Magic, Music, and Minstrels

As a child, I was a huge fan of the Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey. It was my intro into the Dragonriders, and remain my favorite of the books. I was entranced the Bard’s Tale video games, the Spellsinger series (by Alan Dean Foster), and the musical elements of numerous Piers Anthony series (from Xanth to the Apprentice Adept series).  I branched out into the (never-to-be-finished) Fire Dancer sf series (Ann Maxwell) and The Riddle-Master of Hed (Patricia A. McKillip), but I was still a sold fan of arcane art. I went back and re-read the musical elements of the Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien), and picked up The Wishsong of Shannara (Terry Brooks). It was a short hop from those to Bedlam’s Bard and Bardic Voices series (Mercedes Lackey — along, I am reminded, with strong bardic magic in all the Valdemar books), and I found the “power of music” was an element I loved even in films outside “high fantasy” from Yellow Submarine to the whole Macross/Robotech saga.

I came by this interest in music honestly. I may not be able to carry a tune in a bucket if I use two hands (and my idea of taking up a musical instrument was to play the tuba… not many sousamancers in fiction), but my mother has written dozens, if not hundreds, of songs. Some you may even have heard before. And my wife has a lovely voice and a lot of choir in her background. But since I loved music and magic, and had little music talent, and played a lot of D&D, one potential solution seems obvious.

Oddly, though, I rarely played bards in RPGs, though I played a lot of RPGs. The AD&D bard (and its modern offspring) rarely seemed to hit exactly the note I wanted from my magic minstrels. I played with the ideas of the music-infused stories I loved when acting as GM (and, with apologies to Misty Lackey, stole the Skull Hill Ghost outright), but it was always a piecemeal, ad hoc effort to recreate the feel I was looking for. I was, after all, not a professional game designer.

Which brings us to today, where I am a professional game designer, and Lead Developer for Super Genius Games. I write and produce a lot of Pathfinder RPG-compatible products. I have a venue, and the skills to make the most of it.

So I’m working on something to bring the magic back to bardic magic. It’s in early stages, and I’m not sure how long development time will be, but I want to produce something that lets other people run the harpers, minstrels, fire dancers and riddle-masters I was always enthralled by. Songs of sorcery, riddles of eldritch might, and (with luck and good design) a way to add some of the wonder of the melodic masters of fantasy fiction.

So, what were your favorite magic maestros? What abilities and systems would you like to see added to reclaim the flexible, different feel of some of the great bards and harpers of fantasy? Leave me a comment, and let’s see if we can find the music in us.

About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at

Posted on October 14, 2011, in Pathfinder Development. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I have always enjoyed incorporating music into my games and stories, though I must admit that I do have more of a musical background with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education. I hope that my article for the Star Wars Saga Edition, titled “Star Wars: The Musical Experience”, was well-received by its readers.

    I remember a couple of friends of mine who incorporated more music into a game run by my friend and fellow game designer, Trampas Whiteman, where they played spellsingers (inspired by Alan Dean Foster’s novels). While one person created her spells from pre-existing songs, the other created lyrics on the fly and actually sang them for the group. I was living in another city at the time this game ran its course, but I’m sure I would have enjoyed what they brought to the table.

    I look forward to the product(s) you speak of developing and would love to help in any way I can.

  2. Hi Owen,

    Like you, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, however, I do know what I like musically. A few other sources of reference for you though. 1) The Soprano Sorceress series by L.E. Modesitt and virtually any of Janny Wurt’s material, particularly the Wars of Light and Shadow series. One of the lead characters has musical leanings and eventually apprentices himself to the master bard of the continent, becoming in turn the masterbard. Further he uses music (Perform (string instrument) as the source of much of his magical art and focus. The world that she has built has strong musical and tonal vibrational influences. 3) This one I only know by reputation having not read it at all is the stories of John the Balladeer by Manly Wade Wellman I believe. and finally Silverlock by John Myers Myers.

    I’ve never played a bard or played in a campaign with a bard until now and we have two of them in the party all of the sudden. Both are fulfilling a sort of supporting/buffing role more than anything else although one is using an interesting combination of word magic and drumming to achieve some interesting results and effects. Coincidentally or not, he has played the drums for a number of years as well.

    Based on what you have written above it sounds like it will be an interesting take on the whole idea of the bard and what they could be.

  3. One of the things that is missing are the bits of poetry and music that are in a lot of my favorite stories. Trigana is probably my favorite, but the poetry/songs in the Thomas Covenant series are also quite good, as I really enjoy When Scott Brick does the readings as well.

    In the Flavor department I would like to see this incorporated, if you have a spell include a 1-4 line piece of poetry, it could be spoken as great oratory (for those who cannot sing) or done as a wonderful bit of song, for those who are really gifted and assuming your mother can help you, include the musical notes as well.

    Mechanically I enjoyed the bard’s unique spell casting system developed by Monte Cook, and enjoyed that they were move actions, though I am not big on the skill system bonus to DCs it was still a great piece of design work.

    Just a note, you Owen may not be able to carry a tune in a bucket with two hands but you can write prose like a bird taking wing so I expect you will have at least some small gift for poetry, I also know having listed to you on podcasts and in person that you have a gift for great oratory, so don’t forget that there is also magic in the spoken word.

  4. The Heralds of Valdemar series by Mercedes Lackey also has bards wandering in and out of it. Many people can learn to play music, but true Bards can use music to communicate emotions and influence groups. “Magic’s Pawn” starts with a would-be bard and talks some about the special Bardic ability, and “Magic’s Price” (third of the same series) involves a young Bard. The “Collegium Chronicles” series has an apprentice Bard as a friend of the main character. Also some of the Tarma and Kethry stories (in the “Vows and Honor” trilogy) have a bard: He follows the two heroines around, inconveniencing them by making wild tales out of their deeds, until they finally give him his comeuppance. There are other mentions – such as a Bard convincing a noble to some action by threatening to write satirical songs about him. Overall bards form only a small proportion of the literature, but of course the books are well worth a read in any case.

  5. Sounds awesome! I’ve always liked bards (my love of them comes from Fflewddur Fflam) and have tried many times to turn the dross we’ve been offered for bard classes into gold. Oddly, some of the best ideas I ever saw came from the 2nd edition Complete Bard’s Handbook. Of course, that book went the other way and made bards TOO good… still, I hope you get it to work. I’ll be first in line to buy when you do!

  6. Just taking a quick break from proofreading to chime in. 🙂

    I’ve always felt that an underexplored facet of bards is the “music of combat”. To explain, when I picture combat happening, there is a lot of sound happening… and nearly all sound is by definition musical at it’s basest level, as it must exhibit musical charactaristics such as pitch, timbre, and duration. I’ve often wondered, especially given the bard’s penchant for being a team player, why they don’t have more spells or abilities playing not off of sound that THEY create, but off of the sounds created by others.

    For instance, a spell that causes the next melee attack from the party’s fighter to resonate more loudly, granting some type of stunning effect to the blow. Or an ability of some kind that causes opposing casters’ verbal components to oscillate unexpectedly in pitch, causing them to have to make concentration checks or lose their spells. Effects like these would go a ways toward making the bard more of a “master of sound” and less of a “Search, Search, Search for the cleverly hidden secret door” ([/Elan]) type of character.

  7. I certainly would be interested in seeing what you can come up with. The ‘modern adventuring bard’ is “neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat”, while this does not mean that they are not fun to play, they certainly can be but the seem to lack any sort of proper focus on music and transmission of stories and information.

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