Thursday, May 20, 2010

Old-School RPG: Champions of Krynn (1990)

Early computer RPGs were patterned after the pencil-and-paper role-playing games that came before them, betraying a strong Dungeons & Dragons influence in almost every case.  But it was nearly a decade before the technology was sophisticated enough, and the computer game market large enough, to support licensing of TSR's AD&D rules for official adaptation.

SSI (Strategic Simulations Inc.) bet much of its future on the TSR license after developing a number of its own successful RPG franchises; the arrival of the genuine article eventually put paid to Phantasie and company, as SSI turned its attention to its licensor's expectations.  Fortunately, the results generally pleased computer gamers and classical AD&D fans alike.

SSI's famous "Gold Box" line debuted with a game called Pool of Radiance in 1988.  The implementation served SSI well and was used as the basis for a number of games, among them 1990's Champions of Krynn, first of a three-part trilogy inspired by TSR's successful Dragonlance novels.   

Compared to later Dungeons & Dragons games, the Gold Box rules are played very straight, faithful to the tabletop experience, with few "computerish" accommodations to streamline play.  There's no filtering or visual flagging to prevent a character from purchasing weapons and armor useless to his or her class; spells must be memorized in camp before setting out on an adventure; long periods of rest are required for healing; and treasures and cash must be formally taken and pooled after successful battles.  The series assumes basic familiarity with the official AD&D rules, and the interface supports a mouse but can be navigated much more efficiently with the keyboard.

The game was designed to fit on floppy disks, of course, so the story is told using text and elegant but limited EGA illustrations.  There are plot points to experience, and settlements to visit, but there are also wandering monsters and merchants about.  And random encounters are important, because after a fairly straightforward story-driven battle to kick things off, the party will discover its members need to spend some time leveling up before invading any of the major strongholds that litter the game map, if they hope to survive.

Battles play out on an isometric battlefield, the computerization of which introduces a few issues a human Dungeon Master could more easily avoid.  Movement rules are inconsistent -- characters can walk in front of trees and other obstacles, but often get hung up in walled corners, unable to switch places or otherwise move around each other.  And the grid-based map imposes some odd constraints when targeting ranged weapons and spells.  Still, it's much faster to play with a computer handling the dice rolls and damage tracking, and tactical formations are easier to set up.


Some environments offer 3-D maps to navigate -- an encounter with a creature here may lead to conversation and plot development, or it may lead to a traditional battle, usually against multiple foes who materialize to back up the party's initial contact.

As is often the case with older RPGs, the gameplay and storyline of Champions of Krynn hold up better than the graphics and interface have.  RPG remakes are not common outside of the Final Fantasy franchise, as designers would rather use new technology to tell new stories.  But that's fine with me -- almost all fantasy RPGs share certain common elements, and the fun of putting a party together and pitting it against the forces of evil survives changes in technology.  But from Apshai to Dragon Age, the genre always owes a debt to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's seminal Dungeons & Dragons.  It's only fitting that SSI's official adaptations made it to market, and sold so well.

1 comment:

  1. I think I made it about 7/8ths through the series, beating Champions and Death Knights, and stopped, I don't remember why, before finishing Dark Queen of Krynn.

    I don't understand since the start of Memory Cards and now HDs for consoles, why so few games take advantage of using save data from one game in the next game in a series.