Retro: Tales Of The Unknown: The Bard’s Tale

By Kieron Gillen on August 19th, 2008 at 9:07 am.

This is the C64 cover, edited so it doesn't have the word C64 on it. Because we have fucking standards. It's basically what the Spectrum cover was. Of course, there's many differences between the PC and Spectrum versions, not least the multiload. Bu who cares, eh?
[The original version of this appeared in PC Gamer. There's been a handful of additions.]

Maths was always our favourite lesson, for the simple reason we never did any Maths in it. There were always more obvious rebels for the teacher to whip into line than David Hyland, Simon Holmes and myself, crouched over our desks and using the class’ infinite supply of squared paper to copy out each others maps. From a distance, it even looked as if we were working.

The Bard’s Tale wasn’t the first computer role-playing game by any measure, but its conversion-from-DOS was the first any of us had actually played. The previous Spectrum fantasy games were grown from first principles of what a videogames should be, with D&D as an indirect influence. Conversely, following on from Ultima and Wizardry, Bard’s Tale was an attempt to – basically – be Dungeons and Dragons on a home computer. It was a particularly American desire, it seemed. When I was interviewing assorted developers about D&D’s influence, Big Huge Games captured the zeitgeist elegantly: “Back in those days I’d say the holy grail of teenager boys learning how to program was to figure out how to ‘make the computer play D&D’. Because if we could do that, what else would we ever need?”.

Even if us Britkids didn’t seem to actually do it as much, we were hungry for it, and had the graph-paper to prove it.

I love a party with a happy warrior.

The plot was archetypal: the city of Skara Brae has been isolated in eternal winter by the Archmage Mangar! Stop him! The characters were archetypes: any six selected from a list of Warriors, Paladins, Magicians, Conjurers, Rogues, the eponymous Bard and so on. The settings were archetypal: Sewers, Cellars, Castles, Towers and Catacombs. But the mapping? Unautoed.

This is where things differed back in the eighties. While much of The Bard’s Tale’s constituents would be familiar to a modern gamer, this is a world before the joy of either overhead views or automaps. To have a clue where you were, you resorted to scrawling on squared paper.

In fact, people seemed to think this now-lost art was actually a core part of the game. Take Bard’s Tale’s sequel which describes its new wilderness areas as “a mapping challenge never before seen in a fantasy game, and a whole new way to get lost”. Christ. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. While viewed from the first-person, this wasn’t a true scrolling 3D environment. You pressed forward, and your trundles an entire square forward. Play comprised of taking a step forward, pausing, carefully noting with a few pencil marks the walls and then progressing, occasionally interrupted by traps, fisticuffs or trips back up to the city to heal and recharge spell-points. Our Maths lessons-sans-Maths were all about collating everyone’s work. Which could go awry: our map for the first level of the Catacombs stretched across three textbooks before we realised that the dungeon loops every 22 squares.

I never completed Bard’s Tale. The “play” key of my Spectrum +2 snapped off when I was wrestling with the multiload, leaving Hyland and Holmes to rush ahead in the three weeks it took to be fixed. Holmes got tied-up battling in Harkyn’s Castle, stuck in an attempt to grind the 396 Berserkers (When you faced off against enemies in Bard’s Tale, it arranged them into four groups. At low levels it may be “You face death itself in the form of… a Halfling”. As you progress, you get things like “You face death itself in the form of… 5 gnomes, 4 orcs, 3 magicians and a Wild Dog” which does make you suspect Magnar must be the proverbial charming motherfucker to get all these diverse personages to join beneath his banner. But its all low double-digits figures until you open a certain door in Harkyn’s and get the ominous message “You face death itself in the form of… 99 berserkers, 99 berserkers, 99 berserkers and 99 berserkers”. Erk!) Only Hyland persisted to the final confrontation with Mangar, where he discovered the game really hadn’t bothered with a proper end-sequence.

Puck knows exactly what to do.

They say you can never go back. Tell that to the abandonware folk. With their help, I booked a one way ticket to Skara Brae to see how time has treated this particular blighted city. You go back to games like this with a certain knowledge. Firstly, strategy games – especially turn based games like The Bard’s Tale – tend to age better than their action-based brethren. An RPG now is an RPG then, so those skills of perfecting character builds and equipping people with the right armour or weapons, practiced in every role-playing game since, move directly into play.

Which makes the bits where they were clearly learning how to actually make a role-playing game work stick out like a Thief who’s forgot to take any stealth skills. Take how it treats death. When someone dies, unless you’re willing to pay the (unfeasibly enormous for a beginning character) fee to raise them from the dead, they’re dead. You can’t reload a previous game to recover. It’s Nethack-style hardcore play. Except, after setting the game up like this, the manual actively goes out of the way to advise you how to work around it by backing up your character files or just turning off your PC when a party member has died before it saves their dead state. They knew something was a bad idea, but couldn’t see that was a reason not to include it – presumably it was because of the aforementioned deification of D&D. D&D has permadeath and tricky inacessible resurrection? That’s how we have to do it.

It’s an odd experience. After a worryingly short period of time, Skara Brae gets beneath my fingertips. I had most of the city memorised, and the muscle memory is still there. Soon I’m running from the guild to the central temples to the magical recharge-shop to the Review Board with barely a glance at the screen. Stepping into the Catacombs (The Mad God’s Name is “Tarjan”, twenty-years out of date Spoiler fans) I effortlessly locate the room featuring 9 Wights which I used as an early grinding run, relying on my bard blowing his area-effect Fire Horn before they tore us to pieces, for about 1500XP a pop. How can I remember all this when I don’t remember the name of 95% of my classmates? But since it’s a fledgling prototype of the modern RPG, there’s little which hasn’t been seen in more advanced games. While an interesting historical exercise, it fails on the ultimate test: which is “Is there a reason to play it now”?

You'll need healing if I set Mangar's Mind Blade on you.

Well, it would, if it wasn’t for one thing. The thing which we all were seemingly glad to see the back of when a technology allowed us to bypass it. Yes, it’s the mapping. Automapping made maze-based games as obsolete as video made the radio-star. At the time, we shunned those who claimed to be losing anything as the sort of luddites who – to steal a line – responded to the appearance of writing as “But You’ll lose your memory”. But, in a small way, they were right. Since then, the RPG has been primarily defined by aspects like character-customisation and advancement. Fiddling with equipment is in the Bard’s Tale, but nowhere near as sophisticatedly implicated as – say – Neverwinter Nights or any other modern RPG.

But the vast majority of the Bard’s Tale is actually based around the simple process of mapping a closed environment. And, even after all these years, it’s fundamentally satisfying to make a map. With the square-based dungeons, there’s something soothing about the repetitive process of a move – pause – scribble – another move. Step by step, your knowledge of the world becomes more complete, and you’re inching closer to defeating Mangar. Your growing collection of maps are a physical representation of your progress. You’ve made something.

I knew I’d be glad I’d returned to Skara Brae. I’m surprised that it’s for a reason other than nostalgia. Less the Bard’s Tale, more the Cartographer’s Journey, there’s still more of a flash of adventure worth appreciating here.

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62 Comments »

  1. Flubb says:

    Cuh, at least you had it in colour, mine was a lovely CGA green.
    The worst mapping was I think in the Ivory tower (?) where not only did you have to map in the dark because a strange wind blew out any light source, but then they’d stick in spinners to randomly disorient you, and if you didn’t notice that your compass had suddenly moved, you’d end up with maps scrawling across several pages.

    They really were heartless.

  2. Okami says:

    I played Bard’s Tale 2 on the C64, but couldn’t progress to the higher level dungeons, because my 1541 couldn’t read the “Dungeon Disk 2″. I returned the game to the shop where I bought it (yes! I actually bought games for the C64. Well. I had four of five originals and a gazillion pirated one.) and got a new copy, but the damned disk of that one wouldn’t work as well.

    Many years later I bought “Interplay 10th Anniversary”, which included the original Bard’s Tale. Since the compilation also included “Dragen Wars” (which I actually completed! Wooot!) and “Wasteland” it took me some time until I was ready to play Bard’s Tale.

    But it was just too frustrating. I never managed to get any of my party to level 2, because the path to the Review Board was blocked by ridiculously hard monsters. (For those of you who’ve never played a Bard’s Tale game: Your characters don’t level up automatically once you’ve reached enough XP. You’ve got to go a building called the Review Board in order to level up..).

    But I’ve got great memories of playing Bard’s Tale 2, eventhough “Dragon Wars” was vastly superior to Bard’s Tale in many ways.

    Note to RPS: Do a retro feature on Dragon Wars, will you? Now that’s an ancient RPG that has really stood the test of time!

  3. P.T. says:

    I remember being somewhat disappointed at some later (forgotten) games that advertised the “automapping” feature. I knew progress would obsolete my mad graph paper mapping skills.

    On the other hand there was a bit of dissonance after paying such attention to the map, to get in a fight where you’re in a 10×10 room on the map, but battling with some dragon 90 feet away.

    The other thing I loved about the Bard’s Tale games were the puzzles. I remember the feeling of accomplishment from cracking some of the tougher ones. Especially some of the really tricky mapping puzzles…

  4. Kieron Gillen says:

    Okami: Never played Dragon Wars, alas. But I’m thinking perhaps I should go back to Eye of the Beholder…

    KG

  5. cullnean says:

    i played eye of the beholder recently oh what fun!

  6. Bobsy says:

    Eye of the Beholder was surprisingly fun. I never played it at the time, but a few years ago I downloaded and blasted through it. A nice distraction, even yonks later. Would have made a fine easter egg in NWN too.

  7. yns88 says:

    Funny, I just started playing the Etrian Oddyssey games, and it’s a real nice return, although I don’t quite remember those old first person RPGs being so slow paced. It seems I have to spend an age wandering around grinding experience just to make the slightest progress through the dungeon…

  8. Beefeater says:

    Kieron: the man speaks truth. Play Dragon wars, seriously, if you can get a copy with a manual*. It’s like the Bard’s Tale with a story and even now remains fun to play.

    Never came out on the Amiga I think, so I missed it first time round, but it was in the Interplay RPG compilation released a few years ago that Okami mentioned.

    * To play the game, you need the manual, as the game predated hardware beefy enough to store all the story text. So you’d move into a certain square and the message would flash up on screen ‘turn to entry X in the manual’.

  9. Dan (WR) says:

    My bedroom used to be filled with graph-paper maps. My deep and abiding love for Dungeon Master led on to games like Bloodwych, Crystal Dragon, Black Crypt and Eye of the Beholder. I used to map them all in detail. Actually I used to map text adventures too, with little boxes detailing what was in each room. How sad am I?

    Captive was particular 3D favourite. Instead of burly fantasy-types, you controlled four customisable robots. Their weaponry included swords, machineguns, laser-guns and… bouncy balls. And you could stick your finger into plug sockets and shoot electricity at people. It was completely batshit.

    I remember always struggling with the Bard’s Tale games though. They were rat-bastard hard compared to their peers.

  10. cullnean says:

    also i have no idea what this link does a bloke down the pub gave it to me http://www.the-underdogs.info/genre.php?name=RPG&subgen=First-person

    feel free to remove this if its naughty

  11. Mr. Brand says:

    Ahh, Bard’s Tale..yep, I still remember my way around the city. I even played the sequel to some extent (don’t think I ever played the third), and the first two Eye of the Beholder games. The graphics were so much better on the Amiga compared to the PC version. Not that they were all that good, but they had 32 colours.

  12. Okami says:

    EDIT: Double Post

  13. Okami says:

    Actually Dragon Wars was way ahead of it’s time. It had a skill point based, class less character system, an automap and a story you could influence at some points. You often had a lot of different options avaible to you on how to tackle different problems.

    The game came out on the Amiga by the way (and the C64 as well).

  14. Voidman says:

    Ah yes indeed, EOB has been titillating my nostalgia gland for some time as well. Sadly the Bards Tale series sort of have their moment while I was still hibernating in the oblivious embrace of crpg-non-awareness. But the EOB… I remember reading an episodic walkthrough in some long-gone game magazine with maps (! that’s a bit of a travesty I admit) and b&w screenshots that made my mouth dry. Every month, a couple of levels followed religiously on paper and in my head. Insane clearly, delirious even. In the end it wasn’t until my ever so sweet Amiga affair that I finally satiated my then mature crpg hunger. Starting with Black Crypt and EOB in full colour no less.

  15. Nallen says:

    Must map EOTB…muuuuust maaaap…

    Yeah, it was tricky explaining why you were getting through maths text books at twice the rate of everyone else, but having far less work to show for it.

  16. Gap Gen says:

    IT’S BRIAN BLESSED!

  17. Ben Abraham says:

    Aww, the “Add new tag” tag was removed. I found a great old article via that tag! =P

  18. Voidman says:

    @ Gap Gen
    Ha, Amiga Power Issue 2, Monkey Island review!

  19. Stu Andrews says:

    Fantastic post/review.

    Bard’s Tale was my first real Computer RPG Game experience. The number of times late at night I told Mum that I was “mapping my way home” caused it to become a catchphrase :).

    Although not nearly as old, Jay is playing through Wizardry 8 (post here).

    Seems like going old-school is in the wind.

  20. Paul Moloney says:

    I missed out on that period of early PC PRG gaming (it came during my college years when I discovered drinking and girls – what was I thinking?) but remember a bloody huge map I did for the Ultimate Spectrum game “Sabre Wulf”. All nicely coloured in and everything. It must have been at least 4 x 3 feet. Wish I’d kept it. *sniff* I remember that map as I actually finished it – there were many more half-completed maps done during my Spectrum years…..

    P.

  21. Stu Andrews says:

    Coloured in? Man, you were light years ahead of me. I had a pencil and a graph paper pad. The graph paper with tiny millimeter lines, and big centimeter lines. Ahhh, the memories.

  22. Horatius says:

    Please keep running retrospective reviews, and more of them. They are great fun to read, and the discussions after them often lead me to discover other cool titles.

  23. Yargh says:

    Bard’s Tale III – I forget the platform – along with Dungeon Master defined much of my gaming younger years. My brother and I accumulated reams of lovingly handcrafted paper maps for those games.

    I think the thing that most sticks in my memory is our high level Monk, who seemingly gained an additional attack every level and was killing hundreds of enemies each turn towards the end of the game.

  24. Will Tomas says:

    I remember being about 10 or so and drawing some maps for a couple of text adventure games that worked along a similar line – there was definitely a fun in that.

    I do still think that the deification of D&D by American games developers went far too far, though, and probably closed off a lot of possibilities for the RPG, which is a shame.

  25. Adam V. says:

    In retrospect, not having any item stats on weapons seems wildly primitive. You could get Armor Class feedback right away…but had to go hack stuff and pay attention to figure out weapon strength.

  26. andy says:

    ah, the might firehorn…

    “*BARD NAME* breathes!”

    everyone dies.

    classic.

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    Andy: The enemies getting wiped out before he got his firehorn leaving him just doing a “El Cid breathes” remains very funny.

    KG

  28. Caiman says:

    Ah yes, graph paper how I miss thee. We used to have mapping races to see who could complete a game first. I had the secret weapon of my mum who loved these games as well, and would help me meticulously map every detail. I’d send them to Crash! for publication, although I can only ever remember the Heavy on the Magick one getting the Ollie Frey treatment.

  29. dhex says:

    How can I remember all this when I don’t remember the name of any 95% of my classmates?

    for all its clunkiness, the BT series was probably a lot more engaging than most of your school chums. :)

    i did try to go back to 3 a little while back (i still have my original box, manual, silly code wheel and everything, somehow) and it’s basically impenetrable at this point. starting from scratch in the third game means hours upon hours upon hours of leveling up and multiclassing your magicians.

  30. hydra9 says:

    I never liked the idea of drawing maps on graph paper back in the day, but I’m playing Etrian Odyssey on the DS at the moment, and it’s fantastic! The stylus-based map-drawing works perfectly. No need for erasers or pencil sharpeners.

  31. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    I have to say I’m quite ambivalent when it comes to some modern conventions. I’m not trying to glorify those long afternoons mapping out an entire dungeon in graph paper, but while automapping seems like a boon, it can also minimize the impact of discovery. Of couse, there is a personal sense of achievement regardless of the kind of mapping, but contemporary mapping tends to automatically fill out information which someone would pride themselves of figuring it out on their own. Some old games would have clues on how to proceed on a dungeon level layout itself – when you finished mapping it, you’d figure it gleefully :) Nowadays, this wouldn’t be as interesting if the same trick would be used on a dungeon automatically mapped out.

  32. Fizzbang says:

    Oh, memories. I played the original Bard’s Tale with my father on our Commodore 128, taking turns being the “mover” and the “mapper,” and it was the first CRPG that captured my heart. It took us forever to realize what was happening with the spinners and the teleports in some of those dungeons, and don’t get me started about the hateful treachery of one-way walls.

  33. Noc says:

    I’ve a (recent) habit of mapping out the Myst games I play through. It’s not usually necessary, though I picked up the habit in the subway section of the first one where it WAS, but they make pretty cool looking maps.

  34. Cooper says:

    Nice article.

    Reminded me of an old notebook I’ve left back home. I’ve had the same notebook for about ten years, and it’s chock full of various notes, cheat codes, maps and scribbles. That notebook used to go with me everywhere in almost any game. But, now, even adventure games no longer need a notepad to keep track of clues. The last game I had to turn to the use of that notebook for was Silent Hill 2. A whole skillset has been rendered useless in the name of accessibility.

  35. Mr. Brand says:

    I used to..acquire graph paper pads/books from school and keep notes for many games. It really was a necessity back then.

    I’ve always done all my non-computer note-taking on graph paper, and still do. Has anybody else noticed a shortage of graph paper pads in bookstores? I’m having a hard time finding enough, any time of the year.

  36. Sören Höglund says:

    I didn’t actually realise you could speed up the text on the C64 version until I had played the 4×99 berserkers encounter a couple of times.

    Sometimes I went out to buy candy while waiting for the “damage everything” spells to do their thing.

  37. thebruce says:

    thebruce here, owner of bardstaleonline.com :) Great article! I fully love the BT series, and soon I’ll have to get to running through BT2 and 3 again (I usually go through the series once every few years) – mainly so I can get those games’ maps on the site. I’m sure I still have my old grid-mapped files somewhere, but I kind of want to start entirely from scratch to fully enjoy it again.

    One commenter made a good point though – about the impenetrability of the games. When you start, there’s a long period of running around for kills and leveling up. One could say that they could ‘cheat’ a bit and edit their character stats to skip all that, but that feels like a cheap cop-out… I think generally it’s easier for us these days to find the ‘weak spots’, the places that make leveling the easiest and whatnot. Where back in the day, playing the game was a New Thing, these days the formula is generally tried and true. … I think back to plyaing Doom for the first time, compared to say, Gears of War or Halo. Playing Doom now, it’s pretty much a speed run, and the genuine effect of awe and amazing and fear is so trivial now. To a similar degree, the BT series is similar today to the Doom series. At least to those who lived through Bard’s Tale in its early infancy.

    But I do, greatly, recommend playing through Dragon Wars! After seeing some people bring that one up again, it’s made me want to play it through and get a section up on bardstaleonline.com as a similar game in the genre to experience. GREAT mapping, very nice character development system, large world to explore.

  38. chesh says:

    I’ll make a further plug for Etrian Odyssey on the DS. I wasn’t initially enthused, even though I will usually buy almost anything Atlus puts out, but rave reviews from a number of friends persuaded me. Then it didn’t get taken out of my DS for about five months. There’s no game clock but I expect I’ve put at least 150 hours into the damn thing, and I’m pretty close to beating the real boss and completing the game so that I can start on the second and begin the cycle anew.
    Of course, I realize this isn’t actually a good thing for many people, but if you are the type who likes to spend ridiculous amounts of time drawing on graph paper EO will do right by you.

  39. Fumarole says:

    Anyone twink their party by giving away El Cid’s Firehorn, dropping him, saving and doing it all over again? Me neither.

  40. Okami says:

    Never would do that, Fumarole. I’d also never, ever create a bunch of characters calles “a” to “aaaaa”, add them to my party, open the party leader’s inventory, pool all the gold, remove the “a” guys from my party, delet them from disk and then do the whole thing again until I had enough money to buy the best gear for all my “real” characters.

    Honestly, I never did that…

  41. Pseudonym says:

    I didn’t play the Bard’s Tale games, or any other games that required mapping.
    However, I don’t want to be entirely left out of this conversation, so I’ll mention the couple of handwritten pages filled with the coordinates of any star system of note in Star Control II that sat by my computer for a couple of years.

  42. Eirik says:

    Ah, Eye of the Beholder. I never finished EOB1 (even with maps handed down from my older brother), but played through 2 and 3 — mapping all the way :-) Good times.

    Does anyone else remember Shadowlands[1,2] ? I never played through it — I don’t remember quite why — quite likely I had a pirated copy on a flakey floppy or something… But I still remember the fear of running out of torches…

    I think it is one of the only “RPG”s other than moria/angband that really managed to leverage logistics in a challenging, yet entertaining way…

    [1] http://www.angusm.demon.co.uk/AGDB/DBM1/ShadL.html
    [2] http://www.the-underdogs.info/game.php?id=966

  43. Damien Neil says:

    I’ve never really understood the people who viewed mapmaking as a bad thing. There’s a wonderful feeling of satisfaction in holding a sheaf of graph paper, meticulously marked with the history of your travels.

    I was delighted by Etrian Odyssey. It really captures the joy of the early CRPGs.

  44. hydra9 says:

    I’m glad to hear all the love for Etrian Odyssey. It really is a wonderful game. I’m only about a quarter of the way through, so I think I have well over a hundred hours to go :D

  45. caesarbear says:

    Recently released NWN1 module based on Bard’s Tale

    It really doesn’t feel the same of course, with auto mapping and real-time combat, but it might be a nice way to relive some of the pleasures without fiddling with an emulator.

  46. Derek K. says:

    “Seems like going old-school is in the wind.”

    Uh, it’s never left. ;)

    I, too, never made enough characters to afford stuff. Never ever. That’s horrible.

    And I will jump on the Dragon Wars band wagon. I played that again 2 years ago. So much fun. It even had fairly advanced schools of magic. Very very nice.

  47. malkav11 says:

    Honestly, to people who didn’t experience these games at the time, and who’re now intrigued – play Etrian Odyssey. Buy a DS for it if you have to. But with the occasional exception (Dragon Quest, say), I don’t really recommend going back to these games. Why? Because Etrian Odyssey is a modern game that hearkens back to the olden days of CRPGing…and these games *are* the olden days. EO has all the plusses of those games – the sense of accomplishment you get as you fight your way tooth and nail down dungeon levels and up experience levels, the exploration and mapping, the unforgiving difficulty – but without the horribly unbalanced design, awful UI, finicky coding, etc, and with far more depth of play.

    Seriously. I’ve gone and played Bard’s Tale and Wizardry (1, in each case), and there’s not much there beyond really basic, hard-as-nails dungeon crawling.

    Wizardry gets worth playing in the later titles, mind you – VI-VIII at the latest, possibly a title or two beforehand.

  48. Captain Rufus says:

    I loved Bard’s Tale back in the day, but man did I EVER hate mapping. I never liked doing it. EVER. I could do it, but it was taking me away from actually playing the game.

    Which is where cluebooks or the Quest for Clues/Questbusters guides came into play.

    Why map your way to the Berserkers when you can APAR to em?

    I played it a bit recently too, but on a little bit newer yet older setup. On my G5 iMac. I still need to complete that game someday. I wanted to finish it with modern eyes, but never got around to it.

  49. Ragnar says:

    I still have my handdrawn maps of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds (and a few other games) in my drawer.

    I think it would be interesting if some game would have something more advanced with maps to make you more involved in the mapping process.

  50. bonuswavepilot says:

    Dungeon Master on the Amiga was my mapping-quest game.

    Man, I wasted a lot of hours running around in those tunnels. The sequel (chaos strikes back, rather than DM2) was unbelievably hard though. Never really got far in that one, despite having completed the original in pretty short order.

    Anyone else remember grinding in that screamer room on… I think it was lvl 4? They’d just keep regenerating if you ran around a bit, and their corpses were one of the best food sources.