July 28, 2013

The History of the RPG: Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale (1985)

Last Installment: Telengard

Up to now, the computer RPGs I have listed I played, at first, on the computers of friends. For all too brief moments of time. But then I got my Commodore 64. And the very first RPG I bought for it was Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale.*

And it was awesome.**

It was a major step up from Ultima and Telengard. Animated character portraits. 3D color graphics. Party-based combat with multiple classes available.*** And then there was the Bard.

The Bard was unlike any other character in a computer RPG up to that time. Hell, it was even relatively rare in the table-based Dungeons and Dragons versions of that time.**** He was a singer, obviously. And he was critical to your ability to complete the game. As in "You cannot solve this puzzle without a Bard" critical. The Bard also gave your party various benefits with songs he sang, like increased armor. Something that was totally revolutionary to the computer RPG at the time.

The game also had a sense of humor, which has thankfully remained in computer RPGs going forward.

And it was a total time suck. I remember staying up really late, trying to grind out just one more level of the sewers beneath Skara Brae, praying I didn't hit a Darkness square or get trapped in a spinner. And woe to you if you find the room of the 99 Berserkers without a magic user with the right spell.*****

While the plot wasn't what one would call "complicated" (hey, an evil wizard to destroy!), The Bard's Tale represented a huge step forward in playability and style. And the Bard was a completely new idea that added a whole new dimension to computer RPG playing.

The Bard's Tale would go on to spawn two sequels and something of a reboot in 2004's The Bard's Tale. I have to say, I wouldn't mind seeing the original trilogy get a reboot in the style of Baldur's Gate II. It was really fun and I think it would be a big hit if done in a modern style.


The Bard's spells, which improved party stats, could be considered the first "buff". That concept is now fully expressed in games like World of Warcraft. The Bard class, although somewhat present in tabletop D&D games, was a unique class that broke the "wizard/fighter/thief" box.


RPGs with a sense of humor. Which, thankfully, is a long list. But The Bard's Tale wasn't so much a progenitor as it was the next step in the development of the fantasy RPG.

Next on the list: Might and Magic, Book One


* That is the real name of the game. But they printed the "Tales of the Unknown" part way too small at the top of the box. Everyone took to calling it The Bard's Tale and the name stuck. Which goes to show that font size was, and still is, important.

** It really was. I still think of this as one of my Top 10 games of all time. That is likely a view tinged with a healthy dose of nostalgia. But I think The Bard's Tale still holds up quality-wise as a superior game.

*** Hunters are still my favorite class of all time.

**** Yeah, I am a total gaming nerd. What of it? And yes, I know that you could become a bard if you jumped through enough statistical hoops. But you didn't have to do that here. And who wants to waste their time dual-classing twice? Eff that with a chainsaw.

***** "You see 99 Berserkers, 99 Berserkers, 99 Berserkers, and 99 Berserkers. Will your stalwart band choose to (F)ight or (R)un?" Without the right spell, (R) was the only choice to make.


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