Monday, February 3, 2014

"Pool of Radiance", 1988.

All right gang, after the initial burst of "it's January! The 40th anniversary of D&D is this month!" posts from people, the trail went cold... until the closing days of the month, when people began piping up again: "Waitasec, we got the year and the month, but does anyone know the date of the anniversary?" I knew my opportunity to resume this golden thread of posts was at hand, after a disrupted month of moving house and internetlessness (that's... quite a word), but despite fragmentarily preparing a dozen posts, only now -- in early February -- am I in a position to begin posting them. The month after D&D's 40th anniversary. But I have all these D&D-related game ads to share! What am I supposed to do, wait for its 50th anniversary? Well, maybe. I will share at least a few more of them... there's just so much other interesting and worthwhile material that's been waiting ever so patiently in the queue (admittedly it's difficult for an ad scan to demonstrate impatience). We'll see. In the meantime, go grab a character sheet and your 20-sided die!
Prepare for the ultimate fantasy when the first official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Game Product comes alive on your computer!
SSI proudly presents POOL OF RADIANCE, the culmination of its collaboration with TSR to bring the legendary ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS fantasy role-playing system to your home computer.

POOL OF RADIANCE is set in the huge, complex world of the Forgotten Realms. Its game system adheres faithfully to AD&D standards. Its state-of-art graphics push the very limits of the computer's capabilities.
The only way to believe it is to experience it for yourself -- wherever game software is sold.
Look for the entire line of AD&D computer products coming soon from SSI.
[screenshot]
Roll up your characters and see their portraits and characteristics. (C-64/128 screen display.)
[screenshot]
Every single monster type is individually drawn by superb computer graphics. (IBM PC screen display.)

This ad is very proud of itself (first scan provided by World 1-1 at Extralives) and there is a later variation on it, which needlessly reformats much of the text while mixing up the screen shots a bit, as well as promoting a new and complete platform line (from a mere roster of the PC and C64 with Apple "in the works" to those two plus Apple 2, Mac and Atari ST... and now, AMIGA!), plus hypes its follow-up: "Curse of the Azure Bonds (sequel to Pool of Radiance)" -- apparently dropping the Apple 2 and C64 in what could be described as a period of rapid market reorganization.
So, where to begin? "First official AD&D Game"? So we're just pretending that the Intellivision business never happened at all, then? "Well, that wasn't a Game Product... it was a Cartridge." (And just how does a Game Product differ from a Game? Is this TSR still wanting to ensure that no one got mixed up and thought that the entire AD&D system had been computerized, rather just one module or adventure? You think this formal descriptor is clunky, wait for Curse!)

"[T]he culmination of its collaboration with TSR" ... meaning that, what, of its three initial licensed products, this, Heroes of the Lance, and the Dungeon Masters Assistant utility, they were proudest of this? You can't start off a relationship with a culmination! Well, you can, but doing so isn't usually a great sign...

"[S]et in the huge, complex world of the Forgotten Realms" -- and yet eschewing much of that complexity by, over and over again, choosing to set the computer games in relatively "here be dragons" underexplored blank areas on the map, so as not to run into conflict with existing published canon. That's what the Moonsea signifies, as much as Neverwinter -- though admittedly that latter much be less uncharted territory the third time around. (But then they tied in these games with contemporary novel and module products, so they instantly became shackled with new canon. Or is that instead "instantly became legitimized by supporting published materials"?)

"[A]dheres faithfully to AD&D standards." What The CRPG Addict has discovered is that by making minor tweaks to the tactical combat systems they introduced in their Questron and Phantasie computer game series, they yielded a very satisfying engine for AD&D tactical combat -- one that basically goes years without being topped, even by Pool's own sequels. But that emphasis, more Chainmail than D&D, resulted in more roll-playing than role-playing. These Gold Box games (as they would come to be known -- the other evolutionary dead-end experiments of SSI's licensing forays had different box margin colours, as with the silver-tinted game boxes for their two Dragonlance action-adventures... but nobody, and I mean nobody, refers to those as the Silver Box games. Really, nobody refers to them at all. We wouldn't be seeing a good run of new box-colours until the Eye of the Beholder games, about which more said later) boasted some open world sandboxiness by featuring hub areas and different wings to be completed in a sequence of the player's choosing, but typically there was an optimal sequence (take on the wrong dungeon and you'll find your party drastically underpowered and unable to succeed) but typically there weren't multiple solutions to problems. What this engine adheres to most faithfully is running a red-hot spreadsheet under the hood, automatically keeping track on all kinds of tedious numerical details that would bog down (were they not entirely ignored) a tabletop campaign -- boring simulationist numbers such as encumbrance, range, line-of-sight, conversions between a half-dozen redundant forms of coinage, and shops offering a super-redundantly complete array of indistinguishable pole arms for sale, for the player who insists on using a glaive rather than a guisarme. Here at last was the DM who would never throw up his hands at the hopelessly detail-obsessed player, intoning "FFS..."

"[S]tate-of-the-art graphics push the very limits of the computer's capabilities" -- while they were nice enough by 1988 standards, any game engine with the Apple 2 as its lowest common denominator would have a hard time staying on the bleeding edge. (It was handy, however, for running the games on the Hercules monochrome graphics card on my household's PC.) Compounding this overstatement, SSI continued using the engine until it had well overstayed its welcome ... by the end of its run in '93 (was it only five years?) with FRUA, in the wake of D&D-licensed developments such as Eye of the Beholder or Darksun, it would be pretty much unthinkable to imagine that the ... let's be frank: adequate and sufficient, but no further... Gold Box presentation had ever been described as state-of-the-art. Even the TRS-80 and Apple 2 eventually worked out how to used mixed-case text, but the Gold Box games were YELLING AT THE PLAYER IN THE SAME YE OLDE TRASHY FAUX-MEDIEVAL TYPEFACE TO THE VERY END. (Barring a brief excursion to YELLING AT PLAYERS IN A CHEESY SCI-FI FONT IN THE BUCK ROGERS GAMES.)

Back to the hopelessly detail-obsessed player, here's my parting 2 cents: it's been a very long time since I read any AD&D novels (a chapter in my life that I would be very surprised to find revisited... the last D&D novel I read was a game called Planescape: Torment. Hey, actually that game does have a novelization, and I own it -- but have not read it!) but I have a very vague recollection of an inconsistency rendered in the cover art -- and then enshrined in follow-ups like another ad you will see, as well as the cover to the POR novel's direct sequel, Pool of Darkness (but not, as you will see, the POD game. It's a tangled web.) In AD&D there are class conduct limitations, meaning that for example a cleric cannot use edged weapons, or that a mage cannot wear armour heavier than leather. (They can, but in so doing they lose the ability to make the most of their class' specialty powers like casting spells.) My very distinct memory is that the warrior character depicted in this artwork is an impossible amalgam of the novel's main male characters -- something like boasting the hair colour and magical yellow gloves of one character, but captured here wielding the arms and armour of an entirely differently-classed character. It's the kind of cognitive dissonance nerds experience when shown a photograph of Spock with the caption "Use the Force, Luke."