Tales from the Gazebo – Mile Wide, Inch Deep: Bards, Part 5

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Mile Wide, Inch Deep: Bards, Part 5
By Cape Rust

Wow, it has only taken me 5 weeks to finish my discussion of the beloved/dreaded bard. I’m going to wrap this series up with a discussion of performances, role-playing performances and the magic of music. For all of the areas that bards are an inch deep, performances are a major exception. Bards perform, and as a GM you have to remember this. Depending on the system, some bards have the ability to make the people around them better, faster and even braver. You have to let your players’ bards earn their keep by performing. Even if the system you are in doesn’t allow your bard PCs to inspire their fellow party members, they can still perform to incite or elicit emotions or riots, or even perform to get room and board for the party. While room and board might seem like a small thing, the costs add up, especially with a low level or inexperienced party.

If you have a player who is musically inclined, writes poetry or engages in any type of performance art, encourage them to bring their skills to the table. Have them write and recite a poem at the table for their bard to role play it out. Give them something cool for their efforts. If you have a player that can play an instrument, have them bring it to one session and play a song when their bard performs; it doesn’t matter if they just play a modern song, it is a great diversion and is a small way to make that bard feel more alive and real. Now, if the person playing the bard has no talent (like me), there are two other ways to handle the performances. The first is a straight up roll, boring yes, but gaming is suppose to be fun, and how fun is it for someone who has stage fright to have to perform in front of their own gaming group? The happy medium I normally use with my players is to have them describe the song they are singing or at least talk about the subject matter of their poems or art. If their explanation and reasoning are good, I give them a bonus. Here is an example: the party has entered a village under martial law and the local mayor is an evil bastard. The bard arranges to perform at the local tavern. The player rolls his perform check and does well. I then ask, ‘what are you going to sing about? ‘ If the player says he is going to sing a song about the overthrow of a power hungry oppressor then bonus points! It isn’t hard. The opposite of that is best shown in Mel Brooks History of the World when Comicus plays Caesars Palace and bombs with corrupt politician and fat jokes. Minus points, and a tavern brawl that is sure to bring the town watch into play.

I mentioned several types of performances and I think your bard’s medium says quite a bit about them. If your bard plays an instrument, the instrument choice is a direct reflection of the type of bard your player wants them to be. I often see strong bards playing drums, while dexterous bards tend to play harps. The lute is kind of the middle class instrument for bards, but it is classic, so don’t overlook it. If your player is playing a sub-race and that race has a predisposition for certain instruments and they decide to play one, give them a bonus. After all, why would elves have long slender fingers if they weren’t suppose to play the harp? Some mediums play out better than others during normal game play. Singing, dancing and oratory are all performances that are portable and useful in the “field” for your players.  Try to encourage them to choose at least one performance style that can be used anywhere the party might go. Versatility is a hallmark of the bard; make sure your players have the ability to show their stuff. Some performance styles I have seen players use really well include drawing, comedy and interpretive dance. Sounds strange but if you think about it, they are all portable, can be done with limited resources and open doors for some really interesting role playing situations.

Finally let’s talk about the magic of music, actually the magic of performance. In most systems, bards have the ability to cast spells or their performances have the chance of having a supernatural effect on their audience. If you stop to think about it, art, music and even acting can almost have the effects in the real world. Think about that song that makes you run faster or that movie that makes you cry no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Those real world reactions are not much different than some of the reactions bards produce in the game world. As a GM, use your real world knowledge of how you react to a great movie, a good book or that one song to describe the effect the PC’s bard is having on their audience. This is a simple way to make the game feel that much more real for everyone involved.

I could spend months on the bard, but I know everyone reading these articles gets the idea. As a GM, you’re going to have players who want to play bards and no matter how you feel about them, you have to plan for their inclusion into normal party activities. Most other character classes have a very defined role. The bard can fill every role, just not well, so when factoring the bard into your planning, they defiantly represent the X factor. For our next CLASSic, I’m going to cover the Ranger.

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