Thursday, September 22, 2016

Odd Bard Instruments

Many a conversation starts with Laura lying on the couch and telling me about things she's reading on Tumblr. (I don't do Tumblr personally--Facebook and Twitter already eat up enough of my time.)

Today, she was telling me about a Tumblr post that included a strange list of possible instruments found in the Complete Bard's Handbook from 2nd Edition D&D. The list of instruments is pretty comprehensive, from drums and flutes to citterns and sistrums. Laura seemed doubtful that some of these instruments would be terribly inspiring or practical during battle. After all, while a pipe organ might sound incredible, it's not exactly easy to carry onto the battlefield. And then there are one-note instruments like gongs and castanets--not exactly ballad material.

These possibilities had me intrigued, though. While I can't really comment on the instruments I've never heard of (a hurdy gurdy sounds fascinating in theory...), I immediately had some ideas about some of the more familiar instruments.


This one's pretty easy, actually. Simply imagine a bard with a friend who fences, and it all comes together pretty quickly.

There are a couple of directions to take this. There is, of course, the near-constant clacking of the castanets as they set the rhythm of the battle.

However, I'm of the opinion that bardic inspiration doesn't need to come from a constant song. Especially with castanets, it seems like they could simply accent the fight, punctuating important moments in order to make the allied fighter feel like a badass.

Case in point:
"You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you."
"You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die."
Tune out the rest of the orchestration and listen for that all-important castanet punctuation:


The gong is another deceptively complex instrument. For me, at least, when I think of a gong, I imagine a big, unwieldy metal plate that's good for an occasional big sound that kinda comes out of nowhere.

And this is perfectly acceptable, from a bard's point of view. Following the instance given above in which the castanets were primarily used to punctuate a fight, a gong could be the ultimate punctuation. With every major hit scored by your ally, you drive it home with a massive BWOOOONNNNG, giving the hit the feeling of having had a much greater impact, inspiring the ally to try for more, while the enemy cringes in anticipation of the next hit.

However, the gong is more than a simple percussive instrument. It's capable of generating a very haunting ambience.

This dude is a little over the top, but check this out anyway:

Imagine walking into the throne room of an evil emperor. He sits at the far end of a massive room, decked out in the finest battle armor, and flanked by his elite bodyguards. Somewhere behind the throne, a gong player generates this intimidating wall of sound that fills the room and overwhelms the atmosphere, driving home the point that this emperor is far more powerful than you. You're demoralized before a single weapon is raised.

On that note, remember that villains can have bards, too.


The town was peaceful mere moments ago. This was supposed to be a bit of down time in the safety of a city, a chance to do some shopping and maybe gather clues about that necromancer you've been chasing across the countryside.

But when the first explosions echoed across the city, the two-bit necromancer was the last thing on your mind. Nobody yet knew how the enemy legions managed to pierce this deep into the kingdom without being noticed, but that was a problem for later. With enemy soldiers flooding the streets, the primary goal for the moment was surviving the day.

Unfortunately, your party had split up and, worse, much of your gear was still in your room at the inn on the other side of town. Your potions, your wands, your instruments...

You needed to get out of the streets. You and your two remaining comrades bang on doors to no avail--the people have barricaded their doors. Eventually, you find a place that insists upon leaving its doors open: a cathedral to a benevolent god. You go inside.

But is isn't long before the enemy soldiers attempt to storm the place and take it over. The odds are against you and your allies.

And then you see the massive organ, the centerpiece of the cathedral. You saw it before, of course, but suddenly it was more than a pretty setpiece: it was an instrument. And, in your hands, it was a weapon that could turn the tide of the battle for your allies to hold this cathedral against the enemy.


Oh, come on, the only thing you can do with a triangle is-



You may notice that the melodica was not included in the Complete Bard's Handbook. This is why.

I mention this not to disparage the melodica, as I happen to be friends with some very respectable melodica players. Rather, I bring this up because the melodica is far less ridiculous than the kazoo, yet the kazoo did make the list of bard instruments.

If anybody can give a plausible example of when the kazoo would actually be useful as a bardic instrument.

That said, while I've given some examples of how unusual instruments might make excellent instruments in certain situations, I think that Jurassic Park clip is most applicable to my final point. Because while the melodica may in fact have instances where it suits the occasion, it clearly isn't a good fit for what should be a moment of indescribable wonder.

And I believe that's the case with all instruments; no instrument fits every situation. Even the lute, the most stereotypical of bard instruments, probably isn't a great fit for a battle against zombies in a graveyard. It's versatile, sure, but does it really belong on war-torn battlefield? Drums, perhaps, or a flute, but a lute?

Yet, I suppose it's the power of a bard to make an instrument work for any situation. So, as with many things related to D&D, perhaps the real limitation here is my imagination.

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