There’s something we need to address. Type ‘bard’ into any search engine, and all the pictures will be of adventurers decked out with instruments. 90% of those (I counted, more or less) are lutes.

Fantasy RPG Bard with Lute and Dagger

This lazy bard keeps leaving her lute (technically an arch-lute or theorbo, I think) on the floor. That’s a paddling…
Picture by Eva Wilderman.

Let me tell you something, as a musician, about lutes. It may be useful for game flavour. And don’t worry, it’s not all bad news – I promise.

Like most musical instruments, lutes don’t like being bashed about. You have to keep them in a hard case and, even then, a firm knock will not only send it spiralling out of tune, but maybe break a string. If your lute has frets (some of the later medieval ones did) then they’ll be all out of wack too. I’d say (in game terms) that, unless you’ve very carefully laid your instrument case down on the floor before battle (a full round action), you’ve got a 1 in d8 chance of buggering the thing up. That’ll be an hour of careful work to sort it out, at least.

Bard lute

A lute case styled after those from about 1450. The luthier who made it said it took more time, and was more expensive, than the Renaissance lute inside!

Secondly, let’s talk about the strings. From iconography, we can tell that most medieval lutes seem to have had 4 or 5 ‘courses’. Each ‘course’ consisted of 2 strings close to each other, which could be sounded at the same time and were usually in unison. Now these strings were made of dried, wound sheep guts, which were pulled taught. Even small changes in temperature or humidity could affect the tension and send them out of tune, or break them completely. So tuning a lute wasn’t a matter of a few moments – there were as many as 10 strings to tune, all of which could be wildly out. And replacing strings was no picnic, either. They weren’t a common place item, and you’d have to get to a fairly big settlement to find a luthier (that’s a lute maker, to you and me) who stocked them.

Close up of "Coronation of the Virgin" by Andrea Di Bartolo. Bard in details

Close up of “Coronation of the Virgin” by Andrea Di Bartolo. Check out the four, very clearly drawn, courses!

In the medieval era, you’d use a plectrum made of a feather quill, and you’d pluck out a tune, rather than playing chords. So you might want to forget those lovely scenes in which you strum gentle chords to accompany your glorious tenor… you’ll have to wait until about 1600, with the rise of (among others) Monteverdi and Caccini, for that.

Remember I said it’s not all bad news?

One of the best things about fantasy settings is the cool toys. The magic sword of justice. The impenetrable shield of truth. But I firmly believe that bards should also be eligible for cool toys. There are a few instruments in the Pathfinder Wondrous Items list – various pipes, drums and harps (harps are also a damn nightmare, by the way – you thought tuning 10 strings was slow…) which give specific effects. In general, though, these are more geared towards political encounters or aid effects than hard-core battle effects. They could be a bit more exciting and true to the needs of the average instrumentalist-turned-adventurer. After all, the Paladin gets the perfect, holy magic sword, and the Rogue’s daggers always seem to cause extra bleeding. What about the bards?

For instruments used in battle, and particularly with a regard to the fragile and ungainly lute, I’d like to suggest the following:

  • Any magical instruments have the option of unbreakable strings, or strings which never go out of tune in response to normal attacks (or both at the GM’s discretion). Non magical instruments should give performance penalties when damaged, or in inclement weather. This will provoke the bard to seek out a better, more pimped up, instrument.
  • Some magical instruments might be entirely unbreakable (or require a very high strength check) to regular attacks. Magical attacks, of course, are another thing. Instruments might have hit points or even damage resistance, at the discretion of the GM.
  • Magical weapon attributes should be applicable to instruments if appropriate. In Pathfinder, for example, they might be Anarchic, Anchoring, Bane, Beaming, Benevolent, Bewildering, Bloodhunting, Breaking, Brilliant energy… Well, you get the picture. A few details might need to be tweaked to make it work for the instrument, player and campaign, but that just adds to the home-brewed fun (as long as the GM agrees). And if your instrument is magically resistant to damage (Indestructible, or what have you) then then fun really begins. How about hitting someone over the head with your unbreakable Brawling lute?
  • Fancy a few more templates? How about a Holy Lute of the Hymnal, which gives you a channelling ability against undead? Or a power chord on a harp which creates an area effect, pushing people away? Or how about an instrument which targets specific races with unnerving overtones, causing fear, sleep, nausea or other effects? Share your ideas in the comments!
This bard has a Lute of Bashing! Be like this bard!

This bard has a Lute of Bashing! Be like this bard!


Instrumentalists – in fantasy as in real life – are crazy about their hardware. Finding a legendary instrument, or recreating one from legend, may well be a motivation which drives a bard out into the world. As a group, we musicians prefer the indoors (preferably somewhere where there’s wine). So let the barbarian stock up on large, pointy things. We bards? We’ll just be here, tinkering with our +4 Unbreakable Lute of Bashing – a blunt instrument, as it were…

About Janet Forbes

Janet Forbes is a London-based professional musician, a classical soprano and recorder player performing everything from medieval polyphony to contemporary opera. You can find out about her “real job” at on her website. Janet is also a keen historian, archaeologist, writer, role playing games player, and the Mother-of-Kittens.

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