Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Pool of Radiance

Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Pool of Radiance

No running at the Pool of Radiance. No rough-housing. No diving. Adventurers should not enter the Pool of Radiance alone, as it is guarded by a bronze dragon possessed by the evil spirit Tyranthraxus. Children should not enter the Pool area either, no matter how many adults are accompanying, because you will all be eaten. And, above all, don’t pee in the Pool — Tyranthraxus just hates that.

This is not the plot of Pool of Radiance, the 1989 novelization of the best-selling 1988 PC game of the same name, and the subject of this instalment of Dungeons & Dragons & Novels. The book’s plot, as D&D publisher’s own magazine Dragon states, is as follows: “Five companions find themselves in the unenviable position of defending the soon-to-be ghost town against a rival possessing incredible power.” This is also completely wrong, so let me be the one to clear it up: A female wizard named Shal, a war-priest named Tarl, and a ranger/thief named Ren join forces at the town of Phlan, which used to be a much bigger city before it was overrun by various monsters, who all helpfully separated it into distinct sections/adventures for the trio to explore and conquer.

I never played the PC game, but as far as I can tell, the premise is exactly the same. In the game, the player controls their own party of adventurers as they’re assigned to clear monsters out of the various, monster-filled sections of Phlan, including their inevitable boss villains. The heroes are initially assigned these missions by Phlan city councilman Porphyrus Cadorna, but somewhere along the way, the player/party discovers Cadorna and Tyranthraxus are in cahoots together for some reason, and attempt to defeat the devious duo. The title refers to the glowy — well, radiant pool Tyranthraxus hangs out around at the bottom of his lair that gives him power. (Sometimes.)

That tracks with the books, although Shal, Tarl, and Ren were created exclusively for the novel. They also only go to a few of the various game areas — Sokol Keep, Denlor’s Tower, and Sorcerer’s Island — before taking on the Cadorna and Tyranthraxus. In what I assume is also a deviation from the game, two-thirds of the books’ protagonists are. While Ren is fine, in the chapter Tarl is introduced and formally inducted as a cleric of Tyr (god of law and justice in the Forgotten Realms), Tarl immediately throws away the immensely powerful artefact the Hammer of Tyr when some zombies and a vampire roll up to slaughter his sect. Shal is worse; when her wizard master Ranthor is killed in Phlan under mysterious circumstances, she inherits: 1) A Coat of Many Pockets, which basically contains anything she or the plot needs; 2) A Wand of Wonder, which basically can do anything she or the plot needs; and 3) A Ring of Wishes, which unequivocally can… you get it. Shal is carrying an infinite number of dei ex machinis (that’s the plural form of deus ex machina, please let me use my years of Latin somewhere) from the very beginning of the novel. So there’s zero tension in the novel from start to finish, even when Shal accidentally and imbecilically uses her first two wishes in chapter one. The first is to be strong enough to load up her new horse familiar, which changes her Strength stat from a 9 to a 17 (I’m surmising), along with her body type. In horror at what she’s done to her original lithe form, she wishes she had just gone to Phlan. So boom, she’s in Phlan, literally weeping on the docks out how she accidentally hulked herself out.

Caldwell's full cover art. Note: Since this was the cover to the PC game, it depicts a generic warrior, not one of the book characters. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Caldwell’s full cover art. Note: Since this was the cover to the PC game, it depicts a generic warrior, not one of the book characters. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

And that pretty much wraps up the character development for the book, alas. Ren has a few pangs because Shal-Hulk looks like his dead lover; eventually decides to stop multiclassing as a Thief and return to being a Ranger. Tarl feels bad about losing the Hammer and has the hots for Shal. Shal is horrified that she is big and strong — not unattractive, mind you, just tall and muscled — until Tarl, without being asked, has a negligee sent to her. When Shal puts it on, she has the incredible realisation that women of different body types can be beautiful too, and that’s about it for everybody. (The book ends when Shal receives another completely unsolicited and undiscussed article of clothing from Tarl — a wedding dress. Whee!)

So it’s not a good book. It’s not even a good book in terms of setting a Dungeons & Dragons play session down in text, because there’s no role-playing game narrative to be set down. Pool of Radiance is trying to a select portion of the video game into prose, without the benefit of a Game Master to deliver description or ambiance or mood or characters with any personalities or interesting motivations. Even watching a group of actual D&D players run through the PC game as Shal, Tarm, and Ren surely would have helped things considerably.

What’s weirdest to me about the Pool of Radiance novel — and if the same is true in the game, I can’t find it at all — is that the titular Pool is powered by four Ioun Stones. If Tyranthraxus acquires two more (and what’s that? Why, there happen to be two in the pommels of Ren’s daggers!) the possessed dragon gets some vague ultimate-r power. If this sounds familiar, well, congrats, you’ve been alive for at least a decade and a half or so. But what’s weird is this is not what Ioun stones do. At all.

They aren’t Infinity Gems bestowing incredible powers upon their owners. Instead, they each offer very simple, very distinct power buffs to the characters that equip them. This could be as simple as +1 to a stat, extra protection against a certain element, the ability to breathe underwater, automatic featherfall, or whatever. You can’t stick an Ioun Stone of +1 Protection in a wall socket and tell me it super-powers-up a nearby swimming pool, dammit.

This bugged the hell out of me when I was 11 and had the AD&D Second Edition Players Guide, which very clearly stated what Ioun Stones were and weren’t, and apparently, it still bugs me more than 30 years later, which is extremely depressing. So, frankly, I’m unsurprised that Pool of Darkness rolls a straightforward 4 — no bonuses, no penalties, just a simple, unquestionable failure. But, given that the video game version won awards and inspired multiple sequels, I have to imagine that Pool of Radiance the game must be an astonishing work of m —


Assorted Musings:

  • The only people who will likely understand what I’m saying here are the folks who read D&D and AD&D player’s guides back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but for you all: Remember how they’d start with a short story about characters going on a short adventure, which would be interrupted to explain when players needed to make their various rolls for exploration and combat? The writing in Pool of Radiance felt like that except the narrator wasn’t allowed to interrupt. It was like an instruction manual for how to play D&D, just without the instructions.
  • If you’re curious, there were various items of cosmic power bouncing around the Marvel comics universe before they were codified as the Infinity Gems in 1977.
  • Ren calls his daggers “Right” and “Left.” Just sayin’.
  • “Yes… and he has two boots!” is a line of dialogue which is treated as a major revelation.
  • I am not going to tell you the year I finally got a PC in my life, but suffice it to say I missed out on playing Pool of Radiance.
  • Next up: I desperately want to check up on those crazy kids from Azure Bonds and The Wyvern’s Spur of The Finder’s Stone trilogy, so instead let’s force ourselves to revisit Prince Tristan and Robyn and those knuckleknobs over in The Moonshae Trilogy by reading the second volume, Black Wizards.

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