The Oriental Adventures book brings the Dungeons & Dragons game system to the world of Rokugan, a land of fantasy and adventure based on the stories and writings of Japan, China, India, and the greater region known to us westerners as the Far East. This is all well and good, but as you peruse the Oriental Adventures book, you may notice one little problem -- no bards.
The Oriental Adventures book explains that the bard and a few other classes from the Player's Handbook are not appropriate to the setting of Rokugan. The world of Greyhawk, the default setting for Dungeons & Dragons, is culturally very different from Rokugan, and Oriental Adventures says that while traveling performers/adventurers make a good deal of sense within the Greyhawk setting, they don't fit in the world of Rokugan.
While I certainly wouldn't argue with the book's position on this issue, I also hate to see my favorite class absent from this rich world. So, while a bard may not be appropriate for Rokugan, I see no reason why all adventures set in the Orient also have to be set in Rokugan, and I'd like to see what kind of bard I can bring to the Far East and what kind of bard I can get out of Oriental Adventures.
Taking Mohammed to the Mountain
First, let's see how we can bring our D&D bard over to the Orient (as in bringing it to the Oriental Adventures setting, not just bringing a bard character to the actual Orient; I'm fairly certain someone's already done that). The first obstacle is concept: the standard bard idea of the roving minstrel wandering the countryside in search of adventure, excitement, songs, and magic has a few problems in this new setting. While entertainment is certainly highly valued, the entertainers of this fantasy Far East setting rarely rove. Instead a valued singer or musician would be tied to a major clan or castle, and hearing them perform would be seen as an attraction of visiting that castle, bringing honor and prestige to the castle and its lord. Such a performer would spend the majority of his time perfecting his art, with little time left over for adventuring, even if he were to travel. Since freedom of spirit and lifestyle are as central to the bard concept as performing, what we need to find is a group of people who can move about freely within the Oriental Adventures setting in the same way a bard moves about in the core D&D world. As it turns out, there is such a group: monks.
Monk may well be a class both in regular D&D and in Oriental Adventures, but it's also a social class, and not all of them necessarily fall under what our game would call the monk class. To say it another way, not all monks know kung fu. In the Eastern cultures upon which our setting is based, the term monk covers a wide variety of people. Oftentimes when fighting men retired, they became monks and sought inner peace in their remaining years. Also, orphaned children might be raised as monks by the monks of a monastery. Someone pursuing religion full time would be a monk, and since neither the monasteries nor the orphanages were the most formal of places, anyone who wanted to look and act like a monk could be, more or less by default, a monk.
A monk stands apart from the social order of peasants and samurai. By not being a peasant, a monk is not expected to farm, but not being a samurai or noble the monk also doesn't own anything, like food or somewhere to sleep. A monk's survival is in the hands of those around him. In short, he begs. In the Oriental Adventures society, begging does not carry with it the same connotations that exist in Western culture. Here begging is seen as good for the soul; it teaches humility and reminds you that if you're not working the fields or fighting to protect them, you're living on the good will of those who do. Fortunately, the culture encourages that good will since it's considered good luck to give to one attempting to learn humility in such a way. By giving to those who beg, you remind yourself why it is you toil in the fields or risk your life with the sword, and you continue a tradition that may well benefit you later in life should you decide that the way of the monk is a path you wish to pursue. (Yes, this is a vastly simplified explanation of a very complicated social, religious, and economic system, but it's good enough for our purposes here today.)
While it's a long way from an easy life, this is the only real social class that affords the type of freedom that a bard needs to be a bard, so let's say that our Oriental Adventures bards shave their heads and move about the countryside looking very much like monks. Since this entails a few lifestyle changes, I'll take this opportunity to do a quick class write-up on the new Oriental Adventures bard, while sticking as close to the original bard as possible and making changes where needed.
Oriental Adventures Bard
Wandering across the land, gathering lore, telling stories, working magic with his music, and living on the gratitude of his audience: Such is the life of a bard. When chance or opportunity draws them into a conflict, bards serve as diplomats, negotiators, messengers, advisors, and teachers.
Like other bards, the Oriental Adventures bard's magic also comes from the heart. With a good heart, a bard can use his knowledge and abilities to aid the people his journeys bring him to and, with an evil heart, he can use those same skills to confound and deceive. At all times, though, the bard remembers that it is his audience, and only his audience, that sustains him by keeping him fed when hungry and sheltered when cold.
Adventures: Bards see adventures as opportunities both to learn and to teach. By participating in these adventures, a bard hones his skills, increases his knowledge, and encounters new lands, people, and ideas. The more exotic and rare the knowledge gained, the more exciting it is to the bard. A bard often accompanies heroes, or villains, to experience their deeds firsthand, offering what advice or assistance he can to be an active participant whenever possible, and then sharing the tales and lessons learned there with others he encounters. It is this desire to experience, and then to share these experiences, that separates the bard from the monk or rogue.
Races: Most bards are human, although it's not unheard of to encounter a hengeyokai or spirit folk bard and the natural curiosity of the nezumi occasionally draws one of them into the life of a bard for a time. For a human bard, the opportunity to meet and exchange stories with one of these nonhuman bards is a rare treat indeed.
Characteristics:Oriental Adventures bards have the same characteristics as normal bards, but their music often takes the form of ritual chants for the more religious bards or epic or travel poetry for the more scholarly bards.
In all other ways, the Oriental Adventures bard follows the bard rules guidelines as listed in the Player's Handbook with the following exception:
Weapon and Armor Proficiency: A bard is proficient with all simple weapons. Additionally, the bard is proficient with one of the following weapons: composite longbow, composite shortbow, kama, kawanaga, kusari-gama, or whip. Bards are proficient with light armor and medium armor. Armor check penalties apply as listed in the bard entry in the Player's Handbook.
Taking the Mountain to Mohammed
While tweaking the bard class to fit the Oriental Adventures setting is one way to go about playing a bard with a Far East flavor, there is another way. Let's take a look at the classes available to us in Oriental Adventures and see if we can find a character in there that's a bard in spirit, if not in name.
Having decided that the monk social class was a good place in which to put the bard in the Oriental Adventures world, I wanted to start my search for the hidden bard in the monk class -- and the three monk prestige classes -- listed in the book. We start off with a very basic clash: The bard alignment restriction is any nonlawful while the monk alignment restriction is any lawful. However, despite this fundamental difference of outlook, there may well be some common ground from which to work. For instance, in the monk class description it says, "In Rokugan, although monks tend to have different goals and values than members of the other classes, they believe that they have an obligation to teach and work among the broader population of the Empire." That's a decent start, and if one of the monk prestige classes builds on that, we might have a good match.
Henshin Mystic: The henshin mystics believe in and seek out enlightenment to achieve perfection. They often wander the Empire teaching others and helping them on their own road to enlightenment. The wandering teacher part is cool, but it's not quite what I was looking for. Looking at the stat requirements for this prestige class, I find that you need 6 ranks in Knowledge (arcane) and 13 ranks in Knowledge (religion), along with a +7 base attack. That's 10 levels of monk before you begin wandering around to teach enlightenment, and 10 levels of monk is a whole lot of kung fu (something I was trying to avoid). Looking at the level progression, the first level in henshin mystic grants a spell-like ability, and every level thereafter grants more kung fu. I don't think this is the class I'm looking for.
Shintao Monk: Concerned about not being able to avoid the kung fu, I looked at the stat requirements right away.
Alignment: Lawful good.
Base Will Save Bonus: +4.
Skills: Knowledge (religion) 8 ranks.
Special: Still mind class ability.
About that Gather Information Skill
If you decide to make your character take on aspects of the bard in a setting similar to that presented in Oriental Adventures, here is an instrument to assist in that regard!
Biwa of Listening: The biwa is a stringed instrument similar to a lute. When played, the biwa of lore gathering produces mellow, muted tones. If the performer makes a successful Perform check (DC 15), the tones elevate the performer's ability to hear nearby conversations (+4 bonus on Listen checks). Upon command, and if the performer succeeds at an additional Perform check (DC 20) after at least 1 round of playing, he or she also gains the benefit of bardic knowledge with a bonus equal to half the performer's ranks in the Perform skill (round down) + his or her Intelligence modifier for 1 hour. For instance, a performer with 9 ranks in Perform and who has an Intelligence of 14 has a +6 bonus. (See Chapter 3 of the Player's Handbook for more on bardic knowledge.) Merely holding the biwa grants the user a +4 bonus on Gather Information checks.
Caster Level: 10th; Prerequisites: Craft Wondrous Item, legend lore, Gather Information skill, Listen skill, Perform skill; Market Price: 29,600 gp; Weight: 3 lb.
That's pretty good. Monks pick up still mind at 3rd level, and they get the Will save required at 4th level. That's very little kung fu -- comparatively speaking, of course. The description of this prestige class reads, "NPC Shintao monks serve as teachers and guides on the path of enlightenment. Many are advisors to daimyos or lesser nobles, but most live fairly reclusive lives in their monasteries and temples." Teachers, advisors, low kung fu . . . if it weren't for that whole "lawful good" thing, this prestige class would be a real contender. As you progress as a Shintao monk, you gain a few fighting abilities, but mostly you gain things that look suspiciously like spells, and some of them look like spells a bard would cast. For instance: Touch the Void dragon raises one ability score by 1d4+1, much the way cat's grace, a 2nd-level bard spell, raises Dexterity. So far, as long as you want to be a good bard, this is the closest we can get.
Tattooed Monk: The tattooed monks come from specialized schools where they receive, you guessed it, tattoos. The most striking thing about this prestige class is the special abilities gained during level progression. Starting at 1st level, and every other level thereafter, you gain a tattoo. Choose from a list of tattoos; they all do different spell-like or ability stuff, and you can take the same one more than once. If that's not customization, I don't know what is. You'll still have to be lawful, though, but this class does have one of the cooler requirements for entry: You have to be accepted to one of the Tattooed monk schools. A roleplay-based requirement -- what could be better? It may not be overtly bardlike, but it's neat.
I did see one other place where we might find Oriental Adventures' built-in bard: the shaman class. A shaman in Oriental Adventures is pretty much a low-combat-ability, wide-concept-range cleric. So, for the most part, he's really more like a cleric than a bard, but clerics are not entirely unlike bards and the freedom granted in the flavor of the shaman allows for a great deal of customization. Shamans are found among all the races, may be of any alignment, and cast spells from a decent spell list as well as gain spells from your choice of two of the twenty available domains. With the wide-open nature of the shaman, you could quite possibly create a shaman character and play it largely as you would a bard, and still be well within the shaman concept. If only the shaman had some sort of ability to use Gather Information more easily.
About the Author
Erik Olsen's natural predilection to read books back to front has made character creation exceptionally difficult on more than one occasion. Fortunately, he has learned to compensate for this by not actually making his character until midway through the second session when he has a firm grasp on what stats he's likely to need.