Pool of Radiance is a part of SSI's Gold Box collection of RPGs. It is also the first official game based on TSR's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. The developers had used source material from TSR including Unearthed Arcana and Monster Manual II as well as the core materials in order to interpret the rules as closely as possible for the home PC setting that it was being developed for.
The game also made some adaptations to the ruleset, which would later be folded back into core rules, such as an early version of attacks of opportunity and characters not dying the instant they hit zero hitpoints, but rather being unconscious and having time to be saved by other party members before bleeding out.
The engine created for Pool of Radiance would go on to be featured in the following games:
It would be tweaked for the following two sci-fi games:
The story is centered around the battered city of Phlan on the shores of the Forgotten Realms' Moonsea region. The city had once been a center of commercial trade. Having fallen on hard times, Phlan was on the verge of complete infestation by monsters. Adventurers based out of New Phlan are tasked to enter Old Phlan and rid it of the evil that dwells within.
The title's engine, the "Gold Box Engine," is a grid-based, 3D system wherein the world is viewed from a first-person perspective with 90° turns and movement spaces. As with nearly every Gold Box game, party members were displayed in the upper right hand corner along with hit points and armor class. Random enemy encounters would provide combat opportunities within the game against mixed groups of foes, providing experience.
When combat would start, it would become a tactical turn-based system with the battlefield viewed from an isometric perspective. Every member of the party including each monster were shown as individual icons that had a limited number of moves onscreen. The player was challenged to maneuver their party on the map, take cover behind obstacles such as wells, or even block doorways and act as tanks in order to protect their spell casters.
The copy protection used for the game was based on a "translation wheel" that came with it allowing the player to decode Dwarven and Elvish runes that were encountered. Without being able to translate these runes, however, the player would not be able to proceed in the game. Losing the wheel would literally render the game unplayable since the player would be unable to translate the rune challenges that the game would test them with.
This type of copy protection was also used, to a lesser degree, with other games such as the Bard's Tale III and Broderbund's Captain Goodnight and the Islands of Fear.
As would be a standard across the Gold Box series, an extensive amount of documentation would be included with the package:
- A basic manual with setup instructions
- An Adventurer's Journal going into detail on the races, classes, and the magic system of the game
- A Quick Reference card for commands
- Translation wheel
At the conclusion of the game, the player has the option to save their characters for further adventures in the Gold Box series.
In the distant past, the city of Phlan had once been a vibrant center of trade on the shores of the Moonsea until it had fallen in the distant past to decay and invasion. As the adventure begins, the city is divided into New Phlan and Old Phlan. New Phlan is a small section of the city that has been cleared of monsters and is held by the City Council and the guards that ensure the safety of this small oasis on the edge of danger.
The adventurers that the player will take through the game will take on jobs made available to them by the City Council. At first, the jobs are focused on the recovery of items and the destruction of monsters in Old Phlan as part of an effort to keep them in check and to push further into the ruins. Later on, however, they discover that all of the beasts within Old Phlan follow an enigmatic "Boss" who they must discover.
After several more adventures, the party is given their final task: recover the Crown Jewels of Ancient Phlan from Castle Valjevo. There, they also discover that the "Boss" is actually a possessed dragon deep within the city controlled by the spirit of one of the ancient warlords that had conquered Phlan, Tyranthraxus. After defeating this ancient evil, the party returns with the Crown Jewels to a heroes welcome.
Pool of Radiance uses what would become known as the "Gold Box' engine due to its proliferation across SSI's line of AD&D based titles such as those named in the previous section.
Exploration was handled via a grid-based, 3D system with a view of the game dominating the upper left quadrant of the screen. On the upper right hand side, the party would be displayed along with their status, AC (armor class), and hit point totals. The bottom of the screen would be reserved for scene descriptions for special encounters, dialogue from NPCs, and a series of options would be displayed at the very bottom.
Encounters did not always have to begin in combat and the party was able to parlay with monsters and either pay their way out or convince them, by choosing an appropriate attitude, that they meant no harm or bully them into letting the party pass.
Players could set their party to search every "square" for hidden traps, items, treasure, or secret doors although this would also raise the chances for a random encounter. Resting and healing were handled with the "encamp" command allowing them to pursue housekeeping duties such as in having their mages memorize spells or heal up anyone who was injured. Again, resting in the midst of danger had its risks as a monster party may stumble upon the camp.
The adventure would take the players outside of Phlan on occasion to investigate locations such as the immediate wilderness surrounding the city, although most of the activity would be centered on the ruins of Phlan itself.
Six races are available for players to choose from and is the first step in creating a new character and a party of seven adventurers with which to go out and save the world. Players can now select what kind of sex their character is which has no effect on their abilities, only in their appearance for the character portrait.
Throughout the series, the same set of races would always be given:
- Dwarves: Excellent warriors and often considered the best blacksmiths within the Forgotten Realms, they also harbor a strong hate for giants and their diminutive nature allows them to dodge their attacks much easier. They are also a hardy race and able to resist the effects of magic and poison.
- Elves: Long lived and resistant to sleep and charm spells, elves are often considered among the best spellcasters in the Realms although they are also skilled with a sword. They cannot be resurrected, however, but they can multi-class in many more different combinations than others.
- Half-elves: These share the hardiness of their human half along with the sleep and charm resistances of their elven parent, but not their long lives. And like their elven parents, are capable of noticing things out of the ordinary.
- Gnomes: These are treated as shorter and slimmer versions of dwarves in the game, although they tend to be a little better as thieves.
- Halflings: Resistant to magic and poison, they are about half the size of humans and can make decent fighters and thieves.
- Human: The most common race in the Forgotten Realms, they are average in most respects but have no major weaknesses, either.
Each character has a set of basic attributes that affect various abilities, such as combat prowess and how many spells a magic user can memorize before they must rest and re-acquire their spells once again. During character creation, the player may re-roll as many times as they want. Prime requisite attributes are those that are a requirement for certain classes. For example, Fighters must have a good Strength score in order to be effective.
The natural maximum for any attribute is an 18, although it can go higher depending on factors such as race and magical effects. Throughout the game, unless it is due to an outside intervention such as a spell or a piece of equipment, these attributes never change even when a character levels.
- Strength (STR) - determines physical power and damage with weapons; also affects encumbrance in combat
- Dexterity (DEX) - reflexes and the ability to remain hard to hit in combat; affects ranged weapons such as bows as well as a thief's abilities
- Constitution (CON) - a character's health is determined by this and hit points are derived from this score and a bonus calculated against it with every level. This also determines a character's chances for coming back to life with a resurrection spell, but in the process, a point of constitution is permanently lost.
- Charisma (CHA) - affects the perception that others have of a character
- Intelligence (INT) - affects the ability to reason and think. This is an important score for magic users as it determines how many spells they can memorize and use per level.
- Wisdom (WIS) - this is important to clerics and determines how many spells they can store in memory and use
Attributes, such as Strength and Dexterity, are also affected by the selection of race and certain bonuses and minuses are allotted across them as a result. For examples, dwarves are inherently stronger than the other races and, thus, have a bonus to their Strength and Constitution scores.
AD&D's alignment system determines what a character's outlook is. Players can choose what alignment their character starts off with, although actions within the game can slowly shift it. Certain character classes are very much restricted to certain alignments.
The alignments available to the player in Pool of Radiance are as follows:
- Lawful Good - Characters that are based on this alignment strictly interpret the rules and respect order above all else for the benefit of everyone
- Lawful Neutral - Moderation is far more important than the extreme, balancing their decisions between good and evil
- Lawful Evil - The strong survive to enslave the weak, but one must rule in order to conquer and order must keep those that follow this character in line. An army is always stronger than a mob.
- Neutral Good - Some rules are needed along with the freedom to decide what is best depending on the situation at hand
- True Neutral - Everything must be balanced; both good and evil have their place and neither must overcome the other
- Neutral Evil - Law and chaos aren't as important as the results in bringing evil to the world
- Chaotic Good - Random actions and the freedom to implement them are more important than the rules in valuing life and ensuring the welfare of others
- Chaotic Neutral - Randomness and chaos are more preferable to being evil or good
- Chaotic Evil - This character will go to any lengths to grab power and influence, disregarding anything that may make sense or in cooperating with others to achieve their goals. Unpredictable and ruthless.
As per 1st edition D&D rules, female characters were actually penalized in this game; their maximum strength score can never be as high as that of a male character. Race plays a major part in determining what classes a character may be restricted in playing as. The game allows dual and even triple classing among characters depending on certain options such as race.
From the stock of basic classes, players can pick from certain combinations, although experience is divided among the classes that a character belongs to. As a result, they level much more slowly than a character dedicated to a single class.
The basic classes are:
- Fighters - They can fight with any armor or weapons, but have no magical ability. When they reach 7th level, they can get an extra attack per round.
- Thieves - They can disarm traps, undo locks, and help themselves to anything that isn't well protected. They can't wear any armor heavier than leather, but they can backstab in combat for critical damage.
- Clerics - Fighting priests that can wield a mace, but no edged or pointed weapons, as well as use armor. They pray for their spells and automatically memorize any of the spells available for a level when they reach it.
- Magic Users - These are the spellcasters of the party and able to conjure the elements or deal damage with their magic. While fragile, they have the potential to be the most powerful members of any party as they become more experienced.
Non-human characters can multi-class with a mix of these to enhance their abilities by sharing skills across them, although they level up at a slower rate because of the experience distribution across different disciplines.
Pool of Radiance has an extensive list of locations to visit throughout its campaign. When they are in New Phlan, they have a variety of places to visit in order to stock up on goods and prepare themselves for the adventures ahead.
- The City Council - Here, the party can receive missions and news of other events that may concern them
- The Docks - The party can use a boat to take them to inaccessible parts of Old Phlan or into the wilderness surrounding the city
- The Inns - These give the party a guaranteed safe haven to rest (Encamp), but cost money to do so. Once you being your stay, however, it can last as long as you want it to.
- The Taverns - Gossip, news, and random pieces of information may filter into the party's ears from a visit or two
- The Training Hall - This is where the characters can get training from NPCs (non-party characters) at higher levels than they are, add and remove PCs (player characters) from the party. Training characters can help improve their abilities.
- The Shops - Every adventurer knows the value of a well stocked shop whether it is in looking for new weapons, armor, or items to save themselves from a poisoned death. They can even identify items for you with the right price.
- The Temples - Here, players can heal their members or bring them back from the dead, although resurrections are costly to both the purse and to the character being brought back.
There is also a wilderness area outside of Phlan that certain missions can take place in, but it is not an extensive area nor can players journey far beyond it. Pool of Radiance is not an open world adventure.
The party-based Gold Box series of RPGs had standardized themselves on the engine that was pioneered with this game for both exploration and combat explaining the similarities between each one. Although each subsequent game would feature tweaks and modifications as a result of further gameplay enhancements, the basic structure and approach within this formula was always the same.
Fighting in the game continues to be handled through random and set encounters wherein experience, items, and gold are earned. When combat begins, an isometric view (the combat map) is presented with every member and attacking monster shown as an icon.
It is a turn based system with each side taking their turns to maneuver and issue commands. This tactical approach, in conjunction with the obstacles present onscreen such as walls and doorways, allowed the player to create their own strategies.
Initiative played an important role in determining who goes first. Each round is divided into ten segments and every character and foe act on a specific segment determined by their initiative. Actions can be delayed and held until the end of round and the computer can fight for the player using the Quick command.
- Anhkeheg: Large, burrowing, acid spitting insects, these arthropods attack with great mandibles.
- Basilisk: These reptilian giants traverse the ground with eight legs. Their gaze is known to turn creatures to stone.
- Bugbear: Giant but stealthy, these goblins fight with unexpected finesse.
- Centaur: Half man, half horse, these creatures sometimes prove useful allies.
- Displacer Beast: Large black pumas with tentacles that sprout from their backs, these beasts can displace their location.
- Drider: Mixture of drow (dark) elf and giant spider, these abominations weave powerful magics.
- Efretti: Egotistic Jinn from the fire elemental plane, these magic-users serve only powerful masters.
- Ettin: Two-headed and giant, these orc-like creatures often dual-wield spiked clubs.
- Fire Giant: Their hair aflame, these evil colossi strike their foes with monstrous, two-handed swords.
- Giant Lizard: Massive, reptilian cousins of the common lizard, these coldblooded creatures seek food in many areas around the Forgotten Realms.
- Giant Mantis: Quick and well-armored, these creatures are the large and strong relatives of the common mantis.
- Giant Scorpion: Much larger than the common scorpion, its poisonous tail can kill an adventurer instantly.
- Giant Snake: Huge, slithering reptiles that strike with a deadly poison.
- Ghoul: Attacking any living creature on sight, these evil undead may paralyze an adventurer with just a touch.
- Gnoll: Often exceeding seven feet in height, these hyena-headed humanoids often hunt in packs.
- Goblin: Small and common in the Realms, these ugly humanoids.
- Hill Giant: Low in intelligence but high in power, these smaller giants usually wield clubs.
- Hippogriff: Creatures composed of parts both eagle and horse, these majestic beasts amaze any who catch a glimpse.
- Hobgoblin: Smarter cousins of the goblins, these humanoids may grow as large as a human.
- Kobold: Small, cowardly, and sadistic, these humanoid xenophobes are excellent ambushers.
- Lizardman: Particularly delighting in human flesh, these omnivorous, lizard-like humanoids typically inhabit the countryside.
- Medusa: Snake-haired women whose gaze can turn an adventurer to stone, these mystical mavens of fear toy with no one who draws near.
- Minotaur: Labyrinthine, bull-headed humanoids, these man eaters prove strong and worthy adversaries.
- Mummy: These strong undead possess a presence that may cause fear and a touch that may plague with disease.
- Nymph: Beautiful and youthful, these female creatures tend to inhabit areas near streams, springs, or other bodies of water.
- Ogre: Large and powerful, these hideous humanoids' foul tempers are legendary.
- Orc: With the snout and tusks of a boar, these evil humanoids will not tarry when it comes to killing an adventurer.
- Phase Spider: With the ability to phase between dimensions, these monstrous, giant arachnids attack with a poisonous bite.
- Quickling: Moving so quickly that they become invisible to the naked eye, these small creatures can prove difficult to hit in battle.
- Skeleton: Usually controlled by an evil force, these undead minions often attack in groups.
- Spectre: These powerful and ghastly undead's cruel touch can drain the life of an adventurer.
- Stirge: Small, avian creatures that drink the blood of their victims.
- Thri-kreen: Insect-like and intelligent, these humanoids inhabit burrows and bite with a poison that may paralyze an adventurer.
- Tiger: Usually prone to feeding on animals, the majestic creatures will occasionally seek the flesh of adventurers.
- Troll: Fearless, these large humanoids can regenerate wounds. Beware of their rise from seemingly apparent death in battle.
- Vampire: From powerful fighters to magic-users, these level draining undead predominantly and banefully scour crypts and dungeons.
- Wardog: These canines are trained and utilized by several of the evil races of the Realms.
- Wight: Life-draining undead, these former humans haunt the land and ruins of the Realms.
- Wild boar: Angry and aggressive, these untamed pigs fear no spear.
- Wraight: A mere brush against these apparitions may drain the life of an adventurer.
- Wyvern: With a poisonous tail and a dangerous bite, these distant kin to the dragons have caused many deaths to unwary adventurers.
- Zombie: Risen by the powers of evil magic, these undead advance relentlessly until destroyed or turned.