Monday, September 5, 2011

Endless Quest Flowchart -- Dungeon of Dread

A few weeks ago I looked at a flowchart to one of TSR's Endless Quest books from near the middle of the series. Today I wanted to look at the very first one in the series, Endless Quest #1, Dungeon of Dread.

This was also written by Rose Estes, who wrote each of the first 7 books in the series (#13, Dragon of Doom, being the last one she did). Once again there is a credit for "D&D Consultant: Frank Mentzer". Cover art is by Larry Elmore, with internal pieces by Jim Holloway (other books in the series having art by Timothy Truman, Clyde Caldwell, Jeff Easley, etc.) It's kind of striking just how much unique art there is in these books, compared to a later degenerate era when TSR was recycling most of its art pieces over and over again. This slim book has no less 25 full-page interior illustrations by Holloway.

As the name implies, Dungeon of Dread is perhaps the most canonical D&D adventure in the series, being entirely dungeon-based once the action starts. It's also possibly the only one that has an adult protagonist (everything else in the series, to my recollection, featuring a child or teenager in the lead role) -- although the fighter here also has a reluctant, child-sized, halfling sidekick. (Oddly from a D&D game perspective, the adventuring warrior has no armor other than a shield.) The book has an unusual pagination scheme: only text pages are numbered, with illustration pages given no number (for example, between pages 12 and 13 there is another unnumbered page with an illustration). I'm pretty sure this was dropped in later books (probably easier for the publisher, although in my charts it means I have to make a decision about where to include certain picture element pages). You can see a flowchart of the overall adventure at the top here.

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

This flowchart is quite different from the one for the later Dragon of Doom (with its two distinct and incompatible plot branches). There's basically one most-desirable ending point, but there are lots of crossing branches and switchbacks possible along the way. I want to say that perhaps we can see Rose Estes learning how to take on this task from the tree-like structure itself: the first several layers generally have two branches each leading to unique blocks of text -- the result being a huge number of different scenes at around the 5th level down (so many that I had difficulty squeezing them all into the one-page flowchart).

At that point, by choice or necessity, she starts to have many consolidations, where lots of branches feed back into a few key "bottleneck" events. One of these points is "23 drunk baboon" (4th line down, far right), which has 5 different branches leading o it. Another one is "62-66 water weird" (left of page, about 2/3 way down) -- an obvious central set-piece, which (1) has a scrawled riddle-warning about it at the entrance to the dungeon, (2) is featured in the Larry Elmore cover art for the book, and (3) has no less than 10 different branches leading into the scene.

While many different monsters are encountered, surprisingly few of the branches lead to results of death or destruction. We can identify the overall theme of the story as "finding bravery and courage"; much of the narrative sections are devoted to Caric (the fighter) encouraging the at-first-cowardly Laurus (the halfling) to help him on the adventure -- and the halfling's subsequent story arc of finding that courage (at times to the surprise of both characters). This is reflected in the book structure itself, in that the best choice is usually the one which seeks confrontation and apparent risk-taking. There are only 4 fights which can result in death for the hero (for example: chasing after a dragon or a black pudding); even such fearsome opponents as an ogre, a gargoyle, a hill giant, or a green slime can be successfully overcome. And even on conclusions where the fighter dies, inevitably the story closes with the halfling getting away, and vowing to return to avenge his friend.

Estes uses a trope which, frankly, becomes repetitive once you look at the book in its entirety. Routinely, the heroes walk down a tunnel; they encounter a side-corridor but pass by it; they look through an open doorway ahead to see some monster (which fails to see them due to some stage business); do they (A) go forward and fight the monster, or (B) avoid it via the side-corridor behind them? Monsters are usually single classic D&D creatures (like an orc, hobgoblin, fire beetle, giant toad, troll, etc.); occasionally a pair (goblins/kobolds); and in two cases a larger group (swarm of giant ants; pack of blink dogs). Almost always in this adventure, the best option is (A), to fight.

As one example, if you look at the flowchart around the 4th line down, there is a sequence of about 4 different possible monster encounters. In each case, if you choose to flee, then you are passed onto the "23 drunk baboon" scene, and in so doing get shunted away from "62-66 water weird" encounter and the possibility of retrieving the special key there. If you fight, then in each case you proceed towards the important water weird encounter. If you practice avoidance multiple times, then you likely end up ejected from the dungeon from the secret boulder-disguised exit (ending the adventure, alive but without the primary treasure; see endings at p. 43, 105, 81-82, and 113-114). Exception: If you do nothing but mindlessly fight every single time, then after 4 aggressive choices you will in fact arrive at death from a maddened minotaur (leftmost branch at the top, ending at "37-38 dead").

Another observation is that the page positions of the scenes are fairly predictable. For example, the first scene is "1-12 intro". At this point you have two choices, one that takes you to the next page, "13-14 kobolds", the other to the page right after that, "15-16 chute/orc". And so forth. Usually the first of any pair of choices jumps you to the next sequentially unused page, and the other choice jumps to the page immediately after that. The "best ending" is positioned at exactly the end of book, "126-128 treasure victory!".

So, comments on that ending: Clearly, the structure at the end funnels you to confront the evil wizard and his pet basilisk (see bottom-middle of the flowchart; also mentioned in the start-of-adventure warning), which is defeated in the usual fashion. Having overcome the wizard, an interesting branch occurs: the reader is trusted (on the "honor system", we might say) to report whether they have successfully retrieved the special key from the water weird or not. If so, then you get the "best" ending at the end of the book, with 3 pages of text and an illustration celebrating the awesome amount of treasure and glory you've obtained. If not, then you go to a brief single-page ending on p. 125, that at least initially starts out expressing sadness that you can't get through the locked gate to the treasure.

Here's the very strange thing, though: That alternate ending (sans key), nevertheless concludes with Laurus announcing (without any foreshadowing) that he can pick locks, opening the gate with a piece of bent wire, and then abruptly ending the story after announcing that "all the treasure in the world" is now yours. Question: Was this p. 125 supposed to be a more downcast ending, lacking the special key that it takes special pains to acquire? Was it altered late in the writing process, as some editor thought that it made the adventure too "tough" for the intended audience? I suspect that this might be the case.

Once again, see this link for some more commentary on Choose Your Own Adventure-style books trusting the reader to keep track of inventory items like this (and at least one example of a book punishing the reader for cheating, by first suggesting an item that doesn't exist anywhere in the adventure; search for "cheat" and do click on the footnote symbol).

Total number of variant endings: 10. Failure endings: 8 (4 deaths, 3 by secret exit, 1 injury & retreat). Victory endings: 2 (both post-wizard fight: 1 with key, 1 without).

Open Questions: Can this adventure be mapped as-described to a rational dungeon layout on graph paper, or not? Was it originally designed with such a map, or by pure narrative necessity?

2 comments:

  1. I just played through this for maybe the first time since Oh 1982

    I thought of drawing out a standard graph paper map but it doesn't appear to have usual topography maybe

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    1. Glad you picked it up recently! I tried mapping it a little later and here's the result -- http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2011/09/is-dungeon-of-dread-mappable.html.

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