D&D gets another character class here, and we're definitely getting away from the more general types and more into specific roles. The original classes of D&D lend themselves to interpretation very well. The later classes, the Bard among them, are locked into a certain image, and it takes a genuine effort to break them out of the stereotypes.
In case you haven't guessed it, I've never been a big fan of the bard class. I don't think it really serves a purpose that a multiclassed thief-mage can't duplicate, and the only unique things about it are fluff. And that's not even getting into the mechanical nightmare that is the AD&D bard. Thankfully, what we have here is a much more streamlined design than that. They resemble the 3e Bard quite a lot, actually.
The introduction describes the Bard as being inspired by the norse 'skald' (a sort of warrior poet-historian), the celtic 'bard' (mediators and chroniclers who served the Druids) and the european 'minstrel' (entertainers of the nobility).
What this boils down to in terms of D&D is a class that combines aspects of the Fighter, Thief and Magic-User. They get the abilities of a Thief half their level (no backstab though), may use any weapon, cast magic-user spells, and use the Cleric tables for fighting and saving throws. They are limited to leather and chain for armour. Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits can be Bards, but can't progress beyond 8th level. To become a Bard a character must have at least an average score in Strength and Intelligence, and an above average Charisma. I take this to mean he needs 9 or above in the first two, and 12 or above in the latter.
In addition they get the ability to mesmerize any creature that hears their music. The Bard has a percentage chance for this that increases by level, and there's a lot of business about stronger creatures being more resistant to this ability. Undead have an even greater resistance than usual, but I find it interesting that they're affected at all. By the rules a mindless skeleton can be mesmerised, which I find slightly odd. Balrogs are said to have 200% resistance, which I find inexplicably hilarious. As a side-note to this ability, it's also said that Bards can negate song-based powers like those of the harpy.
The Bard can then make a Suggestion to any creature that has been mesmerized, its complexity dependent on the intelligence of the target. The most interesting part here is that Bards get XP for charming and suggesting based on the hit dice of the opponent – that's a nice little bonus!
And then we get a nice little adventure hook: a Dragon who refuses to let a Bard stop playing his restful melodies. I'll work this in somewhere, whether it be as an NPC Bard who is already a captive, a Dragon trying to capture a Bard PC, or the PCs having to kidnap a Bard to appease a Dragon. Lots of possibilities.
The last ability is that of Lore, which gives the Bard a chance to know tales and legends about certain items or places. The most useful application of this is to identify magic items, but even this isn't foolproof – it doesn't work on the magical books (which is fair enough, as they all appear identical), and only a bard of 12th level or higher can identify the various necklaces and scarabs.
In general Bards can use the same magic items that Fighters and Thieves can, and can use the musical instruments with much greater effectiveness. The major thing to note here is that any bonus to AC granted by an item reduces the Bard's ability to mesmerize creatures. I'll chalk it up to an acoustical phenomenon of protective magic. Or something.
There's an interesting detail in the advancement table – as Bards advance they progress through certain colleges. A bard of 2nd to 4th level belongs to the Fochlucan college, 5th-7th to Mac-Fuirmidh, 8th-10th to Doss, 11th-13th to Canaith, 14th-16th to Cli, 17th-19th to Anstruth and 20th+ to Ollamh. What these mean isn't detailed, but mechanically they determine how many followers a bard will attract.
Bards can be any alignment, but most are neutral. A lawful Bard loses his Thief abilities, which is a little odd, but I guess they must require a certain mindset that only Chaotics can achieve. Druids and Bards are closely connected, and I plan to use this as a way to introduce the class. NPC Bards will be assigned by the Druids to accompany various heroes into the dungeons and chronicle their exploits. The presence of demi-human Bards muddies this up a little, but I'll say the Druidic peoples are highly respectful of the various fey-folk, and allow them to study the Bardic tradition if they wish it.
Next time (notice how I've stopped typing 'tomorrow'?) I'll try to knock off the rest of The Strategic Review #6.