So why is it that many games just don’t get what bards can be? Let’s have a look at the historical roots of the Bard, both in real life cultures and in gaming cultures.
First, ancient cultures around the world used chants and songs as a way to promote community, change and uplift moods, drive away bad spirits, and bring healing. This was part of being a Shaman, but also part of ordinary life for everyone. They used drums, various wind instruments, and stringed instruments, made from natural materials.
In the Celtic Tradition, the Bard had three main tasks. To rouse people to battle; to make even the most hardened warrior cry; and to soothe people to sleep. They were a specific rank and training of Druid class in Celtic society, honored as negotiators and storytellers, keepers of lore. At the word of a Bard, battle would end, or begin. Historically they did not fight, themselves, but oversaw the fighting of others. They were part of the religious elite. Their words and their songs, had power.
As the Druid tradition was stamped out by invading Christians, the songs and lore were lost save for the songs of the people, sung in taverns and homes across the land. The Bard was now merely a minstrel or troubadour, a traveler bringing news along with entertainment for a night’s lodging, or gaining entry to a court or even a sponsorship by great talent for diplomacy and music – plus good looks and seduction skills.
Troubadours who wished for sponsorship had to act like nobility, enough to not be out of place at court. They would not stoop to lowly activities such as tavern brawling, injuries could ruin their career forever.
Music remained part of religion however, in songs and chants of monks and clergy. The secular music was seen as base, impure.
Game lore such as The Elder Scrolls universe has the Bard as a type of Assassin, a rogue who gains entry to noble presence by talent and diplomacy, then either spies or kills someone with the use of poison or dagger. They take inspiration for the Bard from the Troubadour era of music. In gameplay, the Bard in Oblivion has buffs to help the party fight better, and uses either daggers or bow for more personal combat based in Rogue abilities.
In the history of Dungeons and Dragons, again the Bard draws from the Troubadour root, in this case from the Tavern musician who has never seen the inside of a court but wishes he was high class enough to do so. He’s a rougher fellow, often not at all above brawling, with a bit of warrior and a bit of rogue thrown in for good measure. Hard drinking, hard playing, and hardly fighting. He can sing, wench, and steal your purse to pay for his companions to stay in better quality sheets – either legitimately through his songs or by pickpocketing. But the memory of Troubadour history haunts the D&D Bard as he’s made the butt of jokes for playing lute and seeming somewhat poncy, especially if he only supports the party by singing rather than fighting. Nobody cares about the Bard. Right?
That’s a long way to drop from being an honored figure of religious ceremony, wearing a gold torc to symbolize that your standing is only equal with that of the highest chieftains in the land, advisor to kings, with the power to walk on a battlefield and STOP THE WAR by a single word!
So here’s the problem with Bards in gaming. Music in the real world is a physical action. It’s enjoyable. Most other classes’ fighting styles have an equivalent physicality. When you watch a fighter slash at things with a sword or axe, you can feel it. When a mage casts magic, it’s done with a staff or wand, again as a physical action. The animations, if done well, have a weight and depth of reality to them.
The Bard plinks at a lute. Lalala. Look at me playing lute on a battlefield, lalala!
There’s no illusion of physicality and it’s rather silly overall.
So, there are two types of Bard in gaming. There’s the fighter Bard, who splashes deeper into real combat, based on street fighting and tavern brawling, then there’s the “useless plinker” Bard who only supports the party with buffs but can’t fight. Or, well, do much of anything. If it can’t be mesmerized by song, the Bard has no other tricks. If facing a boss, the plinker is a helpless cliche about to be burned to a crisp by the Dragon, who is conveniently immune to the Bard’s only ability: song. Only a REAL fighter can save them, either by might or by magic.
The music part of Shamanism is reduced by games, and only the Shapeshifted warrior remains. Yet that physical tradition of spirit-transformed melee combat is satisfying to play.
Druids speak with faeries and nature spirits, and those aid them to fight. Again, physical combat and sometimes spells cast at a range, as a hybrid type of playstyle.
Bards, plink. Lalala.
My vision of what a Bard could be in games, is based in part on a book called “The Soprano Sorceress” by L.E. Modesitt, part of a series called The Spellsong Cycle. In it, a music teacher is tossed into a fantasy world where songs have power. I’ve always felt that music has a real magic to it. Some games in the sci-fi genre use sonic death boom weapons, but that power is rarely given to Bards in games where fantasy Shamans turn into bears and fight with greater endurance and strength purely from magic.
What if you took that “useless plinker” and made it a real Mage? The playstyle of a plinker is already closer to that of a caster – they stand away from the thick of battle and play an instrument instead of using a real weapon such as sword or dagger. Real nukes and real heals would be possible, and would have that illusory feeling of physicality like the rest of the Mage class, as they use a focus crystal for singing, or an instrument glowing with magic that congeals then goes BOOM! to nuke an opponent as they cast a spell of song.
Let’s honour an older tradition of Bard in newer generations of games. Recognize that the Bard has a caster type in basic abilities, and that if expanded that could be a wonderful, powerful and FUN playstyle. Stop relegating the Bard to uselessness as a failed and cowardly Rogue going lalala on the field of war! Bards are Mages of Song.
Music is a type of magic, and that magic has not been fully expressed in games.