|The party finally finds a Pool of Darkness.|
After my last post, combats increased enormously in difficulty. This is not a game in which you can switch to "quick combat" and watch your characters slowly destroy the enemies in effective, if less-than-optimal, ways. (Among other things, spellcasters under AI don't account for the "bounce" effect of "Lightning Bolt," nor do they seem to care who's in front of them when they cast "Cone of Cold.") For the first time in my Gold Box experience, I find myself regularly casting healing spells in the midst of combat. In no previous game would I have sacrificed a paladin's opportunity to attack so he could "lay hands" on an injured cleric. I'd have risked the cleric falling unconscious and not getting experience for the battle. In Pools of Darkness, however, my characters rarely fall unconcious: they die. Anything powerful enough to kill them is powerful enough to wallop them below -10 hit points.
The next quest in my east-west exploration served up an interesting plot that revealed itself only in pieces. In summary, two mages from Phlan, Quil and Kimarr, discovered in Thar a fortress that had belonged to a wizard named Taydome. Sasha's mission had been to visit the two mages and inspect the fortress.
At some point, either because of Bane's takeover of the Moonsea or just concurrent to it, Kimarr decided to keep Taydome's fortress for himself, making use of a magic spell that bends the minds of ogres and giants to the ruler's control. Quil went into hiding in the fortress to oppose Kimarr and managed to secrete Sasha in a safe place, but was unable to get her out of the fortress. And Kimarr made some deal with Bane that made him immune to Quil's magic. It was into this situation that the party blundered. An early battle with cloud giants leaves the front door locked and the party unable to leave.
|I think every option here leads to combat.|
As I explored, I found numerous scribbled notes from Quil (although I didn't know his name or anything about him) that slowly filled in the back story.
Confusing things, a warrior named Ruoln joined my party, claiming to have been one of Sasha's guards, and further claiming that both Kimarr and Quil had attacked the Phlan delegation. Ruoln later turned out to be Kimarr in disguise; he had only joined my party in hopes that we'd lead him to Quil and Sasha. Eventually, he got frustrated when we didn't do it fast enough, left the party, and ordered a bunch of hill giants to attack.
Letting NPCs join the party in any Gold Box game is always a 50/50 proposition. What bothers me is that even if you're suspicious from the outset, there's no way to role-play preparation for the eventual betrayal. To be fair, I can't think of any other game in which you can. I remember figuring out immediately the villain of Throne of Bhaal, but I still had to play the entire game according to the villain's plan instead of just killing him or her.
As we explored the fortress, we freed some of the captured Phlan warriors and killed a lot of giants. This was too bad, because it was clear that they didn't really want to fight:
Eventually, I came upon a scene in which Kimarr had discovered Quil and was about to kill him. Joined by some of the Phlan guards I'd freed, we fought a final battle against Kimarr--in black dragon form--and a bunch of giants. I forgot to screen-shot it, but he killed my cleric in the first attempt at battle. As usual, I reloaded and, knowing the final battle was coming, buffed in the appropriate location with "Bless," "Prayer," "Protection from Evil," "Mirror Image," "Enlarge," and so forth. I killed Kimarr on the second try. Quil led me to Sasha, who tersely offered her gratitude and magnanimously allowed me to rest anywhere in the fortress, as if a whole 16 x 16 map of safe resting spots is necessary.
Next map: a "small stockade," only 4 x 6 in dimensions. The weary captain in charge of the stockade told me that dragons keep attacking, and he asked for my help. One battle against dragons, in which I controlled a bunch of "Phlanarian Warriors," and the map was done.
Next up was a village at a crossroads. Some giants had invaded and were holding the villagers captive. I killed them and got some magic items, none better than what I already had, as a reward.
|I prepare to "Fireball" a pack of giants. The various fire giants in the middle will be immune.|
After that, I returned to the giant fortress where my party had begun its explorations--the only place so far to offer a training hall and shop. I had previously declined to continue my explorations out of the fortress and into a series of tunnels, but I did this now.
The tunnels were ruled by a fire giant mage, Ungelow, who thanked me for killing "that simpering fool of a hill giant"--she even gave me some magical treasure as a reward, warning me not to go further into her caves. Of course, I ignored her. For the first time (I think) in a Gold Box game, the cave offered some of the navigation obstacles that we see in other first-person titles in the Wizardry line, including spinners and a never-ending hallway. (They were presented as part of Ungelow's illusion magics.) Unlike Wizardry, though, Pools of Darkness made it clear what was happening and provided easy solutions.
|It's not a navigation puzzle if you call attention to it!|
At one point, I came across some hill giants who let me in on their plan to collapse a wall on top of Ungelow. But when I tried to go along with them, it turned out that the idiots had sapped the wall in the wrong direction, and it ended up collapsing on us instead.
|Never trust the engineering of hill giants.|
At another point, I ran across a group of Fire Knives. It was an interesting encounter. Ungelow had apparently contracted with them to kill the hill giant shaman, but we wiped out their assassination team (on the previous map) before they could accomplish it. As I came across the remaining Fire Knives in Ungelow's cave, they were debating whether to cut their losses and depart or attack my party to claim the treasures that Ungelow had given us.
|One Fire Knife has a good point.|
It all ended in battle, of course, but it's so much more fun when battles have some kind of context. Recall the post I wrote all those years ago about encounters; this would be somewhere between a Level 1 and a Level 2A encounter. It's nice to see the genre evolving.
Through more giants, iron golems, and medusas my party cleaved a path. Ungelow showed up with a final offer to make us part of her army, and give us 300 gems, if we'd just stop. Again, so much more fun than the norm. We denied her, blundered into one disastrous final battle in which the fire giant shamans wiped out half the party with "Hold Person"...
...re-engaged it properly buffed, and won. In the last squares of the map, someone shouted, "Warn the dragons! Have them prepare for battle. They must fly sooner than expected." A final battle of the map against a handful of dragons served as a taste for what was about to come.
The series of maps culminated in a map full of dragons, and it was perhaps the most difficult single map that I've faced in the Gold Box series so far. Fighting dragons is always a dicey proposition, as no buffing spell (outside of "Mirror Image," which only mages have) protects you from the lightning, poison, and acid attacks of blue, green, and black dragons. Blue dragons are the worst--they always seem to find a way to bank their lightning breath off walls, so the same character gets hit at least twice. And there's some bug that lets them make the attack across great distances, and even through walls.
|This area had a lot of large battles with multiple dragons.|
As we explored the map, two things became clear. First, it was meant for characters who already had "Delayed Blast Fireball," not those who were working back up to it. Second, my cleric was a huge liability. Because of low hit point rolls when leveling up, he had a max of 41 hit points, rarely enough to survive even a single breath attack from the dragons. I reloaded because of his death alone at least a dozen times. I eventually gave him one of the "Rings of Blinking" that I'd received earlier, but I still don't understand how it works, and it didn't protect him every time.
As commenters have pointed out, there's an easy way to avoid breath attacks from most dragons: force them to physically attack you first. For whatever reasons, dragons don't breathe if they've already made a physical attack in the same round, so if you have a character run up to them and then run away, you force the dragons to make physical attacks at the character's fleeing backside. A high hit-point character like my paladin, wearing Boots of Speed, can run around the battlefield and neutralize half a dozen dragons as long as he goes first in the round. I'm ashamed to say that I succumbed to this tactic more than once. It seems cheesy, but when something is part of the game and you know it works, it's hard not to do it--especially when the alternative is lots and lots of reloading.
|Goldeneye prevents these dragons from using their breath attacks by making them attack her.|
The dragons were ultimately ruled by Thorne, one of Bane's lieutenants, but in the local map they responded to Modthryth, leader of a "Cult of the Dragon" who has some process for turning dragons into dracoliches. The map was full of a bunch of vignettes in which Modthryth was moderating combats between dragons, dragons were fighting with each other over the right to the dracolich conversion, dragons were pleading their case to Modthryth, and so forth.
|A couple of many special encounters in this area.|
The map offered something fairly new to the Gold Box experience: a large 4 x 4 room in the center that, whenever I returned to it, offered up a different encounter. Usually, once you "clear" a room, that's the end of it, but this room had a different group of dragons and a different vignette every time I entered. There were a couple of combats, one encounter with a wounded red dragon who said that Modthryth is "abusing the power that Thorne gave him," and so forth.
|A decent role-playing encounter.|
|I guess this was predictable.|
The ostensible goal of the map was to defeat 4 large dragon battles and recover 4 keys that would let me into the final area. There, I fought a final combat (much easier than the random ones throughout the map) against Modthryth and two dracoliches.
Now, beyond that final battle was one of the titular Pools of Darkness, leading to other planes. I confess I don't really understand what's happening with these. In this case, the portal is clearly there to lead to Thorne, since he's responsible for the dragons. And I did get to him--but only after a stopover with Elminster in Limbo first.
So I guess Elminters magic is somehow...what?...intercepting my party in between the paths that the portals would normally take you to? I'm not sure. Either way, Elminster offers training and item storage. This is necessary because, apparently, magic items don't survive the transitions between planes. This is, of course, a blatant way to relieve the party of their most valuable stuff and make the planar areas more of a challenge. But I frankly didn't mind it. It was fun to try to assemble a new batch of equipment on the other side of Limbo, just in time for my final battle with Thorne. A lack of shops or item identification mechanisms on the "other side" makes this even more of a challenge.
|Bolingbroke stores items in Elminsters vault so they won't be destroyed on their way to Thorne's realm.|
I guess a lot of players circumvent this system. Since one of the create/add/remove party members screens exists on both sides of Limbo, it's possible to store your items with a couple of mules on one side, remove them from the party, and then add them back on the other side. I consider this an "exploit" on my "Cheats & Liars" scale, so I'm going to avoid it.
Naked and equipped only with spells, my party appeared in Thorne's cave. As we progressed, we kept hearing horn blasts in the distance--Thorne summoning the "Gathering" of dragons to attack the Realms. The horn, I later discovered, was created from the horn of a ki-rin--celestial, lawful-good, unicorn-lions. Later, I found a place where his spirit had created a safe room for resting.
|Near the ki-rin's body, I found my first cache of weapons and armor.|
A thief named Raizel was among a bunch of prisoners I freed from some cages. She agreed to join my party, then kept begging me to go off in search of Thorne's fabled treasures, cached around the dungeon. But I took the continual horn blasts as a sign that time was of the essence, and I pursued them.
|Raizel tries to distract us from the mission.|
At the end of the map--with lots more dragon battles in between--we came face-to-face with Thorne. As usual, he taunted us as fools and said that the last blow of the horn would start the dragon war on the Realms. He attacked us with about 8 red dragons--who, by the way, are strangely not immune to "Delayed Blast Fireball."
Buffing with "Resist Fire" helped a lot against the red dragons, but my party really felt the loss of their equipment in this battle. Instead of missing most attacks, the dragons did heavy physical damage--especially Thorne, who was immune to magic. "Haste" and "Enlarge" were absolutely required to clean up the lesser red dragons before taking on Thorne. It took me 4 tries to win the battle with no party deaths.
|Bolingbroke attacks Thorne while the other party members work on the other dragons.|
When the battle was over, the spirit of the slain ki-rin appeared and explained that his horn was one of only three artifacts that I would need to turn against Bane's forces. Raizel stuffed her pockets with gems and jewels from Thorne's hoard and then took off.
I finished mapping the dungeon and found several additional treasure caches, each of which gave me tens of thousands of experience points and offered me gems, jewels, and platinum pieces that--per the subject of the last two postings--do me nothing at all. However, the experience contributed to party leveling, and when I was finally done with Thorne's dungeon, my characters had finally exceeded their original levels in their new ones. Dromio and Dromia can now cast their cleric spells again (and use their cleric weapons and shields), and Navarre can cast his mage spells again.
|Re-memorizing Dromio's cleric spells.|
Elminster was excited that I'd found the Horn of Doom and said that "with the Horn of Doom safely out of Bane's grasp, the storms will cease over the Moonsea," which will allow aid to come to the region. I'm not sure if that does anything for me materially, but we'll see. I returned to Limbo, destroying everything I'd picked up in Thorne's realm in the process, retrieved my equipment, and headed back to the Moonsea region. It looks like the next stop is going to be some scary-looking fortress on the western shore, assuming I don't run into some miscellaneous farmhouses first. Once I get there, I'll be half-done with the game in an overland mapping sense.
Now that I'm pretty far into Pools of Darkness, I'll say that I enjoy the richness of the plot, the large amount of detail and nuance the creators put into the dungeons, and the variety of special encounters. I don't think we've seen those factors at this level since Pool of Radiance. Thus, it's possible that Pools of Darkness will finally outscore it in the GIMLET.
Time so far: 16 hours
Reload count: 18
Reload count: 18