I was 38 years old when I realised I was a bard. I shouldnt really have been surprised – I was Danny Zuko in my high school production of Grease after all, and then I was Frank n Furter in stockings and suspenders. But the realisation vexed me, because until that point Id never had much time for bards. They were, as far as I was concerned – and I can barely bring myself to write it now – padding. Oh the hollowness! Oh the shame! How could I ever have been so empty? Yet, perhaps the fault was not entirely my own.
You see, I grew up on bards as interpreted by computer games, and to me, there, they were a forgettable class. They were there only to serve others. In Dark Age of Camelot, which I spent a long time playing, the bard-likes were the speed buff your group needed to get around quickly – that was their purpose. They could do a few other things but none as well as the other classes could. And in World of Warcraft, another game I put a lot of time into, bards werent a playable class at all.
Look across RPGs and its a similar story. Theres no bard class in the Divinity: Original Sin series, and in Dragon Age, the whole series, the bard only crops up as playable in Origins as a rogue subclass. Those series couldnt be more heavily inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and yet, the poor old bard doesnt get a look-in. And it leaves you wondering why. Or, it reinforces a belief somewhere in your head that bards arent good enough to make the cut.
The obvious BioWare exceptions, by the way, are Baldurs Gate and Neverwinter Nights, which are quite old now, and were literally Dungeons & Dragons games. They did have bards. But how many of you played as one? Honestly, I didnt even notice them – perhaps I had been conditioned not to by then.
Thats not to say there havent been some good bards in computer games. InXile created a whole series around them – A Bards Tale – so theyre well represented there, and chanters in Pillars of Eternity turned out to be one of the strongest support classes. But why youd choose to play support in a single-player hero fantasy is beyond me. You want the glory, right? The computer can support you.
“Im going to say something quite bold now so dont be alarmed”
In other words: I had never given bards a chance until, as I said, I one day realised I was one. It was a gentle epiphany, an eyebrow-up and a pout, and it came while I was choosing a class to play in tabletop D&D. In that moment I knew not only who I was but what I was supposed to do, and my understanding of bards changed completely.
Im going to say something quite bold now so dont be alarmed: I believe bards are the most important characters in fantasy. Quite a turnaround, isnt it? I believe this because bards do something no other class does, and I think this is a major reason why computer games have such a hard interpreting them. Bards are more than their toolbox of abilities and parts. Theyre a class, yes, but theyre also a social role you pledge yourself to when you choose one (unless youre upending the role for role-playing reasons). Fundamentally, bards are entertainers; theyre talkers, negotiators, intermediaries. Bards are the charismatic heart of a party.
When, for instance, my D&D party travels somewhere new, its me who usually handles the introductions. I convince nervous people to help us by striking up a tune, I soothe scared children with lullabies, I rock inns with my blaring bagpipes – I know, Im uber cool. Ive also gotten us into a lot of trouble because I feel it, all of it, is my duty. Thats what Im there for. Some of it is to do with my skill proficiencies and Charisma score but a lot of it is not – it comes with the territory.
Widen that thought a bit and look around at successful D&D groups, like Oxventure and Critical Role, and you see bards. What would the Oxventure group be without Dob, played by the lovely Luke Westaway? And what would that first season of Critical Role have been like without the amazing songs of Sam Riegel as Scanlan?
But widen that thought even more and you begin to see the importance of bards in fantasy more clearly. Look at The Witcher, for example – what would it be without Jaskier (or Dandelion, depending on the name you know him by)? He provokes so much adventure, directly or indirectly, and he gives Geralt a lot to play off of. That dryness of Geralts wouldnt work half as well were it not for the contrasting exuberance of Jaskier. The two together are comedy gold.
Everywhere you look in fantasy, you can feel the presence of bards. In Dragon Age 2, Varric narrates the adventure as if he were a storyteller – make him a bard, BioWare, you cowards! In Patrick Rothfuss Kingkiller Chronicles, the main character is effectively a bard. And oh my gosh will they not stop singing in The Lord of the Rings. What would fantasy be like without bards? It is born in the exaggerated retelling of stories, built upon it. What good is an adventure if its not chronicled and told?
This is whats hard to pin down about bards: its the social value in what they do. Theyve done it for thousands of years across human history, their stories and songs interwoven into our hearts and cultures. But how do you program that into a game? Its not really a numbers thing.
Whether anyone can manage, I dont know, though Im encouraged when people try. I am looking forward to Baldurs Gate 3 particularly – yes I saw the recent addition of bards. And if anyone is going to get what they do, I think its Larian. But perhaps there will always be an elusive side to bards that simply wont translate. Perhaps in order to really find them, you will need to go tabletop. Thats where I found them, where I found me, and Im never going to let them go again.