It’s been the pandemic since The Retro Knights (proper name still pending) last set out for some 80s fantasy adventuring. I’ve spent much of the interim exploring early Japanese RPGs. I’m not sure if it has anything to do with me passing the age of 40, or just finally
having taking the time to really sit down with one, but my distaste of RPGs was apparently unwarranted. Or, I’ve just settled into being an old man, poking away in the den at my (emulated) Apple II. Most of my time with Bard’s Tale included episodes of the BBC’s The World At War in the background, further suggesting that I have transformed into everyone’s Dad.
The Bard’s Tale series is generally accepted as the second major competitor to Wizardry (Ultima, chronologically, comes first). Series creator Michael Cranford has said in interviews that he wasn’t impressed with how Wizardry brought Dungeons & Dragons to computers and believed he could do a better version. His efforts led him to a job at Interplay, a partnership with Electronic Arts, and the start of a classic RPG trilogy.
The first Bard’s Tale takes place entirely within the city of Skara Brae. Disgruntled wizard Mangar has surrounded the city with ice and removed (killed?) all but a handful of survivors. You play as a party of up to six young adventurers – the city’s last hope to break Mangar’s evil spell and slay the monsters roaming the empty streets. You’ll build yourselves up from starter equipment, two spells, and single-digit hit points into a team capable of rushing Mangar’s tower and putting him to the sword.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because Bard’s Tale makes no attempt to hide Wizardy’s influence. You’ll plumb grid map dungeons entirely in first person, sketching out every 90-degree corner on real graph paper (or digital equivalent) to avoid missing any critical items. You’ll head back to the city in between runs to heal and sell off items to the only shop in town. Combat and loot are randomized from tables for the area you’re currently in. You’ll never know exactly what combination you’ll face, while newer, tougher enemies show up in later locations. Your party is broken into three front line slots and three back line slots – the back line is protected from melee attacks, but can only cast magic, which is key to any party strategies you might come up with. So far, so Wizardry.
But while it may share some bones with Wizardy, Bard’s Tale sets itself apart pretty quickly. Maybe the biggest change is that permadeath is off the table. Encounters no longer write results to disk after every turn – you only save at the guild when ending your session, so walking back a bad encounter is far less of a headache. Likewise, dying simply brings your party back to the Adventurer’s Guild. You may have to work to afford the resurrections, but you’ll never completely lose your characters (and progress) to botched revives or dungeon shenanigans. There are no cursed items either, dropping another way that a beloved character could become no longer viable.
Graphics are vastly improved. Full color images of the town buildings and dungeon walls are used for the mazes. A colorful intro sets up the town’s plight, in the form of a bard singing the tale in an inn. Portraits of each enemy group help you get an idea of who you’re fighting, while limited animation (in this version) let a dragon puff fire or a giant turn their head. Current health and max health for each character runs along the bottom, as well as any status effects. Important status and combat messages scroll past in a window on the right. Icons for active buffs (shield spells, light spells, trap sense, etc) run down a column in the center.
Then there’s the titular Bard; a new creation for this series. He’s a decent front line fighter, but his real value comes from singing one of six songs that buff the party in some way, such as lighting up dark dungeons or improving everyone’s defense. Bards can actually do this twice – once out of combat for a long-running buff, and again during combat for benefits that last the length of that fight. You can even stack the same song, both in and out of combat, to double the effect. Stick him in the back line and he can use his turns to switch up songs as the needs of combat change. The Apple II speaker even squelches out unique dittys while each song’s effects are active.
Powering the Bard is his functional alcoholism. Taverns throughout the city give away free drinks (yes, free in this version). The Bard can hold as much liquor as his current character level, with each drink equaling one song. A level 3 Bard can sing 3 songs before needing to refill at a Tavern. This puts limits on your buffs at the start of the game, which soon get ignored by the mid game. Special gear can get dropped that give the Bard infinite songs, while magical instruments like Fire or Frost Horns do devastating damage to a group of enemies, at the cost of a pretty good chance of breaking.
Starting a new game places you in the Adventurer’s Guild. There’s a starting party on the included Character disk that is balanced and comes with some nice starting equipment. Otherwise, you can create a new, “blank” Character disk and roll your own party. Brilliantly, you can save the entire party and recall all characters by just adding the party name (*ATEAM for the default party, *RETRO for you-know-who). You can even import characters from the first three Wizardry games (or Ultima III) with their stats and experience retained.
Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t get the character transfer to work. I’m sure it comes down to emulation and I’m sure these disk images have been cracked or altered in some way that breaks this feature (even some “pure” .woz copies wouldn’t play along). I wasn’t even able to create brand new characters in Wizardry and port them over. After trying everything I could think of, I was forced to recreate the valiant Retro Knights as first-level neophytes.
For the new party, Dave and Rik became a Warrior and a Paladin, respectively. There’s little difference. The Warrior is supposed to gain bonus hits as he levels, but everyone seemed to do that. The Paladin is supposed to be more resistant to magic, but that was never tangible. Stoo and Static both became Conjurers, as healing seemed pretty important – but we’ll talk about magic in a bit. I became a Bard to continue my role as party support. There are six races with assorted bonuses to starting stats, but none seem particularly noteworthy. D&D-style morality alignment is not included in Bard’s Tale.
I was deeply disappointed with Ubergeek’s usefulness as a Thief in Wizardry, so I didn’t want to repeat that mistake. Rogues here get a combat option to “hide in the shadows” and pop out later for a critical hit – meaning they’re not totally useless in the back line – but their main use as a trap disarmer is thoroughly covered by a magic spell costing two measly points. Instead, I turned him into a Monk. Like Final Fantasy, they start extra slow and weak, but develop into a unarmed monster doing hundreds of damage points in combat. His armor class likewise got so low that he led the party for most of the game. His HP wasn’t great, but nobody could hit him, so it didn’t matter.
With the Retro Knights in place, it was time to step onto the streets of Skara Brae. Instead of a simple town menu, the city is a full 30×30 maze of streets and landmarks. New characters will spend a long time in the city before you can even think about tackling the plot. Bashing into empty houses is the most reliable way to get random encounters with the lowest-level enemies. Time also passes in town. Stand in one place for too long and you’ll be assaulted with a random encounter. As you roam the streets, day eventually turns to night. The town’s few services close, tougher enemies come out, and you’ll need to return to the guild to jump ahead to next morning. I wasn’t expecting a day/night cycle in an 80s dungeon crawler, so this is all pretty rad.
The city acts, essentially, as your first dungeon. Nearly every house is empty and there are no hidden items or clues in town. Even knowing this, you’ll want to map the whole thing if you’re playing without a guide. Parts of its layout form clues to later riddles, while entrances to the five dungeons are somewhat hidden. Some key locations, namely the advancement board (where you level up) and the mage’s shop (where you can recharge spell points) do not have unique art and blend in completely with the surrounding buildings. The entire game is also based around assuming you’re taking on random encounters as you map every square. If you don’t, or try to shortcut this, you’re going to be at a disadvantage that you’ll have to make up through grinding.
This is where I start to question of Bard’s Tale was designed assuming you would import some characters. It doesn’t seem built for brand new ones. For starters, you can run into far more enemies here than you ever could in Wizardry. Up to four groups can be fought at once, with an average enemy count of 5-8 each. Even at lower levels, overwhelming numbers are surprisingly common. Running into 3 Thieves and 5 Magicians when your little party has hit points of… 9… gives you little options to escape without casualties. The manual glibly encourages you to just create a new character if someone gets killed at Level 1. Given the thousand gold resurrection costs, they’re right.
Which leads us to one of the game’s strangest choices – you don’t get a healing spell until you have a Conjuror at Level 4. Temples charge a crippling rate of 10 gold per hp, which worsens the early spiral of spending the few coins you’ve scrapped together on healing instead of critical gear for your party. There’s a tedious way to heal for free with a Bard song, and of course you can create endless new characters to loot for their gold, but I think the intended way is just to sacrifice a bunch of front line fighters on the altar of leveling up your mages. It’s rare that any of the random city enemies can hit the back line, so every throwaway fighter’s death is worth it, as long as the mages walk away with XP.
XP is turned in at the Advancement Board – a shadowed cabal of, presumably, guild leaders who award new levels once characters hit XP targets. They will also gain one point to their stats, based on D&D 20-sided rolls. 18 is the best your stats can manage, and you will absolutely want to cheese this system. The game loves to hand out points in stats that character won’t use – Intelligence for fighters, Strength for mages, and so on. Your life starts to get manageable once every character is 18 in their key stats, so I cannot stress enough that it’s worth loading quick saves, old saves, whatever to get issued a beneficial stat upgrade early on. After around Level 10, characters are looking at 6 digit XP requirements to gain levels, and you do NOT want to still be carting around a Constitution of 12.
The Board is also where your mages will learn new spells. You begin with two spell schools – Magician and Conjuror. Very, very roughly, Magicians buff the party and Conjurors heal it. Spells are sold in groups, with a character at level 13 able to purchase the highest group of the most powerful spells for that school. Once you’ve done this, you’re free to change to a new school while retaining all the spells from the last. Once you’ve mastered one of the first two schools, you can become a Sorcerer with a whole new set of spells based around illusions and finding traps.
Once you mastered two schools, you can become a Wizard with yet another set of exclusive spells based on summoning. Your party maxes at 6, but there is a 7th “S” slot for friendly or summoned critters. You can’t control them, but they’ll be at the front of the party, soaking up damage and fighting back on their own. With the right spells, you can summon target dummies (that just pull an attack away from your party), floating swords, fire-breathing dragons, or progressively stronger demons ready to crush any foes that challenge you.
It is entirely possible to max out all four spells schools, giving that character access to 79 spells plus all the magic points they have accrued. Master Wizard Stoo ended up with an impressive 342 MP. Just as with the other characters, he technically could have kept going – like Wizardry, I’m not sure if there’s a limit to character levels. Instead, XP requirements go from hundreds of thousands to eventual millions, making it totally impractical. Fortunately, each time you change magic schools, you drop back to Level 1. You keep your spells, stats, and MP, but can once again gain levels (and new spells) at a reasonable pace.
If you survive the early game – which I stress is going to require resolve, chicanery, or both – then the mid-game is where things really get rolling. You’ve bought all the gear for sale in the shop, so now you’re finding exciting new upgrades in the treasure chests. Magic items let you use them to cast beneficial spells for free, while weapons start to do serious damage or bonus effects (poison, insanity, etc). You’ve got some levels under your belt, and characters have moved away from an Armor Class of 10 (the worst) to some negative numbers. You’re heading into dungeons and mapping them appropriately – nothing too tricky here, with survivable enemy encounters and decent income. In short, you’re probably having a good time.
You will eventually hit a significant speed bump. For me, it was the dragon guarding the entrance to the second dungeon. It’s the first creature you encounter with a party-wide attack (fire breath) that does major damage. The fighters could eat it, but Ubergeek and the mages just outright needed more HP. There’s a temple nearby you could use for costly revives, but ultimately, I think it’s designed as a damage check to make sure your party passes muster. Mine did not, so enter the grind.
As said, Bard’s Tale is going to feel more balanced if you’re truly mapping every corner and taking every encounter. But you’re still, probably, going to have to grind. There are repeating spots pretty much set up for you to do this, with rewards that increase alongside your abilities. But it’s still asking you to sit there while 66 skeletons, 96 samurai, or 396 berserkers (oh, yes) each take a turn swatting at your party. It’s also time you’re not spending doing the fun things, like exploring, or participating in the combat.
Again, if it were 1986 and this was my only game, I might be more amenable to setting up an Apple II to scroll for 10 or so minutes as a group spell clears out some Wights, but the XP requirements to make later levels and gain truly useful spells seem kind of ridiculous Running loops to get enough XP, to gain a level, to gain a spell, to finally get back to whatever progress you were trying to make in the first place, will always feel frustrating. I have read a suggestion that these early D&D clones were trying to replicate the slow burn of a tabletop session over many months – I don’t have personal experience there so, I dunno, sure.
Eventually, you’re over the bump and back on track for the 3rd and 4th dungeons. There’s some neat riddles, varied combat encounters, and impressive loot. There’s a few traps, maybe one or two spinning tiles, but nothing that’s going to make mapping too difficult. The Magician’s Phase Door spell even lets you temporarily turn any wall in front of you into a door, making it exceptionally easy to fill out your map or bypass some puzzles (like the throne) that your party may not be set up to pass. In all, I was back to nodding satisfactorily and giving a thumbs up to the camera.
Then I smacked into the wall that is Mangar’s tower.
The fifth and final dungeon is where all the stops are pulled out. Enemies can whallop you for 100+ HP. Vampires can drain your levels. Master Conjurers cast punishing, party-wide fire attacks. The dreaded Fred turns heroes to stone – the only condition you can never heal outside of a Temple. It is, fittingly, the final test of everything you’ve learned up to this point. But character death is expected as long as it fills in a little more of your map. You should have definitely read the whole manual, and definitely need to know your spell book to quickly cook the worst enemies – Repel Dead for groups of vampires, Demon Strike for groups of deadly demons, and so on. Lazily casting Mind Blades (the only spell that hits all enemies at once) isn’t going to cut it anymore.
But even with this knowledge, my party was getting annihilated around the third of five floors. Having 18 Dexterity no longer mattered – every enemy was getting hits in before any of my party moved. Covens of casters would batter my party with spell, after spell, after spell. Running from combat was no longer consistently successful. Even if I survived, it was with dead or wounded characters that were draining Stoo and Static’s MP reserves. I was about to throw my hands up and move on, until I searched the Googles.
To make a long detour short, party-wide effects are apparently measured against the first character in the party. I assume it’s a necessary (or lazy) way to simplify calculations, but you’re never told that simply switching who’s in the first slot makes such a significant difference. Ubergeek was still leading the party and the Monk just happens to have the worst mitigation value here. Paladins have the best value, so now with Rik leading the party, suddenly enemy spells are getting repelled and everyone is living much, much longer. Long enough to make a run for Mangar and finally serve him the atomic wedgie he deserved.
It’s some frustrating Old Game Shit™ that’s never explained, and it’s far from the only annoyance. Enemies and summoned monsters just “cast a spell” – you’ll have no idea what they’ve done. Gear with special names can often be used for the same effect as a spell, but if it doesn’t change your armor class or fry enemies, then there’s no way to discover what it does in game. For example, the “Truthdrum” disrupts illusions, which are pretty rare anyway, so I doubt you’d ever figure it out on your own. I’ve beaten the game and I still can’t tell you, for sure, if putting on more armor after AC -10 (displayed as “LO”) does anything. Granted, this was a time when part of playing Castlevania was whipping every block, in every wall, on every screen, looking for secrets, so expecting players to brute force “figure it out” wasn’t uncommon. But, you can see how companies would soon make money selling strategy guides.
There’s other quality of life issues that push me away from recommending the Apple II original. The party can only have one Bard, yet you’re always asked which character wants to sing when you hit the B key. Well, who the fuck do you think?? If you select “Trap Zap” on a treasure chest, the game still asks you who wants to cast and makes you type out the TRZP spell. You’re never told how many drinks a Bard has stored up, or when he’s at his limit. You can order drinks forever and only get the same “(Burp!) Not too bad.” message. Maybe the worst is that I’ve had fat stacks of gold disappear when properly saving the party at the Guild and reloading again. I can’t really prove it – it’s more of a “wait… didn’t I have…” feeling – but you probably want to create a banker character to sit at the guild and hold extras.
Meanwhile, I played a bit of the recent Bard’s Tale Trilogy remake, and it is excellent. There’s obviously graphical improvements after 30 years, but the ability to play in Legacy mode, with toggles for exactly how “old skool” you want to make it, is brilliant. If you want more modern assistance, you can have automaps, save anywhere, cut XP requirements in half, or bring in advancements from later games (like more spells and 7 party members). If you’re really interested in playing, I’d recommend you look there.
Bard’s Tale doesn’t feel like a “Wizardry-killer” so much as a smarter evolution of the original than its sequels were. Five dungeons and a whole city to explore makes for a great scenario. The improved graphics are obviously a plus, as are the extra classes and expanded magic system. Though there’s plenty of ways to trip up your mapping, Bard’s Tale doesn’t seem explicitly out to fool and frustrate you like some floors in the Wizardry series. Difficulty is probably the major issue here, with the lack of permadeath used as an excuse to waste your time in other ways. New characters, especially, have it rough. But, you can beat anything with enough grinding, and if your expectations are set accordingly, The Bard’s Tale is a mostly satisfying time.
Great evolution of what Wizardry started. Five dungeons and a city to map, without a ton of frustrating tricks. Steady income in the mid-game and exciting loot that makes combat worth it.
Early game is a rough time, with high enemy numbers and no heal spell. End game throws the whole cupboard at you. Secret system mechanics that would be kind of helpful to know. Much chunkier than the modern remake, but I guess that’s expected.
This is Mangar’s treasure trove. Two dragons are here, and they’re very hungry. I think you’re in some real trouble.”