Opening the Gold Box, Part 4: Pool of Radiance

25 Mar

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance is one of the most important CRPGs of all time in terms of both design and the genre’s commercial history. Coming as it did near the end of the line for an 8-bit CRPG tradition that began in earnest with the original Ultima and Wizardry games back in 1981, it’s easy to see it as the culmination of that tradition, blending the ideas and approaches of its predecessors with its own brand new commercial trump card, the Dungeons & Dragons license. The latter was more than enough to move Pool of Radiance and the Gold Box line it spawned into place as the 1B to the Ultima series’s perennial 1A, replacing the Bard’s Tale games, whose own shooting star was now in the descendant. As Wizardry had been replaced by The Bard’s Tale not so long ago, so was The Bard’s Tale now replaced by the Gold Box.

My wife Dorte and I recently played through Pool of Radiance as the first stage in a grander project of trying to take the same party of characters through the entire four-game series that it begins. This article describes what we found therein.

Being the first game in a series that would spawn three direct sequels, Pool of Radiance limits your characters to somewhere between level 6 and 9, depending on class; this is strictly a low- to mid-level adventure, reserving the real power-gaming for its sequels. Still, there’s a big difference between level 1 and level 6, and the thrill of seeing your characters advance and grow in power, so much at the heart of an RPG’s appeal, is the greatest at the lower levels.

The story is appropriate to the characters’ somewhat limited powers. It’s surprisingly modest in scale and scope, at least within the over-the-top context of ludic fantasy in general. Instead of saving the world, you’re “only” out to save a little town called Phlan that’s been largely overrun with monsters in recent years. Like so much about Pool of Radiance, the scenario harks back to the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons experience, to iconic low-level adventures like Gary Gygax’s own The Keep on the Borderlands and the classic British module The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. In these, as in Pool of Radiance, the stakes for the campaign world are relatively low but the stakes for the players’ party couldn’t be higher. There are, thank God, no “Chosen Ones” or existential universal threats in Pool of Radiance, a welcome distinction that largely holds true throughout the Gold Box line.

In addition to the decidedly modest heights to which characters are allowed to rise in Pool of Radiance specifically, the need to fit the Gold Box games in general into TSR’s existing milieus tended to rein in such excesses. You can’t have every party saving the world when said world needs to be shared by hundreds of adventure modules, source books, computer games, and novels. Those who are invested in the Forgotten Realms as a setting will be able to situate Phlan on a map of the Realms and enjoy the lengthy explication of the region’s history and geography included with the game. Those like me who couldn’t really care less how Phlan fits into the greater Realms don’t have to worry about it.

More interesting to me is the game’s method of telling the more immediate story of your own party of adventurers. As in the contemporaneous Wasteland, much of that story is moved into an accompanying booklet of paragraphs. To my mind, though, Pool of Radiance‘s paragraph book is richer and more interesting than that of Wasteland. In addition to flavor text, you’ll also find maps, diagrams, and illustrations inside the paragraph book to further enrich the experience. And, while I wouldn’t accuse the writing of being precisely good, it is knowing and entertaining in its pulpy cheesiness — and really, how much more can one expect out of such an artificial narrative experience as a traditional monster-bashing CRPG? Dorte and I laughed at the writing a lot, but, hey, it was good-natured laughter; we didn’t go in expecting Shakespeare.

Pool of Radiance

When starting Pool of Radiance, the first order of business — after getting past the irritating code-wheel-based copy protection, that is — must be to create your six-character adventuring party. As was remarked often by disappointed purists back in the day, Pool of Radiance offers nothing close to a full implementation of the byzantine collection of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers. You can, for instance, choose among only the four core, archetypal character classes of fighter, cleric, magic user, and thief, combining them with the six races of human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, and halfling. Personally, I don’t consider such simplifications a negative at all really. Trust me, what’s here is more than (over)complicated enough. More on that later.

Don't you just love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

Don’t you love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

As usual for games of this tradition, Pool of Radiance lets you re-roll a character’s statistics as many times as you like to get someone you consider viable. Or, if you like, the game lets you bypass all of the virtual dice-rolling and just input starting ability scores of your choice for your characters. Implemented in the service of some ill-defined scheme to let you move your favorite tabletop characters into the computer game, the feature was promptly used by legions of cheaters to make parties full of super characters with the maximum score of 18 in every attribute. But the final joke was on them: Pool of Radiance punishes such players by scaling some of the fights to the overall power of the party, leading to some long, drawn-out combats for the cheaters that those who play fair will breeze through. As we’re beginning to see already, this game does have a way of proving itself more cleverly designed than one initially wants to give it credit for.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI's programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI’s programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can also choose what each character’s “tabletop miniature” will look like, a feature reaching all the way back to Dungeons & Dragons‘s earliest roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see much difference in the icons with these pixelated graphics.

Pool of Radiance

Once you’ve put your party together, you can finally begin the game proper. It opens with your arrival by boat at the last remaining human enclave in the once-thriving village, and a brief guided tour thereof by a representative of the town. The screen layout will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale game. I would say, however, that just the guide’s introduction alone already contains more text and story content than either of those games.

After the guide is finished, you can start to explore. The opening area is devoid of monsters and completely safe (well, almost; stay out of taverns for a while). It contains all the expected accoutrements of a CRPG home base: shops of various sorts, temples for healing, a training hall for leveling up.

Pool of Radiance

It wouldn’t be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons if the shops didn’t offer a healthy selection of Gary Gygax’s beloved but incomprehensible-to-the-rest-of-us Medieval arms. (“How many kinds of pole arms do you need, Gary?” asked Dave Arneson. “It’s a stick with a pointy thing on the end of it!”) Players of course always ignore all the Gallic gibberish and just pick out a trusty long sword, axe, or mace. None of the weird stuff is used by any of the creatures you fight, nor is it found in any of their treasure hoards, triggering a sneaking suspicion that the designers of Pool of Radiance had no more idea what any of this is than the rest of us do.

Pool of Radiance

Another nod to the classic tabletop experience is the table of “tavern tales” found in the paragraph book, just like the ones found in Keep on the Borderlands and all those other early Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules. (How many modules start with the party meeting in a tavern and overhearing rumors about that nearby castle/dungeon/graveyard/monastery?)

Pool of Radiance

Your goals in Pool of Radiance are delivered in the form of commissions found at the city clerk’s office. Several are usually available at any one time, giving the game a welcome non-linearity. As you carry out commissions, you return to the clerk to check them off your to-do list and to receive rewards in the form of experience and money. The whole process is immensely satisfying. As you build up your party, you venture further and further afield, claiming back more and more of Phlan from the monsters. This modest exercise in urban renewal feels far more rewarding than the elaborate save-the-world plots found in most CRPGs.

Another thing that happens as you complete commissions is that you gain a better and better overview of Phlan and its environs as a whole, learning how it all fits together. As usual in such old-school CRPGs as this one, each area is a fixed size, of 16 by 16 squares in this case. Yet SSI made the effort to make them fit together in logical, even intriguing ways to build a larger environment. If you can manage to get yourself in the right frame of mind, mapping really does become one of Pool of Radiance‘s pleasures. Dorte, a spatial-puzzle-loving fan of Carcassonne and Blokus in all the ways I am not, is the cartographer when we play Gold Box games. (I’m the driver; she wants nothing to do with that quirky interface.) I caught her from time to time when we weren’t playing redrawing and repositioning and even taping together her level maps to create a grand plan of Phlan: “This is fun!”

Making mapping far more fun in Pool of Radiance is the game’s complete disinterest in all of the nonsense that’s usually associated with it. There are no spinners or teleports or other artificial time-extenders and frustration-inducers. Unlike The Bard’s Tale, Pool of Radiance has enough real content that it doesn’t need that stuff. Indeed, the designers bent over backward to make mapping as painless as possible. Your grid location on the current map is usually shown right there onscreen, as is the direction you’re currently facing; note the “5, 5” and the “E” respectively on the screenshot above. There’s even an overhead auto-map of sorts. It’s not quite ideal — doors don’t show up on it, nor for that matter anything else other than walls and corridors — but, hey, it shows that they were trying. It’s all part of a thoroughgoing theme of Pool of Radiance, that of duplicating most of the gameplay of its predecessors in the broadest strokes, but doing it all just a little bit better, a little bit smarter, and most of all with a little bit more mercy on you, the long-suffering player.

For instance, consider the case of the wandering monster. In Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale, entering a new area always brings a little thrill of excitement as you get to see what types of new critters now come after you. That excitement dissipates, however, as the same handful of monsters just keep coming at you. Pretty soon you just wish you could move around and finish drawing your map without being attacked by endless hordes of the same old same old.

Pool of Radiance fixes this problem, simply and ingeniously and without requiring much technical innovation at all. When you enter a new area, you do indeed find it populated with the expected horde of wandering monsters. Once you’ve fought and won a certain number of combats, though, they simply stop coming. Your overarching goal being to clear the monsters out of Phlan, this makes a great deal of thematic sense for this particular game. But more importantly, it makes a lot of sense as good game design in general. Combined with lots of interesting fixed encounters, far more than the one or two typical of a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale dungeon level, it keeps the game from ever descending into a dull grindfest. Just when you’re starting to get tired of a stream of samey encounters, they stop. I can’t overemphasize what a difference this one simple act of mercy makes for my own enjoyment of Pool of Radiance. Suddenly an entire genre of gaming that used to bore me becomes a pleasure. The older I get and the more loath I become to waste my time on anything if I can help it, the more my first rule of game design becomes a match for my first rule of writing: don’t be boring.

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance‘s adherence to that maxim extends to the times when you do have to fight; combat in this game is a magnificent experience. I think most fans of Pool of Radiance and the other Gold Box games would agree with me that their beating heart is the best combat engine yet devised for a CRPG at the time of their release. Indeed, some would argue that these games still haven’t been bettered in this respect if your definition of good CRPG combat is a cerebral, tactical, turn-based affair. (Granted, such a thing is not particularly in step with mainstream tastes these days.) There’s a welcome logic at play here that’s painfully absent from virtually all of the Gold Box series’s rivals. Because combat is what you spend the vast majority of your time doing in these old CRPGs, the designers of this one decided to take the time to make it really, really great.

And, like so much about the Gold Box games, the focus on intricate combat is also a perfect fit for the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons license. Many have accused that game of not being a role-playing game at all, rather a 1:1-scale wargame focusing on combat almost to the exclusion of all else. Whether you consider that description to be a criticism or not — one suspects that that’s exactly what many if not most players really wanted from the game anyway — Pool of Radiance does its inspiration proud. Just as combat is the essence of Dungeons & Dragons, combat is the essence of the Gold Box games.

Take, for instance, the inevitable mass-damage Fireball spell, a staple of just about every fantasy CRPG ever made. When your magic user gains access to Fireball in the latter stages of Pool of Radiance, it’s a big moment. Yet it’s still not something you can use quite as mindlessly as you can in other games. This Fireball spell has a set area of effect, and doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe. Therefore you need to place it very, very carefully to avoid nuking your own party. You also have to reckon with range, line of sight, and even the spell’s casting time when doing so; if your magic user gets hit while she’s busy casting a spell, she loses it. None of which is to say that a spell like Fireball isn’t wonderful. Quite the opposite: it’s all the more satisfying when a well-placed explosion takes out an entire rank of orcs. And then there’s Lightning Bolt, another spell you’ll acquire at about the same time as Fireball that’s even more tricky to set up just perfectly, and even more satisfying when it works. There are many layers to the onion of Gold Box combat, and they only multiply as you climb the ranks and build more powerful characters — and of course find yourself fighting more powerful monsters as you do so, often with special attacks of their own to go with unique immunities and vulnerabilities that demand you adjust your tactics constantly.

In fact, one might argue that when it comes to combat Pool of Radiance actually betters the typical tabletop experience as most real players knew it. Gary Gygax’s elaborate rules for combat presumed a lot of knowledge about where all of the various combatants were standing in relation to one another and the environment, but it was never entirely clear how to plot and keep track of all that without infinite time to draw up floor plans or construct scale models of the environment. But the computerized Dungeons & Dragons has no problem coming up with such plans on the fly, presenting each battle using wargamey “miniatures” that would have warmed Gygax’s heart and keeping track of all of the other complications that usually led to fudging, simplifying, and house-ruling the tabletop game. One might say that all those fiddly rules were just waiting all along for SSI to come along and make them actually playable. Gold Box combat rules. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s so wonderful that I’m willing to forgive a lot about the rest of the game that surrounds it.

And that’s good because, almost paradoxically given how progressive Pool of Radiance is in many ways, there really is quite a lot to forgive here. The game’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: almost every one of its numerous frustrating, infuriating qualities stems from an overzealous faithfulness to the fiddly rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

To begin with, there’s the racial level limits, which arbitrarily cap the maximum advancement in all classes except thief for all races except humans. The level limits are something of a hidden poison pill whose effect won’t hit you until you import your old party with all of their hard-won experience into Pool of Radiance‘s sequel. It comes as a hard blow indeed when you realize that some of your stalwarts are going to be untenable because they can’t keep pace with the escalating power of the opponents they will be facing in that game and the ones that follow. All you can do is cast your old non-human characters aside and roll up new, human characters to replace them. This is terrible game design, all courtesy of our old friend Gary Gygax. Here’s his justification:

The character races in the AD&D system were selected with care. They give variety of approach, but any player selecting a non-human (part- or demi-human) character does not have any real advantage. True, some of those racial types give short-term advantages to the players who choose them, but in the long run, these same characters are at an equal disadvantage when compared to human characters with the same number of experience points. This was, in fact, designed into the game. The variety of approach makes role selection more interesting. Players must weigh advantages and disadvantages carefully before opting for character race, human or otherwise. It is in vogue in some campaigns to remove restrictions on demi-humans — or at least relax them somewhat. While this might make the DM popular for a time with those participants with dwarven fighters of high level, or elven wizards of vast power, it will eventually consign the campaign as a whole to one in which the only races will be non-human. Dwarves, elves, et al will have all the advantages and no real disadvantages, so the majority of players will select those races, and humankind will disappear from the realm of player character types. This bears upon the various hybrid racial types, as well.

Like so many of Gygax’s justifications, this one is patent nonsense. (I do, however, treasure the smirking reference to what’s “in vogue” — classic Gygax through and through.) The way to ensure that humans stay viable and desirable, if that’s a design goal, isn’t to cripple all of the other races so badly that they become pointless, but to offer some similar off-setting advantage to humans. Humans in TSR’s own Star Frontiers tabletop RPG, for instance, get to add some bonus points to the ability scores of their players’ choice, justified with a paean to humanity’s sheer jack-of-all-trades adaptability in contrast to the more specialized powers of the other races.

Pool of Radiance

We also have Gygax to thank for Pool of Radiance‘s convoluted method of handling spells. Unlike virtually every other CRPG but like tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a cleric or magic user’s list of spells in this game isn’t treated as a handy universal repository from which she can fire off the spell of her choice at will (as long, of course, as she still has the mana to do so). No, in the Gold Box games you have to memorize ahead of time the precise spells you think you will actually want to use on your next expedition. Because you usually don’t know precisely what kind of monsters you’ll be fighting in the course of said expedition, you’re continually being caught out with the wrong selection of spells. Run into a pack of disease-causing undead without having memorized Cure Disease? Too bad; reload back at camp and try a different spell arsenal. Run into the rare locked door that your fighters can’t bash in, and you don’t have Knock memorized? Take the long walk back to a safe area to rest and memorize it. There’s no strategy to any of this, just rote trial and error. The system is actively damaging to the pleasure induced by that magnificent combat engine. Because so many of the more specialized spells are useful only in specific situations, you end up treating every encounter as a nail and always having lots of Fireball hammers memorized to bash it with. How much better would it be to feel the thrill of satisfaction that comes with a well-timed Animate Dead, Blink, or Invisibility 10′ Radius?

One can only be thankful that SSI didn’t see fit to implement the tabletop rules’ requirement that characters collect a bunch of “material components” to cast most spells. (Interestingly, a similar system did show up in Ultima, with its system of “reagents.”) Presumably it was just too much to fit into a program that needed to run on a Commodore 64 — and thank God for that.

The most initially baffling of all the design choices in Pool of Radiance — baffling, that is, if you aren’t familiar with the tabletop game — is its handling of money. First of all, the game insists on dividing your funds into different types of coins — platinum, gold, electrum, ad nauseam — and keeping rigorous track of exactly how many of each coin your characters carry. It would be like a game with a contemporary setting telling you that you have 2 five-dollar bills, 2 one-dollar bills, 3 quarters, 1 dime, 1 nickel, and 7 pennies instead of just telling you you have $12.97. All because, once again, that’s how Gygax says you should do it. The Gold Box games are quite possibly the only CRPGs in history where your quest can hinge on whether you have the correct change for something. How’s that for heroic fantasy?

Pool of Radiance

And then there’s just so much money. Phlan and its environs are drowning in wealth. Because the weight of all of those individualized coins is meticulously tracked, you can’t carry it all; never have Dorte and I wished more for a bank than during our time in Phlan. Within a few hours, you’ll be leaving mountains of coins behind after encounters as a matter of course, dropping coins in the street, leaving shopkeepers 1000-platinum-piece tips after spending 10 gold pieces on a few arrows. Forget trying to reclaim the village from the monsters; there’s enough money in Phlan to buy each and every citizen a mansion in whatever is the Forgotten Realms’s equivalent of Beverly Hills. What on earth is going on here? Why would anyone design a game this way?

Well, what’s going on here is a vicious conflict between the needs of Pool of Radiance the computer game and the tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Those rules are as persnickety about experience points as they are about most things, allowing Dungeon Masters to award them for exactly two things: killing monsters and finding treasure. A tabletop Dungeons & Dragons campaign is — or was meant to be — a slow-paced affair, with characters spending many months at each level. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide and elsewhere, Dungeon Masters are continually cautioned not to let their campaigns devolve into “Monty Haul” affairs where magic items and experience points are passed out like candy. Yet a CRPG like Pool of Radiance is in fact by necessity a Monty Haul affair. People don’t want to spend months waiting for their computer characters to level up. People want to see them move through the ranks in relatively short order, want a more concentrated dose of the RPG experience. So, SSI needed to increase the pace. The obvious way to do that was to hand out more experience more quickly. Yet they were bound to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules that coupled experience awards strictly to monsters killed and hoards looted. And now we begin to understand the broken economy: all that money is flying around strictly as a way of passing experience to characters without violating the letter of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules; the spirit of the rules is, of course, another matter entirely.

The natural next question is to ask why SSI felt themselves bound so strictly to the tabletop rules, even when it proved so damaging to the finished product. The obvious supposition is that TSR, fiercely protective of Dungeons & Dragons as they always were both before and after the era of Gary Gygax, told them they were so bound. The contemporary adventure-game reviewer and columnist Shay Addams, who may or may not have been reporting information gleaned from contacts at SSI, claimed that “TSR insisted that SSI stick by the original rules, and they had final say on the finished product.” While the latter assertion is certainly true, the idea of an overly pedantic, nitpicky TSR is somewhat cast into doubt by the fact that people who were associated with the Gold Box project at SSI don’t tend to describe the relationship in those terms today. Instead we hear always of a genuinely collaborative relationship filled with lots of give and take, a relationship so warm that it spawned cross-company friendships that persisted in some cases long after both companies ceased to exist. Further, one has to presume that the folks SSI was working with at TSR were all too aware themselves of what a confusing muddle Advanced Dungeons & Dragons could be, for they were hard at work on a second edition of the rules that was meant to untangle some of their Gygaxian knots at the very time that SSI was developing Pool of Radiance.

But, whether the compulsion to so literally translate so many rules from tabletop to desktop arose from within TSR or SSI, Addams is right about its effect: “That restriction must have been creatively inhibiting, for it means ignoring much of what game designers have learned about writing RPGs designed to be played on a computer — which are decidedly different from face-to-face games.” Advanced Dungeons & Dragons proved a double-edged sword for Pool of Radiance, the source of much of what is good in it and most of what is bad. I’m not sure that I’ve ever reviewed another game that so freely mixes really good ideas with really bad ones. Too often Pool of Radiance feels like playing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons with the most humorlessly pedantic Dungeon Master ever.

On balance, though, the good outweighs the bad — which I must say kind of surprises me, given that there’s so very much I love to complain about in this game. One big difference-maker is certainly that the thing that Pool of Radiance does best, tactical combat, it does so insanely well. And then when we get out of the weeds of the irritating minutiae of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and look at Pool of Radiance in a more holistic sense, those shocking progressive tendencies do overshadow the pedanticism in the final reckoning. Unlike so many of its contemporary CRPGs, there’s a sense about this one that its designers actually tried to walk a mile in their players’ shoes. Pool of Radiance is very solvable in comparison to an Ultima with its fragile string-of-pearls approach to plotting, and doesn’t wear out its welcome like a Bard’s Tale with its boring empty mazes and boring endless combats. If you told me that you only planned to play one 1980s-vintage CRPG in your life, I’d tell you to make it this one.

Thankfully, it’s recently become much easier to do just that. Pool of Radiance and its three sequels are now available on along with all the other Gold Box games, ready to run on modern computers. These versions emulate the MS-DOS versions, which are faster, prettier (relatively speaking), and easier to play than the Commodore 64 originals. (Trust me, you don’t want to play 8-bit CRPGs in their 8-bit incarnations, unless you really, really enjoy swapping mounds of disks and waiting, waiting, waiting at every turn.)

I won’t lie to you: the learning curve can be a little steep with these games. To try to alleviate that just a bit, I’ll close today by offering some hard-won tips Dorte and I assembled after our own recent play-through. Crude and ugly and opaque though it may appear in the beginning, stick with it for an hour or two and you may be surprised at just how compelling Pool of Radiance can become. Sure, you might find yourself complaining the whole time you play; it’s just that kind of game. But give it a fair chance and soon you might not want to quit playing either. And that’s the real test, isn’t it?


A Few Tips On How to Best Enjoy Your Time in Phlan (and Beyond)

  • Take the time (and paper and ink) to print out the paragraph book rather than relying on a digital copy. There’s something to be said for the old-school physicality of flipping through actual pages to find notes and clues. And of course if you have a physical copy it’s easy to put a tick next to the entries you’ve read. Don’t peek at entries you haven’t been asked to read, and certainly don’t just read the paragraph book straight through. This game deserves to be played fair, on its own terms.
  • Plenty of modern players will want to bail as soon as they get a look at Pool of Radiance‘s bizarre-by-modern-standards keyboard-only interface. But have faith: yes, the interface is bizarre, but it’s consistent in its bizarreness. In general, you move up and down through vertical menus of nouns by using the 7 and 1 key on the numeric keypad, and select from horizontal menus of verbs by pressing the first letter of your choice. Every option available to you at any given time is always displayed onscreen, showing that SSI was by no means totally ignorant of the principles of good interface design. You can move your party about the world and move the cursor about the scene of combat using the numeric keypad as well. Within a few hours the interface will start to feel like a comfortable old shoe. No, really. Trust me.
  • Especially if you’re planning to take the grand tour through all three of Pool of Radiance‘s sequels, you’ll want to think carefully about the party you put together. All of the non-human races are pretty much right out, despite their ability to multi-class and other special abilities, because they come with crippling level limits that you will likely hit well before the end of the second game. As for classes, Dorte and I did quite well with a party made up of three fighters, two clerics, and one magic user. (I’m not a big fan of thieves, although their back-stabbing ability can be fun.) Having an extra cleric on-hand to heal and fight alongside your fighters can really come in handy at the lower levels, and having two clerics to turn undead in the graveyard, one of the toughest parts of Pool of Radiance, can be a lifesaver in many combats. In the second game you get the chance to turn one of your clerics and perhaps one of your fighters into magic users by doing something called dual-classing — which, yes, is different from multi-classing. Use it to build an offensive-magic-heavy party for the later games, where spells count for more and more and swords for less and less.
  • You’ll want to take your time making each individual character, re-rolling as many times as necessary to get one that will be viable in the long term; attribute scores, if not quite set in stone, can be increased only very rarely throughout the series. I recommend that each character should have a score of at least 17 in her class’s core attribute (Strength for fighters, Intelligence for magic users, Wisdom for clerics, Dexterity for thieves). Every character should have at least a 15 in Dexterity and Constitution, respectively to be able to move quickly in combat and to get bonus hit points with every level gain. And even the less critical ability scores shouldn’t be too awful; I would set 12 as an absolute floor. In order to dual-class in a later game, a character has to have at least a 15 in the core attribute of her old class and at least a 17 in that of her new; keep that in mind when planning your party and rolling your characters.
  • Buy a hand mirror for each character in one of the general stores in Phlan right away. No, it’s not vanity (although some of the hairstyles in Pool of Radiance might make you think otherwise). Trust me, you’ll thank me when the time comes.
  • Buy a bow and arrows for each of your fighters to go with their melee weapons. Thanks to the turn-based combat, you can switch back and forth at will on the fly, and it’s great to be able to cut down enemies at a distance.
  • Stay out of taverns early in the game to avoid the classic first-time Pool of Radiance experience of getting your new party embroiled in a massive, baffling free-for-all of a bar fight that leaves them all dead and you wondering what the hell just happened. I suspect that more players have bailed permanently on the game right there than at any other point.
  • Maps of all of Pool of Radiance are available in many places, including the official clue book that comes with the game if you buy it from Use them if you must. Before you do, though, at least take a stab at mapping the old-fashioned way. Again, the physicality of mapping on graph paper adds an ineffable something to the experience.
  • When pursuing commissions, remember that you don’t need to do them in the order they’re presented to you. If one is proving too difficult, save it for later and try another.
  • Dead trolls come back to life after a certain number of combat rounds. To prevent this, either kill them with fire — tricky to do at the lower levels — or keep a character standing on the exact spot where the troll died.
  • Early in your travels, you’ll encounter a notoriously difficult room full of trolls. Don’t feel like you have to defeat them right there and then. Go on and build up your strength a bit more, then come back for them.
  • To tackle the graveyard, your entire party needs to be equipped with silver or (preferably) magical weapons. Remember to use your cleric(s) to turn undead at the beginning of every fight involving undead monsters!
  • Dead, in the sense of 0 hit points, is not usually dead in Pool of Radiance. Unless the character was hit very hard, you can usually keep her alive but unconscious for the rest of the fight by bandaging her or casting Cure Light Wounds on her. You’ll definitely want to do so, given that…
  • Another one of Pool of Radiance‘s hidden poison pills is that if you pay to have a character resurrected in a temple (not like you don’t have enough money for it!) she loses 1 point of Constitution, a stiff price to pay indeed given how precious ability scores are. Think long and hard about whether that’s a price you’re willing to pay, or whether you should just try that last fight again.
  • You can convert your lower-denomination coins to platinum by “Pooling” your money inside a shop, then picking it up — or some portion of it — before you leave. This gives you more buying power for less weight carried. Even better, you can store your wealth yet more efficiently as gems and jewelry that you can sell whenever you have need of a little walking-around money.
  • If you have a set of the old first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers lying around, or are willing to spring for digital copies, it’s a good idea to consult them when you aren’t sure what something does or is. Some of the more obscure magic items and spells in Pool of Radiance aren’t properly explained anywhere else. Dorte thought these musty old books with the cheesy covers were hilarious when I dug them out — she persisted in calling them “the nerd books” — but she did keep asking me to look stuff up in them. Which brings me to…
  • Play with a partner, one of you mapping and one of you driving. Like all good things in life, a good game becomes even better when it’s shared. And wouldn’t you like to have someone to high-five when you use all your (combined) wits to win a tough fight?

(Sources: Shay Addams’s review of Pool of Radiance is found in the October 1988  Questbusters, and the Gary Gygax quote in the September 1979 Dragon.)


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72 Responses to Opening the Gold Box, Part 4: Pool of Radiance

  1. Joshua Buergel

    March 25, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    First, I think you reversed the meaning of this sentence: “On balance, though, the bad outweighs the good”

    Second, I’m surprised at your statement that most “real players” ignored the memorization rules of AD&D. Despite avid play at home tables and with strangers at conventions and libraries, I don’t think I ever encountered that even once. I won’t defend a lot of the nonsense in AD&D, but that restriction is about the only thing that stops magic users from being dominant from the very beginning and gives other classes some time to shine, at least for a little while.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 25, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      Woops! Thanks!

      I was never a big Advanced Dungeons & Dragons player — I always considered red-box Dungeons & Dragons and especially Star Frontiers and Marvel Super Heroes much more playable and fun even as a kid — but the few times I did play I can’t remember anyone ever using that rule. Granted, we are talking more about the school-lunch-table crowd here than the “serious” players you’d find at conventions and the like. And I may be conflating my memories with those of non-Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which I did play a lot more of.

      Regardless, I persist in finding it just a pointless annoyance in the computerized version.

      • Pedro Timóteo

        March 25, 2016 at 7:36 pm

        The few times I played D&D (the 1983 red boxed edition you mentioned in part 2 of this series) and AD&D (2nd edition with bits of 1st edition), both as a player and as a DM, encumbrance rules and spell reagents were ignored (heck, even the Dragonlance novels completely forget about reagents after the first book), but memorizing spells in advance *was* required, and, after understanding how it worked, everyone accepted it. Yes, including the absurdity of memorizing a spell 3 times (how does that even work?!?) so that, when you cast it once, you still “remember” it twice (!).

        I completely agree that Vancian magic is a terrible rule (at best, it can work in fantasy novels, for creating drama), both in pen & paper RPGs and computer games. Which is probably why (in addition to the work of implementing it, of course) computer RPGs (including the usual suspects: Wizardry, Ultima, Bard’s Tale, Might & Magic, etc.) completely avoided it… until this one.

        • Joshua Buergel

          March 26, 2016 at 12:12 am

          I agree with this – encumbrance rules and spell components were largely ignored in virtually every D&D game I’ve played, the notable exception being that certain special spells still required big, fancy components. But mundane stuff, no – nobody wants to listen to you roleplaying out buying a bunch of bat guano so you can roast goblins later.

          But the Vancian magic was just accepted, and everybody did it in my games. Heck, in 3.x/Pathfinder, they even used it as a means to distinguish between different types of spellcasters. Wizards had to memorize spells and had a very broad book of spells, Sorcerers could cast any of their known spells at any time but had a very limited palette of selections. It certainly wasn’t the only way to run a magic system, but it largely worked in the power framework that was established in D&D, and major surgery would be required to make other systems work.

          I’ll also note that the Vancian restrictions were also very important for bad guys. That is, if the bad guys knew you were going to be attacking, they’d have their best murderin’ set of spells memorized. Surprise them, and you might catch them with research stuff memorized, or who knows what junk. In a game where spells of even mid-level were incredibly lethal, that lack of flexibility and information asymmetry could transform encounters with bad guy wizards from instantly deadly to tractable.

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 26, 2016 at 8:15 am

          Okay, you folks have convinced me that I was playing with a bunch of unusually lax Dungeon Masters. Made some edits. Thanks!

          • Ruber

            June 25, 2016 at 7:24 am

            I think that could be solved with game design. For example, including bits of really useful gossip: “oh! take care adventurer, they say some cows out of blood where lying at the door of that crypt”. (hint for vampires)

    • Alan

      March 26, 2016 at 2:02 am

      What Joshua said. In 25 years and many different groups, I’ve never seen the memorization rules ignored. (Encumbrance and spell reagents, certainly.)

      The spellcasting did get modified with some frequency. Systems that replaced some or all of the spellcasting rules were pretty common, especially ones that added casting based on a pool of spell points.

      I appreciate the ideas behind Vancian magic. It is cool in Vance’s stories (although if I remember correctly, it has a better name name “memorization” or “preparation”). It could be an interesting resource to manage. Research could make the decisions on what to memorize interesting and rewarding. But in practice, as you observe, it’s often exactly what you describe: irritating and frustrating.

      • Ken Rutsky

        March 28, 2016 at 8:02 pm

        In Vance, spells were almost like living things you sort of forced into your mental space, a kind of energy you released when uttering the spell to cast it.

        I’ve long believed that the term “memorization” was a horrible choice and has led to many people hating the system. I’ve seen players who were okay with the exact same system, only renamed to “preparation” with the (non-mechanical and entirely fluff) reasoning that a wizard cast most of a spell to prepare it, unleashing the effects by uttering the last few parts of the incantation. Which always struck me as being just as absurd as “memorizing.”

        I dunno, I might be in the minority for actually liking D&D magic. It’s easy to use and track, which counts for a lot at the tabletop. Computers, of course, can crunch numbers and track all sorts of points and such without complaint or a noticeable halt in play.

        • Pedro Timóteo

          March 31, 2016 at 10:14 am

          I didn’t really hate it when I played (A)D&D or the GB games, but thinking about it these days, I believe its problems are well described by Jimmy in the post:

          1- lots of situations of “you need a spell you don’t have memorized, so you reload to a previous save, memorize it and try again” — how is that fun?

          2- you end up only memorizing the more common spells (magic missile, fireball, etc.), since everything else is of limited use… but wouldn’t it be much more fun if you could be more creative in some situations? If you actually used most of your available spells in a single playthrough, instead of fireball, fireball, fireball?

          My favorite system is probably mana points (like in Bard’s Tale), but I admit that can be harder to work with in a pen & paper RPG (not so in a computer game, where it works just fine). But even a system closer to D&D like Wizardry (1-5)’s (limits per “day” (actually per journey into the dungeon) and per spell level depending on character level, but you’re able to choose from any spell you have available, without having to memorize them in advance) can work much better than D&D’s, I think.

        • Janne Nordström

          March 20, 2019 at 3:23 am

          To this day I’m convinced Vance wanted to write about satanic elements, ie. small devils who granted his wizards favors. Then it makes a lot of sense that you only juggle as many demons in the back of your mind as you can handle. Of course the tiny devils are not willing to give more than what you bargained for and will abandon you after the bargain is completed.

          He never wrote it out like that, probably for fear of not being published. But it’s not too hard to see the influences if you squint a little.

          If you subscribe to that sort of interpretation, it’s easy to make the spells more applicable by grouping them and allowing player to negotiate with these groups rather than individual spells. Then you’ll have prepared two “utility”, one “social” and one “defensive” spell for the day where each cast still lets you pick the exact effect suitable to situation.

          Of course nothing fixes the basic problem of fireball being the best hammer around because computer games still revolve largely around combat. Ah well.

  2. Pedro Timóteo

    March 25, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    First: fantastic, as always. :)

    Second: I was going to mention the “bad outweighs the good” thing, but Joshua did it first, so here’s a typo:

    these games still haven’t been bettered in this respect if you’re definition of good CRPG combat

    (you’re -> your)

    Third: the game supports Tandy / PCjr sound, which makes sound effects (this game doesn’t have any music, AFAIK, unlike later Gold Box games) sound a lot better than the default PC speaker ones, IMO. On DOSBox, you need to have the line:


    and, as Pool of Radiance doesn’t seem to ask you for your hardware configuration if it doesn’t find a POOL.CFG file, at least in the version I have (again, unlike later games in the series), you may need to create it manually. Here’s mine (it’s just a text file, in the game’s directory):


    I’d argue that any Gold Box game from the EGA era (before they started to support Sound Blaster digitized sounds, which coincided with the move to VGA) sounds better overal using Tandy sound than any other configuration, even though some others (e.g. Champions of Krynn supports MT-32 for music) may have better music… but music is so rare in these games, so…

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 25, 2016 at 6:33 pm

      Thanks as always for the typo correction, and also for the tip on sound. We did play using a Tandy configuration — not that sound is up to much even that way. But Dorte did find some of the combat sounds unaccountably hilarious.

      • sho

        March 28, 2016 at 1:46 am

        I am genuinely shocked you are not playing the Amiga version!
        (Not that I remember it having any advantages ;)

        • Pedro Timóteo

          March 28, 2016 at 8:07 am

          Actually, I think the Amiga version looks a lot better, with “redone” graphics. You can see screenshots of it in Mobygames.

          AFAIK, that was the only Gold Box game where the Amiga version really looked that different. Later EGA games just had the palette slightly improved for the Amiga (mostly replacing the EGA “pinkish red” skin with a real caucasian skintone), and the VGA games had their 256 colors dithered into 32.

          • sho

            March 28, 2016 at 9:01 am

            Actually, there is a comprehensive comparison way below in the comments. I am still in shock :)

          • Jimmy Maher

            March 28, 2016 at 12:59 pm

            The later graphics were actually done on Amigas at SSI, then downgraded to EGA, somewhat ironically given that SSI never did Amiga games in-house. (On the other hand, this wasn’t unusual. Even some games that never had Amiga versions at all featured graphics drawn on Amigas. Deluxe Paint was just that much better than anything else at the time, and thanks to its well-documented IFF file format it was easy to massage/downgrade the results to suit other platforms…) I would guess that Westwood, who did all the Amiga ports, redid the graphics themselves for Pool of Radiance, but just used SSI’s original graphics for the later games. Thus the qualitative difference.

          • Pedro Timóteo

            March 28, 2016 at 1:53 pm

            Jimmy: interesting, I didn’t know that. Thanks.

          • dk

            March 31, 2016 at 8:44 am

            The Amiga port of PoR was done by Ubisoft in France, and I remember it took a very long time after the original release until the Amiga version finally arrived. In fact it came out some time after Champions of Krynn had already been released for that machine (which, then, was my first AD&D game ever).

            Excellent series of articles, though, as usual. Thanks alot! :-)

  3. Lisa H.

    March 25, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    Pretty soon you just wish you could move around and finish drawing your map map

    –map map map map…

    For all of these reasons, the need to memorize specific spells beforehand quickly became one of the most-ignored rules of tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons among real players. One can only be thankful that SSI didn’t see fit to implement what may just be the most-ignored rule of all, the need to collect a bunch of “material components” to cast most spells.

    I don’t know if we were unusual in this, but the AD&D (2nd ed) campaigns I played in the mid-1990s ignored neither of these, although perhaps we played a little loosely with how difficult it was to obtain spell components (except for very unusual or expensive ones).

    Don’t peak at entries you haven’t been asked to read


    dual-classing — which, yes, is different from multi-classing.

    Dual-class vs multi-class was supposed to be one of the unique advantages of playing a human, IIRC.

    Dead trolls come back to life after a certain number of combat rounds. To prevent this, keep a character standing on the exact spot where the troll died.

    I think you’re supposed to be able to permanently kill them with fire, but even if I’m remembering that right, I don’t know if they implemented that. (And probably beheading, but that seems too detailed for a game like this.)

    Another one of Pool of Radiance‘s hidden poison pills is that if you pay to have a character resurrected in a temple (not like you don’t have enough money for it!) she loses 1 point of Constitution, a stiff price to pay indeed given how precious ability scores are.

    Faithful to the book rules, of course, the idea I suppose being that you shouldn’t be able to just resurrect a character forever and ever. This may be one of those things that makes some sort of sense in tabletop but could potentially be quite frustrating in a computer game environment.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 26, 2016 at 8:11 am


      I’m not actually sure if the game tracks whether the trolls were killed with fire for this purpose. But I do know that just standing on the right spot works. There being no “behead” command, that’s of course right out.

      • Gnoman

        March 26, 2016 at 8:19 am

        Be grateful that there is no “behead” command. BY AD&D rules, beheading a troll would get you two trolls as the body grew a new head and the head grew a new body. Any severed part of a troll will become an entire troll. Fire is the only way to perma-kill one (acid works by the rules, but not in Gold Box) and is implemented.

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 26, 2016 at 8:29 am

          Cool. Edit made.

    • Ken Rutsky

      March 28, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      I could’ve sworn the game (at least the C-64 version I played) gave you an option to burn the remains at the end of combat. Maybe I’m wrong, but I swear that happened…

      • Jimmy Maher

        March 29, 2016 at 5:23 am

        No, nothing like that is implemented. If you get to a point where no more trolls are alive, combat ends and that’s that anyway.

        We tried like crazy to kill them using the cans of oil you can buy in the shops, but never did figure out how to make that work. I suppose a Fireball would do the trick…

        • Pedro Timóteo

          March 30, 2016 at 4:29 pm

          AFAIK, if the attack that brings them down is fire-based, they don’t get up.

          I’m not sure, however, whether they’d also stay dead if a previous attack that damaged them (i.e. not the last) was fire-based.

          Like Jimmy, I and most players simply ensured they were all down at the same time, which wins the combat for you. :)

  4. Jayle Enn

    March 25, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    While we had played the heck out of the Bard’s Tale and late-apple Ultima, and I’d had some experience with red-box D&D, Pool of Radiance was my crew’s gateway to tabletop RPGs… and probably the root of our old DM’s love of absurdly massive encounters.
    Checking Mobygames, the C-64 and DOS versions came out maybe a year before the torrent of AD&D Second Edition books began to hit the shelves, accompanied by a hefty adventure module adaptation called Ruins of Adventure, bearing the same cover graphics. While it wasn’t a perfect translation, and some of the events were more complex, it made a dandy hint book even before it became the basis for our first campaign.
    I’d be really surprised if someone wasn’t trying their best to attract both AD&D players uncertain of the upcoming release of 2E, and crossover CRPG gamers, with the timing of those releases.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 26, 2016 at 8:18 am

      Ruins of Adventure was essentially the design document for the computer game, written at TSR and passed to SSI to implement. I have no idea why they decided to change the name; doing so goes against every rule of marketing. Especially because Pool of Radiance was a much *better*, more evocative name anyway.

  5. Austin C

    March 25, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    Fantastic review, hope you have fun with the sequels.

    A minor nitpick though, if I’m reading this right.

    [i]You can also choose what each character’s “tabletop miniature” will look like, a feature reaching all the way back to Dungeons & Dragons‘s earliest roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see much difference in the icons with these pixelated graphics. Like a number of features that must have sounded good in theory but only wound up confusing in practice, this one was cut from later Gold Box games.[/i]

    The combat icons persist throughout all the Gold Box games, though Dark Queen of Krynn and Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures would replace the customizable icons with a selection of more highly detailed pre-made ones.

    Perhaps you were thinking of the character portraits, which were dumped after PoR

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 26, 2016 at 8:20 am

      Yeah, must have been. Edit made. Thanks!

  6. Knurek

    March 25, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Given how your wife seemed to have enjoyed mapping the game, have you considered gifting her Nintendo DS/3DS and some Etrian Odyssey games?
    Those are basically Manual Mapping the Game, each a Wizardry clone but made with modern design sensibilities and a bit less vicious to the player.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 26, 2016 at 8:24 am

      That’s interesting. I hadn’t seen those before. Thanks!

      • Pedro Timóteo

        March 26, 2016 at 10:24 am

        I love that series, too. You basically have to use the DS’s stylus to map the game in the lower screen; the game is basically an anime-ish, much more colorful Wizardry, but with a lot more story. Harder than most current games, too, with certain monsters you are encouraged to avoid instead of fighting, although certainly not as hardcore as the Wizardries. Amazing soundtracks (IMO), too.

        The first two games in the series (originally released for the DS) have 3DS remakes, and are available in the online store. If you’re curious, I’d recommend starting with the remake of the first game. Note that the remakes add a new story mode (where you don’t create the party, your characters are introduced as part of the story, and they talk a lot between themselves), but the original mode (create all your characters, even replace some of them later at the guild, but naturally have a lot less story) is still available.

  7. Scott Gage

    March 26, 2016 at 12:24 am

    One note here:

    You can also choose what each character’s “tabletop miniature” will look like, a feature reaching all the way back to Dungeons & Dragons‘s earliest roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see much difference in the icons with these pixelated graphics. Like a number of features that must have sounded good in theory but only wound up confusing in practice, this one was cut from later Gold Box games.

    This isn’t true – icon customisation was in almost every Gold Box game up to Dark Queen of Krynn. In DQK they give you a selection of icons, so while it’s different it’s still there :)

    • Michael Davis

      April 7, 2016 at 3:08 am

      I definitely remember it in Curse of the Azure Bonds.

  8. Alan

    March 26, 2016 at 2:05 am

    Pool of Radiance is one of the earliest vivid memories I have of computer gaming. And by the gods, at the time I knew exactly how big a fireball was. I could reliably singe monsters toe-to-toe with my own party safely. (From memory, on the PC it’s everything on screen except 3 squares in each corner. But it’s been a long time.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 26, 2016 at 8:26 am

      It’s not quite that great: three squares in every direction from the spot you target. But still great fun to use to mow down kobolds, orcs, and goblins.

      • Pedro Timóteo

        March 26, 2016 at 10:15 am

        Didn’t fireballs have a different range whether you were in a city/dungeon or in the wilderness? Or was that only implemented later?

        Also, this game didn’t animate the fireball explosion, but later ones did (I’m pretty sure Champions of Krynn did, though it might not have been the first), which helped in getting you used to its range.

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 26, 2016 at 11:17 am

          Yes, it’s two squares in each direction in the wilderness.

  9. Pedro Timóteo

    March 26, 2016 at 10:36 am

    It wouldn’t be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons if the shops didn’t offer a healthy selection of Gary Gygax’s beloved but incomprehensible-to-the-rest-of-us Medieval arms. (“How many kinds of pole arms do you need, Gary?” asked Dave Arneson. “It’s a stick with a pointy thing on the end of it!”)

    Parodied (along with a certain Monty Python sketch) elsewhere, too. :)

  10. Veronica Connor

    March 26, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    So glad to see Star Frontiers get some love here. We played thousands of hours of every type of RPG in our group, and I can say with confidence that Star Frontiers is a vastly better game than any incarnation of AD&D. I encourage all to try it.

    That said, we liked AD&D a lot as well, I think there’s one facet you’ve overlooked about the design of the Gold Box games. The weird slavishness to the bad parts of AD&D was a feature! As kids, we didn’t know enough to know it was bad game design. We were thrilled that we got to manage coin denominations and make gambles on spells to memorize just like “the real thing”. AD&D was “the real RPG”. All those other games, while fun, were not AD&D. The excitement of playing the familiar rules we knew and loved on the computer trumped all other considerations at the time.

    In hindsight of course, as an adult with a much more modern sense of good game design, it’s easy to look back and see the flaws. At the time, though, those bugs were features.

  11. D.D.

    March 26, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    Unlike virtually every other CRPG…a cleric or magic user’s list of spells in this game isn’t treated as a handy universal repository from which she can fire off the spell of her choice at will (as long, of course, as she still has the mana to do so). No, in the Gold Box games you have to memorize ahead of time the precise spells you think you will actually want to use on your next expedition.
    While a different word was obviously used, wouldn’t the requirement in Ultimas 4 & 5 to manually ‘mix reagents’ outside of combat have achieved effectively the same thing?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 27, 2016 at 8:10 am

      Not quite, no. In Pool of Radiance the number of spells you can memorize is sharply limited by your level. In Ultima you can mix reagents for as many spells as you want at a time, as long as you have enough reagents of course. Thus you’re much less likely to get caught out with the wrong spells, and if you do need a spell (and have the reagents for it) you can quickly mix it. In Pool of Radiance, you have to re-memorize and rest, a much more complicated (read: dangerous) affair.

  12. Ben P. Stein

    March 27, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Great article!

    Thanks to your series on the SSI Gold Box games, I picked up Pool of Radiance on in anticipation of this column. I’m enjoying it very much so far!

    I wanted to pass along information about getting past the code-wheel-based copy protection. Someone, in the forum, I think, mentioned that you can simply type an “x” on the challenge-response screen to get past it, at least in the version. I’ve tried it, and it works!

    Ben P. Stein

  13. Bernie

    March 27, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Great article, as always Jimmy !

    In preparation for this moment, I did some searching and testing of Pool of Radiance on different platforms. As a complement to your piece, here are some impressions :

    1) IBM / DOS :

    – “Cracked” versions (which I suspect is what GOG has) accept the word STINGER to bypass copy protection.

    – The original “pre-rolled party” prepared by SSI includes the characters “Thender Grone”, “Bakshi”, “Darkstar”, etc. (they appear in one of your screenshots). To make sure you get an “unaltered” copy, download 3 disk images in .IMA format (google is your friend).

    – Graphics in Tandy mode are practically the same, but the ground is black instead of gray during combat.

    – EGA graphics and Tandy sound are perfectly compatible (actual Tandy 1000’s accepted EGA cards back in the day). The trick in DOSbox is to edit the Cofinguration’s ‘[speaker]’ section : ” tandy=ON ” ; the default “AUTO” will give Tandy sound only if using Tandy graphics. ON will give Tandy sound regardless of ‘machine’ setting. I also used ” sbtype=none ” to avoid potential conflicts (although “pool.CFG” should direct the emulator to enable Tandy sound only).

    2) AMIGA :

    – Not available as “legal” download but my personal favorite.

    – “Cracked” version comes in 2 floppy disk .adf images, plus savegame disk.

    – Very easy to set up in Win-UAE emulator and totally compatible with Multiple Floopy Disk “Turbo” drives. Runs at decent speed, but processor can be accelerated also if desired.

    – Best graphics and sound (updated in 1990 by US Gold) of any version.

    – Completely mouse driven (keyboard control also available).


    – Very easy to set up in MiniVmac emulator (just copy folders to virtual hard-drive).

    – “STINGER” keyword bypasses copy protection, al least in the most easily available “garden”-variety version (Google is your friend).

    – Alternative artwork from other versions, very pleasant altough only available in Black-N-White.

    – Best overall user interface among all versions, as in all Mac software back in the day (guess Apple offered powerful toolkits and good developer support).

    – Some review I read claims slowness on a real Mac (they played from floppies on a 128), but I didn’t notice it under emulation (probably due to “instantaneous” hard disk access).

    – The hassle of extracting the files from Mac compressed folders is worth it. Use “HFV explorer” (easy to learn and very effective).

    – Sound is implemented, altough “footsteps” are very loud and annoying.

    4) C64 :

    – Version 1.0 , available with and without copy protection.

    – Very good joystick control.

    – Very emulator-friendly.

    – Only 1 floppy drive is supported (disk swaps are an issue) , “turbo”-compatible.

    – Mostly identical to Tandy/EGA version, with only minor changes to color palette and sounds.

    -Only recommended for “hard-core” retro-nostalgics. Might be fun on real hardware (sans the floppy disks!).


    – PC (Win/Linux/Mac) : GOG gives you manuals, reference cards and even DOSbox and it’s legal. Great price-value ratio and easiest to set up. If you want more color and mouse control, run the Amiga version on Win-UAE, which is not that hard to learn and very solid. If the interface is an issue, you don’t mind B&W artwork (but of higher quality IMHO) and you need qucik-start get the Mac version and MiniVmac, which requires some digging for the System ROMS but is a breeze to use (and very fast ! ).

    – ANDROID : there are many DOSbox implementations but on-screen Keyboard control is always a compromise and the DOS version is keyboard-only, which means implies “some assembly required” involving custom virtual buttons (you basically need to implement a numeric keypad). In my Android Tablet, I personally went for the Amiga version, since the UAE emulator is very well implemented, specially “laptop-style” mouse control. If you are not comfortable “dragging” the cursor around and want something more akin to the usual “touch” control, try the Mac version under MiniVmac (no Rom required; ported by Gil Osher) which is the only emulator on Android where the mouse cursor is brought to the point of finger-contact, AFAIK. Pull-down menus take a little practice but the interface is very well tought out. The MiniVmac keyboard is nice also.

    Hope this information helps woul-be Pool Of Radiance Players !

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 28, 2016 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks for this! I’m sure lots of readers will appreciate it.

      One other considerations is that if you want to play the whole four-game series with the same party, or think it’s possible you might want to, that’s one more reason to avoid the Commodore 64 version. The final game, Pools of Darkness, was never released on that platform. You didn’t mention the Apple II, but Apple II support ended even sooner, after the second game.

      • Pedro Timóteo

        March 28, 2016 at 1:43 pm

        Yup. The Amiga’s situation is more curious: a better version of the first game, almost identical (except for those caucasian skin tones not available in EGA) versions of games 2 and 3, and a worse version (though still the best-looking of the series, on the Amiga) of the final game.

      • Bernie

        March 29, 2016 at 11:14 pm

        Sorry about the Apple II omission ! Since I don’t run much Apple II software I must have forgot about the Pool Of Radiance version for that platform.

        I guess my C64 comments cover the Apple II version also, more or less, since there are very good emulators available on all systems (as with the C64) but handling the disk images can become tiresome.

        Regarding your comment on party “mobility” , you’re right on the money : A serious CRPG’er has to think about this before choosing a platform to play the game on.

        My advice : if “party portability” is important, go for the MSDOS version or the “Collection” CD which includes the whole series. Although I found the CD version for the MAC (easy interface), I’m pretty sure it must be available for Windows. And there’s always GOG of course.

        Regarding emulation for playing through the whole series, for me the MSDOS versions running on Magic DOSbox for Android (customizable interface plus you can play in bed or on the go !)

        And as Steve Jobs used to say: One More Thing –

        Is there an article on Azure Bonds coming ?

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 30, 2016 at 9:08 am

          I’ll definitely be writing more about the Gold Box games in general, but don’t anticipate devoting any more articles to individual titles. There’s just not that much more to say: the plots remain standard high-fantasy fare and the engine and mechanics are improved only in the most modest ways. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good games; Dorte and I have actually already finished Azure Bonds, and enjoyed it every bit as much as Pool of Radiance. We’re now taking a hiatus of indeterminate length to work up the energy to tackle Secret of the Silver Blades, which is generally regarded as the most grindy and least interesting of the Pool of Radiance sequence.

          For those who crave *lots* of detail on a title-by-title basis, there’s of course always the CRPG Addict.

          • Pedro Timóteo

            March 30, 2016 at 3:54 pm

            My favorite is still Champions of Krynn, but it happened to be 1) the first GB game I played, and 2) one I played shortly after reading Weis and Hickman’s “Dragonlance Chronicles” for the first time, so I was really in the mood for a game taking place shortly after the novels. Therefore, I probably don’t count. :) I also played (and completed) Death Knights of Krynn, but didn’t enjoy it as much; I remember it having too much combat, and being a lot less “Dragonlanceish” than Champions. I never really played Dark Queen, but the Let’s Plays I’ve seen didn’t fascinate me (again, little “Krynnness”, too much combat).

            I also remember enjoying the first Buck Rogers game a lot.

  14. Esteban LeGrafx

    March 28, 2016 at 11:51 am

    I remember Pool Of Radiance fondly :)

    Some folks here might be interested in a little-known bastard child of the Gold Box series: Order of the Griffon (1992, HuCARD, TurboGrafx-16). It was developed by Westwood Studios, but for a video game console instead of a computer platform. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable game—if you are willing to give it a chance.

    At the very least, it’s obscurity might intrigue ardent Pool Of Radiance/D&D fans.

    1992 “review”:

  15. TsuDhoNimh

    March 31, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Your Gold Box series was a great read. I can’t wait until you get to Civilization.

    “None of the weird stuff is used by any of the creatures you fight, nor is it found in any of their treasure hordes, triggering a sneaking suspicion that the designers of Pool of Radiance had no more idea what any of this is than the rest of us do.”

    This is only mostly true. I’m playing through the MS-DOS version of the game and in the loot in the “notoriously difficult room full of trolls” there was a magical Awl Pike. It ended up being quite a good weapon for the first third of the game, even though I had trouble imagining how I would fit an 18ft-long spear through some of those corridors.

    One thing that struck me about Pool of Radiance’s much-loved combat engine is how similar it plays to the Wizard’s Crown/Eternal Dagger engine but with better production values. I think it was the production values and pacing that made PoR a much better game in the end.

    • Dan

      October 10, 2018 at 8:09 am

      There’s also a magical bec de corbin (whatever that is) I believe in the kobold lair.

      • Lisa H.

        October 10, 2018 at 6:05 pm

        A kind of polearm. It has a curved piece resembling the beak of a raven or crow, hence the name.

  16. Captain Kal

    April 1, 2016 at 6:36 am

    For olders gamers like me, who hate mapping, Gold Box Companion, ( )is essential!!!

  17. racarate

    April 21, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    Seeing as this game doesn’t have a soundtrack, does anybody have have recommendations for musical pairings?

  18. Luke101

    April 25, 2016 at 6:33 am

    A great read, thanks! I have to say from experience that one of gamer’s greatest joys is being able to appreciate a complicated RPG with his significant other :-) Me & my wife have spent dozens of hours figuring out the Dark Souls games (boy, there are so meany details and hidden elements there!). It was great to read about your duo of ‘driving’ and ‘mapping’!

  19. Jacen

    May 17, 2016 at 5:59 pm

    ” more interesting that that of Wasteland. ”

    than that :)

    Love the articles, as always!

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 17, 2016 at 6:17 pm


  20. FilfreFan

    April 1, 2017 at 11:33 pm

    I loved the “nerd books” reference. Priorities change over the course of a life. Once I had been married with children, I realized it was unlikely I’d ever use them again, so I gifted all of my D&D, Traveller, Runequest, etc. arcana to a good home. Can’t say I’ve missed them so far, but maybe after the children leave the nest?

  21. BrainChild

    June 27, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Did you know, on the C64 version, If you have an item that can be joined/halved, you can half them until your characters inventory is full then half them one more time and you get some crazy items? Flasks of Oil for instance create a single “Of Oil Censer” with negative THACO and 1d4+109 damage. Gold Chains turn into a “Chains Jug” that sells for 12800 gold and Darts turn into “Dart Dart(s)” negative 17 THACO and 11 damage each. Had a ton of fun checking out all the weird items that would pop-up from this glitch.

  22. Greg Cox

    August 29, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    “monsters killed and hordes looted” may be as intended, but I suspect “hoards” fits better.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 30, 2017 at 7:46 am

      Right you are. Thanks!

  23. King Tut

    April 5, 2018 at 3:20 am

    Thank you for this – a great article on my favorite old school RPG (with the gold box series being me favorite line of games ever). Believe it or not, I’ve actually beaten pool of radiance with a single solo character not even hiring NPC (and without cheating).. It can be done with lots of practice! The only RPG I’ve played more times than PoR is Wizardry 8, which is a true classic and in my opinion the best RPG ever made.

  24. Dan

    October 10, 2018 at 8:06 am

    Funny reading about the AD&D rules. Once, as an intellectual exercise more than anything else, my group tried to actually apply the encumbrance rules for a session. We didn’t even get out of the gate. The DMG rules are so scattered, contradictory, and poorly communicated they proved impossible for five dean’s list college students (including a math major and an engineering major) to implement. Just terrible.

    Anyway, I just killed Tyranthraxus playing this through again for fun on and found this review. The game was a lot of fun for me because of the memories, but I think kids today would give up on it in minutes. Alas for them.

  25. Mike Taylor

    April 27, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    Couple of typos:

    “The older I get and the more loathe I become” — should be “loath”.

    “information gleamed from contacts at SSI” — should be “gleaned”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 29, 2019 at 9:27 am


  26. The Radioactivist

    May 5, 2020 at 5:05 pm

    Hey – just thought I would necro this thread. I am playing POR DOS version now during our wonderful pandemic.

    I have to say, using Gold Box Companion is CRUCIAL. It removes a lot of the irritation of interface, including spell memorizing (you can “set” your memorized spells, and recall them with a button push. Please don’t cheat, and rest properly…).

    The automap, as mentioned, is wonderful. You can even cheat your PCs (again, don’t do it).

    I only wish they had implemented Weapon vs. Armor Type modifiers (those got really crazy, but a Lucern Hammer was a wonderful 8-foot long can opener vs. plate and flails were murder against chainmail opponents IIRC. Of course, the modifiers did not apply to natural armor (a common misconception) but it would give you an edge vs. heavy armor-wearing foes and a reason to carry a golf bag of weapons.

    The poor wizard with their quarterstaff got a *further* -8 to hit someone in plate.

    BTW, oil can be thrown (I equip all my thieves and mages with it, as it does 2d6 fire damage), but I think there is a negative modifier to hit (I’ll have to look at the scripted weapons fields in Gold Box Companion). However, I think its ideal for putting trolls down. Troll drops, party switches to oils and goes on Guard or Delay, troll gets back up, takes a nice hot oil bath …

  27. The Radioactivist

    May 5, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    Oh! Forgot to mention. (I used to play characters who uses polearms). Many of those polearms could do various tricks: Disarm (at range no less), Dismount (smack em off their horse), Trip, Set for Charge (double damage vs. charging), and reach over the front ranks of a fighting formation.

    Best thing to do was employ some Hirelings (0-Level) Warriors, arm them with polearms, and set them in the back rank for some fun.

    Your front range would have your Fighters and Clerics, middle rank your hirelings, back rank your wizards and druids, and flanking/hidden any thieves. Of course, well-though set-piece formations were hard to pull off consistently.

  28. Ben

    July 17, 2023 at 10:07 pm

    levels limits -> level limits

    enjoying swapping -> enjoy swapping

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 18, 2023 at 12:47 pm



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