Unearthed Mundana: Whyfor the Bard

Unearthed Mundana: Whyfor the Bard

This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Thirty on 19th August 2020.

Lennon: So we’ve had a complaint from HR-
Ryu: Look, nobody else is good at hiding things around here, but obviously *I* can’t hide the mop from KayDee, so-
Lennon: No, no, it’s not about that.
Ostron: I only lost one of the research beholders the other day, and I swear it’ll be coming back to this plane in the next 24 to 96 hours-
Lennon: Okay, I want to ask several questions but at the same time I’m not sure I want the answers so I’m just going to leave that one alone. No, they’re complaining about this hole in the org chart.
Ostron: I told it the moisturizer was corrosive-
Lennon: All right, I need you to just stop talking about…anything you’ve been doing lately. By “hole” I meant the position isn’t filled.
Ryu: We already interviewed for the Barbarian position, they weren’t a good fit.
Lennon: Right letter, wrong job. We don’t have a Bard on staff.
Ostron: Do we need one? I mean, they seem kind of…superfluous.
Ryu: Yeah, I mean the whole premise behind them is silly. Who’s sitting there on a guitar while people are shooting arrows?
Lennon: Okay, clearly there’s some reeducation needed here. Where’s that beholder?
Ostron: I told you, if you wait until-
Lennon: No, no, I mean the one from the Annex.
Libby: Book!
Lennon: Thank you. Okay all of you, gather round.

While a lot of D&D players enjoy playing or building bard-class characters and the Killer DM can give you a list of reasons why DMs may find them almost too effective at some things, the biggest problem almost everyone has with the class is the concept.

The reality is that it’s hard to go into most pop culture fantasy and find a bard character that fits with the way it’s described in D&D, particularly in older editions when the bard’s magic was often literally tied to their music. Most people are aware of the historical civilian role of bards or minstrels or whatever label you want to give them; in cultures and times when many people couldn’t read or write or when books and scrolls were horribly expensive, bards were the main way that stories and news would travel around. And nearly every modern movie or TV show is an example of how stories are better with musical accompaniment, even if the characters aren’t actually singing as part of the tale.

And all of that is really good for civilian life but any fictional examples of bards in actual combat tend to highlight what a bad idea it is. The scholarly or creative characters in adventuring parties are usually a liability more than a help. In the Lord of the Rings, it’s been argued that Sam, Pippin, or Merry could represent bard characters, and it isn’t until late in the trilogy that they’re really contributing directly while in the middle of a battle. More recently the Netflix Witcher series has the character Jaskier, who is almost the embodiment of the stereotypical D&D bard, minus the magic. Again, nearly every conflict or tense situation he’s around either sees him sitting on the sidelines or becoming a distraction the actual fighting characters need to work around. Basically these all reinforce that the bard is the person you take along to talk to real people and smooth over the fact that a bunch of antisocial murderhobos just walked into town, but the actual fighting is not their forte.

So if all of that is true, where did the idea of bards in combat even come from? Well, the reality is that if you go to actual historical records, there were musicians and bards around combat all the time, and a lot of them were doing pretty much the exact same things that the bards in D&D do.

The first and most important job ancient bards had in battle was communication. Now absent an amplifier that goes up to 11, most guitars don’t have the kind of decibel range you need in the middle of a screaming fight, but things like horns, wooden flutes, and drums can carry sound amazingly well. When commanders in battle didn’t have access to wireless radio which, let’s face it, is still most of human history, it was the job of the guy with the bugle to let troops know whether to advance, retreat, regroup, or show up if they were the reinforcements.

Beyond communication on one’s own side, There were even examples of armies using things like drums to actually communicate back and forth, so each side could send messages without engaging in the delicate dance of offering parley and wondering if the messenger or signaler will end up shot.

The other job the on-battlefield instrumentalists had was, in D&D terms, buffing and debuffing. Again, most people who’ve gotten really invested in a movie will attest to how effective a song can be to modify emotions. Most Marvel MCU movies have a character’s theme swell just before their final triumph over the big bad. Responses vary depending on people’s dispositions, but when the Imperial March from Star Wars starts playing most people have some sort of emotional reaction. And even 50 years after it debuted, the quickest way to clear the water at a beach (and probably get arrested) is to start blasting the low, ominous minor second of the Jaws theme.

Hollywood producers know how effectively music and songs play on people’s emotions, and commanders on battlefields knew it as well. One of the primary duties of army bands from Rome up through to the American Civil War was to encourage both troops and civilians about the success of their army in upcoming fights by leading them in a rousing song or performing an upbeat, bolstering melody.

The opposite is also true. There are historical records from ancient Rome describing the Germanic tribes using discordant chants as forms of intimidation just before battles. Despite losing battles, the chants did their job well enough that the Roman armies modified and started using them themselves to intimidate their enemies. Ironically, music doesn’t seem to have been used during fights in medieval Europe. That is until after the crusades when Europeans encountered their middle-eastern opponents, who managed to create such a volume of noise with their instruments and voices that it sewed confusion in the ranks of the fighters from Europe.

Also, consider the bagpipe. For many people even accomplished and well performed songs on a bagpipe sound a little off-putting. That may be because that was the original intent. Think of how you’d feel if you’re an ancient warrior trudging up and down the peaks and valleys of the Scottish Highlands. You’re wet and cold and probably a little lost in the fog because it’s Scotland and that’s your only option for weather unless you just want torrential rain. Then you hear someone playing a bagpipe, and they aren’t playing Amazing Grace; they’re screeching out some violent, aggressive melody in a minor key. When five of their friends join in it sounds like a choir from an alien hell just started tuning up, and you have no idea where they are because the noise is bouncing all around the trees and hills. Then arrows and war cries start coming out of the mist. It’s enough to make you drop your deep fried Mars Bar. And I’m not even gonna get started on the whole “you know what this egg needs? Meat and batter!” For crying out loud, Scotland, eat a vegetable …

Ostron (breaking character): … you done?
Lennon: For now.

If you look, all of that flavor of ancient musicians feeds into how the bards in D&D are designed. You could argue some of it is incidental, but remember all the D&D designers started in historical wargaming, so you can bet at least some of them would have been aware of the roles musicians played in war.

In earlier editions when the spell lists were more restrictive, up to 5th edition, the bard’s abilities are in line with their historical roles. Traveling bards and minstrels had to be good at a lot of things: storytelling, singing, negotiation, persuasion, and sometimes even diplomacy; when a bunch of people are arguing about something, the bard that just walked into town two days ago is probably the most objective 3rd party you’re going to find. All of that translates into the extra skill proficiencies the bards have. Many of their spells centered around summoning allies to the battlefield, sewing confusion in the enemy, and directing allies either to take specific actions or improve their performance. As we mentioned, all of those were actual things bards did with their music, it’s just that adding magic in means it can be more targeted and lets the bard do it with instruments that aren’t necessarily loud enough on their own to overcome the din of battle, like a glockenspiel.

Ah but what about the healing, you ask? Clearly that’s just a bone they threw to the bard class to make it practically useful on the battlefield when fighting undead or things that can’t be charmed or frightened, isn’t it?

Not actually true, as it turns out. In the American civil war in particular, military musicians were trained as battlefield medics. If the troops didn’t need encouragement and no orders had to be given via bugle, the horn players were down in the mud dragging wounded back from the front lines and doing emergency first aid. In fact the musicians of the civil war eventually became part of the first US Army ambulance corps.

Bards in D&D nowadays have a lot more versatility and several of them can be built up to be mid-line combat characters on their own depending on feat and bardic college choices, but in reality, the idea of a bard or musician going down into the battlefield with nothing but their wits and their instrument in hand is not as outrageous as many people think. 

Ryu: All right, so I may have made some incorrect assumptions.
Ostron: Lennon, you went out of your way to single out bagpipes in that, and then got on a food rant… I understand national pride and all but you’re not even Scottish.
Lennon: Ah, right, well, I’ve been doing a bit of research lately — Brexit and all that, maybe hopping over the border, and it’s possible as a result I may have done some…preliminary recruitment work before I brought this up to you guys. His name’s Angus, and he’ll fill the role. I’ll be supporting on the flute. Angus, my man, let’s show ‘em what we got. A 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4 …
(The most horrific bagpipe music ensues, filling the area with a crippling cacophony)
Ryu: Oh seriously? No, I cannot deal with this right now. I’m going to go shut myself in the scrying pool room.
Ostron: Sound carries better over water.
Ryu: Not if I stick my head in it.
Ostron: I may as well join you; we’ve got some listener messages to deal with anyway.