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.
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.
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.