9:32pm. “Don’t keep going without me!” I cry from the kitchen, getting us cups of tea and biscuits for energy. It’s hour two of the dungeon crawl and the rampant cheating hasn’t even begun yet.
7:30pm. Looking at my handful of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, I’m amazed that the battered old paperbacks have survived so many moves with me. I have fond memories of playing Deathtrap Dungeon as a kid, pencil in hand, regularly flipping back to the Adventure Sheet to record equipment and stats changes, fingers marking at least one or two moves back ‘just in case’. It was first published in 1984 (same as me!), and the thoroughly second-hand condition of it and its siblings on my shelf show how well they’ve been used by me and their previous owners. I haven’t played it in something like 20 years I think, so I get the small stack – Temple of Terror, Sky Lord, Fangs of Fury, etc. – down to have a nostalgic try now that I’m older and more experienced. The combined fun of a tabletop RPG and a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure? This will be either horrifying or fun or both. My nearly-nine-year-old kid is immediately interested in what I’m doing. I ask them to pick one for me to play, and it’s obviously fate that Deathtrap Dungeon was selected within seconds. This is no longer a solo trip – it’s a team effort now, and I’m glad of it. It’s earlyish on a school holiday weeknight, and it’ll only take two or three hours tops.
25+ years ago. I have vague memories of sitting in on my parents AD&D sessions at some point, or of being shown something like this; a toddler’s early memory of something to do with dark elves being a threatening presence at the end of a tunnel or corridor that wasn’t actually real. My parents didn’t really introduce me to gaming though, and by complete coincidence I fell in with a D&D group after high school. Or not so complete, in that everyone who loves fantasy novels ends up encountering tabletop gaming at some point, and I was certainly raised surrounded by fantasy novels. I was given my mum’s old dice and bought my own, and sporadically played D&D and Pathfinder over the years since. The gamebooks were a phase shared with a cousin or two around age 12 if I remember correctly, but didn’t really last long in the whirlwind of life; special enough to not let go though.
10:30pm. Kid is still the bookmaster, reading out the passages and looking up the sections, while I’m in charge of the map and the Adventure Sheet on the tablet (thank goodness for modern tech, where I can easily scribble and erase on a screen without worrying about wearing through the paper). We share dice rolling duty. There’s been a few deaths so far, and we definitely don’t start from the very beginning each time. The early part of the dungeon has already been mapped, and we start from an earlier point from where we were. I smile every time we encounter some little notes written by 12-year-old me about where certain paths end up, and the young one has already intuitively picked up the fingers-marking-earlier-points technique without me saying anything. After the first time I told them not to jinx it during a battle when they said we were sure to win then immediately got bad rolls, each fight is cheered with mugging wails of “We definitely won’t win! This is terrible!”
1982. After being impressed with the early view of Dungeons & Dragons they’d been sent in 1975, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson – two of the founders of Game Workshop – began developing solo play gamebooks in 1980, and in 1982 published the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. It was so popular that more titles soon followed, and after only two years and six books, more writers were hired. The Fighting Fantasy series ended in 1995, partly due to the decline in sales caused by the rise in popularity of video games, but with 59 gamebooks, the Sorcery! mini series, The Adventures of Goldhawk series, seven novels, some RPGs (also known as Advanced Fighting Fantasy) and a handful of other publications, it had a pretty good run for 13 years.
1:30am. How has this been going for six hours?! We’ve died a lot, figured out what gems we need, can’t get back to the spot where we know one of them is, and can’t find the third at all. Unbelievably, young one here is still going strong as bookmaster, although it’s been helped by a midnight serve of garlic bread, crumbs now littering the fold-out-lounge we’re spread out on. The cheating is gradually becoming standard gameplay as we use the fabulous illustrations (by Iain McCaig) to hop back to somewhere not far from where we were after a death. There’s nothing wrong with judicious use of looking ahead at the results of decisions to see what happens. I’m starting to take over more of the reading duties as middle of the night has come and gone, but we’re going to get through this if it kills us. For the 15th time.
1984. When Deathtrap Dungeon was first released, the magazine White Dwarf rated it 8/10. It got two sequels in the FF series, a video game in 1998, a 40-page RPG in 2003, and an iphone game in 2010 (damn my not-iphone smartphone). Did you know that a Deathtrap Dungeon movie was picked up by a movie production outfit in 2011? Apparently it’s proposed as being pretty gritty which I can totally understand (wish I’d remembered how grim some of the illustrations can be before I got my kid involved), even though a campy-ish Dino De Laurentiis vibe would be awesome I think. I hope it does come to fruition either way though.
2:25am. That’s it, we’re done. I skipped over the manticore fight because we did it once already five hours ago, and didn’t bother properly recording stamina points for the gnome confrontation at the end because there’s no way I would have survived it. By that point the kid was just leaning against me, listening to the story bits as I read through and giving advice, but we’re both glad to see the end. My map is an unreadable mess (turns out I should have started it in portrait orientation, not landscape), and the tablet’s chewed through most of its battery. But we made it. I wish I’d looked up more about the game before this, it’s only now that I found out that a 230+ poll on the FF site about the difficulty of Deathtrap Dungeon got the most votes at the hardest end of the scale.
“I’m going to pick another one to play tomorrow.” says the little one. Good luck, kid. I’d like to say that you’re on your own – and I was surprised at how well a nearly-nine-year-old was doing with the gameplay mechanics with minimal help, though it could just be my amazing genetics – but we both know I’m going to be there. Because it was awful and frustrating and difficult and way longer than I thought. But still fun, even if both the frustration with and appreciation of the books are that much sharper with middle age.