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.


  1. Glad to see these continuing, and that you got further in this book, have produced a much funnier write-up, than I did in my exploration of the Dungeon.

  2. A lot of people (i.e. on criticize the FF books (and Livingstone's in particular) for being disjointed lists of unrelated encounters thrown together in a dungeon and then declare DD, the absolute epitome of this style of game design, their favourite. Apparently without any sense of irony. This sort of design stands or falls on the quality of those disjointed encounters and DD is pretty good at it.

    (Your comment on the intended replayability is spot on BTW, these days I can't take to the Lone Wolf books where you are quite likely to get through on your first attempt by taking common sense decisions).

    The PS1 game was shite but gave us a young Kelly Brook in PVC though, so it wasn't a total loss.

    I wrote a blog post ages ago about the piss-poor attraction of the Trial of Champions as a spectator sport, I sort of justify it in my own mind as being accompanied by (off-stage) town criers shouting out the latest news from within the dungeon to an exceptant crowd.

  3. Isn't the ninja just before the room with the infinitely-respawning Chaos Warriors -- which isn't a Your Adventure Ends Here but might as well be -- or is that in Trial of Champions?

  4. That's Trial but isn't there a similar infinite loop section in Creature of Havoc?

  5. Re: CoH, yes, if my memory of that frustrating book is anything to go on. Oh, to have played it with the benefit of the internet, which has allowed me to find out that the book was actually impossible due to a misprint.

  6. I don't think the misprint is a misprint, just SJ being very devious. explains it better than I ever could.

    In fact since Wizard have "corrected" this in their printings and every change Wizard ever did in their printings is 100% wrong even attempts to "correct" it suggest it was right in the first place. I think that's circular logic but it will do. :)

  7. @DrBargle - yes I read what happened to you - I guess not all of us have the "immense strength" and "grim determination" required...

    @CoopDevil I like being able to make some decisions based on common sense in these books, but as in life when you are deciding whether to take a risk you have to guess based on incomplete information - I think the key is for the writer to give you SOME information rather than SOD-ALL information, even if it is not sufficient for an "informed" decision per se. The footprints at the T-junction thing really is a beautiful example of this and I was quite impressed by it.

  8. ha ha they should've stayed true to the original and dressed that Kelly Brook in a BLOODBEAST costume

  9. Man I'm having a great time now just imagining what a Halloween-style BLOODBEAST costume would look like

  10. "The footprints at the T-junction thing really is a beautiful example of this and I was quite impressed by it."

    Yes, and though I didn't get much further than that decision, it at least created the illusion that I had some grounds for choosing one path over another.

  11. Yes, there's an infinite loop in Havoc; it's that boney doctor fellow who keeps getting up when you kill him.

  12. Great post! That picture of the Thai yellowshirts will get you arrested in Bangkok on charges of lese majeste but I won't tell the Thai Minisitry of Culture if you don't! ;-)



  13. Just to let you know that I have given you the Stylish Blogger Award. Head over to my site and take the image to display proudly on your awesome site and check out the fun rules that go along with it.

    Scott M

  14. @Scott: thanks! but I'm sure you would revoke it if you saw what I was wearing

  15. Very nice. I have a vested interest in these books now, but you are really bringing out the feel that made them unique. Yes, they can be rendom, but what th ehell, that is the spirit of FF!

  16. My Year 11/12 IT students whose current project involves creating an RPG based on Warlock of Firetop Mountain are eagerly awaiting your next review. They particularly enjoyed your comments re the Forest of Doom map. They say to each other "You got deathrapp'd". It's worrying in a number of ways.

  17. Hello! Like Scott, I have decided to give you the Stylish Blogger Award. Head over to my site and take the image to display proudly on your awesome site and check out the fun rules that go along with it.


  18. Hilarious parody.

    I always thought the encounter with the idol and its eyes was inspired by the cover illo for AD&D 1st edition. I recall thinking when I playing this game years ago, "Oh, I know where Livingstone got the idea for this encounter."

  19. "CoopDevil I like being able to make some decisions based on common sense in these books, but as in life when you are deciding whether to take a risk you have to guess based on incomplete information - I think the key is for the writer to give you SOME information rather than SOD-ALL information, even if it is not sufficient for an "informed" decision per se. The footprints at the T-junction thing really is a beautiful example of this and I was quite impressed by it."

    It's an interesting question: where do you set the slider between predictable consequence and genuine surprise? If you err too much towards the former, the game becomes too flat and uninteresting, too much towards the latter and it feels better as a narrative but starts to feel disconnected as a game (you might as well just choose at random). The ideal situation is to allow smart inference but require the player to "read between the lines" to some extent, but this is tricky to get right: are the readers on your wavelength? are they smart enough?

    Interesting that Lone Wolf is mentioned as an example of a gamebook series that slid more towards predictable consequence. This was true in the early days, but by the end, Dever seemed to have become so lazy and uninterested (perhaps unsurprisingly after so many books) that the final few books involved hardly any true decisions *at all* and were mainly decided by sheer brute-force die rolling.

    I work as a video game developer these days and I'll always be grateful for the insight into the mechanics of creating a game/universe with finite resources that the FF books gave to me.

  20. I explain the sordid truth behind Deathtrap Dungeon on my blog:

    - Stalin Brando

  21. For the record 10000 gold pieces will also buy you 5000 hot meals at an ordinary tavern in Port Blacksand. It certainly won't go far if the player character is at all extravagant. The prize should at least have been substantial to balance the awful risk.