Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Bard's a Cheater!

One of the things (and one of the things I strongly agree with, by the way) that the OSR touts is the notion of player skill. We've gotten too far away from player skill in the modern incarnations of D&D -- you don't have to be skilled to play a character, you simply have to say what you want them to do and they will succeed at it or not depending on how skilled the player was who built that particular character. The onus of the game has shifted to the character-building process.

That's something the OSR hates. It removes player agency, weakens player control, and transforms the player's in-world proxy into a marionette being controlled with limp elastic bands. What defense can there be, then, for the AD&D 2e rogue classes? Both the thief and the bard exhibit strong notes of character-skill trumping player-skill. Take, for example, the bard's ability to influence the reaction of crowds.

That, according to the strict rubric of player power, should be determined by the things a player makes their character say to the crowd, no? In the world without skills or character-abilities that trump player's own abilities that would be true. Does that limit people with some real-world charisma to playing bards? Well, maybe so, but someone who can't muster up a little speech for the king's court ingame has no business playing a bard anyway since they probably can't roleplay any other aspect correctly.

But let's look closely at the power-as-written and parse it. Is it really as anti-OSR as it seems?

The bard can also influence reactions of groups of NPCs. When performing before a group that is not attacking (and not intending to attack in just seconds), the bard can try to alter the mood of the listeners. He can try to soften their mood or make it uglier. The method can be whatever is most suitable to the situation at the moment -- a fiery speech, collection of jokes, a sad tale, a fine tune played on a fiddle, a haunting lute melody, or a heroic song from the old homeland. Everyone in the group listening must roll a saving throw vs. paralyzation (if the crowd is large, make saving throws for groups of people using average hit dice). The die roll is modified by -1 for every three experience levels of the bard (round fractions down). If the saving throw fails, the group's reaction can be shifted one level (see the Reactions section in theDMG), toward either the friendly or hostile end of the scale, at the player's option. Those who make a successful saving throw have their reaction shifted one level toward the opposite end of the scale.

This raises two questions right off the bat. Number one, why reduce a roleplaying opportunity to a simple die-roll and number two, why can't any other character do this? No other class has the power to influence reactions in this way: they all have to rely on convincing the DM that their characters are charismatic and then following through by behaving in a charismatic manner. Only the bard can simply be assumed to carry the charisma to reduce this roleplaying opportunity to a simple dice roll.

One reason, right off the bat, is that bards are not other characters. Just because you can play a lute doesn't mean you know how to move public opinion. We're talking about masterful playwrights who study magic here, not just any singer off the street. Does that seem to hold water? (The answer is no: why can't someone who is not a bard know how to influence the reactions of crowds? Most NPC jongleurs wouldn't have the bard class!)

So what are we talking about, really? This is a shorthand for a roleplaying abbreviation which is both a big no-no in the OSR and the Forge communities (as I understand it). Why the hell does it exist?

I don't know. But I do know how I've dealt with it over the years. As a house rule, I have said that this makes it easier for the bard, when compared with other classes, to influence reactions. I have also said, always, since the beginning of time, since the first day I played D&D, that I will never allow dice to overtake the function of RP. Thus, if someone wants to influence reactions, I will ask what they do and, unless it's play a piece of music I will want to know what they say.

This can influence the die-roll, adding modifiers based on how good I thought it was. Does it penalize people who are socially inept? Fuck yes. Those people shouldn't play the party Face, simple as that.

It also means that characters without this dice-roll-resort can try some harder method of dice-rolling (combined with RP) to influence the reactions of crowds. Easy solution, really. Yes, I know that doesn't make the original problem any less of a problem, but that's the way I've always played. What I don't know is if other people have dealt with this a different way -- so if you have, let's hear about it. 2e players... what are your thoughts on the meta-gaming of the bard?


  1. I had never noticed this issue in my 2E days. I'd generally interpret the bardic talent to be magical, and therefore treated it like a spell in terms of expectations. On the other hand, I never let a player simply roll for it; they could try to influence a crowd, but still had to put some effort into it. If the player was especially convincing then that awarded them a bonus, perhaps....but I generally didn't penalize someone because the player couldn't live up to their character's abilities. On the other hand I was much more "can't we all just get along?" back then and hated restricting someone who had a genuine interest in a class like this just because their social skills weren't up to snuff. My rationale wass...escapism, all that jazz. If player X can play the clearly impossible in real life wizard, then player Y who has a speech impediment in real life but who wants to imagine being an eloquent bard shouldn't be penalized. I'm not as nice about stuff like that these days, due to years of growing less patient and more embittered, but that situation did indeed happen at my table back in the early nineties.

    On the matter of other characters I relied heavily on reaction modifiers to see how well they did. I have revived that method recently for my 1st edition campaign that I kicked off last weekend.

  2. Almost forgot! I often worked out a method using reaction modifiers for the exact opposite problem, being players who were extremely eloquent as people, but were doing so while playing illiterate bumpkins with an 8 INT and 7 CHA. It was usually a bigger problem when the player skill exceeded the character ability, I found, coupled with the player trying to creatively ignore their dump stats.

    1. That is actually a reasonable and often-encountered problem. I tend to use the stats as "filters" for the player's actual speech. So, if they are very eloquent but have a low cha they have some other problem that causes their speech to be badly received -- sometimes even going so far as to make the distinction between "That's what you WANTED to sound like... but your stutter makes you sound like this instead"