Thursday, January 12, 2017


Reading through some Buddhist content about happiness (sukha), joy (piti), equanimity (upekkha) and Brahmavihara ( I found myself having some strange thoughts on bard performance and the "better life."  When in doubt, always go east young man.  Always go east.

I ended up with a series of platitudes which today I cannot find, but are fundamentally tied into benevolence and charity.  The content person does not quest for wealth or power, but for well-being, well-being for self and well-being for others.  This is what the bard does ~ transmits a sense of well-being.  We have been describing this as happiness . . . but we have lacked any meaningful game benefit that this can offer.  And as I've said, I don't want to fall back on hit points, morale, saving throws or any of the usual things that get modified in the game.

On wikipedia, under piti, there's an excellent distinction made between "happiness" and "bliss" that is attributed to the 5th century treatise, the Visuddhimagga:

"If a man exhausted in a desert saw or heard about a pond on the edge of a wood, he would have happiness.  If he went into the wood's shade and used the water, he would have bliss."

This is what we want the bard to produce in game terms.  Something that the players will identify only with the bard: some effect that only the bard can cause.

With our last post, we were discussing the varying qualities of Aristotle: that happiness makes us flourish, that happiness causes us to behave virtuously, that we embrace temperance, justice, the desire to better ourselves, the encouragement of efficiency, proficiency, friendship, worthiness and respect.

We were describing experience.  We just didn't think of that.

But this is what the bard gives: experience.  Having an evening with the bard creates that sense of bliss as we immerse ourselves into the performance.  It focuses us, it reminds us of why we persevere, the experience provides us with resolve, bravery, a sense of duty, a sense of strength and possibility . . . in short, ALL the characteristics that we associate with being better in battle, with standing up to the enemy and taking a hit for the crew that we work with, with potentially sacrificing ourselves to save a fallen comrade.

I have often argued that we can't give experience for things that don't contribute to being a better combatant . . . and yet I would argue that attending a show does make one a better combatant.  It gives us something to fight for.

I can see it quite clearly.  The benefit of the bard character is that it gives other characters experience.  And the bard, in turn, gets experience from other bards.

Ah, but how?

I see two paths.  We can call them Upekkha (or Upeksa, in sanskrit), the sense of peace and well-being (equinimity, composure, the state of being sublime) and Sukha (happiness, bliss).  For certain, those terms are not going to be confused with any other term used in D&D.

In terms of bardic performance, Upeksa is the feeling we get from encountering something familiar and immensely satisfying, or what we have already defined as "product" where it comes to bardic creation. Sukha is, therefore, the feeling we get from encountering "art" ~ something wholly new that astounds our senses and overwhelms our thoughts.  Take note that I am using the word "encounter" deliberately. Visiting a theatre or attending a concert is, in D&D terms, an encounter.

Now, that is going to mess some people up.  And some people will feel that I am going a long way to completely break the game.  But rest assured, I'm being very careful in what the effects will be of either Sukha or Upeksa.


Very well, our bard gets up in front of an audience at a local roadhouse or inn and gives a recitation of a familiar poem, or perhaps a poem that has made its impression on audiences before but is not overly known to this audience.  There are perhaps twenty, perhaps fifty persons in the common room, warming themselves by the fire, ending their conversation because poets are rare and poetry is appreciated in that culture like it will never be in ours.  What happens?

Nothing, right away.  The bard has co-opted someone else's art as product and, while having produced a warm and fuzzy feeling among the crowd, we are speaking of contentment and well-being.  We are not speaking of epiphany or the scattering of formerly possessed ideals.  We're not talking Archimedes running down a street naked.

But . . . the audience goes away from the performance affected.  They are warmer in their hearts, they are a bit more interested in the world around them, they are more attentive.  Our bard isn't the greatest of bards and the venue isn't the greatest of venues, but there has been a change.

We could stipulate that for the period of a week after the encounter, each person in attendance (the party included!) will gain +1% experience above anything they would normally gain.  That's not profound, that's not game breaking, but it is significant and the party will certainly not turn it down.  It is, of course, not cumulative.  Still, having a bard on tap, knowing that small bonus will be there as long as the bard is with the party, casting poems around the campfire before we turn in, will have its impact.  If the bard dies, the party will certainly notice a little bit more than they would losing a thief or a druid.

Of course, as the bard progresses in level, that percentage will increase also.  We already give a 10% bonus for having a better strength for a fighter or a better wisdom for a cleric; why not a 2-5% bonus for having a better bard?  It may only be an additional 20-50 points on every thousand, but it will be 20-50 points for every person in the party.  When thinking about the online Juvenis party right now, with four characters and five followers, that's 180-450 additional experience for every thousand gained.  That's not peanuts.

But let's take the next step.  What about improving the venue?

We were talking about the bard performing at a bar.  What about an open-air stage?  What about an enclosed theatre, an opera house?  And what if we are not just talking about any poem, discussed for a few minutes or half an hour, but an epic poem that takes an hour to tell.  What about an National Epic, memorized in its entirety, tailor-made for an audience that gets weepy every time it is heard (and being the 17th century, it isn't heard often).  What is the benefit from that?

I can see going as high as 15-20%, for the space of a week afterwards.  Such events would be spectacularly expensive, they might last only one performance or perhaps for a run of a week, like the Bayreuth festival (but in my world it is too early for Wagner).  It would be hard to seriously to keep attending something like this and still get any proper adventuring done . . . but imagining travelling seven hundred miles just to attend the festival.

And perhaps it might have a diminishing effect.  The most profound concert in Europe, given perhaps in Vienna, gives a 20% for the first week . . . and a drop of 1 or 2% for each week thereafter.  The players could space out on the bonus for months, making their plans to visit the same concert next year, every year.  THAT is granting something to the players that they really want.

Really, the potential is masterful.  Players are suddenly asking if there's a theatre in the city; they want to go to the city instead of the town because there might be something more.  The bigger the city, the more profound the encounter they might have.  And it is something else for them to spend their money on (at prodigious prices ~ it cost more than $350 to see Springsteen in concert in 2016).

Moreover, it gives something concrete for a bard to shoot at.


Now, this is different.  The benefits of Sukha can be obtained only once per artwork ~ and only from the artist actually responsible for that artwork.  So before Sukha can occur, the bard has to produce something personal and unique . . . and before that can happen, the bard has to get an inspiration and then work to make that inspiration happen.

That is a lot suddenly resting on top of the bard's being successful.  Now it isn't just getting the work finished.  Now it isn't the work bringing happiness or causing the locals to be more productive (though it might do that too).  Now it is the players waiting for the work to be done, because they are going to get experience from it.

Now the bard is hearing, "Is it done yet?  Is it done?"  And when the DM asks for the bard to roll the die to see if it is, every neck at the table is outstretched to see what the result is.

That's combat.  That's what happens with combat.

And because the bard's work isn't going to be accomplished with just one roll, there are going to be stages to the success of this thing.  And with each stage, the players get a little closer.

To make that work, the benefit for hearing the work has to be meaningful.  That is, if it works, right?  We talked about art not working.  If it doesn't, the bard won't be the only failure.  The whole party should be banging their heads on the table.

Want to know what it means to be an artist?  It means when we fail, everyone fails.  Just look at the favorite sport on the internet.

So what is that benefit?  Well, that depends on the amount of work done.  And that depends on how hard core the bard wants to be before risking total failure (and possibly an in-party lynching).  Working for a quick result might require two success rolls and then the final check against the stat indicated . . . and it might give 4% of the bard's total experience on hand to listeners (with some sort of adjustment for the level of the listener or lack thereof).  If the bard is first level and has a thousand experience, that's no big deal.  Oh, too bad, we lost 40 x.p.   Big whoop.

But let's say we have a poet that is more ambitious, deciding that this is going to be a serious poem, an epic.  There are going to be a series of 10 needed successful rolls that will extend the making of the poem to perhaps a year, until such time as the bard reaches 5th level and has a total of 20,000 x.p.  Suppose that the fallout from this poem will be 20% percent of the bard's total experience; that's 4,000 experience, bang, all in one swoop.  Wow, what a poem!

As I say, that would have to be reduced for characters of less than 5th level.  It could be argued they just don't "get it" ~ it is above their experience level.  Still, we could have an adjustment like two to the power of whatever the difference in levels was: so divided by 2 for 4th level, by 4 for 3rd level, by 8 for 2nd level, by 16 for 1st level and by 32 for the non-leveled persons.  This would still mean 125 x.p. for the common listeners.

The limitation is that each person hearing the poem can get this benefit only once (after which it becomes just another Upeksa), but there are virtually an unlimited number of persons the poem can be given to.

"Oh, just joined the party?  Oh, you must take some time and get the bard to recite his Clown's Panurge . . . it's fab!  You'll be changed, I promise you."


The potential changes here are enormous.  I was talking it over with my daughter just now and making jokes about the party rallying around the "culture stick" and screw the mage.  In my daughter's words,

"There are two characters hanging off a cliff and you can only save one.  Do you save the mage or the bard?"

I know that I am crazy half the time and that I am constantly raising the bar on the game to the point where most would find it impossible to run ~ but I'm just going to say that this is the most profound idea I think I've ever had.  It is nowhere near the "thread" I talked about yesterday.  Five hours ago I had not one iota of a wisp of a dream of this idea.

But now I think I'm the most brilliant person who ever wrote anything about D&D.  Feel free to just write "OMG" or "Wow" in the comments.


  1. WOW. If I survive to level 5 I'm getting a bard as a henchman.

  2. I think you just inspired every reader of your blog. Amazing!

  3. BOOM

    Bards just became the most popular class in the party. In your daughter's example I would have used the cleric. Do I save the character that can save me from malaria, a poisonous sting and an axe wound or the one that will get me to next level. Hmmm...

    Have you considered the authoring bard getting a cut of the XP in Sukha only along with the rest of the party?

    Would observing a Sukha sculpture, building or painting have any effect on the viewer if the artist/ bard is not present? I hope so. I could see a party journeying to observe the Hagia Sophia or the Sistene Chapel being a great adventure. Acting in character the Senex party has sought out such things, now it won't just be window dressing.

    When the bard is risking failure, he's risking the XP of the entire party right? Can party members opt out if they don't want the risk?

  4. So the Bard, by way of performance or creation of an artwork, is creating an experience 'bonus' in other characters? Much like the way a Hero standing by your side before a battle increases morale?

    Would the benefit be almost immediate for Upeksa (performance) and decay over time? As memory of the passion it generated fades? If I attended multiple performances of the same work by the same Bard would the bonus be greater and last longer? As I start to learn the words and am able to recite some of them the memory will be stronger.

    Sukha (I'm assuming) is probably going to move the viewer less initially (we don't shout and sing back at artwork).

    In both cases, the gestation period and experience/level of the Bard being factors in how high the bonus and duration of the effect.

  5. Pardon my french, but HOLY SHIT Alexis, which is what I just said out loud in public.

    Gonna need a minute to process this one.

  6. So if I understand what you're thinking mechanically, the bard determines how ambitious she is and makes a number of checks over time based on that ambition...

    Next question for me to determine how much to shoot for: how does failure work? Does one failed roll turn a _Citizen Kane_ into a _Transformers 3_, ruining the work, or do you imagine a scale of success based on success/failure ratio, or something else?

    The everything-rides roll would certainly lead to a white-knuckled table for every roll, and make truly great works rare - even a 17 in the appropriate stat would have less than a 20% chance of making that year-long effort pan out. Maybe that's as it should be, for the kind of impact you're describing.

    If you're a Charisma-works bard, it also makes the relatively small range of Bardic CHA extremely meaningful - an 18 CHA bard is much, much, MUCH more likely to make it to the finish line of that marathon than a 15 Charisma bard.

  7. I think you have that backwards, Jonathon. A 17 in the appropriate stat makes an 85% chance of success. Doesn't make it less white knuckling.

    I see a series of "stage" rolls that determine how LONG a project takes; failed rolls add to the length of the project. If the player decides on a really big project, and the rolls keep failing, then they might change their minds and give it up, particularly if it is something expensive with each failure. The only pass/fail roll is the last one, the check against the ability stat chosen for the artwork to be based upon.

    Since the stage rolls would not be based upon the character's ability stats, but rather upon flat chance rolls of success, there isn't as much difference between a 15 charisma and an 18 charisma, as you suggest. Even if I did base it on charisma, say (though wisdom would make more sense), since we're only talking about time for stage rolls, it would only mean an 18 took, on average, less time than a 15, not that the 18 had a greater chance of success.

    Still, part of the answer is yes, ONE ROLL would be the final arbiter. That's how opening night works ~ and no one knows for sure how opening night will go. Did the makers of 2004's Catwoman or 2016's Alice Through the Looking Glass know those films were going to tank? Nope.

    Art can be pretty rough.

  8. Ah, I see. That's where I went wrong, I was assuming a failure at each stage - so 85%, yes, but 10 rolls means .85^10, should've written that out more clearly. Having a failed roll mean no forward progress would be monstrously frustrating without meaning the whole project of years would be wasted. I think you've got a better balance going there with what you're planning.

  9. I'm kind of retreating into numbers here because my mind is a bit blown. :-D

  10. This, I like. This makes the bard a unique class with an ability orthogonal to all the other classes. Having some experience with classes whose ability is to "make stuff" (alchemists, &c.), I've been disappointed in how it played out as the classes ability is tied into income rather than personal ability. But this sounds very different, and is an expression of an internal ability. Quite intriguing!

  11. Love it. The best ideas always seem to be the ones which take something established (in this case, both your strictly-combat-and-cash XP system and the common perception of bards) and throw out an assumption about it. This looks like a wonderful way to breathe new life into bards.

    I'd say your bardic blogging roll was a critical success here. ;)

  12. Yeah, I came to pretty much the same destination (for similar reasons) in my "skald" class (for a yet-unpublished, Viking-ish setting book)...though I did it by heading north rather than east. Not trying to piggy-back here (won't bother posting the link to my blog), just saying I very much agree with the logic here.

    I'm not a fan of increasing the bonus for an increase of would seem that there's already an inherent reward in playing to larger crowds (for the audience: more folks affected; for the bard: more receipts in-pocket). For players seeking out such entertainment, a larger theater would still be desired as the owner would be more likely to higher a better (higher level) bard. Folks pony up more dough to see the bigger name, and that's been the case since at least Elizabethan England if not going back to the ancient Greek theaters.

    However, the sukha part feels a bit problematic, because...well, I understand the value of immersion in a rich world, but it seems the mini-game within a game might detract from the overall, "cooperative adventure" spirit of the game. Sure, the players will hang on the dice rolls, but it's still the bard PC having a solo "combat" that the other players are forced to watch. Do you have similar systems in place with regard to magic item creation and spell research? If not (and if this approach to bardic composition works) would you consider including such in your game?

    I don't know if you're the most brilliant person to write about D&D, but you are one of the most brilliant I've read.
    ; )

  13. Let me try to reassure a couple of those points, JB.

    Part of my conception for the bard is a whole field that has nothing to do with 'art' but has everything to do with staging, publication, production and commercialization. In short, it will be possible to "be a bard" without being able to produce art at all.

    This element will mean that artistic bards CAN'T stage their own work; at least not as better than amateurs until they're quite high level. Until then, they will be at the mercy of others who will seize most of those receipts. Moreover, to get those higher bonus for increasing the venue will cost A LOT of money; it won't just be a bard on a stool in a big room. Nothing in that era gets done without profoundly expensive sets, costumes and massive amounts of planning, planning, planning. So the amount of work, and the number of participants, will reduce (a) the ease of creating such a production, (b) will severely limit those who can attend, not just because of the money but because of competition for seats; and (c) will soak up most of the profits, as those margins are going to get very narrow.

    Regarding Sukha and the "mini-game" ~ you likely view it as much more game time-consuming than I do. To make art will require time, yes; but there are also henchmen to wander around with the main party while the bard is working and there will always be a great need for more money.

    It won't be a "solo" combat if everyone's x.p. hangs on the balance. Particularly if the bard gets nothing except the pleasure of giving x.p. to others. That's the key: the bard works, others get the x.p., the bard just gets the benefit of giving. That's part of the genius. Most "mini-games" fail because the winner is the solo player. Here, the winner is everyone else.

    In part this discourages the bard from getting too high and mighty about projects; spend all this money and maybe it will fail? Really? Naw, I'll just adventure, thank you.

    Yes, I have already touched on magic item creation with the druidic sage abilities, specifically how wands would be made, along with other small semi-magic items. All those things are sage level knowledge, however; it would take 100 knowledge points in a study to make magic items.

    If you could see the whole scheme in my head, how the creativity study, the performance study, the practical study and the agency study are all needed to make an artist rise, you would know I'm the shit. But I haven't started describing that yet. More is to come!

  14. So... I'm guessing this is how patrons can become a thing. The bard spends NO money, everyone else funds the bard's XP work.

  15. Long time lurker, first time commenter (apologies for that tired adage) - I truly feel obligated to say that it is brilliant ideas like this that keep me coming back to read your blog month after month. Well, that and the excitement of the Senex campaign, which I have been slowly reading from the beginning for several weeks... one day I hope to catch up with the modern continuation!

    Keep up the great work Alexis. You have outdone yourself this time!

  16. Really cool from top to bottom.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.