The unchained bard clocks in at 27 pages, 1 page of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 23 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
So, the first page, beyond having a brief ToC, summarizes the design-paradigm of this class, and frankly, what’s here sounds feasible – the central focus lies on making the bard more interesting and versatile without requiring archetypes and other modifications, so let’s see how this fellow holds up!
The unchained bard gets d8 HD as well as 6 + Intelligence modifier skills per level – here, it should be noted that the skills are presented in a tidy table, as opposed to the usually cluttered skill-block. I really like this, as it makes looking class skills up quicker. Proficiency-wise, we cover light armor, shields (except tower shields) and simple weapons plus longsword, rapier, saps, shortswords, shortbows and whips. Once more, we have a nice presentation-innovation, as the proficiency-list has a subheader for armor- and weapon-proficiencies. Once more, that represents an improvement in my book. We still have ¾ BAB-progression, good Ref- and Will-saves. The unchained bard retains spellcasting of up to 6th level, and every bard spell has a verbal component, with Charisma as governing attribute and spontaneous spellcasting.
And this is pretty much where the similarities end. On first level, the bard chooses a Muse, gaining skill ranks in that muse’s associated Performance skill for free at each class level. These muses also determine associated skills and denoted the performance components (A for audible, and V for visual; these and the limitations they entail are clearly noted in the bardic masterpiece entry) in their respective brackets, making presentation here once more truly streamlined. 12 muses are presented and range from classics à la strings to keyboard, stage magic, legerdemain, etc., covering even more obscure Perform variants like juggling. What do the associated skills do? Well, starting at 3rd level, a bard can use his total ranks in the muse’s key Perform skill instead for the associated skills; ranks previously assigned to associated skills are refunded. These skills are treated as on the class skill list and also may be treated as though they were governed by Charisma, analogue to the Perform skill, instead.
Bardic performance has been rewired: It now starts a bardic masterpiece, and its effects last 1 round, but the effects may be maintained as a free action, unless otherwise noted in the respective action entry. The decision to maintain a performance must be made at the start of the round, and duration caps at 1 minute per bard level, unless otherwise noted. Performances immediately end upon becoming paralyzed, etc. and performances may be started Charisma-modifier +1/2 class level times per day. Notice something? Yep, the maintenance of performances no longer expends rounds! This means that low level bards won’t run out of juice as fast, and the different ability improvement and metrics mean that high-level bards won’t drown in rounds they can’t employ properly.
Now, I already mentioned bardic masterpieces – these are different from the often maligned, yet intriguing feature of the same name that was originally tacked on to grant the bard more unique tricks. The unchained bard begins play with one masterpiece known and gains an additional one at 3rd level and every 4 levels thereafter. Save DC calculation is interesting: 10 + ½ the ranks in the muse’s key performance skill + Charisma modifier. If the masterpiece requires that an opponent makes a skill check, the DC is 10 + 1.5 times the bard’s skill ranks in the key Perform skill associated with the muse + the bard’s Charisma modifier. A bard also begins play with a so-called performance bonus, which begins at +1 and increases by a further +1 at 5th level and every 6 levels thereafter. The bonus type depends on to what the bardic masterpiece applies it: Attack and damage rolls gain a competence bonus, saving throws a morale bonus and otherwise, we have an insight bonus. This makes sense to be, both from a design and logic perspective. Starting at 7th level, the action economy of starting bardic masterpieces improves, and masterpieces that required a standard action may be used as a move action, with 1th level allowing optionally to start performances that need a standard or move action to be initiated as a swift action. Presentation-wise, it should be noted that all these aspects are grouped under the same ability-header, with distinct subheaders to set them apart. This presentation-sequence makes sense and renders grasping the mechanics easier. Kudos!
Also at first level, the bard picks a so-called repertoire from a list of 7. Each repertoire covers 4 different skills, and the bard gains a bonus on skill checks associated with them equal to ½ class level, minimum 1. Trained only skills may be used untrained. Starting at 9th level, the bard may take 10 in these skills, even while distracted or in danger, and he may expend a bardic performance use to take 20 instead, in spite of the circumstances, and taking the regular amount of time, not the usual, extended one.
Now, as noted before bardic masterpieces are crucial component to the engine, and the class unlocks new available selections at 3rd, 7th, 11th and 15th level. Muses determine the type of masterpieces you can learn, and area, range, effects etc. are part of the masterpiece’s block. Each performance also comes with a bit of flavor-text, which is nice. Now, the pdf does something really clever: The header of each masterpiece sports one or multiple, self-explanatory glyphs that are explained in a sidebar, though personally, I considered their meaning to be self-evident: The glyphs denote basically descriptor types. See a comic-style text-bubble? Language-dependent. Caduceus? Healing. Skull and bones? Death. Brain? Mind-affecting. It’s simple, but it helps render the rules-language less monstrous, while at the same time retaining the complexity demanded.
These melodies, fyi, accomplish a ton of different things, and some of them provide massive changes to party dynamics. We have to look no further than Ameliorating melody, the very first of these masterpieces. All allies in a 60 ft. emanation heal 1 hit point per performance bonus, and one ally heals 1d8 per performance bonus. Doesn’t sound like much? Well, remember that it lasts 1 minute per bard level – that’s a lot of healing, even at first level! While this sounds like much, and it pretty much is, the design-paradigm is clear here: This is slower, less bursty healing than what the cleric offers– but this masterpiece alone provides, mathematically, sufficient healing to classify the unchained bard as a primary healer. While the sheer amount of healing this offers is pretty massive, it should be taken into account that the bard lacks the spell-healing capabilities. Depending on how gritty you like your games to be and your personal aesthetics, you may or may not like this – personally, I’m not the biggest fan of burst-y instant-healing that returns characters constantly from the brink of death. We’ve all been there: The roly-poly syndrome of PCs falling, dying, being healed and getting back up, falling again…the more spread out healing *can* be sensible for grittier games that prefer to avoid this. Or, well, there’s also a chance that the sheer amount of healing is something you don’t like in your games. The bard’s healing array will be hard to whittle down via attrition tactics. Personally, I very much enjoy how this makes a group sans healing-cleric more viable, particularly in games that sport a darker aesthetic. The one thing that should be monitored here by the GM is, that a combination of a good healer-cleric AND a bard with this option can be really, really brutal and may be something that can, depending on your campaign’s goal and themes, prove to be very strong.
Soooo, basically the very first masterpiece already provides a rather pronounced paradigm change. Now, it should be noted that masterpieces differentiate between effects that begin when starting a performance, and then maintained; others reduplicate their initial effects time and again, as they’re maintained. Summoning critters, for example is an effect that is tied to the start of a performance, with the maintenance of the summoning via maintenance of the performance. The scaling of this one, btw., is based on half class level. Rendering targets prone via laughing, the classic fascinate and inspire competence, courage, etc. can be found, and raging song is also codified as such – and yes, there is a spellsteal option here as well! At 3rd level, gathering of crowds, condition alleviation, mocking debuffs, sonic strikes (that cannot be cheesed regarding action economy). Minor nitpick: there’s a typo here ” work” should refer to “word”; this is cosmetic, though. 7th level includes the options, among others, to antagonize targets (see Ultimate Charisma; the pdf has a few abilities referring to the amazing Psychology DC and antagonize-rules from that book), provide resistances, reincarnate targets (takes time and a lot of daily uses)…At 11th level, we have the dance of the dead, untyped damage based on type/subtype or wandering star motes become available. Finally, we get a discordant confusion effect (that interacts correctly with conclusion), pied piping and raising the dead (at massive cost of resources), all added to the list to choose from at 15th level. The capstone provides the inspire legends bardic masterpiece that combines two others into one.
Now, this is not the end – at 2nd level, the unchained bard gets a performance flourish, with another one gained every 2 levels thereafter. These behave somewhat like talents and are grouped in three categories: The first bunch becomes available for the choosing at 2nd level, with 8th and 16th level unlocking a new array. If a flourish allows for a save, or prompts a skill check from an opponent, the DCs are calculated in the same way as for masterpieces. There is an option to gain an additional masterpiece, which can be taken up to three times, with 10th and 18th level as subsequent minimum levels and applicable level-restrictions. A couple of them are passive, and allow, for example, for 2d4 minutes of time invested to make armor worn to behave as glamered. HOWEVER, there is more to this ability-class. You see, there also are a couple of them that sport an asterisk. These flourishes apply to a bardic masterpiece, and are chosen upon starting or maintaining a masterpiece, allowing for reassigning etc.. Only one such effect can be applied at any given time and this section includes the classic distraction, countersong, etc., as well as escapist’s jig etc. – in short, what previously were helpful, but for the bard-character, potentially boring actions, now are customizations for the heroic, active stuff he does. Poaching among psychic, oracle or sorcerer tricks, being famous, affecting plants, making allies believing in the same deity count as brandishing holy symbols – we basically have tweaks and more active agenda here. Gone are the times when the bard was required to perform away his rounds to maintain support for allies. Tricking targets into spilling the beans has a hex-caveat to limit the at-will availability. There is another balancing component here, as, beyond the masterpiece ability trees, there are some flourishes restricted to certain masterpieces. Increased ranges and numerical boosts, spell kennings and the like – your heart’s desires and classic tricks may be found here. Among the higher level tricks, we have mass expansions for previous flourishes or the means to absorb and return spells with suitable mechanics, building on spellsteal. We thus have a wide array of significantly expanded player agenda during building as well as at the table.
The engine becomes more complex: At 5th level, the class gets accompaniment: When maintaining a bardic masterpiece, he can start a second masterpiece as a standard action, counting the new performance against the total daily uses as usual. The second one must be one that can be started as a standard action or less, regarding of modifying class features that decrease action economy, and its maintenance is a move action. This second one can only be maintained after the primary masterpiece has been maintained. 17th level further upgrades that to allow for the retaining of a third masterpiece. The maintenance action of the third one, however, is locked to a standard action.
Starting at 2nd level, a bard gets a +4 insight bonus versus figments, patterns, language-dependent effects, sonic effects and other bardic performances – minor nitpick here: While the text and table place this one at 2nd level, the header reads 3rd, which is incorrect.
Now, this is not everything: At 7th level, and once more every 4 levels thereafter, the unchained bard gets a versatility talent. These apply the key Perform skill to a variety of different tasks and circumstances: Here, we can once more learn masterpieces, muses, repertoires or increase the starting attitude of animals, with the added option to use bardic performance uses to duplicate speak with animals. Gaining muse key skill ranks as BAB for the purpose of a combat maneuver, expanding the associated skills of a muse, slandering targets, evasion, becoming harder to antagonize, feint, etc., teamwork feats, etc.
Editing and formatting are very good; apart from minor typo-level glitches and the aforementioned minor level snafu, I noticed no significant issues. Layout adheres to Everyman Gaming’s new, two-column standard and the pdf sports several, original, gorgeous full-color artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
I love Alexander Augunas’ unchained bard. The class has evolved beyond its linear and oftentimes, somewhat bland beginnings. The massive amount of customization available for the class means that players finally have all the agenda they want. The unchained bard manages to not only enhance the choices of the PCs, it also succeeds in making the playing experience as meaningful as it should be. The bard remains a jack of all trades, versatile and unique, but now, the active abilities have been retweaked, have become stronger and no longer require that you need to spend your rounds doing boring stuff. In short, this is the definite bard. The fact that it can make for a good healer is another huge boon, particularly for groups that lack a ton of players or that are bored by clerics. In short, this is a resounding success of its attempted design goals. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this inspired take on the bard here on OBS!