Game: The Quintessential Bard
Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Review Dated: 31st, May 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 24
Average Score: 6.00
The Collector Series from Mongoose Publishing has done well to follow the style first introduced in the Quintessential Fighter (book one) and yet remain flexible and innovative enough not to look dated today. One of the selling points for the Quintessential books for me has been their efforts to avoid simply doing power ups and to try to include material that fleshes out the class, providing more roleplaying options for GMs and players alike.
The Quintessential Bard was always going to be a challenge. More options for the Bard wouldn’t impact this Jack-Of-All-Trades class in the same way they’ve effected the specialised classes. Too many more options for the Bard might even dilute the class to a Jack-Of-Most-Trades. The meat of the Quintessential Bard is the Mysteries of Music chapter; it takes the Bard’s obvious musical nature and expands it sensibly into the magic system. In addition, the Tools of the Trade chapter is surprisingly strong. The result is a class that keeps its flavour as one that can do a little bit of everything but which benefits more fully from that and has some surprises of its own.
The Collector Series style ensures that the Quintessential Bard begins with character concepts. These are my favourite type of character concepts since they’re not solely interested in how the character became a Bard; many of the concepts are especially good for Bards with current roles. The Ambassador concept is a classic, ideally suited to the Bard in a fantasy world where you’d need someone who can hold his own a multitude of different circumstances. The Law Keeper concept shows how the Bard can become a key figure in rural communities; this is especially handy since D&D core has re-written Druids so that they’re extremely unlikely to be fulfilling that traditional role. There are, of course, a host of travelling entertainers such as the Talespinner, Skald, Minstrel, Explorer and Artist – to name a few – which receive the character concept treatment. Character concepts are designed to provide a roleplaying shtick and minor mechanical modification to the class. Cantors (divine bards), for example, cast their spells as divine (rather than arcane) and this means they no longer suffer spell failure checks for armour but must now find time to pray for her spells and keep her patron god pleased or risk loosing her powers.
The prestige classes are equally successful in their flexibility and scope. The chapter kicks off with the Dream Dancer and that’s one of those rare examples of a Bard as a non-singing entertainer. The Elder prestige class is coming straight into my d20 world building; I think it’s the perfect wise old villager grandfather or even gypsy-like figure. The Seneschal is another out-of-the-box (out of the dungeon, at least) example of where a Bard would excel. The Seneschal PrC would be a natural progression for the Ambassador Bard for in-game ambitions and game mechanic development. I’m always especially pleased to see that. Other prestige classes are built more obviously on the Bard’s extraordinaire singing abilities. There are enough 10 level classes to keep fusspots like myself satisfied and the use of dark grey/slightly darker grey backgrounds (rather than light grey/white) for the advancement tables also suits my tastes. The pages seem to be nice and busy but not cluttered nor messy.
Tricks of the Trade is often the chapter I’m prone to speeding through but here in the Quintessential Bard it was worth slowing down and picking up on some little gems. Gathering information isn’t a new use for the Gather Information skill but what caught my attention where the mechanics (this from the anti-crunch man) to resolve using Gather Information in a support role to Bardic Knowledge. You Bard PC spends the evening carousing around town to soak up rumours: Gather Information or Bardic Knowledge check to put the evening’s gossip together sensibly? I’ll use the easy circumstance bonus suggestion here in the Support Bardic Knowledge offering. On the other hand, I don’t need a roleplaying book to tell me that the Innuendo skill can be used to flatter people. Towards the end of this chapter (it’s not all new uses for old skills) there are rules for Assisting Actions. It’s here you’ll find the simple sing to aid the party rules for Bards. A lullaby (and DC 15) will grant +2 to Heal Checks for people resting properly. This is supposed to be a natural bonus, something that fits with the pattern of life, but I think GMs might like to colour it with the “spell-like” crayon. The chapter ends with a page or two of bardic professions: fools, storytellers, town criers, etc.
There are new feats. Geography and gossip are feats. Okay, GreographER is a feat, the special focus of landscape features and location of people on top of the Bardic Knowledge ability. Gossip is rather more flighty. A natural 20 rewards the Bard with someone uncommon secret. There are plenty of other feats, four pages of them; it’s just that the two dodgy Gs are back-to-back and stand out. The Mystery feat is one to watch as it opens up the Mysteries of Music introduced later on in the book. It can be taken multiple times if the Bard wants to open up more Mysteries of Music. I quite like that; even within the confines of music there is pressure on and rewards for Bards having a wide scope of talent. Once they’ve mastered the drum they might want to learn the lute.
Tools of the Trade deal with masterwork and magical instruments. An invested instrument is one that the magical bard has become so attached to that it develops seemingly magical powers. This is dealt with through the purchase of a suitable feat. The extra abilities an instrument might be able to open up or produce are alignment dependant. An evil bard/instrument playing might make it harder for people to resist the bard’s suggestions or charm spells.
Standing out in the Tools of the Trade are the rules and examples for magical crafts. Sure, wizards can create magical stuff but too many wizards are bookworm fuddy-duddies. Bards have a genuine flair for magic and artistic craft. This is why it’s nice to see rules for magical architecture (a bard designs a building to be a healing space or a sanctum, say), chandlery, embroidery (such as the covered in glory switch which incorporates arcane patterns to boost the wearer’s charisma and divine patterns to assist divine spell casting), engraving, glassblowing, painting, pottery, sculpture and weaving. Forget any plans you had of basing your Leonardo da Vinci inspired NPC on a wizard, use these rules and make him a bard. Magical musical compositions have a sub-section on their own. I’m not sure why it could cost a truck load of gold to compose a song, opera or symphony. These rules will have to be GM-faffed behind the curtain of “required for game balance”. Magical compositions allow the bard to incorporate spells into songs, spells that might normally be unknown and too powerful for the bard to cast.
It might be easiest to think of the Mysteries of Music as a set of supernatural abilities which open up if the bard has the Mystery feat and the Perform skill for the right instrument. The higher the bard’s Perform skill then the more abilities she’ll be able to use from any specific mystery. I was pleased to see that the Perform skill numbers are level headed and not lost in epic levels. You don’t need to be playing a Planar famous bard with Perform 25 (Bells) to use the Bells Mystery. A first level Bard with a talent for musical bells could access the first ability in the Bell Mystery. Abilities open up at Perform 3, 6, 9 and 12. Unlike spells, in most cases, the Mysteries of Magic continue for as long as the bard can continue the performance. For example, a bard playing the Lute and invoking the (Perform 9) “Lift Them Up” mystery will be able to boost his animal friends Str and Con by +4 for as long as he can keep on strumming those cords. Handy.
There are dozens of Mysteries of Music and they’re not all musical either. There’s Storytelling, Jesting, Dancing and Acting as well as cultural sub-sets like Dwarven Chant, Folk Dance, Orcish Drums and weird instruments like the Qin or Tambura.
The Mysteries of Music work for me. They’re clearly on-topic for the Bard, they add to the class without making it too powerful and really do bring the musical side of the class back into focus.
One of the reasons why I don’t think the Mysteries of Music are too powerful is simply because the Bard can sling spells anyway. The Quintessential Bard doesn’t forget that and includes five new pages of spells.
There’s a chapter on Bardic Duels. There are a whole bunch of different duels, situations where two bards try and out do one another. They could duel in magic, in riddles, in rites or steel but what stood out or me was the duel of performance. Here the competing Bards try and pick suitable performances to follow on from what went before. If you know your rival is really good at bawdy poems then you’ll be wise to try and manipulate the mood of the audience so there’s never a good time to hit them with lewd humour.
Quintessential X books tend to end with a chapter on fortresses, castles, groves or some other strong hold for the class in question. What will they do for the Bard? Venues. Excellent. This might be the best incarnation of the concluding chapter. There are rules here for getting to grips with and creating public venues, travelling shows, religious venues, courtly venues or private stages.
It’s always good to see a healthy index and useful rules summary and the Quintessential Bard has both.
If you’re a fan of the Bard class then I think you’ll like this book, if you can’t quite ever seem to tempt your players with the Bard or think the class could do with a bit more flesh then this is also a book for you. I think it’s fair to say that you’ll not be disappointed if you had high hopes for the Quintessential Bard – but if you’ve not liked the Collector Series to date then this book isn’t likely to change your mind. I think the Quintessential Bard’s critical success is being able to do the magical music thing without it being too cheesy or naff. The Quintessential Bard manages to give the Bard class the flair and finesse it needs.