This month sees the release of Player's Handbook 2, featuring the return of some favorite classes to the game, including the druid and the bard. In this month's D&D Alumni, we take a brief look back at these two classes—following their evolution through the editions and their subtle shared connections.
Most players anticipated the eventual return of these classes return to the game, but why? How have the druid and bard retained their popularity? The answer, at least in part, can be the fantasy standard each class represents—priest of nature and traveling minstrel have been longstanding roles of the fantasy genre and retain a unique niche in the game. And while it may not seem likely at first, the druid and bard share more in the game than some might realize; for starters, their sense of fraternity, both in terms of organization and in certain stereotypes of modern college fraternities. Druids were initiates for most of their career, not becoming a named "druid" until 12th level, and thereafter suffered the initiation of combat to advance. Bards, meanwhile, belonged to a college whose apparently snooty upperclassmen refused to associate with anyone of a lesser college.
Add to that the fact that bards had to for a time play as druids—or at least, as we shall see, continue their study under druidic tutelage.
Druids can be visualized as medieval cousins of what the ancient Celts sect of Druids would have become had it survived the Roman conquest.
Central to their thinking was the belief that the earth was the mother and source of all life. They revered many natural things—the sun, moon, and certain trees—as deities. The druid is a priest of nature and guardian of the wilderness, be it forest, plains, or jungle.
The fury of the storm, the gentle strength of the morning sun, the cunning of the fox, the power of the bear—all these and more are at the druid's command. The druid, however, claims no mastery over nature. That claim, she says, is the empty boast of a city dweller. The druid gains her power not by ruling nature, but by being one with it. To trespassers in a druid's sacred grove, and to those who feel her wrath, the distinction is overly fine.
Secretive and enigmatic, druids call the wilderness their home. They are capable of running with a wolf pack, speaking with the most ancient trees, and watching thunderstorms from atop the clouds themselves. They regard challenges as tests, both of their fitness and of their connection with the wild places of the world. And though many druids project an outward calm, they have the cunning of the beast and the fury of the storm.
Druids began their inception as a subset of clerics (in 1st Edition), then later of priests (in 2nd Edition, alongside clerics). Worshippers and guardians of nature, the druids' traits have always supported this role, even at the cost of their overall utility to an adventuring party.
In 1st Edition, druids were required to be True Neutral in alignment (nature might be cruel or kind but apparently played no favorites). That led to considerable confusion, according to Steve Winter, with many players and DMs assuming that druids wouldn't take an active hand in affairs of the world. Their brand of neutrality, however, had to be seen in the context of the game's struggle between real forces of evil and good, law and chaos. In that war, druids held an active devotion to not preferring one side over the other, but that didn't mean they never took sides. Their interest was in maintaining the balance. When events tipped in favor of good, for example, druids might temporarily take the side of evil. If chaos was gaining the upper hand, they would throw their strength behind law. Their aim in all situations was to prevent one side from becoming dominant and overthrowing the other.
They used mistletoe for their holy symbol (which must have caused no end of confusion around the holidays), and could not wear or use metal armor or shields, as it spoiled their magical powers (whereas magic-users could not wear such armor as martial training was foreign to them). They could use some metal weapons, their set limited to the club, dagger, dart, hammer, scimitar, sling, spear, and staff. 2nd Edition added the sickle to what was still a rather odd, even arbitrary selection. In addition, druids boasted their own secret language (just as thieves had their cant, both of which could be learned by studious assassins) with which they "could discuss at length and in detail the state of the crops, weather, animal husbandry and foresting; but warfare, politics, adventuring, and like matter would be impossible to detail with the language."
These druids also possessed the abilities to identify plants, animals, and fresh water; pass through undergrowth without leaving a trace; enjoyed an immunity to the magical charm of woodland creatures; and gained a new woodland language each level, chosen from among centaur, dryad, elvish, faun, gnome, green dragon, hill giant, lizardman, manticore, nixie, pixie, sprite, and treantish—again, a fairly odd and arbitrary selection, but which allowed someone in the party to converse with these beings back when virtually every creature spoke its own language. Yet while these abilities connected with the druid's theme, they had limited use when the party left the woods and entered an actual dungeon.
Of course, the druid was also known for two other traits: the ability to change form 3/day into a reptile, bird, or mammal; and the limited number of upper-level druids, who could only be supplanted via magical or hand-to-hand combat. In 2nd Edition, this mysterious druidic organization was further detailed. The original limit of nine Druids (at 12th level) and three Archdruids (13th level) was expanded to apply only in a given geographical region, not the entire world. In order to gain one of these positions, druidic combat could be waged to the death, unconsciousness, or even to first blow. Tthere could still be only one Grand Druid (take that, Highlander), yet oddly enough, the current Grand Druid eschewed combat and simply selected his replacement—for a position cheerlessly described as "demanding, thankless, and generally unexciting for anyone except a politician." Thus, Grand Druids stepped down to actually take up adventuring once again, gaining greater abilities earlier presented in the 1st Edition Unearthed Arcana, including immunity to natural poisons, vigorous health and longevity, and the power to enter and survive within the Elemental Planes.
By 3rd Edition, druids were a separate class. They were no longer bound to a true neutral alignment or forced into combat to gain limited upper level positions. Their bonus languages were collected into the more encompassing Sylvan, and their shapechanging (then called Wild Shape) could eventually include plant and even elemental forms. However, druids could still not wear metal armor, and their weapon proficiencies reflected their original set: club, dagger, dart, quarterstaff, scimitar, sickle, sling, and spear. Plus, they retained the debatably useful abilities of Woodland Stride and Trackless Step.
For 4th Edition, R&D's Mike Mearls took the lead on the druid's design. As he states, the PH2 team "really wanted the druid to feel like shapechanging was a core part of the class. Druids are nifty because they are spellcasters on one hand, but can also transform into vicious beasts and wade into melee. Striking the balance between those extremes, while also fitting the druid into the controller role, was a big challenge."
As this class subsumes the functions of two other classes, fighters and thieves, and taps them off with magical abilities, it is often not allowed by Dungeon Masters.
The bard is an optional class that can be used if your DM allows. He makes his way in life by his charm, talent, and wit. A good bard should be glib of tongue, light of heart, and fleet of foot (when all else fails).
It is said that music has a special magic, and the bard proves that saying true. 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, scouts, and spies.
Bards are artists first and foremost, and they practice magic just as they practice song, drama, or poetry. They have a clear sense of how people perceive reality, so they master charm magic and some illusions. Sagas of great heroes are part of a bard’s repertoire, and most bards follow the example of many fables and become skilled in a variety of fields. A bard’s artistic ability, knowledge of lore, and arcane might are widely respected, particularly among the world’s rulers.
Some months back, we ventured into the appendices of the 1st Edition Player's Handbook to explore the Known Planes of Existence. Within these strange realms (the appendices, not the Planes) could also be found one of the game's more unorthodox classes: the bard.
Like druids, bards have always held firm to their original class concept—that of a skald or performer with magical abilities tied to their music. Examples given have included Alan-a-Dale, Will Scarlet (both figures in the legend of Robin Hood), Amergin (of Irish legend, who was both druid and bard), and Homer, while Dragon 327's Class Acts expanded on these selections to mention further bards from history, including the most famous of all, William Shakespeare. The one character that was never explicitly stated but may be the best model for a 1st Edition bard is Beowulf -- a roving hero of vast experience and might who splits his time between performing acts of epic prowess, battling ferocious beasts, and then bragging and singing his own praises to anyone who'll listen. Oddly enough (and in yet another connection with druids, albeit a tenuous one), 2nd Edition likened bards "only to certain groups of Celtic poets who sang the history of their tribes."
The 1st Edition bard, unlike other multi- or dual-classes, required a very specific and difficult course of study. They played as fighters for at least 5 and no more than 7 levels (or credits of study, in a way). Then they played as thieves, likewise for at least 5 and no more than 8 levels. Finally, they continued as druids, insofar as they were considered under druidic tutelage while playing as bards and gained access to druidic spells. Other bardic abilities better fleshed out their concept; as they rose in level, they gained new languages, increased in proficiency with Legend Lore and Item Knowledge, and—with their singing and playing—perfected their chance to charm opponents, negate harpies, and even soothe shriekers (though to do so, a 1E bard "must always have a stringed instrument"—sorry drummers).
In 2nd Edition, the bard's career path was completely revised to instead make the bard a subset of rogues (along with thieves). This was both to emphasize their roguish nature and to compensate for the loss of the assassin as a thief subclass. They were still considered an optional class and described as jacks-of-all-trades. This bard continued to influence enemies, allies, and neutral parties alike through music but also possessed certain thief abilities and cast a small number of wizard (instead of druidic) spells. 2E bards were no longer bound to stringed instruments, however, but were considered "proficient singers, chanters or vocalists and can play a musical instrument of the player's choice (preferably one that is portable)." By 3rd Edition, bards were a core, not optional, class with their traits and abilities intact, including bardic music and knowledge, countersongs, suggestion, and inspiration.
As Mike states for the 4E bard, the concept of a trickster loomed large. "It isn't that a bard is a jack-of-all-trades. It's more that he always has a trick up his sleeve. It was important to reflect that in his powers and in how you can build your bard."
As an example of the trickster, Mike can still recall his own 2E bard: "I remember scaling a wall to jump down upon an ogre when it entered a room. I played a warrior-minstrel, based loosely on the character Fflewddur Fflam from the Chronicles of Prydain. Like Fflewddur, he had a penchant for stretching the truth, though I can't remember if his shortsighted bravery (jumping on an ogre's back is a good way to start a fight but maybe not a good place to stay) was all me. I remember getting in trouble, a lot, and always trying to find ways to trick and scheme my way out of danger.
"I think that in 4E, the bard might still leap on the ogre's back, but as a leader he might convince the rest of the party that it's a good idea."
About the Authors
Bart Carroll inhabits only dark subterranean places. He roams such places in search of his food -- metals of all sorts, but principally ferrous based metals such as iron, steel, and steel alloys. If the author touches the metal with his two antennae, it rusts or corrodes the metal. Metal affected rusts or corrodes and immediately falls to pieces (which are easily eaten and digested by the author). Weapons striking the author are affected just as if the author’s antennae had touched them. Bart can smell metal at 9" distance. He will stop for a melee round to devour such items as a handful of iron spikes or a mace if a fleeing editor throws them away, but he will go after ferrous metal in preference to copper, silver, etc.
Steve Winter is a writer, game designer, and web producer living in the Seattle area. He's been involved with publishing D&D in one form or another since 1981. Tiny people and monsters made of plastic and lead are among his favorite obsessions.