Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Bard as a Prestige Class Old School Style

Interesting. Just this morning I went to look at Dragon #56 to remind myself about Jeff Goelz's iteration of the bard in the wake of the interesting discussion that ensued from my post on St. Romanos. In addition, I also reviewed several other versions because I am interested in trying to allow the germ of an idea to flower — allowing the bard to be a prestige class, old-school style.

Though I have always hated the actual application of the 1ed AD&D bard, it is one of the first examples of a prestige class in D&D. I also appreciate the concept — after traveling the world, a bard has accumulated enough stories, tales, songs and information to be able to do all the things a bard does.

Thus, at 4th level a character may choose to become a bard (and this choice must be made at 4th level) — any character. This helps account for such diverse bard-like concepts as St. Romanos, Gandalf, King Henry V as well as the fast-talking, puffy sleeved fop.

In order to gain the abilities of a bard, the character must sacrifice all of the abilities they would have gained for that level from their own class, save hit dice. Thus, fighters would continue to fight as a 3rd level fighter, magic users and clerics would cast spells as at 3rd level, thief skill would remain at 3rd level, etc. Once a character becomes a bard, they advance according to the x.p. requirements of their original class. At each level they may choose to either improve their old class skills or their bard abilities by one level.

I realize that this is unbalanced in that it is much more expensive in x.p. to gain bard abilities for a magic user than a thief. I made this choice for ease of implementation — there need not be any kind of complicated X.P. chart, etc. The differences can be explained by class affinity to the bardic abilities — thieves are more naturally good at being bards than are magic users.

In thinking about how to do a bard (in a way that I'd be interested in playing one), I personally think three abilities are more-or-less universal in everyone's concept of the class:

  • Legend Lore
  • Charm
  • Battlefield Morale Bonus

Legend Lore is the ability to attach a story or piece of history to places and things found while adventuring. I would begin with a simple 1 in 6 chance to know something interesting. This chance goes up by 1 for every level taken in bard abilities.

Charm is potentially the most powerful and therefore abusive ability of the bard. As I see it there are three ways to limit this potential power:

  1. Understand it as a spell and therefore limit the number of uses per day. This could be either a static number (3/day) or a number based on level (1/every three levels).
  2. Limit its potency by allowing two saving throws — one based on the level of the bard (some kind of skill check) and another based on the level/HD of the target (normal save vs. spells). I would start this skill check at 1 in 6. This chance goes up by 1 for every level taken in bard abilities.
  3. Remove the spell effects and tie it to monster reactions. On a successful skill check (again, beginning at 1 in 6, but with the understanding that this can be mitigated through good roleplaying) allows the bard to move a reaction check one or more categories up or down the reaction table.

Personally, I am inclined to choose the second, but include the other options for the purpose of discussion and allowing some flexibility for both Referees and players.

Battlefield Morale Bonus is normally emulated by a simple bonus to various combat rolls. Personally, I never liked this choice. It becomes necessary, however, if this ability is to have a positive effect upon PCs, who never have to check morale. In order to make the mechanism more interesting and unique, I would offer a negative effect — one per combat, a bard can force opposing monsters within 30 feet to make a morale check. This check would suffer a penalty for each subsequent improvement in bard ability. A morale check of '2' always succeeds and monsters with a morale of '12' are unaffected.

Any thoughts?


  1. I like the inherent simplicity of this iteration. I think distilling the abilities down to the basic 3 above is a great idea.

  2. Agreed, and similar to John@9&30K's distillation of the cleric. Bards should be about abilities not spells, it's just that balancing those abilities between overpowered and useless is tricky.

  3. The pre-requisite for becoming a bard seems like a very heavy price to pay in a game where you can expect that most characters will only be reaching (and I'm just guessing) about tenth level. A "dead" level (except for hit points) seems very debilitating. But I otherwise like the fact that anyone can become one and you keep the choice of advancing as a bard or advancing in your original class.

    Legend lore seems simple and solid.

    I prefer option three for Charm. Option one feels appropriate only if you're going to make the poofy-sleeved troubador. The Charm spell seems to be all about dominating minds, not moving hearts. Option two seems under-powered (but I'm a munchkin at heart, so such criticism from me should be taken with a grain of salt). I like option three because it shares the Legend Lore mechanics, plus it seems like a good spur for role-playing- you move their hearts and work with what you've got.

    I wouldn't have thought so, but I love the "negative" effect battlefield morale bonus. For better or worse, correctly or incorrectly, I've got very specific ideas about a strongly orthodox/catholic Averoigne campaign where players are (at least frequently) aligned with the Church. The moral complications of surrendering and fleeing foes seem like rich gaming ground. And what about the very rare instance (more than just the roll of 2) where the enemy is granted a vision and feels compelled to reform or convert?

    Great stuff. :-)

  4. Hey there, Long time lurker, first time caller =)

    I also like option three the best. However I would also allow the bard to perhaps increase the moral of hirelings and henchman in the same fashion.

    A thought just occurred to me perhaps you could use option three as some sort of reputation mechanic. Which would affect all sorts of reaction and morale checks, depending on how many and how far stories of the parties exploits.

    and by the way... best blog ever... that is all

  5. @migellito @Roger
    Thanks for the kind words...I was going for simplicity.

    A "dead" level (except for hit points) seems very debilitating.
    Personally, I don't see it as a "dead" level because you get bard abilities. I wanted the choice to be a bard difficult — they are not that common; however, if you have a suggestion for a different kind of trade-off to become a bard I'd love to hear it.

    Welcome! Personally, I would handle the positive morale boosts you mention via role playing rather than mechanically.

    and by the way... best blog ever... that is all
    Thems are high praise...I don't believe I deserve it...but thank you very much, I appreciate it.

  6. Oh, I seem to have misread. So at forth level, instead of advancing as a fighter, I gain fighter H.P., plus Legend Lore, Charm, and Battlefield Morale? I think that's plenty not dead. :-)