SSI wasn’t a name that anyone would probably remember as a CRPG studio. Probably better known for their immense catalog of strategic games that covered everything from Waterloo to the Cold War going hot, “Strategic Simulations, Inc.” also dabbled with a number of CRPGs on the side such as Phantasie, Gemstone Warrior, and Questron. But it would probably be their alliance with Dungeons & Dragons’ house, TSR, that would remind everyone that they can just as easily apply their talent for strategy to fantasy.
Pool of Radiance in 1988 was the first of SSI’s famous “Gold Box” series of CRPGs based on TSR’s 2ed AD&D rules. It was also the first adaptation of that rule set on home PCs making it an important milestone for CRPGs in general. The engine of the game would also be reused across the Gold Box series as well as SSI’s other TSR licensed titles such as Buck Rogers giving many of these titles a similar look and feel when it came to the interface and basic mechanics, though it had also borrowed a few conventions that had already been seen in other CRPGs such as the Bard’s Tale.
Character creation was steeped in AD&D stats meaning that I would sometimes spend some time re-rolling those to get a party that wouldn’t die the minute they step into a dungeon. Helping me out was the included “Adventurers Journal” that focused on entries and descriptions the game would call for, and the manual which doubled as a short primer to TSR’s system. Races, classes, statistics, and alignments were discussed along with how to work the Translation Wheel that doubled as copy protection.
As with a number of CRPGs, a default party is there for those that don’t want to go through rolling up their own party like me. After a long session of tweaking everything, I had my traditional fighter/cleric/mage setup though dual-classing also added to the fun of figuring all of it out. Now it time to see what Pool of Radiance would do to them.
The game took place in TSR’s famous Forgotten Realms campaign setting and my party were cast as fresh-faced adventurers seeking their fortune in New Phlan. Phlan itself is mostly in ruin, but efforts are being made to restore it to its former glory. New Phlan is the “civilized” part of the city reclaimed by adventurers and jobs are being offered to anyone brave enough to enter the abandoned areas and do what they ask.
The Adventurer’s Journal was every bit a product of a time when the included docs for a CRPG were of a kind of quality that is relatively unheard of today. It had entries that expanded the fiction in the game much like the paragraph system in Interplay’s Wasteland or Epyx’s Temple of Apshai nested now in yellowed pages scrawled with maps and Forgotten Realms lore. Like how Origin treated its players in the same way with Ultima’s own documentation, SSI made the most of their TSR partnership.
Gameplay-wise, Pool of Radiance wiped out more than a few of my characters in their first battle against kobolds. Part of the reason was the way it did combat – it was unlike many other CRPGs that I had played up to that point.
Instead of a list of party members on the bottom of my screen seeing a 3D view of the world in the window above, combat switched out to an isometric tactical view where party placement, blocking, and tactical use of the environment actually play key roles. This was SSI’s bread and butter and it was a sharp, but welcome, learning experience.
Party members were represented as icons along with the monsters and each character had its own turn to move as if this were a game of swords, sorcery, and chess. Keeping things such as the range of spells and the radius of their effects and where your tender mages were in relation to the better armored friends nearby all had to be considered. Does your fighter have enough movement to get between that kobold and your spellcaster? Things like that could make the difference between being able to wipe out the enemy with one well thrown fireball one moment, or watching as a mob of orcs shreds your front row the next.
The challenges didn’t end there. Since this is AD&D, it also used its Vancian-inspired magic system where mages and priests needed time to rest and re-memorize spells to use again. The problem is that resting in Old Phlan had its own risks such as monsters running across you and having half your party asleep when they attack. Or running out of food. Sometimes you could bribe your way out of fights. Sometimes it was better to reload in the hopes that you could make it back to safety by beating the random encounter gods to the punch. Characters also didn’t level automatically. Just like in the Bard’s Tale, you needed to pay for training to make use of that experience.
Exploring Old Phlan was also a lot more dangerous than a bad case of tetanus. Dungeons were twisty, monsters were everywhere, and until your party finally earned a few levels and brought home equipment that protected them better than the rags they arrived with, every jaunt into the ruins could be your last. There were even a few missions that took place outside of Phlan itself, though not too far from the city and there was no free-roaming in the wilderness.
Pool of Radiance was a tough game, but it was also incredibly rewarding. Finding a +1 longsword was a thrilling moment. Discovering a suit of full plate, even if it wasn’t magic, could bring tears of joy. Even though there was quite a bit of loot luring me into the ruins and daring players into pushing ever further into the shadows of the ruined city, being able to use any of it was always another question.
The tough end battle was brutal but rewarding. Another ancient evil vanquished, your party would also go on to find adventure elsewhere as they could be transferred to the next game, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and so on after that, much like how the Bard’s Tale had also done for players eager to carry on the fight with their personal heroes.
Pool of Radiance was an amazing blend of AD&D’s rule set, the thrill of adventure and exploration of the unknown, and the tactical strategy of its turn-based combat as envisioned by SSI’s expertise in waging countless battles with history’s greatest opponents. Some would point to the Gold Box series as the pinnacle of what is considered “classic” AD&D on the PC. Others would dismiss it for its admittedly steep learning curve and its lack of flash and substance.
SSI’s ads make use of art used in TSR’s own products, a theme that would continue to create some of the best looking boxes covers and ads on the market at the time. A few screens below showed off what the game looks like with a mountain of stats in each tempting an audience used to poring over pages of crunch to make the leap with a DM on their PCs.
While it wasn’t trying to be a substitute for a DM screen, popcorn, and a night spent rolling dice with good friends, SSI’s first stab at TSR’s imaginative world would only be the first part in a series of games that would do their best to provide just as much fun. And in many ways, they succeeded.