Thinking back on Bardic Lore in D&D 3.0

I’m thinking back to my first games of 3.0 again. It was right before Fellowship of the Ring came out in the theaters. So, I proposed an all-halfling game. The party ended up being the Halfling Ranger (the sheriff), the Halfling Rogue (just brought back in chains from being caught stealing in the city, handed to his cousin the sheriff by the city guard), a high falutin’ Halfling Bard from the Silver Cities and a Half-Orc Fighter who watched over the party like a warrior-mother with a bastard sword should.

In that part of the world, dragons ruled the empires…color of the dragon having no bearing on alignment…blah blah blah.

As the DM, I fell in love with the Bardic Lore ability. It allowed me to deliver back-story for the world all over the place and sometimes, on a good roll, it forced me to come up with shit that I had never considered, handing the players the True Name of the Hag Queen or the secret entrance to the Ogre King’s fortress.

One night the Bard’s player could not show up and the players went forth into the hills infested by monsters, ruled by an Ogre King. “What is in the hills?” the Rogue asked.

“Do you have a lore skill?”


“You have no idea.”

“Could we find a library and do some research?”

“The nearest library is a few days travel away and it isn’t much, a local human duke with a few books and a few dozen old scrolls.”

I suddenly felt like a dick-move Dungeon Master.

But to hand them information felt like doing a disservice to the Bard’s ability. If they have access to the ability when the character isn’t even around, what is the point? The Bard felt mechanically shafted in a bunch of ways and to toss out his Bardic Lore when he hadn’t even rolled felt like it whittled the Character Class away to almost nothing. They went into the hills and dealt with the problems there without the benefit of information, without their precious Bardic Lore.

I had a technique problem, though. Failing a Bardic Lore roll had no consequences as I ran it back in the day. It should have. Going into a dragon-emperor’s lair or a drow nest or a city ruled by necromancers with bad info should make the game messy and make the characters’ lives a glorious mess in some meaningful way. I’m looking at failed circles rolls in Burning Wheel, failed rolls in Mouse Guard and failed rolls in Apocalypse World as my inspirations here.

7 thoughts on “Thinking back on Bardic Lore in D&D 3.0

  1. I feel the exact same way about Bardic Lore, I always wanted more of it. That’s why there are similar moves available to everyone in Dungeon World, with specialized versions for classes with specialized knowledge. And since it’s built on Apocalypse World, it’s got those consequences of a failed roll.

  2. As a fan of the 3.0/3.5 bard I share you sense of wanting to protect his role. He can’t do much very well and in a game where it was very easy to make builds that made him utterly superfluousness, making sure all his cool abilities really are cool, is important.

    For me this hits on niche protection, which I’ve found I kind of hate. Shaun and I talked about it in NC 49, but here is my thoughts in a nutshell:

    Rather than making every character important by finding something only they can do, make every character important by requiring that each put in their own efforts, in the way they find awesome, towards the goal. So the players pick what they think is relevant and cool, work on it and then not until they’ve all added in their part i the final roll made (like conflicts in Mouse Guard, maneuvers in Burning Empires, or vehicle duels in S7S)

  3. As a player of Bard characters, (a) yes, a thousand times yes to how you properly handled the class in your game, and (b) I’ve always been disappointed that my failed Bardic Lore rolls were not used to better storytelling effect. Right on.

    I’m enjoying these trips down memory lane to 3.X era.

  4. One of the awesome bits I’ve taken away from FATE is allowing characters with high knowledge type skills to actually declare things to be true. Rather than asking questions and forcing you figure out what the DC is to know that info, the player simply asserts that X is true. To follow up with your failed lore issue, the character will believe that X is true regardless of the roll. However, if the roll is successful, then X really is true.

    I did like that you didn’t allow the party to simply know things when the bard wasn’t there. Really underscored what he was bringing to the party. One of my issues with bardic lore is that it is almost always “roll to cue exposition.” The exposition almost never comes from the player, but from the DM. That seems to really devalue the apparent contribution from the character.

    I did notice that towards the end of the 3.x era, there were a lot more adventure writers who were putting in tiered Knowledge results. If you roll a 10, you know these basic facts. If you roll a 20, you also know these obscure facts. If you roll a 40, you know these super-rare facts, at least one of which will enable you to short-circuit some part of the adventure or avoid some threat. It gave the Knowledge skill a lot more oomph. But, like so much of 3.x, it put a lot more burden on the DM ahead of time when prepping the adventure.

    • The declaration of facts by PC’s can be really potent but its a fine line for me. Somewhere between the gonzo of Danger Patrol and the careful wording of BW’s wises is room for some real shite that can make me uncomfortable.

      I don’t know where exactly I am goign with that. Sometimes I like creating Air Sharks on Planet X but sometimes I want to be able to GM and help create a world with internal logic for the players to navigate through.

      There’s a bigger post there. I’m going to stew in that for a while.


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