Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Game 11: The Bard's Tale (1985)

"Your most important goal is to complete the quest built into the game. In The Bard's Tale, the city of Skara Brae is threatened by an evil mage called Mangar. You must find Mangar and 'persuade' him to release the once-harmonious city from his evil control." -- Bard's Tale manual
The Bard's Tale
United States
Interplay (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II; 1986 for Commodore 64 and Amiga; 1987 for DOS, Apple IIGS, and Atari ST; 1988 for Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, and PC-98; 1989 for Macintosh; 1990 for NES
Date Started: 14 March 2010
As I said in my last posting, I'm beginning to feel that CRPGs are hitting that "good enough" stage where they are authentically enjoyable and not just historical curios. The graphics, sound, and game play are notably improved in over most of the previous games on this list, and especially the game of which it is a direct descendant: Wizardry.

As in Wizardry, you control a party of six characters representing different classes and races (oddly enough, you cannot specify sexes; all characters, at least judging by their portraits, are male). These characters exist on a list in the lower part of your screen while the upper part is devoted to a first-person view of the game world. Your characters can buy and equip a variety of weapons, armor, and miscellaneous items, some of which must be identified if you find them after a battle. In battle, just as in Wizardry, you specify an action for each character, and then your characters and the enemies go at it all at once. You may face multiple groups of enemies of varying numbers. Only your first three characters can attack. You cast spells by typing in their names, although in the case of The Bard's Tale it's a four-letter code instead of the entire spell name.

So far it sounds so close to Wizardry that I'm surprised the developers weren't sued for copyright violation. But in subtle details, The Bard's Tale is better, and (at least so far) more fun. To name a few:

  • The graphics are much better. Character and monster portraits are animated, as are scenes inside various buildings.
  • There is an awesome variety of races and classes. Here for the first time are half-orcs, paladins, hunters, monks, and four different mage classes--two of which you have to transition to after you've gained some experience. Hunters do critical hits at higher levels, and monks (as in D&D) are skilled in unarmed and unarmored combat.
  • Bards appear for the first time in a CRPG (unless you count the "lark" in Ultima III). And the class isn't just a name: bards can sing helpful bard songs in battles and use certain musical magic items. "The Seeker's Ballad," for instance, produces light in dungeons and makes foes easier to hit; "Falkentyne's Fury" increases the damage you do in combat. In between songs--I love this--bards have to have a glass of wine or ale to refresh their windpipes.
  • The town is Skara Brae. At first, I thought the Skara Brae of Ultima IV must be paying homage to The Bard's Tale, but then I discovered that Skara Brae is the name of a neolithic archaeological site in Orkney.
  • A variety of locations to visit. There are several taverns, temples, and shops, and a spell-recharging place. A place called "the review board" advances you in levels, but you have to find it (it's not on the game map).

  • You can summon or join NPCs to your party. More on this in a second.
  • Cute little touches: a street is blocked by a statue of a samurai. Attack it, and it becomes a samurai for real. Kill him, and you can pass. Just beyond him is a tavern where, if you buy a bottle of wine, the bartender lets you into a dungeon.

All of that said, the game is pretty hard, mostly because you start off with no healing spells. I thought maybe I'd get some after my mages advanced to second level, but I didn't. This means that almost all the gold you collect from battle has to go to temples for healing and resurrection.

My party consists of

  • Palamedes, a human paladin (I almost always lead my parties with a paladin)
  • Blaargh, a half-orc hunter
  • Grimgnaw, a dwarven monk
  • Taliesin, a half-elf bard
  • Grey Star, an elven magician
  • Lailoken, a gnomish conjurer

A rogue seemed unnecessary because conjurers get a spell called "trap zap" at the first level (I wish I'd had that in Wizardry).

I've spent most of the first few hours mapping Skara Brae, fighting various battles, and all-too-often raising and healing my characters at temples. I have most of them up to Level 2. I'm hoping I get the healing spells at Level 3, at which point I'll start exploring the first dungeon.

Despite the Stone Elemental's help, three of my characters died in this combat.

One thing has made combat exceedingly easier in these opening stages. At the top of your party list is a slot for a summoned creature. While exploring the key commands, I discovered that if you hit the "Z" key, a stone elemental automatically appears in that slot. I have no idea why. It seems too easily-discoverable to be a cheat. Either way, I'm getting a lot of use out of him.

The Ultimate Wizardry Archives arrived while I was away and, as promised, I'm going to go back and try Wizardry II and Wizardry III when I'm done with this game, but it's going to be hard to regress to those games after The Bard's Tale.


  1. I always wanted to play this one when I saw it in the Interplay catalogs as a kid. Glad to see that you're back!

  2. I'm of two minds on your rogue decision. The big reason to take one is that TRZP takes magic points, whereas rogues do not. The nice thing about them is that you can have them hide-in-shadows each round of combat and (if successful) they can't be hit. On the other hand, TRZP rules.

  3. I figured the rogue would turn out to be a useless fighter and I didn't want to waste a slot, so I replaced the rogue in my original party with a monk. Now I realize I'm wasting my bard, though. All he does is sit in slot #4 and play an occasional song. Better if I'd brought him into the forward ranks and put a rogue in that slot.

    When do first-person, six-character, Wizardry-style CRPGs first acquire missile weapons? Might and Magic I?

    1. Slot #4 is the place for the Bard. He's a pretty pathetic fighter and doesn't have a lot of HP, but his songs get more and more useful the deeper you go. If I remember correctly, the song which grants additional AC (can't recall which one) gives -1 in the wine cellars, and progressively more and more in the more difficult dungeons, and finally something like -6 or -8 in Mangar's tower.

      IMO, warriors and paladins are only useful in the early game because they can use the best weapons and armor and get multiple hits/round. Once you get into double digits, you ought to switch out for hunters (who "critically hit" = instakill with increasing frequency) and monks (who eventually have ridiculously low AC and high damage without any weapons or armor, so great as pack-horses).

      Of course, you'll want to keep two spellcasters around at all times, and get promoted to sorceror/wizard as soon as is practical.

  4. "Z" to summon a stone elemental? I think that's a cheat someone must've inserted into your DOS version. I played the game through on a couple different systems (C64 and MS-DOS) and never encountered that. Very, very bizarre.

    Missile Weapons do show up in Bard's Tale II.

    My one annoyance in this game is that the manual doesn't tell you you need a Bard. As near as I can figure the game is unwinnable without one... Hmmm, unless PHDO could open a wall in Harkyn's castle. Guess maybe that would work...

    1. PHDO and APAR will solve all your bardless problems. But trying to play without a Bard ... just doesn't feel right.

    2. Yeah, I played without a Bard until I was forced to use one.

      People gave me stick at the time for not using a Bard, but I thought Bards were lame. They were weak fighters and their songs were far less effective than the spells that a dedicated spellcaster would cast. I think I used my 4th slot on a Rogue at first, then a spellcaster of some kind, and finally a Bard only because I had to have one.

    3. What? No. Bards are your monkey wrenches/Swiss Army Knives. Every party should have one in case the principal character doing the meleeing/shooting/spellcasting/healing/lockpicking/trap disarming/scouting/lollygagging is incapacitated.

    4. Ha... just playing the remake of Bards Tale (my first Bards Tale play in 32 years) and came across my 7 year old comment.

      I stand behind my opinion on Bards. Really in BT you've got 2 different kinds of characters - front line and back line. In the remake you can use all 7 character slots for characters, you don't have a special only slot, and the first 4 characters are front line meaning they can melee.

      My Bard is 4th and she is the weak link in my party. In melee she doesn't do nearly as much damage as anyone else and her hit points are lower (although that might be a function of her stats more than her class).

      But if I put her in the back row she'd be even worse. Nothing a bard can do is comparable to what a spellcaster of an equivalent level can do and she wouldn't be able to attack at all. In general she has better back row skills than any front row character and better front row skills than any back row character. Unfortunately that's not useful in any practical sense. Sure, if you bat them 5th (or 4th in the original) and one of your melee characters gets killed, then they move into the front rank and your spellcasters aren't exposed. But if I had an extra spellcaster there, that melee character might not have been knocked out to begin with.

      I get Bards are needed to get through that one section, and it's nice to have a song effect. But that's it really.. nice to have, not necessary. It's like the rogue who also has some nice skills which (like the Bard) can also be duplicated with spells.

      And outside of that they are just an empty space in combat unless they're using a consumable, and it's not like you've got unlimited consumables. And even then the consumable effects are duplicated by spells. Give me the extra spellcaster every time.

      Just wait until I get to the game which requires you to have a rogue. I can already tell I'm gonna LOVE that. :(

    5. Just wait until you get to the Grey Crypt and can't use magic.

  5. Anon, the game is called "The BARD'S Tale," after all. It wouldn't even have occurred to me to play without a bard.

  6. The bard becomes more combat useful when you can "use" instruments for effects.

  7. Yes. I recall some instruments that cast fireballs and such that I found late in the game. Looks like you're working your way through the blog today. I hope you enjoyed it.

  8. CRPG

    This blog is fantastic in the way that it reconnects emotions of people who literally "fell in love" with the RPG element. I still remember to this day the excitement I had when my mother bought me the first red boxed addition of D&D..dice and all....*sigh*.

    At it's introduction, if you had a fascination with RPG's you were given the label of dork, geek, loser, or nerd. You took something that was fantasy and spent RL time playing it!!! God forbid! You HAD to keep it private to avoid ridicule. I had a lot riding on the line being THE starting pitcher in my b-ball league and a girlfriend. The last thing I needed at age 15 was to be branded as the guy who dresses up and goes to renaissance festivals!


    your blog is allowing me to revisit the varied emotions I experienced during my youth. The highs of finishing Ultima IV and rewarding myself with the printscreen of the finish. The elation of a BT1 victory, only to fail at recovering the Destiny Wand in BT2. For all the revisits of the highs and lows, your incredulous love of mapping, and your displays of unadulterated frustration at perma death...I think you.

    I cannot wait until you hit some of my favorites and best games of all time:

    Planescape: Torment
    *Baldur's Gate series

    May your harvest of Nightshade always be fruitful,


  9. "and your displays of unadulterated frustration at perma death...I think you."

    should be thank you :)

  10. Mike, nice sign-off. I regret that you'll have a long wait before I get to those games, but I hope you pick up some other good ideas along the way!

  11. I tried so hard to play this game as a kid but I just couldn't hack it. Seeing these screens is kind of making want to go avenge the frustrations of my young prepubescent self.

  12. http://bardstale.poverellomedia.com/thebardstale-story.html

    If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you can see the magazine advertisement for the game.
    (No I.D. required for half-elves)

  13. That's cute. I love how it advertises that you can import Wizardry and U3 characters, even though it makes no real sense.

  14. That very ad, glimpsed in an issue of Family Computing magazine when I was in third grade, was my gateway to CRPGs (once my family got an Apple II for Christmas that year, of course). And Wizardry I became my second CRPG because I saw the name in the Bard's Tale manual and it was in stock at the computer store.

  15. Bard´s Tale was the game on Commodore-64 (tape version) that introduced me to RPG:s on the computer. I got as far as to Mangars tower but somewhere down there I couldn´t solve the puzzle. So I never finished the game. But I loved it then. I am getting more and more interested to start over and complete it now after having read your blog.

    I have to finishe Drakensang - Rive of Time, first though...

    /Richard, Stockholm

  16. "Tape version?!". You must have some serious patience. Waiting 20 minutes plus practically at 300 baud for a game to load only to have it crash 30 seconds later. The C64 disc drive was slow enough.

    On Bard's Tale, I seem to remember having one nutty deuce of a time surviving. Then I came across this horn that the bard used to belch fire(or something) and after that it became almost too easy, until my characters became more powerful and I used it less and less as a crutch. Unlike CRPG addict I am meticulous in how I want the game to go down and any death at all, and it's a reload. I always chalk up a character death to bad strategy that could be improved. I always have a glut of magic items at the end as well because I'm always worried I'll need them more in a later encounter.


  17. I had the C64 tape version and I think my tape drive was dodgy - saving the game didn't work. So my experience of this game was a series of hopeful efforts to finish it in the course of a weekend without dying or turning off the computer. It never worked, dammit; I never made it past the first few dungeons. Remarkable how many attempts I made, in retrospect, but then a lot of C64 games were like that - no realistic hope of ever completing them, whether through broken design or insane difficulty or just my own schoolboy dimwittedness. There was so much less else to do in those days that I'd persevere nonetheless.


  18. I had the C64 tape version too. I completed the game, but it took me about two years! I was terrified that I was going to hit some mysterious puzzle that put an end to my progress, but luckily that didn't happen to me.
    May tape saved party is available online at the adventures guild forum if any of you C64 tape Bards Talers would like to load it up in CCS64 emulator to get some payback on all those beating that those monsters gave us!!!!

  19. Addict, I am finding it easier to get started in Wizardry than in Bard's Tale!
    I won't give up, but the sequence of commands to get a party of characters fully equipped (and moving them between the buildings) seems to be more frustrating in BT than in Wizardry 1.

    I already know this is not an easy game, but when just getting your party READY isn't fun, it definitely drains my enthusiasm.

  20. Well, I have a solution but it's almost certainly considered "cheating" (although I like the term "sponsorship" myself, lol).
    At the Bard's Tale shrine at RPGClassics, I found some high level character files. I brought two of them into my game, and I've been forming parties with 4 new characters and 2 wealthy sponsors. They go to Garth's, get fully equipped, and return to the Guild.
    After all new characters are equipped, I create parties of just the new guys and venture forth to gain levels and actually play the game.
    (I.E. the sponsors only serve as early escorts and a source of money.)

    I'm getting better at reading the map vs. the game view, and the game is much less aggravating now. It's going to be a fun experience, I hope.

  21. "Almost certainly"? Yeah. That's cheating. But I guess I don't blame you.

  22. Especially when you're summoning Stone Elementals out of nowhere. :p

  23. I played bard's tale a few months ago out of nostalgia, its what led me to this site, actually. It was the first crpg I owned and being quite young at the time I couldnt do much, I did remember the 4x99 berserkers though so I must have gotten that far.

    Anyways, Z for a stone elemental was in the original game (PC), it was even mentioned in the manual. So definately not something new, and not a cheat. This game is far easier than Wiz1, though some of the mapping is definately harder, because there is no permanent death. You save every time you go to the inn and can restart there however you lose all your cash. It's easy enough to get cash late in the game though and if you're smart you'll store it on a bank character!

    As for character classes, rogues are useless, just use trap zap. Bards are useless too but you need one for that one spot near the end of the game (though I think theres a way around it without one, I don't remember). I finally thought my bard would be useful when he got a flame horn (or something like that), but 10ish uses later it poofed and he went back to being useless. Bard songs are just way, way underpowered. My party was 2 kinds of fighters, a bard, and 3 casters. Casters are just too good and I can't stand to put a non-caster in the back ranks. This game is a bit odd in that there is no healer class...

    1. The "Z" thing has been bothering me for two years, so thanks for clearing that up. I always felt I must have been cheating.

  24. A bard is very useful early in the game if you use the pregenerated party, since the bard is carrying a Flame Horn.
    Without it you'll die a lot. With it you'll be able to survive the first levels without having to restart all the time.

    1. I have very few prejudices about games and gamers, but one of them is this: playing with the pregenerated party is the absolute lamest thing you can do.

    2. Lamer than cheating, abusing bugs to your advantage and early grinding to remove any challenge later in the game?

      Does this also mean you roll your own party in the Baldur's Gate game?

    3. How do you feel about scalping their gear though? I'm not suggesting creating characters to pool gold from, but if there's an original party would you ever consider creating your own, but taking their gear?

      @PetrusOctavianus: How can you tell if you over-grind and remove the challenge?

    4. Baldur's Gate is a bit different because part of the game is finding NPCs. But to answer your question, no, it's not lamer than cheating or abusing bugs. I try to avoid those things, too. Might & Magic II remains a shameful exception.

      Zenic, I don't like to take gear from the default part, either--not because I consider it "cheating," per se, but because slowly finding gear and outfitting my party is, to me, an extremely fun part of the game. I love that in MM1, I started unarmored with clubs and did a fist-pump every time I found a helmet or something.

    5. In Legend of Grimrock, your party appears to start out stark naked. Notably, you find loincloths in the early stages. I wonder how the party decides who gets to wear the first one.

    6. Really???

    7. No one gets to wear the first one. You turn it into a sling.

    8. One PC claims it first with the promise that they'll have a rotation system, sneakily reasoning that nobody else will want to claim their go before the party finds a) more loin cloths or b) a wash basin and soap.

  25. Regarding the question of whether Ultima IV copied Skara Brae from The Bard's Tale, actually The Bard's Tale wasn't even the first CRPG to use the name -- the documentation to the original Wizardry mentioned a character named "Hawkwind of Skara Brae" (though I'm pretty sure he was mentioned only in the documentation, and not in the actual game). While it's true, of course, that there is an actual real-world place called Skara Brae, that the creators of three different games would all completely independently happen to make use of the name of the same otherwise rather obscure prehistoric settlement seems unlikely enough that I suspect there was some copying or homaging going on.

    1. I tweeted Garriott about this - he said it was a homage to Bard's Tale. Which is pretty obvious when you realise that one of the characters in the Ultima IV "Skara Brae" is named "Roscoe"

  26. The Bards Tale IV Kickstarter campaign started!


    Estimate release date: October 2017

    Basic info:

    A single-player, party-based dungeon crawl, rich in exploration and combat

    Dungeons filled not just with dangerous fights but with challenging puzzles and devious riddles

    Dynamic phase-based combat, where the pace of battle is animated and fluid, but still gives you time to think and respond to your enemies

    A game set to beautiful Gaelic music, where the Bard’s songs and melodies affect gameplay

    Co-funded by fans and inXile: if this game hits its $1.25 million goal, inXile will put in at least $1.25 million of its own money to double the initial budget!

    Built using Unreal Engine 4, for PC, Mac and Linux. Available from Steam or DRM-Free from GOG.com

    Available in English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, and Polish

    Built for and with the help of our fans. Your feedback and input directly impact the design and features of the game during alpha and beta stages

  27. Some interesting news from the campaign:

    "Rebecca "Burger" Heineman and her company Olde Sküül [will] update the [original] games for modern machines! She will be working to make the games run natively, without needing emulators, on PC or Mac. This re-releases will be primarily based on the Apple IIGS versions of the games, along with updated art."

  28. Heya Chet. I just wrapped up this game on the NES, so I'm here to report on the differences I noted from the above post. From top to bottom:

    There are no races. Classes are limited to warrior, hunter, rogue, bard, sorcerer, and wizard. There's no class changing. The front line is definable between 3 - 6 members that participate in melee combat (can attack and be attacked). Bard songs are slightly different, of which the most noticeable is the Traveller's Tale that warps the party back to the Adventurers' Guild. Magical instruments are one-time use, but anyone can invoke them. The key locations in Skara Brae are located on the same street within four squares of each other where it's impossible to encounter enemies. Healing spells are unlocked at level two. Actually many of the spells are mixed up, as Trap Zap isn't gained until spell level 3.

    1. For anyone considering to check out the original console version of The Bard's Tale for themselves: earlier this year an English translation of the Famicom BT was published on RHDN. According to the description, "[t]his game did release in English in the US but with a ROM of half the size. As a result a LOT of content was cut or changed. Almost 30 enemy types were cut, including 3 bosses, and most of the remaining ones recycled graphics from other enemies rather than having their own like in the original version. A lot of dungeon graphics and graphical scenes were also cut as well as the intro, step sounds, some flavour text, etc.

      This romhack took the US version script and inserted it in the JPN version, and translated what doesn’t exist in the US version, so that everyone can enjoy the game in its uncut glory!"

  29. I first got this game around 1987. I played it on my Atari ST. One cheat we found we dubbed "The Closet". Say you found a Fire Horn. Go back to the guild, create a new char, give the Fire Horn to the new char and save him to disk. Then shut off the computer. Boot back up and both char's still have the Fire Horn. Rinse and repeat.

    Was this a common cheat?


  30. Interesting to see that early Interplay logo on the title screen. Not sure if I've seen that before.

  31. I tried this game for the first time in "The Bard's Tale Remastered Trilogy" when it was on Xbox Game Pass. I didn't like it even a little bit, mostly because the new art actually looks worse than the original pixelated graphics.

    Something I found funny that wasn't mentioned in these entries is that in the town square you have the "Temple of the Great God," "Temple of the Greater God" and "Temple of the Greatest God" all across the street from each other. I don't know if that was in the original game, but it got a chuckle.

    1. I'm somehow attuned to not looking at shop names. I noticed that I had to force myself when I played Realms of Arkania. So it doesn't surprise me that I missed it. I agree it's pretty funny. Judging from some online maps, these temples were in the original game.

  32. According to Rebecca Heinman, they were flat out told not to include female characters in Bard's Tale because women do not play these games. Then when she was in charge in game 3, she included them right away.

    She mentions that in her "burgertime" stream on Bard's Tale. It's an hour long on Youtube. I'd link it, but that'll probably make the comment not go through and you probably know it already.

  33. I'm finding it a bit annoying. Just created my party and entered the town. First combat led to one character's death. Second combat left a character old.

    This is doesn't seem like a reasonable set of outcomes for first combats. Certainly I can question my own abilities, but rationally, I already question play balance.

    The criticisms I have seen are, the game is too easy. That may be later in the game. I conclude that Interstil has failed miserably to playtest and address fundamental issues of game balance.

    After this limited play, I'm arguing, give me Pool of Radiance any day.

    1. A lot of these old games have a pretty significant early hump. The manual suggests that losing 1st level characters is common and should one die, just make a new replacement.

  34. I spent an entire summer (1985, maybe 1986?) waiting for the EA catalog to arrive in the mail so I could read about The Bard's Tale. I think I tore out the magazine ad mentioned above and saved it so I could look at it repeatedly and study every detail. But I didn't have a lot of money for games and I never played it until around 2010. (I had to make do with Phantasie III at the time.) I don't know why I sucked so bad, but my party kept getting killed on the main street of Skara Brae and I couldn't even think about leveling up. It was like, "Here's a band of kobolds. Aaand we're all dead." It felt like the past 25 years had been a lie.

  35. Ah, I have fond memories of TBT when I was young! Many hours on my C64...never completed it though! I need to go back. Thank you for this blog! I am reading it from the beginning...very good work!


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