Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Brave Sir Robin Ran Away

So, a little while back, Zak S. posted four little words that spawned as of this writing 66 comments.  He later added a Venn Diagram that spawned a few more.  He doesn't like the Bard class.

And he makes a good point, but also shows off his own blinders in his latter comments and the second post.  He seems to limit is conception of the Bard to the picture from the 2E PHB.  While any other class can be given a unique personality, he seems to think bards only conform to this image:
And Zak's right that this image is laughable.
The reason Bards suck, though, is less to do with the above image and more to do with the wide variety of ways they've been implemented, and the contrast between the mythic, legendary, and modern fictional sources.

Bards suffer from trying to cram too much stuff into one class.  In 1E, they were (as most of you know) a nearly impossible class to achieve, needing to gain several levels in Fighter, then Thief, then Druid (and needing the ability scores for all that dual classing, which were higher than the Bard's requirements IIRC).  And what did you get for all that effort?  Some Lore abilities, and Magical Music.

2E turned it into the Jack of All Trades, with a bit of Fighter, a bit of Thief, and a bit of Magic-User right from the beginning.  But as the JOAT, he is of course master of none.  Oh, and then there's the Lore and Magical Music.

3E continued in the 2E vein.  4E, I don't know, don't care.  Someone else can comment if they want.

My own houseruled Bard started out as a variant of the Classic D&D Elf class (a Fighter/Magic-User) for Human PCs, but then somehow morphed into the Cleric/Thief role.  And I'm not 100% satisfied with it, and no one has yet tried to play one at my table.

But what were bards historically?  What mythic/legendary/fictional sources do we have to build the archetype around for this class?

Historical bards were court poets and lore-keepers.  Not much record of them being warriors, rascals, or spellcasters.  There were some Victorian scholars who posited that bards were a sub-sect of the druid, serving as a sort of priest-judge in Celtic societies, but that's been discredited, I think (and I gave away the books I read that in, so I can't source it - take it with a grain of salt).  There were also historical scops (Anglo-Saxon), scalds (Norse), troubadours (French), minstrels (English), etc.  They were poets and singers of various sorts, usually telling heroic tales of the current lord or king's ancestors.  Again, basically lore-masters.  In pre-literate societies, these guys were living Kindles.

Based on this, the D&D Bard would best be a type of Specialist NPC.  Someone you hire to sing your praises and those of your illustrious ancestors (real or imagined) to increase your renown. 

In myth and legend, though, we do have lots of instances of magical music.  Amergin sings the seas calm so the Milesians can invade Ireland.  Orpheus was able to charm people and beasts with his songs and stories, and also provides the idea of the "bardic countersong" by helping the Argonauts pass the Sirens.  Taliesin was supposed to have the gift of prophecy and transformation.  Towards the end of the Volsung Saga, Gunnar plays a harp with his toes to keep poisonous snakes away.

These mythic sources could just as easily be covered by the Cleric and Magic-User classes in D&D, with just flavor from the player that the spells are created with magic-infused music instead of the traditional D&D hand-waving and flinging of bat poop.

We also have less magical legends and fictional characters of musicians who adventure.  Alan-a-Dale in the Robin Hood cycle, Sir Dagonet the Fool in the Matter of Britain, and the image of the wandering minstrel or troubadour.  These guys don't use magic, they aren't lore-masters, but they wander around and sing songs and get into trouble.

In D&D terms, again, these guys should likely just be Fighters or Thieves with a talent for singing.

Finally, we get some instances in fantasy fiction of actual bard characters, or magic accomplished through song.  Fflewddur Fflam of The Prydain Chronicles is a would-be-bard, who wanders around with his magical harp getting into trouble.  This was my first introduction to the concept of a bard, and it is one of the reasons why I like the idea of having a Bard class in the game.  Another source for music-as-magic is Tolkien, where Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, as well as the Elves, make 'magic' through song, and in the Silmarillion we learn that Middle-Earth was created by song, so music is the stuff of creation.

So, various versions of D&D throughout the years have tried to meld these distinct images together into one class.  And some people like it, some hate it.

My thoughts?  At the moment, I'm thinking my idea to make the lore-master/poet into an NPC specialist (who may follow you around and sing your praises, and provide snacks in hardship as with Brave Sir Robin's minstrels) is a good one.

Otherwise, as Zak suggested, just add some musical talent to your PC (of whatever class) and be a bard that way.


  1. I once worked on an RPG where the concept was you would go adventure and then you would go back to the tavern and tell your stories to the populace; you'd get half your earned XP from actual adventuring, and the other half from storytelling. It was kind of neat, because you could track how much XP you got from storytelling, and if you reached a certain threshold, you earned followers.

    Anyway, the bard in that game basically gave you a bonus to XP when storytelling, gave a bonus to XP for the purposes of recruiting proteges, and was able to identify magical objects/history and cultural stuff. Sure, they had a few thief abilities and could smooth over social conflicts, but they didn't have magic, they weren't fighters, and they weren't thieves. Basically, you dragged them along because they gave you bonus XP and could identify magic stuff.

    Maybe with all the freaking clones, I should go back to the idea of redoing this one as a clone.

  2. you missed my point.

    the point isn't that bards can only conform to one image, it is that every other image they can conform to is done better by someone else.

  3. Guess so. The way you kept phrasing things, it seemed like that point was secondary, and that because of that, the Bard, which is just a motley fool with a lute, is worthless.

    So basically, we agree. No need for its own class, just roleplay the other classes to pull it off.

  4. Caption for your picture of the Bard:
    "Ahem! That's MISTER Dicksack to you!"

  5. Nahh, bards are great, easily my favorite character class. I've played bards in AD&D, 2nd edition AD&D and 3/3.5; never once felt the class didn't work or was underpowered. Saying their abilities are overshadowed by other classes is an erroneous claim, as that assumes a class must be the pinnacle of superiority in a particular area. Bards are second-best at everything, that's their schtick. Saying they suck misses the whole point.

    1. Effectiveness or lack thereof is no part of my argument.

  6. Yeah, I'm not a fan of Zakk. I find him awfully pretentious--i.e. "I'm so cool because I play D&D with incredibly girls that get f--ked for money but aren't prostitutes and I, like, totally respect them, man."

    ... yeah...

    Anyway, bards are versatile and can be played a variety of ways. I like Monte Cook's bard variant with the spellsongs instead of spells. There've been wandering bard adventurers throughout history and literature ever since Aristeas of Proconessus. The Pythagoreans studied mathematics and music theory almost as if they were arcane subjects (like alchemy). The bard doesn't have to wear a "poofy hat" and "poofy shirt" like Zakk says. Hell, I played a bard one time that was basically a barrister--his "perform" abilities were all about speaking, persuading, and such.

    Man, where did all these people with small imaginations come from? Jeez.

    Besides, I'm not surprised no one has heard the phrase "warrior-poet" before. Damn shame that is.

    1. Hark, an assfuck!

      First, a lesson for you, assfuck:
      Regular girls decide they want to fuck you while they fuck you, hookers decide they don't want to fuck you before they fuck you, porn actresses decide whether they want to fuck you while they fuck you.

      Second, your assfuckery is confirmed by the fact that you used the phrase "warrior poet" and meant it.

      Third, do not call me a prostitute.

    2. Dave,
      The first part of your post is gratuitous rudeness that makes everything else you say worthless blah blah.

    3. I'm sure your art degree from Yale and your gallery showings are why you aren't pretentious.

      Oh, what's that? You haven't managed to make a name for yourself in a creative field?

      He's not pretentious. He's successful. You aren't erudite enough to tell the difference.

  7. Any class can fight, so why have fighters? Anyone who steals is a thief... but the fighter and thief are good at fighting and stealing. Sure, you can play a character of any class who can sing or play an instrument, or even a character who is a lore specialist, but the bard is the character who is supposed to be good at these things.

    The bard isn't are right. He is also frequently presented in a ridiculous and/or annoying light.

    I've always found the bard to be welcome in my campaigns, though I continually tweak exactly what the class is capable of... I've fielded versions of the bard class that are close to thieves in the way that rangers are close to fighters,and I've had versions of the class that are more akin to spellcasters. I don't know that any published version of the class has been "perfect," and yet D&D without bards just doesn't seem complete, somehow.

    I'll freely admit that it might just be Sacred Cow syndrome, like descending armor class...

  8. Ryan - I think the problem I have with the Bard these days is that no version of it I've seen published has really been about the lore and the music. There's too much other stuff crufted onto them. I'd either like a Bard class that is ONLY about the magical music plus knowledge, or else as I said, make it an NPC hireling/specialist that your PC can employ.

    They shouldn't be "a little Fighter, a little Thief, a little Druid or Magic-User, plus some Knowledge and Music." It should really focus on the latter two only IMO.