Classic Reviews – Revisiting of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds in 2017
Checking in on the original digital D&D classics ~
Avery Abernethy, 08 February 2017
The first computer adaptation of the Dungeons and Dragons game was Pool of Radiance released in 1988. The success of Pool of Radiance led SSI to release a series of D&D games often referred to as the “Gold Box” games. Almost thirty years has passed since their release, but they are still sold by www.gog.com in a package containing an additional six titles for $9.99. But are these games worth playing today on a modern computer?
Both Pool of Radiance (Pool) and Curse of the Azure Bonds (Curse) use the first edition D&D rules. These have some confusing conventions for gamers unfamiliar with the system. Armor class starts at 10 for someone with average dexterity wearing normal clothing. Plate Mail and Shield will get most characters to Armor Class 2. But add in magic items and your characters can have negative armor classes, up to -10. When you toss a fireball in this game you need to be able to assess the radius of effect, there is no convenient shadowed outline of the blast radius. Make a mistake and your front line fighters get singed. This will take a bit of refresher reading for someone who played D&D back in the 1980s. Players who never played tabletop D&D or the computer games based off that system will have to study the manual.
This is a very straight forward hack and slay. Your party goes out under orders to kill almost everything.
Pool of Radiance is a simple quest game. A city was almost overrun by monsters and evil humans. They are in a world of trouble. The city leaders come up with the bright idea of paying adventurers to sally forth and clear areas of the city from marauders and take care of problems outside of the city. Your party of adventurers gets a bounty for every cleared area and for accomplishing other missions. This is a very straight forward hack and slay. Your party goes out under orders to kill almost everything. Along the way you pick up loot, buy better equipment, and become more skilled. Money is really important in Pool of Radiance. Your party will be scrapping for every copper piece early on and only become flush by the last quarter of the game. Being able to buy better armor and weapons and discovering a magic item is a really big deal.
The game comes with the original Adventures Journal, The Rule Book, and the Clue Book. The clue book provides all of the maps and suggestions on how to build a successful party and fight effectively. I hate mapping and having the Clue Book just for the maps is a godsend. One really fun thing about the game is long dialogues, messages, discovered symbols, map fragments, etc…. are referred to by number in your Adventures Journal. This helps immersion into the game by engaging the players imagination.
Pool of Radiance plays quite well on a modern computer system. It should be playable on pretty much any Microsoft operating system including tablets. Very large battles can be a little slow to resolve. You need to save the game every time you go up a level to prevent a horrible roll giving you only one additional health point. The graphics are state of the art 1988.
What makes Pool of Radiance enjoyable today is the good story. You find out that the town’s troubles are being coordinated by a mysterious “Boss.” There are a bunch of rumors floating around. There are multiple evil factions working in a (sometimes) coordinated fashion to crush the last resistance in the City. You eventually find out that the big boss is “Mr. T” and your party has to go out and slay him in the final battle. The underlying story is gradually revealed as the players successfully wade through piles of slain foes and clear additional areas of the city. There is also backstabbing, using the players to take out other evil factions, other evil groups who have agendas of their own, and many other traditional game hooks. I got a real sense of accomplishment when Mr. T was vanquished.
Curse of the Azure Bonds allows you to import characters from Pool of Radiance. I did not import characters because my Pool characters were inefficient builds for Curse. Your characters all start out around 7th level if you generate new characters. Your party wakes up with mysterious tattooed symbols on their arms. Five groups have magically bound the party and can make them do some pretty horrible things. You have some money to buy basic equipment. The party has to figure out who put the whammy on them. When they find out, they need to destroy each group one by one to regain their freedom. Your party will kill a lot of monsters and pick up a ton of loot along the way.
The party has great motivation to hunt down each of these groups and snuff them out. It is a pretty common evil plot to make the do-gooders perform their evil tasks, but like any good comic book (or RPG adventure) the party can make these evil beings deeply regret their complex, nefarious schemes.
Curse of the Azure Bonds comes with an Adventurers Journal, Basic Rules, and the Hint Book. The Hint Book provides maps. Curse has an even better plot than Pool of Radiance. You really grow to hate the people who put the whammy on your party. Unfortunately, Curse has a couple of battles that are imbalanced. One combat with an evil drow fighter may take multiple reloads to win even if you use good tactics. Unfortunately, there is one long battle area infested with undead which can suck levels from your characters. Every D&D player hates level-sucking undead. Save frequently on that level.
You eventually figure out that you did not kill Mr. T in the climactic battle at the end of Pool of Radiance. Mr. T came back and you have to kill him again. Mr. T has more lives than the Joker from Batman.
Curse uses the Adventurers Guide to supply rumors, hints, plot devices, etc…. even better than Pool of Radiance. Curse also fixed the slowdown impacting large battles in the Pool of Radiance. However, Curse of the Azure Bonds has enemies which use poison, drain levels, and throw around a lot of lightning bolts. One bad saving throw and a character can die. But if you use good party management in combat reloads should be infrequent. But like Pool, you must save before leveling up to avoid getting next to no additional health points.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed replaying both of these games. I had not played either game in at least twenty years. Although the graphics are dated and I vaguely remembered the background story, both of these games were a lot of fun. Your party gets a lot of warning that the climactic battle with Mr. T is fast approaching in both Pool and Curse. I loaded up on so many bonus spells that the final battles were over pretty quickly. A hastened, blessed, enlarged high level fighter with giant strength can cut down most anything. Your magic users can usually blast away minor opponents to get your fighters a chance to whack Mr. T.
I would like to express my appreciation to the individuals who wrote the Dosbox software which enabled many of these original RPG games to be playable on a modern system. If you are going to Origins 2017, look me up and I’ll buy you a beer.
In conclusion, if you like D&D and can handle the late 1980s graphics, you get some great story lines with a $9.99 purchase from Gog.
Avery Abernethy is Professor of Marketing at Auburn University. He still has the original boxed sets of Fallout, Fallout 2, Baldurs Gate, Baldurs Gate 2 and Daggerfall on his shelf.
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