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 skillsI 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 SpellsAs 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 AbilitiesA 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 SkillsThese 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.
SummaryBard 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.