Bards - The Directionless Class

Duskreign’s Minion here.
In “Taking the ACKs to our Roots” the question was posed as to whether the Bard’s charm person / sleep animals power was too effective and should be revised. The consensus was no - and while I agree, I think there should be a top down review of the Bard and its place in ACKS.
A simple, but useful, notion is to separate each class into a general role as follows
Defender - front line fighter, meat shield, high HP, AC, damage, little utility
Healer- second line fighter, good AC, HP, damage, some utility (plus healing)
Striker - skirmisher, low AC, good to low HP, good damage, lots of skill based utility
Artillery - stays out of melee combat, low HP, low AC, high burst damage, lots of spell based utility
All of the basic classes more or less fit into one of the above categories. The specialized classes tend to blend two of the roles. The bard is all over the map. Low HP, AC, Damage - this seems to indicate striker or artillery - but alas the bard has no skill utility (like a thief), no access to backstab, and casts as a Mage one third his level. Having to wait until 14th level to get a fireball precludes the Bard from the artillery role.
So what does the Bard gain for giving up combat effectiveness? A number of non-adventuring related skills. Diplomacy, loremastery, charm/sleep, arcane dabbling. Diplomacy and Arcane Dabbling are simply proficiencies and thus have less value (neither are unique). Lore mastery is unique, but has the same effect of replacing a sage. Charm/sleep has a lot of flavor, but is very limited in its application.
I am a big fan of roleplaying, flavor and fluff. But to have a so much that you preclude combat effectiveness - nay, survivability - seems a little out of line. I would suggest a more balanced approach. More details to follow after supper.

In my mind the Bard has three basic directions it can go while maintaining the Bard flavor. The first is to give the Bard more access to thief abilities: move silently, hide in shadows, hear noise etc. This gives the bard the feel of a courtly spy, and gives the Bard some badly needed adventuring skills.
The second option would be to buff up their combat prowess. Some combination of a d6 HP, backstab, or some free combat proficiencies (swashbuckling). This gives the Bard more of the AD&D feel (progress as both a fighter and a thief, then become a bard).
The last option would be a magical one. This could either take the form of increasing their ability, say, 1/2 level as a mage (like the elven nightblade), or giving them more unique magical abilities designed to be used while adventuring. Useful, flavorful, utility type abilities.
I feel the first option makes the most sense. Bard are already considered thieves in terms of domain building; they perform hijinks instead of ruling a kigndom. There are also enough fighter/thief combinations (assassin, elven nightblade) and balancing magic can be quite tricky.
A final thought - by simply giving the bard 3 or so extra proficiencies the player can choose what flavor of Bard best suites them.
Does anyone else see the same weaknesses in the class? Are there any other improvements that could be made?

Duskreign, I have a measure of dissatisfaction with the Bard as written, for a few reasons. First, it is lacking in combat power, as you mentioned. The reason for that has to do with the second problem.
The second problem is that I find the bard to be lacking in legendary archetypes. Whereas fighters, mages, assassins, and even my own creations like nightblades or bladedancers seem easy to place in myth, legend, and fiction, I have a hard time finding examples of bard archetypes that hold their own as heroes.
The Pied Piper, Taliesin, Homer, and Alan-a-Dale are cited by Wikipedia as the inspirations for the D&D Bard. The Piep Piper seems to simply have had a magic item, while none of the other three have any appreciable combat power or adventuring skills.
The other major “Bard” archetypes I know of are Orpheus, from Greek myth, and Luthien, from the Silmarillion. Those two were the inspiration for the Magical Music bard power and proficiency, enabling charms and sleep through music. If the ACKS Bard is based on anything, its based on those two. Viewed expansively, both of them seem like they might better be represented as ACKS Mages whose spell signature involves music, however.
So where does that leaves us? Jeff Rients had a notion that Gandalf in LOTR was a D&D 2E Bard - with loremastery, minor magic, sword-fighting, and the ability to inspire his comrades. That said, is Bard even the right name for the class at that point? And is that sort of Bard balanced when instead of Gandalf you can play Rand al’Thor or Raistlin equivalents?
What is it that people who play Bards want to play, exactly? From what I can tell people who play Bards seek to do so for one of three reasons:

  1. They like to be the comic relief,
  2. They like to dabble in a little bit of everything, or
  3. They like the idea of magic through music

My idea of the combat Bard is a bit of the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets ‘Buffoon’ class and Cyrano de Bergerac meets Scaramouche.
I would introduce two Bard-only special maneuvers
in melee - debuff opponent by ridiculing him during swordplay. Player must come up with an insult. (Offensive Vituperation, Pejorative Attack ?)
in ranged - area effect - buff comrades, debuff/stun opposition (like football chants, or when wrestlers come to the ring accompanied by a theme tune!)
out of combat - I like the spread of proficiencies available but have been looking at anthem-crafting, rabble-rousing, spreading dissent.

I think the bard is a bit of tom bombadil as well. If we look at the ad&d write the bard was a throw back to the way gygax wrote up his quasi/demi/lesser/greater gods.
The bard is not striker/defender/etc. Those are game terms. The ad&d bard is verisimilitude. The bard college accepts heroes and only heroes into it’s druidic school. The game isn’t concerned about gamist classificactions, but that this PC has joined the bards college. 2E on the other hand made bards simply a f/mu. Case closed.
One way to think of bards is as secular clerics. All the inspiration of a fanatical knight but without the armor or the piety. Turn undead is replaced with charm and legend lore, keep the non biblical cleric spells (bless becomes a morale boosting spell, sticks to snakes is gone). Throw in a bit of jack and the beanstalk, orpheus, etc and there you go.

I really like the secular cleric idea, using the Turn Undead table for Charming/Morale effects is one way to get area effect without giving the Bard Mass Charm at low levels.

(Using Bless, Bane, Holy Chant etc for morale would be much simpler than what I suggested.)
The idea of a Bard being able to facilitate Fellowship or Atonement through words and/or music is awesome and appropriate.

The only bard I’ve really enjoyed is the AD&D 2nd edition version, which downplays the “magical music” angle and presents the class as a jack-of-all-trades. I liked it then because it was a class that was fairly mutable, and allowed for swashbuckler/dabbler characters that were sort of like the Gray Mouser. Mouser was the “literary basis” for the class in my mind; I know Alex hasn’t read any Leiber, so maybe that’s part of the disconnect. :wink:
I didn’t find it to be overpowered at all at the time - bards hardly ever outshined any of the other classes - though that could certainly change if one used the Complete Bard’s Handbook, which presented a ton of kits that made the class even harder to define. By 3rd edition the class had morphed into “guy who plays music to buff people”, which I still have zero interest in playing.

I think the bards need: (1) another combat power to replace the thief’s backstab- I suggest the insult-attack, (2) something thiefy or magical to give them alittle more adventurering oomph. I’d be fine with a charm-in-combat like a turn undead table, but alternatively more sneaking skills or proficiencies would also work.

To me, if you’re going to call the class a Bard you have to have performance as the schtick. The 2e version was poorly named. I don’t mind him having a wealth of proficiencies to choose from but I’m sick of bards being set up so they can ONLY be portrayed as sneaky jack-the-lad chancers, especially in an age of heroes.

Hmm… I’m going to expand upon the first post in this thread, based on my experiences with computer games and some of the terminology and concepts they throw up. Some of this may apply to 4E D&D as well, given the direction it’s gone in.
Games like World of Warcraft identify a handful of core archetypes similar to those described by Duskreign:
Defender - is otherwise known as the ‘Tank’. They specialise in getting hit and in forcing the opponents to engage with them through taunts and similar abilities. They have high HP, high AC, but lower damage output than other ‘combat’ classes. The archetypical Plate and Shield fighter.
Healer- the terminology is basically the same, but they’re not a 2nd rank fighter. Instead their primary role is to heal the ‘Tank’ and other front line warrior types. They may also have useful ‘buff’ powers (making your allies tougher) or protective powers (e.g. curing poison, disease, fear, etc…). Not quite the archetypal Cleric, as they lack the combat power.
Striker - or ‘DPS’ (Damage per second). They specialise in hurting the opponent with high damage attacks, generally have lower HP and armour, but have evasion skills to help them avoid the worst of the damage. The Thief is the best D&D example.
Artillery - this is also a ‘DPS’ role, but where the ‘Striker’ type gets into melee, this guy doesn’t. Best analogue, as you might expect is the Mage.
However, there are several other role archetypes that are missing from this list:
Crowd-Control - The ability to control the battlefield, or specifically, the people on it. Characters fulfilling this role have powers that in D&D terms are Paralysis, Hold, Stuns, Disables, Charms and the like. They don’t do direct damage, but instead they remove opponents from the fight, allowing the rest of the party to concentrate on other threats. Generally these are spellcasters - Mages, Clerics and Druids all fit.
Buffers - These guys, as I mentioned above, have powers that are beneficial to your allies - they ‘buff’ your side to make it better in the encounter. Bards are a classic ‘buff’ class if they get chance to get their song off. Druids, Clerics and Mages (though more so Clerics) are also good examples. In ‘Lord of the Rings Online’ there’s a ‘Captain’ class who is good at this sort of job through morale inspiring actions.
Debuffers - The opposite of buffers, they have powers that are detrimental to the bad guys, weakening them to make them easier to overcome. Again, mages, clerics and druids tend to fill the role.
Ok, so that’s a very basic look at some roles that have been drawn out from the MMO world. They’re not perfect, and in tabletop games they generally don’t work as appropriate labels for classes, but they might do for now.
What a good rpg should do (in my opinion) is provide the flexibility within every class that a player can look to fulfill one or more of these roles depending on how we wants to build his character. A Fighter could easily build as a ‘Tank’ with heavy armour, but it would be good if the Fighter player can also build as ‘DPS’ or one of the others. Mages and Clerics have so much flexibility - particularly Clerics - that they’re often described as being overpowered. In some games Clerics primarily ‘Buff’ and heal their allies, whilst Mages tend to do Damage and Debuffs. Thieves tend to do DPS, though some can do Crowd Control and Debuffs too.
But what of the Bard?
The ‘classic’ bard isn’t a front rank fighter, so really that rules them out of the tank spot, and they never get the damage output of the other classes at the same level, which impacts their ability to be ‘DPS’. However, they can ‘buff’, and with their charm abilities there’s a chance of carrying out some crowd control, but I’ve always felt that both these things are hard to achieve because of the time constraints on making them happen. Once a fight kicks off these potentially potent powers are utterly useless. Bards are a great roleplaying class, but they’re pretty much pants in a fight.
If you want to give bards a boost in combat, I personally would look to make them much more utilitarian in their combat prowess. Give them distractions, taunts (and evades to protect them from their target), and disables (so, Crowd Control, broadly speaking). Give them a more practical ‘buff’ ability in terms of lifting the morale of their allies through rousing tales of heroism during the battle (similar to ‘Bless’ or something, but not Divine). Give them practical ‘debuff’ abilities in terms of mocking their enemies, belittling them, confusing them and driving down their morale (similar to ‘Bane’ or whatever the opposite to Bless is). Mages, Clerics and Thieves all have their own particular niches in addition to whatever overlap there is with the existing Bard class, but Bards tend to suffer as the Jack of all trades approach because they really do end up master of none - and as the levels rise, that really stings.
I like Sean and Longshanks suggestions - they’re very much in line with my own thinking about what a bard needs, and although I’ve been very ‘gamist’ about defining what the bard does in a party I think Bargles non-gamist perspective has plenty of merit.

I have to agree with bilzack. My experiences with bards have me liking the 2e bard the most. I personally like the jack of all trades approach downplaying the musical abilities.
If the bard were presented as a ‘hero of the people’ or as an extremely charismatic figure with regards to large groups that might make ACKS take different enough while addressing the concern of the musical/sneaky archetypes that other patrons are concerned with.
I really like the concept of using the clerics turning table as mentioned earlier for crowd control/mass charm effects. Perhaps an ability to convince enemies (mooks) to stop fighting (temporarily like a round or 2, or permanantly where the level difference between the bard and targets are large) might be useful.
I think there is a lot of design room here and this could be another home run for ACKS.

I see the heroic version of the bard as much more like the historic skald rather than some kind of flouncy troubadour. Skilled fighters, prized as poets (both in composition and performance), deep knowledge of lore (which the poetry forms required), and occasionally cunning diplomats. Not in any way a thief, more like Olvir Hnufa.
Add in that excellent secular cleric idea - you can inspire people with stories about the gods without trying to convert them - as a custom spell list, make their spell casting a proficiency throw based on their Performance rather than an X spells per day (maybe with Turn Undead’s fail-and-you’re-done encounter limitation), prime stats are STR and CHA, limit armor to chain/shield and weapons to one-handed… something like that.
EDIT: Or maybe I just like dwarves, and that’s a dwarven skald, and the humans are all flouncy troubadours trying to hide and sing at the same time.

Regarding the MMO-inspired role archetypes: Those are just combat roles. There is much more to this game than combat, and the traditional bard specialties - diplomacy, charisma, swaying masses of people - should set them up very well as Conquerers and Kings. It’s a shame they don’t get strongholds, really.

Undercrypt - Regarding the MMO-inspired role archetypes: Those are just combat roles. There is much more to this game than combat, and the traditional bard specialties - diplomacy, charisma, swaying masses of people - should set them up very well as Conquerers and Kings. It’s a shame they don’t get strongholds, really.
James - My understanding was that it was combat where the bard fell down, so those archetypes were fairly appropriate. Out of combat I think the Bard is an outstanding class and outperforms most others. However, in terms of direction - scale things up - make the Conservatory akin to a theatre or a place of scholars(with some dodgy goings on on the side). Make it not hidden, but a place of learning and entertainment - make them do good things for the domains they are in (increased morale, increased growth, etc.) and make rulers want to encourage a bard to make their conservatory in their realm. I’m sure there are other avenues of possibility.

Duskreign’s Minion here.
Thank you James for a more detailed look at the MMO class roles. I suppose I should have been more thorough so my point was clearer. The intent of using those terms was to simply point out the Bard’s lack of focus in performing any of the classic roles. I am a big fan of the role-playing aspect of the game and I would not want to lose any of the flavor of the Bard simply to gain some gaming abilities.
Looking at the comments above I am most excited by the idea of a Cleric/Thief type class that inspires the heroes to greatness through words and leadership.
In general I think having abilities that mimic the appropriate spells would be preferable to having spell casting. I have no real argument as to why, it just feels right.
I think if the Bard has sufficient buffing abilities there would be no need to increase damage output (backstab, bonus damage etc.). Those abilities should remain with the more murderous classes.

Fighting man = plate armor and intelligent magic swords
Magic user = no armor no intelligent magic swords
Cleric = plate armor but no intelligent magic swords
Thieves/bards = no (light) armor but can use intelligent magic swords
This was the balance in original d&d–it hinges heavily on magic swords being intelligent and being quite powerful. This has been diluted in later iterations to swords just “doing a bit more damage” than other weapons. So other means of balancing are required as the cleric plate armor could be equally balanced against the thieves use of swords.
Good luck!

I’ll try to take some of this feedback into account and share a re-work of the Bard class later today.
That said, I have a personal dislike of MMO-style “taunts” and “insult attacks” that de-buff monsters or manipulate aggro. I have an issue making sense of how they work within the world. They tend to become disassociated mechanics. They also change the “feel” of combat. Right now in ACKS the combat is fairly grim and violent and I’d prefer it stay that way rather than have a “comic the insult dog” class.
With regard to MMOs in particular, “taunts” developed as a means to manage aggro, because the MMOs did not have collision detection. Since a fighter couldn’t physically block a monster from getting to the mages and healers, he had to be given another way to do so, and that became the notion of taunts. This then expanded into an entire idea that radically changes the flavor of the game. In ACKS, we have lots of ways of managing who a creature is fighting, by using the engagement rules, setting for charges, and so on. And we have lots of morale rules already.

Alex - Absolutely. Please don’t think my posts were in any way suggesting you should adopt MMO style mechanics into ACKs. I think that would be completely counter to what you’re trying to achieve. It was merely an illustrative point about what sort of flavour could be achieved, and where certain similarities already exist in D&D-alike rpgs.
I do think that the Bard can offer much more as a class than he does at the moment, without boosting his direct combat ability (AC, HP, Damage output) or taking away from his ‘performance’ idiom, or changing the underlying roleplaying potential of the class.

Here is a revised BARD. Please share what you think.

Successful adventurers live forever in the songs and sagas that recount their story. Remembering and recounting these sagas is the profession of bards. Most bards are content to recite the deeds of others, but some bold few participate in the dangers themselves. These bards often become inspiring leaders and heroes in their own right. In the Auran Empire, such a bard might be a warrior-skald of the Jutland kingdoms, a haughty Kemeshi aristocrat, or an adventuring minstrel with a sword in his hand and a song at his lips.
Bards advance in attack throws and saving throws as a thief, by two points every four levels of experience. At first level, bards hit an unarmored foe (AC 0) with an attack throw of 10+. They may fight with any missile weapons and any one-handed melee weapons, and may wield a weapon in each hand if desired. They cannot wear armor heavier than leather, and cannot use shields.
All Bards can sing, recite poetry, or play a group of instruments in a skilled manner. The bard chooses the type of performance that his character knows. A bard may take the Perform proficiency to learn other types of performances (see Chapter 4, Proficiencies). Instrument groups include stringed instruments, percussion instruments, brass instruments, and woodwind instruments.
By reciting the speeches of victorious generals and the songs of great heroes, bards can inspire courage. Given one minute (6 rounds) of performance before a battle, a bard can grant his allies (within a 50’ radius) with +1 to attack throws, damage rolls, morale rolls (for monsters or NPCs allied with the caster), and saving throws against magical fear. The bonus lasts for 10 minutes (1 turn). A bard can inspire courage in any given set of creatures once per day per class level. (Even the most inspiring epic gets old if you hear it twice in the same day!) A bard cannot inspire courage on creatures who are already engaged in combat.
Because of their study of the epics and sagas of old, bards possess loremastery. This knowledge allows them to decipher occult runes, remember ancient history, identify historic artifacts, and similar tasks. At 1st level, a bard must make a proficiency throw of 18+ on 1d20 to succeed in these tasks. The proficiency throw required reduces by 1 per level.
This same knowledge allows bards to dabble in the arcane. They may attempt to use wands, staves, and other magic Items only useable by mages. At 1st level, the character must make a proficiency throw of 18+ on 1d20 or the attempt backfires in some desultory way (Judge’s discretion). The proficiency throw required reduces by 2 per level, to a minimum of 3+.
Upon attaining 4th level, the bard gains the ability to read languages (including ciphers, treasure maps, and dead languages, but not magical writings) with a proficiency throw of 5+ on 1d20. If the roll does not succeed, the bard may not try to read that particular piece of writing until he reaches a higher level of experience.
Upon reaching 9th level (Master Bard), a bard can build a hall and become a leader of men. When he does so, up 5d10 normal men and 1d6 bards of 1st-3rd level will come to apply for jobs and training. If hired, they must be paid standard rates for mercenaries.
Hit Die: 1d6
Experience to Level 2: 1,400


  1. Casting spells at 1/3 their level of experience could be criticized as not overly helpful. I removed this ability and instead increased the hit die from 1d4 to 1d6. This reduced the overall XP cost per level from 1,525 to 1,400xp per level.
  2. I removed the “Magical Music” and “Diplomacy” inherent powers. Both of these would be available as Proficiencies should the Bard wish to take them.
  3. I replaced Magical Music with Inspire Courage, which is a bless-like effect.
  4. I replaced Diplomacy with the Thief’s ability to Read Languages.
  5. I replaced the Conservatory with a Hall (think the Hall of Herot in Beowulf).
    The overall result is that the Bard represented a highly educated light fighter whose knowledge of history enables him to inspire men, know obscure facts, and dabble in magic.
    His inspire courage power is unique, and would make him welcome to any adventuring party, while his arcane dabbling and loremastery would make him fun and useful for utility.
    This bard seems to be something that fits into many campaign niches. He could be one of the warrior-skalds of viking sagas, with a little magic and a lot of bravery. He could be one of the warrior-poet-generals of Three Kingdoms China or Feudal Japan. He could be an archivist of Glen Cook’s Black Company. Xenophon, the author of the March of the 10,000, seems like he might have been a Bard.