GBP: Pool of Radiance – Part 1 (Arrival and The Slums)

Recently, in addition to the games that I’ve been playing for my usual Let’s Plays, I’ve also been playing the original Pool of Radiance as part of a planned playthrough of the Forgotten Realms Gold Box games. Since I can’t really engage with something without getting analytical, I figured I might as well give my thoughts on it as I go through the games. Further, since the way the games work isn’t entirely conducive for entertaining streaming, I thought I would give my thoughts in blog form. These blog posts will be going based on each section of the game, instead of going by session, as I feel the breakdown will work much better that way.

The game begins in the “Civilized Quarter” of the city – the chunk of the city that has been reclaimed from monsters and which will serve of your base of operations throughout the game.

Map of the Civilized Area from the hintbook.

It also literally opens with a tour. As in your party of adventurers gets a guided tour through the city telling you where everywhere you need to go is – the temples, training halls, shops, and city hall, ending right at the entrance to the Slums. And here’s where some of the really good map design pays off because unless you are acting with a surplus of braggadocio, the very next thing you are going to do is immediately turn around so you can go buy some gear before you go wandering into the city. At which point you will walk into the grid square next to the city hall, and the game will give an automated list of posted proclamations – which in turn will let you know some (though not all) of the quests that you can take on to start the game.

In particular, the posted quests have two main thrusts. The first is a bunch of quests related to the Valhigen Graveyard. These are an array of quests related to investigating the Graveyard… and a couple quests related to finding out the fates of a couple previous groups of adventurers who were sent to the Graveyard. This sends the message to the player that the Valhigen Graveyard is not an area of the game that low-level characters stand a chance of surviving in.

The second is a quest stating that the Council is offering a reward for the clearing of areas of the city. Now, at this point in the game, you don’t have any way to get to the Graveyard – but you do have access to the Slums. This sets a goal for the player and a way to get there that will, in theory, result in them being sufficiently equipped to take on the foes they face in the graveyard.

The Slums (from the Cluebook)

This leads to the Slums. This is the first area of the city you have access to – you’ll get a couple more options after you clear this area, but for now, you’ve just got the Slums. This area of the game is designed to train the player in a few concepts – combat, exploration, negotiation.

Exploration is pretty self explanatory. In order to clear this area, you have to complete every set encounter, plus a bunch of random encounters, which means you need to wander around and check every room. If you don’t explore, you can’t proceed in the game.

Combat is related to the combat system in the game itself. A lot of RPGs prior to this point had abstracted combat like in Wizardry and the Might & Magic games – the closest combat got to being “tactical” was related to front and back ranks of combat. Ultima 3, which pre-dated this, had more tactical combat, but the actual map of the dungeon was not reflected in the combat areas, and Ultima 4 and 5 generally handled combat the same way.

However, Pool of Radiance has the dungeon map reflected in your combat area, and the Slums introduces that. You are not in a position yet where you have to take advantage of this to succeed in combat. Instead, this area of the game introduces you to this in a low-pressure manner – both in terms of the difficulty of the encounters, and in terms of how far you have to travel in order to get back to town. This gets the player thinking tactically, both in terms of combat and in terms of equipment – in Pool of Radiance, any character who can use a ranged weapon should have a ranged weapon – because having ranged weapons means that you can engage with enemies before they close to melee.

Additionally, the effective “boss” encounter for the Slums involve Trolls, which regenerate, which means you have to change your tactics against them, because they can’t regenerate if there is a player standing on one of the hexes the trolls were on when they died. So, that introduces this concept for future fights.

Finally, there is negotiation. Several rooms in this are of the dungeon have people who you not only can talk to, but preferably should talk to – specifically Ohlo and the Fortune-Teller. Both of these people can be killed by the party, but there are repercussions for doing so. Ohlo will bust out a bunch of monsters if you fight him directly, making for a very difficult fight that can potentially wipe the party. Meanwhile, the Fortune Teller is explicitly a non-combatant, and killing her causes all subsequent encounters, random or otherwise, to become much more difficult. It sets the idea that not everything you meet is a combatant, and that negotiation and discussion can work better than fighting. This will play out in the next area of the game – Sokal Keep.