Posted by: Ben | May 24, 2010

Man vs Genre: The Bard’s Tale

The Facts

Now I remember this one, but only because it’s one of the very few big-name RPGs to have made its way onto the Spectrum by 1988, just in time for what appears to have been a late 80s RPG boom. (If you think that’s bad, it didn’t reach the NES until 1991). The Bard’s Tale is held in fond regard by everyone from Kieron Gillen to this guy but I can’t honestly say I’ve ever played it. Its full title is Tales Of The Unknown Volume 1: The Bard’s Tale, and it was developed Michael Cranford of Interplay, probably when he was supposed to be painting the front room. I bet his wife was really annoyed. The game was originally developed for the Apple II but converted to every format in the world with the exception of the BBC Micro by the evil wizards at Electronic Arts. You can get it from here, but for Christ’s sake don’t tell EA. Anyway the glory of 16-colour EGA graphics means I’m playing the DOS version which appears to offer the best balance between authenticity, ease of running and not looking like a dog’s breakfast.

The Cover

A bunch of guys drinking in a bar. How can you not love a game when that’s the cover?

The Lore

“Long ago, when magic still prevailed, the evil wizard Mangar…” and you can guess the rest.

But what I always want to know about the backstory of any RPG I’m involved with is, am I the Chosen One fated by cruel prophecy to save the world / nation / town, or am I just a random yahoo who’s only in it for the money. It’s a big burden in any very difficult game to know that failure will mean the subjugation of your entire people, so I was relieved to learn that in The Bard’s Tale, I genuinely am an ordinary bunch of guys in a bar, so if we fail somebody else will probably come along and sort that wizard out.

Here I ought to briefly mention a game called Questron which I wanted to play for this blog but couldn’t get running on any format, and its ingenious narrative device wherein you take the role of a dirt-poor peasant who has been convinced of your spurious Chosen One status by a deposed princess. But without being able to play the game there’s no way of telling whether or not she was telling the truth. I digress.

Character Building

The Bard is playing an instrument that looks like a lute but sounds like a Bontempi keyboard. I do so wish I had bothered to play the Amiga version right now.

Something that the static screenshots did not prepare me for: it turns out the graphics are actually animated, so in the classic cover image replicated as the Guild of Adventurers screen it looks as though the plates and bottles on the mantelpiece are jiggling around in time to the music. I guess we process such images differently now. On a hunch I switch the Dosbox display from windowed to fullscreen and can confirm that it does indeed look much better. But it still sounds like a random excerpt from Jean-Michel Jarre’s recycle bin.

In some versions of the Bard’s Tale it’s possible to copy characters from Ultima 3, which would be a nice thing, but I can’t appear to figure it out at the moment. Still, I do notionally have five characters surviving from my last adventure, so at least their names should be usable, although given that TBT allocates character attributes entirely through dice rolls and that I can’t help thinking that rerolling must be some kind of cheating, there will be an element of chance involved. So my system involves taking the dice rolls (and portraits) I get and matching them as closely as achievable to the Korma family of adventurers. Clearly they are all different species so some of them must be adopted.

Butch Korma III – Human Warrior

Strength 14
Intelligence 10
Dexterity 13
Constitution 15
Luck 10

Zak Korma – Elf Bard

Strength 11
Intelligence 14
Dexterity 11
Constitution 11
Luck 8

Cain Korma II – Dwarf Paladin
(You’ll notice that in the screenshots he’s called Cain Korma III. That’s because I temporarily forgot that Cain Korma II was supposed to be still alive. Never mind. We’ll just say he’s innumerate.)

Strength 18
Intelligence 12
Dexterity 9
Constitution 15
Luck 7

Eli Korma – Hobbit Rogue

Strength 10
Intelligence 12
Dexterity 18
Constitution 12
Luck 14

Shadrach Korma II – Gnome Conjurer
(henceforth to be referred to as Shadrach Korma: Gnome Conjurer)

Strength 16
Intelligence 14
Dexterity 13
Constitution 9
Luck 9

Aaron Korma – Half-Orc Hunter

Strength 14
Intelligence 10
Dexterity 15
Constitution 16
Luck 11

Right, let’s crawl some dungeons.

The Game

Literally seconds after I walk out of the door of the Adventurer’s Guild in search of the weapon shop I am faced with three Conjurers, and presented with the option of fighting or running. Normally I’d expect to be able to take them, but since none of my party actually have any weapons yet so I decide to run away.

Hmm, I’m sure I selected “Run” but we actually seem to be fighting. Let’s give it a go. Attack, attack, attack, hide, cast flame spell and defend. Butch is half-dead after the first round of combat, but we took one of the conjurers down. I’m pretty sure we could beat them, but we’d probably lose Butch in the process, so this time I’m making sure I select Run with the mouse instead of pressing R on the keyboard. Nope, it turns out that attempting to run away is not always successful, which seems reasonable. On the way to the Weapon Shop, which is literally six squares away, I get assaulted by a mercenary, four skeletons and eight (count ‘em) hobgoblins. Miraculously, even Butch is still alive by the time we reach it, even though he’s down to 5 health and there’s no obvious way to heal him. Either his health will autoregenerate with enough wandering about, or I’ll have to pay for healing, but either way I’d better make sure he stands at the back in the meantime.

By the time we get out of the shop, night has fallen. At least we are able to look after ourselves in combat, though. Once again a number of encounters occur on the way back to the Guild, and Zak, our bard, is killed by a zombie.

Spiders: giving gamers the willies since 1980

Quite apart from Zak’s untimely demise, Butch and Cain are very very poorly, so the following morning we drag them back out into Skara Brae bright and early to look for a temple. I manage to find one without getting beaten up again, and Butch and Cain are healed but I can’t yet afford to resurrect Zak, so I shall have to look for more monsters to fight. Shouldn’t be difficult. The next opponents I come across are a bunch of magicians. They’re easily beaten, but not before they have cast a spell on Cain, which ages him. He is now “Old”. Best see if they can do anything about that in the temple.

They can. But we’ve got into a barney with some skeletons and now Aaron is dead too. Our odds are getting worse. By the end of the second day, we’ve gained a bit of money but we’re now two men down. That’s when I notice that Eli has been walking around with his weapons unequipped. There’s an unlucky shield and helmet that two of my dead men have been using, so I pass them both on to Butch.

Naturally, on Day 3, Butch is also killed by a skeleton. I decide not to pass the shield or helmet onto anybody else.

By Day 4 I have enough cash to resurrect Aaron. Later that day he gets killed again, this time by a group of barbarians. So does Cain. I’m left with Shadrach Korma, Gnome Conjurer and Eli the Hobbit rogue. Both are badly wounded and we don’t have much gold. My only recourse is 1) get to Garth’s to sell all the dead team members’ stuff, and 2) avoid fighting anyone stronger than us. It’s going to be tricky. So tricky that Shadrach Korma, Gnome Conjurer is soon killed by a Nomad. And when Eli does sell all the equipment we still only have 844 gold, which is 56 short of getting even one party member resurrected with a single hit point. And even Eli only has 3 hit points left.

Plan B is to use Eli’s roguish hiding ability (which is probably what’s kept him alive this long) and get him back to the temple to be healed. Then I’ll try and grind sufficiently weak opponents to afford to get another team member back and healed. It’s a high risk strategy and I have no idea how I’ll keep my second team member alive once he’s resurrected, but I’ll worry about that when it happens.

Problem: nobody seems to want to attack a lone rogue. Finally, towards the end of Day 5 I come across a group of 4 magicians and manage to defeat them single-handed. Who needs team-mates? Unfortunately, then I get cocky and try it on with five dwarves. Bad move.

Total play time: 2 hours.

Verdict

Everything about The Bard’s Tale is basically borrowed from Wizardry, and superficially it’s also similar to Alternate Reality as well. But there’s a professional gloss to this title that stands out even today. All the tiresome faffing with inns and not starving to death has been removed, leaving a lean game focused on mapping and combat. Even with only two hours play, and twenty-five years after its release, this game is still impressive. Thumbs up. I suspect, however, that it is probably also extremely unfair, but I think that’s something you have to learn to live with in this genre.

I’d start again, but I really do have other things to be getting on with.

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