Posted by : David Guyll July 31, 2014
Some mistakenly labeled is as a "jack of all trades", claiming that it could fill in for a variety of jobs, but the reality was that it fell far short of a master in any capacity. Well, aside from rolling Perform and maybe Diplomacy checks.
I played with a variety of bard players in my 3rd Edition days, and they were either jokes, liabilities, or both. In one campaign we had a gnome bard that started with a negative modifier to his attacks, and he could heal all of 2 hit points per day.
Yeah, his utter ineptitude was funny for a time, but then it quickly became old hat, the campaign mercifully puttered out around 6th-level, and he never played a bard again.
The only other memorable campaign with a bard managed to reach 14th-level before we stopped. Like the previous bard she started out as a joke that almost died frequently, rarely hit anything, and ran out of magic constantly. I think she only lasted as long as she did because we had a party of five, maybe six people, and I did not bother to adjust the monster difficulty because I had heard that Age of Worms was pretty hard, particularly in the early adventures.
4th Edition shook things up by making the bard actually competent and useful in a variety of situations from the get-go, whether you are talking about social interaction, exploration, or combat. Your attack bonus was just behind that of a fighter (who was actually ahead of the curve), you were not at risk of randomly dying from a lucky, non-critical strike, you could mix up melee and magic with ease, you did not ever completely run out of magic, you were just as good as supporting the party as a cleric (but did so in your own way), and you could multiclass as much as you wanted to.
I do not know why it took the game over 30 years to crank out a decent bard, but at least we finally had one that I—any many others in my group—actually wanted to play as something other than a joke, experiment, or just out of plain boredom.
But why am I talking about bards today, and what does this have to do with 5th Edition?
A few pages of the 5th Edition bard were showcased several days ago, and a week or so before that a couple of my friends both sent me a, I guess "leaked" alpha pdf of the Player's Handbook (in the same day, even). It looks quite a bit different from the last public playtest packet, and the only real difference from the previewed pages—aside from some class features being ordered differently at the same level—is that the hit die got bumped up from a d6 to a d8, so I am inclined to believe that it is at least for the most part accurate.
So, how much did 5th Edition fuck it up? Surprise surprise, it actually did not. Well, from a purely mechanical perspective, at any rate. Do not get me wrong, the designers certainly did not exert any particular effort in making it inspiring (which is ironic, I know) or much more flexible, but if you are merely analyzing it for the mechanics and math then it seems much more solid and useful than it was in 3rd Edition:
- Everything for no discernible reason uses a universal proficiency bonus, so the bard is on par with everyone else in the game when it comes to attacking things.
- It uses a d8 for hit points, which puts it just behind the fighter.
- You do not start out knowing many spells, but you can use as many as every other class in a daily period, and you also get cantrips and rituals, so if you are building to heal then I guess you are about as competent as a cleric.
- The bonuses for armor make the heavy shit essentially pointless: as long as you keep upping your Dexterity you'll be a bit behind shield-bearing fighters at a fraction of the cost (sidenote: I love how the costs for armor are obviously, blatantly trying to keep it "balanced" instead of going with anything approaching reason).
However despite evening out the numbers it is still utter shit, because at its core that is all that is: a bunch of predictable math and numbers with little to no narrative backing, and this extends beyond spellcasting. I will get to the spells in a bit, but I want to talk about the other nonsense class features that were clearly designed without any concern as to how they would be explained "in-character", or even in the narrative at all.
First up, Bardic Inspiration. You can use this as a bonus action on your turn to let someone add a d6 to a d20 roll they make. I am not sure what a bonus action is, but a round is about 6 seconds, during which you can move and attack only once for some reason (balance, I guess). Basically during this six second span you can attack, run 30 feet, and still have enough time to deliver some stirring words or play a mad solo on your lute, such that one person, and only one person, gets to do one thing better of their choosing.
That is not even the silliest part. No, that goes to the fact that you can apparently only inspire someone a number of times per day equal to your Charisma modifier. How is that even reflected in the game's narrative? It does not mention it being magical, not that that would make any more goddamn sense, but at least it would be consistent with the rest of the nonsense magic. Do your friends just become numb to your words and music until they sleep it off?
At 5th-level you can regain set amounts of inspiration when you rest for an hour (or however the hell long a short rest is nowadays), which in other words means that at a certain point you can just inspire people as many times a day as you like, you just have to sit down for a while or not inspire people too frequently.
Anyway, I thought that was hilariously lazy on the designer's part. It is pretty obvious that they wanted to maintain a specific brand of game balance, which was not hard given that some people are not only satisfied with boring ass, nonsense, recycled material, but occasionally view it as something to be celebrated, something that not anyone doing their own 3rd Edition hack could have dredged up in well under a two-year span.
Next up, Bard College. Rather than enable any kind of flexibility or organic growth, at 2nd- or 3rd-level you get to make a choice. This choice gives you a class feature immediately, and locks in a bunch more down the road. The degree and reason that this "sub-class" system fails—aside from being just about the laziest way you could do a class-based system—varies from class to class, but for the bard it is the fact that you apparently "join" a college at 3rd-level, whether or not you have even been to one, and after that point you are locked in for the rest of the game.
Let us say that at 3rd-level you somehow join the College of Lore. You gain more skills and for some reason can only make fun of a monster and inspire your allies x times per day in total. Now even if you start wearing armor, wielding a big-ass sword, and train with a fighter for months, at 6th-level you just learn more spells, instead of getting the extra attack that a bard with the College of Valor would get. Riiight, makes about as much sense as the magic.
On a similar note is Magical Secrets, which is a 10th-level class feature that lets you snag two spells from any class you want. Every bard gets this when the designers felt that it was okay, no matter what, and always at the same level. I am not a fan of arbitrarily doling out class features: I think that it is far more interesting if a bard can choose this instead of something else, or just do it after researching a spell for a period of time. I mean, it does not give the bard more spells in a day, just more to choose from.
If a bard can only ever do this at levels 10, 14, and 18, why? Why can she never ever ever do it before, between, or after those levels?
Finally, spellcasting! People complained that the classes in 4th Edition were "too samey" because most of them used the same resource management model. They outright ignored the descriptive text and what classes could actually do, constantly trying to find corner-cases and deliberately misinterpreting what certain effect did, because despite many games doing the sensible thing of resolving conflicts with the same mechanics, they arbitrarily declared that if spells and swords roll the same way, then both must be magic.
Yet, they seem to be perfectly fine with a cleric, paladin, wizard, bard, etc all using the exact same system for managing magical resources, whether or not it makes any sense in the game's narrative. Frankly, magic in Dungeons & Dragons has never made any sense (and at this point I suspect it never will), and that seems to be all the justification the designers needed to just not even try to deliver something evocative and engaging. Well, that and the needless adherence to pointless traditions (which is why we again have Hit Dice, backwards conflict resolution mechanics, and other antiquated conventions).
I mean, when you think about a bard casting spells, what do you envision? Is it a bard instantly spouting out a few magical effects in a fraction of a minute, only to look at the party and say "Whelp, I'm out until I take a nap" (for that matter, I cannot envision a cleric, wizard, paladin, druid, etc doing the same thing). Actually, that is not entirely accurate: the bard would instead say, sorry guys, I can keep casting these other spells all day without any trouble, but those other two? Yeah, I cannot use those until I take a nap...unless they are rituals, then I can take a long time to cast them as many times as I want. Make sense?
No, of course it doesn't make any fucking sense.
I do notenvision a bard throwing out a magical effect in a few seconds, and with a few exceptions I certainly do not imagine her doing so in the middle of combat. The idea of someone prancing about, playing a flute while orcs chase her about with axes sounds unbelievably retarded. But, that is how Dungeons & Dragons did it before, and we all know that that is what 5th Edition is about: changing the game just enough to justify re-buying all the books you already own (ie, the Paizo method), but not so much so as to displease the grognards that fear change and frown upon people playing the game the "wrong" way.
I imagine a bard gradually building up a magical effect, unleashing it as her song reaches a crescendo to call forth a storm or destroy a bridge, or just allowing it to subtly settle on an area, causing creatures to fall to asleep or at least become groggy or distracted. I see the bard having limited access to the more immediate, overt magic, like deafening, destructive screams: she is more subtle, humming or singing to herself while she peruses books, ponders a puzzle, or works on something, creating a kind of tempo that keeps her and everyone around her focused and active. She does not cast comprehend languages to instantly, absolutely translate a text, but goes through her mental catalog of stories and legends to try and suss out a general meaning.
Even healing people is not something I see a bard routinely doing, at least not quickly and after blurting out three seconds of a song, like watching a YouTube video on a bad internet connection. I see her building up everyone's spirit when they make camp, granting her allies increased healing, or maybe a bonus to shaking off a persistent injury, curse, disease, or poison (which sounds like the Song of Rest class feature, which debuted in 4th Edition, which probably explains why it is a good thing). I see her entertaining a crowd at a tavern, allowing her to acquire a kind of "plot currency" that she can spend to get people to open up to her or do favors.
I do not believe that 3rd Edition's bard was the best possible representation of the class. I do not even think that 4th Edition was the best (it still had nonsense magic, after all), which is why I do not think discarding most of 4th Edition and mashing the leftovers together is something worthy of acclaim or even note. It is the bare minimum. Actually, no, for a major company with two years of "development", it is less than the bare minimum.
It is disappointing and uninspired.