I only ever played about eight or ten sessions of pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons, and those were enough for me. On paper, there's no reason I shouldn't love it. I've played hundreds of hours of D&D-themed computer games. I love fantasy novels and fantasy movies. I really enjoy reading D&D rulebooks and modules. I just don't like playing with a real dungeon master and real players.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why, and these are the best theories I can come up with:
- Pen-and-paper roleplaying takes too damned long. By the time you get to the location, get settled, open the chips, pour the drinks, get out the paperwork, roll characters for the new players, set up the campaign, and generally stop screwing around, hours have gone by. You can easily spend half a dozen sessions getting through a simple module.
- Because you're playing with other people, you can't just get up and leave whenever you want. And you have to mesh your schedule with theirs. There's no suddenly deciding to play at 01:00 when you can't sleep.
- It's tough to find a talented DM. If he's too imaginative, the game feels more like he's telling a story than you're playing. If he's too lenient, there's no challenge. If he's too inflexible, say goodbye to your character.
- There are a million rules and calculations, and the game comes to a standstill every five or six rounds as you roll dice and try to figure out whether your saving throw really applies to this particular use of poison or whatever.
- If you don't have three or four friends who like D&D, you end up playing with strangers. If you do have three or four friends who like D&D, you start to wonder about the choices you've made.
For all these reasons, despite its long history as a paper game, D&D has always struck me as a natural computer-based game system. A computer can do the calculations. You don't need friends with a computer. You can play with your computer any time you want. Your computer is an impartial DM. The only thing lacking with CRPGs over regular RPGs is a certain amount of open-endedness and flexibility. I can't suddenly decide to abandon Baldur's Gate and stalk off towards Silverymoon. But many CRPGs offer worlds that are enormous if not boundless, and this is usually good enough for me.
Pool of Radiance isn't the first D&D adaptation for the computer. Wikipedia says that was the PLATO-based dnd, followed by the PDP-10-based Dungeon, two handheld games from Mattel, and an Intellivision game. To a lesser extent, of course, practically ever fantasy CRPG listed on this blog is a D&D adaptation--just not an officially-licensed one. But Pool of Radiance was the first true CRPG adaptation of the specific D&D rules. (Heroes of the Lance, released the same year, was a side-scrolling action game.) It showed that D&D-style gameplay, character development, NPCs, and tactics could be adapted to the computer, and it introduced the idea of the "campaign setting" to CRPGs; games don't have to be direct sequels to each other to be set in the same world. Pool of Radiance and its four sequels are all set in the same realm as Eye of the Beholder, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights, and once you know the geography, races, magics, religions, monsters, and politics of one game, you can use that knowledge in others.
None of this would be particularly interesting if the gameplay didn't work, but a few hours with Pool of Radiance confirms what I remember: this is an awesome game. It has a great plot, an extensive game world, and a lot of lore. It is tactically challenging and reasonably fast-paced. There are a few things not to like--sparse first-person graphics and a tiresome healing process among them--but they're certainly sufferable.
Part of the game's charm is the back story, which is satisfying in its own modesty. You're not out to save the world or become a god or anything. Rather, your job is to help restore a ruined city called Phlan, a minor port on the Moonsea. Once prosperous, it was overrun by monsters a few hundred years ago and fell into disrepair. But descendants of its old inhabitants have now reclaimed it, set up a City Council, hired guards, and walled off a "civilized" section, and they are now soliciting for mercenary bands to start cleaning out the monster-inhabited sections of the city.
One of the satisfying things about replaying this game in the Internet age is that I can finally see where the Moonsea is, relative to other lands of the Forgotten Realms (technically called "Faerûn"). The Wizards of the Coast site has a full map, which I've included below along with some annotations as to the (rough) relative locations of certain games.
You begin by creating a party of six characters from all six core D&D races (human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, halfling), both sexes, nine alignments, and four classes (cleric, fighter, magic user, and thief). Normally, I would set out to create a set of characters that I could use throughout the four "Gold Box" games, but a somewhat clumsy implementation of the D&D rules in this first game means that I'll probably create a new set of characters for the next game, Curse of the Azure Bonds. First, there are no paladins or rangers in this game. Second, non-human races have level maximums and I have to make sure they aren't lower than the maximum level in the game. Third, there are maximum levels in the game, ranging from Level 6 for wizards and clerics to Level 9 for thieves. But these are level maximums, not experience maximums, so it makes sense to use multi-classed characters, thus ensuring that you never have the infuriating experience of not earning any more experience.
Thus, my party:
- Octavianus: chaotic good male human fighter (possibly to dual to cleric later)
- Karnov: neutral male dwarf fighter/thief
- Lame Brain: neutral good male elf fighter/magic user
- Duskfire: lawful good female [sorry about that man, but I needed another female, and frankly it sounds like a female's name] half-elf fighter/magic user
- Zink: lawful neutral male half-elf fighter/cleric
- Koren: neutral good female human cleric (possibly to dual to fighter later)
This leaves no halfling, but they suck at everything but thievery and I don't recall thieves playing a large role in this game.
As you create your character, you get to select from a number of heads and bodies to create your character portrait. Most of the portrait choices look pretty dumb, and I think this is the only Gold Box game to include them. You also select from various colors and styles to create your character icon. I'm colorblind, so I usually just focus on the weapon and head style and randomize everything else. I'm sure it looks stupid.
Right at the beginning, the game gives you the ability to cheat wildly. After creating your characters, no matter what attribute statistics they originally received, you can choose to "modify" them and change the statistics to whatever you want. The ostensible reason for this, given in the manual, is: "You may want to bring your favorite AD&D character into Pool of Radiance. Create a character of the same race and class and then modify it to match your non-computer AD&D character." Sure. All around the world, Pool of Radiance players suddenly had paper D&D characters with every attribute set at 18.
When I played Pool of Radiance the first time, in 1988, and the second time, in probably 1995, I happily engaged in this type of cheating, but not this time. It's hardly necessary anyway. Rarely does the game offer you single-digit attribute statistics. These were the numbers I got for Lame Brain after only three or four re-rolls:
Your characters start with no equipment and roughly 100 gold pieces per person. The game begins on the docks of Phlan, your mercenary ship presumably having just arrived. You are greeted by a townsman named Rolf who proceeds to give you a quick tour of the city and the major edifices.
Rolf shows the Temple of Tyr, the docks, the training facility, City Hall, Sune's Temple, City Park, and the entrance to the "monster-ridden areas of the old city." He then leaves the party alone to begin its adventure. This posting is already getting long, so I'll get into the real meat of the gameplay tomorrow.
Before I go, though, we must discuss the game's documentation. The game comes with an interesting construction called a "codewheel" that serves as both a copy protection device and a translator. The codewheel has two overlapping rings--one inner, one outer--and at the beginning of each session, the game asks you to match up two runes and tell it what word is found along one of three paths.
Lacking a physical copy, I was in the middle of creating a complicated PowerPoint-based solution when it suddenly hit me that someone must have programmed a little applet for this somewhere. Sure enough, I found a web site that allows you to do the selections quite easily. And guess who created it. That's right: Andrew freaking Schultz, the "king of classic CRPG walkthroughs". Did this guy do everything? It's actually not hosted on his own site any more, and the current hosts note that they can't reach him. I couldn't reach him, either, when I wrote about walkthroughs. Where did he go?
The second piece of important documentation is the Adventurer's Journal, which is almost unique in CRPGs of the era, although the concept was seen first way back in Temple of Apshai and taken to something of an extreme in Star Saga. To account for the limitations in on-screen text and cut scenes of the era, the creators described key encounters, including visuals such as maps and diagrams, in a 57-entry Adventurer's Journal. At key points, the game cues you to open the journal and read one or more of the entries. Lest you be tempted to read ahead, they randomized the order of entries and included several red herrings among the real ones.
The Journal also contains a collection of 23 "tavern tales" that you hear in bars. My first tavern tale was that "buccaneers operate a slave auction out of a hidden camp near Stormy Bay." Finally, it contains the quest proclamations that you find outside City Hall.
My characters have just arrived in town, so my first goal is to get some equipment. I still remember the first time I played the game, when I got embroiled in a huge tavern brawl before I had any weapons, and all my characters died. After that, I'll map the town and see what quests await me at City Hall. A warning for the next few weeks: I'm probably going to drag this one out.