by Demian Katz
Published by Myriador Ltd.
Converted by Jamie Wallis from the gamebook by Ian Livingstone
Illustrated by Mel Grant (cover), Iain McCaig and Tony Hough (interior) and Martin McKenna and Janine Johnston (additional illustrations)
40-page, saddlestitched book
Deathtrap Dungeon is the third of Myriador's d20-system
adaptations of books from the classic Fighting Fantasy series of
solo gamebooks, but it is the first I have seen of this product line.
However, based on what I've read about the first two entries in the
series, this one seems to follow the same format. Indeed, I suspect
that the introduction was simply copied and pasted straight out of an
earlier adventure; a stray reference on page two to "the creatures
within Firetop Mountain" seems to have come from the first module in the
series, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. In any case, these
introductory pages establish a new optional character attribute, Luck,
which emulates the "Test Your Luck" mechanism found in the gamebooks;
apart from this, there's nothing too surprising about the module's use
of the d20 system.
The gamebook that inspired this adventure is something of a fan favorite and was even popular enough to be adapted more than a decade after its publication into a mediocre Tomb Raider clone for the PlayStation and PC. My own feelings for this gamebook are rather mixed, as its merits are diminished by excessive difficulty, with the reader senselessly dying at nearly every turn. However, in spite of its flaws, it does have a strangely entertaining (if implausible) premise: Baron Sukumvit, ruler of the city of Fang, has built an enormous underground dungeon, and every year, he invites adventurers to enter it in what is called the Trial of Champions. Of course, there is a cash reward to anyone who can make their way through to the other side, but so far, no one has managed to survive. For most adventurers, though, the challenge is hard to resist.
Why Do It?
Of course, interesting concept or not, it is a valid question to ask why one would bother to adapt a solitaire gamebook into a game-mastered role-playing adventure; I know I was a little baffled upon first hearing the idea. Fortunately, the adventure justifies its existence in two valid ways. First of all, the module is best suited for a Dungeon Master and a single player; there aren't too many adventures that support lone adventurers, so it fills a niche there. Perhaps more importantly, there is very little preparation needed to play. Because the content of the dungeon is an assortment of random traps and monsters, the DM can run the module without spending hours memorizing complicated details. To make running the adventure especially easy, the description of every item found in the dungeon explains where else in the dungeon it can be put to use. Unfortunately, this convenience is offset by the fact that no monster stat blocks are included in the text of the adventure, forcing the DM to refer to both an appendix of the module and to the Monster Manual. The module also provides four pregenerated characters, and as a really nice touch, some of the basic d20 rules for combat and skill use are summarized on the backs of the character sheets.
The dungeon itself takes up less than half of the book's forty pages, but in spite of its brevity, it's a faithful adaptation of the gamebook. This means that there are traps and monsters galore strewn about with little logic or meaning. The chances of players getting killed are extremely high, so using the pregenerated characters is probably more desirable than including the adventure in an existing campaign (though notes for doing so are included). Basically, if you hate dungeon crawls, there is no reason to play the module. In fact, even if you like dungeon crawls, you might be disappointed. There's a distinct lack of subtlety in the adventure's endless barrage of traps and things to kill, and there's more luck than cleverness involved in surviving. Still, this is all in the spirit of the original gamebook, and if you have fond memories of that (or if you're just in the mood for some mindless fantasy violence), it might well be worth pulling this out for a quick session or two.
There are some elements of the original gamebook that translate poorly to the multiplayer format. For one thing, there were some very simplistic and poorly integrated puzzles involving algebra and anagrams that, while appropriate in solo play, are just kind of embarrassing in group play. Also, a few pieces of boxed text are sloppily written, either assuming that only one character is present or referring to the characters in the third person. Finally, if the ending of the adventure is played as written, the adventure may end up becoming more competitive than cooperative, a situation which may detract from the experience (though a suitably chaotic group of players may enjoy a bit of in-fighting).
I was rather disappointed to find that, like practically every d20 product I have so far encountered, there are a large number of errors present which detract from the book. Most are only moderately annoying grammar issues: "than" vs. "then," missing punctuation, run-on sentences, etc. Some are even more distracting: the repeated use of "omit" instead of "emit" made me chuckle, while the frequent use of "stood" instead of "standing" (i.e., "If Throm the Barbarian is still alive and whether or not the characters have decided to accompany him, he will be stood at the edge of the pit looking down") grated on my nerves. I'm probably more nitpicky about these things than most people, but I still can't help wishing the content of these books could be as professionally done as the attractive but less crucial layout work.
I find the module's editing problems especially irritating in light of the rather steep cover price, though I admit that the book does try pretty hard to be worth the money. In addition to the adventure itself, the volume contains quite a bit of supplemental material. First, there's the previously-mentioned appendix of monster descriptions, which are mostly expanded d20 versions of entries from the old Out of the Pit book released for the original multiplayer Fighting Fantasy role-playing game. This is followed by an in-depth discussion of the city of Fang.
The real Deathtrap treasures are to be found online, however. After registering on Myriador's site and entering a random word from the book (shades of old copy-protected computer games), you can get several PDF files: full-page versions of the four precreated character sheets (though I couldn't find the 6th-level versions of the characters mentioned on page 31 of the book), a booklet showing off the module's artwork (a treat for fans of Fighting Fantasy illustrations) and three sheets of cut-out tokens to use in place of miniatures. There's also a full-color version of the adventure's main map presented in a proprietary format designed by Myriador. This can be viewed using a free Windows-based program, and it's rather nice since it can be printed out as a set of tiles large enough to be used with miniatures. Of course, Mac users may be frustrated, and it's also disappointing that there doesn't seem to be a way to remove the markings for secret doors and such from the printout, meaning that there will be spoilers if you use the full-scale map without modification.
In the end, whether or not this adventure is worth picking up doesn't necessarily rely on its actual content. If you're a Fighting Fantasy fan, it's probably worth getting for the downloads, additional background material and opportunity to explore an old dungeon in a new way; the typos and other flaws don't detract too much if you're dedicated to the content. On the other hand, if you’re in the market for a good d20 module for your campaign, you wouldn't likely have even considered this one long enough to be put off by its problems anyway. The decision is probably the hardest to make if you're considering the module on the basis of its fast play or single-player support; these are nice characteristics, but there are enough imperfections in the product to give one pause, especially considering the price. If you're really interested in exploring Deathtrap Dungeon for the first time, perhaps you'd be better off just trying the recent reissue of the original gamebook.