It all started as an innocent computer game purchase from Babbage’s in 1993. It has grown into a monster that eludes me to this day.
I have what practically amounts to a wrecked semi’s worth of video games at my disposal, and none of them have achieved White Whale status quite like Pools of Darkness. It’s the fourth and final game in Strategic Simulations, Inc.’s original “Gold Box” series of Dungeons and Dragons PC games, preceded by Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and Secret of the Silver Blades. I’ve beaten all three of those games. Multiple times. Not Pools of Darkness.
I’ve tried to best this game again and again, only to be stymied at each attempt. I’ve gotten stuck on puzzles and in labyrinths, played myself into unwinnable scenarios by saving deep in a dungeon without the resources necessary to get back out (and without backup saves from earlier in the game), and rage-quit at the difficulty of some of the tougher battles. I’ve fared poorly. I’ve really only come close to beating it one time, and even then, I had a sizable chunk of game in front of me. It’s difficult and quite lengthy, as well—a true test of endurance and a test of will to not cheat or play the game like a jerk.
I can’t take it anymore. 26 years. I bought this thing at Babbage’s when West Park Mall still had a fountain in the middle. It was an extravagant time, let me tell you. Now, 26 years later, West Mark Mall is a decrepit husk of its former glory, and Pools of Darkness is the game I’ve had the longest without ever finishing. It’s driving me nuts.
I have to beat it, once and for all. I’m so dedicated to putting this game in its place that I’ve decided to journal my adventure for both posterity, as well as that extra level of accountability to make sure I see it through to the end. Not only that, but I feel like these games are really good, but lost to time, so maybe I’m also doing my part to help preserve them. I also need writing practice, and since I can’t seem to prioritize writing above video games, I’m going to start journaling about the games I play. Take that, responsibility!
My Stalwart Party of Adventurers
One of the great, unique things about the Gold Box games is that you can transfer your characters from one game to the next as you finish them, so I’ve been through a lot of adventures with these guys and gals. They’ve been one of my more memorable parties. I had to rebuild them for Curse of the Azure Bonds, as my Pool of Radiance save files were apparently lost in the ether (actually, my old PC crashed, which just doesn’t sound as cool), but that gave me an opportunity to convert my two fighters to a paladin and a ranger (two classes not available in Pool of Radiance). Growing up, I always wanted pure fighters, but I find them kind of boring in my old age, with paladins and rangers being more versatile and nuanced, at the minor cost of the raw fighting prowess of a warrior. Anyway, here they are, including weird, slightly creepy, faceless sketches in the style of their sprites in the game!
James Soulblade – Human Paladin, Lawful Good. The no-nonsense, goody-two-shoes leader of the team. Main frontline fighter. Was originally my crafting character from Ultima Online, but got sucked into the Forgotten Realms via interdimensional vortex (it happens to him all the time, and he’s really sick of it) and learned how to fight trying to find a way home. Hates the undead, has had some bad experiences with them.
Veda Renaud – Human Ranger, Chaotic Good. Another frontline fighter in her element in the outdoors. Good with a bow or a sword, and has a penchant for bringing down giants and their destructive habits. She’s highly protective of the natural world and gets pretty intimidating about the whole thing. Definitely don’t throw your gum wrapper on the ground around her.
Scholtz II – Human Fighter-turned-Thief, Neutral Good. Diminutive, but delightful rogue. He’s not the first Scholtz, but has all the memories and experiences of the Scholtz (or Scholtzes?) that preceded him. Might be a Dread Pirate Roberts situation.
Vincent Morris – Human Cleric, Neutral Good. The spiritual leader of the party, Vincent was a clergyman who wanted to reclaim the temple in ruined Phlan, but found greater purpose after aligning himself with the party and wanted to do as much as he could to help in the fight against the darkness. He could also tell that this party of adventurers, most of whom were driven by things like revenge or being trapped in a world not their own, really needed a positive force in their lives, so he stuck around.
Sonia Graves – Human Mage, Chaotic Good. Prone to wild experiments and reckless spellcasting, she is pale and gaunt from the ravages of her own magic. Her master or family or somebody was killed by Zhentarim mercenaries, so she is out for their blood, their allies’ blood, and their allies’ allies’ allies’ blood. She also knits. Occasionally.
The Librarian – Human Mage, Neutral Good. Just a librarian who knew a little magic who found himself enjoying a pint in the right tavern at the right time, and ended up on the same side of a barfight as the party—the truest of bonding experiences. He’s never offered his real name, but knows a lot about everything else! Is he more than he is letting on?
You’ll notice all of my characters are of good alignment. Yeah, it’s kind of boring, but I play good guys in video games. It’s just who I am.
The Story So Far: Having completed the first three games in the series, my six hearty adventurers have already rid the city of Phlan of the evil Tyranthraxus and his infestation of monsters, defeated Tyranthraxus again in the ruins of Myth Drannor (along with an alliance of villainous organizations who tried to take over our lives with a series of magical bonds), and freed the mining town of New Verdigris from the evil legions of Eldamar the Dreadlord and the giant glacier imprisoning them. Now, ten years since my party’s adventures began, we’ve returned to the reclaimed and rebuilt city of Phlan to see how things are going and maybe pick up some work while we’re in town.
Before We Get Started, a Bunch of Technical Babble About Character Race/Class That Only Weirdos Like Me Will Care About
My first act in the game was to say goodbye to my party’s original dwarf fighter/thief, Scholtz I. Unless you’re super good at this game (which I apparently am not, judging by all the trouble I’ve had playing it), it’s extremely difficult to get to the end with non-humans in the party. Sounds pretty racist, huh? The problem is that the non-human races (Elves, Half-Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Halflings) all suffer from level caps that are too low for all classes other than thief, so they can’t level up enough in the classes they need to be powerful enough to face the horrors found much later in the game. I assume these restrictions were sorted out in later editions of D&D, but since we’re stuck with a combination of first and second-edition rules in this game (I think), I’m sticking with humans to make the best party I can. I’m gonna need it.
All that being said, I recreated Scholtz as a human fighter, whom I then class-changed to a thief. Class change involves the character losing their first class to learn a new one. However, once their level in the new class surpasses the level of their old class, they get back all the abilities of the old class. In other words, since Scholtz II started as a level 14 fighter, once he hits level 15 as a thief, he will regain all his fighter abilities (using a shield and heavy armor, using bows, two attacks per turn, etc.), and can then continue to earn new levels as a thief. He will be a level 14/X fighter/thief, as opposed to the level 9/X fighter/thief he would have been as a dwarf. Five levels doesn’t seem like much, but like I said, I need all the help I can get in this game. I’ve never used the class change feature before, so if it goes well, I may experiment with some of the other characters later on, like potentially turning my mages into mage/rangers. We’ll see.
Get on With it!
Okay, I’m getting there! The party arrived in Phlan via boat, and Rolf, the harbormaster (and a guy we met in Pool of Radiance), gave us a brief tour of the rehabilitated city. He left us to wander on our own, so we hit the training hall to change Scholtz’s class from stiff fighter to dextrous thief (at which point we could all feel him become much more at ease), engaged in a barfight with some ettins for old times’ sake, then slipped into an inn to memorize spells and tweak inventory. Then it was off to the city council to accept a mission from Council Member Sasha, who was the town clerk back in Pool of Radiance and whom we rescued from a couple of perilous situations in Curse of the Azure Bonds and Secret of the Silver Blades. We agreed to escort her to the plains of Thar, where she would be inspecting the city’s forces in that region.
However, before we could get underway, storm clouds enveloped the sky from horizon to horizon, and a booming voice, identifying itself as the evil god Bane, claimed the land as its own. A giant ghost hand swooped in and scooped up the entire city of Phlan, leaving our pants collectively soiled and a massive crater in the ground, which the neighboring Moonsea was more than happy to fill.
Suddenly, a gateway appeared before the party, and we were overcome with a sensation of lightness and sucked into it (giving James unsettling flashbacks, I’m sure). We found ourselves in Limbo and at the counsel of Elminster, a famous sage from someplace south of here, I think. He explained that Bane is using these gateways, the titular Pools of Darkness, to move his forces between the Realms and various other dimensions. It turns out our party has done such a good job of besting all of his minions and thwarting all of his plans over the last three games that Bane has decided to simply take the fight to us and the Realms, himself. The well-intentioned cities have all been destroyed, the sun has been blotted out, and evil forces are gathering under the command of Bane’s lieutenants—Gothmenes, Tenetal, and Kalistes. I guess we really made him mad. Now we find ourselves in a position of not only needing to free the entire Moonsea region (and maybe all of the Realms?) from an evil god, but we also have to shoulder the guilt that we are at least in part responsible for this whole mess by narfling Bane’s garthok on three separate occasions.
So, Elminster instructed us to ferret out and eliminate Tenetal and Kalistes (not to mention Thorne, an enormous red dragon and fourth lieutenant that Bane apparently didn’t care enough about to mention), gather up the three key items they possess, and take the fight to Bane and his final lieutenant, Gothmenes, on their home turf. No problem, right? Well, we’ll see about that…next time!
Want to play Pools of Darkness yourself? Get it and the rest of the Gold Box games on GOG.com! I’m not even being paid to tell you this!