Tales from the Gazebo – Mile Wide, Inch Deep; Bards, Part 1

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Mile Wide, Inch Deep… Bards, Part 1
By Cape Rust

Of all of the core classes presented in fantasy games, I think I have seen and heard the most debate about bards. They are polarizing; people seem to love them or hate them and I think it is as much about the class as it is about the folks who tend to play them. I have heard the bard called everything from overpowered to useless, thus the mile wide and inch deep statement. If you are a fan or not, bards are part of the role playing landscape and for this part of the CLASSics series, I hope not to convert bard haters, but to make them easier for the hostile GM to deal with. If you love bards, then I hope there will be at least a few useful nuggets in this steaming pile of information.

I will start out by discussing the bards role history and in a party and what kind of adventuring parties they work best in. Then as I am apt to do, I will talk about different types of bards and how you as a GM should handle them. I will finish by talking about performances, performance styles, role playing performances and the magic of music. I would ask that if you are a person who hates bards to at least read this series, it might not make you change your mind, but at least it will possibly make dealing with bard PCs a little easier.

Historically, bards have actually had a huge impact on the societies they inhabit. I’ll start by taking a look at the Elvis of all bards, that guy who they actually call “The Bard.” William Shakespeare is arguably one of the best known bards in history. I’m not going to get into the “did he or did he not write his plays” argument, but when folks say “The Bard” people know who it is. As a fantasy bard, Shakespeare might not have been that useful; after all he couldn’t cast rope trick or color spray, but his form and function should be noted. Shakespeare wrote plays that were political and satirical. His globe theater gave the unwashed masses the chance to see performances that were otherwise inaccessible and damn is he quotable. Shakespeare continued the oral tradition that was perfected by the tribes of yore. To put it in modern day laymen’s terms, Shakespeare was a superstar, in a day and age where fame was hard won.

Not all bards in history were as famous or had such a great impact on the world around them, but their role has been just as important in their respective societies. A few weeks ago I mentioned the bardbarian…. the savage bard… the skald. In ancient societies where the oral tradition ruled supreme, the bard was much more than an entertainer; the bard was a historian. Histories lived on through the words and tales of these charismatic folks. When tales around the fire were the only source of non-physical activity, these primitive bards were TV, books and the internet; the living breathing human equivalent of modern day cat videos. See haters, even bards can be cool if you view them from a different angle.

These tale spinners and song singers were more valuable to their tribes in their roles than they were as hunters or gatherers. However, I have a feeling most of them did both storytelling and hunting or gathering. Tales and songs were not the only types of performances in their bags of tricks (mundane not magical), they might have been painters or dances, though I doubt the lambada was well-known back then. As culture developed so did the variations in performance types, and the skill sets of bards widened while their depth of that knowledge shrank.

As time marched forward the role of the bard changed and slowly defined how we look at them today. In most fantasy systems I have encountered, the bard is viewed in a more Eurocentric manor, but depending on how Bards are played in world, there are no cultural limits. Next week I will open with what types of parties a bard works best in and start describing some different types of bards.

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