Digital RPG is a series focusing on new and old Dungeons & Dragons video games.
Are you interested in playing tabletop D&D? Do you like video games? Do you like apples? Do I look fat in this dress? Do you love me now that I am so pretty, mama?!
If your answer to at least one of those questions is “Yes” then you should really play Pool of Radiance, by Strategic Simulations, Inc. (also known as the “Gold Box series”).
Just to warn you, this game is old. Like, “twenty-five years old” old. It’s a grind. It’s unforgiving. The graphics suck. There are a lot of words on the screen. In fact, for most of the game the only graphics you’ll see are in a little window in the corner. Everything else is text text text.
But it’s a classic, and of all the D&D game options out there Pool of Radiance comes closest to mimicking the actual tabletop experience. It stays true to its D&D roots without getting too fancy or flashy, and it requires the kind of imagination that you need to actually enjoy a D&D session.
I guarantee that if you get bored or frustrated playing Pool of Radiance you’re going to spend the majority of your tabletop gaming session on your iPhone playing Candy Crush… and eventually you’ll lose interest altogether and stop showing up.
Playing Pool of Radiance is a bit like eating raw cucumber. It’s good for you and there are a handful of liars who claim to actually like the taste. But the real reason you’re eating it is that one day you’ll get to eat steak (the steak being Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, both of which we’ll get to at some point in this series), and all of that horrible raw cucumber will make you appreciate that steak even more.
It’s the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons video game produced and endorsed by TSR, the creators of D&D. In the early 80s, Lord British found great success with the Ultima series of games, which borrowed heavily from D&D. Taking note of that success, TSR decided to make their first foray into the growing video game marketplace. To do this they hired SSI, who had designed mostly turn-based war games up to that point. In 1988 SSI and TSR released Pool of Radiance, using 1st edition AD&D as its core rules, and set the campaign in the recently-created Forgotten Realms universe.
Pool of Radiance was a massive (for its time), sprawling, open world game where your party of highly-customizable characters tackled story quests and side missions, gathered loot, gained levels, and obliterated wave upon wave of nasty low-res creatures.
Like many other role-playing games of its day (Final Fantasy, Ultima 1-3, Wizardry), the protagonists in the story are pretty interchangeable. Your characters are mostly spectators to the unfolding storyline. They have no personalities and they’re never mentioned by name. In true D&D fashion, it’s “up to you” to give your characters some… uh… character.
Like most games developed before the 90s, the interface is very clunky since the game predates the widespread use of a mouse. But if you can learn to navigate multiple screens using nothing but your arrow keys you can still have a lot of fun.
The game switches between a first-person view (for traveling around town) and a third-person overhead view (for battles). There was also an overland map that allowed you to explore a large swath of the continent of Faerûn at your leisure.
Once you’ve generated your crew of adventurers you hope that you have all of your bases covered. The first lesson you may learn is to include a cleric, because you will start taking a lot of damage, and you’re going to need those three daily “cure light wounds” spells right away.
In fact, the very first mission your first-level pukes are given by the city council is you must clear out the “Slums” of the city of Phlan. Hiding in those slums is a room with four trolls and two ogres – 32 hit dice worth of creatures against 6 hit dice worth of heroes.
If you stumble upon that fight before you’re ready you are dead as hell. There’s no margin for error, and in true Nintendo-hard fashion there’s nothing warning you that “hey, if you enter this room your entire party is probably going to die.”
Eventually you manage to clear all of the bad guys out of the city of Phlan and the game culminates with an epic final battle. At this point your characters are stacked with magic items, experience levels, and scars from hundreds of battles leading up to that point.
You beat the game and get one of those really unsatisfying end screens.
Hurrah! The day is yours!
Your characters can now be imported into the next game in the series: Curse of the Azure Bonds.
You import them.
Then you are greeted by the “you wake up in a room with no weapons” trope.
Looks like the DM decided to hit the reset button. Good ol’ Deus ex Crapina.
But it’s okay, because you’ll get more stuff. Plus, Curse of the Azure Bonds is easily the best game of the series.
After you beat up a bunch of dark elves and free yourself from those bluish tattoos you are passed along to the Secret of the Silver Blades.
What’s the secret? Maybe it’s the fact that silver is a really soft metal that makes terrible weapons? I have no idea. I never finished that game because they made the horrible decision to “not have an overland map” so the entire game was shoehorned in that really clunky first-person view.
It’s also about this time that you realize that all of your elves, gnomes, dwarves, and halfling characters have stopped gaining levels. This is because 1st edition AD&D hates demi-humans (racist). I mean, sure, the “level cap” was clearly pointed out in the detailed instruction manual… but if I wanted to read a manual I would have bought a goddamn book.
Speaking of which, the books based on the video games are surprisingly good.
But I digress.
In the last game of the series, Pools of Darkness, your massively over-powered heroes basically start murdering gods. I didn’t finish this one either, because it started getting ridiculous (and ridiculously hard) toward the end.
Um… you can’t download the original games. Sorry. They are not on GOG, Steam, or Desura. The only completely legal option is to buy the game used, which may require you to locate a working floppy disk drive. Pool of Radiance was released on the NES, Apple II, Amiga, Apple Macintosh, and the PC-9800, so you’ve got a lot of options…but sadly there is no site that offers a legal download of the original game.
If you own Neverwinter Nights (available through GOG and Amazon) you can play fan-created mods for Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and Secret of the Silver Blades. There is also a Pool of Radiance mod available for Neverwinter Nights 2.
I have not played any of those mods myself, but Neverwinter Nights has a completely different game engine than the original Gold Box engine, and playing the mod will not deliver the same experience.
But if you can find a way to get your hands on the original version you should give this game a whirl. Take it from me, cucumber is delicious!