Because of your level when you stumble into it, I think this is one of the toughest encounters in any CRPG. I died. Almost instantly.
We stepped cautiously past the suspicious guards, through the archway, and into the old city, kicking our way past debris and rats. Some kind of alarm blared in the distance. The hallway ended after about 30 feet with a closed wooden door on the left. Opening it, we entered a large chamber, likely the ruins of a barracks or inn.
We had taken no more than a few steps when an orc patrol entered from a doorway to the south. Filthy, snarling creatures, they spotted us immediately and began muttering excitedly to each other. Most party members prepared to draw swords, but Octavianus held out a cautioning hand.
"No matter what breed of monster we encounter," he said firmly. "We do not attack unless we are attacked. Every creature deserves a chance to leave voluntarily." I could see Karnov struggle with this. Orcs had massacred his clan, but his strongly individualistic nature made him loath to put the blame for the actions of some creatures on an entire race. Ultimately, he bowed to Octavianus's leadership, but his hand never left his axe.
We approached the orcs cautiously and with as much friendliness as one can muster with orcs. To their credit, they did not immediately attack. The largest--the leader--stepped forward but said nothing.
"Ho, orcs!" Octavianus greeted. "We come from the city of Phlan. It is the intention of the City Council to clear these ruins and make them safe for human habitation. We invite you and your fellows to withdraw and return to your lairs in the mountains."
The game introduces some role-playing possibilities, first with the options to flee, fight, or parlay when confronting an enemy, and the with various options associated with speaking: haughty, sly, nice, meek, and abusive. I like to envision specific words associated with these selections as I play, as I did for "nice" above. Other options:
- Haughty: "Oh, look. It's some filthy little orcs. I'm so scared. Comrades, if these mangy beasts don't flee within 10 seconds, we'll teach them a lesson about messing with the citizens of Phlan."
- Sly: "Ah...orcs. I'm guessing you're not here by your own will any more than we are. What do you say we forget we saw each other and let our masters fight each other if they want to fight so badly?"
- Meek: "Hey, orc friends! I hope we haven't stumbled into the wrong place. We'll just turn around and head out that door there, if that's okay with you."
- Abusive: "What the hell is this?! Orcs?! Get the %$^&@ out of our way!"
The monsters also have different dispositions. For instance, "angry-looking" monsters attack immediately, while "seedy-looking" ones are generally more willing to talk.
At my current level, none of the options do much to avoid battle. A couple of times, the monsters have offered to let us go for a bribe, but once you do that the first time, you never regain your self-respect. Thus, although the encounter almost always ends in battle, it's still an interesting set of options, and a definite step towards the more nuanced dialog and role-playing options available in later games. Plus, once the party levels up a few times, I think monsters become more willing to listen.
The orcs exchanged glances. Probably they had only understood a few words, I thought, but then the leader turned out to be surprisingly articulate.
"The boss doesn't like your kind around here," the leader finally said in that strange, mucusy Orcish accent. "But we'll forget we saw you--for a price."
I heard Duskfire whisper to Lame Brain behind me: "Who is the 'boss'? Some orc chieftain, or is there a greater power behind the Phlan infestation?"
"We will pay nothing," Octavianus said. "But we--"
It was all he got out. At his initial words, the leader gave a signal, the orcs unsheathed short swords, and before I knew what was happening, I was between Duskfire and Zink, stabbing at the furry monstrosities with my long sword. Ahead, I saw Karnov swinging his axe with a particular glee.
I would like to say that we covered ourselves in glory, but both Duskfire and Zink took wounds that left them unconscious. Still, we slew them all--our first real battle against a monstrous foe--with none of our lives lost. We resisted the urge to retreat to the safety of the town. As Koren healed the fallen party members, I scavenged a handful of copper pieces and a couple of usable short swords from the corpses of our enemies. The swords would't sell for much back in Phlan, but every copper piece counts.
The next ruins held similar encounters with patrols of kobolds and goblins. In each case, we offered the opportunity to flee, and in each case they attacked or tried to extort money from us. Lame Brain's and Duskfire's sleep spells proved invaluable against these base creatures, sending them into a magical slumber long enough for us to administer coups-de-grace. We took wounds but nothing serious.
Unlike most D&D games I can remember, the "sleep" spell is quite valuable here, usually affecting all enemies in its 9-square radius.
I owe you all a full posting on the tactical combat system, but I'm waiting until I level up a few times and have more options to write about. For now, suffice to say that my Level 1 party misses a lot, but so do the monsters. However, when they hit, it's usually enough to obliterate my five or six hit points and send the character unconscious immediately. I would also note that the random encounters tend to offer between 8 and 20 experience points each. With the next level requiring between 1,250 and 2,000 experience, and with most of my characters multi-classes, leveling up is going to take a while!
The game has two options to search a room: "look" and "search." "Look" does a one-time only scan that takes 10 minutes, while the "search" option stays on and causes you to run a "look" every time you take a step. I have just been leaving it on. There doesn't seem to be any penalty for the passage of time (your characters have ages but do not age in the game), and it doesn't seem to greatly increase the odds of random encounters.
We moved through the ruins slowly, taking time to search for secret doors, traps, and hidden objects. Although we rarely found anything, the few times we did, we were grateful for having taken the extra time. One thing was certain: the City Clerk had greatly understated the extent of the monster infestation. Almost every room held a patrol, and a few rooms were clearly serving as temporary monster headquarters. In one room, for instance, we found a group of orcs sitting around a desk, arguing over some documents. They attacked us immediately and fell to our blades.
The game has a nice balance of random encounters and fixed encounters in the various game maps. The fixed encounters are usually more difficult and offer a greater experience reward, as well as a greater chance of finding magic items. I suspect that solving the quest to "clear" the slums involves finding and winning all of the fixed encounters.
I should mention that unlike Might & Magic, The Bard's Tale, and even Ultima IV, Pool of Radiance remembers all of the outcomes of your fixed encounters even after you leave the map and return. Fixed monsters do not reappear, and you cannot find the same treasure more than once. This was true in previous games for some specific encounters, but this is the first game to implement this kind of permanence on a game-wide scale.
Eventually, so loaded with copper and salvaged weapons that we could barely move, and bereft of spells, we decided to return to the city. A chance encounter with kobolds on the way left Lame Brain unconscious, but we managed to improvise a litter and drag him to the city. There, we checked into the inn and healed our wounded party members. [More on magic and memorizing spells in a later posting.] Unfortunately, all of the equipment we had brought back sold for a pittance. We had not amassed enough money to buy even a single armor or weapon upgrade. We grimly returned through the archway and retraced our steps.
We battled past several more patrols as our exploration took us to the southeast quadrant of the old city. By this time, each of us had several kills to our names, and Octavianus remarked with a combination of wonder and disgust how quickly we become used to the feeling of our swords and axes plunging into living flesh. As we uncomfortably pondered the implications of this, we came to a locked door. Karnov tried to pick it and failed, so Octavianus bashed it down.
Against all probabilities, we found ourselves in the tidy home and laboratory of an old wizard who introduced himself as Ohlo. Without indulging in many pleasantries, he asked me to fetch a potion from the Old Rope Guild somewhere south of our location. Partly stunned by the encounter, we stammered out agreement and he sent us along, refusing our offers to fix his door.
This was the first "side quest" in the game, and again we must note certain roleplaying opportunities, even if they are light ones. I had the option to attack Ohlo, for instance, although it would have certainly ended badly, and I had the option to reject the quest. Later, when I did return with the potion, I had the option to refuse to give it to him. The fact that an impossible battle happens if you do that...
...doesn't change the fact that this is a real role-playing option, something we hardly ever see in quests in CRPGs of this era.
The Rope Guild, occupying the southern part of the ruins, was a twisted maze that ultimately led us to an unlikely shop on the far eastern end. There, a friendly young alchemist--without explaining anything about what he was doing there or how he survived the monster infestation--gave us Ohlo's potion. Returning to him with it, we were rewarded with gold, several gems, and an enchanted long sword. Not bad for a simple fetch-and-carry job!
On the far western end of the Rope Guild area is the encounter whose screen shot starts this posting--a battle with three trolls and two ogres that is impossible to win with Level 1 characters. It would be hard even with Level 3 characters. I remembered it immediately when it commenced, even though the last time I played the game was about 17 years ago. My entire party was wiped out in the first round of attacks. This is the "you all died" screen, by the way:
I hadn't saved since entering the ruins for the second time, so I had to reload and do Ohlo's quest again. Later, I encountered some battles with large groups of goblins and orcs that also left me dead. There are certain parts of the old slums that are very unsafe to enter.
As we left the wizard's house for the second time, we noted that the ruins had gotten quieter, and that we were encountering fewer wandering parties of monsters. Were our efforts already making a difference in the old slums? Just as we started to think that we might be on the verge of clearing the area, we opened a door and blundered into a large, outdoor town square, and our illusions were disabused immediately. The square was swarming with orcs, hobgoblins, kobolds, goblins, and even some human mercenaries--which we must have looked like, since the monsters did not attack us.
Wandering through the old Hemp Market, as the square was known, we overheard a hobgoblin taking about the "hot-shot orc" in charge of the enemy forces at "the temple over the river." This was good intelligence to discover. From the Hemp Market, we could see a gate into other sections of Old Phlan, but after a quick conference, we decided to save the exploration of those ruins until after we cleared the immediate slums.
Growing bolder in our explorations, we cleared out an ad-hoc goblin training school and slew a group of hobgoblins arguing over a pile of gold. A little battered, we longed to return to the comfort and safety of a Phlan inn, but in the interests of time, we decided to hole up and heal in an old storage room we found towards the northwest corner of the ruins. The next morning, nearby, we found walls completely surrounding a section of the city. Figuring there must be something inside, we tested the exterior walls and found a concealed door! Within the room, under the floorboards, was a fortune in gold and jewelry.
The game gives experience rewards for just finding treasure. This is far more than I've received from any battle in the game.
After this discovery, we were so laden with treasure that, although we had not finished our task of clearing the slums, we thought it would be prudent to return to the city. Octavianus suggested that, based on the experience we had gained battling monsters, we might stand to learn a few tricks from the trainers at the guild. The trek back was mercifully free of encounters.
Guild training, it turns out, requires an absurd fee of 1,000 gold pieces per person! At first, we balked at this figure--far more than we had ever seen since joining together as a party. But then we visited a shop to sell our collected jewelry and gems and found, upon leaving the establishment with our jaws open, that we had more than 15,000 gold pieces together. One expedition has made us wealthier than we had ever imagined. If the city of Phlan did not need us, we might actually retire! At the very least, we no longer have to collect short swords from slain kobolds.
We went back to the guild and paid their usurious fee, but our visit seemed a bit premature. Octavianus learned a few fighting strategies from a trainer, and Koren, studying with a cleric, advanced her ability to cast spells. No one else was quite ready for new techniques.
Yeah, so I had forgotten that with multi-classed characters, they were splitting their experience. I needed about 500 more experience points before everyone could advance. Leveling up, I should mention, requires visiting the guild and finding the right "room" for the class. It's interesting that Pool of Radiance implemented the pay-a-trainer method of leveling (much like Might & Magic) which I don't think is required by D&D rules.
Returning to the shop, we had the shopkeeper appraise and identify all of the magical items we had discovered during the expedition, and we converted some of our gold to better equipment from the armory and the silver shop. When all was done, Octavianus the fighter was clad in plate mail and wielding a silver two-handed sword. Karnov the fighter/thief had leather armor +1, a silver long sword, and a ring of protection +1. Lame Brain was wielding a long sword +1, Zink and Koren had silver maces, and all of our party members with archery skills had short bows +1. [The magic items were all found in the ruins; the shops don't sell any magic items, which is a bit of an annoyance.]
We rested that evening content with our success, and eagerly plotting strategy to finish clearing the slums the next day.
The game is still enormous fun--even better than I remember. I like the way it rewards you incrementally for clearing out small sections of an area, and that the fixed encounters are distinguishable (though subtly) from the random ones. I don't like leaving one area for another before fully exploring the first, though, so now that I have a couple extra levels, I'm going to take on a hireling and try the trolls again. More on that tomorrow.
Before I go, I want to refer you to an amusing comic I've been reading online since one of the authors e-mailed me: "Hi-Res Heroes." The opening strips poke fun at the Pool of Radiance codewheel, and the characters in the strip are drawn based on the "Gold Box" character combat icons. This one is my favorite so far, although I wish he'd used a "wyvern" instead.