The Complete Bards Handbook: or, What is Class?

Via Medieval Life & Times
2127 PHBR7 The Complete Bard’s Handbook was released in April of 1992 and was designed by Blake Mobley. I know that a small, but very loud group of people think that Bards, as written in the AD&D system, are the best class ever written in the history of the written word; to those gentle readers, I suggest that you click away as I am not remotely in that camp. Those who continue reading this, you have been warned.

Despite what the title of this post says, I'm not really going to review this specific book. I have never owned it, and am never going to. I had once borrowed seen a copy and the thing is just so counter to everything that I believe that a good product should be that I wouldn't even know where to begin. If you were expecting a grade, I think that you can connect the dots. This title has been used as evidence that by 1992, the life-cycle of AD&D was already over; that statement isn't true, but this is a horrible book in every sense of the word.

I have no idea what TSR was thinking; logically The Complete Race Handbooks should've been completed before scraping the bottom of the barrel, if we have done anything here we have already established that TSR executives had no idea what they were doing.


I don't play bards; I hire them. There have been some awesome bardic characters that have appeared in literature, unfortunately, the AD&D system does not allow you to play them. They just don't fit the mold of what AD&D is about. If I could ask Dave Cook anything, I'd ask him if he included the Bard template to visually show how weak a character who can do everything is, or should be.

The AD&D bard can fight, do some thief skills, and cast spells, the catch is that he isn't very good at any of this. He can't hit, he can't steal, and he can't control his spells. One should never play a bard, and instead focus their attention on specializing in one skill set, only then do you offer anything to the team. As the bard sits, I hire them when we are dealing with mass combat, or using the morale system; THAT is their specialty. That also doesn't make for a very interesting character.


Here is the deal, you make a fighter, or a thief, or a wizard: have him learn how to play the harp, you've got a bard. The other Complete Class Handbooks were about taking the templates and skills of a set class and using them to define what a character is, not based upon their chosen class, but upon the identity of the character itself.

Bard isn't the best example, so we'll instead examine the Druid: as it is laid out in the "2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook". Once you look at the entry, and read the decription, you will notice that this really isn't a class at all! It clearly defines all of the skills that specific character gets per level, as well as listing all of the requirements that must be met beyond just gaining XP to actually level up. 
The Druid is a poorly labeled example of what a cleric should be, something very specific to the character that the player is using. Something unique that is only based upon the class system itself.

Now, we look at the Paladin or Ranger and I think that we see the same thing going on. None of the Sub-Classes are true classes, but examples of blending ideas together. This begs the question, are we supposed to be blending?


Another example: The Barbarian, this isn't a class either, but a race of people. The template assumes that the Barbarian is a Fighter, but honestly, a barbarian can be a cleric, a thief, a whatever. Barbarian doesn't define his skill set, it defines his background.

Things got really muddied once many of the Original Dungeons & Dragons classes became races, the elf could multi-class now, he could be a Fighter/Thief/Wizard which is all fine and dandy at lower levels of play, but once the other players are fighting dragons, this guy has to hide in shadows because he's been playing 3rd level for the last eight years.

The very concept of Race is strange now, the player who chooses to play a demi-race gains all of these special abilities, but they never improve; the only thing that improves is their skills dictated by class. 
There really isn't anything special about them anymore. An Elf used to be able to pick at the beginning of each session if he wants to play as a Fighter or as a Wizard, the Dwarf was a much sturdier fighter than the one that we have now; he's been lost among the other demi-races and in regards to mechanics, there is nothing really all that unique about dwarves anymore.


Via: Pinterest
Is class our job? Do the things that we are good at define who we are as characters? I have always just assumed that Fighter or whatever was nothing more than a job. A character that is really good with a specific skill set. 

We can choose to play a fighter by the book, but even playing it core to the rules it doesn't really define us as characters, it just defines how our characters progress if we survive. How we define our characters is still up to us. That is what makes the fighter class so solid.

Somewhere along the lines, class attempted to define us. It got really bad with later editions, so bad in fact that the language changed. A player was no longer a Fighter but a Demon Slaying Doom Lord, or what have you, whatever they called themselves it was so precise and well-defined that one must ask if that is even truly the player's character or just some definition that they read in a book. 
The idea of Min/Maxing and Powergaming is not a new concept, it happened right away, but to set it at such high levels that you can't even identify the basics anymore implies that something, somewhere, was lost in translation.

How far should we be going to blend classes? Does it change the language when we do it? If we make the connections laid out for us in the Players Handbook, we can use these strict examples of what somebody at some time did to make a character unique to them, and apply it to our games. And, we don't need a supplement or splat book to do it either.

One of the things that have always irritated players the most is the Battle Mage, or why can't a wizard pick up a sword. . . Gandolf used a magic sword, I want to too!

Well, lets first identify our Battle Mage as not a wizard at all, but as a fighter. We'll place limits on the mage's spell abilities by stealing the Ranger's spell progression, but instead of cleric spells, he uses wizard spells.

We'll also borrow the XP charts from Paladin/Ranger and apply them to our Battle Mage, and DONE!

If the battle mage wants to cast a spell that requires free movement, he can't be wearing armor; he has to decide if taking it off is worth it or not. We can also stipulate that the only sword a battle mage can use is a magical one, all normal swords interfere with his spells.

The battle mage can't specialize in weapons, but he can become proficient in their use and must use the Wizards Proficiency chart of progression instead of the Fighters.

via pinterest
You get the point; if we put enough thought into a specific idea, we can tailor it to actually identify what the character is. We just have to figure out which rules to use to keep this character fair for the world which we created it for. A real mage is going to be able to cast more spells, and a real fighter is going to be more dangerous, but the battle mage pays for the privilege of being both.

If we take this logic and apply it to the bard, we see that that is exactly what happened. In order to be an effective character, one must play a bard for a very very long time, even longer than a wizard except that low level wizards, while fragile, don't suck.
If we ignore the bard, and instead set out to make a character that better suits what we want to play; say, Will Scarlet, we can accomplish this goal better by the player and the DM sitting down and designing this character and agreeing on a set of rules and limitations that apply to him as an individual.

Bilbo never considered himself to be a burglar, Conan wasn't just a barbarian, Robin Hood was not a thief, these were just things that other people called them. They were all special cases, and this can transfer over to our game.


This book, I feel, endorses a lie. It takes a misconception and instead of clarifying it, gives it flesh and blood and perpetuates it. Yes, it has some new things in it, but once again, why are we getting an entire book made for a couple of good ideas? Of course the answer is that TSR wanted money and they made poor Blake Mobley waste his time writing garbage that offers nothing to the hobby itself. This description fits much of the products that are published, good ideas are hard to come by, I get it; but does that really mean that we have to lower our standards in order to feel like we are succeeding? Well, it probably does.

With all of this said, I can perhaps skip reviewing the Complete Sub-Class Handbooks altogether, and I no doubt will. Books like this one are what irritated me at the time, and still give 2e a bad name. People remember the system for garbage and dirty tricks and forget the good stuff, the great ideas that came about in the 90's. We DMs of the period ignored the titles we didn't like, and if we were suckered into buying books like this, most of us left those things where they belong, on the shelf, collecting dust and holding the bookcase down so that it doesn't float around the room.

Medieval Life & Times: Bard

A special thanks to Mormonyoyoman from the Ruins of Murkhill Forum for inspiring this change of direction. If you experience any problems, blame him.

I've been chatting with Redditer Southsamurai on r/dungeonsanddragons

I would love to play a Bard as described in  Lloyd Alexander's children's fantasy series, The Chronicles of Prydain. That should be what a bard is, and I think that all you'd need to make it happen is to create a magical harp like Fflewddur Fflam's


Unknown said...

I think a thing people also tend to forget that these books are optional, and while it can be tedious to sort through what is good and adds to the game in a positive way and vice versa, the group is free to choose whatever they want to use.

I agree that later editions became very muddled in this regard, with the very specific class-titles as you mentioned and a very weird multi-class system where you take a couple of levels in that and that to make a weird hybrid.

And so, people will tell you that ADnD is dumb because it doesn't have a class that specifically has the title of "demon-dragon lordly killer 2000" or whatever, but shit, just talk with your DM about your CHARACTER and everything is possible really - that's the beauty of Pen'n'Paper and I think classic DnD has the rules to support any crazy idea, because a lot of it is optional and up for interpretation.

It's also why I love playing with new players, because they pick a base-class to keep it simple, but they always have a stronger idea on their character and personality, and if that is the onset instead of a title on your character-sheet, then it usually works out very well!

RipperX said...

This article is more hostile that I typically like to go.

You are right, it is options! My hatred for it runs back when to when I wasn't so mature. I'd have players trying to sneak options from the PHBR series into my game and I'd get pissed. It wasn't fair and it wasn't nice, but there it is.

Today, if a player wants to play a bard I'll say awesome! But, let's ignore this and instead work together to make the character that you want to play, and see how it goes.

It doesn't mean that I'll give you a dragon mount, you've still got to earn a dragon mount. But we can try to fix this class for you into something that we both can live with.

Mattia said...

Hello Ripper,

when in the old times, as a young boy, I struggled to buy rpg book, those discussing classes/races were the books I was saving money for. Some of them, especially at the beginning of 2nd editions, looked to contain chapters the authors could not add to the PH or DMG. Fighter or Thief’s handbook are good examples.

I remember really my joy when these optional additions arrived on the shelves of the local gaming store and, I have to say, the Bard’s handbook has always been one of my preferred.
So I am on the other side of the shore, mate, on this specific topic. Forgive me ;)

Bard class, since first edition, has always been a strange beast. I found it fascinating it could do many things, without excelling in any of them. Maybe I found it was the best representation of myself in real life: I was a good soccer player, but not a champion; I could play guitar, but I could not be the lead one in the band; I had so many ideas, but most of the times there was somebody doing better than me!
I always felt like Scottie Pippen at the Chicago Bulls, indeed a great player, however not comparable to Michael Jordan.

So Bard was a right choice for me, the best representation of the one who dares, but cannot really compete with those really good at doing something.
Bard’s handbook is not a kits compendium, it was/is something more. It contains a new full range of classes, and some of them I find really enjoyable. I remember fondly the Jester, the Blade, the Gipsy, the Charlatan, the Gallant, just to mention some.
It contains other rules I expanded a lot, like the Patron and, now I cannot remember the exact definition, Popularity.
At the time I remember, when I compared this handbook with the earlier ones, say again the Fighter and Thief’s handbooks (1989), kits, with some exceptions, were so plain and unimaginative.

My 2 cents, have a good day!

RipperX said...

I like it Mattia! Thank you for such a personal response. I have read quite a few people who enjoyed the class, as is. We all have different experiences.

I do remember that time when these books were coming out. And you are right, it was an exciting time. As I get older, the luster from those things fade, but in the 90's the DM had all of this stuff, and we players could pick up these things. I remember being absolutely entranced by the Thieves Handbook, a book that also gets low reviews now, but to me, that stuff was gold! I could finally play the character that I wanted to play; that meant something.

I know that I was being unfair to this title, and it is an easy target for a modern mind to rip it to shreds. I think that is why I didn't actually give it a rating, nor talk about it's value. My sensibilities have changed, at the time that this book came out it probably would had gotten a much more positive treatment from me.

Thanks for standing up for it and reminding me of what it was like to be a player back in the day!

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