Regarding the structure of bardic knowledge, the focus is something more than enabling a character to sing songs and write poetry. There is something more inherent that must be part of the class, something that has eluded me up until now and which I think has eluded everyone.
The fighter is a visceral experience. It strikes at the inner part of the body. The player feels the axe hitting and breaking the enemy ~ and this is something the player never has the opportunity to feel, because we live in a modern world where we do not gird on swords and go to war (and if we do, it is very different now).
This is why people play a fighter: to have that experience of mastering the weapon, of swinging, of hitting, all of these things being part of the lexicon of the game. We do not roll the die, we "swing." We do not succeed in rolling a number, we "hit."
The same is true of the mage, for players want that visceral experience of wielding enormous power, blasting open the gates and engulfing enemies in a blast of flame or lightning. In no way can we do this in real life. Nor can we enjoy the death of an unknowing enemy from our knife in his back, nor the pride in communicating with the gods, or in any other thing having to do with the classes in D&D. We play these characters because we cannot do what these characters do. This is the appeal.
Then how does the bard fit into this? The fight is adrenaline, magical power is adrenaline, the back stab is adrenaline, the turning back of undead by sheer force of will is adrenaline . . . where is the bard's adrenaline?
The answer most will give is fame. Adulation, the shouting of a thousand voices, the celebrity status of the great artist when stepping forth onto the stage. Except . . .
After a moment's thought, we realize that doesn't work. The fighter can obtain that visceral pleasure from the death of a single bug, the cleric from the simple restitution of a few hit points, the mage from a single imaginary missile that causes no more than 2-5 damage. And the bard . . . from two people in an empty bar giving a standing ovation?
See? The bard, as we tend to view it, needs the huge audience or else it's a let-down. That's because we've fetishized the bard as a celebrity, as the inevitable receiver of other people's affection ~ but that's nothing more than a sort of dependency. The sort of artists who crave approval invariably come up short in the end. There is never enough approval, not even for the incomprehensibly famous, certainly not for Elvis or Marilyn. Fame is worse than fleeting, it is unsatisfying, it is a broiling, magnificent cup of smoking, multi-colored liquid that has less taste than water upon the pallet. It is not what artists are made of.
If we are to give the player the visceral experience of being an artist, we must begin with the premise that they have no understanding whatsoever of what it means to create art. Some of us do, oh ho, but most see the process as either incomprehensible or unquestionably frightening. The greatest fear of the largest number of people, it is said, is to be on stage and face an audience ~ that thing that artists are somehow willing to do not once, but every day, sometimes with two shows on Saturday.
How do we tap into that? How do we realize the struggle of the artist prior to the creation of the art ~ that doubt, that uncertainty, that unknowing terror that this artwork will fail, the embarrassing shame of churning artwork that might succeed and taint us for the rest of our lives.
Art is never a clear, certain success, like we imagine it must be for every bard who would enter the game. The fighter will ultimately become Jenghis Khan, the wizard will ultimately be Gandalf and the bard will ultimately be . . . who, exactly? Name the greatest bard of the 17th century, or the 15th, or the 12th. Do we know them from the crowds of people who followed after them or do we not merely know them from a single book, as we know Roland, put together by someone else a century after Roland's death.
Nevermind, the character's bard will be Elvis, yes? Everyone knows who Elvis was.
But why should that be the case? Can we not think of lesser artists who are still admired and appreciated? Of course, yes. But we can also think of artists who did not have the lives they wanted, or the fame they cherished. I am thinking here about Alec Guinness, who spent his life becoming a celebrated actor of stage and screen, only to hate the last quarter of it as thousands of adoring fans gushed over him for a role that he took for money, that he considered not worth bothering about. Or, if we prefer the profane, what became of Pee Wee Herman's career after he became known as a public masturbator? Do we remember any of Joan Crawford's movies or do we remember that she beat her children? Isn't it strange that Mickey Rooney, who appeared in hundreds of films, has become best known for a bad, in poor taste portrayal of an upstairs Japanese neighbor.
What does it say that Gloria Gaynor, a steadfast Christian whose career was founded on the iconic hit I will Survive, was never comfortable with it becoming the gay anthem. What does it say that J.D. Salinger's book Catcher in the Rye became a wank manual for would-be terrorists? And what sort of career did Salinger have, or Harper Lee for that matter, after writing an iconic book read by tens of millions, they were unable to produce another title remembered by anyone? What does it mean to be a group of artists, like the Osmonds in the 1970s, who had more than a dozen top 40 hits, none of which are played now on any oldies station outside Utah (where, I assume, it is a state law). Success is a brutal, difficult to understand thing, and is certainly not tied to fame. Charles Bukowski was never "famous," but any serious poet alive today has read him. Nietzche lived his whole life in an unpleasant vista of social hatred and obscurity, but he merely changed the world.
What defines success? What offers the artist what the artist needs or wants? We have to understand these things if we want to give the ordinary, everyday, non-artistic player the opportunity to be an artist for a few hours every few weeks.
That's the goal. Anything short of that is simply window dressing.