lament on the bard

I have never been shy about stating my opinion on bards in Dungeons and Dragons. They suck. They make no damn sense and I wish, just this once, we could pretend that they never existed and drop them from the game.

If you don’t know much about bards, here’s the short version: bards can do a little bit of everything, including casting spells. They originated in first-edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. First edition is totally bizarre and full of madness. For example, there’s the monk. The PHB knows that the monk is weird. Here’s what it has to say:

The monk is the most unusual of all characters, the hardest to qualify for, and perhaps, the most deadly. That is why the class is given out of alphabetical order at the end of the section pertaining to character classes.

It’s true. The first edition monk is weird. Eventually, the monk got evolved into something much better. The third edition monk just makes sense and fits.

D&D does this a lot. First edition D&D introduced huge numbers of awful concepts that became iconic, even though they were sort of ridiculous. Something Awful has run a fantastic series on stupid old D&D book that features a lot of the dumb from first edition D&D.

What they don’t do, though, is show how many first edition things were pretty dumb, but got better later. There’s the monk, the beholder, the outer planes, the barbarian, the rust monster… D&D hates to abandon things that otherwise seem dumb. Like, that rust monster? They just ran an article designed to make rust monsters make sense.

Remember how the monk was so weird that they put it last, instead of in alphabetical order? Well, the bard is so weird that they put it in Appendix II. What is a bard? What makes it so weird?

Bards begin play as fighters, and they must remain exclusively fighters until they have achieved at least the 5th level of experience. Anytime thereafter, and in any event prior to attaining the 8th level, they must change their class to that of thieves. Again, sometime between 5th and 9th level of ability, bards must leave off thieving and begin clerical studies as druids; but at this time they are actually bards and under druidical tutelage. Bards must fulfill the requirements in all the above classes before progressing to Bards Table 1. They must always remain neutral, but can be chaotic, evil, good or lawful neutral if they wish.

What??

It just doesn’t make sense. What does this have to do with being a bard? A bard is a poet, right? Or something?

Well, bards have poetic skill, yes. In first edition, it gives them the ability to charm enemies and raise morale. Okay, I can dig that. They also have some features related to knowing legends and lore. That makes sense, too. They can cast spells – druid spells – because they spent time as a druid. They’re just normal druid spells.

So, they have an assortment of skills learned by doing this and that. They can cast druid spells, and they have skills you’d expect from an itinerant poet. I don’t really know what the point of having this super contrived class was, but it kind of sort of makes a little sense. (I assume that the point of having it was to salvage the previously introduced bard class from The Strategic Review, but I’m afraid I don’t have a copy of that.)

Second edition is probably my least disliked incarnation of the bard. It makes the central idea of the bard, “jack of all trades.” They have a bunch of thief skills, they can fight and wear armor, they’ve learned a bit of magic here and there, and, oh, they can perform. Their music or poetry is still used for affecting morale, which still makes sense. They’re part of the rogue class group, which totally works for me. They’re the kind of adventurer who drifts into the village and claims to be whatever will get him the best accomodations. Further, the Complete Bard’s Handbook was printed. I remember how reticent I was to spent money on a Bard-related product, but it was pretty good, just like most of the class splat books. It listed a dozen or so kits to tweak just what your bard was.

So, the bard got saved, just like the monk, right? Well, no. If the bard had continued on this line of development, I guess it would have been saved. The third edition bard could’ve been a class I just didn’t choose often but was fine, and then fourth edition bards would be great. Instead, third edition made this bizarre change that breaks my heart:

A bard’s magic comes from the heart. If his heart is good, a bard brings hope and courage to the downtrodden and uses his tricks, muic, and magic to thwart the schemes of evildoers.

What? Oh, and then:

A bard brings forth magic from his soul, not from a book. He can only cast a small number of spells, but he can do so without selecting or preparing them in advance.

So, in 2E, a bard could cast magic because he learned a little magic, just like he could pick pockets because he learned a little bit of theivery. In 3E, bards can just bust out magic because their singing is so awesome. They’ve gone from “jack of all trades” roguish wanderers into “performers so charismatic that magic happens.” They can still use music to cheer their allies and cow their enemies, but now that is magic. This is all defined in their “Bardic Music” power, which very clearly says that the bard’s music creates magical effects. Without going too much into the details, a 4E bard is the 3E bard, adapted for the new system.

So, a 2E bard, in combat, might cast a spell or two, might do some swordplay, might sneak around in the shadows behind the enemy. You never know what he’s going to do, because he can do it all. On the other hand, you know just what a 4E bard is going to do. He’s going to sing.

This is where it all falls apart for me. The wizard draws his wand and begins to recite arcane invocations. The fighter raises his sword and takes a defensive stance. The cleric kisses his holy symbol and calls on his god. The ranger nocks an arrow and takes aim. Then, as the swarm of goblins closes in on the party, the bard start to sing.

Later, there’s a locked door and the rogue has been downed. “Don’t worry,” says the bard, “I can sing it open!” What can the rest of the party do but look shamefacedly away and think, “We can’t just kick him out for singing, can we? I mean, he does get results.”

It’s not fair to gripe about the flavor text for powers, since so many powers have imperfect flavor text, but I’m going to anyway. Here are two great examples of “what do you mean, he sings magic?” from PHB2:

Your attack resonates in an arcane song that allows an ally to teleport to your side.

and:

With a sonorous hum, you summon lightning, blasting your foes with it and imbuing your allies’ attacks with its power.

I just don’t buy it. I cannot conceive of any party-based fantasy role-playing setting where it makes sense to have “the guy who starts singing in the middle of combat.” Oh, and maybe he plays the lute. I like the idea that your fighter might take History and Performance and be a bard in addition to being an adventurer. Maybe he can use Performance to get a Skill Power that lets him raise morale. That would be cool.

Too bad there isn’t a Performance skill.

So, what are the alternatives? Well, Dieter and I talked about rebranding the 4E bard class entirely as a “war wizard” kind of Arcane-powered Leader. I think that’s possible. I don’t know if there’s a lot of point in doing it, but if a player wanted to do that, I’d definitely let him.

The problem with a 2E-style bard in 4E is that by definition it will not fit into one power source or one role. It’s more than just a hybrid class, it’s the ultimate hybrid class. Maybe that means it belongs in the back of the PHB3 in an appendix. I think I’d be okay with that.

Written on September 18, 2009
dnd   games   rpg