As you read this, it's the beginning of July, the month D&D 3.5 comes out, but as I write this, it's the end of April, and the big question for me is this: What exactly will you know when you read this? Why is this important? Here, I'll show you:
In the Dungeons & DragonsPlayer's Handbook 3.5 is written the following:
Gnome Racial Traits
Favored Class: Bard
You see? If 3.5 isn't on the shelves yet, and if we haven't released that information some other way, that's a pretty big spoiler. If, on the other hand, the new Player's Handbook has been out a week, or if one of the 3.5 spoiler articles on the D&D website or any of the fan sites has already told you that, well, then it's not very interesting. (Well, it might be interesting, but it's not new to you.) Such is the joy of writing for the future. Who knows, maybe there'll be a fire at the printer's and 3.5 will be delayed 6 months. Since there's no way to know, I'll just have to press ahead with the idea that you haven't already read the new Player's Handbook and that some, if not all, of this is news to you.
As many have speculated, it's the half-casters, like the bard, that see the most changes in 3.5. Given all the possible variants and ideas I've seen tossed about on the message boards, fan sites, and email, I don't know how many of these changes were expected by most people. I imagine that if you gathered all the guesses and requests out there together you'd likely find pretty much everything that has been changed listed somewhere at least once. Let's start with one that I think everyone expected and most people I know have been using for a while now:
Skill Points: 6 + Int modifier per level (with the traditional x 4 at 1st-level, of course).
This is a long time in coming and I'm sure everyone appreciates it.
Bardic music also got an overhaul. It's not the total rewrite I saw suggested some places on the Internet, but it has had some expansion and a slight mechanic alteration here and there. The bardic music abilities are now level-dependent, as well as dependent on ranks in Perform. This doesn't change much of anything for the pure bard character, but it does mean that you can no longer take just one level in bard and gain all the bardic music abilities by simply buying up your Perform ranks cross-class (or taking the Cosmopolitan feat and making it in-class). Countersong, fascinate, and inspire courage are all back as the 1st-level bardic music abilities, and every application of bardic music received at least some small modification or clarification to its effects. Mostly this was just little stuff, like clarifying that using suggestion does not count as a use of the bardic music ability for the day (since you already have to fascinate a target before you can use suggestion), and a few slightly larger modifications, like inspire courage, which becomes more effective as you rise in bard levels. Inspire greatness, however, got a bit larger of a change and three new possible uses for bardic music are introduced: song of freedom, inspire heroics,and mass suggestion.
I had one other thing to mention before I move on to spells, which I know you're all curious about. A couple of neat things are awaiting you under the header "Weapon and Armor Proficiency." First, you don't have to pick just one weapon from a small list to be proficient with because you get 'em all. The list has been shortened a bit, though; it drops longbow and composite longbow. That's okay, though, since elves are still proficient in all bows, which raises the question of what gnomes are proficient with. The answer: nothing, that's what. Moving on in the weapons and armor section there's also this: "a bard can cast bard spells while wearing light armor without incurring the normal arcane spell failure chance." Since very little makes me want to beat my head against the table more than losing one of my precious high-level spells to spell failure just because I refuse to let my bard run around without at least some armor, I was pretty stoked to read that.
Now for the moment for which you've all been waiting.
Short of completely changing the class, the largest changes that can be made to the bard are in its spell selection. It's pretty easy to find the bard spell list section of my preview copy of the Player's Handbook since it practically glows in the dark with highlighter ink. At a glance, the spell selection is more rounded, with a broader range of spell types to choose from. I, for one, am very excited about this since it allows not only for a deeper, more useful, jack-of-all-trades type of character, which I'm very fond of, but it also allows for a wider range of different types of bard characters should you choose to specialize your bard. I've already written an article about the different directions you can take the bard in by focusing on one of several possible aspects of the class, and, seeing the 3.5 version of the bard, I'm looking forward to trying that again and finding new and different aspects of the bard class to explore.
The first thing I noticed when I got into specifics was that the bard has a greater number of higher level spells: twenty different 6th-level spells are available to choose from. Missing from the spell list is one thing I never thought was appropriate, which was the tendency toward illusion spells at the higher levels (which now becomes somewhat ironic when you think about the whole gnome thing). In fact, when I look for a theme among the spells available to the bard, I now see spells like shout, greater shout, my old favorites shatter and sound burst, along with sculpt sound, song of discord, and sympathetic vibration. Sound manipulation and sonic damage all over the place -- what could be more appropriate for a bard?
On the other side of the coin, we did lose some stuff. Here's an actual quote from me as I skimmed the new spell list for the first time, "Ack! My mage armor, where's my mage armor? And greater magic weapon . . . not greater magic weapon!" Yes, these staples are gone, but you have to look at that as a good thing, since it forces you to look elsewhere and be creative, and being creative is always a good thing. Also, I guess we know now why bards don't suffer arcane spell failure for light armor any more.
In a general sense, the bard has lost most, if not all, of its direct strength and damage boosting spells (bull's strength, magic weapon, greater magic weapon, keen edge) but has gained a wide variety of different types of spells in return, including some direct damage sonic spells and some other boost type spells such as rage and good hope. Wind wall and gust of wind are gone, so my dreams of a "wind" themed bard are gone, if indeed I ever had any. Undetectable alignment has moved down to 1st level, while see invisibility and daylight have moved up from 2nd to 3rd level, and bards have gained the option to speak with animals and speak with plants as 3rd- and 4th-level spells, respectively. You might find disguise self handy as a 1st-level spell, or alter self at 2nd level, or you just may prefer glibness in the spell form instead of potion, and you can find this available as a 3rd-level spell. The 2nd-level spell list added four new buffs: eagle's splendor, fox's cunning, heroism, and rage, while at 6th-level you'll see Otto's irresistible dance.
The best part is that even with all this, there's still plenty left for you to find for yourself when you get the book. The new bard looks like it will continue to be the "second best at everything, first best at nothing" class that we've become accustomed to, but I think we're going to see that the larger spell selection and new bardic music effects allow the bard to be the second best at many more things than before. This expands on the idea of a class that has few direct weaknesses and who can exploit the weakness in a wide range of opponents. It also looks like there's going to be a bard buff machine concept coming in the near future, with more ways to add +1 and +2 on attacks, saves, skill checks, and abilities than ever before. Even if you're not interested in playing a bard, you may find a bard would make a good selection for your Leadership feat -- smells like a future article coming on.
About the Author
Erik Olsen thinks that far and away the best improvement in the 3.5 D&D is that they started to list terms like "Greater," and "Lesser" as descriptors after the main spell name. No longer will you need to look under "L" for lesser planar binding, under "P" for planar binding, or under "G" for greater planar binding. Now they're listed together as "planar binding," "planar binding, lesser," and "planar binding, greater."