A Bard's Trail

Becky Cunningham

Many of my fellow '80s kids remember gaming on their home consoles in family dens and basements, but my setup was a bit different. My gaming station was the family computer, which sat on a heavy wooden desk across from our kitchen table. It was a first-run Apple IIgs, signed on the front by Woz himself. Beside it sat its external hard drive, floppy drive, and of course a noisy dot matrix printer. I would wile away many hours on that machine, playing Infocom text games or Sierra adventures, my bare heels kicking against the metal leg of the cheap kitchen chair I sat on.

On a trip to the game store in 1987, a new game attracted my attention. The cover depicted a group of adventurers in a tavern, listening to a bard with a harp. Surrounding that picture was a decorative map of a labyrinth. The game was called The Bard's Tale, and I spent my hard-earned allowance money to see what it was all about.

When the game launched off its floppy disk (was it a 5.25 or one of those new-fangled 3.5 inchers? I don't remember) I was immediately struck by the music, which sounded like it was being played by actual digital instruments rather than the usual bleeps and bloops. There were even some voice samples in there... whoa! The graphics were new to me as well. Rather than showing my character in the environment like the Sierra adventures did, The Bards Tale carried a first-person perspective of a three dimensional world. Using the arrow keys, I moved my characters square by square through the city, gasping when monsters popped onto the screen from nowhere and challenged my party. It was disorienting at first, but it was also very exciting. I felt like I was embarking on a real adventure!

The Bard's Tale was not exactly a welcoming game. In fact, it was downright brutal. I created my own custom adventuring party, but I didn't really know what I was doing, and found myself quickly wiped out by the monsters just outside the tavern. I didn't know what to do when a character died, because I hadn't yet discovered the temple that allowed for character resurrection, so I spent some time dumping dead characters in the tavern, deleting them, then creating new ones. Eventually, after a more careful study of the manual, I figured out where the temple was and proceeded to crawl slowly in that direction, managing to level up some characters but soon finding that I didn't have the money to regularly resurrect anybody who had died.

I was undaunted. I took the manual to the living room, read it thoroughly, and proceeded to restart the game with a higher-quality party. I spent hours rolling and re-rolling statistics, carefully building a balanced party, then cautiously leveling them up, advancing deeper into the city bit by bit as I grew more powerful. Soon I was able to start accepting quests and venturing into dungeons, a dangerous yet rewarding endeavor. I filled pages upon pages of graph paper with poorly-drawn maps until the mid-game, when the dungeons became too complex for my eleven-year-old mapping skills. Pit traps, spinner traps, blind areas... these are not helpful for graph paper mapping. I gleefully saved up my allowance money for several more weeks and purchased the hint book so that I could make it through the dungeons without being hopelessly lost. The darn things were so challenging that even with the hint book, survival was a matter of very careful play and a fair bit of luck.

I don't remember if I ever beat The Bard's Tale. I don't think I cared. For me, it was the sheer freedom and adventure of it all that was thrilling. When I got bored with the vanilla version of the game, I learned some basic hex editing skills and created an uber-party, then proceeded to a secret section of the catacombs where I could face groups of 99 skeletons and blow them up with a single Götterdämmerung spell. Yes, there was a Götterdämmerung spell.

The Bard's Tale turned me from an adventure gamer into a full-on hardcore RPGamer. I followed up The Bard's Tale with the excellent Dungeon Master, which not only featured even more expansive 3D exploration, but allowed gamers to pick up, manipulate, and throw any object in the dungeon. Yes, I was tossing axes onto pressure plates in a 3D dungeon around the same time that console gamers were learning that “It's dangerous to go alone.” It's hard to get over that kind of superiority complex, which is why even all these years and numerous modern consoles later, I remain a PC gamer deep in my stat-rolling, grid-paper drawing, slaying mummies by tossing torches heart.

« Previous | Next »

© 1998-2017 RPGamer All Rights Reserved
Privacy Policy