Pools of Darkness is a part of SSI's Gold Box collection of RPGs based on the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It is also the last in a four-part series that had begun with Pool of Radiance. Based in TSR's Forgotten Realms campaign setting, the party of adventurers that had saved the city of Phlan on the shores of the Moonsea return to it after some time and see how prosperous it has become since they had freed it from evil several years before.
This peace of short lived, however, when the evil god Bane literally steals the city by tearing from the ground and several others across the Forgotten Realms in an act of revenge, plunging the world into darkness. The player must take their party to save Phlan and stop the evil god's plan before it is too late.
The game is identical in play-style to its predecessors, although a few improvements to the formula have been made as well as keeping the ability to import characters from the previous title:
- Improved graphics
- Raised level cap to 40
- Mages could now access Level 9 spells
- Ability to import characters from Secret of the Silver Blades
The length of the main campaign was significantly much longer than its predecessors owing to the large number of quests that take the party to different dimensions outside of the Forgotten Realms. This, on top of those quests that must be tackled within the lands of the Forgotten Realm, made Pools of Darkness' campaign rich in opportunities for player-character advancement. This was almost considered absolutely necessary because of its correspondingly high difficulty.
Pools of Darkness was evidently aimed at players that had completed the previous titles within its four-part story and assumed that they would have continued to import the same party across each game. If a player did not, however, a pre-made party was available for use to immediately jump into the game without having to create one.
The game continues to use the grid-based, 3D system wherein the world is viewed from a first-person perspective with 90° turns and movement spaces, similar to that in the Bard's Tale trilogy. 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 spellcasters.
Although no copy protection was implemented allowing the game disks to be freely copied in order to preserve the originals (a typical practice at the time), a verification question requiring the player to look up a word from the manual would be required to actually play the game.
As with the previous games, there was an extensive amount of documentation 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
The party that had saved Phlan returns to the city ten years later to witness the fruits of their success. With evil vanquished, the city has grown to become a prosperous center of trade and peace reigns along the shores of the Moonsea. There is little for a group of adventurers to do, but a friend in the city offers them work as guards. Sasha, a survivor from Pool of Radiance, now belongs to the city council and is planning a trip to Thar and needs protection.
As they leave, a storm rushes at them and a titanic hand comes down from the sky tearing the city from the ground and leaving a gaping hole in its place with the waters of the Moonsea rushing in. The dark god, Bane, confronts them and boasts that the Realms are now his before the Sage of Shadowdale, Elminster, spirits them away to Limbo.
He tells them of the scope of the danger and are tasked to destroy Bane's lieutenants, thus, spoiling his plans and saving the Realms from his domination.
After many adventures and following their success, the party find themselves back at Phlan where the good gods are able to restore each stolen city after the defeat of the last of Bane's lieutenants. They also go further by rewinding time to before they were stolen, albeit this time preventing Bane's plan from working, thus erasing the memory of the dark god's invasion from everyone's memory. Only Elminster, the greater gods, and the party know the truth.
Elminster thanks them for their aid and leaves them a ship filled with treasure. The party sail away to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Pools of Darkness is a very difficult game and is much harder than its predecessors making its focus more appropriate for veterans that have taken the time to go through the previous three games that are a part of the arc ( Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Secret of the Silver Blades). A pre-made party is included that is at an appropriate starting level for those that haven't, however.
The introduction of different dimensions and worlds expanded the scope of the game. Previous titles were normally focused on only one region with several dungeons, but Pools of Darkness' campaign takes place within other destinations far beyond the Forgotten Realms such as the body of the god, Moander, floating within a dimension of its own. Enemies now include tanar'ri, the AD&D equivalent of devils, and various other powerful monsters.
The player is free to pursue several of quests in any order and are encouraged to explore and take part in as many side-jobs as possible in order to become stronger. Victory in battle often leads to treasure and equipment as prizes as well as valuable experience.
Characters could only be imported from Secret of the Silver Blades.
All of the gameplay mechanics are based on the 2nd edition of the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset, otherwise known as AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) from TSR.
Seven 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.
As with the previous titles, the races did not undergo any significant changes and had been presented in the same way as before.
- 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. Capable of dual classing.
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 basic alignments are:
- Lawful - this character values rules for society's benefit
- Neutral - the individual and society are both equally important
- Chaotic - only the individual matters
This is further determined by ethics:
- Good - the character tries to be morally sound and virtuous
- Neutral - depending on the situation, their ethics may shift
- Evil - they are clearly out for themselves
Gender is treated only as a cosmetic choice in the game as with many others, but 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.
- Paladins - These are holy fighters whose faith gives them resistances to spells and poison. They can also turn undead creatures as a cleric can at two levels below their current level. They have an aura that repels evil much like a Protection from Evil spell. They also gain the ability to Cure Disease once a week and can heal themselves of two points of damage per day. They can also use cleric spells when they reach 9th level. However, they must be Lawful Good and have more attribute restrictions than a fighter does.
- Rangers - They are a fighter and can defend themselves without the need for armor and weapons if need be. They do bonus damage against giant-sized creatures and must be of good alignment.
- 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 - With their spellcasting abilities, they have the potential to be incredibly powerful characters as they gain experience. They might not have the hit points to survive melee combat (that's what the fighters are for), but their magic can allow them to slay batches of foes and bring down terrible powers on whoever they focus their attentions on.
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.
The campaign takes place primarily within the Moonsea region of the Forgotten Realms, a large inland sea whose shores contain a variety of settlements and cities filled with danger that must be overcome. The party starts at Phlan,
but they will travel to many other different locations.
Exploration was handled in a 3D view.
Using the Encamp command allows the player to set up a temporary camp where they can reset their characters to heal them, memorize spells, or save the game.
The Gold Box RPGs had standardized themselves with a basic system that was shared across most of the party-based entries. The interface both for party management and information display were similar across titles such as this one making it easier for veterans to get into the game and creating a similar look.
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.