Pool of Radiance: Storytelling

I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about this game, but it’s not all bad. It handles the story progression pretty well, especially in contrast to my last two games. Wizardry was pretty much a pure context-irrelevant dungeon crawl with occasional elements that hinted at a story somewhere in the author’s mind. Might and Magic had a more thoroughly-developed environment, but pretty much left discoveries up to the player. PoR exerts authorial control.

It does this chiefly through the author’s representative in the gameworld, the Council Clerk who offers you missions. There seem to generally be two missions available at a time, in addition to an ongoing reward offered for documents relating to the town’s history. Some of the missions are as simple as “Clear the monsters out of the indicated area”, others have story built in. For example, there’s one mission to stop someone from auctioning a powerful weapon to the monsters. When you get to the area where the auction is to take place, you have a choice: stride boldly forward, sneak around unobserved, or disguise your party as monsters. The latter two options allow you to overhear monster conversations, as they wonder if “the Boss” is going to place a bid, or gossip about how the ogres that had taken up residence in the castle got kicked out by giants.

Even the apparently simple missions can suddenly take a turn for the plotty. On a mission to a haunted keep, I unexpectedly found that the central chamber is guarded by a small army of orcs and hobgoblins — the toughest fight I’d found yet at the time. Before I finally beat them, I had to return multiple times, always wondering what was in that room that the mysterious “Boss” needed to guard so badly. Ultimately, it turned out to be nothing at all. After victory, I found a note — one of those look-it-up-in-the-manual journal entries — giving the guards their orders: they had been sent there specifically to prevent me from telling the Council that the keep was abandoned. It also specifically mentioned that they have spies among the settlers, which ties in with some things that a fortune teller in the slums said, about finding enemies where friends are expected.

There’s nothing really groundbreaking about any of this — or at least, not today. Remember, this was released in 1988, the year of the year of Ultima V and Final Fantasy II — a time when CRPGs in general were really just beginning to experiment with narrative techniques. In that context, it’s probably a bit ahead of the pack. And that’s probably attributable to what I’ve been saying all along: that this game, more than a typical CRPG, is designed like a D&D module.

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