Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Beloved Rogue*

So there is this thing about thieves. Some OSR people think they are completely disposable, others will defend the rogue or 'specialist' with their lives.

In my opinion this feud seems to be a bit on the stupid side. Thieves are fun and they bring more variety to the game since they allow players to do something else than only fight, cast spells or cast spells while fighting.

The usual objection to the use of thieves is their Find Traps skill. Many seem to think that it tends to kill the "player's wits over character's skill" vibe often associated with old school game-play. I think it's a largely artificial problem that can be easily overridden by modifying the player's attempts at finding traps depending on the description of their actions.

The point is I like thieves (though I'd rather call them rogues). Period.

What I'm really getting at is that I also like bards.

In my 3ed days (and earlier) I often played bard characters and really enjoyed it. I also remember that I was shocked when long time ago, while reading Zak's blog, I found this:

"(...)but the idea of a D&D class defined by the fact that it plays music seems fundamentally dumb to me. Just be a thief/fighter multiclass and be over it. You can have whatever job you want when you're not killing monsters."

For a long time I couldn't understand why someone would hold such a bizarre opinion, since for me - playing a bard was always fun. It allowed me, as a player, to cast illusions, stand my ground when fighting, and on top of it all, charm NPCs into my bidding.

On the other hand, I always hated the portrayal of bards being trained at colleges and being part of specialized organizations. Seriously what a load of bullshit. My bard characters would always represent the oral tradition archetype, be it a Norse Skald, a Celtic Bard, or a Greek Aoidos.

Only recently, triggered by a cheap pulp novella I was reading on the train, did I realize why I really like the bard. The truth is, that it's not the class that I really like. It's the idea of poetry/music/art having magical powers that allow the artist to actively alter reality. It's the humanity old myth of the artist (in this case a musician) as a creator, that really inspired me to pick up the bard class in the first place. Interestingly enough, it's not really present in the class itself.

This is because the bard class is mostly based on the Magic User/Wizard mechanic. The "bardic" element is usually specified by the ability to use, what 3ed dubbed, Bardic Music, which has never been done well and in the 3rd and 4th was just dumb. The class itself doesn't really introduce a new minigame, or a new set of opportunities. It just emphasizes the role playing element of the game. And you don't really need a new class for that.

This is why I decided to abandon the bard and stick with the rogue. In fact any class can be "the bard" if it's built around an idea to role play it as one. The fierce Skald from the north might be a figther, while a Celtic Bard might mechanically be a druid. It's all fine with me.

The before mentioned novella helped me to stick with this decision, as it features Francois Villon as a background character. Now, I am well acquainted with his poetry and it's socio-cultural context, but I have never really investigated the biography of the poet himself.

Turns out, little is known about his life. But what little information survived is enough to illustrate my point. The point is, that the greatest poet of 15th century France was a backstabbing, dagger slinging and gold stealing rogue. So why can't the player characters be (mechanically) rogues with (role-played) love for some dirty verse?

*The title references this. I highly recommend it.


  1. maybe because i'm a professional artist, i've always hated...

    "the idea of poetry/music/art having magical powers that allow the artist to actively alter reality. It's the humanity old myth of the artist (in this case a musician) as a creator, that really inspired me to pick up the bard class in the first place."

    art always seemed more interesting the way it actually is then as some kind of magic

  2. See,s to me that the find trap skill is a little blown out of proportion. Every character have at least a 1 in 6 chance of noticing a trap while searching. Why should it bother people that thieves (and dwarves,) have better odds?

  3. "The usual objection to the use of thieves is their Find Traps skill."

    In OD&D (Greyhawk Sup-I), thieves do not have a Find Traps skill. I do like it that way.

  4. I like Bards, too. I've seen some great 3x Bards in various campaigns. They are nifty jacks of all trades that allow players to do a little bit of everything.

  5. I always thought bards were interesting because they were fundamentally hostile to the general concept of D&D that creatures and especially intelligent monsters were necessarily enemies to be slaughtered. The bard was a diplomat, a coalition builder who made friends and got what he wanted through friendship and flattery rather than by force, deception, or theft. Needless to say, this also makes them rather difficult to integrate into the rest of the party.

    I particular loathe the notion that bards were related to thieves, however. The whole point of the bard is that he or she is trustworthy, that you can invite a wandering bard from another country into your home to play and sing without having to worry about the chastity of your spouse or the security of your silver candlesticks.

  6. William Dunbar has a famous elegy for poets titled Lament for the Makers, casting poets as actual makers. Certain poets consider new metaphors to actually create things in the world that didn't exist before. So, I'm down with the idea of poet/musicians as powerful shapers of existence. I'm not sure that I've ever been satisfied with any mechanical handling of this in an rpg, though. I mean the coolest way would require spontaneous rhyming or versifying by the players but that's pretty exclusionary.

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

  7. I like musician characters in RPGs. I'm adding musicians into my Gamma World game now, actually. They are traveling mystic hidras who play ancient heavy metal music on rare and fragile instruments.

    Nice Roky picture... Around 15 years ago I was in Austin for a few days visiting a hooker friend of mine who was shooting junk when her boyfriend (and my good buddy too, now dead) injected her with bleach out of spite causing a big problem that required attention. In the middle of this I was wandering about town one afternoon and chanced to recognize Roky Erikson walking around some dumpsters behind a record store (I'm a 13th Floor Elevators fan, you see). I chatted up Roky and had pizza and garlic sticks with him for lunch. Damn weird weekend.

  8. @Zak: I was expecting you to say that.

    @ Telecanter: I like the idea of spontaneous free styling in order to make magic happen. I'm just afraid it would leave out people who don't feel too confident about their acting/rhyming.

    @Cyclopeatron: I've read your post on snorting radiated coke and post-apocalyptic rock stars. It's brilliant. Still, I feel that there is no need of special music powers in D&D. Now, Mutnat Futures or Gamma World, that's a different story!