Deathtrap Dungeon: revisiting a classic Fighting Fantasy book

Paul celebrates the much loved Fighting Fantasy series with only his wits, some dice, and a retractable pencil...

When I was at school spoilers weren’t really a thing. Aside from soaps, the majority of TV shows I watched (like The Dukes Of Hazzard and Supergran) tended to be episodic in nature, rather than containing intricate story arcs so there wasn’t a great deal to give away. With the exception of “Who Shot J.R.?” you just didn’t worry about spoilers in the 80s.

However, during morning break at my primary school you’d struggle to avoid kids excitedly chattering about battling their way through the same adventures you were currently struggling with.

“Give the gold coin to the dwarf!”

“Don’t go into the goblin’s cave without taking the invisibility potion!”

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“When you encounter the monkey, hit it with a spade!” (I may have made that last one up).

Thanks to Fighting Fantasy books, exotic and terrifying sounding places like The Citadel of Chaos, Scorpion Swamp or The Island of the Lizard King were places we all visited each night.

I picked up my first one (The Forest Of Doom) courtesy of the sadly departed Puffin Book Club (where the children’s arm of Penguin would sell their wares through schools). I loved the idea that you could make the story unique each time and I made sure I collected as many subsequent books as I could. However, I am sorry to admit (and I am sure many of my peers will too) that I did bend the rules a little on occasion. If the book proved difficult I would quickly ditch the “elaborate combat and scoring system”, opting instead to just assume that I would vanquish whatever foe I encountered, or that I “just happened” to have picked up the potion or amulet needed to progress. But even then, you could still take a wrong turn and meet a sticky end.

Prompted by the recent release of a new official FF book, The Gates Of Death by Charlie Higson, I decided to dig out one of my old volumes and document my progress for your entertainment. I’ve familiarised myself with the rules, bought some snazzy looking skellington dice, grabby a clicky pencil and printed off an Adventure Sheet I made in Photoshop (so as not to write in the actual book – one of my pet hates).

I’m going to need a suitably epic soundtrack for my adventure (vinyl copy of Cuts Both Ways by Gloria Estefan, which I picked up from a rather remarkable second-hand record salesman with fake hands) and a warrior’s drink (Aperol Spritz) to gird my loins for the coming trials.

It’s been over 30 years since I last did one of these and I can’t remember any of the traps or pitfalls so this could possibly be a very short article indeed! All the same, I promise not to cheat, use online maps and walkthrough guides or backtrack if I take a difficult route (unless that is a legitimate option).

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So join me intrepid adventurer (with spoilers aplenty) as we step together into the mysterious corridors of Deathtrap Dungeon!

Enter The Dungeon!

First off I have to throw some dice and add their totals to preset scores to determine my traits. For SKILL I score 10 out of 12. That’s not too bad. But then I get a lackluster 19 out of 24 for STAMINA. However, for LUCK I manage a pretty good 11 out of 12. A mixed bag. Could be better, but could be far worse! Cautiously optimistic, I turn the page…

I start my quest sailing up the River Kok (stop it) in Chiang Mai, a province in northern Allansia, the fictional world in which many FF books are set. I reach the rather ominously named city of Fang where I intend to enter The Trial Of Champions, a deadly tournament in which competitors have to overcome various booby traps and foes to reach the end of Baron Sukumvit’s deadly labyrinth. There’s a cash prize of 10,000 gold pieces, but I apparently am not swayed by the money. I am more interested in proving that the dungeon can be defeated because ‘Danger’ is my middle name, or something like that (actually I don’t have a middle name so if anyone wants to get me one for Christmas from Deed Poll, I’d be really chuffed).

Gathered at the entrance to Fang Labyrinth is a rather excitable crowd of locals who have been partying for days, the Baron who is here to open proceedings and the competitors – a Knight, an Elf lady, a couple of bare chested barbarian dudes, a ninja assassin and not to mention a slightly overweight Phillip Schofield lookalike (that would be me). Crikey. I hope I don’t have to fight any of this lot later on. We draw straws and I get to enter the Dungeon in fifth place. Away we go…

Choices!

It’s cold, dark and damp and there are small furry creatures scurrying about. It reminds me of a job I once had down by Preston docks. I’ve only been in here for a couple of paragraphs when I am presented with my first choice. A collection of boxes displaying all the competitors’ names. Should I open mine or leave it?

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I’d forgotten how bad I am at making decisions since becoming an adult (I hesitate to use the phrase “since I grew up” as clearly that is still yet to happen). What shall I do? Think like a child. Act on first impressions. My gut feeling is that this could be important so I open it.

Ooh! A couple of gold pieces with a note advising me to take advantage of any important looking stuff along the way (advice that would have been more helpful two minutes ago). I bag the coins and tear up the note. Onwards!

At the end of a long corridor I am invited to go West (the more popular choice as highlighted by three sets of footprints) or East (only one person went this way). I decide to go the less popular East. After a few uneventful direction choices I encounter a squishy brown mass blocking the hallway. I can choose to climb over it, which I’ll be honest, doesn’t seem like a particularly sensible idea, or chop it in half with my sword. As it sounds about five hundred times cooler I opt for the latter. Which it transpires was a mistake. The squishy thing releases a puff of spores which drain my STAMINA by 2 points. Bugger. This is turning out to be harder than I remember.

As I progress I’m informed that it is getting hotter, uncomfortably so. I soon enter a room in which I see a bamboo cup containing a mysterious liquid. What should I do? I’m gagging for a drink but goodness knows what it is. It could be a potion that turns me into a fishcake or anything. Ah, what the hell. Heeding the advice from the note I drink it anyway and… [frantic page rustling] I’m going to live! Not only does it quench my thirst, returning one point of STAMINA but thanks to its magical properties I am now apparently heat-proof too. Good show!

I carry on a bit more, successfully unlocking a door, leaping over a bottomless pit and collecting a nifty piece of rope for my troubles. This is turning out to be a bit of a jolly caper! What could possibly go wrong as I skip round a corner, not looking where I am going?

Bloody ORCs, that’s what! I run straight into a pair of particularly nasty ones. Time to put said elaborate combat system to the test.

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Battle!

I’ll warn you in advance that the next few paragraphs are going to be a bit like Arnold J Rimmer’s Risk campaign book, so please bear with me. I promise not to do this for every battle on the way, assuming I survive this encounter.

They pounce immediately, swinging a rather mean looking morningstar which could have my eye out quicker than you can say “Should have gone to Specsavers” if I don’t react quickly enough. Therefore I am rather pleased to see a 6 plop out of my dice tower, meaning I gather my wits in time to avoid their initial onslaught. Nice!

But the fight is not over yet. Luckily the corridor is too thin for both to attack together. Unluckily this means I am going to have to fight twice. Things are looking grim but the ORCs are going to have to wait a moment; Gloria has stopped singing so I’ll just flip the record and then we can get down to business. We engage in our deadly struggle to the funky Latin beats of Oye Mi Canto.

I roll a 4 and add it to my SKILL to give me an ATTACK of 14. Then the ORC rolls a 6 – uh oh. BUT! His SKILL is only 5 to begin with, so my 14 beats his 11! He loses 2 STAMINA. A couple more bouts of rolling and my first foe is vanquished! That Aperol Spritz is obviously doing its job! However, ORC number 2 has more SKILL than his chum, which gives him a greater ATTACK! But his STAMINA is lower so I could theoretically beat him in two rounds.

I roll a 2 and he rolls a 5. My 12 beats his 11, only just though. The I roll a 2 and he rolls a 6! A draw. Nobody wins. This is more tense than I was hoping. Then we both roll a 3. 13 beats 9. He’s defeated and I live to turn another page…

Deeper Into The Dungeon

Still giddy from my victory I nick their gold and, for some reason, a small wooden tube, and then carry on my way, continuing to follow those footprints I saw earlier. Someone has got this far – makes sense to stalk them.

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I enter a room and… Oh no! One of the Barbarians is impaled on spikes! With great respect for the dead, I loot his still warm corpse, scoffing down his food and picking up 3 more STAMINA points. At the other end of the room is a silver goblet. I’m tempted to investigate but with the wisdom of Admiral Ackbar still fresh in my head I think better of if and scarper, picking up the trail again.

The next chamber I enter has a massive Buddha-looking statue with jewels where his eyes should be. Standing next to that distinguished fellow are, what my book says, are two large stuffed birds on either side. Yeah, like I buy that. As soon as I snatch the jewels they’re going to come to life and try to eat me aren’t they? But that bling is mighty pretty…

I decide to climb the idol and prise his eyes out. However, he’s one smooth dude and I could sure use some rope to get a purchase. What a stroke of luck – I have some right here in my pack from earlier! I climb up, and have to choose whether to steal the left or right. I opt for left and, as predicted, the stuffed birds turn out to be FLYING GUARDIANS. They attack one at a time, and, because I’m holding onto a rope with one hand, my skill is temporarily reduced by 2. I finally overcome them both, but that was an arduous battle, taking the entire length of Get On Your Feet to complete and leaving me with 6 fewer STAMINA points. I really can’t be doing with that again so cut my losses with one jewel and make good my escape, remembering to take my rope.

Worms! Why Did It Have To Be Worms?

After several mundane corridors and doors, I come across a rather fancy dagger. The only problem is, it is up to its hilt in writhing worms. Do I try to take it? I’ve just beaten up two giant stuffed birds, so a handful of soil dwellers shouldn’t present a problem. Should they? Apparently not. They’re smelly and slimy, but I grab the dagger and without incident. Easy peasy!

Except they’re not worms. They’re maggots and the GIANT FLY isn’t best pleased that I’m hanging around her brood. To escape her clutches all I have to do is perform a LUCK roll equalling anything except a double 6.

I roll a double 6.

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This means I fail to escape and have to fight instead. And I’m still smarting from my encounter with Big Bird and his brother. However, it’s not exactly the Xenomorph Queen and I swat it easily, making orphans of those horrible squiggly things whose favourite toy I just stole. This must be the bug section of the labyrinth because as I leave, my way is blocked by a ROCK GRUB. I’m really not in the mood to fight another creepy crawly right now so I run away (Run away! Run away!) and make another LUCK roll to leap a chasm, only just reaching the other side.

I take a time-out to refill my drink and put on some more adventure music (The Return Of Bruno by Bruce Willis), pick up my book again and stumble straight into the last act of The Goonies.

A man who looks very poorly indeed sits on a throne, holding a scroll in his lifeless bony grasp, which I reach out to take. However, it seems I have got my films mixed up and I’m actually in the final act of Jason & The Argonauts. Yep, you guessed it. The SKELETON WARRIOR wants to fight me. Is nothing easy in this place? I make no bones (hoho) about defeating him quickly though. I don’t think his heart was in it. He didn’t have the stomach (That’s enough skeleton puns thank you very much). The scroll has some stupid rhyme which basically boils down to “Use your shield if a MANTICORE attacks you”. Good advice for any day, now I just need to find a shield.

At this point I’m struggling to understand why vast swathes of the world’s greatest warriors have failed so spectacularly when a middle aged IT technician from East Anglia is powering through it. But hey, that’s the magic of Fighting Fantasy!

I’m still hungry from my last battle, I find some mushrooms growing on a pile of rubbish. Hmmm. Not exactly the most appetising, but beggars can’t be choosers… And then I remember what I learned in the Cubs, namely don’t eat strange fungi. I’m sure I can wait until lunchtime so I move on, killing a pair of unsuspecting GOBLINS and stealing their stuff on the way. That’ll teach ‘em to be just sitting there minding their own business!

After a while I find a guy chained to a wall and his disembodied hand nailed to the door. Should I free him, I am asked. I decide to show mercy and then worry that my altruism may have been foolish. But, the man is actually genuinely grateful and doesn’t try to kick me in the groin when I free him. He also tells me that gemstones are the key to getting out. I’m suddenly very annoyed that I didn’t take the second eye from the Buddha. Hmmph.

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Next up I find a couple of recently dead ORCs. One of the other competitors must still be going strong. I take their no-longer-needed jewellery and get a lovely surprise – it’s a strength amulet and I gain an extra point of SKILL and STAMINA. Lovely!

You And He Were Buddies… Weren’t You?

Speaking of the other competitors, I finally catch up with one. The remaining barbarian who, if this rather striking picture of him is anything to go by, is the lovechild of David Coverdale circa 1987 and that slippery saxophone chap from The Lost Boys. I remember this image from when I first got this book in 1986 – I always thought he was wearing a pair of RayBan Aviators but on closer inspection it’s actually just an eyepatch, which, while still extremely cool, is slightly disappointing. I make a mental note to pretend he is wearing shades and amble up to him, offering an alliance.

Throm, for that is his name, accepts and we face a test of our trust. Should I allow him to lower me into a chasm? Swayed by his big manly muscles, large axe and fashionable sunglasses I accept. He doesn’t kill me, so that was nice. At the bottom are some books, which Throm seems to think are not cool. I read one anyway and get a fairly detailed account of the BLOODBEAST who, if the description is to believed would be the handsome fellow on the front of the book. The passage also includes details on how to defeat said beast (avoid the tongue, go for the eyes). This could come in handy so I commit it to memory and look in the other book. It’s actually one of those cunning storage boxes you get in IKEA which only looks like a book and it contains an unmarked bottle with a clear liquid.

Do I drink it or rub it into my wounds? That last one is oddly specific so I decide to do that. And then I change my mind. I detect a trap, so I rather foolishly guzzle it down instead. It was a Luck potion and I get 2 extra LUCK points. What a stroke of luck!

At this point Bruce Willis has finished and I turn to Mrs C to ask her what to put on next. Anything I like, apparently as she’s now binge watching RuPaul’s Drag Race with headphones on, having got fed up of my bizarre musical choices (her words, not mine). To show off to my new friend Throm I opt for some Hair Rock: Backstreet Symphony by Thunder.

While I’m getting the record on Throm tells me to stop mucking about and draw my sword. Something’s coming. He rushes off, axe raised, towards a pair of big and mean looking CAVE TROLLS. I follow and we take one each. I decide to spend the 2 LUCK points I got from the potion and that helps me finish the TROLL off a lot quicker than I might have. Throm has, of course, beaten his foe too. I make to loot one the bodies of a ring with Runic symbols on it but Throm stops me, saying it contains bad juju. Now we’re brothers in arms (should I have put on Dire Straits?) I take him at his word and we continue.

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We stumble upon a vast chamber with a stalactite encrusted ceiling. Throm finds a pouch which he loots but all that’s in there is a little mouse which, for some reason, Throm finds outrageously hilarious. His laugh is so sexy that it makes the stalactites over my head fall off the ceiling and I have to perform a LUCK roll to make sure I escape unharmed. I wish I hadn’t used those points to fight the TROLL now! I currently have 12 LUCK points so I need to roll anything except a double 6.

I roll a 9. Throm apologises for his sexy laugh, and we do some male bonding as we move on. I hope I don’t have to fight him later but I have a bad feeling about this. In the next room is a dwarf who tells us only one of us may progress. Dammit, I was starting to like that big lug. Throm wants to kill the dwarf but I talk him out of it. That kind of thing never ends well in these adventures. He’ll have a potion or a booby trap or a dinosaur or something.

The dwarf takes me into a room where he hands me a pair of dice. I roll an 8. He tells me that I have to predict whether I will score more or less than 8 with my next roll. Oh crumbs. What to choose? The odds say that I should go lower. Yep. I’m going to choose lower.

I roll a 7! Get in! I win! Is that it?

No.

The dwarf takes me to the second stage of the test. I have to grab a cobra without getting bitten like Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon. Which I manage with another roll. On to the next test. I have to solve two anagrams. RUIN MOAT and NO CROP IS. Each one is the name of a monster. I have a sneaking suspicion that whichever I solve will tell me who I fight next. Question is, would I rather fight a MINOTAUR or a SCORPION (it wasn’t exactly difficult). A SCORPION doesn’t sound that hard, unless it’s like those big ones in Clash Of The Titans. I attempt to apply some kind of logic to the decision. The MINOTAUR has spikes but the SCORPION has spikes AND venom. So MINOTAUR it is then.

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He’s tough, and takes 4 of my STAMINA points before I finally kick his head in (avoiding the horns of course). Luckily the kindly dwarf rewards my animal cruelty with some food which restores 2 of them. I guess he’s not such a bad sort after all.

Frenemies!

Except that was to give me strength for the dwarf’s final challenge. I am absolutely gutted to see THROM enter the arena! Except he doesn’t recognise me, having been driven insane after failing the cobra’s bite test. “Too slow, Chicken Marengo” I whisper in my third of four Red Dwarf references. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I charge…

He was by far the strongest and most skillful enemy I had yet faced in the dungeon and the battle is gruelling, with both of us landing damaging blows. However, I have him on the ropes. He only has 2 STAMINA points left. One more successful attack from me will surely mean victory. And then THROM rolls a 6. This is terrible news. He has 10 SKILL so his ATTACK is 16. I have 11 SKILL so I need to roll a 6 too or the battle continues. I roll and the die does that annoying thing that they put in films to create tension where it spins on its point for ages. And then it comes to a stop… also on a 6! I won! In your face you stupid barbarian! Haha!

Oh.

“Throm! Why did it have to come to this!?” I cry, making Mrs C cast a disapproving glance my way. Apparently the contestants are trying to lip-sync for their life. Once I’m done grieving (more quietly) for my Soft Rock amigo I turn on the DWARF, my thirst for vengeance spurring me on. But my ATTACK is reduced by 2 due to being knackered from killing my bestie to death. But that’s irrelevant because, like Bucky O’Hare, I have righteous indignation on my side and I absolutely hammer the little git, steal his magic chainmail and gain another SKILL point. That’ll learn him!

I carry on, and soon I hear a buzzing ahead. It’s going to be wasps isn’t it? One of the things I’m most afraid of. At the age of 7 I was stung on the face while applying the “Stay still and they won’t bother you” method of wasp avoidance. The “Run away flailing your arms wildly” approach has never failed me in the subsequent 36 years. Before I turn the page I fetch another drink but Aperol Spritz won’t cut it now that things are getting so tense, so now I’m on Blue Lagoons.

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I was right. The book says GIANT INSECTS but look at the picture. No matter how they paint it, they’re bloody wasps.

I could attempt to steal the crown they are guarding, but screw that. I retreat in a cold sweat (in real life) and carry on my way, meeting another hobo who I decide to help, and he tells me to keep going north and take a potion which is hidden in a chair which is a bird. This is turning into a really odd day, but I take his advice and, lo and behold, a chair which is a bird is in the next room. Hidden in it I find the DOPPELGANGER POTION. Handy for if I need to sneak into the Slytherin common room.

Further down the corridor I hear someone else cry for help. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this adventure it’s that helping people pays dividends. Until now. Almost as if she knew I’d avoided one monster from Clash Of The Titans, I’ve been tricked by a caged MEDUSA into confronting her but a LUCK roll stops me from being turned to stone.

“Would you like to step into the cage to fight her with your eyes closed?” asks the book. Is this a trick question? I do anyway because I have a feeling she’s got something I want. I don’t even have to roll. I win instantly and nick her garnet. This is good. Gemstones are good. That dude ages back told me so.

Are We There Yet?

Surely I must be close to the end now. I feel like I’ve turned to almost all of the numbers in the book. I’ve picked up a fancy helmet now, another SKILL point and, putting me firmly back in Goonies territory, I’ve slid down a long chute (wheeeeeee).

I land with a bump to see something I recognise from campfire tales of myths; dark fables; horror tales, told across the flickering embers of a midnight fire, wherever hardened adventurers gather to drink fermented vegetable products and compete in tales of blood-chilling terror. And the front of the book.

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At last, I come face to face with the dreaded BLOODBEAST! But did I read from the book telling me how to beat him? Of course I did! Avoid the tongue and go for the eyes is what it said. Time to fight again – it’s going to be an epic skirmish! Except it’s not. After two successful lunges I manage to get him in the peepers and in his confusion I run away (Run away! Run away!). Well that was easier than expected. Lucky I read that book!

In the next room I meet a MANTICORE. Now what did that SKELETON WARRIOR’s scroll say? I’d need a shield, that was it. Er. Ah. Nothing on my inventory sheet. The MANTICORE flings spikes at me, relieving me of 2 STAMINA points. Once again the fight is on. The monsters this deep in the labyrinth are far more strong and skillful. I defeat him, but I lose a fair amount of STAMINA in the process. Now I only have 8. Let’s hope he was the last monster.

In the next room is a large metal door with a GNOME (I admit I am disappointed that he is not fishing) who tells me he is the Trialmaster and I have reached the end of the labyrinth! Yes! The first time in 32 years and I made it! I start to pat myself on the back when he asks me if I have an emerald. Yes! I have an emerald! Is that it? I hand it to him and he smiles. So far, so good.

“Do you have a sapphire?” He says.

I double check the inventory. Nothing. Then I go back and scan through this very account of my journey. Not a sausage. “Er. Not really no.” I say, hoping he’ll ask for MEDUSA’s garnet next, which I DO have. Maybe fewer jewels just means a more difficult Boss Battle once I get through that door.

Or not.

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As Thunder’s lead singer (who my brother once texted me to tell me he was sitting in a pub having a pint with) sings about the time when love walked in through his door (a familiar feeling he’d had once before, apparently), the Trialmaster informs me, very matter of factly, that I have failed the Trial of Champions and will now become the his servant for the rest of my days.

Damn. So close. And I never got to find out what the small wooden tube was for. Perhaps I’ll fare better in The Forest of Doom, if they ever let me out, but for now…

My adventure ends here.

As well as reprints of many favourites from Fighting Fantasy’s 36 year history (including Deathtrap Dungeon), the brand new adventure book The Gates Of Hell by Charlie Higson is available from bookstores now.