An adventure in Fighting Fantasy's "gamebook" RPG subgenre

Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon (Puffin, 1984), the sixth installment in the Fighting Fantasy Gamebook series, pits the reader in a dungeon that promises a substantial reward for anyone who emerges victorious. Prior to the reader’s attempt, no one has survived the challenge, making it more of a cruel setup on the part of the host of the contest, Baron Sukumvit, than an actual contest. Nevertheless, the reader and five other adventurers decide to make an attempt at beating the odds. The quest will not be easy.

Fighting Fantasy books allow readers to make choices throughout the narrative that determine the outcome of the story. As an added bonus, there is a role-playing game component in that readers roll dice to determine skill, stamina, and luck scores, which can end up having a significant influence on their ability to be successful. Throughout the adventure, readers can collect and use items and periodically engage in combat with all sorts of enemies. The outcome of the combat also is determined by the roll of the dice and the readers’ and enemies’ statistics.

The environment and the decisions afforded to the reader by the narrative create a whole world of adventure and exploration. Many of the books take place in the same fantasy world, which grew in detail and background as new entries to the series were published. The visual imagery that the book invokes in the readers’ imagination is outstanding and allows them to build on their guided daydream as the book progresses. The mind is much more versatile and dynamic than even current generation consoles. Each book also employs outstanding artistic portrayals of key scenes and enemies throughout the adventure, which are both admirable and engaging to come across.

A full-page rendition of an encounter with orcs.

A full-page rendition of an encounter with orcs.

I believe it would be revealing to provide a glimpse of how my most recent adventure played out. For those that have not yet read the book, I should mention I’ll favor vagueness so as not to spoil any outcomes for decisions. These books can’t truly be “spoiled” because they are often fun and engaging even after reading them. Like many good books, they can continue to reward the reader who revisits them despite the content being the same. I can certainly attest to that in this case, as I’ve been reading this one for over twenty years.

It had been a while since I made it through this one successfully, so a lot of the choices were rather new to me due to my not remembering the consequences or what the adventure required me to do in order to be successful. Fighting Fantasy books generally have few paths that lead to victory but many paths that lead to one of a number of defeats. Combat can be fatal, but reader choices can also result in several instant-death types of situations. Additionally, if readers can make it to the end of the dungeon but are missing any of several key items that are necessary for the adventure, they cannot be successful, requiring them to start over and try different paths and choices.


The Adventure Begins

My adventure started with decent skill and stamina rolls, but pretty crummy luck. I was the fifth to enter the labyrinth, following a knight, an elf, a barbarian, and a dark assassin. I favored the less-followed path, as is frequently my approach to games. I collected a few items along the way, including a tiny bit of gold and a rope, and drank a random potion. I got into my first encounter with two orcs and, due to what I believe was a worst-possible roll, had to enter the battle at a pretty serious disadvantage with a reduced skill attribute. I ended up prevailing and continued on my way.

I then came across another of the contestants who had fallen victim to a trap and been killed. I ate some of his food, needing all of the stamina I could get after that first fight, grabbed a goblet in the room, and moved on.

There’s this horrible fight that I still have dreadful memories of from when I read this back in the early 1990s. It confronted me again as I entered a cavern with a huge statue that has jewels for eyes. You can, and, if memory serves me correctly, you really should, take one of them. Doing so gets you attacked by a couple of Flying Guardians. Since you are hanging onto a statue while you are fighting them, you are once again disadvantaged with reduced skill, not to mention outnumbered. I’ve died in this battle more times than I care to admit.

I emerged victorious, yet failed to get my rope back with a bad luck roll. Hopefully I won’t need it again. A little further down the path, I came across a room infested with flies and maggots. It held a pretty awesome-looking dagger that I always get due to the illustration, even though I don’t believe there is a benefit to having it. I even lost more stamina in doing so, as I had to fight one particularly large fly. I felt it was worth it as I noted my new prize in my inventory.

Deathtrap Adventure Sheet

“I felt like I needed to see what was on that parchment.”

I ended up coming to a pit in the middle of the walkway and was given the option of throwing my shield across and then following it, jumping across with all of my stuff, or trying to swing across using a suspicious rope hanging from the top of the cavern over the pit. I opted for the former and lost my shield and a skill point, but survived. A couple of rooms later, I found a skeleton seated in a chair, probably a previous contestant, grasping a parchment. I felt like I needed to see what was on that parchment, as it could very well save my life later. I tried to take it, was attacked by the skeleton, and after having been battered here and there throughout my journey, was vanquished in the fight.

I’d made some decent progress, and re-learned where some items were and what obstacles would confront me. I’d have to try again with fresh rolls, but would certainly retain my map and perhaps try to get more coverage of the dungeon by going different ways so I could start to figure out an optimal path. Ultimately, I know I’ll succeed again.

This entry in the Fighting Fantasy is an outstanding one, and remains fun to me even today. I’m not clear on why I prefer it so much to others I’ve done. It has some interesting challenges throughout the dungeon, as well as some different types of situations you can find yourself in that are unique to this adventure as far as I know. At one point, for example, the reader can even choose to tag along with another of the contestants, which creates an uneasy alliance as both know that only one can survive this trial. After many attempts, emerging from the dungeon alive is quite a rewarding victory, and the look on Baron Sukumvit’s face (which I can’t share easily, as it’s not presented in the book) is priceless. After that, I can only sharpen my pencil, get some fresh paper for maps and inventory and fighting, and dive into another adventure. The stories, environments, and challenges vary from book to book, but the thrill of the adventure and the rewards of success remain and call me back to pick them up one more time.

A stack of worn FIghting Fantasy books

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Works Cited

Livingstone, Ian. Deathtrap Dungeon. New York: Dell, 1985. Print.