Thursday, 25 June 2015

#45: Spectral Stalkers


Peter Darvill-Evans

Reviewed by Mark Lain

At face value this book has little appeal. By that I mean that its cover does it no favours and is amongst the worst FF covers ever: a purple gargoyle is confronting a green humanoid bug in a wizard’s hat whilst gold-coloured sheep-grubs graze in a pasture with a Germanic fairytale castle standing on a cliff-face in the background – look a little harder and you’ll see a vague spectral outline behind garish yellow splatter-letters announcing this to be “Spectral Stalkers”. Oh dear, this does not look promising. What madness is this?

Open the book, however, and the interior seems rather more interesting – a colour map of a maze with a poem, Tony Hough artwork depicting a vast array of material from Medieval Fantasy through to what seems to be Sci-Fi, very long paragraphs (almost always at least half a page in length), and loads of creatures that we have hitherto never heard of in FF. Intriguing enough to want to give it a go I’d say. After all, FF #28 Phantoms Of Fear has an abysmal cover but is well worth reading/playing, so hopefully we are in for a pleasant surprise with Spectral Stalkers too. And indeed we are!

This book is without doubt one of the most high-concept and hugely inventive of all the FF series. YOU begin by having your fortune read (Darvill-Evans always loves to use the “start in the middle of something” approach to throw you straight into the action, rather than providing a context-setting intro) which does not bode well for you as you draw a blank card that does not actually exist in the deck and the fortune-teller tells you to prepare yourself for a destiny that does not lie “anywhere in this world”. Dark clouds then ominously approach and you encounter a wounded giant human lacewing thing that gives you a sphere and tells you to “beware the Spectral Stalkers”. What then follows is a truly bizarre trip through Darvill-Evans’ fertile imagination starting with a visit to the Library In Limbo (with its bespectacled Dragon receptionist), followed by numerous dimensions within the Macrocosmos that the Aleph (the ball the dying lacewing gave you) contains. The Aleph essentially contains all that has ever and will ever exist, meaning that possession of it gives the holder total power over absolutely everything, something the baddie of the piece (the Archmage Globus) wants so he has sent out the Spectral Stalkers of the title to track it down and bring it to him. YOU need to get to Globus and stop him from becoming Overlord of Everything. And that is the plot in a nutshell: avoid the Spectral Stalkers, find Globus, defeat him, save the Multiverse, return home to Khul and live happily ever after. Unusually simple for a book in the quite densely-plotted 40s part of the series, but what really carries this one through is the variety of worlds/dimensions that you can find on the way. It is, of course, possible to cut to the chase by going straight to the Ziggurat World where Globus lives (and very unusually you can still win by doing this) but you will miss out on all the fun and not really see the point of how the Aleph works and the huge impact it has on this adventure. Plus it will seem very short too!

The Aleph itself uses (for the most part) two mechanics to determine how the trip progresses. The less common one is effectively your desire influencing it (Do you want to go home to Neuburg? Do you want to get straight to the point and go to the Ziggurat World? Will you place yourself at the mercy of the Aleph? Do you want someone to explain what all the stuff you’ve collected might be for?) but, more often than not, you move from one place to the next by rolling a dice. An even number sends you one way, an odd number another. This then opens out further along where any number from 1 to 6 can send you off in any of six possible directions. Which brings us to the first important feature of this book: there is no true path and it would be grossly unfair if there was one given that you have very limited control over your dimensional route, instead you can go in basically any direction and still have a chance of victory. Plus, even in the slightly more linear final section on the Ziggurat World there are still two routes through, both of which can lead to winning. It’s always nice to be given freedom to explore in gamebooks rather than analysing the map to find the author’s one true path and this is a welcome approach. Conversely, this also means that there are no essential items or information to find - although most items will make it a bit easier for you, you will not necessarily fail without any of them. Furthermore, the randomised nature of how the Aleph works means that no two playthroughs are ever likely to be the same and with 14 worlds to visit (including the Ziggurat World) there must be thousands of possible different routes through. This is clearly a very unique gamebook.

Another feature of this book is that it is very short on combats (assuming you do not decide to kill everything you meet, of course, as the option is there if you want to take it) and it is even possible to complete it without a single fight and/or by curtailing many of the fights if you do get into them. The idea of putting the overall concept over the tradition of fighting being essential to role-play is a mixed-bag and, on the one hand it is a refreshing change that makes you focus more on the ideas being presented, but it can make this feel like it isn’t really FIGHTING Fantasy as such. Whichever way you look at it, it’s different and new ideas were needed by the 45th book in the series so it is still a good thing. In a similar vein, the final showdown with Globus involves no combat at all, instead you need to use your cunning to defeat him based on a piece of detail that you can pick up along the way. Of course, you can still stumble across the solution without knowing the info by just picking the right option so, again, this can be completed whether you find the info or not.

Equally, this is one of those rare FFs that can genuinely be beaten even with rock-bottom starting stats. The lack of combats helps this a lot, although I would suggest that a low Skill could cause you more of a problem if you take a more perilous route on the Ziggurat World as there are several Skill tests (and some combined Skill+Stamina tests that can involve rolling six or even seven dice in logically unlikely to be survivable moments) on certain paths at that stage. There are, however, very few Luck tests which also helps your progress. There are even quite a few bonuses to be had to your Skill, Stamina, and Luck which will make it even easier for you, especially if you have a weaker character. As with all later books, we have a new stat in the form of Trail, but it is unlikely to really cause you any problems unless you are taking the psychotic approach. It starts at zero and only increases if you draw attention to yourself too much (which makes sense as you start to leave a trail of where you have been) and testing it involves rolling THREE dice, a test that you only fail by rolling UNDER your Trail, which means that failing a Trail test is quite an unfortunate achievement. If you do fail, the Spectral Stalkers will get you and take you to the end of the book (rather than killing you) where you have as much chance of still winning as if you had not fallen foul of them. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it seems to be a missed opportunity to scupper careless players – any sighting of the Stalkers can give you a frisson of terror, but once you know that they don’t do anything to you, you kind of stop being bothered about them. Globus wants the Aleph, not you - you just happen to be its custodian right now, so in that sense it just about works. Generally, Trail does not really add much, but it does allow the Stalkers to play a recurring role and also adds a slight element of fate to the proceedings.

It is fairly obvious then that this is an easy book to complete (it may initially seem harsh that you only start with 2 Provisions but that is hardly a problem either), although there are individually challenging moments to add meat even though they don’t really have any bearing on your ultimate fate. In particular, the Maze World is almost impossible to get through without having all seven Sigils which are other spheres (and one wheel arch that for some reason Elves are afraid of) that are scattered about various dimensions. Given the completely randomised nature of your route it is unlikely that you will find them all, plus there is a continuity error in the Maze where you can be sent to the wrong linking section on at least two occasions, so this part is not a huge success. Also, the human chess game requires a lot of concentration and analysis of the two-page board and rules to get right, not that the outcome matters much overall so, again, this is a missed chance to add a bit of difficulty. Indeed, many of the worlds you visit yield very little in terms of useful equipment, most are just cameos to show the sheer enormity of the Aleph’s infinite possibilities and also the vastness of Darvill-Evans’ invention.

What really makes this book work so well and come alive is the various dimensions that range from fantasy to Sci-Fi:
  •      Neuburg 400 years into the future – which seems just like Neuburg now and basically involves you avoiding a potential murdering by an unscrupulous innkeeper
  •      A world where skeletal beings are fighting a war that you get caught in the middle of
  •      A dune planet with a Golem problem
  •      A human chess game being played so that the giant girl being that is playing can avoid being forced to get pulled by her opponent giant boy being
  •      A vampire circus (with a main protagonist with a rather transparent anagram name)
  •       A futuristic alien specimen hunter’s ship (where Robbie The Robot can be shorted-out with a fire extinguisher)
  •      A world where funny little things called Felitis seem to think you’re their God or something
  •      A redneck Elf witch-hunt world
  •      A world with giant shape-changing hunters
  •      The home of a talking musical instrument that is being ruled by evil pig beings called Zwinians
  •      An eerie haunted Toy Museum/Castle world
  •      A mapmaker’s Sci-Fi world (who looks like Davros)
  •      The complicated Maze World mentioned above (although it’s worth negotiating if only to meet the hilariously bizarre Logic Dog)
  •      And the linear Ziggurat World where Globus has his lair

Some of these are more fleshed-out than others whilst some just form very brief cameos and some can just be avoided completely in terms of getting to the end, but the enjoyment is to be had in exploring each of them to see what weird and wonderful ideas are in this book. The longest and most exploited by a long way is the Ziggurat World which (whilst it should be big as it’s the climax of the piece) is a bit of a pity as it’s easily the least interesting of the bunch. The Crystal Garden is curious and the narcissistic talking doorway is a laugh, but too much time is taken up on climbing hills and dealing with a couple of alien races that live there for this to be interesting compared to the rest. Other than this one, all the other possible dimensions/worlds are very imaginative and the world-hopping section of the story mixes Dr Who motifs with Terry Gilliam’s films and the Quantum Leap idea of body-swapping to create a really varied, intriguing and entertaining adventure experience.

In spite of its totally off-the-wall nature, this book still reads like a Peter Darvill-Evans adventure. It is “set” (or at least it starts and ends) in Neuburg in Khul which was the setting for PD-E’s first FF (#25 Beneath Nightmare Castle) and his repeatedly occurring fixation for acid and toxins comes back again here, particularly in the final part. This gives it a slightly unsavoury flavour but, assuming you’ve gone via the various worlds to get there, this may not seem too over-bearing in the way that it did in BNC. A big element of PD-E FFs is his inclusion of unique and original creatures and there are none as unique as those found in SS as, given that you jump through dimensions as well as time, literally anything is possible, be it variations on fantasy fare, futuristic ideas, horror imagery, and some stuff that is just wacky fun, but it all adds to the variety and inventiveness on show here. What Darvill-Evans also does very well in his books is laying on the atmosphere thickly with long explanatory sections and, particularly in-depth descriptions of creatures and locations that are genuinely believable in their detail, in spite of the bizarreness of it all. An interesting added element of SS, though, is the way that some material is truncated for the sake of pacing and avoidance of digression. For example, you are often told that you walk for hours to get to places which must make some locations pretty featureless, but it does add to the effect nicely. Also, unlike some FFs, certain moments of peril are presented efficiently such as an electric staircase that requires you to first decide which step is safest but then, rather than just repeating itself over and over in a bid to reduce your Stamina, the book decides that you have cracked the puzzle and lets you literally skip the rest. There could have been some extra challenge included in this part, but it does avoid too much focus on minutiae when you are really supposed to be exploring the Aleph’s possibilities, so I’m happy with this as it is.

Everything about this book is undeniably bizarre and Tony Hough’s very varied and weird internal artwork (with more than a hint of Whovian influence to be seen in places) is the perfect accompaniment to your brain’s attempts at getting your head around it all. It’s not necessary to have every slight detail presented graphically, but there is just enough of the main moments (every opening arrival section for each world has a picture, for example) for you to be able to switch between the worlds effectively. As for Ian Miller’s hideous cover, it is just that (hideous and garish) but it does present a major plot element so there is some saving grace to it.

Spectral Stalkers is a bonkers, but highly original and thoroughly enjoyable gamebook. It is unbalanced in that the less interesting second section is as long as the world-hopping part, is very very easy to beat, but its one-of-a-kind construction allows for ample re-play possibilities, and it is really good to find a FF book with as many paths through to success as there are possible combinations of routes. The lack of either combat or item-hunting may not be to everyone’s taste but there are so many things going for this book that it is hard not to recommend it. Almost, but not quite, brilliant, but unquestionably a tour de force of imagination and gamebook design. Well worth playing if you are looking for an antidote to the more traditional FF fare, plus it mixes fantasy and Sci-Fi in a fun way that few 100% Sci-Fi gamebooks ever could, whilst still being a Titan-centric entry. It probably makes rather more sense if you are off your tits, but who cares when there is this much fun to be had!

Thursday, 18 June 2015

#36: Armies Of Death


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Having wowed us with the brilliance of #6 Deathtrap Dungeon and then impressed us with its long-hoped-for sequel, #21 Trial Of Champions, a third visit to Fang’s designer dungeon would probably have been a bridge too far. Instead, IL chose to continue the franchise by expanding on the closing line of ToC that tells you that you decide to spend your winnings on assembling an army. Conveniently, we learn in the opening section of Armies Of Death that this comes at the same time as this week’s scourge of Titan surfaces in the form of the Shadow Demon Agglax. In a slightly forced-seeming backstory you learn of how a scavenger called Drek found a sealed bottle that, on breaking the seal, accidentally released Agglax who immediately headed off to assemble an army of death to destroy Allansia (well, we certainly haven’t had that kind of idea in the series before, have we?)

So, on the one hand, IL has not taken the simple way out and re-built Deathtrap Dungeon yet again which would have been fairly easy to do and would have been a crowd-pleaser, assuming it came out at least half-decently as no-one expects too much from a second sequel. However, on the other hand, and this is the biggest problem with this book, the whole construct seems tired and almost laboured. One thing that strikes you very quickly is how the encounters for the most part just seem to be a hodge-podge of creatures from very early FF books: Gark, Calacorm, Fire Imp, etc, plus a catalogue of monsters in particular lifted from #3 The Forest Of Doom (Hill Men, Fishman, Werewolf, Goblin, Shapechanger, even Yaztromo’s crow Vermithrax has a cameo!) Coherence in terms of creature habitat is always welcome and these have already been established as Allansian species in previous FFs, but it seems to me that IL could not be bothered to include many new ideas, preferring to simply re-use some more memorable creatures from the series’ past. His inclusion of the Shapechanger in particular should not be seen as a shock given his self-confessed fondness for it and, granted, there are still a few new monsters here (the Blog is amusing in restrospect lol), but it does all feel a little forced creature-wise. The incorporation of mass combat rules should be a positive attempt at introducing a whole new dynamic to FF books but the rules for Skirmish Battles where you get to “command” your army in combat do not feature much and are (oddly for IL) more often than not very weighted in your favour eg: a whole 10 Centaurs against several hundred of your troops is not particularly likely to cause you any problems. Particularly odd, given that this book is fundamentally supposed to be about ARMIES, is that the final showdown between yours and that of Agglax requires no Skirmish Battles and only involves select small units of your army and, even then, these are “do you have....?” checkpoints where your army acts as if it were items rather than warriors. This is a big problem that makes the end seem completely un-climactic and you do wonder what role your army was ever really meant to play. Add to this a very crap end baddie who takes very little defeating, along with the fact that it is practically impossible to fail any of the army SIZE counting checkpoints that feature here and there, and you end up with something that fails to live up to either its title or any expectation of an almighty showdown to save the world. It is of course possible to not have certain people in your army (and this will kill you) but getting them to join is easy as is finding them on your journey.

The final section is at odds with the opening part where you are very much in command of a large body of fighters. You start with 100 Warriors, 50 Dwarfs, 50 Elves, and 50 Knights, and carry (an otherwise unheard of in FF) 700 Gold Pieces with which to buy more support along the way. Initially the book has you choosing whether to have them travel by boat or march, but, after a few “group” episodes, the book quickly reverts to a more conventional solo trek through Zengis (which takes up a large chunk of the adventure) followed by a brief solo dungeon in search of a key NPC called the Oracle (hmm, very original!) Then follows a reuniting with your army to head across plains in search of the big payoff that never really happens. If you take the wrong turning right at the start, the book can seem rather more like it really does just involve leading an army as you very quickly meet your opposing force, miss out most of the book, and fail miserably as you have missed all the key items/retainers which are on the solo route. No prizes for guessing then that this is a typically linear one true path Livingstone effort that requires you to amass a long shopping list of essential items and, as it comes post-Crypt Of The Sorcerer, a huge amount of incidental detail information too. But, this time some of the information is unbelievably granular to the point where you have to know how much gold you paid for two particular items (assuming you guessed right and bought them, of course, not that money is an object for once) and, in one outrageously obscure moment, you are even expected to answer a question the answer to which is nowhere in this book and you need to have read Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World to know it (although you do have a 1 in 3 chance of just picking the right answer from the choices, of course.) Similarly, characters with low Skill or Luck scores have no chance as there are many tests of both, and this book contains the single most brutal Skill penalty that I know of where you can be blinded for -6 Skill and -2 Luck – this can potentially leave you with no Skill at all! IL’s use of arbitrary dice rolling to determine your fate rather than any stat comparison is back again and it has to be noted that throwing a 1 is almost always disastrous so there is a predictability in the chance rolls that you don’t normally get in his books – again, this feels a little lazy. To further make the player suffer stat-wise you do not start with any Potions or Provisions and there are only two moments in the game where you can restore lost Stamina, which is very harsh. Unusually for Livingstone though, most combats (either solo or skirmish) are actually quite easy and you don’t need to have all that many battles to get through the book (and the end baddie is not insanely tough for once), although there are two tough fights just before you find him that you might not have much hope of winning purely due to your severely depleted Stamina by this stage. In a logical move, incidentally, if your army is wiped out you are assumed to have died in the melee too which is a realistic touch. Also, in a bid to keep tracking your army size manageable everything works in sets of 5 ie troops die, and are found, in multiples of 5. What makes less sense and, again, makes the whole skirmish/army concept work badly is that you can choose which units your troops have died from –and it does not take a genius to work out that Elves and Knights will probably have special talents that you are going to need, which means your Warriors tend to become sword fodder.

It is not just the execution of the overall concept that seems awkward in this book though, as very little of the army-based element makes much sense: Why does your army just stand around waiting patiently for you whenever you go off on a solo mission? Given the number of spies that Agglax has about the place, your troops are surprisingly loyal. Yes, I realise they join up to fight the demonic threat, but does this really make any sense, especially as you have a tendency to get them poisoned and/or killed at numerous points outside of battle? To expand on this slightly, as you travel through the region that is meant to be under attack from Agglax’ army, everywhere seems oddly peaceful and comes across as anything but under threat. Indeed, even on a one-to-one level, the questions the locals in Fang are asking you about the Trial Of Champions show a hell of a lot of insider information about something that is meant to be secret (ie the Trial itself) so this does not add up either. In fact, you could summarise this by saying that a lot of this book’s plotting makes no sense at all if you try to analyse it!

That said, there are a few very neat moments that can make this book an enjoyable experience in spite of its curiosities. There is a very clever run-in with an Elf which turns out to just be a Hag’s trap and you really do feel the tenseness of the moment when you think you are supposed to be avoiding springing a trap. There is a nice series link when one of your Dwarf troops mentions his time when he was working in a slave mine (a reference to #7 Island Of The Lizard King, presumably), a very clever moment comes where your army can contract malaria from the River Kok (a direct reference to Thailand, presumably), and there are several thematic carry-overs from the previous two Deathtrap Dungeon books (there are lots of traps to fall foul of, you can be robbed of all your gold by a Leprechaun à la DD, and it seems like almost every item you need to find is made of gold à la ToC) so you do still get a feeling of continuity in spite of the dramatic switch of theme.

Rather annoyingly, however, there are a few noticeable moments where IL seems to be boring us and/or being too preoccupied with newer interests than FF. I know it is intended to be a joke, but I find the pie-eating competition to just be childish (serious gaming has no place for a stat for Pie-Eating Skill), a seemingly potential-filled visit to a Gambling Hall produces nothing beyond one game (there isn’t even a choice) that is far from imaginative, and the ramblings on the subject of sailing from Obigee/Ian Livingstone may yield an essential piece of info but we don’t care about IL’s then fondness for yachting. OK, our patience is rewarded in this episode but it simply does not fit. Ditto, the hugely predictable Oracle’s cave “challenge” where you just know by FF intuition that you must drink from Libra’s fountain, and the two halves where right/left turns always lead to failure seem devoid of invention or design effort.

As Ian Livingstone’s FFs go this one is among his weakest, but it is not written any differently to his others. His text is typically colourful and atmospheric. It is the material content that lets this book down. Equally, the internal art by Nik Williams is very effective and the cover is excellent, as is only to be expected from Chris Achilleos. In spite of CA's great cover on the Puffin original, I do also like Wizard's reissue which is essentially the same idea but just made more modern and threatening-looking.

This should be an interesting idea that allows the Trial Of Champions cycle to open out considerably. Sadly, the final product is marred by illogicality, poor deployment of the intended concept of an army FF, a general feeling that perhaps IL was going through the motions, and repetitive info collecting. It is nothing like as hard in real terms as many other IL FFs but it is also nowhere near as good. Yes, the idea of commanding an army is fun but the focus moves away from this for far too much of the book. There is even a rather knowing closing line related to the by now way over-used lunatic of the week theme which says “how long will it be before a new peril threatens... Allansia”... and that just about sums up the feeling of being underwhelmed that this book leaves you with. It fits into the general “meh”-ness that was a feature of most of the 30s part of the series’ books, but IL has sold himself short with this one. Not bad, but by no means essential.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

#21: Trial Of Champions


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The sheer popularity (not to mention, brilliance) of #6 Deathtrap Dungeon, combined with the fact that it was set in a wholly artificial environment, made a sequel book almost inevitable. Indeed, these factors made DD arguably the most franchise-able of all the books up to the point where number 21 appeared and when its imminent release was announced the news was greeted by me (for one) with considerable enthusiasm. Cynics might say that sequels are never quite as good as the first instalments and some may have quickly assumed that this would be the case here, but I welcomed this book with open arms. But is it a worthy successor to DD?

Firstly, there are many similarities to the first book, presumably to avoid accusations of there being no commonality of theme and approach:
  •           The dungeon is roughly divided into two sections, each ending with a Trialmaster encounter which requires you to demonstrate your fighting as well as mental abilities to succeed
  •       You are one of several contestants (five, rather than six this time, but the other four are far higher status than in the first book) and the true path requires you to encounter all of the other four
  •      It quickly becomes apparent that you are going to need a lot of items to get through this, especially trinketry (in the form of lots of gold rings this time)
  •      There are umpteen Skill tests (and several Luck tests too, mostly to avoid combats though) and having a Skill lower than 11 will give you no hope of getting anywhere at all
  •      Seemingly dangerous routes often turn out to be good to take (DD has a corridor that grows ever hotter but is on the true path, ToC has a dark corridor full of revitalising volcanic mud)
  •      There is a certain generosity and ready availability of stat bonuses, but this is tempered by loads of stat penalties, even on the true path
  •      There is an encounter where literally ALL of your equipment can be stolen, although it comes much earlier in this second book so is nothing like as depressing when it happens and you realise you must start again
  •      IL seems to be obsessed with pits again
  •      Certain creatures will cause instant death simply by winning an Attack Round
  •      The true path is linear, very tight, and allows no room for digression
  •      But, the incidents on the wrong routes are just as worth experiencing as those on the correct one so there is considerable re-play value
  •      There are many many traps (appropriately) and incidents designed to make an over-honest player part with their all-important trinkets
  •      Instant deaths are common

However, to avoid this simply being a re-tread of the first book, there is a lot of new material/ideas:
  •      Hidden codes (three in total) have to be found and victory is impossible without them – in a neat touch you actually find the second before the first which can leave you thinking you’ve gone wrong somewhere even though you are on the right path – which is a more “modern” approach in keeping with the direction FF was now taking in terms of cheat-proofing
  •      The reward for victory has doubled from 10,000 gp to 20,000
  •      Due to the nature of the backstory, you start with no Provisions or Potions (although food can be easily found en route and you can completely reset your Stamina at one point)
  •      There are far more items to collect this time and the majority of combats are tougher with Skills around 10 being the norm
  •      There is still one final combat to deal with AFTER escaping the dungeon (ie just surviving “The Walk” is not enough this time around)
  •      There are several (often lethal) moments where your fate is determined by rolling one dice as opposed to by saving throws against stats, making this seem rather more arbitrary
  •      The overall plot is dramatically different...

... and the change of plot makes for a very different-feeling Trial this time around. In response to a previous adventurer having beaten his Trial Of Champions (ie you are not the same character as in the first book, which is commonplace in FF sequels), Baron Sukumvit has licked his wounds and come back with a vengeance unleashing an altogether deadlier Trial on anyone foolish enough to attempt it. Enter Sukumvit’s brother (Lord Carnuss) who wants to get one up on him by finding an unfortunate sap who could beat the dungeon. This is where you come in – having been captured at sea and dragged to a slave colony on Blood Island, you are forced to undergo numerous gladiatorial combats to eventually leave one man/woman standing who has proved themself tough enough to attempt The Walk, and tough you have to be as, again, without a Skill of at least 11 you have no hope even in the prologue section. If you survive the arena you then head for Fang and the Trial proper. But, if you do beat the dungeon, a personal vengeance element comes into play when you have to kill Carnuss himself before being sent to paragraph 400. So the whole motive for playing is totally different this time around. You are not a glory-seeking chancer - instead you are playing for your freedom and for closure. This does add a more perilous angle and even getting to the Trial itself can take several failed attempts. This also explains why you start without the usual accoutrements of an adventuring hero. Naturally then, given all the elements that come into play here, even compared to the first book, it goes without saying that this FF is extremely difficult!

What made Deathtrap Dungeon so good was the sheer imagination that went into designing what was essentially an old-school dungeon trawl and ToC is no different in that respect, being another very inventive dungeon full of fiendish traps, challenging (but not impossible) puzzles to fathom out, and a whole catalogue of great encounters. Some may be disappointed to learn that no creatures return from the first book (ie no Bloodbeast) but is this really a bad thing? Yes, the Bloodbeast in particular is iconic, but this is a totally re-designed Trial Of Champions, so it makes sense that nothing has survived from the first iteration as Sukumvit (ie Livingstone) clearly decided that that one was too easy after all! The creatures this time around show a lot of invention, particularly the hideous Coldclaw, the manic Bone Demon, the very sinister and challenging Liche Queen, and the mysterious Xoroa. Add to these a few non-combat creatures to deal with such as a Siren, and you have a really wide variety of challenges on show. Most of the traps in the first book were of the gory type, and there are many again this time around, but there are a few moments that show advancement in the design of traps/tricks, especially the void that you can launch yourself into if you are not careful, and the teleportation room that sends you off-track and makes the game initially un-mappable until you develop some familiarity with the dungeon design overall. In a really neat trick, however, there comes a key moment late on where you in fact must teleport yourself otherwise you are trapped for good. This is a really good twist and is a nice change to the usual situation of just wandering around in search of the true path. Ok, overall there is a slight feeling of conceptual déjà-vu as you explore the sequel dungeon, but there is enough new material here to make this book stand on its own two feet. Plus the map is totally different too.

As with the first book, you need to run into your co-contestants, but the roles they play are rather more limited and this aspect is a let-down compared to the first book. Two of the other four are met in straightforward combat situations (which is hardly imaginative), the Elf is found in the grips of death and helps you out (as before), but the Dwarf is very unusually and much more effectively incorporated in that he is trapped in a trick box that you can fall foul of and consequently free him by accident. Although the book states that you enter second of the five, unlike the first book there is little real evidence of the other four having passed by anywhere, instead they just seem to sort of materialise, which is a shame. Equally (and unusually for a IL FF), there is no requirement to take a travelling companion which removes the heart-rending ethical moment where you need to kill a friend as there can only be one winner. I guess it would have seemed a bit too obvious to include this again, but the overall deployment of the other contestants is weak in this second book.

By contrast, this time around I found the pivotal Trialmaster moments to be much more interesting (bar the lack of ethical dilemma caused in the first book.) The first is not overly difficult (a tug-of-war Skill test, followed by an easy maths challenge, then a strategic exercise), but the second is hugely demanding and incorporates combat prowess with item checking, cheat-proofing, and pure random decision-making as you have to prove that you have found EVERY gold ring from within the dungeon (and there a nine of them which is a lot by any true path standard), then find three secret sections based on info, followed by a Fire Imp combat that then evolves into a somewhat tougher Fire Demon fight, and finally a lever-pulling choice (from four options) to avoid being crushed to death. To call this a relentless catalogue of potential fail points is an under-statement and this episode alone is enough to say that this book is way tougher than the first. If you survive this second Trialmaster’s test (and remember that the only way to reach it is via teleporting then using a particular key that can only be acquired by de-coding a word game early on in the book), you still then have another item check, a direction choice, and finally the combat with Lord Carnuss to overcome to be able to finally claim victory. Sukumvit was not kidding when he claimed that his new Trial was much more lethal than his first!

A really important element of the first book was the marriage of Iain McCaig’s superbly threatening artwork with Ian Livingstone’s urgent and forebodingly atmospheric text. Ian’s writing is equally as effective and snappy in ToC, but the use of Brian Williams’ oddly artificial imagery this time around is a bit of an own goal. There is something far less dangerous about the art in ToC and you do not get the same feeling of horror or awe. The fact that the Wizard re-issue edition used a much better-realised re-worked version of Williams’ Skeleton King on horseback (this time by the brilliant Martin McKenna) shows just how much more impactful the art could (and should) have been. The Puffin edition’s cover opts to show a moment from the slave arena prologue which, whilst not really the focus of what is meant to be Deathtrap Dungeon II, does add an element of intrigue and shows that this is more than just a return to potentially familiar territory. There is an effective sun-drenched quality to the very bold yellows and reds of the cover and, although very different in both effect and plot exposition than the Wizard cover, I think it works well. In fact, both covers work well, but in different ways, and it is rare that a Wizard cover has any merit at all, let alone the considerable impact of this effort!

Trial Of Champions is very much another Deathtrap Dungeon, but from an era when people were demanding more than just the simple pursuit of glory from their FF plots. This book is a worthy successor to the first, but it was never going to be quite as good simply due to it being a repeat of the same basic formula from the seminal first book and comparisons were always going to be made. But, if you play this for itself, or with no prior knowledge of DD (and none is really necessary), this will seem brilliant, and it is certainly still very good in its own right. There's even an open ending where you spend your winnings on assembling an army, which eventually led to another sequel, #36 Armies Of Death

Monday, 1 June 2015

#6: Deathtrap Dungeon


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Successfully following the superb FF #5 City Of Thieves was not going to be an easy task and IL’s follow-up book in a semi-linked trilogy that started with CoT would have to be a borderline masterpiece or seem rather inferior by comparison. When Deathtrap Dungeon appeared on bookstore shelves in 1984, the book that in the intro section finds us travelling from Port Blacksand to Fang to compete in Baron Sukumvit’s Trial Of Champions (aka “The Walk”) would prove to be the yardstick by which all subsequent role-playing dungeons would be measured, and would indeed prove to be the FF masterpiece that it needed to be.

What is fundamental to this book’s brilliance is the fact that this is a manufactured designer dungeon and that your character is purely out for personal glory. As it is a synthetic creation rather than a naturally occurring environment just about anything goes, which means that the logic issues that blighted so many of the other earlier FF books are negated simply because whatever you encounter has been put there as part of the trial, rather than you stumbling across something’s lair that would otherwise need a context. The only context here is your own ambition and the main focus of the book is clear from the outset – get in the dungeon and get back out again as a hero. Starting with a carnival atmosphere, the introduction describes your arrival in Fang and your being treated as a celebrity as one of this year’s contestants in “The Walk”. However, as soon as you enter the dungeon and turn to paragraph 1 the whole tone changes to one of foreboding as you step into the unknown. So there really is no messing about from IL here – no handful of prologue sections that make you negotiate your way to the Trial itself via a few potential pitfalls, no contextualising of YOU in social or status terms, just straight in and off you go. The whole point of this book is to pit you against the GM’s imagination in the tradition of old school Dungeons & Dragons, requiring you to kill just about everything in sight, as well as use your cunning and guile to negotiate some of the more cerebral moments (ie puzzles and traps.) You are even told from the outset that it takes both brawn and brains to be victorious in the Trial Of Champions and the sheer enjoyment factor of just dungeoneering purely for the sake of it makes this refreshingly different to the usual FF fare of either assassinating an evil baddie, getting some sort of personal closure, or doing some good deed or other. Not that there’s anything wrong with these more serious types of missions, but it’s undeniably fun to just be able to smash up a completely fake dungeon every now and again.

...And what a dungeon this is! The sheer inventiveness of what Livingstone throws at you makes every turning you take and every door you open worthwhile. Indeed, even the wrong turnings and incorrect routes offer as much variety and excitement as the intended correct ones, rather than being throwaway filler material eg: the brilliant and tough Mirror Demon which you can only encounter by going the wrong way. In keeping with the theme of this being essentially a “game” devised by a devious mind (for Baron Sukumvit read Ian Livingstone, surely) the initial sections are fairly undemanding with minor perils, easy encounters, and simple to figure-out traps. The deeper you go into the dungeon the harder it becomes, culminating in three super-tough Skill 11 monsters, followed by your ultimate test at the hands of one of two Trialmasters. This final section bares testimony to the need for physical strength as well as intelligence, forcing you to use your Skill and Stamina scores to the max, then your ability to use cryptic responses to unravel the correct combination for the lock to finally escape the dungeon. The two Trialmasters themselves appear at pivotal points in the dungeon, the first at slightly more than halfway, the second at the final test as above. The first Trialmaster’s test is mostly physical (two combats) but also involves a dice-rolling game where the result is based on actual dice rolls so can effectively have any outcome rather than just an arbitrary pre-determined solution, which adds both fairness and variety. Equally, the first of Trialmaster #1’s combats is affected by your decision-making (and puzzle-solving, although the puzzle is very easy) and subverts expectation wherein a Minotaur is easier to fight than a Giant Scorpion (that has to be treated as two opponents), which is an interesting angle. The second combat is rather more of a test of your morals in that you have to fight another contestant who you cannot have made it to this stage without agreeing to work in conjunction with. Ok, this is IL’s ever hit-and-miss companion stunt again, but it does create a good dilemma for you and works well here: on the one hand you had no choice but to befriend him, but on the other hand you know there can only be one eventual victor so either you or he must die at some point.

Which brings us to the other contestants themselves. When you arrive at the dungeon entrance (and shown in the illustration too), five NPCs are presented as your competition: two Barbarians (who both look cast from the Conan mould), a female Elf, a Knight, and a rather shady-looking Ninja. There is a great touch of continuity that runs throughout the adventure in that you can meet each of these (once) along the way and can also see evidence of their having passed by in certain places ie footprints in corridors, a missing jewel, and actually finding them as you progress. Interestingly, only the true path allows you to encounter all five of them, but their fates and/or ways of interacting with YOU are nicely varied: the Knight is found petrified having failed a puzzle question that you have to get correct or meet the same fate (being turned to stone); Barbarian #1 is impaled on a spike trap (handy as it completely avoids you suffering the same fate, unlike the turning to stone episode); the Elf is found half-dead in the coils of a giant snake (and turns out to be helpful as she gives you important info with her dying breath); the psychotic Ninja is the last one you find, very close to the end and is rather hard to locate (but you have to find and kill him as he yields an essential item); and Barbarian #2 (Throm) befriends you and then dies at your hand in a moving moment as mentioned above. Incidentally, you are told that you enter fifth in line ahead of a Barbarian, so presumably Throm was number six and just got ahead of you?

As this is an IL book, the adventure has only one true path but in this case this makes perfect sense. This is a game designed as a challenge so there is inevitably going to only be one correct route through to victory. The intro even tells us this! Similarly, there is a fairly long shopping list of essential items but, again, this is to be expected as the dungeon would logically be laid out to allow you to find an item and then use it further along the path. Of particular importance are gems and you must find three in particular (emerald, sapphire, diamond.) As with most IL FFs the first one is to be found very early on, with the final one (the one the Ninja has found) coming just before the end. What is a very canny touch is that there are also red herring gems to be found, including a fake diamond, a jewel where the correct diamond was once mounted but has now gone, a ruby, and two topazes. This makes finding the true path all the more challenging and adds to the gradual unravelling of the dungeon’s layout. It is laid on pretty thick that you need to find gems to succeed and, although you are eventually told this outright by a NPC, you will probably have realised by then anyway due to the number of them that you can find and the emphasis on your disappointment at finding a fake or an obviously stolen one. Also, as with all IL FFs it is simply impossible to win without having very high starting stats. You are subjected to an endless catalogue of Luck and Skill tests (including a combined test of BOTH Skill and Stamina) and will almost certainly suffer a Skill penalty even on the true path. Add to this the three Skill 11 combats that come very late on and a starting Skill of anything under 11 will almost certainly give you no chance of winning. Ditto, a low Luck, although you will die much earlier on in this case. Consequently, this is one of the rare FFs where selecting the Potion Of Skill at the start is probably the best option. Additionally, you must be careful how you use Provisions (which you will need to do as small Stamina losses are very common due to traps, stings, etc) as, again, you must lose some through soaking at least once, if not more than once. On that note, there is also a very harsh moment where you can have ALL your equipment stolen by a Leprechaun if you are particularly unfortunate, but if this happens you will probably realise you need to start again!

As with all IL FFs, though, the difficulty level (and this is a very hard adventure for obvious reasons) is tempered by moments of generosity. There are many opportunities to eat and drink along the way, Baron Sukumvit has put several items (eg: Gold Pieces) around the dungeon to deliberately help those who will risk being curious, and there are several Luck and Skill bonuses to be had. Of the three aforementioned ultra-hard end combats, one (the Bloodbeast) only has to fought for two Attack Rounds (assuming you can find its weakness) and another (with the Pit Fiend) can be avoided completely, leaving only the vicious Manticore as a mandatory fight to the death. Dealing with three “specials” in close succession is quite an ask of any character no matter how strong, but the end should be tough and it certainly is!

There are, however, a few moments that do seem unfairly weighted against you, especially the combat with the Mirror Demon (although if you have found it you have gone the wrong way!) where if it ever has a higher Attack Strength than you, you die instantly, which is bordering on irrationally difficult. Many of the traps (of which there are loads) give the illusion of difficulty, but a high Luck score and a certain amount of knowse will get you past them. There are many moments where taking dangerous risks is essential (including passing two pit traps), but, again, this is a test of your worthiness so risks should be part of it. As regards the final trial to open the door (Trialmaster #2), you, in theory at least, have as many chances to get the combination of gems right as you need. So often, FFs are blighted by your only having one chance at guessing something or other correctly at the final analysis, but here you a) don’t instantly fail by getting it wrong, and b) even get some slight clues as to how to get it right. At least, you get both of these for as long as your Stamina holds out as this would be neither a trial nor an IL book if you did not suffer the consequences of getting something wrong and each incorrect combination results in a 2-7 Stamina point penalty. In other words, having fought two or three very tough enemies you will probably only have a few chances at this before you die.

However, re-play is essential in a book which is designed in the way this one is and mapping is key to revealing the labyrinth. It will take many many attempts to find all the items you need and to simply be alive long enough to use them all, but you will want to re-play (even after beating it) just to see how truly inventive and fiendish this dungeon really is as there is a huge amount of excellent material on offer here (a similarity this book shares with #3 The Forest Of Doom and #5 City Of Thieves.) Indeed, this book really does have everything you could possibly want from a dungeon: monsters to kill, umpteen traps to negotiate, items to find, and riddles to solve. Add to that its excellent pacing and you have a rip-roaring ride that you will want to experience over and over. There are a few minor errors eg: I cannot find a Ring of Wishing anywhere, but these will not detract at all from the enjoyment. In the final gem trial each section allows you to select the section you are on but this might just be to make sure you are paying attention to the hints and to penalise you in Stamina loss for simple stupidity so we’ll let these go too.

Livingstone’s prose is always atmospheric and this is certainly the case here, but it would not be the same book without Iain McCaig’s superlative art. From the terrifying and justifiably-legendary Bloodbeast on the cover to literally every image inside, this has to contain some of FF's greatest art work ever. If only it were in colour as that is the only reason why I would rate IM’s art in Casket Of Souls above the art here. It is a huge shame that Wizard Books chose to replace Puffin’s Bloodbeast cover art with what is almost a replication of the Skeleton Warrior internal image which, whilst still very impressive, does not have the same impact (or focus on a key moment) as the Bloodbeast cover does. For gamebook historians and/or completist collectors there is also another cover image (of a skull on a black background) that was only used on the edition that was included in a boxed set released with the PC version – again, an impressively scary cover, but it isn’t the Bloodbeast and we all love the Bloodbeast, don’t we!

There can be no doubt that this is one of the best gamebooks ever written (both in FF and in gamebooks in general) and is the dungeon to beat all dungeons. If you want a lesson in gamebook design then #24 Creature Of Havoc remains the greatest FF book ever written, but if you want a lesson in fantasy gaming in its purest form then you will struggle to find a better read than Deathtrap Dungeon. Its influence is huge, having spawned an official sequel, several fan-written sequels, a Warlock follow-up campaign, a PC/PlayStation game (that bears no resemblance to the book, incidentally), and even a few muted attempts at film adaptations. I never fail to be amazed by this book no matter how many times I re-read it. In a word, brilliant.