Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Game 47: The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate (1988)

This is one of several games in which the title could be rearranged almost any way and it would still sound like a good game. Try it: The Thief's Tale III: Bard of Fate; Bard's Fate III: Tale of the Thief; Tale of Fate III: The Bard Thief.
The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate
United States
Interplay (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1988 for Apple II and Commodore 64; 1990 for DOS; 1991 for Amiga; 1992 for PC-98
Date Started: 1 February 2011
We just crossed another year! This is the first crossing since 2400 A.D., which brought us to 1987 back in October. I played 19 games for 1987, and there are 31 on the list for 1988. Better get a-questing.

As you may recall, my experience with The Bard's Tale II didn't go so well. At first I found it too easy, then simply boring because of the lack of variety in the dungeons (the "snare" sections being the one exception). Then I ragequit when I realized I hadn't saved my game properly and I would have to go back to the dungeons I already completed. I decided to return to it after Might & Magic, but I found Might & Magic to be such a superior game in every way that I couldn't face going back to The Bard's Tale II. I always felt bad about that, like if I had played it in a better mood, things would have been different.

I was glad when, a few days ago, Kyle Haight linked me to this Matt Barton interview with Rebecca ("Burger") Heineman, the programmer behind The Bard's Tale and The Bard's Tale III. It does suggest that because of a rift in the creative team, The Bard's Tale II was fundamentally different, and harder, than the first one, and that perhaps III will be better. Heineman also indicates that Dragon Wars, coming up in 1989, was supposed to be The Bard's Tale IV.

In any event, after a string of quasi-CRPGs and console ports, I'm happy to be playing a multi-character Wizardry descendant again. 1988 promises to be a great year for classic series. In addition to this, we get the beginnings of two Dungeons & Dragons series: Heroes of the Lance and Pool of Radiance, Might & Magic II, Ultima V, and the fifth Wizardry.

The back story to The Bard's Tale III is mildly horrifying: After your party's defeat of Mangar in the first game, they immediately ditched Skara Brae to find the pieces of the Destiny Wand in a neighboring kingdom. Well, no sooner had the adventurers left the liberated city than the Mad God Tarjan, the dead Mangar's master, showed up and interrupted the festivities by sending his minions to kill everyone ("thanks, adventurers, but we rather liked Mangar better"). Garth of Garth's Emporium and Roscoe from Roscoe's Energy Emporium were crushed under their own shops. One of the city's elders managed to get a message to the adventurers, warning them that if Tarjan is successful, he will dominate life across multiple dimensions.

Gameplay hasn't really changed much since II (which hadn't changed much since I). Even most of the spells are the same, although there are two new spell classes: geomancer (converted fighters), and chronomancer (needed to move across dimensions). Races (humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits, half-elves, half-orcs, and gnomes) and other classes (warrior, paladin, hunter, monk, bard, rogue, conjurer, magician) are the same, but the creators decided to allow females at last. You can transfer characters from either of the two original games, but I decided to start fresh with newbies. My idea is that my original party was slain trying to defeat the second game, and the message intended for them has instead fallen into the hands of a group of rank amateurs.

Females finally qualify as adventurers in the third edition.

I struggled a bit with character creation. I like to lead with a paladin, but I remembered how good hunters and monks are at high levels. It seems wrong to play without a bard, and the manual warns you that you really need a rogue (who now comes with a new backstab ability) and you definitely need a chronomancer. Knowing that I'll have to sacrifice at least one spellcaster to the chronomancer class (who loses knowledge of all previous spells), I need at least one other. Technically, you can have seven party members, but you really need to leave a slot free for NPCs and summoned creatures. Thus, after some wrangling, I went with:

  • Sir Tor, a male human paladin. I wanted to do a half-orc paladin but the game, influenced by D&D, I guess, won't let you.
  • Ambrosius, a male dwarven monk (yes, dwarven monk, Mr. Autocorrect, not "dwarfish").
  • Vaux, a female halfling thief
  • Essyltt, a female half-elven bard
  • Mabon the Mad, a male elven conjurer
  • Escorducarla, a female gnomish magician

From a purely tactical perspective, it would probably have been a better idea to choose a hunter instead of the paladin, and to jettison the bard entirely, but from a roleplaying perspective I like this group better. One of these days I'll have the guts to play with a party of all one class or something, but it doesn't sound like that's possible in this game.

The game starts you with no gold--probably because, with Garth crushed, there's nowhere to spend it--but each character does have some basic equipment.

We begin in a refugee camp outside Skara Brae, with the camp taking the place of the adventurer's guild from previous games. Right next door is a tavern (these refugees have their priorities straight) and the bartender says that there still might be some treasures stashed in the nearby ruins of Skara Brae. I began by mapping the fairly limited out door area...

...which features the camp, the tavern, a temple, the ruins of Skara Brae, and a bunch of locations that promise to become important later, such as an "old dwarven mine" and a "peaceful grove," but the game wants me to explore Skara Brae first. Nonsensically, the outdoor section doubles back on itself. Walk 20 steps east from the refugee camp, and you'll find yourself approaching the camp again from the west. The game is apparently set on The Little Prince's planet.

Skara Brae is indeed in ruins, and much smaller than in the first game, although some features like the neverending street are still present. There are, as far as I can tell, only four buildings of consequence: the review board (where a single old man levels you up and sells spells), the Mad God's temple, some building that gives you the ability to search it but doesn't seem to turn up anything when you do, and the "Interplay House," where you can get the game's credits.

"His life impedes my efforts to stave off disaster" is a nice, roundabout way of saying, "kill him."

The old guy at the review board provides the first quest: to enter the dungeons beneath the Mad God's temple and slay one of his devotees, Brilhasti Ap Tarj. Entering the Mad God's dungeon is done the same way as in The Bard's Tale: you give the name of the Mad God ("Tarjan") to the priest. Incidentally, it is in this game that if you give the name of the Mad God as "Burger," you get a bit of a joke:

As I said, combat is identical to The Bard's Tale II. Your first four characters can attack; the rear two or three must cast spells or use items. Enemies can approach at a range, and if you enter combat with multiple groups of monsters, some may be off in the distance while others are directly in front of you. You can only attack the ones directly in front of you, and a favorite tactic of enemy spellcasters is to keep summoning creatures from 30 feet away, preventing you from ever reaching them except with your own spells.

Doesn't "miasmal" mean "vaporous"?

My characters began at Level 1 and were slain a lot before I realized that the bard song called "Sir Robin's Tune" (I think I am alone among geeks in absolutely hating that movie) allows you to always flee combat. This means that as long as I kept my bard's throat soothed with mead, she could play the song constantly and I could effectively pick and choose which combats to fight and which to avoid. In short order, I had my characters up to Level 5. Healing is expensive but spell points regenerate in sunlight, so my spellcasters can generally keep my party members in good shape.

The graphics don't seem to have improved much since The Bard's Tale II, although the character portraits and enemy animations look a little more advanced. Unless I have something set up wrong in DOSBox, the game is curiously devoid of sound effects except for the bard's tunes.

The game features monsters of unexpected power.

After I mapped the outdoor area and Skara Brae, I started exploring the Mad God's temple. The monsters took about 17 levels in badass right away. About halfway through the first level, my entire party was wiped out by a "goresucker" (my party had a different name for the beast, although oddly similar) who proved capable of belching fireballs. The particularly annoying thing is that the game manual doesn't give you a rundown of creatures, the monsters are unique to this game so you really don't know what to expect, and the game uses the same portraits for several monsters each. There was really no way to know that the Jabba-the-Huttish creature known as a "bloodfiend" in the outdoor area would turn into a merchant of death called a "goresucker" the moment I hit the first dungeon.

That actually doesn't sound so bad.

When your party is wiped out, the characters are transferred to the refugee camp, where a relief party can attempt to resurrect them. This takes more gold than I had, so I dumped them all and started over with new characters of the same names and classes. This time, I'll bring myself to a higher level before attempting the dungeons.

When I blog tomorrow, I should have a better sense of the overall gameplay and whether I actually like it or not. If I really hustle, I might be able to get this one done in a week, leaving me about one week more to get the four other games I need to...damn, I'm not going to make it, am I?


  1. I'd venture to say that it's more important not to burn yourself out by cramming in 4 sleepless games than to cover 50 games in the first year. I'm really enjoying following your blog, and hope you see the project through to the end. (well, as long as new CRPGs are published, it will never truly end, but eventually you will catch up)

  2. The house right in front of you, when you enter town is a cache of items.. and if you didn't like II, you wont like III. II is imo, the more interesting of the 3 games, III has some good points but meh. 10 combats every step, dungeons look the same.

    you'll know how ugh it is when you reach the final level of tarjans starting dungeon..

    you definitely want a paladin and a rogue and a bard, fill the party out with conjurers and magicians. (paladin->geomancer, rogue + bard are needed to win the game) then 2 con, 1 mag for best results...

    there is a bug in the game.. once you complete the starter dungeon and the review boosts you to level X (50? I think)... put one party member in camp, add a new one and go back to the reviewboard for more XP without going through the dungeon again...

  3. Deranged, don't knock my goals, man. They're all I have.

    Stu, I figured the house was SUPPOSED to have something--the bartender gave me a hint, after all--but all the searching doesn't turn up anything.

    I'm already experiencing the bleakness you talk about. I think I'll pass on the cheat anyway, though.

  4. BT3 is regarded as the best in the series, I remember being a bit disappointed when I played it on my Amiga.
    One thing I missed was monsters' special attacks, like withering, insanity, poison and so on. I never encountered any enemies with such attacks, and I never saw any special encounters (ie set encounters like the 5 Black Widows or 99X4 Berserkers of BT1).
    Also, while rolls for random encounerts no longer were done in real time (but for each step) mana regeneration was. So it was possible to "cheat" by just standing still and let mana regenerate without fear of random encounters.
    How does the PC version (or other versions) compare?

  5. Petrus, nothing I'm finding so far contradicts your impressions. However, it's hard to regard the standing still thing as "cheating," as a) it happens only in sunlight; b) it happens really slowly; and c) as far as I can tell, it's the only way in the game to recharge spell points (no more Roscoe's Energy Emporium). This means that every time I go dungeon crawling, I have to stand around outside for 20-30 minutes (real time) to get my mana back in shape. I'm going to lead with this tomorrow.

  6. Then I look forward to the postings you'll write over the next few weeks. :)

  7. The original Bards Tale was one of my favorite games ever. I played it on a C64. :). This is a fun blog to read for us old timers.

  8. harmonic gems recharge spell points. the cache house in the skara brae ruins has like 4 or 8 of them the first time you go in it.

  9. Can't you speed up the regen process through DOSBox?
    Personally, I never got the hype surrounding BT - I guess you had to play it back when it released (I agree that Might & Magic has aged considerably better).
    My favourite pre-90s RPG, Dark Heart of Uukrul, is still some time away. Until then, I hope to find the time to play one of two of the better '88 titles along with you. :)

  10. This means that every time I go dungeon crawling, I have to stand around outside for 20-30 minutes (real time) to get my mana back in shape.

    There's a bard song you might want to consider here.

  11. HI CRPGAddict. Reading through your posts makes me even more motivated to complete my pet project (http://droiddos.blogspot.com), to be able to play all the early days (pre 1995) DOS cRPGs on my Android phone while off the desktop computer :).


  12. Bard's Tale III was okay for me, but you know, curiously enough, I don't remember it at all, even though I know I won it. I would also like to say the blog is still great and OH MY OMG it's almost time for Pool of Radiance and Might and Magic II. Heroes of the Lance, if I recall correctly, is a sick joke that deserves to be sent to the landfill with all of those copies of E.T. for the 2600, but man, those other two are still among my favorite games of all time (especially Might and Magic II [though oddly, I think I prefer playing the Genesis port these days]).

  13. I haven't played The Bard's Tale III since I was a teenager but I remember being impressed by the number of classes available and small things like the opening sequence and portrait animations.

    As far as mana regeneration goes, I believe there is also a bard song that speeds your regeneration up. (Google tells me that it's the Rhyme of Duotime: Makes party regain spell points twice as fast, and makes fighters hit one extra time.)

    I've been meaning to get back to this one, but nostalgia only takes me so far. Hopefully issues with mana regeneration don't kill it for me when I get back around to it.

  14. Been following the blog for a while (keep it up!) and this is the year that coincides with the bulk of my first ventures into CRPGs - all played on the Apple IIe, though.

    That was back in the day when games were hard to get a hold of (child labor laws made a disposable income difficult to obtain when you are in the third grade). I do remember this game fondly for some reason, though. Nostalgia.

    I'm a little vague on what characters I had but I do remember that I loathed my hunter at the beginning, but he was essential during the end dungeon when his instant-kill ability was so useful. Definitely required having a bard and a thief, and keeping the last slot open for companions.

    At the time, I remember the first dungeon being rough to get through - but by the end I had a good handle on the game and things were less frustrating from then onward. I spent a long time not venturing more than a fifth of the way into the first level just to get my guys experience up. A bit tedious thinking about it even now. I can probably still map out that area and I haven't seen the game in probably twenty years. I do remember enjoying the different character that new lands and dungeons had that open up later (I think because of the different monster sets that show up).

    Be sure to check out the docs including the wilderness map and the dimension pictures and poem things to give you hints about what to expect when going into them later in the game. They weren't part of the actual manual, but part of the inner box art, I believe (my version is in a folder-type of thing with the map and area descriptions on the inner leaves.) I think all that is important in some way, but memory fails me beyond that.

  15. I'm really interested to hear peoples' thoughts on this one. I had this game originally for the C64 and seem to remember that I blamed the game for breaking 2 different 1541 disk drives (something to do with the copy protection routines?). Graphically and technically I think the C64 version seemed a lot better than the PC one and even more bizarrely the Amiga version. I think the Amiga and PC conversions of BT3 were sub contracted to an outside company which is why they are quite poor compared to the very nice BT1 and BT2 conversions for the Amiga.

    When I saw this was coming up on your playlist I gave the DOS version a go as I had it on the Interplay RPG Classics compilation and was very disappointed with the graphics, even for EGA. The intro sequence is totally static and the story text doesn't even scroll - a big contrast to the fully animated C64 and Apple II intros.

    In terms of gameplay I thought BT3 was very tough. It took me a long time to get through the starter Dungeon. I made it to the first dimension after Skara Brae and found that the fights were even tougher and gave up - the thought of another 5 dimensions which would get progressively tougher wasn't very appealing. Shame because some of the later dimensions sounded interesting.

    In terms of scale, variety and enjoyment I found BT1 to be a much better game.

  16. Actually, I think Bard's Tale III was really meant to be played with a transferred party, not new blood. The rather drastic jump in difficulty bears this out.

    I remember playing this, and getting stuck, actually. There was one realm that you did not regenerate spell points in, so if you ran low, Harmonic Gems and the bard song was it. It also required repeated castings of GILL. Needless to say, I ran too low on sp to cast the spell needed to leave that dimension!

    1. It would have been interesting if they had a way to ramp the difficulty based on the level of the PCs. Bard's Take was based (somewhat) on the Tunnels & Trolls paper RPG so rather than giving monsters a stat block they simply had a Monster Rating and whatever details made them special. It would have been (probably) pretty easy to program in a sliding scale of difficulty based on the PC's average level.

  17. Weirdly enough, I've been doing a similar project to yours for about 4 years now and got referred to your blog by a friend recently. I haven't read all the entries yet, but I saw you were up to Bard's Tale 3 and I feel like I really need to tell you that it's fine to quit this one after you get the feel for it. The same friend loved this game but he played it on C64 and Amiga, while I have been playing only PC games like you and the PC port is massively inferior from what I can tell. There's a few enormous bugs (the worst is that instant-kill weapons do not work at all ever) and far too much combat - I started running from every combat somewhere around the fourth world and still had enough experience to finish the game, a far cry from the excellent pacing of the first game. In my view the few improvements (different sized dungeons, some twists on quests) didn't make up for the problems and the vast amounts of empty space in the game compared to its peers (I think I went on to this directly after Dungeon Master). I stuck it out to the end and I really didn't need to.

    In other news, thanks for this blog - it didn't even occur to me that other people would be interested in this kind of thing and I imagine the community interaction adds a lot to what you're doing. I hope I'll have the opportunity to comment more when I'm up to date!

  18. "My idea is that my original party was slain trying to defeat the second game, and the message intended for them has instead fallen into the hands of a group of rank amateurs." - I love that concept.

    Also - I think your post about strange party composition deserves a special post. I beat a 90's era Might & Magic (6 I think) with a party of 4 paladins. Only thing I really missed was a lack of travel spells which made travel time consuming.

  19. Given that this is 1988, I think your sound settings are okay. This is just after the first wave of music synthesizer cards for the PC -- the Ad Lib and the Roland MT-32 -- but before the Soundblaster. The technology seems to have made it inconvenient to play incedental sounds at the same time as a music track, so some games just went with one or the other.

  20. There was really no way to know that the Jabba-the-Huttish creature known as a "bloodfiend" in the outdoor area would turn into a merchant of death callled a "goresucker" the moment I hit the first dungeon.

    It is lines like this one that make me smile when I read this blog.

  21. Stu: don't know why, but they weren't there for me.

    Trudodyr: no, I tried cranking up the CPU speed. Even if it had worked, it would have been cheating, though.

    Jason: I found that. The Duotime song. But it doesn't speed it up that much.

    Tomaswoj, you certainly have an interesting project going. I think the limitations of the device would defeat me, but I'm old-fashioned that way. I don't understand people who watch movies on their phones, either.

    Aelfric, I'm with you. I really want to get to MM2 and POR. I never played HotL, but I'll steal your quote if I agree.

    Thanks for the tips, Anon. The opening dungeon is getting a bit tedious, so I hope things pick up after that, although Bunyip's review suggests I'm in for a bleak time. Acrin, it sounds like you and I are having the same experience. Azrael, thanks for the warning on that; I'll watch out for that realm.

    Bunyip, glad to have you. The comments really do help to keep me going, yes.

    Eric, that's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. I did MM6 with four druids once. Maybe I'll try to play POR with a party of all thieves. I tried to go through Baldur's Gate II with an atheist party--no clerics--but I couldn't make it work even with copious potions.

  22. Yay! I'm finally alive!

    @Bunyip: Could you post a link if you have typed anything on your gaming experiences?

    @Anon/CRPGAddict: Best line ever was, "And here's the other thing: I'm not entirely sure that Tera isn't really stupid. I mean, like Ultima II stupid," from your October 2010 posting, Terra: Lost in Translation.

  23. Hey, CRPGAddict: Do you play your own music during games without/with too poor music to enjoy? If so, what?

  24. No, I don't like "background music" to anything. When I listen to music, it's the same as watching a movie: I don't want to do anything else but listen. But since you asked: traditional New Orleans-style jazz is my great passion in life. I'm going to Jazzfest in two months, and I'm having trouble concentrating on anything else.

  25. As far as I remember, you need to wait until you have archmages and stone blades before you can take out the good ole Brilhasti.
    With new Characters.
    If you import your chars from BT2, you can go right down and remove him.

    1. FWIW, I found it *possible* by the time you get to level 13 sorceror, but much easier after going 13 conjurer/magician -> 13 sorceror -> 13 magician/conjuror. IIRC that's about when your noncasters are level 14 or 15.

      Spoiler: There's a spell that lets you stop Brilhasti from summoning, which is pretty essential.

  26. Great blog, just found it.

    I really enjoyed bt3 (never bothered much with 2). Lovely packaging really gave a good impression and the different dimensions were cool.

    The game gets very silly hit points wise late on with monsters having 10000, so a monk is bad compared with a hunter.

    On the c64 the portrait graphics were absolutely stunning, probably the best of any game on the machine. Sounds like the poster above is right and this port sucks.

  27. In the iPad port (when you buy the "new" Bard's Tale app, you get the previous 3 as a bonus in what appears to be the DOS versions), if you say "Burger" in the Mad God's Temple in BT1 - you offend them and get attacked by 99 ancient ones, 99 soul suckers, 99 xx, 99 xx (xx - incredibly difficult monsters). Not sure if anyone has ever beat this gropuing of monsters, but you'd likely get 2 million xp or so for this encounter!

    1. The ports in the "new" Bard's Tale are the Apple IIGS versions for BT 1 and 2, and Apple II for BT 3 (since that one never had a IIGS version). The IIGS ports were the last to be released, and were probably the best available. Since they were ported solely by Rebecca "Burger" Heineman (who also ported other games to the IIGS by herself), BT 1 includes this easter egg.

      BT 3 was also mainly designed and programmed by her, so all versions also include this joke... but instead of attacking you, the priest then says "just kidding." :)

    2. Sadly the MOS CPU architecture (6502 etc) has no convenient 32bit addition, so the maximum amount of experience on the Apple IIgs you can get per character per battle is 65535.

    3. The only "convenient" addition the 6502 has is 8 bit addition. 16 bit require two instructions, 24 three and 32 bit require four instructions, which I would still call convenient, or at least there is no special border between 16 and 32 bit addition - it just needs linearly more space and time.

      If you need an explanation on why games often stop at 16 bit, its not the convenience of the CPU architecture of the time.

    4. Max XP on C64 versions of BT1 and BT2 is 65280 decimal (FF00 hex), not 65535 (FFFF).

      C64 BT3 lets you get a nice round 100000 decimal (one hundred thousand).

  28. Hating "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is an eminently logical thing to do if your exposure to it came entirely second-hand from boorish nerds at gaming tables and conventions. I am not sure what your exposure to it was, though. I will say that though all my Monty Python experience was from my parents and thus had none of the taint of "unfunny quoting-whole-scenes nerd" on it, I still find several parts of Holy Grail to be eye-rollingly atrocious. Maybe talking about farting in a French accent was somehow funny in the 1970s, but yeah, no.

    1. My exposure to it was having seen the film. I thought it was stupid even when I was a kid. What you mention about certain sequences only being funny in the 1970s, I basically feel about the entire movie.

  29. I remember the title screen of this game. I think I played it on the C64 which puts this game at first place of the chronology. Pirates! and Starflight are older games than this one but I played them on the Amiga and the PC, years later after they were released. I tried playing BT III, but I was far too young and too illiterate in the english tongue to understand the game.

  30. This comment has been removed by the author.

  31. I don't know about you, but I would definitely play The Fate's Tale III: Thief of Bard.

  32. Ha, people can be so different. Monty Python is exactly my kind of humour. I watched the movie once twice on the same day and laughed so much. Its all so senseless, I like that.

  33. Interview link with Burger goes to 404.

    New link: https://www.gamedeveloper.com/design/the-burger-speaks-an-interview-with-an-archmage


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