Spenser: Bards are dumb, Michael.
Michael: Are you joking? Have you seen what I've done with bards before?
Spenser: Yes, yes I have. *weeps* ...But moving on. How can you feel badass running around singing about heroes way cooler that you are?
Michael: That's like saying only losers win "Best Supporting Actor". Sometimes being the paragon of party unity holds its own rewards. Plus, bards get all the ladies.
Spenser: Look, it's not that I really have anything against having a party theme song or anything. I just can't see bards as viable party members. I'd much rather have a bard (read: 1st level expert with max ranks in Perform) as a hireling, and have a rogue or beguiler PC. Plus, either of those classes can be re-flavored to be bards without actually being a bard.
Michael: Well before the bard fangirls start to think I'm on their side I must admit that I do agree with you. Almost all of the bards that I've partied with probably could have roleplayed their character in exactly the same way with a class that actually lends itself to combat usefulness.
Enchantment (Charm) [Language Dependant, Mind-Affecting, Sonic]
Cleric 2, Bard 2
Notice that Clerics can reproduce the effects of iconic bard abilities as low as 3rd level at levels lower than even bards get them.
Spenser: Indeed. I think I'm going to have to add insult to injury here by noting that in addition to lacking sufficient combat prowess, they aren't really any better than the next guy at all that talky-roleplay stuff. Sure, they get that fun lore ability, but a well-rounded party is usually rockin' most of the important Knowledge skills anyway. Is there anything cool about bards?
Michael: Well, yeah. If they were all suck nobody would play them. The one thing bards do best is give the NPCs little choice but to become their mindless slaves, by basing all of their abilities off of skill checks. As a DM, however, this frustrates me, because I am practically forced to let them puppet around most of my characters. After all, if I take away their "social mastery" then I've practically robbed them of their character's whole mechanical purpose.
So the question becomes, then; what do we do about bards?
Spenser: As you know, I've all but banned them from my games. I think you're the only person who's played one, and that character was such a convoluted mess of multiclassing that it didn't really bother me.
The simplest thing I've been thinking of is just changing how I think of their abilities; in China Miéville's books Perdido Street Station and The Scar, he refers to a type of magic very similar to what bards use as making one's voice "hypnagogic," and just this single term made me think of bards differently. It removes some of the "silliness" factor, in my opinion, by injecting enough pseudoscience to lend their abilities legitimacy.
Michael: Bards are so iconic you can't just remove them. If we look at their abilities from a developer's standpoint, it becomes obvious that they were created with fantasy stereotype obligations in mind. As pseudo-designers and DMs, we owe it to the fools we trick into reading this a hard solution for the bard problem.
When it came time for WotC to expand on their own material, it became obvious that bards needed some help. We saw an explosion of additional content for existing bards (from the Bardic Music feats in Complete Adventurer) and an avalanche of prestige classes that make bards total badasses (see Sublime Chord in Complete Arcane).
Some of the more powerful bardic music expansions come from far-off splatbooks such as Frostburn. There's a feat available there called "Snowflake Wardance" that expends a bardic music charge to allow you to add your charisma to your attack rolls for a number of rounds. This makes bards immensely more useful in combat and simultaneously keeps them within their "flavor". Bard enthusiasts will get a lot of mileage out of things like that.
Spenser: Very true, but I'm sure we can all agree that the bard should more playable right out of the box. If you're willing to house rule it up a bit, you could "normalize" the save DCs for bardic music; 10 + half your bard level + Cha modifier sounds about right. In addition, it'd probably be a good idea to make bardic music a swift action so that it doesn't force you to sacrifice your actions. What do you think?
Michael: By itself, your first idea would make bards completely useless. But making bardic music a swift action definitely makes it more useful in combat because the "inspire" abilities are free bonuses that are more or less available whenever a bard is in combat. This seems like an intelligent fix.
Spenser: Another method to "fix" bards would be to remove them entirely, and creating a feat tree to duplicate the bard's abilities for musically inclined members of other classes. Counter-intuitive? Perhaps. But this is an oft-proposed fix for the soulknife as well, another potentially-cool-but-underpowered class.
Michael: Rocks fall, everyone dies. You know Spenser, we should write a blog about D&D gaming.
Spenser: Yeah right, who would read that?