How do you use bards? Why do people take in bards? Just using them just as assassins minimizes their roles as bards.
Bards are primarily entertainers. I usually have non-classed bards, basically zero level npcs with music skill, the most prevalent bards available. Classed bards are the assassins and mix in with the other type.
In my opinion, it would be odd to have a large group of musicians that everyone knows are also assassins. I don’t think anyone would invite them into their homes.
Musicians and also thespians, acrobats, dancers, and playboys. One could play it such that no one suspects they are assassins. No one would suspect Tom Hanks was so blasé on the world that his next big thrill had to be murder (Tom Cruise, maybe). It may be that if anyone knows they are assassins, they lose their value since assassination relies often on surprise. Classed bards will have reputations to protect if they are to keep getting invited to theatre events. High-level bards could be envisioned as wealthy and public figures with considerable power to lend or play against the PCs.
Bards could be used temporarily in a campaign. PCs could master-mind an elaborate assassination with a traveling theatre troupe, complete with illusions also bard-provided, and play as the bard(s) for the dirty work. If the troupe’s reputation is compromised, the PCs may have to deal with the bards as well.
A bard could be villianous, too. Hollywood can be seedy, take that to an extreme for Athas where corruption is the norm. Imagine a narcotics (“poison”)-addicted psychopathic extreme hedonist with a gift for manipulation and exceptional charisma. He’ll have swarms of fans idolizing him, plenty of cash, and he’ll do anything to push the bounds of physical or mental stimulation. Pacts with fiends, templars, merchant houses, defilers and defiling (of which he might be capable), no abuse is too demonic, no price too high, and he has the power to do it, too.
On a world where there is a scarcity of written material, oral tradition would be of utmost importance for both communication of news as well as preservation of history, lore, stories and entertainment.
I have played an Athasian bard for many years; morphing from a some-what traditional wandering minstrel into a current character who is refined in talent and skills.
My character, aptly named Agiea, has the following description:
“Born and raised in the Athasian City-State of Raam, Agiea has always had an affinity for entertaining. Accompanying various entertainers and storytellers throughout the Tablelands during his youth, Agiea has travelled to all seven of the City-States as well as countless villages, oasis, and outposts. He now plies his trade, often travelling with trade caravans, and continues to learn the tales and stories of Athas and its inhabitants along the way.
Agiea is a master of oral tradition; he refers to himself as a lore-keeper, and aside from retaining the stories and knowledge of Athasian society, he is also a master of poisons. Depending on his mood, motivations, affiliations, and the ability to support himself, he will put his talents to either benevolent use by brokering information, diagnosing poisonings, and selling the proper antidotes and antitoxins, or otherwise putting it to malevolent use by applying his poisons, arranging double-dealings, and even smuggling illegal wares. He is a man of opportunity with few scruples of right, wrong, justice, or injury. He does what he needs to in order to survive and offers as little as is required to do so.
Agiea keeps a small, adorned flute made of bone (some say human) hung on a leather thong around his neck, which he plays to entertain. When not in use, this flute is tucked inside the folds of Agiea’s clothing. He is able to entice folks to pay for his entertainment, alter their mood, and even enchant them simply by playing several melodic tunes. In reality, Agiea uses his music to lure listeners into allowing him to enter their mind and create subtle ‘suggestions’.
Throughout his wanderings, Agiea has learned to employ beautiful young females as psiducers, to whom he manages, protects, and pedels.”
In short, my bard is a poisoner and pimp who uses his abilities to steal or kill - all in true Athasian style. So playing a bard in Dark Sun doesn’t have to be boring, or even typical, one just need look at their role from a different perspective.
I always regarded Athasian bards as more spies than assassins. Sure they are very, very good at killing people. But their primary focus should revolve around their distinct social talents and the special place bards hold in Athasian society. Bards and thieves definitely have similarities in Dark Sun, but no more than Barbarians, Fighters, and Paladins. Bards utilize poison rather than backstabbing because of their social nature. This allows them to orchestrate the deaths of their targets without implicating themselves the way a common rogue might.
Lets look at the different classes and see which ones are actually in a good social position in Dark Sun. Aside from bard the only others I can see are templar and possibly fighters. Clerics and druids might not get the best reception in certain cities, defilers and preservers are killed on sight, gladiators are former slaves, and thieves are almost as bad as elves. Bards though, bards are storytellers that spread music, knowledge, and illuminate the otherwise dreary lives of many wastelanders. Bards enjoy a longstanding cultural role in Athasian society that leaves them generally well regarded and welcome just about anywhere. The only people that have a benefit anywhere close to that are Dune Traders and even Dune Traders have rival houses to worry about.