Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Dragon Wars: Where Be Dragons?

Rumors are all that remain of dragons.

In my last posting, Raifield linked me to a Matt Barton interview with Rebecca "Burger" Heineman, programmer on The Bard's Tale series and Dragon Wars. She describes the origin of this game's name, which was originally going to be The Bard's Tale IV, amidst a dispute with Electronic Arts. EA held the rights to the "Bard's Tale" title but not the code, and Interplay didn't want to publish the new game through EA.

They said, "Oh, you want to use the name? Publish through us." Push came to shove, and that's when Brian came to me and said, "Okay, we're calling it Dragon Wars." I looked him dead in the eye and said, "You do know there's no dragons in the story?" "Well, it's Dragon Wars now."

So I had to come up with, at the last minute, a story that had a dragon in it, and put little quips every now and then that said there were dragon wars in the past. But since the game was only a month or two away from shipping, I couldn't re-do the actual ending of the game to make a battle of the dragons. So, it's a running joke that we shipped a game called Dragon Wars with hardly any dragons in it.

I can't help but think that it might have been easier to pull an alternate name out of the air (The Beast from the Pit, Purgatory) than to spend a lot of time inserting dragons into a finished game that didn't otherwise have them, but in any event, if not for the article, I wouldn't have realized that the dragon lore was a last-minute addition. So far, at least, the game handles it very well. I still haven't found any dragons, but I have found enough journal entries to justify the title.

Most lore is through journal entries, but occasionally something like this happens.

Solid attention to lore and story--introduced slowly through the journal entries rather than all-at-once through the manual--is one of four major things to separate Dragon Wars from The Bard's Tale and to make it a fundamentally better game. The beginning of the manual only told me that I was on the island of Dilmun and Namtar's laws had forced me penniless into Purgatory. During the course of the game since then, I've learned that:

  • The island wasn't always this way. Namtar, formerly a king's sorcerer, overthrew King Drake of Kingshome and continues to use the king's armies to conquer the lands.
  • Dilmun is actually a series of islands connected by bridges.
  • Before Namtar, Dilmun was a bunch of independent city-states that were frequently at war. But none was ever able to conquer the others because they all kept captive dragons as a kind of "nuclear option." It's a bit of a mystery why these cities didn't release their dragons when Namtar rose to power in Kingshome and started conquering the land.

One of the conquered and ruined cities
  • Namtar has conquered or destroyed all of the cities on the island except for Byzanople (nice portmanteau). It remains free and is currently under siege. There's also a rumor of a free city called "Freeport" in some eastern islands. (No word about whether it contains the fabled treasure of El-El-Bin.)
  • It is uncertain whether Namtar is a demon or a man.
  • Namtar uses a secret police called the "Stosstrupen." (A name adopted directly from the German for "thrust troops," an alternate name used for Nazi stormtroopers.)

Honest folk flee, but criminals don't?
  • The Temple of the Sun felll very quickly to Namtar, and an ex-priest suspects the high priest, Mystalvision, betrayed the temple.

The second major addition to Dragon Wars is the usage of skills, adapted from Wasteland. I've had to re-learn the dynamic, by which every time the game gives you some kind of message about the environment, you want to pause and consider whether a particular skill would help in this scenario. Some examples include:

  • Using the "swim" ability was the way to get out of Purgatory from the harbor exit.
  • Using my "bandage" ability when I encountered an injured solider got me some lore about the goddess Irkalla.
  • Using my "tracking" ability when I encountered messages about strange beasts or parties having passed through the area allowed me to automatically follow their trails.

  • Using my "strength" attribute on a stone allowed me to lift it and find a set of stairs beneath
  • Using my "town lore" ability when I got a brief message in a town square gave me a longer journal entry about the dragon that had been kept there. (In general, though, I've been disappointed about how rarely town lore, cave lore, and forest lore have told me anything about towns, caves, and forests.)

I have no doubt that I've missed plenty of opportunities to use skills and find additional treasures and experience, but that only enhances the replayability of the game. It's neat that none of these things were especially necessary to progress in the game, but all were welcome enhancements.

The third major improvement is an open, relatively nonlinear game world. In my first posting, I fretted about leaving Purgatory before exploring the passage to the underworld. I needn't have worried. So far, the game has let me backtrack to every area already visited, and it turns out there are multiple entrances to and exits from the underworld. The places you visit are interesting, with multiple encounters and discoveries, but more important they're thematically consistent. I've often praised the Might & Magic series for its open approach to world exploration, but when you get down to it, many of its locations and encounters are really goofy and incompatible with each other. This game (at least so far) doesn't experience those problems.

The final distinction lies in the quality of roleplaying choices, which occur on a meta level, through a general approach rather than in simple dialogue or individual selection of actions. See my discussion below of the slave camp for a little elaboration.

When you find yourself fighting escaped slaves, you're probably on the wrong side of the moral line.

I've played quite a bit of the game since my first posting. It kept me occupied throughout an entire nine-hour flight home from South America the other night, when I probably should have been trying to sleep. These are the major areas that I explored:

1. Magan Underworld. Before I realized I'd be able to visit whenever I wanted, I felt it was necessary to go here before leaving Purgatory. I soon found myself significantly outclassed by the denizens, but I pressed forward, running from battles when necessary, helped considerably by a magic-recharging pool. The area contained multiple exits, some treasure in locked chests (glad I took lockpicking as a skill), and the fabled pit from which Namtar received the designation "The Beast from the Pit."

Given that he was spawned in a pit, I'm going to have to go with "demon" on the whole human/demon question.

There was a weird bit here where I accidentally stumbled onto a chasm (I didn't even know what it was from the graphic) and the game said I simply floated above it and rewarded me with 5 skill points for my bravery.

I also found a cave where a mysterious voice told me about Namtar, including that to defeat him, I'd need to find the Sword of Freedom and reconcile a dispute between two gods of the underworld, Irkalla and Nergal. There was a little island I couldn't reach, even with the swim skill, but it seems to have something to do with Irkalla, and I guess I'll need to return and try other things.

I never said I was a worshipper!

2. The Slave Camp. A camp of escaped slaves was just outside Purgatory's walls. When I first entered, I got a message saying that the ex-slaves were suspicious of me and wanted me to leave, but I wanted to explore the area first. As I walked along, a bunch of them attacked me, and after I defeated them, I got a message making me feel worse than I ever have from a CRPG, with the possible exception of the outcome of a major roleplaying choice in Quest for Glory V.

The camp is deserted. Apparently everyone who lived here was slain in your recent battle. You notice signs of habitation, but whoever lived here was dirt poor. It’s unlikely you’ll find anything of worth in the camp. Glancing back at the pile of bodies left in your wake, and then at the bucolic scene of the camp, you sense there was probably a better way of handling this situation. The man who confronted you seemed a lot like yourself. Maybe he mistook you for authority from Purgatory, and only sought to defend himself. This was probably a time for words, rather than swords.

You can get further with a sword and a kind word than you can with just a sword.

Remembering a near-identical scenario from Wasteland in which I kept playing (and felt bad about it), I reloaded, thought about it, and applied the "bureaucracy" skill when I first entered the camp. This allowed me to explore the area without violence, which turned out to be vital for a few encounters that followed, including some lore about Dilmun, Namtar, and dragons. There was one mystery in this area: a wizard's tower where the wizard kept throwing me out the moment I entered. I expect I need to return later after getting some item or finishing some other encounter. Finally, it was in this area that I picked up my second NPC: a thief-ish guy named Louie.

What if I simply don't respect his privacy?

3. Tars Ruins. These were the ruins of one of the cities that Namtar sacked. It was here that I got the opening screen shot about the dragon that had been kept in the city's square, and I got some good equipment from a party of evil adventurers in the city's ruins.

I fear I spoiled their merriment a bit. Perhaps my only complaint is that the game doesn't offer any kind of friendlier option on this screen, like talking.

In a secret area, I found the "broken arms" of a statue, probably something to do with the "master of high magic" described above.

Finding a bunch of gold and some new spells in the ruins.

4. Slave Estate. A weird area. The succession of journal entries suggested that it had been owned by an aristocrat named Mog, who was an aspiring sculptor. The problem was, he sucked at sculpting, so he somehow acquired an "apprentice," who turned out to be a demon capable of turning creatures to stone with its gaze. After that, the quality of the sculptures naturally rose considerably.

This is a bit of a trope in CRPGs, isn't it? How often is a message like this a good sign?

But the demon eventually froze Mog himself and took over the estate. I ended up killing it, wielding mirrors for defense. I tried to think of a way to turn the statues back to flesh, or if the area had anything to do with the "stone arms" I'd discovered previously, but nothing came to me.

There were some small outdoor areas and bridge areas in between these indoor maps. I've currently crossed one of the bridges and am exploring the city of Phoebus, a "heavily militarized city," of which the game gave me this ominous (and funny) introduction:

The walls of this city are of bright marble that seem to glow with an inner light. The streets are paved and clean, and there is no sign of poverty or disorder. The horse carts run on time. You can’t shake the feeling something is about to go tragically wrong.

The papers I got in the gladiatorial ring in Purgatory turned out to be useful. But he also wanted a bunch of gold, so I ended up killing him anyway.

As I've progressed, I've found fewer magic-recharging pools, but this is ameliorated through the acquisition of dozens of "dragon stones," which provide single-use recharging capabilities. I suspect there are a fixed number in the game, and I hope they don't turn out to be absolutely crucial in volume at some point, because I've been using them very liberally.

In these explorations, I've had to break my normal reloading rules. There is apparently a way to resurrect dead characters, but I haven't found it yet, and the loss of a single character is devastating enough (though rarely occurring) that I don't think I'd be able to continue if I kept playing. As it happens, I accidentally saved after the death of one NPC (Louie), meaning I'll either have to dump him or find the resurrection method.

I'm just throwing in this cool picture here.

The game's approach to leveling is a bit odd, but not unwelcome. Leveling doesn't give you any hit point or spell point increases; the only advantage seems to be two extra points to spend on attributes and skills. Keep in mind that you get 50 points at the outset of the game, so characters really change very little. Development comes more in the acquisition of spells and equipment (my focus for the next posting). I suspect that part of the reason for the slow leveling is that the developers wanted to pursue the reality, rather than an illusion, of an open game world. In this way, the game is more truly open than, say, Might & Magic, where you could theoretically go anywhere from the first square, but had a .0001% chance of surviving any place but the opening town.

In my next posting, I'll talk more about combat, magic, and equipment, since I've now acquired spells in all of the different magic classes. I'm having a great time with the game, and if Ms. Heineman does stop by, I sure hope she reads these postings instead of my coverage of The Bard's Tale III.


  1. Its good to hear your enjoyment flow from the voice of these posts. This is one I missed back in the day and Now I may have to find out where to get a copy to play.

  2. Dragon Stones are from a Dragon's gaul bladder,

    1. Sorry, but I have to: Does a gaul bladder look anything like this? :D

  3. This really is a terrific game. Even though I enjoyed bt3, it's clear this is much better, although I had annoyingly corrupted creature graphics on my copy.

    It is a good point about stats not increasing so much: it became totally ridiculous in bt3 when monsters had over 10khp mandating the use of hunters and their critical hits.

    1. Were critical hits functional in all versions of Bard's Tale?

    2. They were on all the c64 versions...

  4. Heh, sneaky way to get me to comment... Lori and I are now trying to figure out what terrible role-playing choice we gave you in Quest for Glory V. Did it have to do with, "You may only rescue one"?

    I am often faced with difficult RP choices. For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I chose to play a Sith Inquisitor who only makes Light Side choices, and a Sith Warrior who only chooses the Dark Side. Frequently either choice angers my current companion; sometimes I dismiss the companion before making the choice.

    It's a lot like when we played D&D and had prisoners we were afraid to leave behind us. So after we looted them, the Thief would quietly "slit their throats". But if we had a Paladin in the party, he would never allow that. So we had a running gag about someone convincing the party to turn around while the Thief went about his business. Then the rest of us would adopt a shocked expression and say, "Oh, no, they must have gotten loose and slit each other's throats" or an equally likely story. In our house rules, Paladins were not allowed to have an Intelligence score higher than 9 on a 3-18 scale. :-)

    1. er, that is of course "convincing the Paladin", not "convincing the party".

      I love the origin story for the name Dragon Wars. I had no idea it was even related to The Bard's Tale. I wonder if they had as many problems with the name change and lost sales as Sierra had changing Hero's Quest to Quest for Glory. (They weren't allowed to even advertise it as the sequel to Hero's Quest.)

    2. Yes, that's exactly what it was about, and not even so much the choice as what happened to the one I DIDN'T choose immediately afterward.

    3. I'm a huge QfG fan and I almost lost track of the series during the change from Hero's Quest to Quest for Glory. I just happened to see the box in a bargain bin and had a glance at it. It still took me a bit of looking it over to realize it was the sequel to Hero's Quest.

      Similarly, it wasn't until some time in the last few years that I realized Dragon Wars had anything even remotely to do with The Bard's Tale series, which is a shame, I probably would've picked it up when it was new. I always thought it had a cool box cover though.

  5. Translating "Stosstruppen" (note the double s, which should really be that specific German letter "ß") as "thrust troops" sounds slightly... unfortunate. The accepted translation seems to be "shock troops". Stoßtrupps came to prominence in WWI and consisted of crack infantry used to take enemy trenches in quick actions, usually without the artillery barrage that preceded ordinary attacks (and that gave the attack away). George Lucas took them as inspiration for the Imperial stormtroopers in Star Wars, though I kind of think WWI Germans were better shots. See Wikipedia in German and English:

    1. Isn't the "ß" optional now? I thought they made "ss" and "ß" both acceptable a few years ago.

      That said I agree. Speaking from a Danish perspective "stød" (stoed) is technically "thrust", but "stødtropper" are definitely storm or shock troops.

    2. I didn't make it up. I got it from Wikipedia (first sentence):

      The article says that two termswere used: sturmtruppen (storm troops) and stosstruppen (thrust troops).

    3. In German, ss and ß have (well, traditionally had) different phonetic uses. German vowels can be long or short, based on what comes after them in the syllable. If a vowel is followed by a single consonant in the syllable, it's long, and if it's followed by two, it's short.

      The german 's' by itself is generally close to the english 'zzz' sound, so for the english 'sss' sound you have to use ss or ß. However, if you have a syllable with a 'ss' then that is a double consonant which would normally make the preceding vowel short. If the vowel should be long, however, you have to spell it with a ß which counts as a single consonant.

      HOWEVER, they changed the rules on this a few years ago and so nobody (even Germans) seem to know what is what. Most of the common words that used ß were converted to ss.

    4. Actually, the new rules did clarify the distinction between 'ss' and 'ß' in a logical way: in short, 'ss' ends a syllable with a short vowel preceding it, while 'ß' terminates a syllable with a long vowel. Examples are "Fass" ("keg"), with a short 'a' (pronounced almost like the English "fuss"), and "Fuß" ("foot"), with a long 'u' (pronounced more or less like the American, not English, "fuse"). In the past, 'ss' and 'ß' had been used after short and long vowels very inconsistently, and you had to memorize the writing of every single word without being able to deduct the correct spelling in a logical way. This is different now.
      Hope this helps.

  6. The "Irkalla bonus", as that magical five-skill-point chasm jump is known, is the quickest way to cheat the game: (1) Start new game (2) Sacrifice something to Irkalla's statue in Purgatory (3) Enter Underworld (4) Get five SP (5) Save, Quit, and Restart the game. You can create superhumans in an hour without trying too hard.

    Good choice to reload and use Bureaucracy at the Slave Camp. A hint: Magicians are being hunted down by Namtar right now. If you're trying to make friends, how might you show him that you're on his side? You already have the right skills for this.

    This is one of my problems with the game: even if you can figure out *what* to do, it's not always clear *where* you should do it. Case in point -- the other way to kill the Gaze Demon is to *stand one square away* from where the combat starts and (U)se a mirror. You never get into battle, you just kill it immediately. You might notice (I think the message flashes by very quickly) that the demon shatters all your mirrors immediately when you enter combat with him.

    As far as I know, you can't un-stone any of the statues in Mog's "sculpture garden". You're right that the Stone Arms are a separate thing (DON'T DROP THEM).

    P.S., if you sell yourself into slavery in Purgatory, you wind up in the mines underneath the Slave Estate. Thus the name.

    There are, generally speaking, enough (although maybe not "plenty") Dragon Stones around.

    Louie turns out to be kind of a weak fighter, but the fourth NPC doesn't appear for a long time and you'll want someone to fill out your front-four. You will have to heal him more often than anyone else to keep him from dying, though. If you're in Phoebus, you're still quite a ways off from discovering the resurrection method, so if you're going to start over to get Louie back, I'd do it soon before you progress too far into the game.

    (Also, I'm assuming it's okay to post "antispoilers" of things that you've already finished, like the alternate solution to the Gaze Demon. If not, please say, and I'll stop :)

    1. I want to say there is a way to un-stone the people on Mog's estate. But, its been a while since I've played the game, so I can't be totally sure.

      Gel hfvat gur Qehvq fcryy Fbsgra Fgbar ba gur fgnghrf, vs lbh unir vg.

  7. I did a revisit to Dragon Wars 2 years ago on my blog but didn´t have the time to continue playing it after about 15 hours into it so I gave up. It clearly did have its strengths and is far better than any previous Bards Tale.

    I remember I didn´t like the fact that there was no way to tell which weapon where better than another one and that was frustrating.

    One thing I do want to mention is that in the Amiga version the music in the game is just fabulous. One should really try to play the Amiga version. The atmoshpere the music brings adds a lot and I still listen to it to this very day.

    Saintus from

  8. How did you manage to play 9 hours on a plane? What kind of battery do you have that allows you to do that? :O

    1. Power outlet at the seat. I should have been using it to work, but I convinced myself that all my work required Internet access, hich you don't usually have on international flights.

  9. That Gaze Demon is one of the coolest monsters I've seen on this blog in a while, it reminds me of Swamp Thing.

  10. If you liked the multiple outcomes/choices you got so far, wait till you get to one of the cities later in the game (can't remember the exact name): using a... non-orthodox way to solve a quest there will have big, and pretty surprising, consequences.

    It's such a pity that this wonderful game was so overlooked, even though it's vastly superior to most of the RPGs of that era.

  11. Escaped Slave: "I don't trust you."
    The Party: "Thats fine, just fill out trust form 4025T and wait four to six weeks."
    Escaped Salve: "I'm convinced you aren't working with Namtar, I trust you now."

    I think bureaucracy might have been better named, negotiation or speech.

    1. Ha! I thought about something similar. I was thinking "diplomacy" would be a better term. Fortunately, the manual defines the skill in terms of "public speaking," so I had the right idea in my head when I visited the camp.

    2. I'm sorry, but you need the Trust Form 4025T-3, with the Thrall Addendum. Unless it's Sunday or a public holiday, then you need the Thrust Form during Public Holidays with the Thrall Addendum 4025U-3.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. If that is the kind of world the resistance is fighting for maybe it would be better to be ruled by a despot.

  12. Does Dragon Wars have the same confounding system whereby the first person perspective is sourced from slightly behind the party unless you're facing a wall?

    It really messes with my bearings when I can see a door to the northwest, and I turn west to find myself facing the door head on.

  13. IIRC the statues at the Slave Estate couldn't be un-stoned. But the Addict's comments reminded me of a similar puzzle, later in the game, that I never solved. Rot-13'd because this involves instruction-manual-paragraph spoilers:

    V sbhaq gur fgbar cvrprf bs Ynanpgbbe naq ernffrzoyrq gurz; guvf vf arprffnel gb npprff n pregnva nern. Ohg V jnf arire noyr gb erfgber Ynanpgbbe gb yvsr. Gurer'f n cnentencu va gur znahny qrfpevovat Ynanpgbbe'f eriviny, ohg V qba'g xabj vs V zvffrq ubj gb qb vg, be vs vg'f whfg bar bs gubfr zrnavatyrff wbxr cnentencuf.

    A couple more things I feel I should mention...

    -I heartily recommend going back to Purgatory and selling yourself into slavery at least once before you're done with the game. The slave mine dungeon is too much fun to pass up. Well, fun for you. Maybe not so much fun for your party.

    -There are some permanently missable things (if you make the wrong choices). It's also possible to drop/destroy/sell? a lot of items that are critically important to sidequests, so be careful. I don't think it's possible to break the "main" quest though...

    1. Vs lbh zrna gur cnentencu nobhg chggvat ure nezf ba onpxjneqf (cnen svsgl sbhe) gura lrf, vg vf n snxr. Lbh qb abg erivir ure.

    2. "Ebbg pnany" fcryyrq onpxjneqf? Htu.

  14. I think the "nazi" part is unwarranted in a WW1 context.

    1. Yeah, seems a poor choice of name for those foes. Stormtroopers weren't 'bad guys' and weren't secret police. A better name for those black-clad creeps would have been Schutzstaffel, if you wanted some sort of totalitarian symbolism.

      Not that I think using Nazi-esque terms for your bad guys is necessary or all that palatable.

  15. That "underworld beast" looks a lot like the thing from the opening splash screen.

  16. Warning! If you don't pick up the Stone Trunk when you find it, it will be gone when you come back for it!

    I don't remember whether there's still some way to finish Lanac'Toor's statue.

  17. Yes, I read this! Hi there!

    1. Hello Ms Heineman!

      Any chance that we'll see your name attached to BT IV?

      Did you happen to work on the original Battlechess?

    2. - Making Things Surreal For Gamers Around The World Since 2010.

    3. Thanks for visiting, Becky! I hope you don't mind my pan of The Bard's Tale III. If you ever return, we'd love to hear more of your recollections about the making of this game or any of the other early Interplay titles.


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