Core Concept: It is a commonly held belief that bards are ridiculous. Even if made to be mechanically useful, it seems strange to some people that a busker would stand along side a master of arms or a powerful wizard. But in fact, the bard class has strong historical roots. Traveling minstrels existed, seeking out larger and more impressive stories to sing for lords and ladies, hoping to find a noble who would retain their services for awhile. And when work was slow, a traveling bard was apt to pick pockets or take up banditry until they could make enough coin to move on. If any class has the right to be an adventurer, it’s the bard.
Spells: The spells chosen for the bard are flavorful. I also approve of the fact that a bard must perform in order to cast their spells. I further think bards should have a touch of magic about them, so access to spells is appropriate. But only a touch of magic, mind you. More than any other class, I think bards should resemble rogues, but that’s not the case in Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, bards are basically mini-sorcerers. That doesn’t work for me.
Additionally, I find it a little distasteful that seven out of the eleven basic classes eventually gain access to a spell list they can cast from. Not only does it reduce the specialness of the casting classes, but it hints at a game which relies too heavily on magic to bring it into balance.
I think it would be best if spells were dropped entirely from the bard class. In their place, bards should gain the ability to the use of magical scrolls–arcane or divine. This allows the class to be a little bit magical, without giving them the innate access to magic which would dilute the caster classes. Most of the bard-only spells (such as Summon Instrument) could be kept as special abilities rather than spells.
Adding scrolls and special abilities doesn’t come close to making up for the loss of spells, though. The rest of that loss should be made up for in the performance ability, covered below.
Bardic Knowledge / Lore Master: My feelings are conflicted with regards to these two abilities, which is really just because by feelings are conflicted with regards to knowledge skills in general. But if the game is to have a knowledge skill, then these are interesting abilities, which make good sense. So I’ve no real qualms with them.
Performance: Performance is the bard’s most important ability, and of all of the abilities of all the classes, I think it just might be the one I like the least. Were I so inclined, I would completely rebuild the bard class from the ground up just to correct the many problems I have with performance. But right now I’m just pointing out things I don’t like, and brain storming thoughts on how they might be improved, so I’ll stick to that mission for now.
First, why is there a limit to the number of rounds per day a bard can perform? I have a difficult time wrapping my head around a minstrel who can only play for 48 seconds before becoming too exhausted to perform anymore throughout the day. I understand that this could be explained by saying that magical performances are a great deal more draining and can only be maintained for a short period of time, but I don’t really buy it. Wouldn’t it be better to design a performance ability which the bard could use for a longer amount of time? There’s no reason to make performance function identically to a barbarian’s rage or a cleric’s channeling ability.
Which brings me to an important point: standardization is not always good. There are many good things about creating standards. They help everyone communicate better, and specifically in the case of tabletop RPGs, they aide greatly in helping a GM remember and improvise the rules. Standardization is one of the great improvements I think we can ascribe to D&D 3rd edition. But it can be taken too far. Too often in D&D 3.x/Pathfinder, characters gain abilities which “function as the spell,” sometimes with minor adjustments. A number of the bardic performance abilities mimic spells in this manner, and it bugs me. A wizard wakes up each morning with nearly limitless options for which magical effects they will produce that day. Why should the wizard be just as good as the bard is when it comes to swaying a crowd? Should not the wizard’s limitless choices be countered by more specialized classes being able to do their jobs better than wizards can? A lot better?
Much like rage, Performance ought to be a much more dramatically powerful ability. In an ideal game, I think bards would need to seek out new songs and stories to enhance their performance abilities. When the character began their performance, they would not need to stop and start again to produce a different effect, but would instead be able to weave effects together into a single, moving performance. And those effects wouldn’t allow the bard to influence a person for 1 hour per level. It would make that person into a lifelong fan.
Obviously it’s very simple to make bold statements about how something ought to work, and it’s a very different thing to actually make it work that way. This is just what I think would make the class compelling.
Cantrips: Since this is the same for every class with the ability to cast spells, I’d rather hold off on discussing it until a primary caster, such as the cleric.
Versatile Performance: This ability really highlights the problems of the skill system. Lets say your character is an actor. Their profession, and indeed, many of their class abilities rely on changing their appearances, and convincing others that they believe in the fictional reality of the play. It would seem to follow that such characters would be good at disguises, and lying, would it not? But no! Not in D&D! In the game, players must wait until second level before they can apply their acting abilities towards other pursuits.
Obviously level 2 isn’t a very long wait, but the fact that this ability had to be included at all is just…sad.
Well-Versed: …meh. This is a filler ability. There’s really nothing much to say about it, save for the fact that it adds clutter-notes to the character sheet. Where in the world are you supposed to write “+4 on saving throws v. Bardic Performance effects.”
Jack-of-All-Trades: While you might not expect it given my feelings towards skills, I like this ability. It makes sense, it’s flavorful, and it’s not bad mechanics insofar as skills go. If I were to completely re-design Pathfinder’s skills system, I would likely keep this ability in a different form. Perhaps they would never have to roll in the Untrained – Difficult column?