Thursday, August 20, 2015

In Defense of the 2nd-Edition Bard

Throughout the various gaming-oriented corners of the world wide web can be heard the cry... "Bards suck!"

Everywhere, in every forum, every G+ thread, every Facebook group you can expect to find more than a few people who share this opinion. In some places, the opinion is unanimous. There are also hundreds of memes touting the same opinion with such lines as "When the group says they need a Bard, I must assume they are joking".

YET, in every group I have ever had the pleasure to play with or DM, there is an insistence that there needs to be a Bard in the party. I myself refrain from such suggestions, but often end up playing the Bard.

Why the disparity? Why can so many people say that Bards suck, and yet so many gaming groups find them indispensable to the success of the party?

This post will look at one particular (perhaps the most classic and defining incarnation), and very much maligned, incarnation of the Bard and try to explain, through math, that Bards do not, in fact, suck.

The Arguments Against:
From looking at numerous sources of 2nd-edition Bard hatred the arguments against Bards boil down to three basic ideas:

  1. Bards are not as good at "X" as "Y" other class. They have lower THAC0 than a Fighter of the same level, fewer spells than a Wizard of the same level, or worse and fewer % skills than a Thief of the same level.
  2. Bards are not as good as good as a character with two classes. "What could be less useful and less powerful then a scaled down thief mixed with 20% of a wizard? Why not just play a multi-class Wizard/Thief?
  3. Bards are lame because they play harps and shit...
The core of the argument for the Bard class focuses on item #2, but let's go ahead and deal with #1 and #3, shall we.


Not as good at X?
The idea that the Bard is less good in certain areas than another class is fundamentally flawed. The bard is a generalist, while most other classes are specialists
  • Yes, the Fighter can wear slightly better armor than the Bard, and has a better chance to hit, but can he cast spells? No. Can he climb a sheer wall in his armor? Again, no.
  • Yes, the Wizard can cast more spells and higher level spells than the Bard, but can he do it while wearing armor and swinging a sword? No. Can he use Pick Pockets to steal his rival's spellbook? Also no.
  • Yes, the Thief has a broader array of skills and higher percentage chance of success compared to a Bard of equal level, but can he wear Chainmail? No. Use a Longbow? No. Cast magical spells without reading it off of a scroll? No.
Specialists are good at one thing, but only one thing. The Bard is a generalist, or as the Player's Handbook very clearly states, "a jack-of-all-trades but master of none". Of course he cannot hit as well as a Fighter, but he can augment his attacks with magic (haste, strengthtenser's transformation, etc.). Of course he cannot cast spells as well as a wizard, but he has more hit points and can do so while wearing armor, thus increasing his survivability. He is not as good at sneaking as a Thief, but he can cast invisibility so why would he need to be? 

Comparing the Bard to a specialist class is comparing apples to oranges. If you want to do a single thing well, play a specialist. If you want to do everything play a Bard.


Harps?
Okay...This argument is just flavor. It is strictly a role-playing choice, and perhaps a negative side effect of lame fantasy art. 

The Player's Handbook states "The music, poetry, and stories of the bard can also be inspirational..." Everyone seems to stop at "music" and skip over the two very important words after that "poetry and stories". Bards have skills in performance, but do not have to be musicians. Nothing says they have to be singing as they fight, or lugging a lute into the dungeon (and really, no sane musician would take their prized instrument into imminent danger).

Bards should be inspiring their allies with rousing speeches...
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
THIS IS A BARD!

Or with EPIC Viking poetry...
The giantess old in Ironwood sat,
In the east, and bore the brood of Fenrir;
Among these one in monster's guise
Was soon to steal the sun from the sky.

There feeds he full on the flesh of the dead,
And the home of the gods he reddens with gore;
Dark grows the sun, and in summer soon
Come mighty storms: would you know yet more?

Not by jangling on his lame-ass harp.

Seriously, your Bard should be in the front lines swinging his sword or axe and quoting some Shakespeare or the poetic eddas, not standing in the back looking like this...
Granted, that guy looks pretty bad-ass...

If your party's bard is lame, it's the Player's fault...not the class.



Why not just play a multi-class Mage/Thief:
Many people who look at the 2nd-Edition AD&D Bard class seem to think of it as a "thief with spells" or as previously quoted "a scaled down thief mixed with 20% of a wizard". They see the thief skills and the spellcasting and immediately think that it must be functionally equivalent Mage/Thief hybrid.

Ignoring that the Bard has four additional class abilities which may offset the loss four of the classic thief abilities, this comparison of Bard to Mage/Thief (hereafter referred to as MT), taken at face value does result in the Bard appearing to be underpowered (at least at lower levels):

Putting the two side-by-side at 1st-level, the two options (Bard and MT) have comparable hit points (the MT's averaging at 3 rather than the Bard's 3.5), similar saving throws, THAC0, and proficiencies, and the MT has a single 1st-level spell, while the Bard has none. Even if you assume that the Bard's influence reactions, inspiration, countersong, and legend lore abilities balance the loss of four core thief skills (not to mention Backstab and Thieves' Cant), the MT wins by virtue of having access to spells starting at 1st level.

The Bard will soon pull away from the MT in hit points and THAC0 by virtue of leveling slightly faster, The Bard will remain roughly 1 level ahead of the Thief part of the MT and 2 levels ahead of the Mage portion until around 11th level, where the Bard will begin to pull ahead of his Multi-classed counterpart even more in terms of their relative levels.

As you can see from the table below, after 1st level, by virtue of faster leveling, the Bard actually outstrips the Mage/Thief's spellcasting capability until level 6, at which point they maintain relative parity until level 10, where the MT gains a slight advantage until level 16, then struggles again to maintain parity until level 20, where the Bard has a clear advantage (with 2 more 6th-level spell-slots than a Mage/Thief of comparable XP total.

Experience Points Bard Level Bard Spells MT–Thief Level MT–Mage Level MT Spells
0 1 0 1 1 1
1250 2 1 1 1 1
2500 3 2 2 1 1
5000 4 2 1 3 2 2
10000 5 3 1 4 3 2 1
20000 6 3 2 5 4 3 2
40000 7 3 2 1 6 5 4 2 1
70000 8 3 3 1 6 5 4 2 1
110000 9 3 3 2 7 6 4 2 2
160000 10 3 3 2 1 8 7 4 3 2 1
220000 11 3 3 3 1 9 8 4 3 3 2
440000 12 3 3 3 2 11 9 4 3 3 2 1
660000 13 3 3 3 2 1 11 10 4 4 3 2 2
880000 14 3 3 3 3 1 12 11 4 4 4 3 3
1100000 15 3 3 3 3 2 12 11 4 4 4 3 3
1320000 16 4 3 3 3 2 1 13 11 4 4 4 3 3
1540000 17 4 4 3 3 3 1 13 12 4 4 4 4 4 1
1760000 18 4 4 4 3 3 2 14 12 4 4 4 4 4 1
1980000 19 4 4 4 4 3 2 14 12 4 4 4 4 4 1
2200000 20 4 4 4 4 4 3 15 12 4 4 4 4 4 1

Also, with the difference in experience by that 2,200,000 XP mark, the Bard will have an average of 56 hit points, compared to the MT's 41, will have a THAC0 2 points better, and 1 better in all saving throw categories (except save vs. Breath Weapon). So, strictly by the numbers, the Bard is the clear winner.


The Real Argument for the Bard:
But wait! There is one other thing about the bard that everyone seems to miss. The Player's Handbook states "Although he fights as a rogue, he can use any weapon. He can wear any armor up to, and including, chain mail." The Bard can use ANY weapon.

So, again...why do so many D&D players have their Bards wearing puffy shorts and fighting with rapiers? This is, again, strictly a flavor problem (or perhaps the fault of the limitations of the 3rd-edition Bard back-propagating). Your Bard should be charging into battle wearing chainmail and wielding a f*cking Greataxe, while quoting the best inspiring general speech you can find!

Using any weapon is an ability normally reserved to warriors, in fact the original D&D game made access to all weapons the defining characteristic of another class: "All magical weaponry is usable by fighters, and this in itself is a big advantage." So, the Bard not only has some thief skills, and spellcasting ability, but also has access to the primary defining ability of the Fighter class.

But...the other big advantage of the Fighter is his really good THAC0. Yes, but, again, apples to apples. The Bard is a generalist. What if, instead of being a Thief/Mage hybrid, the Bard is actually meant as the Human answer to the infamous Elf Fighter/Mage/Thief uber-multiclass?

Let's look at the Bard alongside the strangely popular Elven super-triple-class...

Again, at 1st-level, the FMT has everything over the Bard...more spells, more armor, more hit points, and better thief skills. But by virtue of the ridiculous experience requirements for the triple-class, the Bard soon pulls ahead. The Bard crushes the elven triple-class on spells and average hit points. The interesting part happens on the Fighter side...

The two characters start with the same THAC0, but the Bard gains a quick advantage and maintains that advantage until level 8, where the Fighter Multi-Class pulls ahead, until level 19 and 20, where the two are once again, exactly the same...

TOTAL XP Bard Level Bard Spells Bard THAC0 Bard AVG HP
0 1 0 20 3
1250 2 1 20 7
2500 3 2 19 10
5000 4 2 1 19 14
10000 5 3 1 18 17
20000 6 3 2 18 21
40000 7 3 2 1 17 24
70000 8 3 3 1 17 28
110000 9 3 3 2 16 31
160000 10 3 3 2 1 16 35
220000 11 3 3 3 1 15 37
440000 12 3 3 3 2 15 39
660000 13 3 3 3 2 1 14 41
880000 14 3 3 3 3 1 14 43
1100000 15 3 3 3 3 2 13 45
1320000 16 4 3 3 3 2 1 13 47
1540000 17 4 4 3 3 3 1 12 49
1760000 18 4 4 4 3 3 2 12 51
1980000 19 4 4 4 4 3 2 11 53
2200000 20 4 4 4 4 4 3 11 55

XP Per Class FMT-Fighter FMT-Thief FMT-Mage FMT Spells FMT THAC0 FMT AVG HP
0 1 1 1 1 20 4
417 1 1 1 1 20 4
833 1 1 1 1 20 4
1667 1 2 1 1 20 5
3333 2 3 2 2 19 9
6667 3 4 3 2 1 18 13
13333 4 5 4 3 2 17 17
23333 5 6 5 4 2 1 16 21
36667 6 6 5 4 2 1 15 23
53333 6 7 6 4 2 2 15 25
73333 7 8 7 4 3 2 1 14 29
146667 8 9 9 4 3 3 2 1 13 34
220000 8 11 9 4 3 3 2 1 13 37
293333 9 11 10 4 4 3 2 2 12 39
366667 9 11 10 4 4 3 2 2 12 39
440000 9 12 11 4 4 4 3 3 12 42
513333 10 12 11 4 4 4 3 3 11 43
586667 10 12 11 4 4 4 3 3 11 43
660000 10 13 11 4 4 4 3 3 11 45
733333 10 13 11 4 4 4 3 3 11 45

So...comparing Apples to Apples, the Bard matches the multi-class Mage/Thief for spellcasting capability AND matches the multi-class Fighter/Mage/Thief for weapon selection and THAC0.

Also, interestingly, the level limits for the Elf would cause them to top out only slightly past the point where the Bard does (12th-level Fighter, 12th-level Thief, 15th-level Mage), but would not reach that limit until a lofty 5,625,000 experience points.

Thus, the 2nd-edition Bard is clearly Humanity's answer to the ability of the various Demihumans to multi-class, and it is a very effective answer indeed.

If your Bard sucks...IT'S YOUR OWN DAMNED FAULT!


Oh...and they are the only class that has any chance to identify your magic items without spending 100gp per item...