Gateway to the Savage Frontier is the first game in the new Savage Frontier epic that would only span two volumes: this entry, and its sequel, Treasures of the Savage Frontier. It is part of SSI's Gold Box series set in the Forgotten Realms and using TSR's 2nd Edition AD&D rules. The Gold Box Engine that had been created for Pool of Radiance and then used with its subsequent sequels set on the shores of the Moonsea would also be used in this game, although it would also undergo several changes.
Because it is based on the same engine behind SSI's Gold Box series of RPGs. only the setting has changed. This was planned as the first game in a series of titles to take place in an area of the Forgotten Realms known as the Savage Frontier.
The most important change to the Gold Box engine with this game was the Wilderness map. By traveling outside of a civilized area, such as a city, a map would be displayed allowing the player to move party around on it. Random encounters were calculated by the game in this mode as they would be in the normal Adventuring mode.
The game, based as it is on the Gold Box engine, continues to use the 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, a tactical turn-based system was used to display 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.
As this game was developed some time after the previous Gold Box titles were, it had also followed their lead in terms of its of copy protection by eschewing the cumbersome translation wheel that had been initially used.
Upon starting, a verification question is shown which directed the player to find the indicated word answer in either the rule book (the manual) or the included Adventurer's Journal. The disks themselves did not have any copy protection allowing players to make copies and play on them instead.
As with the previous games, there was an extensive amount of documentation included with the package:
- A basic manual with setup instructions and an outline of the rules
- 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 city of Neverwinter had its debut in this game and become spun off into the first MMORPG using graphics through a partnership with AOL. Neverwinter Nights would launch in March of 1991 and players would be charged an hourly rate to play which would later change as Internet connection costs became cheaper. Prior to its release, such MMOGs were typically text based interfaces such as that found in MUDs.
After successfully escorting a caravan to the far off city of Yatar and having been paid very well, the party quickly revels in their newfound wealth and celebrate. When they return to their inn to rest, they awaken to a grim discovery: they've been robbed. All that they have had has been stolen save for some coins and spellbooks stashed beneath their pillows.
They quickly purchase new equipment to make up for their losses and run across a man in trouble in a corner of the town. Quickly dispatching the attacking bandits, the party befriends the man, named Krevish, who accompanies them on their journey in repayment of their deed. He also puts them in contact with a captain who alerts the group to a job that could pay well. An evil cleric needs to be taken care of and the party, out of luck and in need of coin, decide to do the job.
Journeying to the frontier city of Nesme which is currently living in the aftermath of a recent power struggle, the adventurers ply their trade by hunting trolls for bounty or in trying to stay out of the way of the barbarians that had helped to overthrow the previous rulers. They discover the hidden temple and slay the cleric who uses the last of his strength to burn several papers that are quickly recovered.
The papers outline a plot by Zhentil Keep, a city on the Moonsea and a well-known harbor for evil, to conquer the Savage Frontier. The cleric, a member of the Temple of Bane, would normally be on their side. But the Temple fears that this plan will throw the balance of power between the city and themselves into chaos and had resolved to stop it before it could bear fruit. Clues tell the party that the man was to meet with a contact in Silverymoon.
Heading there, they discover that the town is in the midst of a festival celebrating the goddess, Mielikki, and find the person they are to contact. He tells them of a mage, Amanitas, only to discover that he has been kidnapped and has been taken to Everlund.
There, they discover a hidden dungeon where he is held and free him after a great battle. He lays out the Zhentarim plan for them and tells them of four statues that figure into their design. Telling them of a Kraken Outpost in Yartar, he directs them to return and deal with the evil organization there that has a stake in the plan.
They are tricked while exploring the city and dropped into the secret compound that they had been searching for. Vaalgamon, the Zhentarim general charged to oversee the plan, mocks them as they arrive and leaves the party for the Kraken's organization's thugs to take care of. The party proves more resourceful and manage to break through the trap, discovering more information in the process that leads them to cities along the Trackless Sea. Their first stop: Neverwinter.
At Neverwinter, they ready for the journey further north to Port Llast where they search a haunted ship and discover clues pointing to the port city of Luskan. They arrive just in time for the captains of the city to receive their tribute from the local sea captains. They are forced to fight their way through pirate crews and make their way to the Hosttower of Luskan where a mage, Brinshaar, helps them enter to retrieve the statuette they hold.
Brinshaar betrays them as they leave, but the party defeat him and continue on with the Company of the Brazen Pennant to the Island of Tuern. After many misadventures, they run afoul of the Kraken Society once again and fight through their headquarters there, seizing their statuette before they can put it on a ship and leave.
They return to Neverwinter and take advantage of its unique shops, especially that of the local blacksmith who forges the meteoric ore that they had discovered during their adventuers in Tuern into a powerful sword. They make their way to the city of Secomber, Amanitas' home, where he directs them though Loudwater and then to the dwarven city of Llorkh.
The party defeat the large band of Zhentarim at Loudwater who had hoped to ambush them and gain the alliance of a former Zhentarim Guard, Rishpal. Joining them, they head off to Llorkh.
At a shop where they resupply themselves at, they are suddenly dropped down a chute and into an arena. Rishpal has betrayed them and joins Vaalgamon who is present to watch the party die as sport. The party once again prove to be far more tenacious than their enemies give them credit for and escape, befriending a half-orc named Muthtur, and by fighting through the passages beneath Llorkh, discover the third statuette.
They return to Secomber and speak with Amanitas who directs them to the Star Mounts, a range of mountains. They make their way through the High Forest and help save a group of bird-like creatures called the aarakocra who inform them that they have seen a woman riding a dragon in the region. The aarakocra fly the group to her fortress and there, they fight the evil mage, Ceptienne, and take the fourth statue that she had held.
The party journeys through Sundabar where Vaalgamon attempts to stop them several methods ranging from illusions to attacks by monsters. Surviving his tricks, they make their way to the ancient city of Ascore.
In the distant past, the statuettes had once formed a powerful defensive measure to defend the city against monsters. Together and pointed at the four cardinal directions, they protected the city by causing any monster that approached it to grow weak, lethargic, and nauseous, making them easy to destroy by the defenders. Over time, monsters left the city alone. But the receding waters of the Narrow Sea had left the once mighty port as a part of the growing desert. Traders left along with its people, and in the end, the statuettes were ultimately taken away by the last to leave the city to its fate.
And now, the Zhentarim intend to use the combined power of the statues by placing them in Ascore and pointing them across the Trackless Sea. This would enable the Zhentarim to freely invade the Savage Frontier without having to worry about the monsters, allowing them to surprise their enemies and conquer the region.
It is at Ascore that the party faces the undead inhabitants of its former life as well as the forces arrayed against them by Vaalgamon who taunts them from within a maze of battles. But the party proves triumphant and by replacing the statues at the center of the city as they were meant to be, defeat the Zhentarim forces and escape back to Yartar as heroes.
Gateway to the Savage Frontier is Volume One of the Savage Frontier series. The same Gold Box engine that was created for Pool of Radiance continues to see use with few changes outside of an entirely different campaign than that of its predecessor.
As has become something of a convenient theme in the Gold Box series, the game starts the player's party off with the bare minimum of money with which they must purchase equipment and supplies with despite the implication that they are seasoned adventurers. In other titles, such as Curse of the Azure Bonds, this was used as a mechanic to balance imported characters against the starting challenges of the game.
A vault is provided in the cities of Yartar, Silverymoon, and Neverwinter for the players to store extra equipment. A special "card" that allows them to deposit items remotely to any of these vaults is also given to the party later in the adventure.
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.
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. This is a standard set provided across all of the Gold Box titles as well as titles such as Hillsfar.
Players can also select what kind of sex their character is which has no effect on their abilities, only in their appearance for the character portrait.
The races did not undergo any significant changes and had been presented in the same way as before in Pool of Radiance:
- 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 spread 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 alignment system remains unchanged from its previous implementation in Pool of Radiance:
- 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.
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 - Powerful spellcasters are always welcome in any party. They start out weak and remain physically fragile throughout their careers, but the powers they command at higher levels can rend parties of monsters apart in the blink of an eye. Nothing like a little human-sized artillery to bring onto a battlefield.
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.
There is no Overworld map in this game, but New Verdigris has a number of locations that the players will find useful as they explore the valley:
- Inns - These provide a safe place to rest although it will cost some coin.
- Shops - A variety of supplies such as armor, healing salves, and nearly anything else that the party may need can be purchased here. Inventory changes from time to time.
- Temple - Where healing and resurrections can take place if the party has enough coin to donate. Resurrections are particularly expensive.
- Bar - Visiting one of these allows the player to catch up on the latest news and gossip within an area
- Vault - The party can store extra equipment here as well as convert platinum coins into gems for the Well of Knowledge.
One large change to the game is the implementation of a wilderness travel mode. In this mode, when the player leaves a city or other suitably civilized area, a large overland map is displayed and the player can guide their progress using it. Random encounters were generated and tactical combat ensued.
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.