Trial of Champions
The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. It’s time step into the gladiatorial arena and see if we can win the Trial of Champions!
In 1982, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, founders of Games Workshop, released the book ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’. Intended as an introduction to tabletop role-playing games of the era, the book’s choose-your-own-adventure format mixed with simple dice-based combat proved massively successful, giving rise to a full series of books – Fighting Fantasy. With over 65 books in the series by a legion of authors and illustrators, the series’ legacy continues to this day. Come along with us as Cybe and co play through each one – with no prior knowledge, no hints or walkthroughs and no cheating!
Trial of Champions. Ah, memories!
When I was around 9 or 10 years old, my grandmother would drag me to a local weekly car boot sale every other Sunday, which took place on a scrap of unused land a short car drive from home. I hated the experience, which always ended up trudging through boxes of people’s unwanted rubbish with a fortnightly regularity. The only time anything useful ever turned up was when I found a copy of Trial of Champions and Demons of the Deep for sale one day.
The strange thing about Trial of Champions is that it acts as something of a pseudo-sequel for Deathtrap Dungeon. Only this time you are entered into the dungeon in order to win your freedom from slavery, rather than simply because you’re greedy for money and too stupid to start up your own merchant business. I suppose this is what makes adventurers so respected, and why they have such a low survival rate.
The book starts with a tale of you being captured by pirates after having just left Port Blacksand, of course. Where else would you be attacked by pirates? When it comes to Port Blacksand, you’re kinda lucky you’re not kidnapped and sold into slavery by the city guards! Anyway, you’ve been purchased as a slave by Lord Carnuss, the evil brother of the devious Baron Sukumvit, and he plans to make you fight for the honour of representing him in his brother’s annual dungeon challenge.
The Baron has announced that his new, improved dungeon is even more deadly than before. Which, if you remember what it was like last time, seems bloody well impossible anyway. Seriously, why not just round up some ‘contestants’ and chuck them into a giant mincing machine? They’d have about the same chance of survival! Anyway, I may actually stand a chance here – the weeks of slavery have forged me into a brutal and cold-hearted warrior machine-man, with a skill of 11 and a stamina of 22!! Lucky dice rolls – but my luck was a mere 8. Still… Conan, eat your heart out.
My very first choice in the game is if I should eat some of the food that one of the slave pen’s guards is offering me, or try to punch him in the face instead. I’m nowhere near stupid enough to get into a brawl with these guys at this stage, so I chew some food and prepare for the morning to rise, where I will meet others in the arena – or at the book calls it, the Arena OF DEATH!! *horror movie music*
I’m rather disappointed to find that the first day doesn’t include any actual gladiatorial face-thumping yet, but instead we’re told that we should compete in a 100 meter sprint. It’s made a little more interesting in that parts of the floors are covered in burning coals which I need to leap over, but still… I decide to make a name for myself by charging into the front of the race, and I manage to avoid falling behind or dying from exhaustion. These should definitely be Olympic events.
But on the second day… I get to fight!
Curiously, my enemy isn’t a fellow fighting slave, but instead I am set against a giant monster, a Bonecrusher. Having chose a trident and net as my weapons, I am told that I have chosen well and… wait a moment… how did Lord Carnuss get a Bonecrusher monster? Where does he keep it? What does he FEED it? What happens if it kills all the fighters? Will he enter the Bonecrusher as his warrior in the dungeon? Oh, never mind, the damn monster’s near-sighted and can’t stand up once you knock it over, so I gently push him over and am declared winner.
It’s at this point that things start to heat up. Overnight, one of the other slaves is ordered to kill me in the cells, which doesn’t seem very sporting, especially given that he has a skill of ten. Ten! And really, the first fight in the game? Oh boy, it’s going to be one of those FF books… I manage to chop him apart and get a peaceful night’s sleep next to his dead decaying corpse, and on the next day we head into the arena for a series of fun sports events.
Our first olympic event, mastering the spinning blades that threaten to slice my head off or cut my legs out from under me at the same time. I get through this, and move on to the next event – a game of blind man’s buff played with spiked maces. Seriously, who thinks up this kind of stuff?
Blindfolded and waving a spiked morning star around like a swirling madman, I manage to get into a fight with two other slaves, killing them both. Both have skill scores of at least 8, and because this game has no food and no other means to heal up your character thus far, my powerful stamina score of 22 is now down to a mere 10. You want to know a secret? I actually planned to play through this book a few weeks earlier. During this same blindfolded combat sequence, I tried to trip up one of the other competitors – which for me shot with arrows by the guards for my trouble, instant-death. So I scrapped that play-through and decided to do it later instead.
It’s only at this stage do I get to regain any stamina – a puny four points – as I’m lead to my final match against the only other surviving competitor, who is suitably named the ‘Southerner’. See, some books would give me a name for the character or something, but not this one. Names are for the weak. This man is not weak, he has a skill of ten. I whomp him over the head with his skill score of ten until I eventually beat him, emerging from this entire silly gladiatorial games as a mighty victor!
Without any real chance to celebrate or be praised as a mighty warrior who crushes all that stand before me (seriously, I could use some praise and adulation here, folks), I’m shipped off to Fang, under constant close watch from Lord Carnuss’ men. And y’know what? They STILL don’t give me any meals for my journey into the dungeon!! Aaargh!! I get introduced to Carnuss’ brother, the infamous Baron Sukkumvit (really, why is Lord Carnuss described as the ‘evil brother’? Seems they’re both a bit on the crazy evil side if you ask me!) and off I go into the Trial of Champions.
The very first thing I see in the dungeon is a door, with a sign reading “Keep Out” next to it. Naturally, I do what any self-respecting adventurer would do and head straight through this door. What do I find inside? A fire-breathing hell hound which tries to burn me to death and eat me, of course. Evidently curiosity did kill the cat. Still I kill it, find a gold ring in a mass of straw in the back corner of the room, and head on down the corridor.
I am soon parted from my golden ring though (No, they stole my precious!) when I come to a bridge across a large chasm. A sigh demands that I place some gold in a box, and not wanting to risk angering the bridge and possibly wind up facing a vicious Bridge Golem, I drop the ring into the box and toddle along on my way. I soon come to a small table. It has a hole cut into it, and the words “One is on and two is gone” written on it.
The book asks if I wish to reach into the hole. Figuring I’d look awesome with a steel hook for a hand, I stick my hand in and find two buttons inside. One is clearly marked ‘1’ and the other ‘2’. I hit the ‘1’ because I don’t much want my hand to be ‘gone’. Amazingly enough, it works. The wall slides aside, letting me continue along my way.
The next room I have the chance of entering has a broom nailed to it. I step inside, and encounter a witch. I know that she is a witch, because she is standing at a giant bubbling cauldron, and is throwing rats and slugs into it. Good to know witches aren’t being typecast or anything. She looks up at me, sends two vampire bats to me, and makes herself vanish in a puff of smoke. I admit, it would be funnier if she had attacked me with two bats herself (preferably duel-wielding cricket bats – old ladies wielding blunt force weapons tends to be one of the funniest things in the world), but what can ya do, eh?
I manage to knock the two bats out of the way, and the book tells me that I dump their bodies in the cauldron, for some reason or other. I’m then given the chance to explore the room, during which I find a rather unusual box, unusual because it has the face of one of the other Trial of Champion contestants on its lid. The moment I pick up the box, I am pulled into it, freeing the adventurer that was trapped within.
The book asks me to test my luck, which due to being so terribly low, I fail. I assume that a lucky roll would mean that another adventurer would later come around and open the box, freeing me a la 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo. But with my lack of luck, I am sealed inside the box forever-more, doomed to be a rather unlike-able piece of furniture.
Truly, a tragic end for such a noble adventure.
This is a very neat book, and makes the most of the setting to create its own backstory by making you fight through the trials at the start. It’s very evocative, and also very effective at what it’s trying to do. Where it falls apart a little is that it never really transitions smoothly into the second part (the actual Dungeon), while other books like Cavern of the Snow Witch managed to do so. It could have smoothed this out by making the fight sequences at the start a little easier (once you get into the dungeon, the monsters you’re fighting are far easier than the fighting slaves you fought earlier) and giving you some provisions to stack up on before you enter the dungeon.
Aside from these, I think it’s one of the more involving and enjoyable of the standard FF books, and the early sections show a lot of the brutality and savagery of the world. Worth the read.
Cause of death: 1991 Alice In Chains single to death.