasure chest, and Mungo gets fatally stabbed by the captain. There is absolutely no way to keep him alive long enough to get further than the intertidal zone. I mean this guy can't even reach the dunes. Reading for the first time as a child I felt utterly gypped as I had been genuinely enthusiastic about the novelty of having a companion on the adventure. However, his only purpose is to set up the story and provide some under-developed motivation for the protagonist, after which he is ruthlessly dispatched before he can start demanding inconvenient new combat rules.

Both PIRATE CAPTAIN and GIANT CRAB are SKILL 10 fights by the way - first fight in the book. Remember back in Warlock when they were breaking us in with GOBLINS, SKILL 5? They saved SKILL 10 for the MINOTAUR, who was like a minor boss. Now we got our best friend dying and SKILL 10 fights straight off the bat. Sheesh.

After burying Mungo in the sand - not in the fun way -  I made my way up the beach and into the tropical vegetation. At the outset the protagonist's plan seems to be simply to walk inland until he gets his bearings which is an okay plan if you've got nothing else to work with I suppose. This first part of the adventure is much in the vein of earlier books, particularly Forest of Doom, just a wander through some more or less random encounters, this time in a vaguely Caribbean setting. An early encounter was with some HEADHUNTERS who appeared to have gotten lost on their way to an Allan Quatermain story from 1910 or something.

Let's just take this at face value okay. 
These guys are all about, and only about, hunting heads. The first time you encounter some of these dudes they have an actual argument about who is gonna be the one that gets to gets to hunt your head, no joke. The  level of intense skull contemplation going on in the ceremony above rivals a hundred Hamlets.

There's also a group of menacing PYGMIES, complete with blow-pipes and darts. You can appease them by handing over a plain old hand axe, which they... (sigh)... reverently accept as a religious artefact. It's all a bit suspect, really. They will give you some scroggin if you push your luck which is handy since like all food in Fighting Fantasy it is the regenerative equivalent of a dumpster full of stem cells.

Many of the encounters are extremely generic and forgettable - "You are walking around. Watch out -- GIANT DRAGONFLY!" - to the extent that I suspect the adventure might've only been 300 paragraphs in draft and needed some padding. But there are a few encounters that tie into the overall narrative, e.g. you can encounter a couple of escaped slaves from the mines. I also found a helpful "if you are reading this I am already dead" note left by another escapee that led me to the mine entrance and my first encounter with two LIZARD GUARDS who were keeping an eye someone's haphazardly stored crockery collection.

"Boss said ta guard them pots and such and that's what we gon do."
When you enter the mines something resembling a script starts to kick in as you sneak around freeing slaves from their LIZARD MAN overseers (at one point I even disguised myself as a LIZARD MAN by putting one of their cloaks - god knows how that fooled anyone, even from behind, it's not like I have a big Dimetrodon sail poking out my back, but it worked somehow - maybe LIZARDMEN hunt by smell?)  I managed to free 63 slaves in my sweep through the mines and we all tumbled outside and finished off the remaining guards. After that the boys were all hot to go and storm the Lizard King's fort but one Elf who never bothered to introduce himself took me aside for a few paragraphs of rapid exposition. Apparently the Lizard King had achieved his #1 standing in the society of LIZARDS by allowing a malevolent brain parasite called a GONCHONG to infest him, which somehow makes him invincible. Anyway the Elf insists that you need advice from the island's Shaman or the assault on the fort will be doomed, so you tell your team to just hang out for a couple of days while you go find the Shaman. "It would be impossible to to track him down in a group" the protagonist announces without any justification whatsoever, and the freedmen just say "okay, suit yourself" and then away you go. Incidentally, you also bum out a guy from Oyster Bay by telling him of Mungo's fate. He's like "Mungo? DAMN" and you're like "I know!"

The narrative doesn't give you any indication as to where the Shaman might be but you just wander off and after another series of random encounters, unerringly walk right up to him at his home halfway up the slopes of the active volcano that gives Fire Island its name.

I suppose a nice pair of dress pants and a tucked-in shirt was too much to hope for. 
You explain that you want advice as to how to defeat the Lizard King and his GONCHONG and the shaman "jumps in the air upon hearing the word Gonchong", which is a cute detail. I'd like to know whether he does this every subsequent time it comes up in the conversation, but the book doesn't say. Anyway, being a shaman, he demands that you undertake some "disturbing and painful" trials to prove yourself worthy of his wisdom. You have to pass three trials of your choice, from a set of six: Luck, Fear, Pain, Revulsion, Strength, and Dexterity. Basically, passing each of these requires either an item or a successful dice roll against one of your stats. The exception is "Pain", where the book tells you that you're in extreme pain and gives you the option "put up with it, y/n", which makes it the easiest of the trials unless you're extremely serious about role-playing. The Trial of Luck is basically a coin toss and in the Trial of Dexterity you just have to throw a dagger at an orange, so it's not all as wonderfully traumatic and primal as advertised either.

I was able to pass trials of Dexterity, Strength and Fear, whereupon the shaman rolled his eyes back and danced around for a while in a disgraceful display of charlatanism before looking me at me po-faced and just relaying a bunch of straightforward information. He says that you need a fire sword to kill the Lizard King/GONCHONG super-organism and, thanks to his woefully poor judgment, the Lizard King happens to have a small collection of them at his house (albeit magically disguised as rusty old knives). He also reveals one other incredible detail about the Lizard King, a moment of unalloyed genius for Ian Livingstone - I'm tempted to issue a spoiler warning but given that this entire blog is basically fat spoilinoma, I won't bother - the Lizard King is terrified of monkeys. "Lizard Men suffer an innate fear of monkeys, even if controlled by a Gonchong" the shaman states with a shrug, as if to say "don't blame me, this bull crap is coming straight from the spirits". All of it boils down to "keep an eye out for some crappy-looking old knives and a monkey", and with this advice fixed firmly in mind I headed back down the mountain to rendezvous with my troops. But unfortunately, I never made it.

Failure, and Death

I stated earlier that this book is lousy with combat, and despite my solid SKILL roll of 11, by the time I met the Shaman I had faced a steady barrage of tough opponents and was down to STAMINA of only 5. Worse yet, I had eaten all my Provisions and the handful of scroggin I got from the hardware-worshipping PYGMIES. So it was pretty bad luck for me that I ran into a LIZARD MAN riding on a fucking dinosaur.

Educated readers will have immediately identified the mount as a STYRACOSAURUS, which is like a Lexus-driver's version of the TRICERATOPS. He has SKILL 11, STAMINA 10 - by applying LUCK rolls to Attack Rounds I was just able to scrape through this fight with a single STAMINA point to spare. The rider, who up until that point had been leaning back in the saddle buffing his nails, then stepped from atop the corpse of his steed to attack me:


Not overwhelmingly powerful but he only had to hit me once. He did.

Monsters, Combat, Noteworthy Encounters

There was probably an opportunity with this book to introduce some interesting tropical monsters but apart from a few carnivorous plants and those very broadly-drawn "tribal" stereotypes mentioned earlier, we mainly get the usual greenskins (GOBLINS, ORCS, OGRES, TROLLS etc), generic giant animals and of course some LIZARD MEN eventually. Even a tropical variety of GOBLIN that is e.g. wearing Bermuda shorts and a coconut bra, or something like that would have been welcome, but no dice. Nevertheless there are a few interesting beasts in the book, my favourite probably being the GONCHONG itself, delightfully creepy in both concept and appearance.

Also of note are these silly little GRANNITS, which look much like a horse-shoe crab would if it were drawn by someone who thinks crabs have people faces. I guess that isn't surprising.

Some GRANNITS in their natural habitat - a cave.
Inset: A horse-shoe crab in its natural habitat - a naked man's photography studio.

From skimming the book it looks like you can actually pick up a GRANNIT and keep it to throw at someone later on. There's also something called a RAZORJAW which, intriguingly, "has evolved to kill all other species".

I'll tell you one kind of encounter this book ain't got though...


So there's every other generic monster like ORCS and OGRES and GIANT FUCKIN' WHATEVERS on this island, but no SKELETONS? That hardly seems proper. Given the lack of magically animated skeletons, I turn my attention instead to the other kind of skeletons - those that are found inside of SEXY DAMES.

And the illustrator was evidently a fan of One Million Years B.C. because they're both cavegirls. The first is a "blonde girl with wild feline eyes" and a pet SABRETOOTH TIGER. You can either run away from her or fight and slay her TIGER, which makes her cry and then you just sidle quietly away, feeling like a bit of a dick.

Somewhere out in the world there's a dude who was eleven years old in 1984 and now can't explain why he has a fetish for poorly-drawn sabre-tooths.
 The other cavelady leaps out from a cave (where else?) and just immediately hiffs a spear at you. With her it's a straight up case of kill-or-be-killed. Not such a big deal as she's only SKILL 5, STAMINA 5, which is pretty sexist now that I think about it.

I got a feeling this illustrator owns every book by Jean M. Auel and if you drop them they always fall open at the same pages. Just a hunch. 
After you put her to death you can enter her cave which is full of rubbish and "smells of rotten food and stale body odour". There doesn't seem to be any shampoo bottles, leg wax or even so much as a safety razor, which suggests a bit of a disconnect between the author and the illustrator.

Racquel Welch, just reeking of rotting food and stale body odour. 
Moving on, I almost felt obliged to bump the sexy count up to 3 after the Lizard King made a late play for recognition with this weirdly sexual-looking pose from the book's final boss fight:

I mean, if homie ever put on some damn clothes this would be okay. But as it stands it looks like one of them 9-ball themed porno shoots. 
Final Thoughts

I feel like Lizard King probably has the best plot out of any of the books so far. Which isn't to say that it's really a great plot, but it does at least work as a story.  You can imagine it playing out as a fantasy action movie, maybe one of the more coherent barbarian movies like e.g. Conan the Destroyer or Beastmaster. Whereas Forest of Doom, say, would be more equivalent to one of the really rubbish ones like Ator the Invincible and the projectionist plays the reels in the wrong order and also a fire alarm goes off before the end of the film and you have to evacuate the theatre.

Actually though I mentioned Beastmaster earlier, I retract that. Beastmaster is a bunch of nonsense - this book has a much better plot than Beastmaster. If you manage to not die, after visiting the Shaman you re-unite with your freedmen for a final battle with the Lizard King's forces, climaxing in a duel between you and LK and his kitty-cat atop the fort. Provided you're not silly enough to give the GONCHONG a chance to jump on your head after the fight, you and your troops triumph over the ev mine mismanagement and paragraph 400 ends: "Mungo would have been proud of you". So you can see there's something like an arc there.

I should note that although our hero has sprouted an unprecedented capacity for adult friendship and concern for others, he has no greater impulse control than any of his predecessors as I found myself turning down opportunities to e.g. stick my whole arm into a hole in the ground, or eat some unidentified fungus growing on a log (that one happened in Forest also, in much the same way: you win a battle and then you're like "oh hey check out this fuzzy stuff growing on that log next to the corpse of my slaughtered foe"). But I played fairly conservatively because for the first time since Warlock I really felt I had a good shot at winning - there aren't aren't a lot of ways to instantly die from making poor decisions, or because you missed an item earlier on - even if you fail to talk to the Shaman you can still blunder your way through to the finish. What difficulty there is comes mainly from the large number of high SKILL opponents strewn throughout the book. It is fairly linear, and I suspect that is a function of the tighter story. I'm not saying that it is impossible to have both a non-linear storyline and an okay plot, but I expect it's more of a challenge to write. We shall see in the weeks ahead if any of the later books really pull it off.

Saturday, April 30, 2011


It maybe seems absurd to posit a hiatus for this blog, which typically goes one or two months between posts anyway. However quite apart from the usual distractions that might keep me from Island of the Lizard King, I've just had a son. Turns out he's a baby and is monopolizing a fair bit of my time, despite being a poor conversationalist and a dreary partner at chess. So, there may be a longer-than-usual delay before the next post.

I'm enjoying writing this blog a lot, so I will return, just as faithful as Lizard King's stalwart companion, Mungo. Wait and see. Thanks for the feedback and encouragement so far.

For the time being, here is my son's head photo-shopped onto my favourite gamebook cover art - Daggers of Darkness (Fighting Fantasy #35)

When I started making this, it seemed like a fun idea. By the end, I was terrified.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

#6 - Deathtrap Dungeon, by Ian Livingstone (1984)

Near as I can tell, Deathtrap Dungeon is far and away the most famous Fighting Fantasy book. Could its renown stem from a classy execution of that absolutely archetypal role-playing scenario, the dungeon crawl? That's quite likely. Or could it derive from the debut of that cherished character "the BLOODBEAST", since 1991 a mascot of Japanese baseball team the Moritaka Petrochemicals Bloodbeasts? Maybe so. Could it be because of the characterisation and dialogue? No, definitely not. Whatever the reasons, more than any other FF book it has left a dent in the culture.

In 1998, a video game version for Playstation and PC titled "Ian Livingstone's Deathtrap Dungeon" was released by Eidos Interactive (not coincidentally, also the company where Ian Livingstone enjoys the Mubarak-esque title of "Life President"). Unlike the source material, it was poorly received in the English-speaking world. For example, it was rated 6.2 out of 10 by Gamespot, an organization that would give a turd 8/10 if it had an advertising budget over $500 (YouTube commentor masteriansun gives the plain English equivalent of a 6.2 from Gamespot - "i'd rather get a blowjob from a lion than play this game again").  On the other hand it was lauded by gaming press in Holland, Denmark and Germany - perhaps due to some cultural resonance in Saxon lands where the likes of DWARVES and GOBLINS are celebrated in "high culture" (opera, public statuary, etc). Holland's "Power Unlimited" magazine gave it 91%, commenting "Eidos heeft weer een vette hit in handen. Ik denk dat Deathtrap Dungeon best eens de populariteit van Tomb Raider zal kunnen gaan evenaren." ("Eidos has another hit in oily hands. I think Deathtrap Dungeon for once the popularity of Tomb Raider will be able to match")

Speaking of Tomb Raider, Eidos had thoroughly learned the principal that "sex sells" from the enormous fame and revenue generated by those two chunky peppermint-coloured dodecahedra on Lara Croft's chest. This, combined with some confusion around the word "dungeon", led to the misleading and inadvertently hilarious advertisement above, replete with bad taste artefacts of the late '90s such as; "X-treme/in-your-face" copy; the lady's latex; the gentleman's shredded capri pants, and; coloured lighting taken straight from the set of  "Batman and Robin" (1997).
While Deathtrap Dungeon has seen numerous fringe theatre adaptations, such as the bawdy cabaret Baron Sukumvit's Daughter, it has yet to be brought to the silver screen. However the cosmic mercy that has thus far masked it from Uwe Boll's attention cannot last indefinitely. Most recently, "Deathtrap" was the first Fighting Fantasy to be adapted into an iPhone/iPad application. I've heard that Ian Livingstone is on the record as saying it's his favourite of the FF books he wrote. Hopefully in this play through I can get a glimmer of understanding as to why the global influence of Deathtrap Dungeon is exceeded only by that of the Holy Bible, the Koran, and almost all of the other normal books where you just read the pages one at a time from left to right.


The book begins some brief explanation of the geography and recent history of the town of Fang, which is on the River Kok in the province of Chiang Mai. All of these are real places in Thailand, by the way. Apparently Ian Livingstone spent some time backpacking around Northern Thailand in 1981 and just couldn't get over how well the place-names adapted to sword and sorcery. (Making up names is the hardest thing about writing fantasy - ask anyone. Or, more specifically, ask the guy that came up "Tybalt Spellcaster" for the latest re-print of Citadel of Chaos)

Thai people celebrating their connection to  Deathtrap Dungeon.

Basically Fang was a no-account town, most famous for the uniquely slow chewing action of its water bison, until one day the town's ruler Baron Sukumvit launched an annual contest called the "Trial of Champions" to be held in his private labyrinth, or "dungeon" if you prefer. (By the way, that's Sukumvit as in Sukumvhit Road, Bangkok). In the first year of the contest, seventeen challengers attempted to pass through the labyrinth, and they all died, falling prey either to monsters or deadly traps AKA "deathtraps". The prize if you win - and no-one ever does - is 10,000 Gold Pieces, which for context is just enough to buy 3,333 lanterns at the Port Blacksand markets and still have a GP left over to bribe the city guard. According to the book, "as the years passed, and the Trial of Champions continued, it attracted more and more challengers and spectators" - not quite sure why this would be since the challengers always die and the spectators only get to watch them walk into a tunnel and not come out again... it doesn't sound like much of a spectacle to me, but then again, some people watch TV about cakes! And some people watch yachting. So what do I know.

By this time, readers of Turn to 400 should be well aware that Fighting Fantasy protagonists are suicidally reckless, without exception. Therefore you will not be surprised to hear that the hero of "Deathtrap" immediately decides to enter the Trial of Champions, "having seen one of Sukumvit's challenges nailed to a tree". I do wonder exactly what the copy was...

...regardless of the specifics, the challenge galvanises our crazy protagonist to throw his tiny, doomed hat into the deadly, deadly ring. The Background briefly glosses over your voyage to Fang, via Port Blacksand - "wasting no time in that [ahem] city of thieves"  - an ostentatious name-drop that nicely indicates the world of Fighting Fantasy starting to stitch itself together (albeit after the manner of Frankenstein).

When you arrive in Fang there are three days to spare before the contest begins, everyone is partying like nuts and buying you drinks and such because, after all, you're about to die horribly. Come the big day itself you blink away your hangover and are escorted to the dungeon entrance by (cough) "a small man with slanted eyes". At the entrance there's a crowd of townsfolk, five fellow contestants and the Baron himself, dolled up in his dressing gown and a hat that would've been a better design for the Starship Traveller than the one they actually went with.  The system is that each contestant enters one at a time, in random order, spaced half an hour apart (once again this is right up there with cricket on a rainy day as far spectator excitement goes).

Not even in the dungeon yet and already I can plainly see some howling ghosts through the doorway. 
Your fellow contestants are a glorious mix of incongruities - three of them are protagonists from the greatest film genres of the 1980s - two barbarians, and a ninja. There's also an elf lady but forget her, she gets killed by a boa constrictor anyway. Oh and a knight. That guy gets turned to stone, forget him.

Rolling Up My Dude

SKILL - 10
LUCK - 11

Not bad stats. The rules in this book are as normal and you start with the usual 10 Provisions and a sword. Plus maybe a shield. A lot of these books seem to equivocate about whether you have a shield or not. I might've had a shield. 

The Adventure

Okay things begin when your number comes up, you are fifth to enter, preceded by the knight, the elf, the ninja and one of those lovable barbarians. A few metres down the entrance corridor there's a table with six labelled wooden boxes on it, one for each contestant. So here we are launching straight into an atmosphere of high-stakes tension - "is this just a plain old box or is this gonna be a deathtrap", you have to think to yourself. I had faith that Ian wouldn't insta-kill me off the first paragraph so I opened it up - inside is 2 GP as a reward for your trusting nature and a patronising note from Da Baron in which he reveals "you will need to find and use several items if you hope to pass triumphantly through my Deathtrap Dungeon" - yes, that is his idea of a "hint" (dick), so let's keep our eyes peeled for some... items. Sadly you are not given the option to loot GP from the other contestants' boxes and must instead proceed to your next challenge: a T-junction.

I grouse a lot about random direction-choosing in these books but I have to say that this T-junction was quite a lively conundrum - you can choose to go west, following three sets of footprints and a white arrow painted on the wall, or to follow a solitary set of footsteps to the east. I quickly decided that going west was "too mainstream" and headed east, where I soon had the awkward experience of having to clamber around a giant puffball that was blocking the corridor. I get the sense that this puffball wasn't really meant to be part of the dungeon and someone had painted the arrow back at the intersection to try to head off embarrassment.

Further along the corridor you start to experience a sauna-like heat and are given the option of drinking a clear fluid that you find lying around. I assumed Da Baron had turned up the heat to trick me into drinking poison, but in fact it turned out the heat itself was the trap and they'd left a helpful potion lying around to give you a chance of surviving it - nice fake-out. Fortunately I passed a SKILL roll against the heat with the result that "only [my] immense strength and grim determination prevents [me] falling unconscious to the floor" - not mentioned: my astonishing stupidity, which prevented from me from heading back to the T-junction and going down the other route before the heat started to reach "verge-of-death" levels.

Anyway a little further on and with my pores well and truly open and refreshed, I caught up with the mystery person whose footsteps I'd been following - and it looks like he fell for an extreme version of that old classic gag, "standing on a rake":
Barbarian #1: "U GOT DEATHTRAPP'd!" 
Notably, you are given the option to rifle through his loincloth and devour some "strange-looking dried meat" that you find there - yep, the protagonist's poor impulse control extends beyond his enthusiasm for contests that are known to reliably kill all of their players and into a kamikaze gourmand's urge to eat and drink whatever things are to hand while roaming about underground. I also filched the bait from the trap, a silver goblet, luckily avoiding a second deathtrap in the process. I don't know if the goblet serves any purpose later because I died shortly afterwards.

Failure, and Death

Ian Livingstone's been to Thailand, apparently.
A little further in I came across a statue of the local equivalent of Fat Buddha, given an Allansian twist in the form of those two sidekicks you can see flanking him in the picture (they're Dire Flamingos, stuffed by some especially ambitious taxidermist - but predictably enough they can come alive and attack you under the right conditions). His eyes are made of emeralds, and having played Deathtrap as a child I knew that, just as in the European aristocracy, you need to collect precious stones to win. Clambering up to the idol's shoulders, you are given the choice of chipping out the left or right eye (the third eye shown in the picture is due to artistic license and doesn't really exist apparently). Being right-handed I chose the right eye (much easier to brace against Buddha's nose with my left hand while standing on his protuberant lower lip, leaving my right free to work on the gem). And then...

"Much to your surprise, the emerald shatters on contact, releasing a jet of poisonous gas straight into your face. The gas knocks you out and you release the rope, bounce down the idol and crash on the stone floor. Your adventure ends here."

This "U GOT DEATHTRAPP'd" message is brought to you by Ian Livingstone, and Ian Livingstone's cameo as a mutilated prisoner chained to a wall.
Monsters, Combat, Noteworthy Encounters

So yes, my adventure was pretty short this time out. The only combat I actually had was with a couple of ORCS just after the sauna-corridor - they were about as much interest as ORCS ever are, i.e. not worth mentioning unless you're trying to write a thesis about Tolkein being racist.

Flicking through the pages, there seems to be several tough fights some of which I suspect are unavoidable. Your fellow contestant the NINJA, should you fight him, is SKILL 11. There's numerous SKILL 10 opponents, including mainstays such as a GIANT SCORPION. And then there's the PIT FIEND, a SKILL 12 Tyrannosaurus.

Known to children and the young-at-heart as the PIT FRIEND.
My old pal and cover model the BLOODBEAST is SKILL 12 also, this guy is I think maybe the first genuinely original and interesting monster to appear in the series. He's about the size of a large hippo and hangs out in a hot tub full of acidic slime his whole life, slapping at passers-by with his big gross tongue. According to my copy of Out of the Pit, his "one major weakness" is getting poked in the eyes, "so it has evolved hundreds of fake 'eyes' that rise in blisters before bursting open on its head". It's baffling to me that no-one has yet marketed a BLOODBEAST plush toy - this guy has character.

Less original but pretty amusing is the IMITATOR, an (ahem) homage to the classic D'n'D Mimic, i.e. a shape-changer that disguises itself as inanimate objects and then punches you.

Saaaay, what kind of a dungeon is this?


The cover for 1998's Ian Livingstone's Deathtrap Dungeon, which Life President Ian Livingstone insisted depict a SKELETON head.
Yep, just the one. To the casual observer, this may appear innocent enough, merely the mortal remains of a man who suddenly died while taking his ease. But in fact it is a SKELETON, playing a trick! If you grab at his rolled-up parchment he will get up and attack you, "rising from [his] chair in a series of jerky movements".

If you don't try to take the parchment, he is like "DAMN" and then waits for someone to walk past again in next year's contest.
I should point out that this is almost the most obvious thing a SKELETON could ever do. This is such a classic scenario it's basically a natural law. If you should come home one day and find a dusty skeleton on the couch, clutching your remote control in a death grip, don't touch that mess. I don't care if your "life partner" thinks it's dead. I don't care how much cobwebs it's got on it. Don't be touching that SKELETON. Maybe call the cops. They are trained for these situations.

Final Thoughts

Now you will note that I basically died on a 50/50 coin toss, which is normally the kind of thing I would have a whinge about. But I don't want to come across as a big baby who gets upset 'cos he can't win on the first play through. These books are supposed to have replay value. Also this book is very clear from the outset that it is not trying to be fair. The setting is specifically designed to kill people, it says it right there in the name - you cannot spell "Deathtrap Dungeon" without DEATH, a dungeon, and at least one trap. It is not supposed to be a functioning city like Port Blacksand, or a natural environment / nudist community like Darkwood Forest. The artificiality of the setting in Deathtrap actually saves it from some of the flaws of earlier game-books because the unconnected encounters and your Bizarre Search Behaviour do actually make sense within the "Running Man"-style game show context. Suspension of disbelief becomes a lot easier because the overt rules of the environment exactly align with the unstated rules of the form.

The closest parallel in terms of setting to Deathtrap is probably the original Warlock, also a dungeon full of disjointed encounters. But it exceeds that book in every aspect, mainly through filling your decisions out a little with interesting details, like which set of footprints to follow at that first T-junction. I think the presence of the other contestants in the dungeon also enlivens the book to a great degree as you can stumble across evidence of their activities (including their corpses), fight them, or in one case even briefly team up (that's the ill-fated Barbarian #2, Throm). So by book 6, the series seems to have a good head of steam on - let's see what plays out next in book 7, THE ISLAND OF THE LIZARD KING.