Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Do Bards Really “Suck”?

I know that bards in Roleplaying games take a huge hit to the balls by many. There have been several posts over the past year in the OSR blogosphere that have amused me as they poked fun at the bard class. Let's admit it, sometimes bards are ridiculous, especially as they are portrayed. I think it is OK to not like the bard class or those that resemble them. Who wants an annoying singing minstrel bothering them? Certainly Sir Robin didn't in Monty Python's Holy Grail movie!

The only cool “Bard” that most people know about was not a singing fool, but Bard the guard in Tolkien's The Hobbit. However, in some cases and in some circumstances, do bards really suck?

I say: “NAY!”

In the Middle English epic poem Sir Orfeo (based loosely on the tale of Orpheus), a king is so taken by the music of minstrels that he decided to take on their craft. The poem is written as a tale that could be told, set to music, by those in the real world that were the basis of the bard class in AD&D. I will post the very beginning of the poem to set the tone:
        We often find it written,
        And scholars know of this well,
        Verses that are set to music
        The content of which are marvelous things:
        Some concern war and some concern woe
        Some concern joy and mirth also,
        And some concern treachery and guile
        Of old adventures once upon a time,
        Some concern jokes and ribaldry
        And many are set in the lands of fairies.
        Of all things that men relate,
        Most of them, in truth, concern love.
        In Brittany were these songs first wrought,
        Set to music and then forth brought.
        They concern adventures set in the olden days
        Whereof ancient Bretons made their lays.
        Kings, at times, might hear a tale
        Concerning marvelous things,
        Then take up the harp and minstrelsy
        And write a lay and give it a name.
        Of these adventures that have taken place, 
        I can tell you some but not all.
        Now listen, lords and ladies true,
        I shall tell you the tale of `Sir Orfeo.'

        More than anything in this world
        Orfeo loved the joy of music.
        Such was it that every good mistral
        Paid much homage to Sir Orfeo.
        Orfeo set his keen, sharp wits
        Upon teaching himself to play the harp.
        He taught himself so well that no one could find
        A better mistral than Sir Orfeo.

Here we find a King, the one that Bards desire to come and play before, becoming a minstrel himself!
Not only does the Bard-King play well, he is described thusly:

        Orfeo was a king
        Of England and help high honor;
        He was a man both brave and strong
        And also elegant and generous.

Obviously, Orfeo is a brave and chivalrous warrior, a refined gentleman and of noble character – everything a Bard might wish to be! This is no Medieval Hippie strumming silly tunes... Orfeo is someone to be reckoned with.

In the tale, Sir Orfeo uses skills and wit that would be considered common fair for Bards to single-handedly rescue his wife from another Lord who kidnaps her. After questing in search of his wife, Sir Orfeo comes as a minstrel to the offending lord's castle, which he has finally discovered. Because Orfeo impresses him with his entertainment, he is granted a anything he wishes. Orfeo asks for his kidnapped wife and even though the lord protests, he must keep his word. Orfeo could have battled the Faerie lord - he was certainly capable of doing so, but his wit won out! The Bard-King returns home "and there was much rejoicing” ;)

Peter the Hermit exhorting the faithful to take up the cause of the First Crusade

Monks who were also Poets, which might be considered Bards, were instrumental in creating works so magnificent that they were added to the abbey's liturgy. They wrote in praise of the nobility, who gave to the monastery generously in return. They made social commentary (some of which might even be considered subversive) through their prosody. Orations from ascetic, traveling monks like Peter the Hermit did much in stirring the people's faith to join in the First Crusade. The influence of those skilled in poetry, song and oration in the Middle Ages is nothing to be sneezed at – they had tangible effects in the world.... I haven't even mentioned the Viking Skald (saving for a later post!)

As I said earlier, it is OK if you think D&D bards suck... but perhaps you think they suck because many do not play them as they were in the actual Middle Ages. In my own Sylvaeon campaign, they function much more like the bards of history.

                After that harpers in Brittany
Heard how this marvelous tale
        And made a lay of great delight
        And named it after the king.
        That lay is called `Orfeo';
        And it is a good song, sweet in its notes.
        Thus was Orfeo delivered from his cares:
        May God grant us all so well to fare! Amen!


  1. The bard from The Strategic Review - Volume 2, Number 1 (February 1976), as first introduced into the original D&D was a tad better then it's later renditions. It had the abilities of a Thief at half the character's current level. Could use any weapon. Advanced in saving throws and to-hit matrix as a Cleric. Obtained 1-2 followers at level 2 (and more as he progresses) Only needed average strength and intelligence minimums (9-12). Below average DEX reduces the thieving abilities by 1/2 %. Of note, does not gain the back-stabbing ability of the thief. And they really only need otherwise an above average Charisma (>12). Along with that, they can charm/mesmerize within a radius once a day. And they basically have a natural % chance to identify objects as magical, and their exact properties. Not to mention a d6 hit dice and a limited number of magic user spells to boot. All in all, a nice class. Perhaps a little too powerful, then in AD&D 1st Ed. it was made much harder to be a bard, with less benefits. My 2 cents. I welcome additional thoughts on the original version vs later ones.

  2. I think the bard is one of those classes that has the opportunity to be home brewed to suit whatever the DM desires... the Dragon Mag takes on the Bard and similar classes were always fun. The AD&D "standard" bard was kind of weak, IMHO, and just a hodge-podge class lacking any real focus.

    I appreciate your comments, Peter

  3. "I think the bard is one of those classes that has the opportunity to be home brewed to suit whatever the DM desires". Agreed. One of the characters I enjoyed playing most over the years was what we lovingly classified as a "Bardbarian". He was a hulking brute, but played an itty bitty ukelele, singing horribly in the process of charming farm animals into unspeakable deeds. I made up songs (really perverted ones at that, it was fun times fun times), and it was just a blast to play. I pretty much ran it as a barbarian and role-played the rest. (if memory serves after 20 odd years)

  4. I've always thought playing a bard as a medieval herald would work well. Members of the college of heralds were use fourth and fifth sons of noble families (remember, an heir and a spare and one for the Church), trained in the graces, educated. they were used as diplomats, etc.

  5. Anthony: Those are great points...in Sylvaeon, several of the human kingdoms are influenced heavily by the Holy Church (hence Monk bards/poets)and the younger noble's sons might become a bard as a dalliance (to impress the ladies, perhaps) or as a serious profession.