Friday, April 9, 2010

The Bard's Tale: Final Rating

Our heroes discuss the relative merits of this CRPG

I know: three postings in one day. It's feast or famine with me. I'll try to develop better consistency in the future.

Earlier this week, I outlined a rubric for rating CPRGs in 10 categories. It's highly subjective, dependent upon my own preferences and peeves (but hey, it's my blog). Tonight, I'll apply the GIMLET for the first time to The Bard's Tale. Ratings for each category is out of 10.

1. Game world. The Bard's Tale's game world is not terribly imaginative. It is set in a somewhat generic high-fantasy city called Skara Brae which the evil wizard Mangar has taken over, unleashing scores of monsters into the streets. That's about all you're given. You learn nothing of the larger game world, nor how long Mangar has been a threat, nor where he came from to begin with, nor why your party suddenly appeared on the scene. Your actions do not effect any changes to the game world--not even completing the main quest. Even if you slay Mangar, monsters still roam the streets, and if you return to Mangar's tower you can slay him again! Perhaps the only unique thing about the game world is the implicit importance of bards in the society. Category Score: 2.

2. Character creation and development. For its time, the character creation system is reasonably advanced, allowing you to choose from a number of classes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Hunters do very little damage but have a decent change of scoring a critical hit. Thieves are worthless fighters but necessary for trap-removal if you don't want to waste spell points. Spellcasters can cycle through four different classes, learning new spells each time. For all but the spellcasters, though, leveling up after a certain point doesn't seem to do anything but give you additional hit points. It's a little odd that you can only select male characters. There are no alignments, and there is no--absolutely no--character-based role playing. Category score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. There are essentially no NPCs with whom to interact. In some squares, you stumble upon people and objects, but they mouth a few scripted lines at you and send you on your way. As with all games of this era, you have no dialog choices, no real opportunities for role-playing, and certainly nothing as advanced as romances. Category score: 1.

4. Encounters and Foes. As I noted when creating this evaluation model, I like random encounters and re-spawning, and this game is all about both. There are some scripted encounters, but they re-spawn the moment you leave the level and return. One memorable encounter has you fighting four groups of 99 barbarians each. If you have the right spells, you can survive it, it takes a good 10 minutes, and it nets you more experience than any other battle in the game. It's nice to be able to return to it now and then for a boost. The monsters are relatively well-distinguished, especially for a game of the era, each featuring different types of attacks, magic, and weaknesses. The manual doesn't really describe them for you, though, and of course there is no opportunity for role-playing in the encounters. Category score: 5.

5. Magic and combat. Combat in The Bard's Tale is identical to Wizardry, with the first three ranks having the ability to attack and the others able to use items and cast spells. The combat is very tactical, forcing you to choose your actions carefully to maximize your chances of survival and minimize your expenditure of resources. Since your six characters are all piled on to one screen, though, there is no way to role-play them individually in combat. Category score: 5.

6. Equipment. The game has a very large variety of equipment, from normal weapons and armor to special musical instruments (usable only by bards) that cast a variety of spells, rings, staffs, wands, lanterns, magic carpets, and so on. There is no description attached to any of these (no game will have item descriptions for years yet), but one unique aspect to The Bard's Tale is that you sort-of have to fiddle with your plundered objects to figure out what they do. My one gripe is that it's relatively easy to achieve the lowest possible armor class, after which finding new armor doesn't seem to do anything. Also, the damage you do in combat is overwhelmingly based on your level and not your weapon, so there's no particular reason to keep upgrading and comparing. Except for a few quest items, equipment is thoroughly randomized in the game world. Category score: 5.

Those horns do some serious damage.

7. Economy. Gold is very plentiful in this game, thank God, because you need a constant supply for healing. Healing is really all you need it for. After your first trip to the equipment shop at the beginning of the game, there is no need to ever visit again to buy anything. But because resurrecting characters, un-withering them, and turning them back to flesh from stone cost so much (and rise with levels), there is never a point that you're not grateful for a hoard of gold. Category score: 6.

8. Quests. The Bard's Tale has a main quest, but there is only one outcome--killing Mangar. There are no side quests or any opportunities for role-playing in quests. Category score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, Inputs. The graphics are quite good for the era--leaps ahead of Wizardry. Some of them are lightly animated. On the DOS port, there are no sound effects except for the bard songs, which suck a bit. Controls are by keyboard or mouse, and both work fine. Category score: 4.

10. Gameplay. In some ways, the gameplay is fairly linear--you must progress through the dungeons in a specific order. But having done so, you are free to backtrack to previous dungeons. Skara Brae itself is fully explorable at the outset; there just isn't much reason to explore. The difficulty is "pleasingly difficult," as I wrote in one point, because you can only save in the Adventurer's Inn and you have to carefully ration your spell points in dungeons. Towards the end, though, it becomes incredibly difficult, especially with the ability of certain monsters to turn your characters to stone, which you have no spell to redress. Every stoning requires a trip back out to a temple, if you're lucky to survive long enough. Monsters that drain your hard-earned levels also make you tear out your hair. There is absolutely no replayability; you'll get the same experience no matter what party you use or what decisions you make. Category score: 4.

The Bard's Tale's total score is: 38/100. On my master ranking list, that ties it with Wizardry I and suggests I liked it better than anything I've played so far except Ultima III. That feels about right.


  1. Not that it matters now, but why were you fighting your way back down/up/through the dungeon once a character got stoned? That's what APAR (Apport Arcane) is for! Some levels are teleport-proof, but all dungeons but one allow you to teleport back to the first level (Kylearan's Tower doesn't because it's only one level). Another reason to have 3 spellcasters - they're good for more than just healin's & beatin's! :)

  2. I thought I found that APAR didn't work, even to the first level, in a lot of dungeons. Don't really remember now.

  3. Loving your Blog, been working through it from your first post. I remember playing and loving these oldies when they were new!. regarding sound effects in BT. I played through it on my Amiga 2000 way back, and thinking the music was fantastic for it's time.. I remember the monks chant in the healing temple to this day, or the jaunty little tune that played inside the Adventurer's Guild. I'm sure you have reached a point on your list (Haven't read that far yet) Where the PC versions are as good as any. But some of the older titles really shine (or sing) on different platforms. Amiga / ST

    Thanks for this Blog! I love it and plan on revisiting some old titles and try some I missed!

  4. Ahh, memories! I used to love this game. Spent a ridiculous number of hours playing it on the Spectrum. I remember that battle - 4 X 99 barbarians - taking a lot longer than ten minutes, though. I still did it for the XP of course. In fact I did it so often that I'd memorised the APAR from the dungeon entrance (forgotten it now, mind...up 2 is about all I recall).

  5. " Even if you slay Mangar, monsters still roam the streets, and if you return to Mangar's tower you can slay him again!" Just like a modern-day multi-player RPG then!

  6. Which are shittier since you can see groups of other adventurers waiting for their sloppy seconds. Great way to role-play that.

    Paladin: "Hi! I just slain Lord XXX! What are you and your band of merry wanderers doing here?"

    Monk: "Oh, we're here to slay Lord XXX too! Would you mind stepping away from the spawn point?"

  7. i just wanna say this, ive been reading this for about 3 hours and ive just now got to this post. This whole blog is amazing. ive always hated blogs but i cant stop reading this

    1. Glad to hear it! I hope you feel that way all the way through the end.

  8. I always thought "LO" armor class was just representation issue, because -10 takes 3 characters to display and there is only room for 2. As in, your AC could go as low as you wanted but it just wouldn't display. Although that seems like a fairly unforgiveable programming oversight.

    1. I still don't get why early D&D and its imitators had AC going down. Never heard a good explanation for it.

    2. I think they were rendering the mathematics literally. If you roll a d20 to calculate whether you hit, and the minimum number you need to roll is 20-AC, it makes sense that lower AC means more protection. (I realize the calculation was slightly more complicated than this and used other modifiers, but the basic principle still holds.)

    3. Oh, I know that; I did play 2nd edition. I don't get why they used lower roll is better. 3e and more modern games use higher roll is better so
      d20 + bonuses = AC that you hit.
      Rather simpler then To-Hit Armour Class 0 (THAC0)

    4. I'm sure you know, but higher roll was always better, which doesn't invalidate your comments about THAC0.

    5. Armor class was, if I recall, literally based off of the sliding scale of protection in a naval wargame, with -10 representing the hardest hull of something like a battleship, and the "class" literally referring to the class of the ship.

      Oh, yeah, even Wikipedia backs me up on this, apparently Dave Arneson got both the ideas of "armor class" and "hit points" from American Civil War naval battle rules.

      Also, JRodman, is that you, K8to?

  9. The crack about the importance of bards in society got me pretty hard. And just as an FYI, I think the link to your master game list at the end of this post might be broken.

    1. It was. I was linking to an Excel document back then. The current link is at the top of the sidebar.

  10. Hi, stumbled across this blog while I was looking for the Bard's Tale map (I used to have the real thing) because I wanted to try playing through it again. I'm really enjoying the blog.

    Now, obviously I'm too late, and I might be remembering incorrectly, but I could have sworn that there was a.stone-to-flesh spell, but it was Archmage-only. To become an Archmage, a character had to gain so many levels in all four of the other magic classes, but I don't remember how many. Maybe I'm wrong, but I seem to remember that being the case.

  11. is there any way to play this game and not be lost in the sewers? any spells that shows coordinates ?im just wandering

    1. i know theres no automap or anything, but is there any spells that shows the coordinates like in wiazrdy DUMAPIC or something so i can figure out where the f*** i;'m at?

    2. Who needs spells when you can have THIS!!!

    3. I think this might be the biggest divisor among RPG players: whether or not you're willing to map your own levels on graph paper. No, not even whether you're willing--whether you actually enjoy the process.

      Anonymous, I don't remember the details of the game that well, but I don't think there's a BT equivalent of DUMAPIC.

    4. SCSI - Scry Sight is a level 1 (or maybe 2) magician spell that works like DUMAPIC. Sad that I can still remember most spell codes for this 30 years after I last played it.

  12. I just started playing the series again as the Bard's Tale IV Kickstarter has a ported version of the first 3 available. I played these on my Apple IIe in the 80s, and don't think I've revisited them since.

    Quick question: What is the most efficient way to level your spell casters? Should I try end up switching class to the lower classes in the end for ease of levelling? (i.e. Conj > Sorc > Wiz > Maj)

    BTW I've played a ton of the early games, Wizardry, Ultima, Bard's Tale, Phantasie ... and love the way your blog jogs me down memory lane. Thank you.

  13. I found this excellent blog a while ago and this is my first comment. At first I was reading posts that brought back pleasant childhood memories (Bard's Tale, Pool of Radiance, ...), then posts about games that I only briefly experienced/should have played (Dungeon Master, Wizardry VI, ...) and now I'm spending time reading about games that I don't care for, but can't stop because of your enjoyable writing style (Nethack, ...) Thanks for all of this!

    Bard's Tale was my first CRPG, I played in on the ZX Spectrum when I was 12 or so. Much later, I started playing again the Amiga version in Windows. Some random memories:

    - In the ZX Spectrum version, there was of course no permadeath: the party was saved on tape. In the Amiga version, I hacked together some automatic backup script to get around that.

    - As it was customary in my country at the time, I played a pirated copy with no manual. In particular, I had no list of spells. Here is what I did. I figured out that the spell codes are 4 letters words (there is a different response to a nonexisting 4-letter spell, than to a nonexisting spell of some other length). With a clever guess, I found out that FEAR is a spell (that I could not cast, but the response was different from nonexisting spells). Then I searched the binary code of the game for FEAR, and found a sequence of capital letters including FEAR, which turned out to be the list of spells. With trial and error, I could figure out what most but not all of them do.

    - If I remember correctly, the Spectrum version had a strange bug/feature: magic items had random effects, unrelated to the description of the item. If things were not going well, it was a viable strategy to use repeatedly a magic lamp or something until it produced a teleport or party healing spell. This bug also made Ybarrashield etc. not that special.

    - In the Spectrum version, summoning the Wind Dragon was really useful (like you wrote). But in the Amiga version, higher-level monsters disbelieved the illusion dragon, as they should. Then it made sense to summon (real) demons instead.

    - I gave up the game somewhere in Mangar's tower, where it became ridiculously hard and took forever to get back to in case of party death.

    - I remember getting up early one morning, sitting in the kitchen, trying to crack IRKM DESMET DAEM, scribbling on a paper bag. I was convinced that it was some kind of anagram and DEAD was one of the words.

    - The economy is tight in the beginning, as you have to pay for healing. I remember calculating after every fight the balance: if I lost x hit points and got y gold, then was it worth it financially?

    - As the early game is hard and I had no idea what I was doing, I ended up with the following cheating. I started grinding and replaced dead characters with new ones, making sure that the conjurer always survives and gains experience. When he got to level 3 or so, I triplicated him with the bundled Party Merger program. Two of them changed classes, so I started my proper play with a conjurer, sorcerer, magician, all Level 3.

    - When I was not playing the game, I felt a strange compulsion to calculate and recalculate how the AC of my character is/would be with mithril plate, mithril shield, ... and it was a satisfying feeling. Is that weird?

    1. Thanks for commenting, dmx! I really appreciate it when people who played these games in other places and times come along with perspectives and recollections that I couldn't offer in my own coverage. I love these kinds of comments.

      The IRKM DESMET DAEM mystery deepened when I covered The Bard's Tale Construction Set a couple of years ago. The game is based on the original module, but there the message changes one letter, so that it's IRKM DESMET DAGM instead. That makes different acronyms possible, including DIMMEST DARK GEM and some other possibilities with GAME. My working theory is that DAGM was supposed to be the final word in the original and it got screwed up somewhere along the line.

  14. I played this back in the day on my Apple IIe. One time I think I either put the wrong floppy in or wrong side while loading and it maxed out all my character stats, such that they weren’t even numbers anymore, just strange strings of ascii symbols. I was invincible at that point. Needless to say it wasn’t so fun so I reverted back to an old save.

  15. Really been loving your blog! I was born in the early 90s and didn't get into PC games until the mid 00s so I don't have firsthand experience with any of these early RPGs (my first CRPG was KOTOR, but I've gone back to play stuff like Baldur's Gate and System Shock) so it's great to get to learn about them through your posts.
    After hearing about the difficulty of games like Rogue and Wizardry I'm not quite brave enough to try them out but it has made me seek out a few games heavily inspired by these classics:

    Brogue - A classic rogue-like down to the ASCII art, but seems to be slightly less punishing and has some modern quality of life features.

    Dark Spire - A dungeon crawling RPG for the DS that is basically a Wizardry clone and even has a wireframe graphics mode. Classes, combat and magic are almost the same as the original, but it seems to strike a much better balance of being difficult while not feeling too punishing. Has an optional map for people who don't like graph paper :p

    Bard's Tale Remake - Just downloaded this last night so I haven't spent much time with it. Seems to largely keep the original game intact, but requires less XP to level up and seems to have fewer random encounters. Also has a minimap and brings spells from 2 and 3 into the first game, but these can be turned off.

    1. They did a really good job with the Bard's Tale Remastered. Streamlined a lot of features from the 3 games. You should enjoy it.

      It's funny in that I thought the reduced XP requirements would be what makes the game much easier. It doesn't make it easier as much as it reduces the grind. What does make it easier is getting a healing spell (Quick Fix) at level 1, and a full fledged 7th party member instead of a special.

      I also went broke identifying magic items at Roscoe's late in BT1 :)


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