The Bard's Tale (1985 video game)

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The Bard's Tale
Bard's Tale Box Cover.jpg
Cover art
Developer(s) Interplay Productions
Publisher(s) Electronic Arts, Ariolasoft (Europe)
Designer(s) Michael Cranford
Series The Bard's Tale
Platform(s) Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Macintosh, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, NES, ZX Spectrum, NEC PC-9801
Release 1985 - 1991
Genre(s) Role-playing
Mode(s) Single-player

Tales of the Unknown: Volume I, better known by its subtitle The Bard's Tale, is a fantasy role-playing video game designed and programmed by Michael Cranford, produced by Interplay Productions in 1985 and distributed by Electronic Arts.[1] It spawned "The Bard's Tale" series of games and books.

Based loosely on traditional Dungeons & Dragons gameplay and inspired by the Wizardry computer games, The Bard's Tale was noteworthy for its unprecedented 3D graphics and partly animated character portraits. The Bard was also an innovation: "The Bard was author Michael Cranford's contribution to the genre, a character who casts spells by singing one of six tunes."[2]

It was originally released for the Apple II, and was also ported to the Commodore 64, Apple IIgs, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Atari ST, MS-DOS, Macintosh, and NES platforms.


The following text from the box cover summarizes the premise:

Long ago, when magic still prevailed, the evil wizard Mangar the Dark threatened a small but harmonious country town called Skara Brae. Evil creatures oozed into Skara Brae and joined his shadow domain. Mangar froze the surrounding lands with a spell of Eternal Winter, totally isolating Skara Brae from any possible help. Then, one night the town militiamen all disappeared.

The future of Skara Brae hung in the balance. And who was left to resist? Only a handful of unproven young Warriors, junior Magic Users, a couple of Bards barely old enough to drink, and some out of work Rogues.

You are there. You are the leader of this ragtag group of freedom fighters. Luckily you have a Bard with you to sing your glories, if you survive. For this is the stuff of legends. And so the story begins...

The introduction depicts a bard sitting in a tavern. Between occasional sips from his mug, he strums a lute and sings:

The song I sing
Will tell the tale
of a cold and wintery day;
Of castle walls
And torchlit halls
And a price men had to pay.
When evil fled
And brave men bled
The Dark one came to stay,
'Til men of old
For blood and gold
Had rescued Skara Brae.

In the actual game, the player forms a group ("party") of up to six characters in the Adventurer's Guild building which is the only "home zone" where the current game, or more precisely, the characters and their current inventory, can be saved. Game progress is made through advancing the characters so that they are powerful enough to defeat the increasingly dangerous foes and monsters in the dungeons, obtaining certain items relevant to solving the overall quest, and obtaining information.

The fictional town of Skara Brae (with no connections to the real-world historical site of the same name) consists of 30x30 map tiles containing either buildings or streets (plus gates and magical guardian statues blocking certain streets). Access to one tower in the northeastern and southwestern city corner each is blocked by locked gates. The main city gates which open to the west are blocked by snow, and remain impassable throughout the game. One street seems to lead south endlessly, by actually teleporting the party back to its beginning upon reaching the portion where the city walls would be.

Certain buildings within the city are special, such as the Adventurer's Guild, Garth's Equipment Shoppe, the Review Board (which is unmarked and must be found first, and is the only place where characters can level up), various taverns and temples and the dungeons. The latter are mazes of various kinds—cellars, sewers, catacombs or fortresses—full of monsters and riddles, some guarded by magical statues that come to life to attack trespassing player parties.

  1. The first dungeon is the Wine Cellar (1 level) of one particular tavern, which proves to be connected to the Sewers of Skara Brae (3 levels) that in turn feature an exit that leads to an otherwise inaccessible southwestern corner of the city where Mangar's Tower, the final dungeon, is located. It cannot be entered without a key, however. In the sewers, numerous hints are found including the name of the Mad God. Finding this first dungeon (the wine cellar) required the party to order some wine at a certain tavern. There was a hint to this in the manual (Hint: The first dungeon is the wine cellar of the only tavern in town which serves wine. It's on Rakhir Street). However this hint was not present in the manual included with the C64 release of the game. Upon ordering wine, the party would be sent by the bartender to his cellar to fetch a bottle themselves. It is not actually possible within the game to obtain a bottle of wine, nor is it required to proceed. The purpose of this introductory "dungeon" was simply to introduce the dungeon concept and provide access to the sewers.
  2. The undead-infested Catacombs (3 levels) beneath the temple of the Mad God, accessible only if his name is known (but not technically requiring the party to have found this password themselves; it just needs to be typed in by the player regardless of how they came to possess this information). On the lowest level, a Lich must be defeated to obtain an eye.
  3. If they possess the eye, a statue of the Mad God in Baron Harkyn's Castle (3 levels) will teleport the party to the (otherwise inaccessible) northeastern area where the next dungeon is located; however, it is not required to proceed to the next dungeon immediately. If weakened too much from the fighting in the castle, the party may elect to leave the area via one-way portals instead at this point and return to the city and the Adventurer's Guild.
  4. Kylearan's Tower (1 level) is only accessible through the teleporter in Harkyn's Castle, requiring any party who wish to enter to fight through the castle's three levels first. Kylearan the Archmage awaits the party at the conclusion of his tower maze and turns out to be friendly. He gives the party an access key to Mangar's Tower, the final dungeon, but they still have to circumvent the locked gates around the tower by going through the Sewers.
  5. Still reachable only via the Sewers at this point in the game, Mangar's Tower (5 levels) is the final dungeon that has to be overcome to reach Mangar and slay him, provided the party has acquired several items in the other dungeons which are required to best him. At one point within the tower the party can acquire a key that will allow them to access Mangar's Tower and Kylearan's Tower from the city directly thenceforward, without having to move through the Sewers or Harkyn's Castle, respectively.


A screenshot of The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64.
A screenshot of The Bard's Tale on the Apple IIGS.

The Bard's Tale is a straightforward "dungeon crawl". The objective is to gain experience and advance characters' skills through (mostly) random combat with enemies and monsters. This is done while exploring maze-like dungeons, solving occasional puzzles and riddles, and finding or buying better weapons, armor and other equipment.

When beginning the game, the player may create up to six player characters, chosen from among the following classes: bard, hunter, monk, paladin, rogue, warrior, magician, and conjurer. The classes sorcerer and wizard were available to experienced conjurers and magicians. A typical well-balanced party might consist of a couple of fighters, a rogue, a bard, and a couple of magic users. On some platforms, the player could import previously created characters from Wizardry and/or Ultima III, which was somewhat revolutionary at the time.

The most important character was arguably the bard, whose magical songs functioned like long-lasting spells and affected the player's party in various ways—such as strengthening their armor, or increasing their attack speed, much like "buffs" in modern-day MMORPGs. A number of obligatory puzzles in the game were unsolvable without the use of bard songs. Each bard song triggered corresponding music while he played (some classical, some original).

With only a map of the town of Skara Brae included on the box, it was usually necessary for players to use pencil and graph paper to make their own maps as they played through the game. In the first two games, each dungeon level was set on a fixed 22 by 22 grid.

Magic users were allowed to change classes permanently. The game manual describes a magic user who has mastered all spells from all four classes as "an Archmage, the most powerful being in the world of The Bard's Tale." However, Archmage status had no effect on gameplay other than simply having all spells available.

Casting one of the 85 magic user spells consisted of typing a four-letter code found only in the printed game manual. However, when using a mouse (in the DOS, Amiga, and Macintosh versions), the full names of the spells would appear in a list to choose from.

Combat is round-based and abstract, described in text rather than shown graphically; there is no notion of moving characters around on a map during combat. Cash and experience points are distributed evenly to all surviving party members after a particular encounter is won.


Publisher Electronic Arts published a cluebook for the game in 1986 (ISBN 1-55543-064-3) that added some original characters and background information to the game's setting. Written by T.L. Thompson, it purports to be an in-universe document that one Pellis, who seems to be an influential individual working against Mangar behind the scenes, entrusts to an unnamed friend who has just come of age-implicitly, the player (party).

It is the journal of Lord Garrick, viscount of Skara Brae's sister city Hamelon. Trapped in Skara Brae by Mangar's spell, Lord Garrick and his party of servants and associates (including Corfid op Orfin the Bard, Ghaklah the Magician, Isli the Paladin, Soriac the Archmage, and the otherwise unnamed "last of the great sage-sorcerors") take it upon themselves to rid Skara Brae of Mangar's influence. The journal narrates how they navigate the dungeons and solve the puzzles until, one step short of actually confronting Mangar, they find that crucial items were stolen by the party's Rogue when he had abandoned them. Soriac prepares a spell that will allow Isli to escape and give the journal to Pellis, but is also thought to rent from the fabric of time everything they have accomplished, and will consume Isli as well as it burns itself out.


Michael Cranford developed the concept, design and programming of The Bard's Tale and its successor game (The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight), with additional design by Brian Fargo (the founder of Interplay) and Roe Adams III. David Lowery designed the graphics, Lawrence Holland composed the music, and Joe Ybarra served as producer. [3]

Cranford was a devout Christian. He included references to Jesus Christ in The Bard's Tale, and all but one of the city names in The Bard's Tale II are taken from the New Testament. After a falling-out with Brian Fargo he was not involved in The Bard's Tale III and decided to go back to college to study philosophy and theology instead.[4]

Lawrence Holland, who composed the music and programmed the music interface for The Bard's Tale, went on to create the renowned Star Wars: X-Wing series of games for LucasArts. He later founded his own game company, Totally Games.

Artist Eric Joyner painted the original cover art, which featured himself (foreground, vest), artist Don Carson III (foreground with mug and background with pipe) and Carson's father Don Carson Jr (harp) as models.[citation needed]

Rebecca Heineman, who worked at Interplay at the time (then as Bill "Burger" Heineman), is credited in the game's manual for the "data compressing routines that allowed [Cranford] to pack so much graphics and animation", and according to herself also wrote development tools for the game such as a graphic editor and all ports to other platforms. Heineman became openly critical of Cranford in later years, saying in an interview that Cranford, after doing some last bugfixes, held the game's final version "hostage" to force Brian Fargo to sign a publishing contract that contained a clause by which the sequel game (The Destiny Knight) would be Cranford's alone.[5] Brian Fargo confirmed this, but still defended Cranford.[6]

Cranford described Heineman's words as "disparaging slant" and "fiction", noting that Heineman ("a storyteller with an agenda") at the time was (paraphrased) a loner who "sat isolated in a cubicle in the back corner of the room", wasn't involved in the company's business operations nor deeply involved in The Bard's Tale, and therefore would not know all the details.[7][8] As far as he (Cranford) could remember the situation, Brian Fargo would not produce a written contract for the game until near the very end of the development, and then only under pressure from Cranford withholding the final product. When he finally did, the contract was not what Cranford thought they had verbally agreed on when he had started working on the project, nor something he felt he could or would have agreed to at the onset.[7][8] Although a compromise was found, Fargo asked Cranford to leave the company after The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight was finished. The experience contributed to Cranford walking away from game development to pursue a different career.[7] Cranford said he later apologized to Fargo after realizing that the attorney who had represented him had misled him into assuming the worst.[8]

Cranford, Fargo and Heineman have each since stated that they hold no grudges against anyone over something that occurred when they were in their early twenties. Cranford and Fargo remain friends. When Fargo, through his firm inXile Entertainment, started making The Bard's Tale IV on the original game's 30th anniversary, Cranford was invited to join the project and did so (after initially declining because of other projects), while Heineman contributed by creating a 'remastered' edition of the original three games for modern operating systems, an endeavor that however did not proceed beyond an essentially unplayable beta version before being put on hold for monetary reasons.


The Bard's Tale was very successful, becoming the best-selling computer RPG of the 1980s at 407,000 copies.[9] It was the first non-Wizardry computer role-playing game to challenge the Ultima series' sales, especially to Commodore 64 users who could not play Wizardry (a Commodore version did not appear until 1987, with inferior graphics to that of The Bard's Tale).[10] Computer Gaming World's Scorpia in 1985 described Bard's Tale as "not to be missed!"[11] In 1993 she criticized the game's starting difficulty and single save location, but stated that it had "many points of interest, particularly in the puzzles, and is definitely a game worth getting".[12] The game was reviewed in 1986 in Dragon #116 by Hartley and Pattie Lesser in "The Role of Computers" column. The reviewers rated the game well, concluding that "Bard’s Tale, a game of high adventure ... is one we recommend for your software library."[13] The game was revisited in Dragon #120.[14] In a subsequent column, the reviewers gave the game 5 out of 5 stars.[15]

Compute! called the Apple IIGS version "unquestionably the most graphically stunning product I have seen on any Apple computer".[16] The ZX Spectrum version of The Bard's Tale, released in 1988,[17] was favorably received. CRASH said that "the Skara Brae environment is so complex and involves so many different factors that it's hard not to get completely enthralled in your quest" and rated it at 86%.[18] Sinclair User rated it at 89%, but noted that it would not appeal to general gameplayers, saying that "The Bard's Tale will enthrall diehard pixie fans [...] but there's too much text, and not enough graphics and animation, to convert the uncommitted."[19] Your Sinclair were similarly positive about the game, rating it 9/10.[20]

The Commodore 64 version of The Bard's Tale was given a 'Sizzler' award and rated at 94% by ZZAP! 64 magazine, in the 1986 Christmas Special edition. Reviewer Sean Masterson called it "the best RPG on the Commodore".[21]

With a score of 7.49 out of 10, in 1988 The Bard's Tale was among the first members of the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, honoring those games rated highly over time by readers.[22] In 1990 the game received the seventh-highest number of votes in a survey of readers' "All-Time Favorites".[23] In 1996, the magazine named The Bard's Tale the 89th best game ever.[24]



A magazine advertisement for The Bard's Tale.

The Bard's Tale was both a best-seller[25] and a critical success, and produced two official sequels and a "Construction Set" in its time.

A compilation of all three classic The Bard's Tale games, entitled The Bard's Tale Trilogy, was released for DOS by Electronic Arts in 1990.

According to programmer Rebecca Heineman the name of the overall series was to be Tales of the Unknown, and the three games were to be entitled The Bard's Tale, The Archmage's Tale, and The Thief's Tale. This is supported by the cover art of the original Bard's Tale release, which proclaimed the game as "Tales of the Unknown, Volume I." However, the immense popularity of the first game prompted Electronic Arts to re-brand the series under the more well-known name.[26]

What was originally going to be The Bard's Tale IV became an unrelated game called Dragon Wars (1991) at a very late point in its development process, due to rights issues after developer Interplay parted ways with publisher Electronic Arts.[27] The game's name and storyline were changed to disassociate it from the Bard's Tale series.

In 2003, Brian Fargo (who created maps for the first two Bard's Tale games and directed the third) left Interplay Entertainment and began a new game development company named InXile Entertainment. In 2004, they released their first game; also titled The Bard's Tale; an unrelated, console-style, top-down, action game which pokes fun at traditional, fantasy, and role-playing game tropes as in those found throughout the original Bard's Tale. It was not a proper sequel to the classic series, nor was it connected in any respect apart from the title. Although a legal loophole allowed InXile to use the Bard's Tale name and the company had evidently planned to incorporate more elements of the original games,[28] Electronic Arts still owned the original trademarks for the Bard's Tale series itself, and InXile was not legally allowed to use any of the plot, characters or locations featured in the original trilogy in their 2004 game.

In May 2015, Fargo announced he was planning to develop and a sequel funded through crowdfunding on Kickstarter, The Bard's Tale IV.[29] It will directly continue the storyline of the original trilogy.[30]

The Mage's Tale was announced by InXile in 2017 as a spinoff game using virtual reality technology. It is being developed concurrently with The Bard's Tale IV.


A series of novels based on The Bard's Tale were published by Baen Books during the 1990s. Although the books had little in common with the storyline of the games, their existence is a testament to how influential the Bard's Tale brand had become. They include:

  1. Castle of Deception, by Mercedes Lackey and Josepha Sherman (1992, ISBN 0-671-72125-9)
  2. Fortress of Frost and Fire, by Mercedes Lackey and Ru Emerson (1993, ISBN 0-671-72162-3)
  3. Prison of Souls, by Mercedes Lackey and Mark Shepherd (1994, ISBN 0-671-72193-3)
  4. The Chaos Gate, by Josepha Sherman (1994, ISBN 0-671-87597-3)
  5. Thunder of the Captains, by Holly Lisle and Aaron Allston (1996, ISBN 0-671-87731-3)
  6. Wrath of the Princes, by Holly Lisle and Aaron Allston (1997, ISBN 0-671-87771-2)
  7. Escape from Roksamur, by Mark Shepherd (1997, ISBN 0-671-87797-6)
  8. Curse of the Black Heron, by Holly Lisle (1998, ISBN 0-671-87868-9)

While they are listed here in the order they were published, some books in the series connect more than others, such as Castle of Deception and The Chaos Gate, Prison of Souls and Escape from Roksamur, and Thunder of the Captains and Wrath of the Princes.


  1. ^ Barton, Matt (2007-02-23). "Part 2: The Golden Age (1985–1993)". The History of Computer Role-Playing Games. Gamasutra. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  2. ^ Bagnall, Michael R. (1988). Addams, Shay, ed. Quest for Clues. New Hampshire: Origin Systems. p. 27. ISBN 0-929373-00-6. 
  3. ^ "The Bard's Tale Compendium". Credits from the game manuals. 2000. Retrieved 2016-03-29. 
  4. ^ Cranford, Michael (1998). "The Bard's Tale Compendium". E-mail correspondence. Retrieved 2009-07-22. 
  5. ^ Barton, Matt (10 December 2010). "Matt Chat 85: Rebecca Heineman Pt. 4". YouTube. Google. Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  6. ^ Barton, Matt (15 January 2011). "Matt Chat 89: Bard's Tale and Wizardry with Brian Fargo". YouTube. Google. Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c RPG interview with Michael Cranford
  8. ^ a b c Forum posting by Michael Cranford, explaining his point of view
  9. ^ Maher, Jimmy (2016-11-21). "Memos from Digital Antiquarian Corporate Headquarters". The Digital Antiquarian. 
  10. ^ Maher, Jimmy (2014-06-25). "Of Wizards and Bards". The Digital Antiquarian. Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  11. ^ Scorpia (November 1985). "The Bard's Tale". Computer Gaming World (review). p. 27. 
  12. ^ Scorpia (October 1993). "Scorpia's Magic Scroll Of Games". Computer Gaming World. pp. 34–50. Retrieved 25 March 2016. 
  13. ^ Lesser, Hartley and Pattie (December 1986). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (116): 69–76. 
  14. ^ Lesser, Hartley and Patricia (April 1987). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (120): 79–82. 
  15. ^ Lesser, Hartley and Patricia (October 1987). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (126): 82–88. 
  16. ^ Trunzo, James V. (October 1987). "The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight". Compute!. p. 31. Retrieved 10 November 2013. 
  17. ^ "Bard's Tale, The". World of Spectrum. Retrieved 2007-12-11. 
  18. ^ "The Bard's Tale". CRASH (55): 55–56. August 1988. 
  19. ^ "Bards Tale". Sinclair User (77): 88–89. August 1988. 
  20. ^ Gerrard, Mike (September 1988). "The Bard's Tale: Tales of the Unknown". Your Sinclair (33): 28. Archived from the original on 2007-12-21. Retrieved 2007-12-11. 
  21. ^ "Gamebase 64 - Game of the Week". Reprinted - ZZap! Review. Retrieved 2013-05-21. 
  22. ^ "The CGW Hall of Fame". Computer Gaming World. March 1988. p. 44. 
  23. ^ "CGW Readers Select All-Time Favorites". Computer Gaming World. January 1990. p. 64. Retrieved 15 November 2013. 
  24. ^ "150 Best Games of All Time". Computer Gaming World. November 1996. pp. 64–80. Retrieved 25 March 2016. 
  25. ^ Campbell, Colin (14 July 2015). "How EA lost its soul, chapter 8". Polygon. Vox Media. Retrieved 15 July 2015. 
  26. ^ Heineman, Bill (2000). "The Bard's Tale Compendium". Interview transcript. Retrieved 2011-02-24. 
  27. ^ Rebecca Heineman Interview. Digit Press, 2006.
  28. ^ "The Bard's Tale Compendium". Game review. 2004. Retrieved 2011-02-24. 
  29. ^ "The Bards Tale IV by inXile entertainment". Kickstarter. June 2, 2015. Retrieved June 15, 2015. 
  30. ^ Brian Fargo On Bringing Back The Bard's Tale

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