In 1991, the sequel to 1990’s Champions of Krynn hit shelves courtesy of SSI, adding another chapter to the Krynn half of the famous Gold Box series of CRPGs. The year also saw a number of other AD&D from SSI including the Forgotten Realms-based Pools of Darkness, Eye of the Beholder II, Gateway to the Savage Frontier, Shadow Sorceror (set in Krynn), and what is regarded as the world’s first graphical MMO, Neverwinter Nights on AOL.
And that didn’t even include their strategy slate.
Death Knights of Krynn continued the arc that began in Champions taking place a year afterward which also became a self-fulfilling feature because of its release. Like a number of other Gold Box CRPGs from SSI, it recycled the same engine while telling a new story beneath the hood. In this case, it brought back everything that Champions had managed to successfully translate over from the Dragonlance setting — the spell system, the three moons and how their phases affected magic in the world, the classes, the races, and of course, the unique monsters ranging from dragons to draconians.
That made things immediately familiar to fans of Champions. Like the other Gold Box games, a lavish amount of attention was given over to the documentation. A short manual covered the basics of the actual interface while the “Adventurer’s Journal” covered everything AD&D and Dragonlance within the game itself with a healthy bit of fiction to get the adventurer’s blood stirring. A new intro also sweetened the deal with music created by one of the industry’s best known names, George “The Fat Man” Sanger.
The GUI represented the world in first-person with the typical four-way, grid-based movement scheme popular among many first-person CRPGs at the time. Overland travel was represented with a big map, and combat put everything into an isometric, grid-based strategy GUI turning enemies and your party into sets of miniatures battling it out in turn-based combat. It was functional and more importantly, loaded with features to make party and character management easy. Death Knights also made it a bit easier to manage spells.
In the AD&D rules at the time, casters had to memorize and/or pray for spells — think of it as loading a clip of spells into their brain for use. Once they’ve exhausted the clip, they had to memorize them all over again to reload their brain. It was largely derived from the kind of magic prolific sci-fi and fantasy author, Jack Vance, came up with in his Dying Earth novels and which Gygax and company borrowed for use in early Dungeons and Dragons. I’m not that much of a fan of the system myself, but as far as the Gold Box games and the AD&D system were concerned, they made the mechanics work.
Unique classes and races to the Dragonlance setting added additional flavor away from the other fantasy offerings that TSR had utilizing high magic. Qualinesti and Silvanesti elves and kender were notable additions, each with varying strengths and weaknesses between them. Solamnic Knights, specialized warriors, and the orders that you could belong to as one were also included in with the usual thieves and ranger class staples. And there were the stats — tons of them — to wade through in true AD&D fashion from THAC0 to experience tables.
Players could also import their party from Champions, although not all items will make it over like that dragonlance you picked up along the way to the climax. If not, a ready mix party was available for newcomers to immediately dive right into the fracas if they didn’t feel like going through and creating their party, character by character.
The story behind Death Knights pits your party against a new threat a year after the events in Champions. An undead hero, Sir Karl whom Champions veterans might remember as giving his life as a Solamnic Knight to help them, suddenly invades the festivities celebrating your heroism a year ago. Riding on the back of an undead dragon, he snatches the dragonlance on display during the party and flies off, his former lover, Maya, changing form and flying after him as a silver dragon. In their chase for the lance, the players discover that Lord Soth, an incredibly powerful undead Solamnic Knight, has returned and brings with him an army of the undead to lay siege against the fragile peace won in the last game.
For the most part, the game was largely a hack ‘n slash with plenty of combat and a linear progression from one end of the game to the climax with Soth. Villages and towns along the way had the option for players to clear them out of any nasties as well as provide opportunities for experience and valuable loot. Undead also saw heavy use in the game, especially the level-draining kind which even a seasoned veteran like CGW’s Scorpia had to take careful stock even after dropping the battle difficulty a notch. It was made especially more tough as not all of the undead in the game could be turned, even by a battle-tested cleric, meaning that it was up to sheer attrition to save the day in many cases.
When Soth was defeated, the game didn’t necessarily end. An additional bonus dungeon opened up for your high-level party to romp through packed with extremely brutal challenges, something that a number of JRPGs such as Star Ocean: The Last Hope or, more recenly, Tales of Xillia, have also given fans over the years.
Death Knights seemed to be a solid follow-up to Champions. It stuck mainly to being a meat and potatoes kind of CRPG – heavy on combat, light on puzzles, and coupled that with a decent riddled with twists, turns, and even doomed love. The game was ported at the time to an increasingly shrinking list of platforms which abandoned the Apple leaving it for the Amiga, C64, IBM compatibles running DOS, and Japan’s PC-98. Unfortunately, much like Champions and many Gold Box titles, it never saw a digital release in today’s market relegating it to that twilight graveyard of Ebay auctions and abandonware.