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Versatile Performance states:

You can use Performance ... instead of Intimidation to Demoralize.

Demoralize states:

... [if] you're not using a language, you take a –4 circumstance penalty to the check.

I don't think the rules-as-written allow for any other interpretation than for the bard to take a -4 penalty if using an instrumental performance when trying to demoralize.

Would it be against the spirit of the rules to house rule this -4 away for instrumental performances? And while it definitely would be a huge buff to a bard, would this greatly overpower the bard?

I'm brand new to Pathfinder 2e, so I'm not sure if that severely breaks the balance; the most obvious imbalance is that it would overcome the language requirement of demoralize but it still seems thematically consistent.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why is it a problem that there is a -4 penalty on Demoralize? Do you feel that the Bard is underpowered and needs help? And more imporantly, to answer this usefully, how do you set the cutoff for "greatly" overpowering, or "severely" breaking balance? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 9:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ There isn't necessarily a problem, it just initially struck me as kind of anticlimactic. It was cool to read that the bard could demoralize, only to realize that it wouldn't really be effective of they weren't speaking a language. However with the answers provided, I think that gives me a few tools to both maintain the penalty while also ignoring it situationally. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 11:55

3 Answers 3

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Psychoacoustics is not as simple as you think

Music in a minor key is interpreted by those of us from western cultures as sad or having gravitas while major keys are upbeat and happy. But if we grew up in Asia or Africa, we would have the opposite reaction. That is, the music is language - the bard is playing in human but the monsters are listening in monster.

How well does your human bard understand the musical culture of the orcs, fairies and dragons they are trying to intimidate? However, if they understand the language then they probably understand enough to play intimidating music even if they don't use words.

Notwithstanding, the change you propose gives more power to the bard. Whether this is too much power depends on how often this comes up.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good way of framing it. Shortly after posting the question, the thought did occur to me that different cultures in the world may not be put off by the bard's understanding of intimidating music. Withholding the language requirement does still seem like a decent abstraction as to whether or not the bard would know what a particular culture or creature would find intimidating musically. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 11:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Edit: Upholding* the language requirement. (Not "withholding" the language requirement) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 13:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ You make it sound like the -4 comes from an unfamiliarity with the culture rather than a penalty inherent in using music. Should a Bard who speaks Orc but nonetheless chooses to use music on an Orc suffer from the same -4? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael W.
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 19:59
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Not Overpowered

The other answers do a great job of creating narrative reasons to still keep the penalty - however, if you decide to waive the penalty, then it wouldn't be overpowered. Versatile Performance is a class feat; the ability to ignore the language barrier for Demoralize is provided by Intimidating Glare, a first level skill feat. Generally, in PF2e, the feat power "hierarchy" is generally seen as (from strongest type of feat to weakest):

  1. Class Feat
  2. Ancestry Feat ~= General Feat
  3. Skill Feat

This makes Versatile Performance essentially as strong as three skill feats: essentially, a combination of Intimidating Glare, and three Natural Medicine like feats (allowing you to sub a skill for one application of another skill, with both Impersonate and Make an Impression being more niche aspects of their respective skills). That's slightly worse than the Rogue Dedication (which makes sense, given it's higher level by 1), which gives you a skill feat plus (essentially) two Skill Training feats plus Surprise Attack (at worst as good as a skill feat, and probably better) plus access to Rogue Archetype feats.

So, in short, allowing Versatile Performance to ignore the shared language requirement for Demoralize is by no means overpowered, and actually quite in line for a class feat. Honestly, Versatile Performance isn't that strong without it, and Intimidating Glare working with Versatile Performance is a bit... narratively confusing. Not unsolvably so, but does it mean your masterful mandolin playing makes your glare more intimidating?

Overall, it's up to the GM to decide this either way, but I wouldn't worry about it being overpowered - in a lot of cases the language requirement is moot anyway (most intelligent enemies speak Common, and some APs 90%+ intelligent enemies).

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I would evaluate if the penalty applies in each particular situation, not just ignore it in all cases.

To quantify how much of a buff would ignoring this penalty become, you need to quantify how much this would affect the character.

In my opinion, usually this penalty on Intimidation check would come into play in three ways:

  • the creature does not understand the PC's language. Simple and straightforward;
  • the creature cannot hear the PC, and PC attempts to intimidate it nonverbally;
  • the creature could probably hear the PC, but the PC doesn't want to make noise.

In other cases the PC would just speak normally and the penalty wouldn't come into play. Ignoring this penalty would thus, depending on situation, have the effect of either speaking any language, or being able to communicate to creatures that cannot perceive verbal communications, or a significant stealth bonus. In my opinion, that's too much.

By replasing the normal roll with the Performance check, I'd expect the bard to sing to fulfill the language requirement; I understand that for some reason your bard is not willing to do that. If you feel it's a purely stylistic choice - I would still apply the penalty in first two cases. As @DaleM pointed out, the musical language is culturally-coded; and the feat of intimidating a deaf creature with music might even deserve some additional penalties. In the third case the bard would probably not attempt his performance anyway, but in normal circumstances I see no need for the penalty.

If it's an attempt to bypass some constraint (like, for example, if the bard is currently gagged, but still wants to intimidate the opponent) - I would leave the penalty in place... unless the bard gives me a good idea of how to make his intent clear to the target. It is supposed to be a challenge, after all.

P.S. One specific example - if the bard is mute, but this condition is stylistic and does not sually affect his interactions with other characters - I would not apply the penalty in most cases; but if it is supposed to be debilitating - the penalty would be a good representation of that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ These are some good points. It also occurred to me that in PF2e (as opposed to PF1e) the Performance skill combines ALL performance types. So the bard could just sing to demoralize if they know the language of the creature they're fighting. But if the bard didn't know the language, they could just use whichever performance makes sense for their character. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 11:53

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