We had a lot more trouble with the fire giant mage’s cave than I was expecting, so I decided it was once again time to leave the Realms in undeniable peril and spend some time irresponsibly leveling up. Nevermind the clouds of dragons ready to descend and level everything in sight—we headed west for experience and mediocre loot.
Fortunately, we did some good along the way. We stumbled on a keep in the mountains that was under attack by ettins, ogres, and giants. We defeated the raiders and saved a woman and her children, but they were the only surviving residents by the time we got there.
From there, we ventured south to Zhentil Keep, home of the Zhentarim, which is a collective of mercenaries, from what I understand. In the center of the keep is the tower of Manshoon, leader of the Zhentarim, I presume. Remember that these were the dudes who killed somebody important to Sonia, so she spent our entire time there ready to level the entire keep, plus everything in a 5-mile radius. The rest of the party was able to talk her down, but her fingers crackled with destructive magic as she barely held her anger in check.
We arrived at the gate, where we were met by some Drow. Great. These guys, again. They were collecting entrance fees from everyone walking through the gate. Must be a KISS concert later tonight. We groveled our way past them because we’re cheap, we’re not going to the concert, anyway, and there’s no way we’re funding whatever evil operation they have going on here.
Inside the keep, we found more Drow, this time shoving an old man into a wagon. Sonia was ready to pop off at the tiniest indication of wrongdoing, and did so to the tune of a Delayed Blast Fireball down the throats of the abusive Drow.
Despite her pent up fury, the fireball was only marginally effective. One of the traits of the Drow that makes them such dangerous opponents is their innate resistance to magic, often rendering spells ineffective against them. We were able to mop up the remaining Drow without too much trouble, earning the old man’s thanks, and setting off all kinds of alarms throughout the keep.
As guards closed in on our location, we ducked into a building, where we were pulled aside by a figure whom asked us if we were loyal to Bane, and demanded that we be honest. We explained ourselves, and the man explained that the Drow were taking slaves and transporting them to their underground city below Zhentil Keep in the wagons. He was able to escape, but he also mentioned a halfling woman who stayed in the caverns to fight the Drow, and that we should find her. His last tip: the wagons enter Manshoon’s tower via a secret door to the north, and then are taken down to the underground city from there.
With our eyes opened to the injustices being served by the Drow within Zhentil Keep, we made a note to return here after our business with the dragons was concluded. And with that gathering cloud of dragons growing ever darker, we knew we couldn’t put off our next task any longer. Well, except for one brief stop at the hill giant steading at Dragonhorn Gap, where Sholtz II trained for his fifteenth level and regained his fighter abilities! As we braved the mountains to the north on our return trip to the dragon’s aerie, I had a feeling we would need them.
The aerie entrance opened into an arena, where we stumbled upon two dragons dueling each other. We lurked in the shadows and held our cloaks over our faces as though they were effective disguises while the dragons duked it out. Fortunately, nobody noticed how stupid we looked—all attention was paid to the battling wyrms. The winner was led away with praise and admiration, while the loser’s corpse was dragged off into the back somewhere. We were under the impression that the dragons were all aligned with one another, so what was the purpose of this duel? Maybe further exploration of the aerie would give us some answers.
Tunnels led out of the arena into four distinct dens, one each for Blue, White, Green, and Black dragons. We explored each one and, of course, found ourselves in our fair share of fights with each variety of beast (and claimed their robust hoards in victory). We also learned about the duels: a black wizard named Modthryth was coaxing the dragons into fighting each other for the honor of becoming Dracoliches. A Dracolich is an undead dragon that retains all of the powers and abilities it had in life, but is also freed from death and gains all the powers and abilities associated with being undead. It seems like a grisly fate to me, but some creatures value power above all else, and I guess a good number of dragons are into that sort of thing.
We cleared the dragon dens, and made our way back out into the arena, where we found a critically injured red dragon who had apparently just lost a duel. Given the options to shake down the dying dragon for information or give it an honorable death, we hastily chose the latter. We’ve no love for dragons, but also no desire to leave a creature to suffer.
Proceeding deeper into the aerie, we found a curious chamber full of dead dragon pieces. This Modthryth guy…I dunno. This really seems like a dude who’s up to no good. The Dracolich thing is already weird enough, now this? We burned the pieces and quickened our pace to track down Modthryth, feeling a strong need to eliminate him before he had a chance to do anything else dastardly or, quite frankly, really gross. We finally cornered him and forced him into a battle. He was accompanied by two Dracoliches, who are immune to most magic. We were in too close of quarters to use fireballs without decimating our own ranks, anyway, so we resorted to melee combat and magic missiles to wear down the Dracoliches. It was a brief, but intense fight, and let’s just say that, from now on, any surviving dragons in the vicinity will think twice about throwing their lives away to become Dracoliches.
Beyond our adversaries’ blackened remains stood a Pool of Darkness, presumably the gateway to Thorne’s domain. Everybody took a deep breath (except for James, who was pretty well used to this sort of thing by now) and plunged into the pool, where we joined Elminster at his makeshift camp in Limbo. He trained those of us who were ready to level up, and gave us a quick pep talk before seeing us off to our inevitable showdown with Thorne.
But first, an incredible error in judgment: I changed more character classes. I converted Veda to a mage and Sonia to a ranger, reversing their roles. Meanwhile, James and Vincent were still knee-deep in their conversions, and nowhere near regaining their original abilities. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it was probably something along the lines of, well, I’ve played THIS part of the game so many times that I really can’t screw it up. I class-changed with the best of intentions, believing I could level them up sufficiently before facing Thorne. I also didn’t want to wait too long to change classes in the event that we might get to the end of the game before the class-changed characters got their original class’s skills back. However, I got a little overconfident in my knowledge of the game and ran into some unexpected complications along the way. More on those shortly.
Also, if you’re curious and keeping track, The Librarian is the only party member who hasn’t changed classes, and I don’t intend to change him at this point. I need at least one full-powered mage in the party at all times, with a full repertoire of high-level, high-damage spells. By the time Sonia gets her mage powers back and Veda is of high enough level to be competent, it will be too late in the game to class change The Librarian. So, The Librarian will always be just that! A lowly librarian. Well, a librarian who can mess up a whole nest of dragons with a wrong look, but who’s keeping track?
Now, I would like to introduce you to one of the more annoying mechanics in Pools of Darkness: the party can’t bring their items with them to other dimensions. We could try, but it would be an extremely bad idea—traveling between dimensions destroys magical items, the only exceptions being Vorpal long swords (which I don’t have), and certain magical rings (but I don’t know which ones). Non-magical items will also survive interdimensional travel, but we have so much magical stuff stocked up from our adventures so far that we don’t even have the inventory space necessary to carry non-magical items. This handicap forces us to face the toughest parts of the game without our equipment. Instead, we must scrounge for the best mediocre arms and armor we can in the alternate dimensions before taking on Bane’s lieutenants. It does add significant challenge and some strategy to the game; I’ll give it that. It is, however, a bit disappointing that Vincent can’t stick the silver long sword +5 we fought really hard to obtain right into Thorne’s eye.
Fortunately, Elminster had a vault in Limbo where we could keep all of our good stuff so it wouldn’t disintegrate. As a kid, I had a tough time keeping track of which items belonged to which characters. But, they are listed in the vault in the same order they are put in, so I just started making a note of how many items each character was holding, and when the time came to retrieve items, if each character took their respective number of items, starting at the beginning of the list, they would get their proper equipment back.
So, all that being said, we’re going in barehanded and naked! You think you can handle us, Thorne?!
As we emerged from the other side of the portal in Thorne’s dimension, we were immediately met by a gathering force of dragons. Versus six humans in their undies. I don’t even know why the dragons bothered to show up—we barely won.
Beyond the dragons, we found a prison full of humanoids. We released them, including a rogue named Raizel. Serving as their de facto leader, she rallied the prisoners and pointed them in the direction of the portal back to the Realms, then joined the party to guide us through Thorne’s domain, as well as to a cache of meager equipment with which to arm ourselves and cover our shame.
However, Raizel didn’t stick with us for long. We wanted to make a quick trek back to Limbo so Elminster could train us again (Sonia and Veda were already due for a level up), but she wouldn’t have it. She was more concerned with tracking down Thorne’s hoard than sticking with us to fight it out with the great beast, so we parted ways. Even Scholtz II, a guy who has made at least two livings relieving hoarders of their valuable belongings, couldn’t convince her to stay. I get it—in reality, it’s part of the game’s programming that prevents us from taking Raizel on all kinds of crazy adventures around the Realms, but it was nevertheless disappointing that she left so soon.
Back in Thorne’s hideout, we won enough random encounters to gain a few more levels for Sonia and Veda, but then made a critical error. We ventured too deep into the lair, and we heard a loud blast from Thorne’s Horn of Doom, one of the items we needed to be able to survive in Bane’s land later in the game. The blast from the horn meant the dragons were about to initiate their attack on the Realms. When we tried returning to Limbo for another training session, a wall of dragons stood between us and the Pool. It would have been our six party members, underequipped and now underleveled, as well, facing twenty or more dragons. I didn’t think we could win, so we slowly crept away as the dragons were busy taking selfies using the hashtag #thegathering.
With our grinding opportunity halted, our only option was to plunge deeper into the lair and find Thorne before he could blow the horn three times, signalling the start of the attack. Many more cadres of dragons stood in our way, and during one of the battles, the horn sounded for the second time. Now things were getting pretty tense. Luckily, we soon found ourselves outside an enormous set of double-doors. This had to be the entrance to Thorne’s chambers. I saved the game, cast a number of buffing spells, and we charged in just as Thorne was about the blow the Horn of Doom for the third time. He berated us, as villains typically do, and reared up for battle!
It didn’t go well. Thorne and his red dragon entourage cooked us before we could get any significant offense in. Within just a couple of minutes, our party was wiped out. And that’s the end of Pools of Darkness!
No, wait. That’s not right. I saved the game just outside, remember? But, this was my first party wipe thus far. I needed to rethink my strategy. I tried a few new things, but was wiped out four or five more times. The dragons’ breath weapons and fireball spells were barbecuing us. We didn’t stand a chance! Had my overzealous class-changing put us in an unwinnable scenario?
Finally, I decided that I wasn’t casting enough buffing spells before the fight. I was casting Bless, Prayer, and Haste. But, I think that was it, and pre-battle buffing is something I have just never never done well or thoroughly. I gave my available spells a closer look, and entered my next attempt with the following buffing spells:
- Bless (hit% and damage bonus)
- Prayer (same)
- Enlarge (temporarily strengthens fighters in the party)
- Haste (more attacks per turn)
- Fire Shield (if mages get hit with a melee attack, their assailants take double damage in return)
- Fire Touch (attackers do extra fire damage, and red dragons are somehow not immune to fire so….)
- Resist Fire (exactly what it says)
- Mass Invisibility (makes entire party invisible)
- Globe of Invulnerability (nullifies spells of level 4 or under cast on mages)
The battle began again, and this time, I knew I had something going. The dragons’ fireballs and breath weapons were doing significantly less damage, and the Enlarge and Fire Touch spells were allowing my fighters to do significantly more damage. The Librarian’s Globe of Invulnerability was stopping any fireballs that came his way, and our mass invisibility was, for the most part, preventing the dragons from attacking us directly with their claws and fangs. Before long, the only remaining enemy was Thorne, who was immune to all of our magic attacks, so we had to chip away at him with our puny weapons. Thorne’s 110 hitpoints and incredibly good armor class made it a long fight. Also, Thorne is the largest enemy in the game, so his size alone added to the stress and horror of facing him.
After plentiful chipping, somebody must have knocked off the right scale, as the next blow dropped Thorne like a sack of red potatoes. The first of Bane’s lieutenants was down, and the Horn of Doom was ours! The spirit of a Ki-Rin visited us and informed us the Horn used to be on his head, but that he felt good knowing it was now in our possession. Must be kind of weird for him.
We returned to Limbo and an elated Elminster, who informed us that with the horn freed from Thorne, the storms plaguing the Realms should cease, and that the horn was our ticket in to Gothmenes’s palace in Bane’s land. We trained, reclaimed our items from the vault, and rested while we could. Zhentil Keep awaited.
Want to play Pools of Darkness yourself? Get it and the rest of the Gold Box games on GOG.com! No, I’m still not being paid to tell you this.