Tales of the Unknown Volume I: The Bard's Tale

Author: Michael Cranford, Interplay Productions
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: 1985
Genres: Fantasy, Role-Playing
Platforms: Commodore 64 (1985), Apple II (1985), Amiga (1986), Atari ST (1986), Amstrad CPC (1987), MS-DOS (1987), Macintosh (1989), Sinclair ZX Spectrum (1988)
See also: Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight and Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate

Simply put, The Bard's Tale1 is brilliant.

And in an attempt to lend that assertion some substance:

Basic Premise

The short version is thus - the Evil Overlord (goes by the name of Mangar) has taken over the city of Skara Brae. Naturally this cataclysmic event has been accompanied by the onset of Chaos and the roaming about of hideous beasts and assorted goblins. And as we all know, there's nothing a marauding kobold hates more than to have a team of adventuring heroes stride in, and kick him in the head. Cue the adventurers! Your goal is to assemble a motley crew of rugged warriors, and venture forth to save the city from peril and otherwise prod some serious buttock.

Technical Info

This game has two basic modes; movement and combat.

In movement mode, your party moves as a single unit, occupying one game square. You, as the player, take command from a kind of first person perspective, a slightly odd concept since you are controlling a group of people. In any case, the game world is divided into a basic square grid, with no diagonal movement possible. In movement mode, you are subject to the risk of a wandering monster attack, or random encounter. And when I say you are subject to encounters in movement mode, I mean it. There are no safe zones. In this game, your party is in permanent danger. Every single step you take is fraught. But don't make the mistake of thinking you can just stop taking steps for a bit - relax, get your breath back. No sir. Movement mode operates with a real-time component. You can be hit by a bunch of strolling barbarians without even moving. Of course, offence is the best defence, and if you're not content to wait for your number to come up, you can kick down some doors and see what lurks beyond ...

Combat mode is in pure turn based form. You decide what each of your party members will do in the forthcoming combat round, the CPU does similarly with your opponents, and the round commences. Then everyone scrapes themselves off the floor and walls, and we have another round, and so on and so forth until one party is entirely destroyed.

In order to heal, buy gear, or rest for the night, you interact with various buildings, such as the legendary Garth's Equipment Shoppe or Roscoe's Energy Emporium.

In keeping with age-old traditions, there are a number of multiple-level dungeons in the game (some of which are towers, and hence go up instead of down). I have to take my hat off to the man who designed those levels. The mazes are mind-boggling, they really are.

Character Creation

Nothing surprising to RPG veterans here. Choose from a half-dozen races, and the program rolls you up some stats, which are more or less in AD&D format. Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence and Luck. The obvious exception from the usual bag of tricks is Charisma.

Choose from eight character classes, think up a cool name and you're set. A full party is six adventurers, with the first three characters capable of attacking, and being attacked, in melee combat, and the last three only able to affect the combat by casting spells, and only able to be harmed by hostile magic. It is important to choose the class mix of your party with this fact in mind.

There is an extra slot in your party marked "S" for "Special". This cannot be occupied by a real character, it is reserved for wandering creatures who offer to join your party, conjured creatures (such as "Elik's Instant Ogre"), illusions (such as "Wind Wolf"), and summoned beings (such as "Spell Spirit"). The Special slot counts as a member of the front rank (melee combatant), and is tactically very useful to have filled - not only because you have another member of the team doling out damage, but because opponents will tend to strike at your Special before attacking your characters. This can act as a very useful buffer against particularly powerful enemies. And if the Special is eliminated, so what? It's easy enough to conjure up a new one.


Ah, the elusive gameplay. This game's got it in bundles. It also has something that's been a bit absent from computer games of recent years - difficulty. That's right. Difficulty. Your characters will get killed. In BT, resurrection is possible but hideously expensive. When you're just starting out and your best warrior gets killed, you can't actually afford to get him restored. Times like these, you need to say farewell to the valiant departed and create yourself up a new warrior. Of course, getting all the way back to the Adventurer's Guild without your best fighter is going to be interesting...

Until you get your characters to about level 4, getting around town is a very risky activity. As you meander through the streets of Skara Brae, you have no idea whether you're going to continue merrily on your way, or without warning bump into a gang of monsters that you have no chance of defeating. And the R)un option doesn't always succeed. This develops some serious tension and atmosphere. Especially at night time, when the monsters are tougher, appear more frequently and your spell points don't recharge.

...excerpt from gaming session...

"...c'mon, Grishak! Splat that kobold! YES! Okay, might wanna get some healing now."

He tentatively guided the party towards the nearest temple, unaware that night was fast approaching.

"Okay, almost there guys."

Night fell.

"Ah crap."

He spun the party around and started running for the adventurer's guild, his fingers rattling on the directional keys.

"You can make it, guys! Oooh crap. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrap!"

...you get the idea...

While it sounds painful and frustrating (it is), it's also a helluva lot of fun. You spend so much time worrying about your characters dying, that you quickly develop a liking for them.


This is the best part! The magic system is totally enjoyable. A whole host of impressive, destructive and just plain cool spells await your casting. Four schools of magic users exist, as follows.

  • Conjurer - Specialist in the instantaneous magical creation of objects and effects
  • Magician - Uses magic to warp existing reality, for example enhancing the protective power of a suit of armour.
  • Sorcerer - An illusionist. Illusory creatures, if believed, are capable of dealing damage as though they were real.
  • Wizard - A summoner, with the power to gate undead and demons from another plane and bind them to your party. A wizard's understanding of the true nature of these creatures makes him their most formidable opponent.

A mage must start his career as either magician or conjurer - the other two disciplines are only accessible by more experienced characters.

Each of the schools has seven levels of spells, with a handful of spells in each level, for a grand total of 85 spells in the game. A mage gains the ability to learn a new group of spells in his chosen school every two experience levels. Once he has learned at least the third group of spells from his initial school, he is able to move on to the other basic school, or to Sorcery. A mage who has learned at least three groups of spells from two different schools is permitted to study Wizardry.

It is tempting to elevate a character to Sorcery (and get those delicious illusion spells) as soon as possible, but there is a catch. Once a character has left a school of magic, he cannot return. Which means that if you change your Magician into a Sorcerer as soon as he learns the third spell group, he will never have access to the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh Magician groups, and will hence never be able to cast a "Phase Door" or "Deathstrike". The latter spell groups are extremely potent, even for the two basic schools. If you are patient enough to train a character in all seven groups of all four schools, he is granted the fear-inspiring title of Archmage. You know you want one.

Each spell in the game has its own four-letter acronym, which you use in combat mode to designate which spell your mage ought to cast. You get to know these codes pretty well, and often refer to the spells by their acronym alone. For example, the popular first-level attack spell Arc Fire (ARFI) is usually referred to as "Arfy". Then you've got other favourites such as Mangar's Mind Blade (MIBL), Mage Compass (MACO) and, of course, Ybarra's Mystical Coat of Armour (YMCA). I'm not kidding, that's what it's called!

Skara Brae Needs Your Help!

Anyhow, I can only blab on about it. You won't appreciate the true excellence of this game until you've played it for yourself. Fortunately, this is not hard to do. Get yourself a nice Commodore 64 emulator. Find a copy of the game ROM files and off you go. There are some very decent emulators available, and BT makes the effort worthwhile.

Play it and see how much fun a computer game can be.

1. I can only vouch for the excellence of the Commodore 64 version, which is the original. But, as far as I can glean from the various fansites about, the other ports only differ in terms of graphics and sound.

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