Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Mean Streets of Skara Brae

There are some items and events from my past that have effects that carry over even unto the present day…film and fiction from my formative years that STILL impact my imagination and my ideas on both “what’s cool” and what I’d like to see in my gaming. Some of these things are sooo far back in my memory that I can only recall snatches of them…like the black and white serials of The Masked Marvel that I remember watching on TV circa 1975 or ’76 (age 2 or 3 in other words). Just these “remembered flavors” of the past have influence over my psyche…and when I’ve managed to reclaim some of these things (thanks to the magic of eBay or Scarecrow Video, I’ve not been disappointed.

In no particular order, here are some of the items that go into making up MY personality matrix:

- Star Wars
- The Hobbit
- The Last Unicorn
- At the Earth’s Core
(with Peter Cushing)
- The Secret of NIMH
- Dragon Slayer
- Xanadu
(which, strangely enough, did more to encourage an interest in Greek mythology than Clash of the Titans!)

- Sid & Marty Croft stuff, but especially H.R. Puff & Stuff, Land of the Lost, and Dr. Shrinker
- Tales of the Gold Monkey
- The Day After
- Shogun (to a small degree)
- Logan’s Run (ditto)
- The Masked Marvel

[I should note that I’ve watched a lot of TV over the years, including a lot of the “boy fantasy” crap of the 80’s: The Dukes of Hazard, Knight Rider, Buck Rogers, The A-Team, The Hulk, etc…none of this seems to have had a recognizable impact/influence on me]

Books & Comics
- Mainly Marvel comics of the early ‘80s
- Old DC horror comics, westerns (Jonah Hex), and WW2 (the Unknown Soldier, etc.) that I’d find around my grandma’s house.
- Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series
- Many random Halloween and/or Witch-themed books

- Dungeons & Dragons (of course!)
- Dungeon!
- Risk
- Dark Tower
- The Bard’s Tale

When I say these things have an influence on me, I mean that they exert influence even when I’m not directly referencing them. While the list is by no means exhaustive, I think I’ve really captured most of it…other influences on my imagination and gaming are more directly referenced in my mind…for example, I’ve seen The Road Warrior many times…when developing a post-apocalyptic game I often consider how (or if) that film does or should influence the material.

MOST influences on my writing/gaming/preferences ARE conscious. I say, “right, I want something that feels like Indiana Jones.” But sometimes I do weird things and it’s only later that I say, “huh…I think that came from waaaay in the back of my subconscious.” Like maybe my “borg love” has to do with watching the Six Million Dollar Man duke it out with replicants or something. Or maybe that was J.J. Hands.

ANYway, it’s the last thing on the list that I wanted to talk about: the old Electronic Arts computer game The Bard’s Tale.

Back in 1985, this was the game EA was known for, not console sports games, and whenever I see the name Electronic Arts, this is the first thing that pops into my head. No, EA didn’t design Bard’s Tale, but they distributed it and their logo was featured prominently on the box…a box that was necessary to keep around as it featured a map to the town of Skara Brae.

Skara Brae…oh, the frustration you caused me.

I was reminded of Skara Brae recently when contemplating my recent D&D sessions (yet another trip to the Baranof is scheduled for tonight…looks like there will be four of us for a change!). Skara Brae was a dark and dangerous town. Worse than film portrayals of Detroit...I mean BAD. Even a heavily armed party of half-a-dozen couldn’t walk more than a block or two without getting jumped by a bunch of monsters…and that was in broad daylight! At night, it was even worse, and the vermin would be all over you like stink on shit. Really…two steps and whoa! ANOTHER encounter.

At higher levels of experience it was easy enough to avoid these monsters simply by ducking down an alley (i.e. typing “Run”). And one would have to do this in order to get anywhere in a timely fashion (just running down to the corner store? Careful…there’s a half-dozen orcs down on the corner spoiling for a rumble). At the lower levels however, monsters were much more likely to catch you and force combat.

And this led to a lot of death.

See, players used to playing oh, say, D&D were going to want to make their own party of adventurers for a computer game like Bard’s Tale. Not that “Omar” or “El Cid” aren’t fine names and all, but I always enjoyed making characters after the players in my OWN game. Plus, didn’t you want to have a Halfling Monk? I ALWAYS wanted to make a Halfling monk! And let me tell you THAT little guys was NO ONE to F with once he hit level 12 or so.

But getting to level 12 was a bit of a problem. All your characters started with only the most basic of basic equipment…I think a robe and a staff was all any character received at 1st level. And since the shop was down the street from the guild hall (yes, you belonged to an Adventurer’s Guild…just like Dragon Quest!), and you had to walk down the street to get there, and the intervening streets were teeming with threatening monsters…well, your party suffered an awful lot of TPKs.

Not that you had the money to afford a whole lot of fancy equipment anyway…your 1st level characters just weren’t going to survive very long on the streets. And the handful of times YOU got the drop on a single orc or two? You’d probably end up with three gold coins (and at least one or two dead halflings) for your trouble.

Getting to that 2nd or 3rd level was pretty f’ing tough in other words…unless you wanted to A) use the pre-generated party (“the A-Team”) or B) take all of the pre-gen party’s stuff and equip it to your own characters. The pre-gens were pretty weak, too, but they had a single HUGE advantage…the bard owned a magic item called a “Fire Horn” that could breathe fire on an entire group of critters. Without El Cid and his magic dragon breath, you would die many, many times until you put together a big enough string of lucky victories to level up. I don’t remember ever doing this myself…I ALWAYS took the Cid’s fire horn.

Even with the fire horn, you were likely to get smoked a helluva’ lot…and since you were broke and lowly, your options for raising party members was, well, non-existent. You ended up heading back to the Adventuring Guild…often…to drop off corpses and roll up new characters. Praying that you could level up a few party members before your fire horn ran out of charges (it wasn’t an “endless fire horn” after all).

Does this remind you of anything? It reminds me of my recent gaming sessions with my brother and Steve. All this party death and not a single character going up in level…just more “go back to town and roll up new guys” going on. In four sessions, my brother has created four characters. That’s Skara Brae statistics, folks.

Now granted, he’s had some bad luck as well as some bad planning…but is it possible that he’s in need of his own fire horn?

Maybe not…after all, Shmutzy DID have a wand of fireballs...which he used to injure his own party members nearly as often as his opponents. As I said, poor planning has been part of his woes. We’ll have to see how tonight’s game goes.

Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking about this morning…that and the old encounter tag line from Bard’s Tale:

“Once again you face DEATH ITSELF in the form of [insert monsters here]!”


  1. I don't remember BT being that frustrating but then again I don't recall how my friend and I played ...

    We would have very late nights in high school casting Elik's Instant Wolf (INWO), cursing the teleporters and spin tiles, and blasting those fire horns. It was the next step up from our Wizardry addiction.

  2. DMing nut that I am I spent an awful lot of time with Bard's Tale Construction set making adventures that few people ever even saw.
    One of the guys I'd share adventures with complained I had "too much new stuff" in my adventures and he never knew what was going on.

  3. I had many frustrating games of The Bard's Tale and remember the fire horn as a treasured and much needed adventuring tool. I remember going to friends' houses to see the new level they just made it to or some awesome new magic item they just had to tell ms about. Good times! I too spent far too much time with the construction set than was probably healthy.

  4. Having heard a lot about this classic gem but never actually played it, I did some quick googling (ogling?) and found

  5. Sadly I will now have to start my upcoming positive review of your B/X Companion with "Despite the fact that he likes Xanadu..."

  6. I should start announcing the arrival of wandering monsters by declaring "“Once again you face DEATH ITSELF in the form of..." [dice clatter]

  7. I loved the Bard's Tale (even though Wizardry was my true love). I remember the Fire Horn and pool gold exploits, and a couple Ctrl-keys on the PC version that would fill your monster slot for free. Ctrl-Z was a Stone Elemental with max 33 hp, if I remember right, which is a useful thing to have when facing Kobolds. I beat the game without the exploits first, which sucked left hind tit, then beat it many, many times with the exploits. (Same as Wizardry.)

  8. That stone elemental was the only thing that got me much of anywhere!

    Scott, as a Wizardry man, (Or JB, for that matter, did you ever play the later Wizardry 6 (Bane of the Cosmic Forge)? I felt like it was the biggest, craziest, and best of the Wizardries and is somewhat of an influence on the dungeon I'm working on.

  9. Oh my god. Bard's Tale and its sequels utterly devoured my time during high school. It was literally years that I toiled away at this game, from 1989 to 1997, before I finished it. Remember when you had to map games by hand, with graph paper? I still have all those maps, filled with arcane notations about spinners and darkness zones and magic mouths.

    Those streets were tough. I figure that Mangar took over the whole shebang, and the last remnants of the population are holed up in the Adventurers' Guild, unable to escape due to that eternal snowdrift at the main gate.

    Also: 99 berserkers, 99 berserkers, 99 berserkers and 99 berserkers. Greatest encounter ever.

  10. You can play BT again by using DosBox and downloading the game. It's out there... and still just as much fun/frustration as you describe.

  11. @Everyone:

    I, too, spent a many moons conquering the game...and had 20 or so hand drawn maps at the end as well. After beating Mangar I found I could continue to run back to his tower ad kill him over-and-over, leveling up my party something fierce, all in hopes that I would someday 'port them over to BTII and kick ass.

    Unfortunately, I was playing the game on an Amiga 500 and the later BT sequels never made it. : (

    I'm glad I'm not the the only one with fond memories of this computer gem...some day I'll download it on Ye Old Mac Laptop. I DID bick up the BT Construction Set for the PC a few years ago, but it was frustratingly limited for what I wanted to design. Ah, well...some day I'll give it another shot.

    @ Nathan:RE: the 99x99x99x99. Probably my favorite as well. I remember the first time my friend and I encountered that and went "Oh SHIT!" Ha!
    : )