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Jon Love dives back into the classics with Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon

We are without doubt living in something of a golden age of children’s literature. But my aim is to seek, find and celebrate some of those lost and forgotten books and shine a light on them.

This time we are looking at this sublime offering direct from the early ’80s by Ian Livingstone – better known as one half of the creative force behind the phenomenally successful Fighting Fantasy series of adventure gamebooks.

This book is first and foremost a solo reading experience. A book where you the reader take the role of the protagonist steering and directing the course of the narrative and ultimately the outcome.

You are the Hero

The Fighting Fantasy phenomenon exploded onto bookshelves in the early ’80s and went on to dominate the bookseller charts for the rest of that decade often out-selling Stephen King and even Roald Dahl, attaining worldwide sales of over 17 million copies.

For adults of a certain age, these books represent a period in time before the mainstream availability of home gaming consoles where controlling the direction of the story and action in the book was incredibly exciting and indeed quite addictive.

Deathtrap Dungeon was not the first in the series of these books, in fact it was the sixth published, and there is much debate over which of the Fighting Fantasy books a newcomer should read first.

But these books, although they nearly all inhabit and expand upon the same universe, can be read pretty much in whatever order you choose. And although I would normally recommend starting a series of books at number one then working through that way, I have chosen this title as it is a great example of the genre operating at the peak of its popularity and skill.

And what a strange and unique genre that is. A second person, present tense ‘You are the hero’ adventure gamebook as they became known and marketed as. Deathtrap Dungeon sees you as an adventurer who decides to compete in what is known as ‘The Walk’ a trial of champions where the prize of 10,000 gold pieces lures each year warriors and heroes from each corner of Titan – the fantasy world in which these books are largely set.

Now turn to 163

For those unfamiliar with the premise of these books, they are all structured in much the same way like this: You are given an introductory background series of paragraphs to set the context of your tale/quest then off you go. The books are not made up of chapters rather a series of – usually 400 – paragraphs each numerically labelled. At the end of each paragraph you have to make a decision either directional (go west down the tunnel turn to 56) or action (if you choose to fight the orcs turn to 354). That will direct you to another paragraph elsewhere in the book.

The idea was you made your choice and then turned to the corresponding page and took your chances. Sometimes your decision was innocuous seemingly having no immediate impact on the direction of your adventure whilst others put you immediately into danger from where there was no turning back.

The books only really had one ‘finished’ ending but lots of other endings in which you died in a wide variety of gruesome and interesting ways. What made them compelling was that you could complete the book and then afterwards find you had a different reading experience from a friend who had also finished the quest.

On a roll of a dice

Other aspects of the book that can serve to appeal is the inclusion of a ‘gaming’ system that makes the book more than a story but a game where the reader is pitted against the foes found within.

Using the Adventure Sheet contained inside, the reader can keep a track of possessions gathered or lost during the quest, calculate wins and losses during fights (using a fairly simple addition and subtraction method) and keep a sketch of the direction you are taking when deep within the labyrinth.

Some readers love this aspect. Other not so much. The books can be enjoyed either way. Whichever way you choose to read or play it offers another dimension to the reading experience.

Deathtrap Dungeon is an excellent example of a much-overlooked genre offering something really quite different for any reader who dares to take up the challenge offered within its pages.

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