Pool of Radiance was the first time a computer game officially tried to adapt the AD&D rules into a video-game playable form. It is a great game and hugely influential on later games. In fact, I would say it is the Baldur's Gate of the 1980s. It uses the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules and adheres to them pretty strictly. However, for a player brought up on more modern RPGs, Pool has some odd features hearkening back to a time when AD&D was more suited for the tabletop than the desktop. Let me talk about some of the AD&D features in this game and the series of games it spawned :
Trying to keep track of your wealth is a real doozy when you have five different types of coins. It makes you feel like you have traveled back in time to the United Kingdom pre-decimalization (240 pennies = 20 shillings = 1 pound, let's not get started on farthings, groats, crowns, marks and guineas). AD&D is slightly less cumbersome, with 200 copper pieces = 20 silver pieces = 2 electrum pieces = 1 gold pieces = 1/5 platinum pieces. Considering that 1,000 copper pieces = 5 gold pieces, you will want to find a way to exchange currency quickly. Fortunately you can do so in the shops. Pool all of your various currencies together on one character and buy something cheap like 10 arrows. You should see only Platinum and maybe some Gold for change in your inventory thereafter.
Encumbrance in coins
Instead of an intuitive system like pounds, AD&D 1st edition uses coins to note encumbrance. The idea is that 10 gold pieces (or any type of money piece) = 1 pound. The amount of encumbrance will slow down your character in combat. Without any strength modifier, less than or equal to 350gp = 12 squares, 700gp = 9 squares, 1050 gp = 6 squares and anything over 1050 gp and you are down to 3 squares of movement a round. Consider that a suit of plate mail weighs 450gp and the game treats copper pieces like gold pieces for weight and you are starting to look at some hard choices.
Strength limits for female characters
Do not play a female fighter/ranger/paladin in a Gold Box game. Even though the sex limit would soon become unfashionable in 2nd AD&D and just about every RPG thereafter, they kept it for the whole of the Gold Box series. There is no balancing rule benefit to playing a female character in AD&D 1st Edition.
All nine alignments of AD&D are here, but the selection is almost useless. Only if a magical weapon is limited to a certain alignment or one of the two axes (lawful-neutral-chaos and good-neutral-evil) does it really have an effect on the game.
These games will throw a lot of coin at you, but it has ways of reclaiming quite a bit of it. Training costs 1,000gp every time you wish to level up and is required to achieve the benefits of a new level. Note that you cannot acquire more than the experience to put you over a second level until you train up.
Identifying items costs 200gp and you pretty much have to figure out which items are magical based on clues like unusual items in a monster hoard or a large selling price. Of course you can always expect items like Rings and Bracers to be magical. Healing gets expensive at the temples and silver items are also not cheap. However, the taverns offer a simple game of chance to help you out in a short money situation and you have an equal chance of doubling your money as you have to lose it. Save and reload as necessary, the game will not punish you for it as in Baldur's Gate.
Class and level limits
In Pool, fighters can advance to level 8, clerics and magic users to level 6 and thieves to level 9. (Why didn't they just name fighters, magic-users and clerics as warriors, wizards and priests. "Magic-user" just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? "Cleric" is just a fancy title for a "priest" and "warrior" is far more evocative than the bland, generic term "fighter".) In Pool, the only demihuman level limit you will hit is the half-elf cleric, who is limited to level 5.
Multi-classing may be a good option for a run through Pool, but your characters will start to feel underpowered if you transfer them to Curse of the Azure Bonds. However, unless you have the patience of a saint, you should try to level up as quickly as possible to get your THAC0 down. You will miss a lot early in the game, and having a high strength or dexterity combined with a low THAC0 score helps, so you need to level up.
In Curse you will hit the level limits for almost every class/demihuman combination, but high strength or intelligence will allow you to increase the level limits you can obtain as fighter, ranger or magic-user. If you import characters to Secret of the Silver Blades, the level limit will seriously start to crimp your style and Pools of Darkness will be a very dark experience indeed.
It seems silly now that no other demihuman other than a half-elf can be a ranger or a cleric, none of them can be a paladin and only elves and half-elves can be a magic-user. Well, in AD&D 1st Edition, the Player's Handbook acknowledges some additional priestly combinations, but not for player characters. Because the Gold Box series did not implement specialist mages, there are no such things as Gnome Illusionists here.
While Elves and Halflings get a +1 to Dexterity and Dwarves get a +1 to Constitution, it does not seem to have any real benefit unless you do not adjust your scores. Nor does raising an ability score to 19 or higher in the Pool series (except for health regeneration, see below).
Four basic character classes
In Pool, you can be a Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric or Thief. Curse, added Rangers and Paladins to the available character classes. It did not add Druids, Assassins, Monks or Bards. Nor did it include the additional classes like the Cavalier, Barbarian or the Thief-Acrobat found in Unearthed Arcana. Nor are Half-Orcs a selectable race and they did not add the subrace choices in the Player's Handbook (halflings) or Unearthed Arcana. In this sense, the game is closer to the 2nd Edition of the Rules, which did not include most of these options within its basic rules. Multi-classing is here from the beginning, Curse added Dual-Classing.
Half-elves have the most multi-classing choices, they can be cleric/fighters, cleric/fighter/magic-users, cleric/magic-users, fighter/magic-users, fighter/thieves, fighter/thief/magic-users and magic-user/thieves. Elves get all those combinations except the cleric combinations, but dwarves, gnomes and halflings only get the fighter/thief option.
Thieves have a wide array of abilities in AD&D, but the the game engine limits them to picking locks, disarming traps and backstabbing. Mages have four spells in the spell book when they begin the game, one of which is the all-powerful sleep spell and acquire one new spell per level.
One particularly annoying feature is the THAC0 improvement. Simply put, no character is guaranteed to see a THAC0 improvement upon gaining a level or two or three or even four. Fighters get an improvement every two levels, clerics every three levels, thieves every four levels and magic-users every five levels. 2nd Edition AD&D had a much better progression rate for most classes, especially fighters who get a one point improvement every level.
Pool comes with a Rule Book, an Adventurer's Journal, a Quick Start Guide and a Codewheel. The documentation of the actual AD&D 1st Edition rules is rather lacking in Pool's documentation. The Rule Book contains character race limit and maximum class level by race table. The Adventurer's Journal contains the money conversion formulas, the spell list, the armor list, the experience tables, the undead turning level requirements, weapons and armor permitted by class and the weapons list.
If you wanted attack and saving throw tables, hit die tables, thief ability and turn undead tables, starting money tables or weapon weights, you had to look to the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide.
Curse's Rule Book contains Pool's tables, updated as need be for higher levels. It also expands the maximum class level by race table to give higher level limits for high prime requisite scores. If you want to know the bonus spells clerics get for high wisdom, the table is here, but that is the only major addition. Curse's experience tables now include the useless level titles.
Secret's Adventurer's Journal gives racial ability score modifiers, the ability adjustments for strength, dexterity and constitution (finally!), fighter/paladin/ranger number of attacks per round, and a spell parameters list. Pools' Adventurer's Journal adds no tables.
Variations from the official rules
In Pool, clerics cannot use slings and thieves cannot use short bows. This is correct according to AD&D 1st Edition rules. Curse allows thieves to use short bows and clerics to use staff slings. Pools allows thieves to wear "elfin" chain mail. This is allowed by Unearthed Arcana.
Pool uses the rules for zero hit points as given in the Dungeon Master's Guide, (death is not instantaneous at 0 HP but you can go to -10HP before true death) but does not have a recovery time.
Weapons and armor that come and go
Armor types available in Pool are Leather, Padded, Studded, Ring, Scale, Chain, Splint, Banded and Plate. In Secret, they simplified the armor by removing Padded, Studded and Splint. Pools added them back and put in Elfin Chain Mail as well.
Weapons in Pool number 46. Curse has the same number, but Secret reduces it to 25. Pools ups the figure to 29. It has been commented that Gary Gygax had quite the fascination with medieval polearms and included every one he could find in AD&D 1st Edition. For the first games, if it was in the Player's Handbook, you would almost certainly find it in Pool. However, if you are looking for a +2 Glaive or Cursed Voulge-Guisarme of Berzerking, you are not going to find one in either Pool or Curse.
In addition to the never-ending variety of polearms, which appear to be completely absent as magical weapons, the other shops sell items that have little to no value in the game. You do not need a holy symbol to Turn Undead. Silver armor serves no obvious point, and silver weapons appear to have very limited capabilities (Wights are the only monsters you should face regularly that could require silver, but you should have magical items by that time.) The jewelry serves no point except as a way to convert heavy coin to a light item you can later sell if you need it. As there is no bank in this game, you will not be able to keep as much coin as you find. You will also find items in treasure hoards that look like they serve some purpose, but usually do not.
At one point during the game, you will find a Manual of Bodily Health. If you use it on a dwarf character with 19 Constitution, his number will not be raised, but he will gain a regeneration ability to restore his health. This makes healing a lot faster for this character, by the time you finish resting to regain your spells, he will likely be fully healed. Note that if your characters die and have to be resurrected through a raise dead spell, you will lose 1 point of Constitution.
Peculiarities of the IBM PC version
In Pool and Curse, all interaction is done by the keyboard IBM PC version. In Pool, you usually use the Home and End keys to select your characters or your items, but sometimes you can use the arrow keys. The Page Up and Page Down keys can usually be used to cycle through a multi-screen menu like the one presented at the weapons/armor shops. It can be a bit confusing, but using the numeric keypad may be a more intuitive option. Using the numeric keypad is utterly necessary to move in combat, the cardinal four directions are insufficient for the isometric views of the combat screens. Later games rely more on the arrow keys to select menu items.
While the joystick was an option of the Commodore 64 and Apple II versions and mouse support was in Pool's Macintosh and Commodore Amiga versions, those control options would only start to be included as of IBM PC's Secret. Oddly enough, the Demo option found in the Commodore 64 and Apple II versions and in the PC version of every game following is missing for IBM PC Pool.
Some of the IBM PC versions of Pool do support Tandy music on their title screens just like every other version of the game except the Apple II version. Unfortunately their music driver was not very good, leading to an odd tone played early in the main track. Also, the music will never finish on the title screen for Pool regardless of how slow your Tandy is. Weirdly, the music also plays when you start a battle in Pool. It does not play music at this point in the Commodore 64 original.
Eventually they got rid of the music, at least as of version 1.2 and 1.3 (which are indicated on the credits screen, earlier versions do not indicate the version number there). The version numbering of Pool is not generally well known due to the lack of version number display. However, there are versions with a START.EXE of 10-26-88 and 12-12-88 according to an old crack .nfo file. I would suggest that these are v1.0 and v1.1, respectively. My copy has a START.EXE of 12-12-88 and does not display a version number but does play music.
Curse is similar except there was also music for the PC Speaker. It always displays a version number and 1.0-1.3 exist. Music was removed as of 1.3 and similar to Pool you could never hear the full theme.
If you want the versions with the music, look for the original retail box versions. Avoid slash releases or any compilation release, especially the ones that come on CD-ROM. I would concentrate on 5.25" double density disks if you really want to maximize your chances.
Between the two 16 color graphic drivers, the Tandy driver is far more speedy to load than the EGA driver. Interestingly, the background color in the combat screens is black for the Tandy but light gray for EGA. Curse's Tandy driver would also use light gray.
To avoid a "PUT SAVE DISK IN C:"or "INSERT DISK 3" error, make sure your directories are correct in your POOL.CFG file. Later games let you delete their .CFG file and let you re-enter the information (graphics and sound type, game save directory and prior game directory typically), but with Pool you must manually edit your file.
There is a lot of plain text in the START.EXE file, including all the copy protection words. Even though Pool's Translation Wheel gives 108 possible combinations (36 x 3), there are only 13 copy protection words While each word can be selected by three combinations of Espruar and Dethek runes, only one combination is ever used, and here is how the word and lines match up:
beware - - - - -
copper - - - - -
friend - - - - -
savior - - - - -
wyvern - - - - -
Unless some version added a check in its code, you could simply type in a single word replacement for all 13 copy protection words. Curse was trickier because it only required one letter or number, not a whole word. Each type of line has six characters, making the range of options far greater.