I hear a lot of badmouthing of certain classes in the D20 system; usually it is about Paladins and Bards, the former for being Lawful Stupid and the latter for being useless.
I have already wrote quite a bit on my beliefs of how Paladins can be played without being completely useless, most of it being in the roleplay ability of how the character plays. You don’t have to immediately be the police and turn people in the moment they do something wrong, and in the end, the Paladin is not meant to be that. The Paladin is the shining example of what the others could aspire to be, if they only chose to give up that life of evil and follow your example, and don’t worry, you’ll be there to help them if they fall. You’re not there to force them to act a certain way, and you can even see the benefit of their actions. You’re just there to make sure they use their skills for good, not for their own pocket; ie: you may want to stop the thief from stealing in a populated area from innocent people, but what if you’re in another country when you’re at war? And if you’re in a dungeon or fighting the big bad in their home base? Well, I’d say let your thief run wild.
As for bards, I hear a lot of them in mostly a combat area of how they can’t take or deal a lot of damage, such as in The Gamers 2 movie. I agree that bards are not going to put out as much damage as fighters and they are not designed to. Nor are they designed to be able to cast spells like a wizard or sorceror or cleric. Maybe they can make decent thieves, at least with the OGL giving them a good shot at the skill points, but even in 2E, they were given reduced thief percentages if I recall correctly. Let’s not forget, to quote Elan from Order of the Stick, ‘I mean being a bard is pretty silly. You walk into dungeons and SING at people. Who could take that seriously?’.
The reason I like bards is that they make excellent characters in overall aspects. In combat, you have the ability to work as a secondary front line character, using flanking to your benefit and also things like nets and whips and dazzling display and various buffs, and you don’t need to sing, you can dance or do oratory or any other perform you can think of. Perhaps you do rousing battle songs, perhaps you beat on a drum in between beating heads, perhaps you’re a gypsy or a Barasian Dancer from Kingdoms of Kalamar sort of fighter using your dexterity to aid in the battlefield. You can play archer, allowing you to use throwing weapons or bows or similar and still perform without running the risk or drawing an attack or similar. There is also a third type, using your spells and abilities to play a ‘controller’ type of character, manipulating the playing field, especially if you get summon abilities and can populate with all sorts of animals.
Let’s look away from combat, however. As an explorer, you can do a lot of things right there with your bardic abilities. Your spells can give you tactical advantage and can give you a lot of non-combat approaches. These can range from misdirection and guile with your party and give some bonuses when you deal with social interactions. So, with these abilities, you become a problem solver for issues when not in combat, and in combat, you can fill any role so long as you prepare for it. Usually, you’ll build to be one of the three but can fall inot the others as needed.
Rogue characters could be said to be similar to Bards in a lot of ways, but I think that they both have their own flavor to set them apart. However, trying to think of good examples of a D20 Bard will usually be of characters that could be said to be a rogue as well. For example Leftover Soup webcomic had this one that talks about rogue characters; Aladdin, Mal Reynolds, Zorro, Flynn Ryder, Jack Sparrow, Robin Hood. They are definately thief types but I would say that all of what they do could make them more apt to be bards than thieves. Charisma is a bard driven ability more than a thief, but not to say you can’t have charasmatic rogues, just look at con men. However, Zorro doesn’t do a lot of the traditional rogue things of picking pockets, opening locks and other such things; in a lot of the Robin Hood presentations I’ve seen he seems to have a flair for the dramatic to give the people a show and rally them, Aladdin is more action oriented and dives into things relying on his abilities and the help of his friends, and so forth. The magic side of things can be considered to be mostly coincidental, which is usually what happens with the magic that bards use anyway.
So, bards live off their guile, but still have some action abilities with them. The D&D 3.5e ‘Complete Book of Scoundrels’ opened up a great option for designing more Guile to your characters and opening up a lot more ‘flair’ into things. For those of you who have played Cyberpunk 2020, that mindset is a lot of what I think of bards:
1) Style over Substance.
2) Attitude is Everything.
3) Always take it to the Edge.
4) Break the Rules.
These are things all characters can do, but something I think bards can do a lot of pretty well and make it work because they can cover a lot of the angles. The magic users have a lot of spells (prepared or not), but when they run out or get to a situation they are not prepared for then they are harder to adapt, and the opposite spectrum are fighters who are physical and need to have something they can overcome through their abilities, usually trying to charge through it.
In the end, I think all characters can be good or bad, but a matter of how you play them determines how fun they will be. However, no character will become unplayable, just maybe have more challenges.