Friday, 7 October 2011

Bards: What Are They Good For?

I love Bards. While AD&D had them as the most complicated class to get into (sort of a proto-prestige class, mixed with a logic puzzle/brainfuck), and they were considered the red-headed step child of 3e (you weren't as good at fighting as a Fighter, as good at sneaking as a Rogue, or as good at magic as a Wizard - but you sure could talk the ass off people! Useful in a dungeon crawl game, eh?), they've always captured my imagination as a real "Jack of All Trades" kinda deal - like Renaissance men on steroids (or whatever hormone produces raw animal magnetism). They're the archetypal Scoundrel - charming, dashing swordsmen, as quick with their wit as their blade, dilettantes of magic and stealth, and all round cool as fuck.

In fact, one of my favourite Bard ideas was the Dark Sun version - Bards were still storytellers and historians, travelling to perform for coin and lodging - but they had a much darker side, as the magic was phased out somewhat and swapped in with increased stealth and deadliness. They acted as assassins, due to being popular enough to make their way into anywhere where a story could be told. Poisons, throat-slitting seductions and a rebellious streak were their hallmarks. And they were pretty badass.

And, regardless of mechanics, Bards hold the simple appeal of being archetypal. From the cunning jester, to the smooth-talking gentleman thief, the Bard has popped up in literature of every stripe for decades. And who doesn't want to play James Bond (chat, seduction, subterfuge, and the "magic trick" devices) in a fantasy setting? Or the closest thing you'll get to a Magical Rock Star?

One of my tests of "generic" systems is to see how easily I can build a Bard (whether fantasy, modern, or truly generic/genreless). In most cases, a lack of "points" can make it hard (PROTIP: If there's and disadvantages involving mild substance addiction, nymphomania/satyrisis, or attracting unwanted attention, take them at all costs - you're not a true Bard unless you're turning heads by having several men/women hanging off your arm and snorting everything that gets in your way). I've found that FATE can make brilliant Bards by virtue of the GM letting you away with a simple pair of aspects:

Jack of All Trades...

...Master of None

So, you can cook a meal, cast a spell, pick a lock, or really try your hand at a bit of anything within reason - but you'll never be as good as someone who focuses on that thing. And ...Master of None can reflect a desire to learn more, or allow the GM to Compel you like mad (and GMs love that kinda shit).

So - that is how I Bard. How do you?


  1. See, personally I don't buy that "Bards are Jack of All Trades" nonsense. To me the jack of all trades is the Factotum class. The bards fill a very specific and very well defined role - they are BARDS. Or if you want to use gamer roles they are second/support casters and party buffers.

    In general though, I feel as though Bards in D&D...are kind of stupid, mostly since it's just stupid that you're that guy with 300 skill ranks in Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate and what have you and you can just talk your way out of anything. That's stupid. But that's more of a problem with D&D and less with Bards. To me a bard should be someone who's talent in storytelling and performance should be what defines them. You should be able to ruin a man just by reciting a clever poem about how stupid or greedy he is - that kind of thing.

  2. Bards can be taken at multiple angles, really. From a plain old Games perspective, I can see why folk call them Jack of all Trades because they can do a little bit of everything. So yeah, gameplay-wise, I can see why folks call them that.

    From a theme-perspective, well, yeah, they are alllll about the music and the storytelling and the gossip. Oh the gossip! And in certain D&D games, the Game of Thrones-style political fantasy, they absolutely rock. Or in investigative fantasy. So they certainly have their place.

    Harder to pull it off in your usual fantasy games, though.