Music, laughter, wine, women (or men!), and a bit of magic; lifting spirits throughout the lands with a poem or a song -- such is the life of a Bard.
The Bard is a common fantasy archetype. While the historical minstrels and skalds on which the Bard is based had no real magical ability, a Bard in fantasy worlds where the arcane arts are common (or at least known) usually has some magical tricks up his sleeve. The Bard's magic is different, though. Instead of being studied and memorized as a bunch of arcane symbols, his magic is drawn out through his performances.
Bards aren't just about music and magic, though. The true Bard (as opposed to a simple musician) is a traveler. The world is his stage, and he is rarely content to stay in one place for long. Traveling gives him more material for his songs or poetry, as well as a wider audience for his work. The more places he visits, the broader the range of experiences he can draw on, and his performances are all the better for it.
While the idea of an adventurous musician is common, specific historical examples are not easily found. The most well-known "historical" minstrel is probably Alan-A-Dale, one of Robin Hood's Merry Men.
Bards are also hard to find in the early fantasy literature. Tolkein's work, from which many contemporary fantasy archetypes are drawn, contains little to support the Bard archetype. Note that the character Bard, from The Hobbit, was an archer and leader and has very little to do with the concept of a wandering minstrel. In Middle-Earth, song and poetry are very common, especially among the Dwarves and Elves, but specialists, it seems, are not.
The Bard in Dungeons and Dragons
The Bard is one of the least-played character classes in Dungeons and Dragons, although that has evened out significantly in the latest edition. In AD&D First Edition, I'm told, a character who wished to become a Bard had to take levels in three other classes first -- sort of like a Third Edition prestige class.
In AD&D Second Edition, the Bard became one of the base classes. Together with the Thief, the Bard was a member of the Rogue group. Rogues used d6s for hit points and had a good balance between weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. While the Thief could backstab and had tons of special Thief skills, the Bard had a few of the Thief skills and the ability to cast low- to mid-level arcane spells like a Wizard. Only Humans and Half-Elves could be Bards.
Now we have D&D Third Edition, and the Bard is still a base class. It is a unique class, unlike any of the others. The Bard retains much of the outward trappings from the Second Edition version but is much more polished and has unique abilities to call its own. The Third Edition Bard is seen by some as a underpowered amalgamation, a class that can do a lot of things, none of them well. Actually, though, this fits the archetype of a wanderer who has picked up a lot of tricks along the road.
In Third Edition the Bard still uses a d6 for hit points, like the Rogue. The Bard has the 'medium' base attack bonus progression, like the Rogue, Cleric, Druid, and Monk. The Bard has a 'low' Fortitude save progression and a 'high' progression for Reflex and Will saves (the only class in the game with this combination). He has proficiency only in simple weapons, plus one additional martial weapon (such as rapier or longsword) chosen from a small list. He also has proficiency in light and medium armors.
The Bard has the largest class skill list of any base class, although he only gets four skill points per level (plus his Intelligence modifier, of course). Since one of those points is almost always used for a rank in Perform, the Bard must be very selective when choosing skills from his extensive list. A common house rule grants the Bard an extra two skill points per level.
The Bard's spellcasting abilities (which are tied to his Charisma, like the Sorcerer) are like no other class's. The "full" casters (Wizard, Sorcerer, Cleric, and Druid) get 9 levels of spells, with their caster level equal to their class level. The "half" casters (Paladin and Ranger) get only 4 levels of spells, with their caster level equal to half their class level. The Bard, though, is technically a "full" caster (caster level = class level), but gets only 6 levels of spells. So when a Wizard is getting her powerful ninth-level spells, the Bard is only just getting his sixth-level spells. Fortunately, the Bard's full caster level means that his spells are just as effective as the Wizard's, once he finally gets them; the Wizard just has other, better spells as well.
Casting a spell for a Bard is a little unusual. First, he, like the Sorcerer, does not need to prepare his spells ahead of time. He needs only fifteen minutes of practice at the beginning of the day to refresh his mind, after which he can cast any spell he knows at any time (subject to spells-per-day limits, of course). However, also like the Sorcerer, he has a limited list of spells he knows (determined by level) -- it's only a subset of the Bard class spell list. Finally, because a Bard's magic comes from his performances, all of his spells have a verbal component, even if none is specified in the spell description. He also can never use the Silent Spell metamagic feat, for the same reason.
The Bard has two special abilities. Bardic Music is usable once per day per class level and allows the Bard to create minor magical effects via music, poetics, or oratory. The Bard can Inspire Courage in his allies, Fascinate a creature, Inspire Competence in an ally, implant a Suggestion in a Fascinated creature, and Inspire Greatness in his allies.
Bardic Knowledge is a representation of the little tidbits of information a Bard collects during his journeys. High-level Bards often know very obscure facts about some very obscure people and items. A successful Bardic Knowledge check (which includes the Bard's Intelligence modifier and his level) means the Bard knows some bit of information about a famous person, place, or object.
The Third-Edition Bard is very different from the other classes, which gives it a wonderful flavor and allows it to assume many different roles, depending on the needs of a specific adventuring party. The Bard can be back-up arcane caster (with utility spells like dimension door and dispel magic that he can cast just as well as a Wizard can, and lots of useful enchantment and illusion spells). The Bard can be back-up healer (Bard is the only arcane class with access to healing spells). The Bard can go to the front lines and, unlike a Wizard or Sorcerer, actually take and deal out some damage. And the Bard's extensive skillset means he can customize his abilities for magic, stealth, knowledge, crafting, or almost anything else.
Unfortunately, the Bard's flexibility and broad set of abilities have some disadvantages. It is very hard, for example, to create a prestige class well-suited to the Bard. Any prestige class that grants +1 arcane caster level has to be balanced so that a Wizard or a Sorcerer can take it without getting improved combat abilities, because that would make them too powerful. So if the Bard wants to take a prestige class, he usually has to give up either his combat ability or his spellcasting ability, neither of which works well without the other.
The Bard can also run into trouble because there is no one area (except, of course, his art) in which he excels. If the rest of the party is well-rounded, the Bard is relegated to a supporting role. The Bard is very good at this role, but it doesn't give him much of a chance at the spotlight.
The iconic Third-Edition Bard is Devis, a male Half-Elf.
It is hoped by many D&D players that the upcoming "3.5" revised edition -- which is known to contain changes to the Bard and Ranger classes, among others -- will "fix" the Bard. What form this fix will or should take is a matter of much debate, debate that will probably not be resolved even after the new books are released in July.
The Bard in EverQuest
Bards in EverQuest are clearly based on the standard D&D-style Bard, but Verant put their own "twist" on the class that makes it truly unique and fun to play.
The classes in EverQuest are usually broken down into four unofficial categories:
- Melee (Warrior, Monk, Rogue)
- Intelligence casters (Wizard, Necromancer, Enchanter, Magician)
- Wisdom casters (Cleric, Druid, Shaman)
- Hybrids (Paladin, Ranger, Beastlord, Shadowknight, Bard)
The Hybrids are called that because they combine abilities of two other classes. Paladins are Cleric/Warriors, Rangers are Druid/Warriors, Shadowknights are Necromancer/Warriors, and Beastlords are (sort of) Monk/Shamans. Bards, on the other hand, don't have any obvious "parent" classes. They're plate-wearing, dual-wielding, spell-casters with some roguish abilities.
Okay, perhaps one could say that the Bard is a hybrid of Rogue and Enchanter that just happens to be able to wear plate mail. The Bard's spellcasting, though, is completely unlike any other class's, and that's what sets the Bard apart and makes it unique.
The Bard doesn't cast spells so much as she performs them. They're even called "songs" in-game, although they use the same spellbook mechanics as other class's spells do. While spells use mana, a spellcaster's most precious resource, Bard songs do not; the trade-off is that a song's effects only last a short period of time (usually nine seconds). The Bard, though, can choose to continue performing the song; the duration is thus extended to about nine seconds after she stops performing.
This allows the Bard to maintain a song effect indefinitely. While performing, the song's effects refresh themselves every three seconds (an interval known as a "pulse" or a "tick"). The nine-second duration arises because most songs will pulse three times for every time the Bard performs one of them. It takes one full pulse for the Bard to begin performing a song.
All this has an interesting side effect. Say the Bard begins performing a song. It takes one pulse (three seconds) for the song to come into effect (essentially, a three-second casting time). The Bard can then immediately stop performing, and the song's effects will keep going, automatically, for two additional pulses. That means the Bard can start performing another song while the first continues... and then a third one. Since each song takes three seconds to get started, the Bard can perform up to three songs -- simultaneously! -- without any of them dropping. This technique, dubbed "twisting" by Bards, takes some practice on the part of the player, but it is required for getting the most out of the Bard's songs.
Twisting is a bit hard on the player's fingers, but it allows the Bard to be very flexible during combat. If the tide of a battle starts to turn (either for good or ill), the Bard can quickly adjust the selection of songs she's twisting. The Bard is also free to twist in a fourth or even fifth song from time to time, at the expense of letting the others drop for three seconds or so.
The Bard's song selection is wide-ranging, but the vast majority are "group-only" songs. These are area-effect songs that only affect members of the Bard's group. Therefore, the Bard is most effective within a group -- the larger the better (because affecting six groupmates with a song is as easy as affecting one, but the total effect is sextupled). A solo Bard is usually reduced to "kiting" to avoid getting pounded upon, because her songs are not designed for solo combat.
Each song has a particular performance style associated with it -- Singing, Percussion, Stringed, Wind, or Brass. Singing songs never use an instrument. Most of the other songs can be sung without accompaniment, but using an instrument provides a significant boost to the song's effects. A few songs require an instrument and can never be performed without one.
Most spellcasting classes in EverQuest gain access to a new bunch of spells every five levels or so. Not so the Bard. The Bard gets at least one new song every level (sometimes two, because the developers continue to add new songs). This is fine because most songs get better as the Bard gets higher in level, so "upgrades" to existing songs are rarely necessary. For example, the most famous Bard song, Selo's Accelerando, starts out as granting a minor speed boost at fifth level. By 50th level (when the Bard gets a song that combines speed with levitation and invisibility), the speed boost has grown such that no other character can outrun the Bard -- with just a lowly fifth-level song.
The Bard in EverQuest is a flexible class that can fill a number of roles in a party, depending on what's needed. Her dual-wielding means she can wade to the front of the party, while continuing to sing her songs, and still deal out damage to her foes. She can also stay back from the fray and use her instruments to boost her healing and buffing songs. She also has songs to ensnare creatures running away, charm a foe when the opposition becomes overwhelming, or even damage several opponents at a time with magical energy. It all depends on the other members of the party, and the wise Bard adjusts her song selection accordingly.
Her utility in groups makes the Bard a very fun class to play, since grouping is emphasized in EverQuest. While finding a group can be difficult, the rewards are great. The Bard's speed and invisibility songs (and her rogue skills) make her an excellent explorer, even solo, as she can usually outrun any trouble she can't sneak past. She also has some useful songs to do such things as locating corpses and identifying strange objects.
The Bard's unique spellcasting system is a real innovation from Verant, and it really captures the feel of a character whose magic comes from her music.