Bards on Tour: A Role-Playing Campaign

I touched on this in our last RPG Talk, but the one-class campaign featuring the Bard is something I actually AM developing for a small group of friends, hopefully over the summer. Some early campaign notes...

The Premise
These will be the adventures of a band of bards hopping around the Forgotten Realms, from gig to gig. Wherever they go, there are opportunities for getting into trouble, whether physical, magical, political, or whimsical. The treatment will be anachronistic (if we can use that term when discussing a world that isn't actually historical), the bards to be treated as a rock stars playing at everything from the local inn to the Royal Court. Though the Realms are my chosen setting, I'm thinking this sounds a lot more like a Discworld idea. A lot of thing can happen on tour, and while I don't want to discuss plot details here, I'll be looking at material from Jem and the Holograms to the most recent Black Canary comic to music biopics for inspiration.

The band hasn't chosen a name yet, but if you're following in my footsteps, something meta could be fun (The Saving Throws), or maybe a pun (Earth, Wind, and Shire)... It could even be part of your character concept (say a version of Josie and the Pussycats with actual cat-people).

This will be limited engagement, say about 6 game sessions.

How Does Music Work?
A lot of gamers have music at the table these days. Playlists and YouTube make it very easy to give each game its soundtrack, and I've personally been indulging in this trick since the days of having to burn CDs (my players certainly appreciated getting the album at the end of the campaign chapter). So OBVIOUSLY, a "World Tour" campaign MUST have music. Several ideas come to mind:
-If all your players play complementary instruments, you could have their gigs played as live jams (this is not my case).
-A gig could be simulated using a video game like Rock Band; of course, either of these options means a rest from the tabletop, which is good or bad, depending on what you're trying to accomplish, and in what amount of time.
-The most basic way to play a gig is to have the players bring one or more songs (as a record, mp3, or YouTube link) to the game, hopefully something in the style they've chosen (though depending on the players, the band may be eclectic indeed). Each adventure should include a gig, which takes place before, during or after the scenario's main action, and we should hear at least one song (but no more than three, surely!) as the players act out their performance, describe flash pots going off, etc.
-If you're a stickler for authenticity, you can make your style Medieval music and such, but I personally want it to be crazy, with full on electric instruments, A Knight's Tale-style. In any case, this will be useful for...
-Tunes on the fly. Regardless of the bards' spellbooks - and I expect most spells to at least come with a ditty - I think the band should be able to come together at some point during an adventure, and fix a problem using a song. This will be a "once per session" ability, and will be completely open-ended. The effect is up to them, so long as they can suggest a song that evokes that effect. Bonuses and penalties will be handed out for how relevant it is, how difficult the effect is, how close to their band style it is, and so on.
-Electric instruments, did I say? Yes, this will just be a fact of life in our fantasy world that all the big acts use magical instruments that play like modern-day instruments AND can be used for bardic magic. I'm guessing these instruments are imbued with magic by the act of playing them and the audience loving it. The more success a bard has, the cooler the instrument becomes.
The Opening Act
Or, the Guest Player. My group is indeed small. I've got three players with the right schedule (to date, fingers crossed) that could play weekly or semi-weekly and get this story done over the summer months. But that doesn't mean other people don't want in, or that I don't WANT them in. Quite the opposite. And so, the Opening Act.

Every session, there will be an open spot for another player (alternatively a duo, more than that is asking for trouble) who will bring their own piece of music, style, and performance, and open for our band. (If you want to start your party at a bottom-drawer level, or kick them down the ladder for being bad, you can have THEM be the opening act.) These guests won't have to go through as rigorous a chargen process given their characters' longevity (though of course repeat appearances are possible); they'll likely answer a few questions and be handed a sheet that corresponds to their desires on the day. The opening act joins the band on stage and in the adventure, and can even help with the mass band spell, bringing to it a certain flavor that might alter the effect in an interesting way (that meteor swarm is all heavy metals or whatever). My old players who haven't already been approached about this will be happy to know there's a spot for them if their schedules clear up just so.

Character Notes
As intimated in that prior article, AD&D 2nd's "Complete Handbooks" are fair-to-great when it comes to making members of the same class different enough that they are complementary and interesting to play (this is true even if you're playing with another game system). The Complete Bard's Handbook is one of the better ones, in my appreciation second only to the Fighter's. Not all Bard "kits" in the book are musicians, mind you. There are Charlatans and Thespians and Jugglers too, but lots of different musical options to stray from the True Bard. There are Gipsy-Bards, with their animal empathy, fortune telling, alluring dancing and just possibly, psionic power. The Herald kit might at a pinch make a great front man specialist for the band. Bit of a comedy music act? Consider the Jester. Loremasters might make great lyricists, as might Norse Skalds. Meistersingers are essentially Pied Pipers. Dwarven Chanters have power over time, Elven Minstrels have special spell songs, and Halfling Whistlers can whistle up a literal storm.
I've yet to decide the starting level, of course. Some abilities may not be available early in the game. To be discussed with my players.

They will also have to decide what position they play in the band, which is likely to influence their personality. The Bard's Handbook also discusses this, inviting gamers to differentiate their performances by choosing personality traits, hobbies, moods, and appearance. Some of these may be different on stage and off!

One thing I don't plan on giving them any trouble about is paying for equipment. Their magical instruments they can have for free. Further, if they want to customize these for effect, I'll gladly let them combine a purchased piece of equipment AND their instrument. So if you Guitard Hero wants his axe to LITERALLY double as an axe? NO PROBLEM. A drum kit that acts as a suit of armor when dismantled? OF COURSE. A flute that's also a blowgun? I SIMPLY DO NOT CARE. I want this to be fun, above all.

The book also has a Reputation mechanic that will help track the band's success and reception, and I'll probably have different scores for the individual musicians and the entire band - who do the girls actually scream for? Probably going to treat bards/band that way across the board, with a common pool of Mana (a mechanic I prefer to learning spells beforehand), and Hero Points (no matter what, I use some kind of Cinematic elements, and they'll probably power those mass spells).

That's what I got to date. You're welcome to use this as inspiration for your own games, and if it indeed gets off the ground, you can look forward to updates under This Week in Geek. Or have you tried this kind of thing already? How did it go? Let us know in the comments.


Doc_Loki said...

Really enjoyed this article, and looking forward to your takes on other classes. (Also imagining a world in which you are Sisgoth, and each of these articles is about a different clan in Vampire: The Masquerade, but that's just me.)

Siskoid said...

Not sure I'm making that promise. The Bard campaign is actually one I'm working on right now, so these are actual campaign notes. But not a bad idea to write follow-ups eventually.

Craig Oxbrow said...

Having played an all Tremere game, we all started as sort-of-occult-scholar types but began specialising in different things very quickly - not just different kinds of Thaumaturgy, but different skill sets and approaches, including buying out-of-clan Disciplines to support them. The clans are looser than classes since you can buy most things (generally only Disciplines are clan-specific or otherwise expensive) so it was interesting seeing us "multiclass".


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