Wednesday, 15 May 2013

I Will Let You Down

My after-school wanderings on the day that I acquired Trial of Champions, Ian Livingstone's sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon, took me as far as the High Street. I may have got the book before I got down there, though: I started reading it while walking along the street, and I was outside the (now closed and derelict) cinema when my character fell victim to the Mind Warp Beast, and I think it unlikely that I could have got that far into the book while covering just the distance from the book shop on the High Street.

One of the reasons ToC got written was because of the large number of fans who wrote in requesting or demanding a sequel to DD. It is, consequently, a little odd that this book has the viewpoint character forced to enter the redesigned Deathtrap Dungeon rather than going in willingly like so many of the readers wanted to. Nevertheless, at the start of the adventure I am a galley slave, recently captured by the less-than-charming Captain Bartella, and sold along with the other slaves (wonder how the galley's going to be powered once it leaves) to the equally charmless Lord Carnuss.

Carnuss is the younger brother of Baron Sukumvit, the designer and creator of Deathtrap Dungeon, and thinks that his elder sibling will be humiliated if one of the first adventurers to enter the new, tougher and deadlier, dungeon, makes it through alive. His reasoning is sound up to that point, but goes rather awry when it leads him to the conclusion that the best way to ensure that this humiliation occurs is to mistreat and abuse a few dozen slaves until all but one of them are dead, and send the survivor into the dungeon with the bare minimum of equipment, and no stronger motivation than 'if you don't die, I won't have you executed'.

Decent stats are essential if I'm to have even the slightest chance of success, so I'm swapping around my Skill die and one of the Stamina dice to make my character a not-necessarily-doomed
Skill 12
Stamina 19
Luck 11
Incidentally, this is the first of Mr. Livingstone's FF books not to include the claim that even characters with lousy initial rolls should have little difficulty succeeding provided they take the optimal path. It hasn't been true since at least the original Deathtrap Dungeon, but it's taken a while for the books to drop the pretense.

On the first morning of the elimination process, a guard brings food to the cell. The option of attacking him is given, but you'd have to be dumber than Lord Carnuss to think that anything good could come of doing so. Instead, I eat as hearty a meal as is possible under the circumstances, and proceed to the first challenge of the day, which involves running around a racetrack until one of us gets lapped or collapses. With the added complications that a small stretch of the track has been covered in hot coals, which the runners will have to jump over to avoid getting burned, and we've all been given backpacks full of rocks to wear. I suspect that the research for this book did not include trying on a rock-filled backpack to see how easy it is to run, let alone attempt a long jump, while wearing it.

Cross-country running was the aspect of school sports that I loathed least, so I wound up doing a fair bit of it. Aware of my limitations, I tended to focus on trying not to be last, rather than wearing myself out faster in a futile attempt to come first. A similar approach works well at this stage of the adventure. We run for twenty minutes before the northman in the lead decides to speed up, and as he comes close to overtaking us, we all break into a sprint. The hindmost runner, a Dwarf, collapses just as the northman draws level with him. Perhaps he was hoping on exploiting a technicality: the first to be lapped or collapse would be put to death, but the Dwarf managed to do both simultaneously. But he's in no fit state to quibble, and gets executed before he can start rules lawyering.

The next challenge is more problematic. I have to choose a weapon before being taken to face an opponent in the arena. If I go for sword and shield, I'll face a tough fight, in which losing even one round of combat leads to death. With trident and net, the risk of death is greatly reduced, but what happens is a lot more random, and I could wind up losing a shocking amount of Luck if I get a string of bad rolls. Well, losing Luck is potentially problematic, but death is fatal. I take my chances with trident and net, and a lucky roll enables me to ensnare and fell the Bonecrusher on the very first try.

By the end of the day, only two slaves remain in each cell. A jovial guard announces that only one of us is to come out in the morning, and my cellmate chooses to resolve the issue with a fight. Despite my superior Skill, he wounds me several times before I guarantee that my night's rest won't be interrupted by murderous attacks.

The following day starts with a test that involves alternately jumping over and ducking under rotating blades. Anyone with stats low enough to make this a serious challenge is unlikely to have survived the preceding fight, but on at least one previous attempt at the book I've had a character wiped out at this stage by an unlucky roll. That won't happen today, as there's no way of getting above twelve on two six-sided dice.

Next up is something a good deal nastier. We're divided into two groups, and as part of the second group, I get to see the first lot experience the kind of 'fun' that awaits me. They are sent into an arena to fight to the death with spiked balls on chains. But blindfolded. The last man standing is a southerner, and then it's group two's turn to play this variant on 'murder in the dark'.

A cry of pain and a thud from up ahead indicate that someone's been eliminated. I move left, until the text decides that I change direction, after which I manage not to trip over a body I hadn't realised was on the ground in front of me. Up ahead, someone is whirling their ball and chain hard enough that I can hear it whooshing through the air. Not wishing to get into range, I step back, tripping over the body. Which is actually what I'd planned, as I know from past experience that the opponent up ahead will hear me stumble, approach, and also trip over, landing on top of me, after which the two of us just punch each other repeatedly until only one is fit to get up again, and that fight should be more straightforward than blundering around, unable to see. Indeed, I only take one wound in the course of the punch-up.

Back on my feet, I continue to blindly wander around until the only other survivor gets fed up of waiting and yells a challenge. The resultant combat doesn't last long, and I get a decent meal and a night's rest before confronting the southerner in a straight fight. He doesn't so much as scratch me, but as he dies, he urges me to avenge him and all the other slaves who died here.

I am restored to full health, chained up, and taken to Fang for the eponymous trial. There are four other entrants, and I get to go in second, after a doomed dwarf. Equipped only with a sword and a leather pouch (and presumably some clothing - it is indicated later on that the pouch is attached to my belt), I head down the tunnel until I see a door with 'Keep Out' written on it. The dwarf evidently heeded this warning, as something behind the door is making scratching and sniffing noises. I don't emulate my predecessor, as I know that the first of the many items I need in order to win is behind it. As is a flame-breathing Hellhound, which mildly singes me before I put it down and out. A quick search turns up a gold ring, which I put in the pouch before moving on.

Up ahead is a junction, and a rarity for a Livingstone-penned gamebook at this stage of his writing career: I will have the option of reconsidering and turning back if I don't like the look of the way ahead. I go the correct way, but if I'd not remembered the right direction, I would not have been doomed if I'd taken the wrong turning. And that's about the last bit of leniency that'll be shown to Livingstone's readers. Ever.

The tunnel leads to a pit, spanned by a rope bridge. Ignoring the sign that says 'Pay gold to cross', I go as far as the rope that dangles down into the pit, and then climb down it. Eventually I reach a ledge which leads to a cave mouth, and the cave's occupant tries to push me off the ledge. It fails, and I fight my assailant, a Strider (no relation to Aragorn). He wounds me once, and I kill him and take his bone medallion. There's nothing else of interest here, so I climb back up and continue on to the far side of the pit. Actually, the text indicates that the rope is right by the edge of the pit, but the earlier illustration showed the rope hanging from the middle of the bridge. Tut-tut.

The tunnel beyond the pit comes to a dead end, but I find the button that activates a secret door, and proceed. Before long I reach a door with a broom on it. Behind it is a room containing a crone, gleefully dumping vermin into a cauldron. I ask if she's got a Food Hygiene Certificate, and she sprinkles dust on the floor and vanishes. Two Vampire Bats attack, and while neither is particularly difficult to kill, the second does get to drain a few of my Stamina while I'm preoccupied with the first.

Searching the room, I find a phial of red dust and a wooden box with a carving depicting the dwarf who was first to enter the dungeon. This is not misleading packaging: the dwarf is trapped inside the box, and will remain that way unless I lift the lid, in which case I will take his place until such time as some other mug opens the box. Oddly enough, if I were to get myself trapped here and be Lucky enough to get set free, I'd still potentially be able to encounter the three contestants who follow me into the dungeon, so the only explanation for my getting out is that after I release the Dwarf, he comes back here (being let out results in transportation to another room) and reopens the box that swallowed him up the last time he looked inside it. Twit.

I'm not going to open the box, though, because that would at best result in my missing two vital items. Instead, I take the vial of dust and return to the corridor. Behind the next door, which has a dead bird nailed to it, I find a refrigerated room occupied by a Coldclaw. It wants to eat my innards, apparently 'as punishment for entering its lair', but I'm pretty sure that it just likes eating offal, and is spuriously using my 'trespassing' to justify an illicit snack.

I take a lot of damage in the fight. The room contains a sealed clay pot that has another gold ring in it, and has an exit that leads into the Coldclaw's cave. Also in the cave are a pair of boots which confer a Skill bonus on anyone who was idiot enough to attack the guard back at the start of the adventure (the resultant flogging is the only way to have lost Skill at this stage of the book, and the rules include the usual restriction on exceeding your Initial scores, so only those who got themselves flogged can benefit from this bonus), and a gold-painted skull with a detachable neurocranium. Taking the top off of this unleashes a Bone Devil, which has mental powers that don't work on me because of that medallion. The medallion doesn't protect me from its 'hitting me with a bony fist' powers, though, and by the end of the fight I'm down to my last 2 Stamina. Still, the Bone Devil also has a gold ring, and I need to collect the set, so I had no choice.

Returning to the tunnel, I continue to a junction, at which point I see a small person run away, and am compelled to pursue him. As a means of forcing the reader to go a certain way, 'you follow the strange figure' isn't actually a whole lot better than 'you take the turning because I say you do'. But it's preferable to 'you enter the room and trigger the trap because you opened the door', which crops up in at least two parts of this book.

The next door I see does not lead to either of those instances. It doesn't lead to anything good, either, so I ignore it. Further along the tunnel I find (well, fall over) a pile of rocks with a sword under it. It's the kind of sword that can harm beings which are only harmed by magical weapons (so I could have just said 'magic sword', except that up until now 'magic sword' has generally meant a Skill or Attack Strength bonus, and this one provides no bonus).

Further on I find a door that has been boarded up, so I prise off the boards and enter the room behind the door. It 'has not been entered for years', which is odd, as the key that can be acquired in here is essential for getting through to the end of the adventure, but it was only a year ago that someone beat the original Deathtrap Dungeon, so the key must have been hidden here before the radical redesign of the dungeon that introduced the door it unlocks. This is far more baffling than the riddle which must be solved to acquire the key (though my schoolfriend Nick, who went for every wrong answer suggested in the book before getting it right through process of elimination would disagree about how easy the riddle is).

Once I have the key, I go back to the tunnel. The next door does lead to one of those 'you opened it, you walk into the trap' situations, so I avoid it and carry on to the next junction. One door is visible, so I approach it and go through. This leads to the chamber of the Liche Queen, who offers me her gauntlet of pain. Well, 'offers' in the sense of threatening to kill me unless I put it on. So I accept the challenge, and succeed at the Skill roll to resist the effect (not a foregone conclusion this time, as it's on three dice). Alas, even beating the ordeal costs 3 Stamina points, and the lack of healing available between the Coldclaw's cave and here means that that's more Stamina than I have. Funnily enough (only I'm not laughing), the text does not say 'if you survive' or words to that effect after describing the Stamina loss, so apparently the Liche Queen watches me drop down dead, and approvingly throws me her gold ring.

So, after all that I wound up dying in exactly the same place as I did during my previous playthrough. But for a different reason. The other write-up also contains some quips, anecdotes and musings that I chose not to repeat here (one of which has acquired unpleasant associations in the light of some news that came out since I wrote it), so you may want to read it even though the plot is identical.

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