Tuesday 4 October 2011

Why the Bard is Meh

Great PC games, shame about the class
The Bard character class, currently being considered by J-Mal and FrDave, is a notorious target of fantasy adventure jokes. Despite perennial efforts to reboot the class, it carries a heavier burden of affliction than Marley's ghost. Let me count the chains:

1. First and foremost, when bards use their bardy powers, the player says something like "I sing away your cares and worries!" or "I strike up the lute with an epic lay that sets the foes to flight!" The thing is, when any other class casts a spell, the other players don't care what the mumbo-jumbo is. With a bard, though, you expect to hear an actual song, against all reason, and that creates a nagging itch.

NO, bard player, do not sing at the table. Not even if you're good at it - not unless everyone signed up for an adventure game that every now and then becomes an awesome singer concert. Nor should you specify that you are singing some made-up fantasy song like "The Ballad of the Owlbear and the Hive of Bees." That's still way too damn twee. It's embarrassing, like having two players describe how their characters are making out.

2. Wizards can cast a spell, clerics pray, and the effect happens. But a song should last longer than a one-minute combat round and especially longer than a ten-or-six-second one. So fire-and-forget bards are unsatisfying and need-to-stay-on bards are no fun to play.

I wish you'd prove me wrong...
3. A cleric can bash while brandishing the holy symbol, "a Dios rogando y con el mazo dando" as the Spanish saying has it. A wizard isn't supposed to fight. We imagine the bard as being able to fight, although in a kind of effete way, all with puffed breeches and a feathered hat and a jaunty little Robin Hood sword. This compensates for magic abilities that are less versatile than a wizard's ... perhaps. But the fact is, you can't fight very well while strumming a lute. Especially considering that ...

4. That lute is also as sensitive as a baby's bottom and with one misaimed blow, one dunking in cold water, there goes the bard's meal ticket. Unless you go all munchkin and demand to play a cast-iron vuvuzela bard, a triangle bard, or the ultimate in powergaming: an acapella bard.

5. At the end of it all, if I go back to my analysis of miracles, the bard's most characteristic powers just make him or her a secular cleric. Dispelling evil ... calming storms and savage beasts ... swaying minds ... even the fortifying effects of music can be seen as healing if character hit points represent some amount of confidence and morale.

So maybe the bard works best after all as a cleric? Oh, and not to forget this decidedly historical version of the bard class for Old School systems, envisioned as a kind of rogue/faceman/sage hybrid by Dave Baymiller. Yeah, I stumbled across it while searching for embarrassingly effete bard pics online, what of it?

Anyway, I've said my piece. If anyone wants to stand up for the bard, let's hear it!


  1. I thought my group were the only ones twisted enough to come up with a vuvuzela-toting bard!

    I've long wanted to play in or run a game in which the party are all dwarven bards with guitars made of iron and stone. They'd tour the inns and village halls of the land, going on dungeon delves on the side.

  2. I've come to really like JBs bard that was published in the B/X Companion. No singing to inspire; no spells per day; long "casting times." It just fits perfectly with me.

  3. It's embarrassing, like having two players describe how their characters are making out.

    Embarrassing. . . or strangely erotic.


    (I might play with a lot of girls)

  4. I do enjoy ADD3rd ed's (the unauthorized clone) version of the bard as a cleric subclass. it clicks so well on many levels.

  5. I once got told off for singing quietly at the game table. But then I'd been told that my bard character had to perform while the rest of the party RP'd with the patron. I was bored and so I used a song, Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits I think it was, to time how long my character was on stage for.

    The GM didn't appreciate it. Not my fault I need a bucket to carry a tune in.

  6. See, that illustration and the ones like it that crop up in every bloody RPG book are the problem, for me. I think that stereotype of the effete, lute-playing, rapier-brandishing Errol Flynn layabout is as harmful to the bard as anything mechanical (although I do like your point regarding the expectation of hearing a song when the bard does what it does, and the disconnect experienced around bard abilities).

    The bard as rogue/face/sage sounds like a good alternative, and Fabian was right to bring up skalds. Likewise, the Fell Caller from the Iron Kingdoms setting goes a long way toward redeeming the concept too (yodelling trolls who can actually fight in the front lines by virtue of being trolls). The Fell Caller also gave one-round weapon-like options to help address your second point - which is a mechanical fix that goes alongside the archetypal fix.

    Basically, you make bards more fun to play by giving them more combat options than just 'sing to help the others' and you make them more... badass, I suppose, more I-want-to-play-this-ish, by tearing down the unfortunate associations of gamer culture.

    For reference, I envisage the 'cool bard' as more like Johnny Cash.

  7. For reference, I envisage the 'cool bard' as more like Johnny Cash.

    I once was playing in a (originally supposed to be serious) Middle Earth Rolemaster module campaign… and asked if I could be Johnny Cash. I fought and sang with my unbreakable elven–made guitar (Cash, of course, was of Númenórean descent), but had to take alcoholism as a flaw.

    It was pretty awesome, but it was also Rolemaster.

  8. Silver John from the Manly Wade Wellman stories is a pretty cool bard, but he also proves my point about the clerical leanings. He mostly uses his music (along with a good amount of conjure lore) to dispel evil.

    "I am Johnny Cash, 7th level cleric, and this guitar is my holy symbol" pretty much does it for me.

    The Viking and Trollish badass war-singers are pretty close to my "acapella bard" but even then it's easier to think of them as fighters with a special talent.

  9. My current bard plays a fiddle and sings "rat-killin' songs" in combat. I am having a great time.

    And I like it when players of wizards and priest describe their spellcasting beyond "I magic missile the darkness" and I like it when bards give a sentence or two description of their performance. Different tastes I guess.

  10. My homebrew bard is basically a Cleric/Thief multiclass class. He has lore abilities, but no magical singing talents.

  11. My DM runs bards that, instead of casting a single spell/song, play one piece of music that they can work additional rhythms into over multiple turns. It adds more decision making to the need-to-stay-on bards.
    Bards are not an easy nut to crack. I wish they never wormed their way into the RPG mainstream. Then you wouldn't have to play around people's bard expectations.