Medieval fantasy settings have bards. It’s something that many players or Dungeon Masters might not even note anymore, especially as the class has been a staple of Dungeons & Dragons for so long now. It’s been my experience, in fact, that the class really only comes up – in regards to how it fits the game – when the subject is “How do the various classes balance against eachother?”
Like any other class, however, there is a ton of potential there for character backgrounds and conflict to be found if you just go digging around enough.
Bards as presented in most fantasy games may be more than a mere performer, just as a fighter is something more than a soldier and a wizard more than a hedge-mage, but looking to their mundane origins can be very useful. So let’s start with the traditions.
Don’t Know Much About History
There are dozens and dozens of traditions that share the same general role, or occupy the same cultural space, as what we call bards. Every culture tends to have some form of skilled poet, musician, or orator who is singled out for this ability and the benefits it affords the people. What benefits? First, having a group dedicated to the preservation of oral traditions not only makes sure history is kept fresh for new generations, but keeps the lessons learned in those stories alive. Second, the ability to inspire others to your cause or spread new information – news, rumor, slander – quickly, and in a persuasive form, is always going to be valued.
I don’t have the time, or the space, to detail all of the bardic traditions but I will touch on four. Note that a few of these were the same idea in the same general region, just expressed in a slightly different tradition at a different time:
1) Troubadour: The first known troubadour was a member of high nobility, the Duke of Aquitaine. After him came poets of unknown origins and a member of the princely class, followed by a large number of troubadours who often described themselves as “poor knights.” Often there was also some sort of training with the Church in their backgrounds, whether this was merely a part of their upbringing or the result of abandoned ambitions within the religious orders.
While eventually the tradition spread among the urban or lower classes, this early concentration of the tradition in Europe provides an excellent potential distinguishing factor; someone of noble blood, many of them warriors, and a good deal of ties to their native religion. Another thing which is worth noting is that “trobar” meant to compose or invent, a “trobador” was the author of such an original work, and some surviving works make it clear that this act is what separated them from other courtly entertainers. It was the quality of music, and the depths of its theme that distinguished their work.
There was actually something of a trend in many troubadour works that involved mocking “jongleurs” – those general entertainers whose performances utilized the works of others – for their many deficiencies.
2) Skald: The main purpose of a skald in their home society was to act as the record of great deeds for the powerful or notable individuals in that culture. Eventually the skalds became seen largely as historians or figures of wisdom, elected to high positions on more than one occasion. Of note is that they tended to use a set of standard metaphors, called kennings, in their works – as they were touchstones any audience would understand – and that much like tropes or cliches today they could be used well or very poorly. Also as a fun addition is the idea that skalds were often compelled by tradition to write works in honor of certain events, such as when one was given a fine shield by a friend and was annoyed because it meant he was obligated to write about it.
It may sound a bit boring, for a viking tradition, but it’s worth noting that some of the earliest records we have of skalds involve a man who killed another in a sanctuary but avoided the death penalty by composing a poem, a ‘berserker’ who at age 10 killed someone for cheating in a game, as well as the man who fought the last duel in Iceland – though it was a draw that had to be finished in Norway – and whose name meant “Wormtongue” or “Serpent-tongue.”
3) Minstrels: The tradition of the minstrel differs from the troubadour mainly in that it grew from a rough combination of the Anglo-Saxon high (courtly) and low (travelers who relied on earnings from performing) poets with the French tradition of servants whose duty was to entertain their lord. While minstrels did often write their own music, they were mainly expected to memorize the great or popular works of others. Over time composers in England were divided into poets who used no music, and minstrels who used all sorts of instruments while performing for large gatherings.
What sets minstrels apart are that there were eventually guilds whose members had the exclusive right to perform in those areas, their entertainment skill set was considerably wider (some even working as jesters, picking up juggling), and they were known to travel where necessary.
4) Ashiks: The ashik is not a tradition that’s going to come to mind for many people approaching a fantasy setting, but perhaps it should be. A Turkic tradition dating back to at least the 7th century, these wandering bards were signified primarily by their practice of carrying a an 8 to 10-stringed long-neck lute called a saz – though they did use other instruments– and as key to the survival of several oral traditions. Epic poems, music from various regions or styles, and local celebrations were all part of their place in society. Over time they even counted the founder of a major dynasty as an amateur member of their profession, and in some areas their name became synonymous with “poet” as well as their particular musical nature.
Some of the early dervishes, mendicant Muslims who spread the word of Islam and practiced begging to keep themselves humble (giving all the proceeds to others), also eventually took on aspects of the ashik traditions and composed songs as part of their efforts at sharing their faith with the world.
We Could Be Heroes
That’s great and all, but what about specific examples from history or fiction that might serve as inspiration in a particular game? Here are just a few that come quickly to mind, but they’re really all over the place if you start to look.
1) La Maupin: If I told you that there was a woman of good birth who dressed as a man for swordplay demonstrations, set a fire in a convent to kidnap her young female companion, became an outlaw for dueling against the orders of the king, and went on to become a famous opera singer you might accuse me of creating a ridiculously over-the-top character. Thankfully, truth is stranger than fiction and Julie d’Aubigny very much existed. A performer, a singer, a dashing swordswoman, and an individual who had a loose appreciation at best for the laws of her day? Sounds like a bard to me.
2) Fflewddur Fflam: This character from the 1960s fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain is an interesting case, because he is the most famous bard in the series – and a main character – but does not actually qualify as such in a world where the title is more than just a traveling musician (a distinction made in the 5th edition of D&D as well).
He is a passable singer and a good harpist, but in Prydain a bard is someone who has earned a bardic symbol by mastering philosophy, medicine, ancient lore, mathematics and more. That said, he is a relatively well-travelled musician who carries a magic harp as well as a sword that he can swing well – when backed into a corner at least – and is known to sing for his supper (even though he’s secretly the relatively mediocre king of a small and boring domain).
3) Theophilos: Theophilos, more commonly called Feste, is a character in the Fools’ Guild Mysteries. The books are about Theophilos and other members of the Fools’ Guild, a secret order of spies disguised as entertainers tasked with preserving peace in Christendom, as they carry out missions for the old blind priest who acts as their leader. The main characters take on the roles of fools, jesters, jugglers, minstrels, and more while carrying out their duties or solving mysteries across several different regions. It is a fun inspiration, and one that could put a different twist on the bard class in certain settings.
Hopefully that is a good start, and if there’s some interest I may even come up with a random generator for bardic works or backgrounds.