Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Pour le Prestige *et* Pour l'Argent

I'm pretty sure that Deathtrap Dungeon was the first gamebook I got new rather than second-hand. I have vague memories of beholding a blue-and-red spread of copies of it and Island of the Lizard King in the book section of Boots (they used to have one), and of being amazed at the profusion of Instant Death sections right at the start of the book.

My very first attempt went worse than it should have done because I blundered, reading section 12 when I should have gone to 13, thereby missing out on a significant chunk of the dungeon, including the first of the vital jewels and an essential piece of information. I wouldn't have won even if I hadn't made that mistake, as I passed up the opportunity to acquire the second jewel I needed. And I think I cheated a bit, and pretended I hadn't knocked on a trapdoor when it became apparent that doing so led to getting speared in the throat by a Goblin.

It seems unlikely that I used dice, as I recall making it as far as the exit and lacking all the necessary jewels a few times, and there's no way of avoiding at least three fights against opponents with Skill scores in double figures on the way there. Then again, I hadn't quite managed to beat the book by the time my dad had a go at it, and dice were definitely being used by then, because I deliberately ignored the double six rolled for the Giant Scorpion at one point during that fight, as that would have meant Instant Death. And during the final battle, after the Manticore won a few rounds in quick succession, dad insisted I let him take over the dice-rolling as I was doing so badly. Maybe he thought I was cheating a bit, so he wouldn't win the book before I did. He never did find out about the times I'd fiddled things to keep his character from dying.

So, the premise: some years ago, the ruler of an obscure province came up with an unlikely but successful tourist attraction. It's a large subterranean complex with one way in, one way out, and a load of traps, monsters and other life-endangering stuff in between. Once a year, anyone who thinks they're up to the challenge gets to go in. If anyone were ever to make it out of the other end alive, they'd get a large sum of money, but nobody has. And vast crowds gather every year to watch an unspecified number of adventurers go through the entrance one at a time and never be seen again. Imagine a reality TV show in which cameras aren't allowed where the contestants are, the public don't get to vote, and there's a high probability that all the participants will die. Actually, don't, or Sky TV might get ideas.

This year, my character has decided to be one of the contestants, not so much for the money as the fact that nobody has ever survived - a more extreme version of the 'because it's there' factor that motivated the viewpoint character of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. So let's take a look at the man who believes himself capable of beating a challenge that has a 100% fatality rate up until now...
Skill: 8
Stamina: 21
Luck: 11
Idiot.

This doomed fool travels to Fang, the town where the eponymous dungeon is located, via Port Blacksand because Ian Livingstone has started world-building. After a few days spent sampling whatever entertainments Fang reserves for those about to die, he wakes from a dream that vaguely foreshadows the sequel to this book, and is led to the dungeon entrance where the other doomed contestants await. There are six in total, and he is the next-to-last to go in. Time for a quick perspective shift...

A short distance into the dungeon I find a table bearing six boxes, one of which has my name on it. I open the box to find a parchment bearing a message from dungeon proprietor Baron Sukumvit and two gold pieces. The note mentions that I 'will need to find and use several items' to make it through the dungeon, and for some deranged reason I memorise this and then destroy the parchment. Had it never occurred to me that acquiring McGuffins would be necessary? Is that fact such a super special secret that I really need to ensure that the last contestant doesn't get a chance to learn it? Am I not concerned that one of the other boxes may provide him with the exact same clue? Or even a different one, like 'you will have to kill some monsters' or 'the traps in this dungeon are harmful, and you would do well to avoid them'?

At a junction I see footprints indicating that three of my predecessors turned west, and one east. This is not one of Ian's patent 'go the wrong way and you've failed already' junctions, though there are some deeper in. Still, not following the crowd gives me a marginally better chance of surviving one impending encounter, so I follow the loner. After clambering over a disconcertingly squishy boulder, I have to turn north, and soon become aware that the temperature is rising. A recess in the wall contains a bamboo receptacle with clear liquid in it. Quite a neat dilemma for first-time players - is the liquid deadly, and the heat a trick to make the cautious more willing to drink it, or is dehydration the real danger, and the liquid the solution? Of course, by now I am well aware of what's going on here (I even flagged up an error in the text for the book's listing at Demian's site), so I know the optimal course of action, and take it.

Beyond the heated stretch of corridor, I see a door with a sliding plate set into it. Behind the door are the first of many pits to be found in this place, and a coil of rope. Having been advised that useful items are useful, I have the brilliant idea of taking the rope.

The passage turns west, and I run into a couple of Orcs. There's a chance of getting disarmed at the start of this fight, but I get off comparatively lightly with a flesh wound. Some appalling rolls mean that I take a lot more damage than I should against such minor foes - if I'd lost my sword, I'd probably have wound up dead.

Continuing on my way, I see more of the footprints I noticed earlier. They go up to a door in the wall, but don't come back out again. Behind the door I see why: the Barbarian who was second to enter the dungeon is impaled on several spikes protruding from a large board that must have sprung up from the floor when he triggered it. I help myself to his provisions, as he won't be needing them, and ignore the silver goblet I see in an alcove, as it's not something I need.

Returning to the corridor, I reach a junction, and see evidence that the three contestants who went left all survived the dangers of their chosen route, as their footprints all emerge from the passage facing me and turn north. I automatically follow in their footsteps, entering a large cavern that contains a massive idol with jewelled eyes, flanked by two big stuffed birds. It's a little surprising that none of the others to pass through here attempted to pilfer a gem. Maybe they were worried that doing so might cause the idol to animate (what a ridiculous idea), or they didn't want to risk the climb.

I have a rope. This makes it pretty easy for me to ascend to the idol's head and start to prise out one of its eyes. The idol does not come to life. The stuffed birds do, though, and while I manage to clip the first one's wings, the dice remain predominantly unfavourable. A little later, the sixth contestant will pass through here and, based on what I know of his character from more successful attempts at the book, will probably hurry away, wary of whatever caused my death. And everybody will fail, as the jewelled eye I died trying to acquire is one of the items needed at the end of the challenge.

By this book, Ian Livingstone has definitely lost faith in the FF mantra, 'any player, no matter how weak on initial dice rolls, should be able to get through fairly easily'. Before long, he will have unofficially switched to, 'any player, no matter how strong on initial dice rolls, should struggle to make it even half way through the book'. And a couple of books after that, he'll just turn nasty.

Perhaps if this book hadn't been so massively popular back in its day, FF wouldn't have got quite so ridiculously uplayable as it did at times. But the fans wanted tough fights and gruesome deaths, and that's what we got. And continued to get, even after at least some of us had matured enough to recognise that there were better ways of making a gamebook interesting than repeatedly shredding the player's character.

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