Deadly Serious

Eric Lis

Dr. Eric Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC sourcebook, Insults & Injuries.

We all know that bards have short life spans, but did you know that being a better bard is more dangerous?

Bards get short shrift in most games. As far back as they’ve existed in fantasy, the bard has usually been more comic relief than competent hero, fool as opposed to fighter. In games, the bard has traditionally been a little-respected character lacking in both raw power and durability. Pathfinder diverged from classic D&D by giving bards a host of archetypes that added to their flexibility and utility, but even so, if you were to line up every table-top gamer in the world and ask them what classes they most enjoyed playing, I’ll wager that very few would say “bard” or any analogous class.

Well, it turns out that even nature itself has no respect for bards, because as a series of studies in recent years have shown, being an entertainer – or at least, a comedian – can kill you.

Last year, an Australian team published a paper wherein they showed that “elite” comedians seem to be more prone to die than either less funny comedians or “healthy controls.” Essentially, the team looked at about 50 British comedians born in the first half of the 20th century and collaboratively rated them from least funny to most funny in their opinions. They then looked at the lifestyles and life courses of these comedians and asked whether there was any sort of association between being funnier and being less healthy. They showed that in general the funnier comedians had been less well, often mentally as well as physically, and twice as many “very funny” comedians had gone to early graves. They argued that a number of factors explained the difference, including that the funnier comedians often had worse health habits (more smoking, more alcoholism), but this didn’t fully explain higher rates of early-onset cancers not apparently related to lifestyle. They did note, however, that it seemed likely that a history of difficult childhood, lifetime trauma, or other sources of suffering could perhaps push someone to be a better comedian at the same time as driving them to drink and use drugs. There are some obvious problems with this study, not the least of which is that there’s no scientific or validated way to authoritatively say which comedians are really the funniest. Still, it was a paper that raised some interesting questions about lifestyle and health.

I mention this today because a follow-up study has just recently come out which shows some similar data. The same team took a more systematic approach by looking at list of the most popular stand-up comedians, comedy actors, and dramatic actors and again looked at their lifestyles and longevity. Consistent with their prior work, they showed that stand-up comedians tended to die early than comedic actors, all comedians tended to die earlier than dramatic actors, and higher-ranked comedians died earlier than lower-ranked comedians.

Now, it’s a gross over-simplification to say that all fantasy bards qualify as comedians. Assuming that they fall into the traditional roles of historical entertainers, only a relative minority of them probably worked as fools and jesters – the comedians – because there was a lot more work and opportunity for the troubadours and other musicians, or the seanchaís, skomorokhs, and other storytellers. None the less, it does tell us something about the effects of lifestyle. While most PCs tend to be hard-drinking, hard-living folk, it seems sensible to imagine that bards by and large live lives where they ingest more intoxicating substances and partake of more short-term companionship than most other classes. Aside from the hardships they put their bodies through, they also generally lack the supernaturally-enhanced constitutions of other adventurers. On the other hand, if they have access to routine magical healing, maybe they wouldn’t find themselves developing the slowly progressive diseases that kill real-world comedians, just because remove disease spells cast to solve other problems incidentally remove arteriosclerosis and liver damage and whatever else. It ends up being up to the storyteller to determine if the bardic lifestyle is an inherently unhealthy one and whether that ends up mattering, but one thing is certainly true: none of this is going to make anyone MORE inclined to play one.