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Thoughts on classic D&D bards

by Parzival

I try to keep things simple; Bards aren’t simple. The original AD&D bards were essentially clumsy multi-classing mash-ups of Fighter and Thief with some musical Magic-user tossed in. Thematically, they were a mess. We never played them.

Part of the problem is the historical muddle Bards are turned into. Skalds, bards, and jongleurs get rolled into one mix, and it doesn’t work.
A skald is more of a warrior cleric than anything else; his “magic” is in his song. He emboldens his fellows and himself, and ridicules and enrages or frightens the enemy.
A bard is a warrior as well, but his music occurs before and after the fight, not during— he’s a storyteller, recording both triumph and defeat, and using these skills to drive action in or impart wisdom to others.
And the jongleur is an entertainer. He has no magic, and avoids a fight. He’s Allan-a-Dale, there to hearten his fellows and ease their minds after the struggles of the day.

Therefore, I’d be inclined to make the Bard a matter of general skills, with maybe a slight tweak in potential results, over anything like a dedicated class. Performance and Persuasion, Storytelling, maybe the unique skills of Encouragement and Taunting, and a very special one of Satire (or Scorn). But almost none of these could be used in a combat encounter, save maybe Encouragement (gives a to hit bonus to his fellows) or Taunting (attracts attackers to the Bard, but they get a to hit penalty for being enraged). The rest would require calmer environs and maybe even time to compose— very much campaign elements over adventure session elements.
Thus the Class of the bard is whatever the player desires— Any class could be a form of “bard” as it were (even the “race” classes), with music and/or storytelling becoming part of the personality and tools the player can use. “Bard” skills are chosen instead of other general skills (BECMI, of course) and increase exactly as skills do per the RC, and/or new “Bard” skills can be selected in the same manner. This will produce a very unique bard character as envisioned by the player, yet not create an über-class that outshines the core classes that are the heart of the game.

If you want a skald, you take skills like Encourage, Taunt, or Jeer.
If you want a bard, you take skills like Persuasion and Storytelling, or Satire
If you want a jongleur, you take skills like Performance and Entertainment.

Encourage: On a successful Charisma check, your intelligent allies within hearing gain a +1 bonus to Individual Initiative. At higher levels of the skill, they also gain (in order of skill level): Level 2: +1 to saving throws. Level 3: +1 to hit (does not count as “magic”). Level 4: +1 to hit (counts as a magical attack against “immune” monsters). Note that “allies” include henchmen/hirelings/retainers, who will also gain a Morale bonus equal to the bard’s level of skill in Encouragement (not class level). Note that the listeners do not need to understand the language used by the Encourager— the tone and sound of his stirring words and song are enough to convey the advantage. The undead, animals, and mindless constructs, etc., cannot be Encouraged.

Jeer: On a successful Charisma check, intelligent enemies must save vs. magic (treat as mind-affecting magic) or suffer a -1 to initiative. Each level of the skill above 1 also acts as a penalty to Morale checks in intelligent enemies. Note that the enemies must be able to understand the language a Jeer is spoken or sung in for any of these affects to work. Jeers do not affect the undead, animals, mindless creatures or constructs, or summoned or charmed attackers.

Taunt: On a successful Charisma check, the bard may select one intelligent target; that target becomes enraged and will seek only to attack the bard, ignoring other opponents. The target suffers a -1 to hit penalty, and a 1 point penalty to AC from attacks by others against it (as it is ignoring them). For each level of Taunt skill, the bard may choose additional targets to Taunt simultaneously. Otherwise, the Taunt only affects the selected targets and cannot be switched to any other targets as long as the Taunted targets are still in the fight. All Taunted targets, however, gain a +1 bonus to their Morale checks, as they are too angry to be led to flee! The target must be within hearing and capable of understanding the language used for the Taunt.

Satire: The bard composes a song of ridicule aimed at a particular individual or organization. To those who know the individual or organization, and are not close associates of or members of the same, the Satire, if successful, will cause a -1 reaction towards the targets of the song, even if the bard is not present or performing the work. The penalty increases with the level of the Satire. The song takes a full day to compose and prepare, and does not take effect until performed publicly in the area associated with the targets of the satire. The probability of anyone in the area eventually knowing the song and being affected by it is based on the number performed to as follows:
10 to 50 hearers: 10%. 51-100 hearers: 20%. 101-200 hearers: 30%. 201-400 hearers: 40%. 401-to 600 hearers: 50%. 601-900 hearers: 60%. 901-1,500 hearers: 70%. 1,501 to 2,500 hearers: 80%. 2,501 to 3,000+ hearers: 90%.
This should be modified based on the local population, but there is always a 1% chance that someone has NOT heard the song.
Note that the number of hearers is cumulative, not by performance. So four nights of performing in a tavern with 50 people in the audience is counted as performing to 200 people. The Charisma check is made at each performance to see if that performance is successful. The song may be taught to other performers as well, to spread things even faster (with their individual Charisma checks affecting the results of their performances).
Of course, the Satire will obviously provoke enmity from the targets towards the composer and any performers, with consequences determined by the DM.
The following factors will affect the Satire: If the target is Lawful, well known, and well-liked with a broad reputation for good actions, the chance of success with the Satire should be extremely low, if not impossible, and redound onto the composer and performer instead. If the target is Chaotic, infamous or broadly known for evil, the Satire really serves no purpose— everybody already despises Bargle anyway! Similarly, a person of little influence, regardless of nature, really can’t be ridiculed in this way— nobody cares what a stable boy does, as long as it’s not illegal (and even then, they may not care).
Satire is really a tool against the politically powerful, particularly those who are hypocritical in their behavior. The corrupt Bishop, yes. The kind and gentle Abbess, not at all.

And those are off the top of my head this morning.

Otherwise, the bard is a Fighter or a Cleric or a Magic-user or a Thief or an Elf or a Dwarf or a Halfling... doesn’t really matter, as song and story are powerful everywhere and to everyone.