Here we are, the second best known book from the Fighting Fantasy line (behind the first one) and most certainly the most fondly remembered with the fans. Was it just there at the right time or did it actually do something right? The former cannot be denied, but let's deep dive into the latter.
Right off the bat, the book opens on a nice meta level. The protagonist takes part in the so-called Trial of Champions. A local lord has devised a labyrinth chock-full of dangers. Whoever gets out alive will be showered in gold and fame. Just that nobody has ever managed yet. Meaning it's all a game within the game.
This isn't just worth a small chuckle, but immediately provides author Ian Livingstone with ample excuse for all the weirdness which regularly plagued most of the books in the series. The assortment of nonsensical death traps, the wild creatures from all kinds of places and mythologies, the need to search for quest items is just by plot design in this case. Not just a restriction in game mechanics. Making it immune to criticism in this regard.
Though even beyond that, Livingstone gets many things right in this book. One such decision involves the presence of other contestants inside the dungeon. The introduction briefly introduces a handful of rivals. In the course of the adventure, the player will find traces of their presence.
One of the major banes of such books is those decisions which just ask the player whether to go left or right. It is a purely random choice unless experience from previous playthroughs exists. While some of those remain in this book, there are also others which mention, for example, at such a branch that footprints indicate that three others went left and only one went right. Which, strictly speaking, does not make the decision any less random in terms of winning it, but it sure feels like much more informed decisionmaking.
Finding another contestant's corpse, mutilated by a particularly gruesome trap, does reinforce the feeling of real danger, doing wonders for the atmosphere. The highlight of this game aspect being the short episode everybody who has played this one remembers: temporarily teaming up with a barbarian, initially unsure whether to trust him, then bonding, only for the cruel dungeon masters to break your team apart again in a heartbreaking twist.
The book's downside, for sure, is its strict linearity. There is exactly one true path which will enable to find the necessary gems to win the game of Mastermind against the final gatekeeper. Looking for this path, straying left or right from it, will lead to interesting encounters, to entertaining failure, but never leave any opportunity to win. This, for sure, had already been done better in the previous book.
Second, difficulty even beyond finding this correct path is very high. Livingstone seems to revel in letting players die instantly for wrong choices in all too many sections. On top, there is a good number of high skill enemies just waiting for careless adventurers barging in with their swords drawn. Even following an ideal solution, there is hardly any chance any character below skill 11 will make it. Not to mention all those unavoidable luck rolls…
Though this is actually part of what madeso memorable. All those recollections of countless failures. Which, thanks to the aforementioned qualities, nevertheless were positive experiences. Just because there is so much to marvel about, the way everything is set up, the way the situations and encounters are devised. As so often in this series, the journey is the true reward. Even if you may have to cheat a bit – at least in the initial rolls – to ever see the ending.