Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Deathtrap Dungeon

When I was a kid I was a voracious and indiscriminate reader. My quest for information and imagination took me through many old classics, greek dramas and modern tales. I started with Cider with Rosie and never stopped. As I reader I was ferociously loyal. As a selector I was woefully inefficient. I liked Greek myth so I read them all. I liked Norse myth so I read them all. I liked Willard Price so I read them all, and still today find that I have irrational understandings of animal behaviour based on the disgraceful dramatic fictions that he made out of ordinary creatures. I also ran across "Choose your own adventure" books. I was discriminating enough to find them profoundly unsatisfying in terms of story and writing. But I enjoyed the pictures, and I particularly enjoyed the grisly endings. And I had access to some very extensive, and almost completely unoccupied and unused school libraries, where I could vanish for hours and nobody would even think to look for me. Over a few years I must have covered almost every "Choose your own adventure" book. But soon I found better alternatives.

Infinitely more satisfying were the "Lone Wolf" series of books by Gary Chalk and Joe Dever, where you play the last of the Kai lords - some form of Nordic fighting monk - as you try and reestablish your order of monks while being hunted by the Darklords of Helgedad. These had a coherent plotline running through many books. There was a combat system too, with charts and dice - very involved but it was pretty well designed and more pleasurable to commit properly to than many other fighting systems in these books.

Then there were J.H.Brennan's Grail Quest books. A light hearted look at Arthurian myth, with in-jokes about King Pellinore's Questing Beast and Merlin and Excalibur and most other aspects of that world. I remember these as being the most enjoyable to read of that kind of book. The Poetic Fiend was a source of great joy to me. And unlike all the other books that take things so seriously, these books were written to be amusing. One choice I remember very clearly from the third book in the series was: "Rescue the carrot (Turn to page xxx) : Don't rescue the carrot (Turn to page xxx) : Play your xylophone (Turn to page xxx)." Like most of the gags in Tristram Shandy, this choice is more amusing in the context of the books that were current at the time of publication than it is in isolation. They were not particularly popular, probably owing to the nature of most kids who are attracted to fantasy worlds. I remember them as a humourless lot, taking their fantasy very seriously, and painstakingly correcting people who had made some error of lore - "I think you'll find that it is in fact a HOBgoblin to which you are referring and not, in fact a goblin - the creatures are very different you see uh huh huh huh *cough* " Like any other branch of specialist knowledge, the people steeped in it determine the market for it. It was a surprise when Terry Pratchett broke through so massively to the mainstream with his fantasy satire. With Brennan the tone wasn't quite right. But for these kids, the Fighting Fantasy franchise was allowable. I could read it and only occasionally be mocked by some dork who wanted to tell me that what I was referring to as a dark elf is technically in fact a Drow elf etc etc blahblahblah because in the end the bible for these people always falls either to Gygax or Tolkein. Although I imagine these days warcraft plays a part.

Fighting Fantasy was everywhere when I was at school. Despite a woefully inadequate fighting system, which can be summed up roughly as: Roll a six sided dice and add 6. This is your skill total. If you rolled anything less than a 5, waste a few hours of your life, then start again. This is assuming that nobody ever cheats at these games of course. The books were mostly the creation of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, and they ran and ran and ran. Sometimes they were brilliant - City of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon, Appointment with FEAR... Sometimes they were pretty mediocre - Citadel of Chaos, Starship Traveller... But they always had great pictures and plenty of grizzly endings for people that made the wrong choices. Although the right choices were often totally arbitrary and dependent on luck rather than logic. But why, you might ask, are you writing about these books when you're in Thailand?

Well. First of all it's raining. And when I say rain, I mean I am being drooled on by a million gigantic basset hounds in the sky, while someone drags a net full of rocks over the roof and all the little fairies pump water into my shoes with syringes. And secondly I am staying in the district of Sukhumvit, and it has been bugging me. All of this post has been from memory. It's amazing what sticks in your head from a childhood of voracious misguided reading. Although I have probably made all sorts of mistakes of lore. But every time I see the word Sukhumvit, little alarm bells go off in my head.

Fighting Fantasy book 6: Deathtrap Dungeon. Blue spine. Welcome to the distant city of Fang. Fang is a stinking, semi lawless metropolis - a port and a shanty. It is ruled over by the tyrannous Baron Sukumvit, and he builds a Dungeon full of terrible traps, and uses it as a form of twisted challenge - basically "If you can get through this without dying I'll give you a stack of money". One can only imagine that he had somewhere he could stand and watch as people got killed by his cunning traps. And I have just realised what provided the inspiration for the name.

So there you go. I have just wasted a good few minutes of your life in a random, badly structured journey through the inside of my hypothalamus. But this can't be as frustrating as having to repeatedly go back to the beginning of a poorly written book, that's uncomfortable to read as you have to constantly make notes and roll dice.

Sounds like the rain has stopped. Shall I : Go and eat some street food at the risk of making myself sick for filming tomorrow? : Go back to my hotel and have Roast Beef? : Play my xylophone?

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