Jeff Rients wrote about 2e Bards earlier. It’s probably my favorite class too, but it’s very curiously designed.
Twenty years ago, after my 2e Psionicist accidentally disintegrated himself on his very first action, I played a 2e Bard for six months or so. I had fun, but our group was pretty small – a Fighter, a Magic-User, and a Bard. I was basically playing the “5th man” position in a 3-person group, and in hindsight should have held things down as the Cleric or a straight Thief. I just wasn’t adding very much.
As a quick comparison, the Bard is probably about as good at fighting as the Thief or the Cleric, at least on paper. The Bard shares the same horrible 1:2 THAC0 progression as the Thief, but has access to heavier melee weapons, like the bastard sword, as well as chain armor and shield, so they’re doing more damage and lasting longer than a Thief would. On the other hand they don’t have the Thief’s backstab attack and likely don’t have as high a Dexterity. It’s hard to generalize about 2e Specialty Priests, but the Bard has worse Hit Dice and THAC0 and probably same-or-worse armor, but better weapon selection (especially regarding ranged attacks).
But what I found in practice is that the Bard really isn’t cut out for the front-line. The d6 Hit Dice and mediocre Armor Class means that she’s going to get chewed up really fast and end up draining a disproportionate amount of the party’s healing. The smart thing to do is probably hang back, shed the armor, and use spells and ranged weapons. All that stuff about being able to fight half-competently is a trick.
A Bard can cast spells, but doesn’t gain new spells every level: she’s got to compete against the party’s Wizard(s) for scrolls. This suggests that the Bard will have a very thin spell book with mostly “reject” spells. So, you’re hanging back to cast spells, and your spells probably stink. (As the player of Arnold Littleworth, I can testify that playing the auxiliary caster can be a lot of fun, though.)
You also have Thief skills, but not the “real” Thief skills. (Pick pockets sucks.)
But even the special Bard-y stuff you can do is highly situational:
- Counter-Song isn’t the sort of thing you need every day
- Knowing legends is unreliable at low levels, but the Dungeon Master may give a plot-dump even without you
- Rallying allies is nice, but it doesn’t scale and requires advance notice of a particular fight in order to prepare
- Bonus to social interaction is pretty nice if the adventure allows for it
So what you’re left with is a highly likeable, unarmored archer who muddles around with spells and can hear noise with the best of them. You can recover Plot Hooks, give a pretty minor boost to combat effectiveness, and reliably sweet-talk low-level NPC’s who don’t already hate the party.
These situational class abilities are pretty common in 2e: it’s like every “exotic” class is Goldilocks, waiting for a dungeon that’s just right to bust out the awesome. The Druid’s spells are largely wasted in a dungeon, and the bonus against electrical attacks, identifying plants, and moving through the woods without leaving a trail are nice, but are likely to come up only rarely. A Ranger’s ability to track, befriend animals, and slaughter a particular enemy are also pretty limited. (The Paladin has a little bit of Goldilocks design goin’ on, but not quite as bad as the others.)
Compare that to a (say) Fighter / Mage / Thief.
- At around 30,000 XP, you’re looking at a Bard 6 vs. F4/M4/T5. The multi-class has comparable combat stats, a wider range of Thief abilities (the “real” Thief abilities like stealth and trap-mongery) plus backstab, making for a more formidable opponent in combat and better utilization of magic items. On the other hand the Bard has social powers and a slightly higher caster-level.
- At around 90,000 XP, you’re looking at Bard 8 vs. F5/M5/T6, and it works out about the same as above.
- It looks like the Bard begins to pull away from the F/M/T at much higher levels (1,200,000 XP give or take a level)
But there’s something about t
he Bard that I really dig. It’s fun playing the crafty, not-quite-competent bullshitter–like Jeff’s desire to play Gandalf as a Bard, my character Arnold is essentially a Bard in M-U drag.
I could never figure out the music aspect of the Bard, other than as an unnecessary nod to history. The mechanics say, “Spare tire.”. Which is a fun niche. But the incidental color of the class is, “Poet/musician.” That’s not rooted in the mechanics very deeply, but it seems to have indelibly stained the class concept as a goofy adventuring playwright dandy type. So it’s a lot like a Fighter/Mage/Thief with a sizable dollop of camp.