Saturday, March 25, 2023

My Life As A Gamer: This Is No Pansy Dandy With A Lute

The Bard is in the Player's Handbook (PHB) for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition (AD&D1e), but it is not the class that any other edition presents. You'll find it on p. 117; it's Appendix II, and explicitly marked as optional if it is allowed at all.

You cannot enter play with a brand-new 1st level character as a Bard. You have to go through two other classes first before you can qualify to become a Bard, and both of those classes as well as the final qualifications. Those classes are Fighter and Thief, two classes with nigh-antithetical ethos despite a certain synergy to their skillsets, which then must trained by a Druid before achieving 1st level as a Bard.

That's a lot of play time just to pick up a lute and be a pansy git. Therefore, we can conclude that this Bard is not.

As with the Druid, this version of the Bard takes its inspiration from the Celts as known in the 1970s; the lengthy qualification track is meant to mirror the profession career track of a Bard in an abstract and playable form.

Take a man who began as a burgeoning warlord, who then became a skilled thief or spy and maybe a gang-leader, before kneeling before the Hierophants to achieve initiation in the Bardic Schools- and make no mistake, that is what that final step with the Druids is about.

Force, Guile, Wisdom synergized into a cohesive whole. That is the Bard- and seen by this perspective it is no surprise that The Forgotten Realms' most notorious not-so-secret society (The Harpers) were full of them and as such were so believable in being so effective.

The Bard As A Character

The Bard is a Hero, specifically in the Classical sense of a man of excellence worthy of admiration. Becoming one requires it.

No man who becomes a Bard is lacking in the potential of body or mind. High Ability scores are needed from the start, as the Bard must use the Dual-Class rules (PHB p.33) to go from Fighter to Thief. (Yes, there's that "Half-Elf" thing; see below.) In addition to have 15+ scores in Strength, Dexerity, Wisdom, and Charisma just to qualify as a Bard that man has to start with a 15+ Strength score and reach 17+ in Dexterity when he makes the switch to Thief.

He has to endure the Training Rules, complete with Performance Grading, for both classes; the massive shift in expected behavior between Fighter and Thief alone can derail many would-be Bards. This does not account for the training needed to make the shift in the first place. The implied amount of social and physical infrastructure required cannot be ignored without trivializing the deed and thus damaging the campaign.

However, once he becomes a Bard, any restrictions that the Dual-Class rules ordinarily impose upon the use of the class features of former classes is lifted permanently.

That means that the Bard, using his old Fighter level, can again step in as a Captain and directly lead troops. That means that the Bard, using his old Thief level, can again sneak about unhindered. Imagine that Bard leading a band of troops as equipped for ambushing as he could be, cooperating with a Ranger. Imagine that Bard trailing an Assassin on the prowl, able to Pick Pocket the poison off the Assassin and thus foil an Assassination plot.

Now add the Druid powers and spells that he can cast. (PHB p.118) Charm Person or Animal and Animal Friendship have utility far beyond their description, and Entangle is notorious for its use in battlefield control, and it only gets better from there. Again, he has Druid powers as a Druid of his level; that means shapeshifting is on the table. Sure, he can't get to the 6th or 7th level Druid spells, but so what?

Add in the tongues he gets to learn automatically, his ability to use music to Charm Person repeatedly, and his ever-growing mastery of lore.

The Bard, therefore, is a man that only arrives with the maturity of age and life-changing experience. Just as "Hurt" sounds very different from Johnny Cash than from the much younger man that wrote it, the Bard is someone that knows war and wickedness and yet comes out the better for it by becoming the master of lore and the means to spread it: language, including music.

He may be turned black by those experiences (Evil Bards exist), or particularly uplifted by them (as do Good), but most--influenced by their Druidic initiation--settle on some level of "The Mountain Abides" (i.e. Neutrality) and as such find that rather than settle down they are pushed to keep traveling the world. This is reflected in their severe limits on Henchmen; never be one for more than four months, never employ those that are not Druids or Fighters or Thieves (and then only Men, Elves, or Half-Elves), can take only one at 5th and then one more at 8th (etc.) subject to the Bard's Charsima score.

The Bard As A Patron

Clerics may be tied up with cosmic affairs, Druids with natural issues, Magic-Users and Illusionists in their research, and Sages are few and far between as well as specialized in specific fields.

The Bard, if you can find him, is far more likely to (a) know what you're asking for and if not (b) know where to go to find that answer. The Bard, however, is unlikely to just do that for free; remember his background as a Thief, for such a career leaves its marks on its practioners. He is within his rights to ask for something in return. This is often in the form of information, and--again, given that Thief background--may not be obviously valuable at the time.

He may tell you over a lengthy meal all about the dungeon you're looking for, but in return he'll be all ears to hear you go on about the treasure you found- he may even do you an additional favor and identify anything at hand. Thinking yourselves having gotten far more than you gave, only to find out well after the fact that you told him that the empty crpyt was the sign that an evil cult from ancient Vimarr resurrected one of their legendary leaders and he flew off in the form of an eagle to warn his friends the Patriarch and the Emperor.

Or you find yourselves in dire straights only to be rescued by a pack of dire wolves leaping upon your enemies from behind before a massive bear mauls them- the Bard coming to repay you.

This is because the Bard, in dealing so much with lore and legend, becomes in tune with the whispers of rumor as if they were lyrics on the wind. It is no surprise that while Thieves and Assassins do the bulk of espionage work, it is the Bard that--like James Bond--gets the call for making big things happen. Some come to see themselves as stewards of the world, influenced by their Druidic initiation and practices, and as Druids steward the natural world so do Bards that of Men.

And the master Bard, the legends-among-heroes that reaches 23rd Level, may not be a godlike being but he gets that respect all the same from mortal and immortal alike. Once he is gone, he lives on in song, attaining with love (or hate) alone what others strive for with magic or pleading the gods: immortality.

Conclusion & Commentary

The half-elf route to becoming a Bard, if one can be sketched out, looks like this: start as a Fighter/Thief multi-class, and make certain that you have the scores to qualify as a Bard; stop leveling up at 7th level as a Fighter (refuse Training) and 8th as a Thief (ditto), and instead seek out a Druid to train you as a Bard. Beg the Referee to allow this. Pay out your Training Time and become a Bard. Do not be surprised if this is disallowed. I am inclined to leave this as a Man Only class.

The Bard, moreso than I thought, is a potent character capable of wielding great power but that power is EARNED and under the proper Jeffrogygaxian Timekeeping that the game demands (see the DMG) this means that a Man that starts as a Fighter--the youngest of Men--could still take years, even a decade or more, to reach the threshold of qualifying as a Bard.

That said, because the Bard does come after play has begun, he need not meet that class's Ability Score requirements right away. If he is lacking in one or more Attributes, he can worry about working them up over time. He should prioritize seeking magic that enhances any lacking scores.

Long overlooked was that Bards not only gain Druid spells, but Druid powers; PHB p. 118 makes that clear. He can flawlessly identify plants, animals, and pure water. He can pass without trace through overgrown areas, shapeshift, speak the Druid tongue, and get all the bonus Druid languages on top of what the Bard class specifically grants as he levels up. Only the spell access is different.

His music requires a string instrument. Any will do.

The Bard, as a Man Only class, should be allowed in any campaign where Druids are allowed; that shared cultural lynchpin is the key here. You can, with some care, bend both Druid and Bard to a pre-Christian Teutonic (i.e. Viking) context (where the latter is a Skald) and this too works just fine; Skalds were not pansies either.

The common image of Bard-As-Minstrel is an unfortunate misapplication of Pop Medievalism; this version hews far closer to the historical (and related mythological) origins where a man who became a Bard was no one to fuck with such that it was said that his very person was inviolate and harming him risked divine wrath. Alan-a-Dale was one of Robin's Merry Men for damn good and practical reasons, folks,. No warlord or king dared to risk the danger of a Bard's displeasure because with mere words he can undo entire reigns. This class reflects both the myth and fact backing that belief up.

I've aimed for this class many times back in the day. I have yet to make it. More than any other class in AD&D1e, the Bard is my favorite; this class is a form of treasure in its own right- you struggle hard to get it, and once you do the power you wield is so satisfying.


  1. How do I increase ability scores?

    1. For some, just getting older will do. For the rest, you need magic.


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