Guidance — Unchain or Die: The Bard

It’s been a few weeks since I switched my blog’s format from a rotation-style to a “do-what-I-want” style, and so far I haven’t regretted it. But when I made the switch, it came with the caveat that I would basically do Iconic Designs until I had something to say on Guidance, at which point I’d write a Guidance blog. Well, several weeks later, here we are. I have something to say on Guidance. Mic drop.

With Starfinder just around the corner, I’ve seen bunches of people (including a few of my fellow Know Direction-ers) talk about Starfinder and speculate on whether or not it will be a proving grounds of sorts for changes that could find their way into Pathfinder someday. While I think that’s a given, one thing that I want to talk about specifically relates to Pathfinder Unchained, specifically the notion of a sequel. Plenty of people (myself included) speculate that another Pathfinder Unchained book (or at least a revised Core Rulebook in the spirit of Pathfinder Unchained) could be something Paizo turns to in the not-so-distant future. (And for me, “Not-so-distant” is within the next ten years; enough time for it to seem far-off, but in reality not too-far-away.) And please note, I say this as a speculator, not as someone with any inside information on the topic.

Turning to Pathfinder Unchained, there are several obvious classes that people always call for as needing an “unchained” version. Usually they’re classes that tend to underperform or perform only in niche circumstances (like the fighter), be somewhat lopsided in how and when they give you powers (like the gunslinger), or be a little bit on the insane side (like the swashbuckler). However, I have my own thoughts on what classes need to be unchained, and largely I find myself fairly alone in this regard. So starting today, I am going to begin a mini series on various classes that I feel need to be redesigned from the ground up and my (short) reasons why. Today, I begin with:

The Bard: A Class Without Options

So, like, damn. That is a HUGE statement to make, right? That the bard class has no options. Well, if you look at the class it’s basically true. But I wouldn’t stoop so low as to make you guys believe me without evidence (I AM studying to be a scientist, after all), so here’s my evidence that the bard needs to be unchained on the grounds that it has no real options.

1. Inspire Courage Has No Equal

Inspire courage is arguably the most powerful buffing ability in the bard’s repertoire. They get it early and the bonuses are general enough that basically everyone in your party benefits from it in some capacity. The combo of +X to weapon attack and damage swings tides in your favor drastically, and the power of inspire courage means that among bardic performances, it has no equal. No archetype that replaces bardic performance gives you anything as versatile or as powerful, I will say this plainly. Generally speaking, you are a worse bard if you lose this ability simply because of how good it is. But this doesn’t stop at simply archetypes, no other combat performance in the bard’s roster is as strong as inspire courage either. For example, inspire greatness is laughably unusable with its meager +1 competence bonus on attack rolls and temporary hit points, and while inspire heroics gives nice bonuses, the morale bonus on saves isn’t stackable with most of the bard’s core buff spells (the same problem inspire courage had in 3.5 that was changed in Pathfinder), and inspire heroics only works on one creature at a time, so you have to play the guessing game of, “Is this person the best person for this performance?” Bardic masterpieces likewise do nothing to stem this problem; it is not a good investment of my time to spend 5 full round actions calling down a blast of lightning when I could be making all of my allies mathematically more effective for those same five rounds. Ultimately, the power level of the various performances needs to be brought closer together in order for the bard to be a class with depth; right now, it spams one option and that’s all it gets.

2. The Bard Has No Real Choices

Speaking more on “that’s all it gets,” the bard has no real choices outside of spells known. To iterate, in the transition from Pathfinder to D&D, every class was given abilities that allow for meaningful choices throughout the character’s career. These choices enable members of each class to inherently distinguish themselves based on ability alone. Bards lack this in any real capacity. Not only do they have almost no feats that specifically modify them or their performances, but they also have almost no choices within their class features themselves. They basically get versatile performance, which mucks with one class feature at 2nd level and every 4 levels thereafter. What’s worse, the choices in versatile performance don’t matter; in Core, the skills overlap with one another heavily, so there is a very clear “Right” and “Wrong” set of performance skills to take. (Usually it includes dance because of all the Dex to Cha that happens within it, and a combination of performances to get Bluff, Intimidate, Sense Motive, and Diplomacy as Perform skills, which brings you to a total of three choices by 10th level.) By the time you get the 14th level Perform skill, you have no ranks to invest in a new skill and REALLY don’t get a darn about the new versatile performance as a result. As a result, most bards end up looks VERY samey. (Note that the advanced versatile performance options I wrote in Blood of the Beast helps with this problem, but it doesn’t solve the issue that the bard has very few choices to make over the course of their career.)

3.The Bard Spell-List is a Hot Mess

Finally, the bard spell list is REALLY not a great spell list once you look past some of the glitz and glam that bards have gotten in PATHFINDER; plenty of the core spells don’t hold up, and the bard is missing plenty of tools that they feel like they should have. Everyone gets REALLY surprised when I mention that the bard doesn’t get fly or overland flight; things like Mary Poppins or Peter Pan (aka singing / feeling good emotions to fly) feels very bardic, but bards cannot do it in any capacity. Bards also lack any decent area attack spells; shout is REALLY bad damage-wise, and the deafened condition isn’t great. Really, their powerhouse AOE spell is shadow evocation, and 14 levels is a long time to wait to cover that base for your party. (Believe me, swarms have laughed at my Reign of Winter group FOREVER because we don’t have a wizard.) And really, that’s the problem—the bard shouldn’t be able to cover all the same bases as a wizard or sorcerer as well as they can, but the bard’s niche is the skill monkey / fifth man character, and they really lack a bunch of very basic utility options to fill that roll.

But in the meantime, let’s get a discussion going. What other ways do you think the bard needs help? Do you think I’m wrong or am overlooking anything? What classes do you think need an unchained treatment?

Until next time, I’m Alex Augunas and I’m always here for YOU when you need a little bit of Guidance. Take care!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alexs Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC. If you like Alex's writing and are interested in supporting him while getting professional-quality material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game while doing so, check out the Everyman Gaming, LLC catalog, which is listed under Rogue Genius Games at the following locations:

Burst of Insight

1 Comment

  1. I’ve felt the same way about the bard for a long time. A stellar class performance -wise (sure, pun intended) but it’s just so.. blagh. It almost demands you take an archetype to get ANY semblance of customization and uniqueness is one of Pathfinder’s big strengths (especially when compared to the 5 iteration of certain flagship TTRPG’s)
    Reading this post inspired me this week, so I put together a first draft for unchaining the ol’ bard. If you’re interested, here’s a link to the paizo forum thread…

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