Friday, March 15, 2013

Bard Songs

Bards don't get too much interest in the OSR from what I can see, not metal enough.  And while I'm not too interested in a Alan-a-Dale type troubadour in a deadly old school dungeon myself, I think there could be room for something like warrior-poets. 

The problem is that resolving music or poetry with an abstract die roll or feat is boring.  To make it interesting I want something actually happening at the table.  Of course we can't expect players to be improvisational poets or to whip out a guitar and start jamming.  Here are two ideas about how you might do it:

Real Songs
Have all the players independently bring in a list of "inspiring" songs or "get-your-blood-pumping" songs, or whatever you want to call them.  The bard player can talk with everyone about what genre of music they like maybe even what bands, but not what songs.  When combat comes around the Bard has to recite some lyrics from a song (maybe a single stanza/chorus).  Every player that has that song on their list gets the boon effects (whatever you decide them to be, probably should be a little better than the cleric chant spell).  This might be clunky but when I imagine the player starting off with "When I see lightning . . " or "Cruising down the street in my six-four . . ." , or whatever, and the players recognize their song getting happy because they realize they are getting a combat boost, I think it would be fun.

But do songs work more than once?  It would be interesting if the bard had to memorize some lyrics from songs they didn't know to get an effect.  So maybe they can only use a repeat after they've cycled through all the songs on everyone's list?  Maybe to simplify, they can never sing the same song in a row?

Patterned Songs
Most inspiring songs tap into shared cultural stories and symbols, but in an imagined world the made up histories and gods aren't going to actually be inspiring (the Ballad of Vecna).  But we do have the shared experiences our party has been through.  You could give the bard templates and have them extemporaneously fill them in at the time of recitation.  Something like:

Hireling Song
Remember ______the _______ who died by/who was  ___________ at _________
Remember ______the _______ who died ___________ at _________
Remember ______the _______ who died ___________ at _________
This battle is for them.

Here a tally of all the lives lost to get where you are grants power.  You might give more bonuses the longer the list.  That would make this song particularly powerful for ill-fated or experienced parties.

Victory song
When the ________ arrayed against us,
and hope was lost amongst us,
we still rose up in triumph because
You [character name] did _________________, and
You [character name] did _________________, and
You [character name] did _________________, and
Now rise up and do the same!

This is more about remembering a recent (maybe the last) victory and recounting it to instill confidence.  Telling which characters got criticals or landed massive blows, etc.  I like this idea because it makes the semi-random events of the gameworld feel more important and historic.

Anyway, some ideas.


  1. Bravely bold [TITLE] [CHARACTER NAME] rode forth from [HOME BASE]
    S/He was not afraid to die, O brave [TITLE] [NAME]
    S/He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways
    Brave, brave, brave, brave [TITLE] [NAME]

    S/He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp
    Or to have his eyes gouged out and his elbows broken
    To have his kneecaps split and his body burned away
    And his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave [TITLE] [NAME]

  2. That is actually a good Bard rule. Fill the tunnels of megadungeons with songs of victory and hope, recite murder ballads during camp time, battle chanting rush against the hordes of undead!

    Never thought of that. Very good, indeed!

  3. Brilliant. I think this is just the thing to make Bards megadungeon playable! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks, folks.

    @Rev.: Ha, I guess like the Godwin effect roleplaying sessions will achieve python eventually :)

  5. I like the patterns, particularly as I play with people who would actually sing. It would be a good way to handle bard magic, with say a +1 to combat while the bard sings the combat song, and +1hp when the bard sings the victory/healing song. Possibly the bard gets one song template per level or some such.

    Suggest though, that chants would be easier, and for some settings more suitable. Then you do not have to worry about a tune, just a cadence, and it would be less daunting for the more shy player.

  6. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I definitely agree, let players know they can talk these things.

    I probably wasn't clear enough, for the patterns I had something like the Poetic Edda in mind, less than songs (I'm not a singer and pretty much musically illiterate). To get technical, something close to trochaic tetrameter:

    Some folks might be familiar with Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha."

  7. To be honest, I'm one of those who doesn't really care for bards, but I'm definitely in favor of improv song or poetry by players. One of my most upbeat characters was a regular old wizard who would occasionally, in the midst of battle, burst into song about the xorn he was summoning and so on. It wasn't pretty but it was a lot of fun.

    So I could really get behind a house rule that gives some kind of bonus to a player who genuinely throws themselves into their character (of any class) like that.

  8. Hey, thanks.

    Yeah, the traditional way to encourage player behavior was to give XP bonuses (at least back in the 2e era). But that is problematic because it is usually nebulous about what kind of behavior should be rewarded (what is good play?) and it just gives the DM more decision making work.

    But this could be another approach: think of specific things that you find fun (players singing, punning, writing afterplay reports, or whatever) and then give them in-game benefits that make them want to do those behaviors.