Tabletop Tidbits: The Ballad of the ‘Live Free or Die Bard’ Party

As a GameMaster, you never quite know what sorts of difficulties or issues are going to crop up during the course of your campaign – particularly at the outset. There are simply too many variables to factor into the calculus. Things could be going swimmingly for months of sessions, when suddenly an aspect of the game system’s physics drives one player to argue about movement rules for an hour; or maybe that ancestral sword you approved at character creation comes back to haunt you; perhaps a player is forced to depart the game and leaves the Party missing a crucial element. Situations like these, and a million other possibilities mean you must always be on guard. It can be quite the challenge…

“Yippee ki-yay mother…”

Of course, there are exceptions to this “rule”. Sometimes, the impending complication is a bit easier to spot – and you see the coming train wreck from miles away. Maybe a player is dead set on playing that race you cautioned against making because the denizens of the campaign’s starting location are sure to persecute or arrest them on sight. Maybe, you got talked into giving that player with the awful habit of cheating horribly another shot. Or, maybe, the players decided to finally make good on that pledge to create the all-Bard party and “live free or die bard”.

Such was the case I found myself in at the beginning of my current campaign. As the character sheets began coming to me for approval, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the PCs save for one were shall we say “musically inclined”. The Group had been “threatening” the all-Bard party for a while now, and I was both intrigued and worried that they had decided to finally go through with it. Based on the notes sitting in front of me, there was only one thing I knew with any degree of certainty: they were going to get slaughtered.

While I’m sure there are those who would argue the merits of such a group composition, it has always been my position (and will always be for that matter) that class-based game systems require a varied group for success. For me, the very design structure of differing strengths and weaknesses based on class creates the need for complimentary group configurations. So, when I saw that the PCs’ Party was going to be six bards and a rogue, there was no doubt in my mind that trouble was on the way. But what to do? Pull out the kid gloves for the first few levels and save the campaign from hardship and a potential early end? Or, punch away and try to hammer the Group into something more functional?

You’ll thank me later, I promise!

Ultimately I decided to do what I consider to be the right thing. Swing for the fences and let the chips fall where they may. Whether the Group succeeded and “lived free” or failed and “died bard” would be entirely in their hands. It was the only fair thing to do, and the only way I could hold my head up with any sort of pride at the campaign. And so the game began, as did the casualties.

The early sessions were filled with considerable difficulty for my intrepid troubadours. Before they had even reached the game’s first big dungeon, every member had nearly died on multiple occasions, was riddled with unknown ailments, and had doubts as to the chances of victory. Then it happened… the “basically a TPK” encounter. Aside from the one soul who slipped away while their companions were in the process of being pulverized, everyone was reduced to helplessness, unconsciousness, or negative hit points. Both in and out of the game’s narrative, it kind of felt like the end.

Some within the player group called for us to move to a new campaign. The Party had been defeated, utterly and completely. There was no hope as far as they were concerned. Others wanted to make new characters and restart the game. “Live Free or Die Bard” had been something of a gag after all. For my part, I chose to let the Group decide, and so the debate continued until someone finally asked me to pull back the proverbial GM curtain enough to answer one question. Was there an ‘out’ in my notes for this situation? Had anything been written to allow the Party to fail forward if they were beaten in that encounter? Or had the loss taken things off the rails entirely?

With assurances from me that the narrative had not been written into a corner, the players elected to continue. The PC who’d fled during the battle was able to return to the Party’s benefactor and acquire aid in the form of an NPC whom the Group had met briefly (and was originally intended to be featured more prominently later). The pair returned to the scene, tracked the villains and eventually rescued the others. It was a triumph of sorts, and had saved the campaign from coming to a premature end. It was also the beginning of the end for the all-Bard Party however. As the campaign progressed, and Bards steadily died off in the sessions that followed, they began being replaced with other classes.

Though battered by higher-than-usual turnover, the Party solidified with each new adjustment to its composition. A shield Fighter here, a smite-spamming Paladin there, a good-aligned Cleric, an arcane spellcaster, even a new, better Bard (ie, Skald). A bit of specialty cross-classing, a few more levels and suddenly the Group had transformed into bona fide ass-kickers. Who would’ve guessed that having a balanced composition in the class-based game would lead to higer levels of success? Answer: me back during character creation night. But what can you say, some lessons have to be learned (or re-learned in the case of my veteran players) the hard way.

Having said all of that, I must admit that I miss the all-Bard party. They had a quaint, sort of charming way about them. A fire in the eyes and a dream to fly in the face of convention. I can’t help but hope that the players decide to give it another try someday. I mean, every great ballad needs more than one stanza right? And how awesome would it be to see those Bards rise from the ashes and soar after such terrible adversity. As for the players, I’d say they got to have their cake and eat it too. They both lived free, and died Bard.

Have a group composition story to tell? Share it in the comments below. We’d love to hear it!

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