Revisiting Bard's Tale
January 30, 2020

I replayed Bard's Tale I a few weeks ago. It's really horrible to you at the start. You need to find the exact right enemies to fight, or you'll get snowed under. Groups of 8 monsters attack you, bang, bang. And you have to win cleanly--resurrection is prohibitively expensive. The best way I found was to take a warrior in your main party and ditch them for a magician (useless at low levels) at level 2. Then everything gets rolling, and it's kind of fun. BT1 is small enough I was able to plow through the rest. Also, there are fights you can keep trying. Everyone knows the 400 berserkers, but the 69 wights on level 3 of the crypt actually are more efficient and give good item drops too.

Nevertheless it's fun to use save states and small loopholes like drinking and casting the hit point healing spell by the bar.

Bard's Tale 3 is a bit different. I think I allude to it in my review--starting from scratch is actually pretty easy, because you're not stuck with 4 HP to start, and you even have basic armor, etc. In BT1 you had to budget and make do, and you needed a good roll for treasure to be able to buy the stuff that really helped your armor class. It's harder to die, and yet at the same time, you will in the starter dungeon if you're not careful. I actually found a crazy loophole--on the Apple at any rate. If you have 1 living player and 6 dead, you get, say 1000 experience for a monster you beat as opposed to 143 with everyone alive. But everyone gets it, even the dead people! So once a mage has some good group-zapping spells, they just have to cast them willy nilly. Because monsters drop harmonic gems (heal MP) regularly, you can just plow through. Or if you have bad luck, speed up the emulator to recharge MP during the game's sunlight hours.

I got a bit tired once I beat the introductory boss in the starter dungeon. It's tricky to know how much to level up for him, but the earlier you can do so, the better--your party gets a crazy bonus. Every spellcaster automatically becomes an archmage, and their HP and MP jump too. It took me a few times to realize how to beat the boss--I was using a "damage everyone" spell the boss and his guards resisted when a death spell would've worked.

I remember days of happily chugging away in '87-'88 and level grinding and mapping, and even grinding a few levels when enemies couldn't really hit me any more. It felt like a daily exercise or something. I convinced myself maybe a cool item would drop, but of course I had to get to the next world for that.

But when I went back I was a bit more impatient, and I was glad I was. I found some neat tricks. It's fun to analyze how to save MP and grief by warping through the right walls to get to the stairs. (In fact, you can bypass a puzzle or two.) And I realized there was so much I never tried. Your bard has several songs in BT3 and I was so enamored of getting your armor class to -20 or below I just played the +Armor song, and I did so again on revisiting the game post-college. So I never realized how handy the hit point and magic point regeneration songs could be. I also think I felt less honor bound to win every fight post college (some aren't worth it and even drop worthless items that take up a slot a good item might like) and aggressively fled this last time.

Bard's Tale 2 fell in between. There were some horrible figghts, but again staying near a bar and looking for fights boosted my gold, and I didn't even get horrible pairs of 8-monster groups. I got to level 5 in a hurry using the BT1 tactics, and when the emulator dungeon disk image spun out, I realized I'd seen enough.

It was nice to know I'd learned something and gotten more impatient (the right way) and experimented more. I think I was just so happy to have any RPG I didn't want to do any cheaty stuff, or maybe I was so blown away with memorizing the spell abbreviation, I ignored the real game mechanics. Or level grinding didn't seem like drudgery at all because it was so new to me then. I felt slightly giddy knowing the Dream Spell (ZZGO, teleports you to all the dungeons) and never really tried to SOLVE them until much later. When my friend showed BT2 to me, I liked the story all right but I thought the spell abbreviations were so funny, I wanted to cast every one! I think it was really the first time I had a long-term goal with a game.

I don't begrudge the time I spent playing Bard's Tale. It was fun. But I'm glad I've moved on and expect more. I remember Larry Wall's tongue-in-cheek quote about a Perl programmr's 3 virtues: impatience, laziness and hubris. I think just playing the Bard's Tales reminded me of the right way to do things. I suspect young me would have worried I'd have upset the creators by cheating my characters up, but ... well, now it's just that I want to get to the really creative bits on replaying stuff. Whether it's the plot or the graphics or the new spells offere by a game.

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