SSI’s licensing deal with TSR paid off in bringing the AD&D ruleset over to PCs everywhere with the “Gold Box” series of CRPGs. These were tough, but fair, role-playing games steeped in AD&D stats and the respective lore of the worlds that they defined within each floppy disk. Starting off in the Forgotten Realms with Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, SSI would also dive into Dragonlance with the action RPGs Heroes of the Lance in 1988, Dragons of Flame in 1989, and even a strategy title, War of the Lance, in the same year. But in 1990, they dove right back into another Gold Box CRPG with Champions of Krynn.
At the time, the Dragonlance setting was a place filled with savage warfare on dragonback, a group of outmatched heroes mixed in with tragic characters and mischievous friends, all facing an unrelenting enemy led by a brutal and capricious goddess who seeks to enter their world of Krynn to subjugate it. The series would spawn a slew of novels, tabletop modules, and tomes of lore further developing its world.
In 1990, however, much of that hadn’t yet come to pass. That made Champions of Krynn the kind of follow-up to the first trilogy of books which were, in their turn, based on AD&D game modules.
Champions of Krynn takes place after the War of the Lance when the land has settled into an uneasy peace with the defeat of the goddess, Takhisis, and her armies. But there are others willing to fill the vacuum left behind such as the Aurak draconian, Myrtani, and his loyal followers who seek to finish what others started in bringing their goddess to Krynn. This adventure would take players through the ruins of war, outposts in the wilderness, flying citadels, and the fortress where Myrtani and his hordes await.
Like the first two “Gold Box” CRPGs, Champions essentially takes the same engine and slaps a new story along with a few tweaked mechanics to bring out another adventure. It was a relatively quick way to turn a sequel though the aging graphics stood out as mile markers on how it stacked against its peers. It still showed everything in first-person with a list of your party members at the bottom of the screen, an overland map for travel, and an isometric view for battle when parlay failed.
Champions was lauded for being a remarkable translation of the Dragonlance world and not only because it gave fans a chance to rub virtual elbows with the Heroes of the Lance. As a neat environmental aspect, the phases of its moons would affect the potency of spells cast. Basic classes were also adjusted for its world. Solamnic Knights took the place of paladins and, because of their vow of poverty, were tithed every time they would enter an outpost leaving only 20 steel pieces to their name. New races such as the curiosity addicted kender — who call stealing “borrowing” or “I-though-you-didn’t-need-that” — were added in along with a few more flavors of elves such as Silvanesti and Qualinesti.
Uniquely Dragonlance monsters, such as the draconians, had also carried their distinctive deaths into the game. Baaz draconians, humanoid dragons perverted from brass dragon eggs, could take your weapon with them in death when they turned to stone although you could take it back after combat. Bozaks exploded. Auraks, the spellcasting bunch, turned into balls of violent energy before detonating. And there were a nice variety of these at every turn.
Mechanics-wise, aside from the Dragonlance-specific changes, a general tweak or two were also added in such as the ability to adjust the difficulty of combat. The levels ranged from Novice as the easiest to Champion for those that want to be beaten down at every turn. Experience points also changed depending with Novice players getting less per-combat versus those dallying with death in Champion. And since this takes place in the Dragonlance setting, players couldn’t transfer their characters in from the other Gold Box titles that came in before which does make sense, especially as Champions was being positioned as the first in a new trilogy taking place on another world.
This was a tough game and I was almost always having my characters carry an extra weapon or two just because of those Baaz draconians. I also had gotten used to, in later battles, moving my party member by member in the isometric combat view into fleeing from an Aurak right before landing a killing blow that would turn it into a deadly mass of energies. Thank goodness for turn-based planning!
The ad shares the box art which, in turn, was derived from the cover of 1984’s “Dragons of Desolation” adventure module — which was then inspired by Rene Magritte’s 1959 painting, Le Chateau des Pyrenees, according to Mobygames. The game had also come with a small poster of the cover art. It’s also another fantastic example of the kind of fruits that the partnership between TSR and SSI would yield — not only a rich vein of IP to mine for CRPGs, but the art that came with them.
The game was ported to a rapidly dwindling list — the Amiga, Apple II, DOS, PC-98, and the venerable Commodore 64. However, like the other Gold Box games, it never found itself on another digital distribution source and remains, like many of its peers, abandonware.
Champions was a tough game but rewarding in its own way — and another remarkable example of AD&D in PC form. In the two years since the first game, Pool of Radiance, it also does something that few developers in today’s audience would in recycling the basics using with only cosmetic changes being made to the engine itself.
That far back, it wasn’t too unusual to see a number of sequels look and play fairly close to each other for a few years given how quickly they were produced, but the designers’ strength of in telling new stories, creating compelling quests, and even packaging each game as its own self-contained module layered with documentation, overcame those shortcomings in bringing TSR’s worlds to life.