As we prepared to return to the ruins the next morning, Karnov took me aside and asked what I thought about supplementing our party of six with a hireling.
"You mean a mercenary?" I said.
"Call it what you will," he said. "There's a whole bunch of them--wizards, clerics, fighters--over at the guild, just waiting for a party to take them along. Imagine what we could do with a few more healing spells, or another sword in the front ranks."
"And another share of the treasure," I pointed out.
"Which we have plenty of!" he retorted. "If I suggest it to Octavianus, will you back me up?"
I reluctantly agreed, but fortunately it didn't take a lot of persuasion on our part. Octavianus was cautious but open-minded. "Let's check them out."
We returned to the arena and met with the Arena Master, who could have been Octavianus's cousin. At first, he tried to interest one of us in a one-on-one duel, but we declined. After that, he was willing to talk about the mercenaries.
Mercenaries turned out to be relatively expensive. A competent swordsman wanted a share of the treasure equivalent to three of us, and a decent cleric wanted four shares! Some of the potential hirelings wanted their pick of any magic items we found, which Octavianus called a "dealbreaker." Ultimately, we decided to hire a fighter to sit in the rear ranks with a bow. The swordsman made no secret that he was only with us for the money, and he declined even to tell us his name!
Party NPCs have been available since The Bard's Tale, where you could summon monsters but not control what they did in combat. Ultima IV, of course, had NPCs that would join you, but once they did they were under your full control. Might & Magic II was the first game in which the hirelings demanded payment, but you could still control them. Pool of Radiance is the first game that has hirelings that a) take a share of the treasure, and b) perform their own actions in combat.
At first, I thought to hire a mage so I wouldn't have to dump one of my multi-classed mages for a "pure" one, but I realized that without the ability to control when and where offensive spells were cast, the usefulness of the NPC was in question (I might still try it later). A cleric would be a good idea because you can control hirelings outside of combat, when most of the cleric's spells are needed, but I already have two of those. So, for now, I just went with a fighter.
The city council thinks of Old Phlan as an orc-infested ruin that needs to be reclaimed. Orcs just think of it as their home.
Returning to the ruins, we cleared out a houseful of orcs before finding another strange encounter: an old fortune-teller living in a small hut in the middle of monster-infested ruins. We paid her small asking price. In a trance, she informed us: "Blood and violence are writ boldly in your future. Look for friends where you expect enemies and enemies where you expect allies." We agreed that it was worthless but also harmless.
Just as an aside, you can choose to attack the old woman, in which case this is what you get:
I reloaded, of course, although I was mildly curious to see if anything developed out of the gods noting my actions.
After a few more hours, it seemed we had explored every inch of the slums except the southwest corner, where we had heard ominous noises inside a section of the Old Rope Guild. I suggested to Karnov, our thief, that he might "sneak" into that area to see what kinds of monsters awaited us, but he gave me a strange look and responded cryptically that he wouldn't be able to use his ability to hide in shadows for "a few more years at least."
When we rounded the corner, we found a group of trolls and ogres tossing a sack of grain around. Startled, they dropped the sack and then looked greedily to our heads as substitutes. The battle was joined. After a long fight in which both Duskfire and Lame Brain nearly died, we were victorious!
I recorded this battle below. I'm still not going to go into a lot about tactical combat just yet, but the recording should give you a sense of how it works.
If you know you're about to fight, the first thing you want to do is cast any buffing spells (making sure to turn off "search" first, since having searching on causes 10 minutes to pass every time you take a step), so at 00:30, I cast my one buffing spell: "bless." We wander in to combat, which starts at 00:53. Note how the narrowness of the corridor prevents my three rear characters from attacking in melee. It starts with one of them, Koren, whose turn I decide to delay in case someone needs healing at the end of the round.
Duskfire attempts a "sleep" spell--sometimes you get lucky--and it does put one ogre to sleep. I immediately have Octavianus slay him (01:04), because the more monsters you kill, the greater chance that the remainder will suddenly decide to flee. Lame Brain, as usual, goes down almost instantly (01:07), and I have to waste Zink's turn bandaging him so he won't die.
The rest of the combat shows me slowly picking away at the trolls and ogre, and even watching it now, I'm not sure how I survived. I got some lucky hits. I lose Duskfire at 03:40, which means neither she nor Lame Brain will get experience from this combat (more below). Trolls regenerate and pop back up if you don't finish the battle quickly, so I was in danger of losing until the last moment. Note how the NPC fighter insisted on using his ranged weapon, effectively blocking my two rear PCs from fighting until late in the combat (Koren somewhat ineffectually flings hammers at the trolls). You can see the somewhat annoying process of switching from melee to ranged weapons here.
The tide turns at 4:47, when the remaining trolls decide to flee for the hills. This is good news for a couple reasons. First, fleeing enemies expose their backs to automatic attack, and you can see Zink take down one at 04:53 without any extra effort on my part. Then, because the corridor is blocked, I can calmly finish off the second one with missile weapons.
The potion I loot at 05:40 turns out to be a potion of speed. I kept the video going for a while, showing the process of healing the downed characters (05:50), memorizing spells again (06:13), walking back through the slums and returning to town (07:40), walking about town, checking into an inn to rest (08:33), and returning to City Hall for my reward (09:06) and a new quest (09:25).
Of three outstanding quests--clear Sokol Keep, find books and tomes relating to Phlan, and figure out what's being auctioned a Podol Plaza--I decided to go to Sokol Keep next, mostly because I know where it is. (Podol Plaza might be the map adjacent to the old city, but I'm not sure. Maddeningly, there is a map of all the areas in the Adventurer's Journal, but I'm forcing myself not to look at it until I get that entry.) I took a boat from the Phlan docks to the island fortress, a former Temple of Tyr that had been overrun by monsters about 50 years prior.
In the courtyard outside the main keep, shortly after stepping off the boat, I found the remains of a dead adventurer and a note:
I remember encountering this screen the first time I played Pool of Radiance, back when I was 14. I had played Questron, Ultima IV, Might & Magic, The Bard's Tale, and perhaps a few others, so I wasn't a CRPG infant, but thinking of this screen always gave me a bit of a tingle for years. When I thought of CRPGs, and how much fun I had playing them, I thought of this skeleton outside Sokol Keep. With more experience under my belt, I think I understand why: this is one of the few times in a CRPG (up to this point) in which you encounter something that 1) does not involve combat; 2) gives a sense of what it's like to play real RPGs; 3) tells you something about the game world; and 4) makes thematic sense. It offers a tantalizing sense of history and lore to the game that you don't get from just reading the manual. It would be overstating the case, probably, to suggest that the transition from the Silver Age to the Golden Age of CRPGs hinges on a skeleton in a courtyard...but it at least does for me.
Anyway, the note turned out to have three words, which I had to translate from Elvish laboriously with the codewheel: "Lux," "Samosud," and "Shestni." The keep inside was crawling with undead, but after a few battles, I realized I could parlay with them and use the word "Shestni" to make them back off. "Lux" turned out to pacify a few fixed encounters with undead, and "Samosud" got me out of the keep after the last encounter. Fighting undead is a pain right now because my clerics aren't high enough that "turn undead" destroys them--it just causes them to flee. Likely as not, they encounter an obstacle in their flight and I have to go chasing after them to end the battle.
In one of the rooms, I found some ghosts who, pacified with "Lux," gave me some gems and a leather-bound journal that told me of the fall of Sokol keep. This was the first time I had to look up something other than a "tavern tale" or a City Hall proclamation in the Adventurer's Journal. I'll reproduce it below to give you a sense of the quality of the writing and how the journal integrates into the gameplay:
An old leather-bound book, written with a small, firm hand.
"The hordes came again last night. Their coordination was frightening. Under the cover of darkness, goblins and kobolds pushed bundles of sticks to within bow range. These bundles formed a wall that protected the small ones from our archers. Once the wall was erected orc archers took up safe positions there and begin pelting the castle walls with arrows.
"We tried shooting flaming arrows at the wall of sticks to set it afire. Monsters are normally afraid of fire. But these monsters showed no fear. They simply scooped dirt on the flames to put them out. Before all the fires were out they had resumed firing at us. Surely, some unnatural force must have been at work to weld these quarrelsome beasts into an organized fighting force.
"I do not know if we can combat the monsters onslaught much longer. We lost 12 more men last night. The monsters seem to have an unlimited number of reinforcements. The Last Priest of Tyr, Ferran Martinez, says he has a way to protect the keep, but he says that it's so terrible that it may only be used as a last resort. Unless we receive reinforcements shortly, Ferran Martinez is our only hope."
Inside the main keep was a large battle with orcs and hobgoblins that I won only through perseverance and effective use of "sleep" spells. Half my characters were unconscious at the end of it. On the hobgoblin leader's body was a piece of parchment with his orders (delivered in another journal entry). The orders refer to a "party of invaders" (us!) against whom he was to assemble "a force of no less than three squads" (not enough!) and to "kill them before they can return to the city council with information about the true situation at the keep" (they failed!). It is signed "The Boss," which is the first clue (aside from what the orcs say during parlay) that there's an organization behind all these monsters.
Finally, the Sokol Keep temple, I met the spirit of Brother Martinez, who credits a "magical pool" (clearly the Pool of Radiance) with the force behind the successful monster invasion of Phlan. He also names three "chiefs" of the monsters: Torath, Edranka, and Tyranthraxus. I can't pretend not to remember that Tyranthraxus isn't the "big bad" of this game, but I don't remember if we learn anything more about Torath and Edranka.
I returned to the City Council for more rewards for clearing the keep. Ironically, the proclamation announcing the quest to clear the keep was posted outside (the proclamations and the City Clerk's quests don't seem to be in sync). I was told to visit a city councilor for another quest. The counselor, Poryphyrs Cadorna, asked me to recover a family heirloom from the Textile Complex, which I assume is another area to the west of the old city.
At the end of this entry, as you may have noticed in the screenshots (check the hit points above), I'm facing a serious experience imbalance. Characters who are unconscious or dead at the end of a battle (the latter hasn't happened yet) do not gain experience, which means they do not gain levels, which means that they're all the more likely to go unconscious in the next battle. Lame Brain and Duskfire, who aside from always getting conked on the head are splitting their experience between two classes, only finally hit Level 2 when I got back from Sokol Keep, while Octavianus and Koren--my two "pure" characters--are on Level 4. Clerics only get six levels, so I have to remember to dual Octavianus after he hits level 5 (more on that later).
A few final stray thoughts:
- The game has a fair number of unused squares. There was an entire section in the northwest corner of Sokol Keep (below) that drove me crazy. I figured there must be something back there, but no amount of beating at the walls would let me through. Unlike Might & Magic and The Bard's Tale, there is no teleport or etherealize spell in D&D, so these squares will remain forever unexplored.
- I think of this every time I play a game based on AD&D's first or second editions (which includes everything from here all the way through Baldur's Gate II): second-level cleric spells suck. Every other spellcasting level for both mages and clerics has spells that you use throughout the game, no matter how powerful you get. The first-level cleric spells "bless" and "cure light wounds" never stop being relevant. Mages have the workhorse "magic missile" at Level 1, and some useful spells like "Stinking Cloud" and "Acid Arrow" at Level 2. What do clerics get at Level 2? In this game, it's "Find Traps" (useless here), "Hold Person" (hardly ever works, and only on humanoids), "Resist Fire" (useful only in certain situations), "Silence" (usually fails, doesn't last), "Slow Poison" (useless), "Snake Charm" (I'll let you know if I see any snakes), and "Spiritual Hammer" (which does the same damage as a normal hammer, which I have).
- The one disappointing thing about the game, as you see in the video above, is the graphical spareness of the game. Corridors and rooms are completely featureless unless you trigger a special encounter. You have to envision tables, chairs, beds, wall hangings, and other physical features.
As graphics improve in CRPGs, they show, rather than tell, these things. Oh, there was a battle with giant frogs at one point. I never found a good place to bring it up.
So I still have three open quests: find books and journals about Old Phlan (Martinez told me that Mendor had collected these things in his library), figure out what's being auctioned at Podol Plaza, and recover the heirloom from the Textile Complex. I don't know precisely where any of these are, so I'm going to head west out of the slums and see what I encounter first.