Monday, March 25, 2013

The Effectiveness of Bards in Dungeon Fantasy

Are bards cool?

So the DF interpretation of the bard is the spoony bard: a weedy little guy in light armor, a jack of all trades with elements of spell-caster, face-man, and light combatant. Mechanically, bards have 4 things going for them: interaction skills, mind control spells, Bard-Song abilities, and enthrallment skills. Are they good enough?

Interaction skills

I wouldn't say that interaction skills are something that everyone wants, but no one complains if you show up at the table with a bard and point out that you're going to double, triple, or quintuple the take from the next expedition (depending on the skill of the bard and the number of other PCs who have discovered that taking Wealth: Struggling and trading a character point for money is a pretty good deal). The ability to maybe negotiate with something at the bottom of the dungeon is mostly gravy.

I've had at least three players ask me, "I'd like to be a diplomat, but y'know... not a bard," versus only one willing to play a bard (and another claiming to be a spoony bard while actually be a half-ogre knight with the other half being wrecking machine). So I think the interaction skills are good enough in DF, especially if you're using Bard! and destiny points.

Mind Control Spells

As written, Bards also get Communication and Empathy spells, but the point is that if isn't a fairly mundane being with an IQ above 6, the bard's spells aren't going to come into play. So bards can't rely on their magic versus animals, constructs, many demons, most elder things, many faeries, plants, oozes, and almost all undead. That's not the entirety of the monster list, but there's an enormous number of deadly and/or "high level" threats the bard can't even affect with magic.

The bard isn't a particularly good spellcaster, with a base skill of 14, but Mind Control does have some great spells in it (Command). Most of them are resisted, which is a drag, and have long casting times, which is also a drag, and are fairly expensive for someone without a dedicated Energy Reserve and Recover Energy. Points for spells have to be balanced against Bard Song abilities and enthrallment skills, so this can be tricky. Still, this isn't anything the wizard couldn't do generally better, so this probably isn't enough to justify the bard by itself.

(As an aside, Bruno and I came up with an alternate college system for bards, where they got select Illusion and Knowledge spells and all their spells were organized in to Comedy, Drama, History, and Tragedy colleges. I think she was going to polish it up and submit it to Pyramid, but I'll try to post it here if she got rejected or something.)

Bard Song Abilities

A grab bag of abilities based on sound; the bard has to sing or play a musical instrument to use them and they're subject to the same restrictions as magical abilities. Highlights include Speak With Animals (usually good for gathering information from birds and rodents, if nothing else), Mind Control, Rapier Wit, and Terror. Some of these are pretty good, but most of the good ones are expensive.

Bard Song also includes auras of power, which again can be pretty good ("everyone gets +2 DR while I sing this next song") but again can be pretty expensive. A bard can have 1-2 of the really good abilities, at the cost of any other advancement opportunities. Mind Control and Terror are pretty enticing, but so are +1 DX and +1 HT.

Enthrallment Skills

These are Musical Influence, Persuade, Suggest, Sway Emotions, and Captivate. These are a bit of a mixed bag, really.

Musical Influence is one of the cinematic skills that might work really well in a low powered, almost entirely mundane game, and fails miserably in the higher powered magical cinematic reality of Dungeon Fantasy. Playing a bunch of music to get a minor bonus on reactions is hard to justify as a worthwhile expenditure of Very Hard skill points.

Persuade is just like Musical Influence, but is easier to learn (Will/Hard vs IQ/Very Hard), significantly faster, and requiring some FP to use. It also doesn't work against animals, while Musical Influence does. Bards usually already have a lot of positive reaction modifiers, but getting an Enraged Dire Tiger to calm down requires a lot, too.

Suggest lets the bard make the audience believe that a straightforward suggestion is their idea. The suggestion has to be straightforward to express (subject, verb, object, and two adjectives or adverbs) and the duration is pretty short. In theory, this could a really useful ability, but I can't think of a lot of instances in any DF game I've ever seen where it could come up.

Sway Emotions is written so vaguely that it's almost unusable.

Captivate is like Suggest, but the audience acts in your best interest as they understand it, or per your direct orders. This is like having Mind Control with Area effect, a huge FP cost, and 30 minutes of onset. Still, it's area effect Mind Control, so that's really good. On the other hand, 30 minutes of uninterrupted story-telling is a huge luxury in most DF games. This is a really good skill if the bard can arranged to get captured by the orcs, thrown into their cells to rot, and can start telling stories to the entire tribe until they're having gladiatorial death matches for his enjoyment. It's a great skill for some games, but I'm not sure how useful it is in DF.


Bard abilities are a mixed bag. The Agent henchman template can provide the interaction skills, and layered with a combat template such as Veteran (or a Scout lens), a fairly effective combatant without the iffy spells and Bard Song powers.

On balance, as a GM, I'd be tempted to up the power of the Enthrallment skills and perhaps let the bard take some Bard Song abilities as alternate abilities of each other (auras of power are an obvious choice). I'd be worried that there's not a lot of room in the Enthrallment skills between "situationally useful" and "oh dear, I just broke my game again." Improving the spell list to include select Illusion, Sound, and Knowledge spells is also a good idea.


  1. One thing I have done to make bards a little more powerful is that their songs bypass magic restistance. They need mana in order to create their songs but it is the song or sounds they produce that cause the spell like power not magic so magic resistance does not work. The bard is a sort of Rube Goldberg spell caster so I feel that he needs some way to make their songs better than regular spells.

  2. I've had a love-hate relationship with Bards ever since they came out (what, in Dragon magazine maybe?) an age ago. Most of what I like about them can be had from a Rogue - Wizard hybrid instead, as the part I like isn't remotely the music.

  3. Right, I don't think anyone particular enjoys "I sing a song and the magic happens" as part of the bard concept. Which admittedly is the core conceit, so that's why bards aren't that popular.

    I think the various bard ability are mostly decent, and if you think of a bard as basically Gandalf: a wise, knowledgeable guy who can be relied to sneak through ancient passages, swing a sword to take out some orcs on the way, cast some blatant spells at some point, negotiate with lords, and use the power of his storytelling to compel minds, then you've got a very wonderful concept.

    It's only if you're expected to do all that while strumming a lute and singing in falsetto that the concept falls flat.

    The suggestion to make bards ignore Magic Resistance, but it goes against a central rule for DF: Magic Resistance is Magic Resistance, regardless of who is casting the magic (including Divine powers). On a less theoretical note, 90% of the people that I remember to give MR to in my games are animals, and the bard can't cast spells on them anyway because he doesn't have the right colleges.

    1. It's funny - if the same powers came from a shamanic type, beating drums and chanting, there would be no concern. But the minute you picture the guy in tights and a poofy Shakespearean hat, it all goes to hell. Brave Sir Robin, indeed.

    2. That's really insightful - not just for the problem with bards, but also for the solution to shamans. If you change the shaman from "homebody who talks to people who aren't even there" to "charismatic diplomat who has lots of friends, some of whom are literally immaterial," then you have concept with some meat on it.

      Throw in some of the better Bard Song abilities such as Mind Control and Terror into the currently sub-par Shamanic abilities and you might get a viable character concept out of it.

      Well, now I have the concept for a posting later this week.

    3. Glad to have tripped your synapses. :)

  4. Fflewddur Fflam was my first exposure to a bard in a high fantasy setting. I wonder if he kind of set the bar for bards being losers. Were there any bumbling bards who predated Fflewddur(1964), or might he be the Ur example of the spoony bard?

    1. Except for the part where Fflewddur Fflam isn't spoony. He's a terrible musician, iffy on remembering his lore, afraid of magic, and a compulsive exaggerator, but he doesn't sing in battle because he's too busy laying down the smack. And I quote: "'There we were,' [Fflewdurr] cried, 'fighting like madmen, hopelessly outnumbered. But a Fflam never surrenders! I took on three at once. Slash! Thrust! Another seized me from behind, the wretched coward. But I flung him off. We disengaged them and made for Caer Dathyl, chopping and hacking all the way, beset on all sides...' Taran expected Fflewddur's harp strings to sunder at any moment. To his surprise, they held firm." - from the Book of Three, Chapter 19.

      Okay, I guess Fflewdurr can be bumbling, because he doesn't play to his strengths. He's a bad-ass warrior who rides what is effectively a sabre-toothed tiger into battle, but he wants to be a troubadour, which he isn't, and thus he comes off as incompetent. Fair enough. He's not a bad model for the bard, but he's still not that great a fit for the DF bard, because at no point does he perform magic, nor would he ever bolster his companion's nerves with magical singing.