Monday, October 1, 2012

You Spoony Bard!

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?


  1. The Bard originally appeared in an issue of The Strategic Review (Issue 6, or Vol 2 issue 1). Fought like a cleric, had half the thieving abilities of a Thief, and had MU spells.

    It was a perfectly sensible class (if a bit overpowered perhaps), I have no idea why EGG did what he did to it in the PHB.

  2. Hmm...having never owned the SR (before my time), I didn't know that. I wonder if I can track it down...

  3. I can say now that I introduced the bard write-up I used for my online campaign back in 2008. I have used it virtually unchanged since that time, having run four different players AS bards, and I can say without question that the version I have works brilliantly for my world.

    But I know what you mean. I tried something like six versions of the bard between 1979 and 2008, a period of 29 years, and hated ALL of them. I've stolen ideas and invented ideas that just plain sucked.

    I think a lot of the problem descends from the idea that "musician" isn't interesting enough for a character. The thieving skills are a kind of cheap afterthought; the spells are logical, as music is a kind of spell, but the spells that have been advanced usually have nothing whatsoever to do with music theory. In fact, music theory is barely understood, clearly, by anyone designing the bard that I've seen out there.

    It is as though designers are trying to design the sort of homeless loser who needs a couch, rather than a methodical, highly educated mathematician - which is what a first-rate musician is. The musician should be a better fighter than the thief not because of better weapons, but due to a better understanding of harmonics, balance, design or materials, all of which inherently exist in the combat tool - that is, musician as guild-style fabricator, not tavern bum.

    Until music itself is understood in terms of its effect upon the game, the bard will remain a failed concept.

  4. I quite liked your version of the bard. I might have played it had I not decided to go with your version of the assassin. (Which I also liked)

    I might take one more stab at the class, focusing this time on the bard's ability to influence others, and after that I might just remove the class altogether. I think they key is to define the bard by something that is his own, rather than making him a confused mishmash of other character classes who just happens to play the mandolin.

  5. Yes. And where it comes to influencing others, move away from charm. Think of the ways music affects us; makes us happier, makes us more martial, unites us, sends messages, transmits emotion, entertains, gives confidence, defines culture ... etc.