Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Complete Bard's Handbook

This book is so close to being what it should have been. There were a couple of times where I caught a glimpse of the amazing rpg experience that we might have had if AD&D had been bolder, more audacious, and more culturally fluent.

There's a new spell in this book. No reasonable person would ever use it. Its metaphysical and setting implications are dizzying to contemplate. For a typical AD&D game, it's a bad spell, but there is a hypothetical game for which it is a bit of inspired brilliance. It fascinates me to think about what might have been, had the author allowed himself to forget he was writing for AD&D and just tug at the thread, following it to the bizarre glam-rock, high-camp musical fantasy rpg that is lying in potentia behind this spell.

It's called Summon Audience. . .

Summon Audience. . .

Summon Audience . . .

I can barely wrap my head around it. A bard casts this spell before giving a performance, then over the next few minutes, people start filtering into the venue, 1d4 per level. They watch the bard perform, and then they leave.

And maybe you might be thinking that this is me putting a hyperbolic spin on narrow, but sensible niche magic. That maybe Summon Audience works by sending a psychic signal, drawing in nearby people, half through telepathic compulsion, half through fate, who might be willing to sacrifice up to 4 hours of their lives to watch a musical performance.

The school of the spell is Conjuration. Not Enchantment. Not Illusion. Conjuration. These are real, flesh and blood creatures brought into existence for the sole purpose of watching the bard perform. They eat snacks and mill around during intermission. You can engage them in conversation, but they are evasive about their personal backgrounds. They take care to only appear and reappear when people aren't looking.

So just to be clear, this 3rd level spell creates ex nihilo both matter and consciousness and then obliterates it a few hours later just so the bard can have an audience for their performance.

I'm thinking of the musical episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I'm thinking of Brutal Legend. I'm thinking of nonexistent abilities, like snapping your fingers to summon a spotlight. And I'm thinking of real abilities, like the Gallant Kit's special power to delay death just long enough to give a dying soliloquy about his own premature mortality.

And I wonder - "what if AD&D had the guts to actually go for it." To make magical abilities that weren't framed as spells. And to give off-model class abilities actual teeth. There's an illustration that accompanies the Jongleur kit, of a motley-clad acrobat, balancing on a tightrope and somehow dodging a hail of knives, but one of the knives is aimed directly for his midsection and he deflects it with a gem held gingerly between his thumb and forefinger. It's the wildest, dumbest thing you've ever seen and it's awesome.

But the Jongleur's ability to dodge perils with a successful save vs paralyzation quite explicitly does not apply to missile attacks and so the art is a lie.

I think the book as a whole is summed up nicely by a quote early on
Carrying a lute around in the dungeon is hard enough without worrying about a large metal shield banging around and getting in the way.
Which is to say, the book is aware that being a bard is kind of weird, but rather than embrace that weirdness, it attempts to to keep it grounded, balancing the fact that the class is unusual with mechanics that ensure it's not very good.

That being said, The Complete Bard's Handbook is pretty good for people who are not in the habit of demanding that AD&D overthrow itself and abandon its sacred cows to embrace other, stranger genres of fantasy. The fact that bards get so many unconventional special abilities means that the kits are a lot more diverse in how they play, and unlike, say, The Complete Thief's Handbook, your choices here are more than superficial. It never quite escapes the feeling of holding back a better, weirder fantasy game that's struggling to get out, but even a little bit of that can go a long way in spicing up an AD&D game that's otherwise committed to staying in its lane.

Racism Watch: Only a little bit, but what's there is peak 90s. It's nice that there isn't a special Asian Bard kit, but it's only a small step forward in the spirit of global understanding when you point out that the Blade kit is especially impressive when "Oriental Blades [use] weapons such as the three-part-rod, the nunchaku, or the katana." Only one of those is even a blade, people.

The other big thing is the . . . sigh, Gypsy-bard kit. I didn't get the impression that it was moved by any particular anti-Roma animus, but man is it embarrassing. Like, gah! It's bad. It does the thing where it takes old racial stereotypes and turns them on its head by breathlessly proclaiming them to be signs of some higher enlightenment and . . . I guess this is just one of those historical artifacts where you have to have a frank and judgement-free conversation about changing attitudes and the nature of art before you engage with it on its own terms, because damn. Just damn.

Only one use of the word "savage" and it's not even a kit! It's just a suggestion for a hypothetical kit you might want to homebrew. Progress!

And one last thing that isn't really racism, but something that fits here because structurally it's very similar to a problematic element from a previous book:
If your campaign does not have a Viking culture, but a player still wishes to play a Skald, assume that the character left his distant homeland and has journeyed to the existing campaign setting.
 To refresh your memory, this is basically the Samurai's dilemma from The Complete Fighter's Handbook, but here it has a different punchline. I'd like to assume that this represents a shift, over the course of 3 years, in expectations about player agency and their ownership in the campaign and is not, say, a case where players can override the DM for a Viking Skald because it makes sense for white people to exist, but they need the DM's permission for a Japanese Samurai because Asian people are "out of genre."

To be clear, it's two different authors, writing in two different years, so it's not surprising that they got two different results. It's just something that gave me pause.

UKSS Contribution: Now, I don't want to be an asshole here. I don't want to get in the habit of choosing the worst thing from each book and going "Ha, ha, ha! Ukss is a world built from the mediocre detritus of 40 years of rpg history." But, but . . .
"My name's Dark and I'm a Blade. I take my name from the black garb that I wear at all times. I'm actually not exceptional in this, as all Blades wear dark clothing. But the name has stuck and I like it."
 I mean, fucking 1992, right? It was one of those weird coincidences. The in-character introduction to the Blade kit kept going and it was filled with gross assassination stuff that read for all the world like an over-the-top parody of the grim 90s antihero, but it was the genuine article, here in its original context. I literally laughed until I cried.

So, I'm proud to introduce the sworn enemy of Baron Von Hendricks, Dark the Blade. He will do anything to get revenge, and until that day his turbulent heart will never know peace.

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