barding and goldilocks

actually, I think "dungeonpunk" works for the Bard

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

    2e class philosophy at work

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.)

why didn't Korgan kill you, dude?  I would have

why did you have to ruin this class for me?

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.


17 Responses to “barding and goldilocks”

  1. 1 Bargle
    September 13, 2011 at 7:00 am

    I did a rather Detailed comparison on dragonsfoots 2e boards between the 1e f/mu/th and the 2e bard–that you might enjoy perusing. Your last sentence is a humorous sumation–though at one or two spots at low levels, the bard is a power house, getting 3rd level spells well before the triple class as gauged on xp alone.

  2. 2 Bargle
    September 13, 2011 at 7:05 am

    “I would like to make a special comment about the bards spell list. I think a case can be made that the spell progression of a bard is actually too generous. at 2.2 million xp the bard is 20th and the wizard is only 15th. This means that the bard can do everything a wizard can do, but with twice the hit points, thief abilities, etc and all the wizard gets is two 7th level spells in return! At 1.3 million xp the bard is 16th level and the wizard is 13th level….this means that both of them are only casting 6th level spells!~

    At 40.000 xp the bard is 7th and the wizard is 5th which means both get 3rd level spells at the same time!
    4/2/1 for wizard 10 hit points average no armor, dagger.
    3/2/1 for bard 26 hit points average, weapon selection, thac0, thief abilities!!!!!1

  3. September 13, 2011 at 9:06 am

    The goldilocks/specialist point bothers me about a bunch of classes in versions of D&D after 1e: it’s like each has their own ecological niche and they’re going to be great inside it and useless outside. Which in turn sounds like an ideal world for a jack-of-all-trades like John Carter or Flash Gordon to shake up – that is, all these specialists are perfect NPC fodder against which he can parade his multifunctionality.

  4. 4 Charlatan
    September 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    You and Rients have totally sold me on Gandalf as a 2E Bard. Slot Saruman in as a MU. Is Radagast a Druid or a Ranger?

  5. 5 James N.
    September 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I don’t think we see enough of Radagast to say for sure. “Ranger” means something very specific in Middle Earth (though I could see making Aragorn a type of Specialty Priest of Numenor), so I would probably lean toward making Radagast a Druid. The real question is what we do with the Blue Wizards!

    Yeah, it’s a weird approach! It’s like everyone is the “hacker” class from science-fiction game, side-lined for most of the session but then getting their one chance to shine. “I’m so bored of being in this dungeon, is it time to use my warhorse yet?” “If only there was a normal animal for me to befriend, or appraise the value of !” “I can identify plants!” I can totally see why these guys were, at least technically, optional classes, because even if you set the incidental color aside, the mechanics really dictate a specific kind of adventure. Specifically, one focused much more on hex-crawls and probably a higher percentage of encounters with Humans and Animals rather than crazy monsters.

    Yeah, at certain spots on the XP chart Bards have a lot going on. I think 2e Wizards are 6th level at 40K instead of 5th, but your point still stands: even though the Wizard gets third-level spells 20K earlier, at 40K the Bard is really competitive against a Mage. Meanwhile by about 135K (Wizard 9, Bard mid-9) the Wizard is just blowing him away on magic, though.

  6. 6 Lord Bodacious
    September 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    While it’s probably not 100% in line with this discussion, I think the bard class suffers to some extent from a mixed perception of the bard.

    This was (somewhat unintentionally) illuminated for me upon reading the first 200 pages or so of “Taliesan” (or similar, I’ll have to dig up the full title/author) – this was not the awesome fantasy epic I had expected upon finding it on a sunny stoop, but rather a pretty dry, if informative textbook on the lore and legends of the bardic tradition in the British Isles.

    In a nutshell, there are different eras of bards (historically). The early bards were powerful, badass lorekeepers and self promoters with a powerful magical connotations. The later bards were the lute plucking pansies that have come to dominate perception.

    The old bards really didn’t have the same implication of lute playing, floppy hatted minstrels. They were more of an evolution of the druidic/mystical tradition in an age when Christianity was just taking institutional shape, and “civilized” courtly life was just getting formed. They were the holders and shapers of legends, lineages and knowledge before the written word or the church took on this role.

    These guys were lore keepers, poets and storytellers, also seemingly very adroit gossips and mountebanks. There was a whole self-referential history of the mysteries, magics and miracles performed by bards, how they could disappear, kill people with a word, and take the forms of animals. The author posits that the power over information, rumor and the platform to influence people reinforced this perceived power. Though they couldn’t cast spells, they knew everything about everyone, and could manipulate and slander with nigh-arcane ability.

    Anyway I’ll dig up the actual title and author and drag it out to the next couple sessions.

  7. September 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    You know, I played 2e for six solid years, and I am pretty sure none of my players even seriously contemplated rolling up a bard. Once we switched to 3.0, I think I’m the only person I know who played a bard in all of the games I played in or ran, and after about the second or third session I scrapped that character to bring in a sorcerer. While the mechanics of the 4e bard are pretty much completely unrelated to the 2e and 3.x bards, I can at least say that they’re on an equal footing with other classes in terms of power.

  8. September 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    @Lord Bodacious
    Maybe Taliesin, by Stephen R. Lawhead? It had a similarly frustrating effect on me in junior high.

    I agree that the “lute-wielding ponce” seems to have dominated gamers’ perceptions of the Bard, probably due to the flavor text in 2e.

    In the later days of 2e TSR published The Celts Campaign Sourcebook, which revised the Bard closer to his historical roots in a low-magic setting. The Bard ended up as a type of Specialty Priest:

    * Priest XP, saves, attacks, and hit dice
    * No armor
    * Sling, club, dagger only
    * Minor Access (i.e., 3rd level and below) to All, Charm, and Divination “spheres”
    * No Thief skills
    * Influence reaction, inspire allies, general knowledge, and counter-song as in 2e Core
    * At Level 2, cast reverse bless or whatever it’s called, frequency unspecified
    * At Level 5, cast reverse remove-curse or whatever it’s called, frequency unspecified

    Much as I dig the whole historical sourcebook idea, the attraction of this class eludes me. The early 1990’s must have been a strange and bewildering time at TSR.

  9. September 14, 2011 at 2:11 am

    If my genes breed true, Javi and his friends will engage in a ludo-archaeological journey to figure out the procedures of play deeply encoded in ’90s RPGs. The idea that you and I could have been playing Alternity all this decade but didn’t will be a source of enormous frustration to them.

  10. 10 1d30
    September 14, 2011 at 2:49 am

    I look at the class set as the whole roster, from which you can pick a subset to appear in a given setting. This assumes you have that binder of 100 classes to choose from (like Alchemists and Pyromancers and Bandits).

    In a jungle campaign you would really like to have a Druid, Ranger, etc. In an urban campaign probably the Bard and Thief would have their chance to shine, but a Ranger would do almost nothing unless he were an Urban Ranger (that is, using the Ranger Handbook to take his preferred terrain as Urban). In an underdark campaign maybe Druid would be all but useless unless he specialized in fungi, and even then it’s iffy. A seafaring game would be a great place for a Buccaneer character but he would literally wilt in a desert campaign.

    Looked at that way, it’s okay for plenty of classes to be useless outside their niches. Maybe most Bards stay in well-populated areas and only rarely venture into dungeons, and then only in well-rounded large parties. Sure it means that there would be few Bards in most adventuring groups, but that’s okay.

    Another way to look at it is that the player gets to choose his difficulty level. If he plays a Fighter or Cleric, the game is on Easy Mode. Thief or M-U is Hard Mode (until the M-U gets well-developed). Bard is sort of a middle ground, more powerful than a Thief but not as powerful as a Cleric.

  11. September 14, 2011 at 3:14 am

    Yes, the toolbox approach is one that I hoped to take with 3.5e, and one that the Historical Sourcebooks take with the 2e classes. Charlemagne’s Paladins, for example, only allows the Fighter, the Cleric, and the Thief as classes, at least on the lowest-fantasy dial, and even at medium-fantasy they only open up to include the Paladin and the Bard.

    Wow, you’re a much crueler father than I’d previously suspected. That is cold as ice.

  12. September 14, 2011 at 7:35 am

    @Lord Bodacious: I eventually figured out that the bard should probably be a skald rather than a troubadour (and Taliesin was a really cool character – turning into bubbles in beer – beat that!), but I was still stuck with a fundamental problem: why would I be the person who sings the epics when I could be the one who stars in them? Sure, they’re the keepers of culture, but in my own experience D&D games were about the poorest in in-game culture out of all the games I played (that is, you really could get away with being a weaponmaster and nothing else, in a way you couldn’t in CoC or Bond or even Trav or Mechwarrior). So I streamlined the Bard rules/requirements from 1e and I always told players about the class as an option… and nobody ever wanted to play one.

  13. 13 maldoor
    September 14, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    > a ludo-archaeological journey to figure out the procedures of play deeply encoded in ’90s RPGs

    I suspect you are right about this journey, Tavis, but have the wrong target. Javi is likely to delve into and understand the crypto-origins of a 90’s culture, but it will not be Alternity or 2ed: it will be the Japanese sub-cultures of insect collecting and anime, the nexus between manga and video games. Pokemon.

  14. 14 Lord Bodacious
    September 14, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    @ James

    Well, I couldn’t find the damn book. I prolly tossed it. That said, I THINK it was “Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland” by John Matthews.

    I think some confusion may be in that many bardic/druidinc poems are referred to as “songs” when poem or elegy might be more accurate… ( http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/tindex.html). The Taliesin poems are mostly boasting and slandering, very simlar to gangster rap, but with silver branches instead of guns. There is some pretty cool stuff in there, but also alot of

    @ Richard

    Well, this was the thing that I was awkwardly trying to get at. The bards of Taleisin’s era (historical now, not fantastical) were seen as both story tellers and wielders of great power. The poems tell about him doing all kinds of crazy stuff, stealing magic from people, and being a generally badass celtic wizard.

    Anyhoo, I guess I’m just pointing at a different way to construct bards that is slightly more druidy.

  15. September 14, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    I never played a 2e Bard, but the AD&D Bard was a complete bad ass. You had to take levels in Fighter, Thief and Druid, and IIRC it was a bit faster than the F/M-U/T route because dual-classing meant you didn’t have to split the xp and be lower level than everyone else in the party. By the time you earned your lute, you could kick ass like a Fighter, Backstab like a Thief and cast Flame Strike.

    My favorite Bard is the 3/3.5e Bard–though he does best in certain settings. I played an all Bard mini-campaign that was awesome. The focus was on social adventuring, skills and occasional thuggery in a low-magic pseudo-historical Eastern Europe. My Bard really shone in the Freeport campaign too. For some reason there weren’t a lot of pure spellcasters in that game (nearly everyone had a level in rogue or played a half-wizard like a Beguiler), and in those situations the Bard is fantastic. Cure Light Wounds, his songs are essentially a Bless spell (or better with certain feats), plus some skills and half-decent fighting ability.

    I love the Bard! Though I am a notorious CharDe-optimizer.

  16. September 16, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Interesting that this just comes up now, as I am beginning to play a bard in the Serpent’s Skull Pathfinder Adventure Path. I took the Archaeologist archetype, which basically makes the bard into Indiana Jones. Twp things I’ve noticed:

    1. In 3.0 — Pathfinder, there’s a different sort of player/class interaction happening. By that I mean one of the reasons I ended up with a bard is that I know the rules better and am a more experienced gamer than the other players. Hence, it made a bit of metagame sense that I play a class that’s in a more supportive, guiding, and less-defined in-game role.
    2. With the Pathfinder archetypes, the idea of a class is almost meaningless. That is, there are so many of them, combined with a bunch of core classes, that you’re essentially playing some house-ruled version of some class anyway. I understand the reasons for this and don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. Just an observation.

  17. September 16, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    @professorpope, I’m not overly familiar with Pathfinder–I played in a couple adventure paths prior to the Advanced Players thingy coming out, so we only had the core classes. Are archetypes like classes or something else?

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Past Adventures of the Mule

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