Sunday, June 7, 2009

In Defense of Bards

I know that many folks are less than fans of the Bard character class as presented in the AD&D Player's Handbook.  I am not one of these.  Truth be told, I love the bard and while it was not the only character class I played "back in the day," it was the one I spent the vast majority of time playing.

Some folks have called it a munchkiny or power gamer class...of course, I've also heard people claim both the magic-user and the cleric as the munchkin class of choice.  I find all these claims kind of weird, as the most singularly powerful characters I ever saw in AD&D campaigns were always fighters.

Anyhoo, I was always a big fan of the warrior-bard.  I mean, that's really what the AD&D class tries to represent, in my opinion.  This is the class for someone that wants to play a Vainamoinen or warrior skald...or one of the Celtic druid-poets (a la Taliesin).  The warrior that plays music has a long tradition in the folklore of many countries...even King David was an accomplished harpist, per the Old Testament.

So how the hell do we get from that to Fflewddur Fflam?

Researching the history of D&D is something best left in the hands of more capable folks than myself, so I have no idea of the origin of the AD&D Bard...was it present in one of the supplements published for the Little Brown Books?  I own only the original LBBs, none of the supplements, so I don't know. 

But it appears to me that Mr. Gygax, in adding the bard to the PHB's appendix, was not trying to create an uber-character, but was rather attempting to model a character that was a bit of a warrior, a bit of a scoundrel, and a bit of a scholar...basically Will Scarlet crossed with Taliesin.  Or Vainamoinen, if you will.

Which to my mind makes a lot of sense.  A bard is going to have to have a wide and deep pool of world experience to draw upon if he is to use his legend lore ability, and forcing him to advance as both a fighter and a thief makes certain he does have that experience.  And the songs that he sings and the words he uses to inspire others...this, too, is gained through those previous experiences, blended in part with the wisdom of druidic teachings passed on to him.

In some ways, the bard seems a bit of a conciliatory act on the part of Gygax...after publishing a druid class based on the human sacrificing gallic druids, we now see the gentler "wiccan-types" often presented in the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Certainly the druids portrayed in Gygax's own novels are more benevolent than the earliest (pre-AD&D) druids.

Anyway, in my old campaigns the bard was not some jack-o-all-trades, sit in the back singing-type.  Often, the bard was at the both battle and negotiation.  Their high charisma makes them natural leaders in an adventuring party, and their diplomatic skills could be used within their own group, not just with random NPCs.  A bard would have a fighter ability of between 5th and 8th level (somewhere between hero and superhero by level title), nothing to sneer at when combined with magical armaments.  Their thief abilities provided them with the stealth necessary to scout ahead and operate solo.  And their knowledge abilities gave them the insights needed to better advise and lead a party of adventurers.

I don't know...I was always a fan and I can remember when I first saw the nerfed 2E bard how...well, frankly, pissed off I was.  The class had been relegated to a minstrel buffoon, motivated by gold (as all rogues are with the 2nd Edition XP system), and trading in prowess for minor magical abilities.  The 3rd edition wasn't much better, though at least the art was cooler...but by 3.5 bard had become the favored class of gnomes?  What the hell..?

Of course, with the release of D20, any character has the ability to go through multiple can have your 5th level fighter, 7th level thief, 1st level+ bard if you like...well, until you hit 20th level total, that is. But the idea of a 1st level apprentice singer, with little life experience, or knowledge under his belt...somehow, I find it hard to believe he can even carry a tune.

One more reason to turn back to Old School gaming.


  1. I'm re-working the bard class for my own AD&D 1 game. I want to take him back to his roots and give him druid spells (or a mix...charm person seems to be appropriate, for instance) and beef him up a little. I'm sort of taking a cue from the bard in Castles & Crusades, who has d10 hit points.

    My reasoning for this is that I prefer classes that can be entered at level 1. (To this end, I have expanded Unearthed Arcana's thief-acrobat into a full fledged, stand-alone character concept.) That is my only opposition to the old school bard. (For the record, I never liked Prestige Classes in 3.X, either)

    Just my two cents.

  2. You know, there's value to's really simply two competing philosophies on how they see the bard. The bard that can be entered at 1st level is generally the "ne'er do well" who operates in support of the other party members, hopefully surviving to a higher that he can continue to support the other high level party members?

    I mean, it's a valid way of looking at the character class, but I don't think it's particularly flattering. It ain't a role I'd want to play (kind of the Fflewddur Fflam of Lloyd Alexander's books.

    I simply prefer the experienced bard...the guy who sings 'cause he's already experienced war, anguish, heartbreak. The guy whose stolen and lost treasure. The guy that's more like Vainamoinen.

    The point of my post was "in defense of" my particular preference, though. I've read a lot of crap about the 1st edition Bard as originally conceived, and I just wanted to state my point o view. I liked the idea of giving them illusionist spells...but I always thought druids should have some illusionist magic, too. Much more "Arthurian" in flavor.

    : )

  3. Well, good on ya, and a very good way of looking at a bard. It's certainly more appealing than the feather-in-his-cap minstrel that make so many players 'roud the table groan. (In my experience, at least)

    In the end, my bard rewrite will probably remain on hiatus for awhile, because none of my players wanted to play a bard this time around. (Though I do have a fighter...maybe I could just use it as written should he survive to the appropriate level) I could also see allowing the old bard to go thief-fighter-druid as an optional route... same experiences, different order.

  4. Hmm...if you try it, I'd like to hear how it turns out. The thief-fighter switcheroo may be viable, though I'd be interested to see it in playtest.

  5. Fflewddur Fflam of the Lloyd Alexander books was a warrior first and foremost. He was as the front of every battle and praised for his skill with a sword. Never once did he take on a support role. In my mind, he is the essential bard character. Not the 3.5 or 2nd edition bard, the AD&D bard. Your mileage will vary, of course.

  6. Ian, I stand corrected, and thank you for pointing it's been a loooong time since I read Mr. Alexander's excellent books, and all I remembered of Fflewddur was his use as comic relief...which to me seems the intent of the 2nd edition and later bards.

    The Celtic bard-warrior archetype is what I've always held makes sense that Fflewddur would fit the mold. Sorry I bad-mouthed the Fflam!