Pathfinder Class Analysis 2: Bard

Paizo's Iconic Bard
Paizo’s Iconic Bard

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?

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9 thoughts on “Pathfinder Class Analysis 2: Bard”

  1. This is a pretty good write-up, though I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with the whole “Bards should only be a little magical” thing. The problem with having so many distinct and useful classes is that there’s going to be some overlap at any given time.

    What I’ve found for Bards is that they can be amazingly versatile and flavourful at the same time, in a way in which other classes (except perhaps Rogue) can’t pull off.

    Bards get arcane versions of some healing spells, they get some sound related blasty spells, and a whole bunch of utilitarian spells to their list. They’re stuck with a “Spells Known” list, but otherwise cast spontaneously, which helps to build toward the role you use Bard to fill, whatever that may be. Personally, I find they they’re limited to sixth level spells at the cusp of their prowess to be the handicap of “Only a bit magical”, when compared with other casters.

    Normally I’d agree that taking away spells would be a good thing and giving them the Bard flavour spells as abilities to be a great addition, but they lose so much when they lose their spells and giving them access to scroll use just isn’t enough. Even if you gave them the ability to use wands, that’s just saying “Every other class has to make Use Magic Device checks except Bard”, which isn’t so much an ability as it is a skill modifier.

    As for the skills, I suppose in a system that’s played as written that is sorta sad, but I like it because it’s allowing the bard/barbarian in my current group to roleplay effectively. She’s very “statblock” oriented in regards to what her character can do and how she acts, but personally I’ve always found that roleplaying can always trump mechanics when I run a game. She’d rather roll her disguise check then come up with the disguise based on her roll, where I’d rather my players describe how they’re disguising themselves, then I’ll make them roll if they do something so outrageous it blows their cover. But I’ve found myself to be a “less is more” sort of guy when it comes to dice rolling in my games.

    Maybe if you drop Bards down to capping at third level spells (with the same progression, they’d just wind up getting many more uses of Performance and/or their spells), you can make them just feel magical. It isn’t until fourth level that you get the spells which really bend/break reality anyway, up ’till then most things can be replicated alchemically or by creative preparation. Give ’em a boost to their UMD skill perhaps, or let them count as both divine and arcane for the creation/use of scrolls/potions/wands? Just spitballing!

  2. To borrow a 4e term, what if bards retained their magical abilities but only as a ritual caster rather than a spontaneous caster. I sort of envision the adventuring bard as something of a puppet master when it comes to magic, a pied piper if you will. Given time a bard can weave a magical song or performance that enthralls their subjects. I envision the bard walking through the halls of the dungeon, playing his flute and driving before him a veritable army of (charmed) cave rats. I’m sure it would be quite complicated, but that would be the role I would try if I were reworking the bard.

    1. I really like this idea! The pied piper thing sounds like a fun take on the class, and it would further cement the bars as a jack of all trades.

  3. I loved the 1E bard. It really took some effort to become one. No player I ever knew pulled it off. But the OGL/PF bards left me cold. I just never liked them. Probably the least likely class that I would ever play. “Oh look, our walking boombox is improving morale. Yea.”

  4. Hate bards. Can’t stand them as a gamemaster or player. No one is going to be singing and strumming their way through my battles, thank you very much. I eliminated the class years ago and the game didn’t suffer at all. They don’t fill a niche, and are bad for flavor, and are essentially the least useful class.

    All that being said, I like the “jack of all trades” angle, so I made a new class called the Highwayman which is basically like a rogue with more tricks, many of which steal abilities of other classes such as extra feats, magic and healing. I just keep it a couple of levels below the Highwayman’s class level, and it seems to balance well. I also let them take the bard “thing” of being a repository of random facts and lore.

    But no bards.

    btw… I loved these class write ups and I’m really glad I found them. You seem to enjoy and resent many of the same things that I do in Pathfinder. Out of curiosity, what do you consider to be your favorite pnp game system for fantasy games?

    1. I like bards myself, but honorable men can differ. Honorable ladies too, actually.

      I currently play a version of Pathfinder, simplified into oblivion. I also play a variant of the 3 LBB which incorporates some stuff from AD&D, and my own mind.

      It would be hard to pick my favorite fantasy game system, though! I’m immensely fond of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and I like DCC RPG quite a lot. Others on my radar right now are Adventurer Conqueror King, The One Ring, and the Dragon Age RPG.

  5. Very good write up. I really like your points for the bard class.

    I like the bards background and what he was meant to give to the group (morale, inspiration, support, ect..). But the fact that they could cast arcane AND divine spells just really ruined them for me and for my players.. As Jeff H mentioned, I could live with some of the lower level spells. But then it kinda starts becoming rediculus what a bard can do by playing a song, and honestly, when I hear about someone being a bard, a magic user is ‘t exactly the first thing that jumps at my mind.

    So have anybody made a remake of the bard class which removes or atleast lessens their spell casting capabilities and still lets them fill the role they where meant to film? Maybe even a different lvl 20 ability, which doesn’t work like a rouges or rangers ability? Actually I think there is more that get the “make a save or die” ability at 20.

  6. I’d like to point out that the reason the bard’s got magic is legacy. The E1 bard was a fighter-thief who then went took a druid prestige class. (Using more-or-less today’s terminology). That came out of the Irish and Welsh myths.

    I like in principle the idea of long-running performances, but I can take a swing at explaining why they’re time limited. It’s because if you were to make your mechanism you’d have to track how long each creature had been listening. Performances end not only when the player gets tired but when the audience gets bored or distracted. Sour notes and bad timing contributed. All these are modifiers, the simplest of which is ‘listeners get a saving throw every round with a bonus of +1 for each turn they’ve experienced the performance.’

    Which is done for some spells so isn’t impossible, but which tends to be disliked. And so a simple ‘sustain or end’ short performance becomes a hand-waved alternative that (yes) keeps in line with the standardization that lets players and GMs more easily play with multiple classes.

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