The Bard: Not it’s Best Performance

Lately, I’ve been examining the bard’s class abilities, and I’ve started to realize that I don’t like some of the design assumptions that have gone into the class.

The bard: missing its mojo since 1E.

Now, bards have long had a reputation as being “the sucky class.” From what I’ve heard, they were highly regarded back in First Edition as being a true jack-of-all-trades, but from Second Edition onward their propensity to be a class that dabbled in many fields but mastered none of them has been crippling rather than empowering. There are, I think, specific reasons for that, and specific fixes for how to make the bard badass again, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog post.

No, this blog post is about the nature of the bard as a performer.

She’s A Nonuple Threat!

The bard, as it appears in Pathfinder, seems to be written under the assumption that the character will want/need to take skill ranks in multiple types of Perform. This is something I have a problem with, as we’ll discuss below.

The Perform skill as written has nine major subsets; act, comedy, dance, keyboard instruments, oratory, percussion instruments, string instruments, wind instruments, and sing. While it certainly makes sense to have a bard character that takes ranks in more than one of these, most of the bards I’ve seen have been fairly tightly focused – the bard in my current Pathfinder game, for example, has taken Perform (sing) and nothing else.

Examining it further, there’s plenty of reason to take only a single iteration of Perform. Beyond the obvious conservation of skill points (e.g. every rank you spend on a second Perform skill is a point that’s not going to Perception, Stealth, or some other relevant skill), it makes little sense to have multiple types of Perform since there’s virtually no situation that’d require one over another – when a situation calls for a Perform check, it usually doesn’t matter what variant of Perform it is.

Also, there are differences between the various types of Perform that, while subtle, may be enough to discourage someone from taking them. The bard in my campaign, for example, chose Perform (sing) because it leaves her hands free to hold a weapon while singing. However, if she were to take Perform (string instruments) then she’d essentially have to give up holding a weapon to use that Perform skill…but she’d be able to use a masterwork instrument for a +2 bonus, something that isn’t available to Perform (sing).

So you see now why there’s a pretty good set of reasons for why a character would want to just pick a single type of Perform and stick with it. And of course, none of that mentions the biggest reason of all: your character concept might be that your character only knows one type of performance.

Too bad a bard isn’t able to do that.

Versatility is a (Literal) Must

Okay, to be fair the Pathfinder bard doesn’t “have” to take more than one type of Perform, but there’s a cost for not doing so – that cost being class abilities that are lost or minimized. Let’s start with one of the simpler functions of the class: versatile performance.

Versatile performance is an ability where you can substitute a type of Perform skill for two specific other skills whenever you’d have to make a check with those skills. For example, if you take versatile performance with Perform (percussion instruments), you can use that skill’s bonus whenever you’d have to make a Handle Animal or Intimidate check.

The draw here is fairly obvious; sinking ranks into a certain type of Perform lets you basically gain free ranks in the two associated skills. Essentially, the bard is encouraged to use this class feature – which is gained at 2nd level and then every four levels thereafter, each time for a different Perform skill – to branch out amongst different Perform types as a method of skill consolidation. In fact, that’s not too bad of a deal. You’re basically tripling up on the function of each Perform type you take (the normal functions, plus the other two skills).

However, there are still some problems here, notwithstanding what I laid out in the previous section. For one thing, the associated skills that versatile performance assigns to each Perform type have some overlap. Each of the nine subsets of Perform associates to two skills, but altogether they only cover eight different skill types. Hence, you need to metagame what Perform skills you take, or you can severely compromise the usefulness of this class feature.

It’s missing the part where it says “…but they really have to work at it.”

For example, if by level 18 you’ve chosen Perform (comedy, keyboard, oratory, sing, and string) as your five versatile performances, then guess what? You’re only using them, collectively, for Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Sense Motive. The same usefulness that you could get out of two instances of versatile performance has been stretched out to all five instances of it, with zero net gain.

Contrast this with instead choosing Perform (act, dance, oratory, sing, and string), which instead collectively nets you Acrobatics, Bluff, Diplomacy, Disguise, Fly, Handle Animal, Intimidate, and Sense Motive. That’s twice what you got with the previous choices!

And even then, there’s STILL overlap! There’s no five selections of Perform in versatile performance that don’t result in some of them gaining nothing that you don’t already have. So either way, you’re going to lose out somewhere.

Are you starting to see my frustration with the bard?

By the by, I’m not the first one to have a problem with this particular class feature. Mark Chance of Spes Magna Games wrote an entire product, called Versatile Performance Redux, dedicated to fixing this. It throws out this class ability entirely and replaces it with a better (not perfect, but still better, at least to me) series of abilities.

Visual Songs and Audible Dances

Of course, the problems with versatile performance are tiny compared to the headaches caused by the bard’s main class ability: bardic performance. This one has multiple issues, spread across its various effects.

First, lets look at its lowest-level abilities, countersong and distraction. Both abilities explicitly state which types of Perform they work with, and these lists are mutually exclusive. So right at 1st level, the bard has the screws put to it if it doesn’t have at least two different types of Perform (and, don’t forget, they need to be the right types – if you have Perform (dance) and Perform (oratory), you’re still outta luck).

From there, there’s a disconnect as the Perform skill ceases to have any impact on the bard’s higher-level class abilities. Despite the main Bardic Performance entry saying that the bard is using their Perform skill, none of the higher-level bardic performance abilities use the skill in any regard – in fact, notwithstanding countersong and distraction, a bard doesn’t actually need any ranks in Perform at all!

To be fair, the bard is still clearly doing something – those abilities are noted as having audible components, visual components, or both – but what sort of performance the bard is putting on is unspecified and unimportant, diminishing the value of the Perform skills that the early levels of the class built up so much.

Many or None, But Never One

Looking back over what’s written here, it should be clear that the bard is all over the place regarding their Perform skills. Early class abilities encourage heavy diversification, but the higher-level ones are completely divorced from Perform altogether. So after madly branching out, you’re likely to increase your Perform skills just enough to keep them relevant for countersong, distraction, and whatever associated versatile performances you have, and otherwise ignoring them.

There’s really nothing here for the bard with ranks in just a single type of Perform. I’m pretty much out of luck if I wanted to make a bard who’s focused solely on busting out some dance moves to leave his opponent totally served:

Hopefully, someone will come up with a creative solution for this soon. I can’t wait to play a bard that’s a real Dance Dance Revolutionary.

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11 Responses to “The Bard: Not it’s Best Performance”

  1. Robert Autery II Says:

    You are so right. I played a Bard who actually got to see 23rd level (the max in 1st edition) and enjoyed it for the most part. You started out as a fighter for a minimum of levels, went to theif for a minimum of levels, and then began your Bard class.
    I really don’t understand the concept with the 2nd edition Bard. They mixed a few different mage, cleric, and druid spells into the Bards spell list and you began as a Bard class. They were very potent at low levels and tapered off as they grew in level.
    The 3.5 edition Bard is one I truley enjoy, So long as I can aid my comrades and they don’t leave me in a pickle. Needless to say, I’m unconcious close to once each game session.

    • alzrius Says:

      The post-2nd edition bard is a fairly decent support character in terms of its class abilities. I just wish it had tighter integration of its concepts with its mechanics, at least in Pathfinder.

      This is without going into oddities such as why they’re the only arcane spellcasting class (witches notwithstanding) that can use healing magic. As it is, the fact that they learn magic at all (and as a spontaneous caster, to boot), is difficult to explain in-game, though not impossible.

      • Robert Autery II Says:

        I have very limited knowledge of pathfinder, although I do have some books and our group has implemented a few of the rules. We did that because certain aspects went the wrong way in the standard D&D rules. The abomination of the cleric would be a good example. The pathfinder rules have toned that class down a bit.
        When I look at mechanics, I tend to wonder what they base the class off of. In this case, I think it may be the Riddle Master of Hed series or maybe one of Anne McCafries (probably spelled wrong) books. One thing I see for sure, the class is very, very limited for stand alone melee.

  2. jpf Says:

    There’s yet another problem not mentioned: since you don’t get the later benefits of 3rd and 4th Versatile Performance until, well, later, you basically have to keep certain skills that you might consider “necessary” (intimidate, sense motive, bluff, diplomacy?) at 0 ranks in order to milk the benefit later of getting “free skills” by ranking perform. What are you supposed to do for 9 levels with no (or 1 rank) of diplomacy while waiting for Perform: Oratory to come online as your 3rd versatile performance skill at level 10?

    I agree, badly designed, and I hate the disconnect between perform skill and bardic performance. Older versions of the game brought the various performances online as you ranked up perform, but that also had problems.

  3. JD Says:

    The overlap problem is easily solved: you take oratory, act, dance, and percussion. This gets you one of each type necessary for countersong and distraction, it gets you all eight skills with no overlap, and it removes any need to take a fifth perform skill. Furthermore, the rules as written do not state that the bard needs to use his hands to continue a performance, and he cannot attack while starting the performance in any case. So if you can’t start a performance and attack at the same time anyway, and if you can attack while continuing a performance (the continuation of the effect is magical, not a result of physically continuing the performance), then there really isn’t a hands problem.

    The only real issue, then, is waiting until level 14 to get the full benefits of versatile performance. This is where the class skill bonus plus bardic knowledge comes in handy. Most skills are class skills for the bard (+3 bonus), and bardic knowledge comes with a blanket +1 bonus. So this helps out in the meantime. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out which of the eight skills perform can substitute for you care about most (which should be determined in part by party role: oratory is probably good for level 2, but what you need to take next will depend on whether you have someone else who can be sneaky or intimidating).

    • JD Says:

      Blah. Ignore the bit about bardic knowledge. Don’t know what I was thinking.

      • alzrius Says:

        With regards to versatile performance, taking the combinations you outlined wouldn’t solve the problem, so much as minimize it – I noted in the article that you can take a combination that will make it so that only that last use of versatile performance is futile, the same combination you outlined, but that still means that the use of versatile performance that you take at 18th level is completely useless.

        I disagree with you regarding the “hands problem,” however. If a bard has to use his hands in conjunction with the type of Perform skill that he’s using bardic performance with, then he has to keep using them to maintain it on subsequent rounds, even if it is a free action. The “rules as written” may not overtly state that, but I believe that’s because the designers were writing that as, well, game designers, rather than (rules) lawyers. The magical aspect of a bardic performance is found in the effects, not in the idea that “you can keep playing the flute with no hands, because the game mechanics don’t say you need to use them.”

      • JD Says:

        Regarding versatile performance: I think there are two reasons why having five slots is not useless. The first is that optimization isn’t everything. I might have good reason to take ranks in Perform (Sing) and use it as one of my versatile performances. Perhaps I just want those skills earlier and I’m going to take a different performance type that partially overlaps with Sing later. So having five slots means I can take one that overlaps and still get everything.

        The second is that all of this assumes that Act, Comedy, Dance, Keyboard Instruments, Oratory, Percussion, Sing, String, and Wind are the only performance types that exist. Nothing in the rules states that these are the only performance types there are, and no GM has ever stopped me from taking something else. Furthermore, this has never been treated as a house rule. As far as I can tell, most players treat it as dead obvious that there are other performance types than these.

        In fact, the idea that there are other performance types (and that they would be eligible for versatile performance) was treated as an uncontroversial background assumption on a Paizo Rules Forum thread about versatile performance by none other than James Jacobs: (He also makes the excellent suggestion for a house rule, and possible future actual rule, that the bard can reallocate skill points whenever a new versatile performance is acquired. But the bit about there being other types of performance is just assumed to be part of the already existing rules.)

        This opens up a number of options. Just as Perform (Puppeteering) might be associated with Sleight of Hand and Bluff, Perform (Stage Magic) might be associated with Escape Artist and Sleight of Hand. Perform (Ventriloquism), meanwhile, might be associated with Bluff and Stealth. Perform (Mentalism) could be associated with Bluff and Sense Motive (just like Sing). Thus one could come up with combinations that might make it so that some of the traditional Perform skills (like String instruments) can be part of an optimized build again (if you’re into that kind of thing).

        So back to the hands problem. I suppose it is open to interpretation whether the continuation of the performance is magical or not. I take it to be so in part due to the fact that there are spells and items that can continue the performance for you even if there is no strumming or singing or dancing going on. But let’s say that you need to strum or sing or dance. First, lutes and guitars standardly come with shoulder straps for holding them up. And given how these instruments are played, they must be on the bardic instruments or else the bard wouldn’t be able to play them standing up. So perhaps what’s going on is that the bard, as a free action, takes one hand off a weapon, strums the guitar once, and then returns that hand to the weapon. Bards are masterful performers, after all, so it’s not so strange to think they could strum a guitar or hit a drum quickly as part of that free action. (Since taking a hand off a weapon and/or putting it back on is already a free action, all we have to say here is that the taking off action is directed towards the instrument and then right back to the weapon.) It’s a little harder to explain for wind instruments (unless one is whistling or has a harmonica in a holder, both of which are “handless” anyways), but it’s up to us to figure out how it’s possible since the rules tell us it is.

      • alzrius Says:

        Regarding these answers, I don’t find them to be very compelling.

        For the first, the idea that “optimization isn’t everything” is a misstatement of the problem. This isn’t an issue about “optimizing.” It’s that versatile performance will inevitably reach a point where taking it gives no benefits, because you’ve already gotten all the associated skills you can with it. That’s not a question of optimizing; it’s that you’re gaining new instances of a class ability that add nothing at all.

        With regard to the second idea, that’s an instance of the “Rule 0 Fallacy,” e.g. “it’s not a problem, because I can fix it.” For one thing, the Perform skill is completely silent with regards to whether or not there are other subsets besides the nine versions listed there. Given the exception-based nature of Pathfinder, however, presuming that those nine are the sum total of what the skill offers is an entirely reasonable conclusion to draw…especially considering the wording of the skill (“each of the nine categories” suggests that those are the only nine categories, for instance). The Versatile Performance power itself is no different, stating as a declarative that “the types of Perform and their associated skills are…” That language doesn’t suggest that other types of skills, and associated skills, are supposed to be made.

        In other words, it’s not a “background assumption” one way or another, let alone an “uncontroversial” one (just because a game designer said so on a message board post doesn’t make anything “uncontroversial”).

        Insofar as the “hands problem” goes, I do believe that bardic performance is magical – that part seems to be understood, even if all of their powers weren’t “Su” or “Sp” tagged, after all – but I don’t think that matters very much. That’s because the magic is in the effect that’s achieved by the bard’s performance, rather than in how the performance is created. The bard isn’t using magic to be able to keep playing a flute even when he’s using his hands for something else. Rather, he’s using magic to be able to make his flute-playing have an effect above and beyond what another character playing the flute (e.g. without a bardic performance ability) could do.

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