My first experience with RPG’s came from watching my older brothers play the original D&D boxed set with their friends. The adventures took place in the rec room of our apartment building on a giant table. Sitting quietly and trying to understand the complex descriptions my brother the DM spun was better than being in a movie. The heroes were my brothers’ friends who I saw every day in all their imagined teenage coolness and glory.
I loved the stilted computer game attempts to recreate that experience. I inhaled every RPG my greedy little pirate hands could trade for. When people rank the greatest of the classic series they usually start with Ultima or Wizardry, maybe Bard’s Tale. As great as those games were, they’re all wrong. Pool of Radiance, the first of four games that sprung from a partnership between SSI and TSR beats them all (RPS who I usually agree with ranks PoR at a ridiculous #44, far behind such “classics” as Din’s Curse and Zanbgan). It was the first game to make me feel an inkling of that rec room magic. That rec room also sent me to my first, far less magical emergency room visit – story at the bottom if you care.
Part of it was the faithful recreation of the AD&D rules. There’s no greater tiny triumph than rolling a natural 18 on a primary stat. You played in 1st person, square at a time view a la Eye of the Beholder but once combat occurred you were transported to a grid map of the location to fight in full, tactical, AD&D turn based goodness. The large battle maps let your mages wreak havoc in a way other games’ claustrophobic views couldn’t. Lining up the perfect rebounding lightning bolt to fry a line of enemies twice was satisfying down to the cockles.
Before you could start you had to navigate the 80’s version of DRM. A 3-circle spinny code wheels that referenced a word in the manual. Whether to save precious disk space or as another form of copy protection any big text dump was helpfully printed in a separate Adventurer’s Guide. The screen referred you to an entry and you flipped to the page to read the exposition. This lead to the 80’s version of hacking. Whenever I got stuck on a riddle or problem that required page flipping I read every entry until I found my solution.
In truth I don’t remember the actual story or plot and I don’t even remember the setting which is a shame because unlike those other classics Pool of Radiance was focused on story first. The scenario was created by some TSR luminaries and the Forgotten Realms was always the best of the D&D published worlds.
Being an 80’s game, PoR is full of anachronisms. Women are overtly penalized with a strength limit and no corresponding advantage. Building a pole-arm focused character ensured you’d go the whole game without a magic weapon. Item’s useful in the tabletop game (cleric’s holy symbol, silver swords and armor, etc.) are offered for sale with no in-game rules supporting them. Some race/class combinations are severely gimmped (half-elf clerics were capped at level 5). I may have found the game much more frustrating if it was my first experience with the uneven AD&D rule-set.
PoR was also one of the last games I played on the C64 before moving to an IBM compatible. It was a long, complex game that required constant swapping of its six 5.25″ floppies. It also came out on the Amiga and IBM and sold more than a quarter million units, beating Ultima V and Bard’s Tale 3. Just like when I reminisced about Roadwar 2000 last week I somehow neglected a sequel to such a beloved game. I played Curse of the Azure Bonds and Secrets of the Silver Blades and somehow missed the last game in the series – Pools of Darkness.
If you’d like to try Pool of Radiance or its sequels (I am definitely playing Pools of Darkness after I finish the game I’m currently reviewing) they’re all available for free at myabandonware. I’m guessing the Amiga version of PoR is the best. The sequels might be better in DOS. It was right around then that that platform became the unequivocally best PC platform.
Baldur’s Gate and its many sequel and spin-offs eventually took over the AD&D mantle. They are undoubtedly “better” games but they’re built on the framework PoR established and you must never forget your first.
Rec Room Hospital Trip
During one of these extended D&D sessions my brothers friends started play fighting. If you’re picturing “typical” D&D geeks and nerds you’ve got the wrong image. They were all physically fit, took martial arts and were almost old enough to go to the army.
D&D back then was a low-damage game. Even a strong fighter would only do a single die of damage with a couple of bonus points. But a thief could backstab for as much as x5 damage. It was the ultimate move and Oren, my brother’s coolest friend, was its master.
While the real life melee was happening throughout the rec room I decided to get involved. Slinking through the foliage (crawling under the ping pong table) I brandished my dagger (a long jagged splinter of wood) and plunged it into Oren’s back. He reacted perfectly reasonably to a sudden stab in the back by spinning and unleashing a textbook roundhouse kick to my 6-year old chest.
I very distinctly remember flying backwards through the air in a graceful arc. It took a long time and my vision leisurely darkening. I don’t remember landing or anything that happened in the next 24 hours. I never got in trouble for literally stabbing another human in the back. Everyone, especially Oren, was just relieved I was alive. Even then I was a glass cannon.