Updated: Jan 6
[Edit: I owe Trent, from the Mystical Trash Heap an apology for inadvertently pissing him off. He's the author of most of the bard songs in the house-rules doc that I linked to from this post. So, to be clear, I read his songs and thought they were brilliant and incorporated them into my house rules (which are the archive of docs I've compiled for my home game). Time passed. I thought it'd be a good idea to write a blog post about bards since one of my players was running one and figured folks might like the house rules I was using. Regretfully, this published Trent's stuff without credit. And I am wholly to blame for being lazy about it. Rather than re-write the blog post, I'll leave it intact so you can judge me as you wish. Out of respect for Trent, however, I've removed the link to my house rules for bard and would direct you to his works instead.
If I had a time machine, but I don't...
Sorry again, Trent.
peace and happy gaming.]
Go ahead. Tell me that Valerius wasn't a bard. Feel good about knowing that.
Now that that's out of the way, let's get down to cases. In my years of reffing, there have been exactly two player character bards:
Vlondril, the Avaricious (circa 1987)
Illitran, the Demon Lover (became a bard on Nov 25th 2019)
For the DM, certain classes are easier to handle. The rest require MORE. The easy ones are fighters. Not rangers or Paladins. Just fighters.
Everything else is going to be work. Clerics need to feel that their religion is real and has world-wide impact. Thieves and Assassins need a guild and the intrigue that goes with it. Rangers need to feel their effectiveness in the outdoors, their knowledge of plants and animals, tracking, survival, weather sense, the whole nine. Paladins require twice as much as clerics. Monks....that's a whole other blog post. And sure, OK, you try to ground the fighter with his former buddies in the city guard, or the furrier outpost, or the merc company, or whatever...but it's just...easier.
Good news is that wizards and clerics and paladins and thieves and assassins and rangers and EVEN monks are easier because of established archetypes. So the DM, even if he/she wants to put a twist on the archetype, has a good notion of where to start. Wizard gonna be brewing potions, barking at the apprentice and ignoring the magic mouth that tells interlopers to sod off when they knock on the tower door.
But where do you start with bards (and druids)? I read a bunch of Celtic stuff back in the 80's when it was hot so I have a decent picture of who they were. But druids and bards also carry that Celtic origin as baggage. Do you NEED to drag it into your campaign?
Clarification: when I talk about archetypes I don't want you to misunderstand, or think I run my campaign like the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, where the classes are tropey. It's important to me that the characters have unique, grounded and yes, gritty personal stories and connections to the world. They must feel like they belong to a special group that fills a logical niche. The thief in his guild is a perfect example:
DM: "Braxton says you gotta steal the duchess' ring before Day of Vespers or there's no deal."
Player: "Hmm. Looks like my thief won't be able to go on the adventure...unless I can convince the company to wait for me. Maybe, I'll take my ranger instead."
This is just to point out how easy it is to imagine a conversation between a thief and his guild master. Imagining a conversation between a bard and...whomever...is a little harder.
Thing is, bards and druids ARE very...erm...Celtic. Just as the monk, at first glance, seems very Asian. So if you want to include these characters in your campaign but find the flavor doesn't gel with your setting, you might need to do additional work.
Some DMs have simplified the bard into a foppish barfly that spews song and trivia as often as (and especially when) under the influence. I also understand that the druid has, in many campaigns, become a furry who just cuddles all the animals.
Turn away now, for I have not chosen these paths.
Before we address the fiction surrounding the bard's place in your campaign, let's start with the (potentially) confusing mechanics of getting to BE a bard. Note that the Bard is THE most demanding class in terms of prerequisites, blowing away even the Monk and Paladin:
If your Ability Scores meet these outrageous minimums, you make a...fighter.
Level the fighter to 5th minimum [or] 7th maximum and switch class to 1st level thief.
Remember: you gain no hp as a thief while leveling except for those thief levels that exceed your level as a fighter.
When the thief is 5th minimum [or] 8th maximum, you may become a bard.
The 1st level bard has no XP and does not get to roll for HP. They are a "Probationer"...or as I call them: a pledge.
Yes, Anthony, I know this already. I have a copy of the PHB. I can read.
Excellent. Then read with me. I'm on p118 of your book. But I'm also on p86 of the DMG and p147-148 as well. Furthermore, if you don't understand my HP rules above, you may reference dual-classed characters in PHB p33. I promise to wait while you read.
Uh, Anthony...bard prereqs say 15 DEX...but to dual from FTR to THF, this says I need a 17 or 18 DEX.
That's OK. You are following a career path laid out for you by the bard. You will NEVER reach 9th level thief. Thief is not who you plan to be. Therefore, a 15 DEX is good enough.
Let me interject to state that my goal is to run the bard as close to PHB as possible, while also putting the polish on the class that I think most people want (including me). That polish is magical songs as well as rhyme to reason for bards to exist.
Another bit of polish is the way I interpret some of the PHB restrictions.
Bardic weaponry, as stipulated, falls in line with druidical sensibilities. Religious restrictions are fine for clerics, but I think it's too punishing for bards. Therefore, my way of handling the restrictions sanely is to say that the character may continue to use ANY weapon they were proficient with when they were a FTR/THF...but that any NEW weapons of proficiency must come from the bard-approved list. This is why you'll see bards with bows in my campaign.
I restrict bardic armor to ANY armor a thief can wear, but penalize thieving abilities if anything higher than leather or elven chain is donned.
Note that bards will ALWAYS fight at the level they attained in FTR. Therefore, only the truly stupid will switch to THF prior to level 7. Seven d10 rolls plus possible FTR CON bonus means a bard can have WAY more hp than a fighter. A 23rd level bard might have 7d10 + CON + 10d6 + CON + the 12 HP gained post-HD (and they might even squeeze in an extra d6 roll if they take thief to 8). 18 HD? Really? The Monk gets 18, but they're all d4!...or d6 if you are kind-hearted like me. So the bard's AC is probably going to suck, but they are going have HP like nothing you've seen before. That's fine IMO, because it represents the bard's wiliness. While not stated explicitly, I allow the bard to retain the 3/2 attacks per round gained as a level 7 FTR and to attack creatures of roughly 1 HD once per round for each level of FTR they've attained.
These are nice perks considering bard THAC0 is never going below 14.
Now, if you were super kind and possibly sane, you might allow a Bard of very high level to begin tracking on the Thief attack matrix. So that, at level 21, the Bard's THAC0 drops to 12. But I leave that for you to solve 9 or 10 years from now when your bard hits level 21.
These are the mechanics of the class. But how does it fit your world?
I have to admit, bards took on a whole new life back in the 80's when Ed Greenwood started mentioning the Harpers in Dragon Magazine. These were NOT foppish barflies. They were serious-minded individuals with a secretive organization that tugged at the strings of nations.
I have taken my cues from Ed.
So, bards have a secret language "Ciglae" that they use only with other bards. This language is learned in the language slot earned at 4th level (Racaraide). That's right. Racaraide. Google that and marvel again, as I have, how Gary found all this shit without the internet.
Oh, also, that secret bardic language? That's homebrew. What follows below is mostly homebrew, but it's paired with (or tries to give reason to) the rules you've read over and over in the PHB and DMG.
So here's what's happening: Illitran, the Demon Lover, is still a pledge. He knows a couple bard songs that Rain taught him, but he's not an actual bard yet.
Uh, Anthony, what bard songs? Also who's Rain?
Oh right. Here. [link removed] That's my home brew. And Rain is an NPC bard. All the secrets are out now. Many of the songs are my own creation, some might be edited versions of songs made by people on the internet. I honestly don't remember. Names are generally drawn from my own campaign's roster of famous bards, including Vlondril, the Avaricious.
You will notice that bard songs tend to pack SIGNIFICANT punch. That's because a 2nd level bard is and should be considered a HIGH level PC...hanging out with 12th level magic-users and clerics no doubt. IMO, you want the long road to bardhood to pay off, not through combat, but through prestige, support and unrivaled versatility.
Back to Illitran, the Demon Lover.
He's been told by Rain, that he must seek out Fochlucan College. Rain tells him to travel to Mirạyhr via the Northwind Road by way of Dozing Hollow. The road will take him through the Javneh Mountains. "Go south," She says, "on Three Eyed Dog Road. You'll pass a cromlech. Leave off and follow a faint trail south, called the Devil's Path. It will take you through meadows and hills, between Grelin Cave to the east and Holloth’s Wood. Fochlucan College sits at the base of Crone’s Tor on the edge of Skene Dhu...which is a large foggy lake in the heart of the Witchocracy." Rain further tells Illitran that he must tread lightly, for lone men are often targeted and never seen again. It is best to travel in the company of a woman at all times, especially in the countryside.
Fochlucan College is far from Skellum (seat of the Shradnae Witches' Power) but Illitran must still keep a low profile by playing the role of a kept man. "Once you arrive," says Rain, "you should seek out Esther Bates, a Skald and the Head Master of the college. Your tuition will go to her. Delivering that much money is best done in gems or trade bars so your journey will not be without risk."
Rain then explains the misconception held outside the bardic order, that there is rivalry between the colleges. The reason the bards of different colleges do not associate with one another is to protect each bastion of knowledge from the many infiltrators and spies that seek both secrets and legendary bardic treasures. (ref PHB p118)
Illitran asks his girlfriend, Awh'Gnuyk (whose name is Sully Fade when she is in the Abyss) to accompany him to Fochlucan College.
When he arrives, his tuition is 96,856 SP (almost what it costs to go to REAL college!) which is derived from 50% of his adventuring haul + 1,000 SP / level (DMG p86). Yes, I use SP instead of GP for training costs. All other mechanics remain the same. This is delivered to Esther Bates. Illitran's initial orientation and training require 4 weeks...but training for levels thereafter will be only 1 week long.
Illitran is given a key fashioned with a bandore in the bow (because he identifies as male). I use the lyre for initiating female bards to the college. The word "fochlucan" is engraved between the shoulder and the collar of the key.
If the key is put into any NORMAL door and the word Naculh’cof is spoken when the lock is turned, the door will open directly into Fochlucan College, allowing the bard and ONLY the bard to make the transition when the door is stepped through.
A similar key is bestowed for each college (after the initial journey to that college is made):
College | Command Word | Key Device
Fochlucan Naculh’cof Lyre [or] Bandore
Mac-Fuirmidh H’dimriuf-Cam Cittern
Doss Ssod Lute
Canaith H’tianac Mandolin
Cli Ilc Golden Lyre
Anstruth H’turtsna Silver Harp
Ollamh H’mallo Golden Harp
Magna Alumnae have a key to each college and may therefore associate with bards of any level. (Ref DMG p147-148 for my choices in college symbolism)
At each occurrence of training, the bard uses his/her key to access the college, pays tuition, and is given a new manual written in Ciglae: the bardic secret script: which they must then study diligently during their travels. Contents of the book are assumed to be diverse lore/history/as well as any languages the bard is currently learning.
In addition to providing quick access to training, the enchanted key obviously allows the bard to access the college library and use the stacks for research or legend lore. Use of the key, in my campaign, is magically capped at once per month both to mitigate abuse and as a security measure for the college. If the bard uses the college stacks to assist in legend lore (rather than doing it solo in the wild) I allow the bard a +10% chance. Capping key-use to once per month is therefore essential in my campaign.
In addition, at each instance of training, the bard may be trained in one song by an available peer at the college. The bard selects the LEVEL of the song (so long as it is level-accessible) but the song is then determined randomly (representing the wildly fluctuating presence of available persons at the school). Bards do like to travel! A "Know Spell" roll (See INT PHB p10) is required to learn each bard song. Failure means that specific song can never be learned by the bard and no song is learned during the level-up training period.
Because a bard's minimum INT is 12, it is very unlikely that a bard will be able to learn ALL magical bard songs and each bard will therefore have a unique repertoire.
Bards may of course find bard songs in the wild in the same way magic-users find spells: attempting to learn them from sheet music.
It is stated in DMG (p86) that bardic tuition funnels to druidical colleges and it is from this thin sentence that we may establish the connection whereby bards MIGHT be interpreted as the public faces of hermetic druidical orders.
I myself subscribe to this interpretation.
One metaphor that might work for you is Midsommar. In the film, a hermetic order in Sweden sends out representatives that are much more at home in the mainstream of "civilization".
In my campaign, Druids resemble this template, and are not of a Celtic bent. Rather, they are truly Neutral...which certainly appears evil to many in mainstream society. My druidical orders have spies throughout the world and attempt to press their agendas both directly and indirectly. In matters of state, the bards represent the druids at court and castle, using diplomacy, charm and sometimes threat to advance what the druids want.
Queens and Sultans are not stupid. They know that if they fail to please the bards at court, it is the druids in the background who might blight their crops or worse.
Prince Pasquale: "Sorry, we plan to continue logging the primeval woodland in the foothills. It's the king's land. You must submit to the crown!"
Bard: "There are other ways to fill the king's coffers. But if you insist, so be it. I hope you like anthrax."
This is not to say that bards are the puppets of druids. Whereas druids must be True Neutral, bards come in every flavor of neutrality. Therefore, we can certainly assume that school and travel has refined the perspectives of bards who may try to temper the demands of druids or modify the terms of negotiations toward good or evil according to their preferences while still giving the druids something to be happy about.
I would say then that bards are absolutely beholden to druids in exchange for their druid spells. If the bard is disavowed by the druids (who also back his college) the bard may lose the ability to cast druid spells.
Such a bard will likely refer to themselves as non-traditional. They will still have access to their college, degrees, regalia, spell-songs and so on, but will not be able to cast druid spells. As a result of this schism, the bard's weapon restrictions might also be lifted at DM discretion.
In following these parameters, and by knowing what it takes to become a bard, your campaign world may come to understand that there is a keen difference between a traveling showman, songstress or storyteller and an actual bard. Indeed, when a true bard arrives at a tavern it is likely to be as storied as any tale the bard tells, for this is a person of status and unusually high ability scores to match...a rarity indeed who is arguably better read than a wizard, better connected at court than a knight, and with more political sway than any mid-level cleric.
What the aims of the druids and bards are is a matter for you to decide within your milieu. Mine tend to think on a larger scale than just one or two countries-worth of intrigue. And bards of renown tend to travel ever longer and stranger roads, to other worlds and planes.
Hopefully, this gives you some ideas about the fiction of playing a bard, what it means to be a bard and how to make the transition meaningful and special for the player.
That's it for now.
Peace and Happy gaming.