I've had bards on the brain lately.
Bards have been in D&D for a long time. I like 'em, a lot of people don't. What bewilders me, though, is how disputed and constantly revised the bard class is.
Okay, how different is the OD&D fighter from the AD&D or 2nd ed or OSRIC fighter? Even with feats, is the d20 fighter really that different from his predecessors?
Bards, on the other hand, have changed constantly throughout the history of The Game. The original AD&D bard was a hot mess and sort of a proto-prestige class. Old editions of Dragon featured two complete rewrites of the bard. AD&D 2nd edition modified the bard. The bard of 3rd edition/d20 is similar to 2nd edition, but has been changed again. (I have to confess I have no idea what a 4e bard looks like) Around the OSR, the bard is constantly getting a facelift. Alexis over at Tao of D&D had his own version. I've posted my own version. Lots of OSR products have rewrites of the bard. Castles & Crusades changed the bard.
Now, contrast that to the fighter. You don't find many reinterpretations of the fighter. The fighter in OSRIC and the fighter in Labyrinth Lord are 95% the same. The magic-users 'round these parts are fairly homogenous.
There are a few things that most versions of the bard can agree on. Call them the Bard Conventions, if you will.
1. The bard is at least somewhat better in combat than his rogue-ish cousins.
2. The bard is has access to modest magical ability.
3. The bard has a few thiefly skills.
4. The bard has abilities based on influencing others, usually through music.
Though these basic ideas hold up, they are subject to wide and often jarringly different interpretations:
1. Combat- The bard often has better weapon choices that the thief, and often better armor, though using said armor may impact or preclude his thief skills. Sometimes he attacks as a fighter, though most later incarnations put him on even footing with the thief/rogue. C&C even gave him d10 for hit dice, though this is definitely an outlier.
2. Magical ability is all over the place. Bards started with druid spells. I've seen one write-up that gives him most druid spells and most illusionist spells. (The latter being from Dragon Magazine) In 2nd edition, the bard used magic-user spells. In 3rd edition, the bard had his own custom spell list. The Delving Deeper OD&D conversion could read scrolls but couldn't actually cast spells, while other write-ups disallow the use of scrolls by a bard. Sometimes his spells must be kept and cast like that of the class he mimics. (A 2nd edition bard has to keep a spellbook) Sometimes bard spells are actually magical songs and require him to sing/play rather than cast a spell "properly."
3. The bard usually seems to have 3-4 thief skills, though which skills he has varies widely. Sometimes he has move silently and hide in shadows. (Not in 2nd edition, though)
4. The bard's influence ability range from an innate charm to the ability to shift NPC reactions on a chart to just having the Diplomacy skill. Sometimes it requires the bard to sing or play.
In addition to this, the bard often has a number of abilities that may or may not appear in any given writeup: bardic lore, countersong, inspire allies... I'm sure you can think of a few more.
No other class, except perhaps the ranger or monk, seems to have this much variance in different interpretations.A 2nd edition thief and a 3rd edition rogue may have their mechanical differences, but their basic capabilities are still pretty similar.
I suppose my question is: why? I have a few fledgling ideas in mind:
A. The bard is an unnecessary character concept, largely kept around because he has become a "sacred cow" in D&D cosmology. They did away with the assassin by reasoning that anyone who kills for money is an assassin. Is not anyone who becomes a musician potentially a bard?
B. The bard has been presented as a jack-of-all trades and a musician, and these two concepts seem to be vying for dominance. Each writer seems to favor one side of the fence over the other.
C. We are trying to "small tent" the bard. The original Fighting Man was supposed to be able to represent a cavalier, archer, samurai, viking, cossack, barbarian, or whatever. Just as the fighter has been split into a million sub-classes, prestige classes, and whatnot to suss out every possibility as a mechanical variant, the bard (skald, scop, minstrel, jack-of-all-trades, troubadour, orator, etc) keeps getting steered in the direction that the author wants him to go. (The C&C bard seems very clearly to invoke a hulking skald type dude,whereas WotC-era bards are definitely more minstrel-looking... bards of the spoony variety, if you will)
Personally, I like the bard and I want to keep him around. That being said, I don't think I'd use the version of the bard I posted back in 2009 for my last AD&D1 campaign. I can't even really decide what the bard is, or what it should be, or even if it should be in the game at all. I think the multitude of different bards, and their often wild dissimilarities, are proof enough that I am not alone in this conundrum.
Above: All the same character class?