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.