Friday 22 March 2024

40 years of Deathtrap Dungeon

Deathtrap Dungeon, Sir Ian Livingstone's Sunday Times best-selling Fighting Fantasy gamebook, was published 40 years ago on 29 March 1984. To say it was a fantastic success would be an understatement.

Inspired by a holiday Livingstone had taken to Thailand the year before, the plot of the adventure sees the hero taking up the challenge of the Trial of Champions, devised by the fiendish mind of Baron Sukumvit, entering the eponymous dungeon, braving the labyrinth’s fiendish traps and monstrous denizens, in the pursuit of fame and fortune.

Sir Ian's flowchart for Deathtrap Dungeon, as seen during Click 1,000.

“I went trekking in Northern Thailand in 1981,” explains Livingstone. “I passed through Fang and crossed the River Kok on my way to the jungle near the Burmese border. I took lots of photos of villagers and scenery on the trek. It was an incredible adventure, and one not without drama. Our guide was constantly fretting about armed bandits coming over the border to rob us! 

"The trek made a big impression on me, enough for me to want to reference the people and places in Deathtrap Dungeon which I began writing in late 1983. But the dungeon plot itself was a product of the dungeons I’d designed during the years I’d been playing D&D. When Penguin Books told us they wanted a sequel to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, I thought I’d write a classic dungeon-bash next, but I put it on hold and wrote The Forest of Doom and City of Thieves before Deathtrap Dungeon.”

One of Iain McCaig’s illustration roughs for Deathtrap Dungeon alongside Ian Livingstone’s handwritten first draft. (© Iain McCaig and Ian Livingstone, 2024)

As well as the River Kok and Fang, the names of several other places Livingstone visited on that fortuitous trip made it into the book, including Chiang Mai. Baron Sukumvit himself was named after Sukumvit Road in Bangkok.

The marriage of both eastern and western influences in the adventure created something entirely new, helping to give the world of Fighting Fantasy a truly unique flavour.

Iain McCaig’s cover rough for Deathtrap Dungeon. (© Iain McCaig, 2024)

Deathtrap Dungeon was a phenomenal success, selling over 350,000 copies in its first year alone. It was the best-selling children’s book in April 1984 and was ranked eighth out of all books sold that month, coming just behind Dick Francis in seventh place and ahead of Stephen King’s Christine in ninth. (Three of the top one hundred books sold that year were Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.) Deathtrap Dungeon was so successful that Livingstone’s eighth gamebook was a sequel, Trial of Champions (FF21, published in 1986).

The book was illustrated inside and out by Livingstone's favourite FF artist, Iain McCaig.

“My favourite black and white illustration is the image of the inscrutable Trialmaster on his dragon-hide throne,” muses McCaig. “It was the height of my love affair with croquill pens, and the quintessential riddle picture that would lead to Casket of Souls.”

Dwarf Trialmaster, by Iain McCaig. (© Ian Livingstone 2024) 

Deathtrap Dungeon has been translated and published in multiple foreign language editions over the last 40 years, including the recent Danish version from Faraos Cigarer. It has also inspired RPG adaptations and numerous video game versions, for PlayStation, tablet and PC, and one narrated by Hollywood actor Eddie Marsan.

But what many fans have been wondering over the years is will they ever be invited to undertake the Walk one more time and re-enter Deathtrap Dungeon? Only time will tell...

Deathtrap Dungeon - the audio drama!

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