Playing Roles: The Bard's Tale Retrospective

Published: June 2, 2015 9:00 AM /


Tales of the Unknown The Bard's Tale Cover

This year, game designer Brian Fargo of InXile Entertainment has announced that he will be using Kickstarter for another project. After the relatively successful release of Wasteland 2, and with Tides of Numenara currently in production, Fargo and his company have announced another one of his franchises will be resurrected: The Bard’s Tale. Just in time for it’s 30th anniversary, The Bard’s Tale IV is, as Fargo put it, "A proper sequel" to the franchise.

The Bard’s Tale is indeed a beloved, if somewhat forgotten, franchise in the annals of role-playing games. In its heyday it was a major contender to dethroning the Wizardry series from dominance, as it was often regarded as one of the best dungeon-crawling RPG’s at the time. By today’s standards, the games often struggle to hold up to modern sensibilities, but as a pure stat-based dungeon crawler, Tales of The Unknown: The Bard’s Tale is perhaps the most accessible game you can get.

That may seem like strange praise, being accessible to players. One of the major problems with role-playing games is how esoteric they are by design; in other words, only those in the know would understand them. Be it complex mechanics or predictable story points, many role-playing games, both in table-top and video game form, are often designed in a way to specifically cater to those in the know.

This mentality is more harmful than good, however, as it relegates role-playing games into a decidedly niche, critical audience. This is not to say that criticism is a bad thing, it is just usually reserved for what is done differently compared to what is played before, especially when it comes to certain genres of role-playing games. As I mentioned in Part Two of the Etymology of RPG’s, many critics and fans of the early CRPG days were often dismissive of anything different from the norm, a trait that would lead to a glut of similar production design meshed with poor coding and a lack of originality.

The Bard’s Tale stands out among it’s peers, however, because of it’s simplicity as a dungeon crawler. Much of the credit for this goes to Michael Cranford, the designer and writer of the original game, Tales of the Unknown: The Bard’s Tale. Cranford stated in his pitch of the game: “If it could be called similar to any existing game, that game would be Wizardry, by Sir Tech Software. The object in the design … has not been to copy Wizardry, but to come up with a role playing game of similar, though greatly increased, playability.”

The original map found in the boxed copies of A Bard's Tale. Skara-Brae is the only town in the game, and every dungeon you find had to be drawn by hand.
The original map found in the boxed copies of A Bard's Tale. Skara-Brae is the only town in the game, and every dungeon you find had to be drawn by hand.

As former colleague Becky Heinemann stated, "In 1984, Mike Cranford suggested that Interplay Productions should do a fantasy role playing game (Wizardry was hot at the time). However the game's name was Tales of the Unknown." Cranford was hired by his friend Brian Fargo to work with his small team on the title. Fargo, who in 1983 founded Interplay Productions, had a small team that had worked on several projects before The Bard’s Tale, such as Mindshadow, a text-adventure game produced by Activision for the Apple 2.

Cranford was never an official employee of Interplay. “He was an independent contractor,” recalled Heinemann. “He was able to do this since he was an old high school buddy of Brian Fargo. Cranford worked in an office at Interplay up until the completion of Bard's Tale I.” Cranford became the primary pitchman for Tales of The Unknown, with the working title Shadow Snare, to Electronic Arts in 1984. Electronic Arts at the time was just recently founded by Trip Hawkins in 1982 and was looking to push new games on several home computers, including the Commodore Amiga and the Apple 2, to establish their game library.

Enticed by the pitch from Cranford, Electronic Arts signed a deal to produce Tales of the Unknown: A Bard's Tale on the Apple 2. The company would also port the game to the several other systems for the next six years, including the Amiga, Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Apple Macintosh.

Released in 1985, Tales of the Unknown: The Bard’s Tale would bring several revolutionary concepts to the dungeon crawler. Including the aforementioned accessibility, The Bard’s Tale offered what was at the time, cutting edge graphical features. Portraits and images were heavily detailed, albeit small, and even contained simple animation. As Cranford said during his pitch to Electronic Arts, “Unlike Wizardry, the town … is depicted with a series of small (though highly detailed) graphic pictures, some of which are animated. The display is graphic, and the text output window scrolls messages up smoothly.”

Another major revolution was the use of sustained effects. The titular bard in the game's title was a character class that many cite as being necessary to not only win encounters with enemies, but advancing the game's plot. The bard class had several abilities that enhanced the party  working like the now more commonplace buffs seen in many role-playing games, which was a new feature at the time. The bard’s songs were also needed to solve several puzzles in the game, making the class invaluable to the player. Also new was the ability for some games to import characters from both Wizardry and Ultima.

Cranford, a Christian, also incorporated religious undertones into The Bard’s Tale. Several references to Jesus are found in The Bard’s Tale, in particular his crucifixion being directly referenced several times. Cranford would continue this trend by bringing biblical references into the The Bard’s Tale II.

After the success of the first game, Cranford would continue to work with Interplay on The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight before leaving game design completely. Cranford stated that “part of it was that I wanted to leave Interplay so that I could go back to school. I was pretty burnt out on D&D game programming ... and wanted to pursue studies in philosophy and theology. I also thought I didn't need Interplay at that point and had a falling out with Brian Fargo." Cranford would go on to receive his degrees in Theology and Philosophy, and currently teaches theology and ethics. He's also the founder of the web design company Ninth Degree.

Fargo, for his part, would continue on with Interplay, while having Heinemann direct The Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate. He would later go on to develop titles such as Wasteland, Dragon Wars, and many of the influential Black Isle titles, including Planescape Torment. Fargo would leave Interplay in 2000, and in 2002 formed InXile Entertainment. The studio’s first game, The Bard’s Tale, was an action-RPG with self-referential humor and is considered a spin-off of the Bard’s Tale series.

The Bard’s Tale franchise would spawn three games from 1985-1988, with Dragon Wars being a re-worked title that was planned to be The Bard’s Tale IV, before Interplay decided not to pursue a publishing deal with Electronic Arts. Interplay would also release The Bard’s Tale Construction Set in 1991, allowing players on the Amiga and DOS to create their own customized dungeon crawls. All titles, with the exception of the 2004 Bard’s Tale, are currently still owned by Electronic Arts.

This is not stopping Fargo, who has worked out a deal with Electronic Arts to crowd-fund a new Bard’s Tale in time for the games 30th anniversary. "We recognize that there's a group of people that played these games and for them,” said Fargo. “It's like they finished it yesterday. They want to go into something where they feel like it's a continuation, to some degree, of what they've finished. So I'm very attuned to making sure we hit the right points for people who are real fans of the original series."

The Kickstarter for The Bard’s Tale IV will launch on June 2nd. More importantly though, The Bard’s Tale continues to cement it’s legacy as one of the longest-standing role-playing games of all time. Even back to it’s classical roots, The Bard’s Tale has endured as the best example of a dungeon crawl the PC because it offers depth and complexity without being overly complicated, character through animation and text, and overall a tightened design that really showcases how good an RPG can be for anyone to enjoy.

I hope you enjoyed this little retrospective of The Bard's Tale. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. See you next time. 

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| Staff Writer

A longtime player of games, creator of worlds, and teacher of minds. Robert has worked many positions over the years, from college professor to education… More about Robert