Thursday, November 23, 2017

Game 270: The Bard's Tale Construction Set (1991)

     
The Bard's Tale Construction Set
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga
Date Started: 20 November 2017

Of all the game engines that existed by 1991, The Bard's Tale seems like an odd one for a construction set. The last Bard's Tale game was three years old at this point, and the engine--which had been based on Wizardry--was showing its age even then. Interplay had released several titles in the intervening years with more complex mechanics, including Waste Land (1988), Dragon Wars (1989), and Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990). Then again, the only other major commercial RPG construction kit so far--Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set (1984)--had been roundly criticized as being too complicated.

The Bard's Tale kit is odd for a couple other reasons. We learned a long time ago that Interplay's Dragon Wars (1989) was originally going to be The Bard's Tale IV, but Electronic Arts, the publisher for the first three games, held the rights to the name and wouldn't let Interplay use it unless EA was the publisher. (Honestly, has EA never not had a rubbish reputation?) I'm curious what changed in the intervening two years, as here we are with a Bard's Tale title with no EA involvement.
      
Games made with the construction kit look and play like a combination of the three games in the series.
     
Nor, I should add, is there any involvement from the creators of The Bard's Tale and its two sequels. The names showing up on this title are names that we'll remember--names that will appear on titles like Fallout and the Infinity Engine games--but we're mostly seeing them for the first time.
          
I don't know if I would have been excited about a construction set using the Bard's Tale engine in 1991. It was adequate for its era but only adequate. It offers nothing on Wizardry except for graphics. More than any other series, I think The Bard's Tale benefits from a nostalgia factor that overpowers the reality of average games with minimal lore, goofy plots, and far too much grinding.
            
The first one is the best of the lot. The second and third, by starting characters at extremely high levels, basically negate any sense of accomplishment that come with character development. Thus, I've had a reasonable amount of fun with the sample scenario, titled Star Light Festival, and the difficult opening stages that it offers. There's something about a game that makes you play for a couple of hours before rewarding you with a pair of leather gloves. Minus 1 AC for one character, baby!
    
Building a dungeon level with the map editor.
     
I don't know how much time I'll spend messing around with the construction set itself. It has too many limitations. There's no way to abandon a high fantasy setting. The races, classes, and attributes are hard-coded. All maps have to be 22 x 22 (though of course you can wall-in some of the space). You can't adjust the pace of leveling or the advancement of rogue skills. You can't tie the effectiveness of spells to the level of the caster. You can make your own items and spells, but you have a list of effects more limited than the original three games. Stores will only sell the first nine items on your equipment list. You cannot rename shops; the equipment shop is always Garth's. Perhaps most annoying given the title of the game, you can't define your own list of bard songs.
      
The shop never has more than one small page of merchandise.
     
The list of special encounter options is reasonably long. When you tag a map square with a special encounter, you write a script to go with it, which can consist of various conditional tests or even user prompts (e.g., for riddles) and can result in text, bestowal or removal of items, bestowal of experience, and modification of attributes. Still, the potential for navigation puzzles is fairly weak, as it is in the original series, and while you can include spinners and darkness squares and such, you can't construct puzzles involving pits and pressure plates a la Dungeon Master. That would be a cool construction set.

Worst of all, you can't even give a name to your compiled game or create a title screen with your name. Every completed game, including the sample one, just starts with the main Construction Set screen. On the plus side, once you compile the game, it runs directly from an executable with no need for the original disks or engine. A BTCS game can be shared with anyone regardless of whether they own the Construction Set. I gather that isn't true of most kit games.
       
Defining a monster with the monster editor.
    
Anyway, the CRPG Addict is addicted to playing RPGs, not building them. Thus, I've been spending most of my time with the sample scenario. I figured it would be short and inconsequential, but it's shaping up to be as long as the original Bard's Tale. The setup is that your amateur party has come to the village of Isil Thania for an annual "Star Light Festival," but something ominous seems to be happening in town. At a bar, the party hears a rumor to ask the bartender for wine, thus opening the way to the first dungeon.
    
The game mostly uses the updated engine from The Bard's Tale III. Enemies can start at range and there are ranged weapons, neither of which was possible in the first Bard's Tale. Graphics have been updated to VGA. Sound is weird. They went through the trouble of recording advanced effects that you need a proper sound card to hear, but there are only about five of them. Every enemy has the same Wilhelm-esque death scream. Every spell sounds like a magic missile thwapping someone, including healing spells and the bard's restoration of his vocal cords when he buys a drink. Sound slows down combat so much that it's better to play with it off.
    
The party lights up the wine cellar.
    
Although all five spellcasting classes from the original game are here--conjurer, magician, sorcerer, wizard, and archmage--there are far, far fewer spells, basically two per level through level 3, and then one per level after that. To cast spells, you need to know their four-letter code, so you have to have the documentation.
         
Gone is the ability from the second two Bard's Tale games to save the game independent of the characters. You have to return to the adventurer's guild to save. I like the difficulty associated with this, but not the limited gameplay, as basically the dungeons never "clear" and the only way to measure progress through the game is via inventory.
         
Characters start at Level 1. There's a default party, but I scrapped it to make my own. Races are human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, half-elf, half-orc, and gnome. Classes are warrior, paladin, rogue, bard, hunter, monk, and the five spellcasting classes, although you can only start as a magician or conjurer (you have to switch to the others later). Attributes are strength, IQ, dexterity, constitution, and luck, and the attribute rolls during character creation are not generous. There is no explicit option for sex, and all portraits show male characters. You can make up to 7 characters, but as with the previous games, you generally want to leave a slot open for NPCs.
   
Rolling a new character.
     
Isil Thania is a 22 x 22 city full mostly of empty houses, although it does have more going on than the original game's Skara Brae. In addition to the guild and equipment shop, there's a separate archery shop, Roscoe's Energy Emporium (which recharges spell points), the Review Board (increases levels and confers spells), four bars, and three temples. There's an odd building where you can get random rumors. 
     
This is new to this game.
      
The streets are far less deadly than Skara Brae, thankfully. Most enemy parties are easily defeated at the first level. The downside is that they don't offer much in the way of gold or experience. It costs 2,000 experience points to get to Level 2, and the average town party might award you 5 or 7. So unlike the first game, you don't want to spend a lot of time grinding in town; you want to go right for the dungeons.
      
This is sure going to take a while.
      
There are signs that there will be several. The first is the wine cellar of the first bar; just like in The Bard's Tale, you enter by ordering wine. The first level even uses the same map as the wine cellar in Skara Brae. Elsewhere in the city, denizens of a tower demand to know who sent me, a giant slab appears to want some kind of code, and one entire quadrant is blocked by locked gates. I assume these will all have dungeons behind them.
     
I guess I'll be back later with the key.
     
The default monsters in the kit, and the ones used by Star Light Festival, are standard D&D-style creatures like goblins, orcs, giant rats, and skeletons. This is unusual for the series, which until now has reveled in creating hundreds of bizarrely-named creatures like "muck-yuckers" and "hell minks" whose strengths and weaknesses you must learn through extensive trial and error. 
     
I don't think this is anyone's understanding of what a "goblin" looks like.
    
Combat is unchanged from the second two Bard's Tale games (or Waste Land or Dragon Wars for that matter). Initial encounter options are to attack in melee range, attack with a ranged weapon (if you have one), advance closer (if the enemy starts at range), or flee. Once in melee combat, you have options to attack, defend, cast a spell, use an item, play a bard song (for bards), or hide in shadows (for rogues). You line up your action for each character and watch them carry them out, interspersed with the enemies' actions, in sequence. (FYI for those considering playing, it's an undocumented feature that the + and - keys speed up and slow down the speed of the message scroll; you'll definitely want to speed it up.)
       
Combat actions scroll by in a bout against some wolves.
     
The magician in Star Light Festival gets a healing spell at Level 1, which is nice, but you can only cast it about three times before you're out of spell points, and spell points restore slowly: one every five minutes in real time, double that if the bard is playing the "Rhyme of Duotime," but only outside during the day. There's no "rest" mechanic to restore health or magic. Thus, most of your gold goes to the temples and Roscoe's.
   
Roscoe has gotten a bit weird.
      
Even in the first level of the dungeon, experience rewards are paltry enough that for a long time your only mechanisms for development are inventory acquisitions. It's a real treat to find that first pair of gauntlets, or to swap out your starting broadsword for a magic sword.
The first level of the Wine Cellar.
    
I mapped the first level of the wine cellar while only getting about one-quarter of the way to the second character level. There were some fixed treasures and combats but no special encounters or messages. I haven't quite hit the six hours yet, so I guess I'll give it a little longer while I research a bit more about the reception of the Construction Kit and what kinds of games were made with it.

Time so far: 4 hours

50 comments:

  1. Star Light Festival is pretty interesting and might as well be a full-length RPG, yeah.

    I believe only four Bard's Tale Construction Set scenarios (aside from Star Light Festival) were ever completed and shared with the internet. Three can be downloaded here: http://www.bardstaleonline.com/btcs/homebrew while the contact information for the maker of the fourth is there.

    The fifth one mentioned, Nutilan, was never finished ( http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/1192?page=1#comment-2627 ) and the maker went on to work on Devil Whiskey.

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  2. Ah, come on, design your own dungeon and let everyone have a crack at it. You have enough experience to know what works and what doesn't. You don't have to write a whole scenario, just a dungeon. It would be awesome to see.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Harland. I appreciate your faith in my creativity.

      But nah.

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    2. Anybody here who has made something with the BTCS? Could have been a nice contest to see who made the best dungeon

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    3. I did some with friends, but they mostly consisted of our attempts to port crude early teen humor into the Bard's Tale world. No doubt mercifully lost to the junkyard decades ago. : P

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    4. I made an entire game in BTCS, but it only ran in test mode. Every time I tried to compile it, the BTCS would crash in the process. After several failed attempts, I gave up and never touched the BTCS again. Not saying my game was any good, but I couldn't publish it.

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  3. The Bard's Tale seems like an odd one for a construction set. The last Bard's Tale game was three years old at this point

    I don't think it's that the Bard's Tale franchise was approaching its best-before date, but that the "Construction Set" fad was rapidly receding. EA had released four from '82-85 and there were a few echoes (Marble Madness Construction Set???) bouncing around on store shelves until the concept was commercially extinguished.

    I'm curious what changed in the intervening two years, as here we are with a Bard's Tale title with no EA involvement.

    There's the question. Judging by inXile's 2004 "The Bard's Tale", their contractual settlement with EA may have involved being allowed to use the Bard's Tale name but not any of the characters or ongoing scenarios from the series.

    (Honestly, has EA never not had a rubbish reputation?)

    Up through 1990 I think they were burning their developers on a case by case basis rather than as a matter of standard practice. They hadn't yet begun actively salting the fields by buying, then shuttering, the competition.

    I don't think this is anyone's understanding of what a "goblin" looks like.

    Hm, I think that's how an official TSR Hobgoblin would have been dressed around this period, but wearing the trademark orc pig-face. Curious.

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  4. OK, seriously now.

    I had this as a kid and never made games with it. I never played the original Bard's Tale. It also has relatively limited ability to record permanent changes (there are only 15 global flags) so it's much harder to have an overarching story or plot.

    The natural comparison is with its spiritual successor, FRUA, which had some success in the 1990s and people are still occasionally making a few games for over 20 years later. FRUA, on the other hand, had the D&D franchise to build a user base, and eventually enough that hacks were produced.

    So, crazy thought: eventually you'll get to FRUA, maybe in a year or so in real time. Would you like me to post a suggestion to the FRUA bulletin boards that, hey, the CRPG addict is going to get to FRUA eventually, would anyone like to make a game for him? You could say what you want to see. You'd have your own personal Gold Box game, and it'd be kind of a community-created thing. What do you think?

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    Replies
    1. Oh sweet Jeebers, no, he's got enough to play without someone writing hundreds more hours of gameplay designed specifically to slow him down.

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    2. Most FRUA games last a few hours; 'The Sect', which was more or less the high-water mark of hacked modules and used many extra dungeons through hacks to increase text capacity, only took me about 15 hours to complete. The Addict has extensive CRPG experience and is very familiar with the Gold Box engine.

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    3. "It also has relatively limited ability to record permanent changes (there are only 15 global flags) so it's much harder to have an overarching story or plot."

      There's ways around that for inventive designers, and Star Light Festival itself shows two of them: passwords which have to be gathered, and special events which only trigger if a certain NPC is in your party. (Also, two different ways of getting NPCs who trigger special events in your party!)

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    4. Aren't there enough FRUA adventures already that we don't need to solicit new ones?

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    5. There are lots of FRUA adventures. I would be thrilled if you played one of mine. I’m told they are quite good...

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    6. Just checked the UA directory on my old HD. Found 293 adventures.

      UA was quite popular, how are you even going to pick which adventures to play..

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    7. I don't know yet, but I'll be thrilled when I'm in 1993 and my big problem is deciding which Gold Box games to play.

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  5. So does Irene read your blog?, are you looking for a self-fulfilling prophecy here? :P

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    Replies
    1. Could be another line for his tombstone. "Irene screams at Chester for 9999 damage, killing him."

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    2. He doesn't have enough time to reach the present, he's moving slower than real time passes. He likes to play old RPGs, so he has an excuse to play them all. Works for him and works for his readers ;)

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    3. If she does, I hope she skips it for the next week or so.

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  6. I had this game when I was eleven. I enjoyed it greatly. It was my first exposure to programming, and at the hidden world inside of the game.

    I made a game using it. I remember the delight as I learned to set flags so tavern talk changed based on party progress. I put a lot of work into providing multiple solutions to quests and encounters.

    At eleven, I didn't even notice the limitations, my own were much lower. It was all new and exciting. I went on to learn several programming languages. In high school I made games for the ti 83 provided to the students. It all started with the btcs, the first video game I ever made.

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    1. I had Apogee's Shoot 'em Up Construction Set for the C64. It had minimal instructions but his an awful lot of potential for the persistent SHMUPster. I managed to make a couple complete games but they were pretty low quality.
      I think a crator would need a good sense of what a construction set is capable of before really diving in and making a game. You know, the real nuts and bolts of the set. I'd have been really disappointed if I had a construction set that just wasnt able to help me do what I wanted. I'm looking at you Wargame Construction Set 1 by SSI... WGS2:Tanks! Was a great step forward and WGS3:Rifles was almost too detailed.

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  7. I recall reading that this was actually a big hit at the time, but the scenarios were shared via sneakernet and newsgroups. By the time the Internet rolled around this had been replaced by Unlimited Adventures, a superior product.

    There's hundreds, if not thousands, of Bards Tale scenarios lost forever to us.

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    Replies
    1. Despite my praise above for FRUA (Unlimited Adventures), it had certain limitations BTCS didn't, probably due to intellectual property issues around the D&D license. BTCS could make standalone programs, FRUA couldn't. BTCS allowed you to edit items and spells, FRUA didn't (though there were later hacks to get around this).

      But you raise an interesting point. Has anyone ever sent out a call among old-games communities (RPG Codex comes to mind, but I am sure there are others) to post these things? It would be a wonderful chance to see some individual creativity.

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    2. Add these two BTCS advantages: Unlimited #Maps, while FRUA has a 40 Module limit. And true random encounters, while FRUA counts step numbers, so it´s predictable when you get the next "random" monster in FRUA.

      And BTCS is better documented and less fuss.

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    3. You can generate truly random encounters in FRUA by having the event occur on a 1% random chance.

      But the unlimited maps are definitely a thing. FRUA's probably better documented *at this point* given the extensive analyses performed by the hacking community, but the manual that came with FRUA was awful.

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    4. One more thing: You need more than 1 event in FRUA for achieving the same things that BTCS does with multi-line events. Also, repeating the same event in multiple places does *not* count against allowed event # in BTCS. This means 30 events/map in BTCS is *more* than the 100 events/map in FRUA.

      In all, I believe that, appearances notwithstanding, the BTCS editor is more powerful.

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  8. As someone who loved BT1, but not BT2, I was disappointed that it used the BT2 engine, and with all the limitations of the kit itself. I found FRUA a much superior product for game design, and never finished my BTCS dungeon

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    Replies
    1. What did you see as superior about the BT1 mechanics, though? I thought it was a better game mostly because the characters went from Level 1 up instead of Level 90 up. I otherwise don't see a lot of particular strengths to the earlier game design.

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  9. You mention building dungeons like Dungeon Master would be cool... indeed, and the community have developed many such tools that allow you to work with the original engine over the years. But if you're into that, the Grimrock 1 or 2 editors are light years beyond anything else. Of course, that's decades away from where you are right now.

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  10. So, asking for wine is a sort of a password to get inside a lethal dungeon. Asking for wine. At a tavern.

    Yeah, I cannot imagine what could potentially go wrong here, either.

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    Replies
    1. There's this pub in Manhattan where the only choice is "light or dark" and if you stammer anything about vodka gimlets--not realizing they don't have a full bar--they just walk away and leave you for 20 minutes. I imagine it's that kind of place.

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    2. (Husband gets back home at 3am, all dirty and with his clothes in rags)
      - I swear to you Margaret, I just had one wine

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  11. Please keep this around for some longer. This set had somehow escaped my notice and I find it incredibly cute.

    I also would second the motion that you make a mini adventure! Just a few maps, perhaps? After all, you could finally have an economy that gets it just right.

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  12. Is there any similar modern program? It seems like the only "construction set" nowadays is RPG maker, which is primarily for jRPGs.

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    Replies
    1. Not exactly modern, but Neverwinter Nights (the aurora engine one, not the old gold box one) has an extremely robust creation tool, even allowing for a Dungeon Master mode, allowing you to tweak things on the fly. There's tonnes of modules out there to download, some even made Ultima IV in it for some reason, and someone else made a Pool of Radiance module complete with "Read journal entry #27" shenanigans.

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    2. Morrowind and Oblivion come with Construction Sets, so do the Shadowrun games by Harebrained Schemes. They're all designed to be used by experts, though.

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    3. Please take a look:

      http://ancient-architects.com/?page_id=87

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    4. Like I just said above, Legend of Grimrock 1 & 2 have each incredible editors to make custom dungeons. Obviously 2 is much more powerful, but you can also like the realtive simplicity of 1's engine.

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    5. The Architect, it's a bit funny that you say "Considering that step-by-step “3D” was one of the most defining elements for CRPGs in the early ’90s, it is surprising that this is the only construction kit (which I know of) that features such an interface" about DungeonCraft while posting on a thread about the Bard's Tale Construction Set. ;)

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    6. Neverwinter Nights is due for an enhanced re-release in 2018, and the new version will support the old user-created adventures. I don't know if it will come with the construction kit, but I assume so.

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  13. >>you can't construct puzzles involving pits and pressure plates a la Dungeon Master. That would be a cool construction set.

    Wouldn't it be cool if one of your readers made a couple of dungeons for DM and you'd play one of them? (probably not, but can't hurt asking) :-)

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  14. Dungeon siege had a powerul construction set. It allowed the creation of Ultima V Lazarus and The Ultima 6 Project, which were both amazing. It also makes me wonder why Dungeon Siege came with such a terrible basic module.

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    Replies
    1. Seriously, it was like the designers sat down 1 month before release and said, "Wait, we have to make a game to go with our engine?"

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  15. Playing the Starlight thingy right now. Yes, advancement is REALLY slow. But some of the other shortcomings you mention have been adressed in the patches. I think you can now make leveltimesx power spells, as well as a title page of your own.

    Also, Duotime is more powerful than you think -it replaces your spellpoints real fast, and while it does so, you can use your magician to heal everybody; you don´t really need Roscoe or the Temple. For the price of a beer, you get full spellpoints and party healing. If anything, Duotime is overpowered. But it´s a clickfest, of course.

    In all, it has balance issues, but I don´t know yet if they are scenario related, or extend to the construction kit itself.

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    Replies
    1. The patches thing would make sense. I wondered how the two titles I reviewed in the second post managed to create sub-title screens.

      If you say so on Duotime. I agree that it made the points regenerate faster, but I still didn't think they were fast. Certainly not enough to stand there and wait while my mage's 17 spell points regenerated and he was then able to cast exactly 4 MIHE spells before I had to stand and wait again. Not to mention that the bad doesn't play it forever--it wears off after a few minutes, and then I've got to head to the tavern and find a drink.

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    2. I'm talking about early levels in that example of course. In later levels, the bard plays longer and can play more songs between drinks. There, I could see the song being more valuable.

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  16. There's a few folks over at the Adventurer's Guild that are making their own version of the Bard's Tale Construction Set (BT Builder)
    identicalsoftware.com/btbuilder/
    Adventurer's Guild forums
    https://bardstale.brotherhood.de/talefiles/forum/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=1155

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  17. Since you mention Dungeon Master (my favorite game of all time), I can't resist pointing out that there's a thriving editor community for Dungeon Master. In particular, the two preeminent fan remakes, CSBWin (a line-for-line port) and Return to Chaos (a from-scratch rewrite), each have game editors associated with them.

    There's an entry point at http://dmweb.free.fr/?q=view/CustomDungeons, which you can browse if you're curious... because, yanno, I figure you can add Conflux to your must-play list. ;-)

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    Replies
    1. Boo. Sorry, I thought I had set Name / URL, but apparently my user interface skills are exactly as polished as my humor skills.

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