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Things You Should Know About: The Bard Class

Content of the article: "Things You Should Know About: The Bard Class"

Hey all,

I'm trying to start a series of articles about different topics in D&D and similar RPGs. Specifically, I want to bring some context to terms that have become really common in these kinds of stories, but it feels like we might not know much about in reality (words like paladin, monk, lock-picking, pirate, barbarian, etc). And while I'm at it, I have a number of thoughts about a lot of these topics which I would bring to my players to shape how they view their characters and the setting they're playing in.

Quick shoutout, but a lot of my inspiration for this stuff comes from Gm Word of the Week. It's a podcast I've been listening to for a few years now, and it's full of insightful stuff like this from Fiddleback. And if you want to branch out from that, one of the collaborators on the early episodes of that podcast is The Angry GM, who writes a lot of articles on the subject of playing D&D. I'll probably get my research from other sources, but I already know that a lot of the stuff I bring up will come from these guys, so I figure I'll go ahead and source them (plus, if you aren't already checking their stuff out, they're pretty great even after several years of content).

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This time, we're going to talk about the bard class, and what they're all about.

The Bard in 5e

The 5e PHB has this to say about bards:

Humming as she traces her fingers over an ancient monument in a long-forgotten ruin, a half-elf in rugged leathers finds knowledge springing into her mind, conjured forth by the magic of her song—knowledge of the people who constructed the monument and the mythic saga it depicts.

A stern human warrior bangs his sword rhythmically against his scale mail, setting the tempo for his war chant and exhorting his companions to bravery and heroism. The magic of his song fortifies and emboldens them.

Laughing as she tunes her cittern, a gnome weaves her subtle magic over the assembled nobles, ensuring that her companions’ words will be well received.

Whether scholar, skald, or scoundrel, a bard weaves magic through words and music to inspire allies, demoralize foes, manipulate minds, create illusions, and even heal wounds.

Music and Magic

In the worlds of D&D, words and music are not just vibrations of air, but vocalizations with power all their own. The bard is a master of song, speech, and the magic they contain. Bards say that the multiverse was spoken into existence, that the words of the gods gave it shape, and that echoes of these primordial Words of Creation still resound throughout the cosmos. The music of bards is an attempt to snatch and harness those echoes, subtly woven into their spells and powers.

The greatest strength of bards is their sheer versatility. Many bards prefer to stick to the sidelines in combat, using their magic to inspire their allies and hinder their foes from a distance. But bards are capable of defending themselves in melee if necessary, using their magic to bolster their swords and armor. Their spells lean toward charms and illusions rather than blatantly destructive spells. They have a wide-ranging knowledge of many subjects and a natural aptitude that lets them do almost anything well. Bards become masters of the talents they set their minds to perfecting, from musical performance to esoteric knowledge.

Learning from Experience

True bards are not common in the world. Not every minstrel singing in a tavern or jester cavorting in a royal court is a bard. Discovering the magic hidden in music requires hard study and some measure of natural talent that most troubadours and jongleurs lack. It can be hard to spot the difference between these performers and true bards, though. A bard’s life is spent wandering across the land gathering lore, telling stories, and living on the gratitude of audiences, much like any other entertainer. But a depth of knowledge, a level of musical skill, and a touch of magic set bards apart from their fellows.

Only rarely do bards settle in one place for long, and their natural desire to travel—to find new tales to tell, new skills to learn, and new discoveries beyond the horizon—makes an adventuring career a natural calling. Every adventure is an opportunity to learn, practice a variety of skills, enter long-forgotten tombs, discover lost works of magic, decipher old tomes, travel to strange places, or encounter exotic creatures. Bards love to accompany heroes to witness their deeds firsthand. A bard who can tell an awe-inspiring story from personal experience earns renown among other bards. Indeed, after telling so many stories about heroes accomplishing mighty deeds, many bards take these themes to heart and assume heroic roles themselves.

Mechanically, bards in this edition have the following traits and abilities:

  • While bards are clearly not focused on martial combat, they are moderately equipped to fill such a role. Bards have a d8 hit die, which makes them tougher than a pure spell-casting class. They have proficiency in light armors, simple weapons, and several martial weapons (hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, and shortswords).
  • Bards also can cast spells from their class-specific spell list, which appears to contain mostly spells from the arcane spell lists, but has a sizeable amount of divine spells (bard spells seem to focus on support and utility, as opposed to hard offensive spells). Bards use their musical instruments as a magical focus to cast, much like a cleric uses their holy symbol as a focus. Bards don't have to prepare spells at the start of each day like a wizard would, and they can only learn new spells as they level up (they do learn a larger number of spells than other spontaneous-casting classes, like the sorcerer, would). At higher levels (10, 14, 18), the bard learns two extra spells that come from any class' spell list.
  • Bards have a reputation as "jacks of all trades". This is represented partly in their spell list, which shares spells that the other casting classes wouldn't have access too (a wizard never can learn healing magic, and clerics never get to learn many of the utility spells from the arcane list). Bards can also take proficiency in any three skills, with no class-based limitations on which skills they choose. At level 2, all skills that the bard isn't proficient in gain half their proficiency bonus. At level 3, two of the skills the bard is proficient in gets double their proficiency bonus (which repeats at 10th level.
  • Bards can use their musical talents and skills of persuasion to support their teammates. Bards start off with the Bardic Inspiration feature, in which they can give another character an extra die that they can roll to add to the result of an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw later on. At level 2, the bard can play a Song of Rest during a short rest, which increases the hp healed if a character spends their hit dice during the rest to recover health. At level 6, the bard can Countercharm, playing their music in a way that affects mental magics and giving their teammates advantage on saves against charms and fear effects.
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Other Editions of D&D

The bard was introduced in first edition AD&D as a prototypical prestige class: a PC couldn't start off as a bard, but could level into the class later on by meeting certain prerequisites: You had to start as a fighter with a 15 in 4 out of the six ability scores (with moderate scores in the other two); then you switched to the thief class around level 5, and finally to the bard class at level 10. Bards in this edition were presented as a variant on the druid subclass: they had a d6 hit die, access to druid spells, bonus languages, could charm NPCs and monsters with their music, and could use a variant on the legend lore spell as an ability, using their knowledge to suddenly gain knowledge on a certain subject.

In 2nd edition, the bard was added to the "rogue's group" of classes, along with the thief, and became a standard class to use at level 1. While the first edition compared the class to druidic keepers of lore and sacred knowledge, now the bard became a traveling entertainer such as a skald, minstrel, or jongleur. Bards' ability score requirements were scaled back, with the only high requirement being Charisma. The 2nd edition bard was a jack-of-all-trades, with some skills from the thief class, access to any weapon proficiency, access to spells like the wizard class, and their own abilities with music and bardic lore. They gained the advantage of sharing the thief's progression table, which leveled up the fastest of all the classes. So while they had only a limited use of the abilities of other classes, they often could use abilities of a higher level well before the pure classes they got them from.

3rd edition continued the change to a jack-of-all-trades class. Bards now had to be a non-Lawful alignment. They were painted as wandering minstrels in this edition's PHB. The spellcasting feature of the class was turned into a spontaneous (non-prepared) casting ability, like the sorcerer, and they gained a class-specific spell list that included a small amount of healing spells from their druid roots. The class retained much of their previous abilities with music, bardic knowledge, and having a mix of skills from other classes, although all of these features were worked on to better fit the new edition's ruleset.

3.5 gave the bard the ability to cast spells without penalty in light armor, the only core class with this ability at the time, and made them the only core class with the Speak Language skill as a class skill. The edition also strengthened the bard's abilities with music. The bard's abilities with music were now tied to their class level, not their skill points in Perform (which had previously meant they didn't develop much over time), and high-level features improved and expanded the list of effects the bard's music could produce.

Pathfinder bards adopted many of the 3.5 class features, with some tweaks to fit the system. Bards in PF were a combat class (their Basic Attack Bonus went up each level, giving them a high bonus and multiple attacks at later levels), but they also had access to spells up to level 6 in their spell list. They retained the 3.5 class' weapon and armor proficiencies (light armor and shields, and simple weapons with some specific martial weapons thrown in). They could cast spells while both wearing light armor and using a shield. They added half their level to all Knowledge skill checks. They could use a Bardic Performance multiple times a day to counter certain magical effects, charm enemy creatures, or boost the abilities of their teammates. The bard also chose a specific art that they performed, which allowed them to substitute their Perform skill for relevant skill checks (A dancing bard could sibstitute Perform for their Acrobatics skill, for example).

In 4th edition, the bard maintained its role as jack-of-all-trades, with most of its class abilities devoted to boltering their allies and debuffing their enemies through music. They were also free to take multiclass feats from any other class, while other classes could only take feats from one other class.

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Bards in Historical Context

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Like the rogue class, the bard in D&D is a catch-all term for a variety of traveling entertainment professions: the bard was a professional poet hired in Scottish and Irish courts to compose a eulogy for a patron lord. The job had varieties by other names in other cultures: in Scandinavia, they would be a skald; in France, they hired minstrels and jongleurs (the term would later be applied to professional jugglers); in Germanic culture, they had scops. Other performers associated with the bard class could be rhapsodes (classical Greek reciters of poetry), or a griot (a West African storyteller and entertainer), or a troubadour (a French professional composer and song-writer), or a jester (an English word, for a professional fool or joker) It's worth mentioning, as well, that bards in Celtic society were technically druids as well: druids were members of the upper class, and studied in a variety of artistic, religious, and academic trades, and music and spoken word performances were among them.

It's interesting to note that, of all these professions, none of them share the D&D bard's desire for personal freedom. They all pursued committed work with a single wealthy patron, who would hire them explicitly to sing their praises, or mock their enemies. Even the traveling performers among them, such as the troubadour, expressly hoped to one day find a patron who would offer them steady work, which would mean their days of travel were over. The one such profession that was a free-spirited wanderer by its nature was the cantabank (aka the gleeman). The word "cantabank" somes from the Latin phrase meaning "to sing from a bench", which paints a poor picture of the profession basically as a medieval busker, performing in public places for pennies. In truth, these itinerant performers were considered the lowest rank of the entertaining professions, even below the professional fool, because they suffered from a lack of steady work. However, at least in Celtic culture, druids (and therefore bards among the druidic caste) were protected by law, allowed to travel where they liked and speak freely to power in their society. And from there, we can blend the bard into the image of a respectable tradesman, performing to the people they like and making a profit along the way.

It's also important to consider the druid's wide variety of skills when we look to the bard as a jack of all trades. Druids studied extensively on a variety of subjects, including folklore, law, and medicine. A druidic bard, then could be counted on to offer a wide variety of facts to someone with a question.

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References for Bards

From folklore, you might take inspiration for your bard from the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a Germanic folktale. You might remember that the piper arrives in Hamelin with an offer to rid the town of its chronic rat problem, and eventually he lures the vermin out of the town by the power of his enchanting music. And when the town refuses to pay the performer for his service, he takes revenge by using his same music to lure away the children of the town.

Or from Greek myth, you might use the character Orpheus. The Greek hero was a famous musician and singer, believed to be blessed by the god of music Apollo (some versions of the myth name Orpheus as the son of Apollo). Orpheus joined a number of Greek heroes as an Argonaut, in one of the major Greek myths. He also is known for walking into the Underworld to rescue the spirit of his dead lover, singing so beautifully that it melted the heart of Hades' queen Persephone and persuading the god to give him his love back from among the dead.

For a character that I feel represents a classic bard, I recommend Jaskier (aka Dandelion) from The Witcher. In the video game, Dandelion is a background character, who tells the story of Geralt of Rivia from his own perspective (albeit often by inserting himself into the stories as the "true" hero). Jaskier in the Netflix series also expresses many of the points that bards are known for: a flair for the dramatic, a willingness to pursue his desires even when there are risks involved, and a belief that a well-made story is more important than a truthful perspective of what actually happened.

Tulio and Miguel, from The Road to El Dorado, are also characters who can be pretty bard-y. They're smooth talkers, with a flair for the dramatic (see how Miguel instinctively starts playing dramatic music in the dice scene when Tulio is risking everything they have on the roll). The duo seems prepared to find a way to talk their way out of any problem and into any reward they can.

While it's fairly self-referential, the Bard's Tale video game from 2004 focuses strongly on the classic image of the bard class. The title character, who is "motivated by coin and cleavage", is outspokenly interested in whatever will create a memorable story.

For another video game, that may seem a bit unorthodox at first, check out Brutal Legend. The protagonist, heavy metal roadie Eddie Riggs, expresses many of a bard's qualities: he's charismatic, he is skilled in a variety of things throughout the story, he has a deep understanding of fantasy tropes, and he happens to be a skilled musician (in a setting where playing music causes magical effects). Plus, the game is an underrated masterpiece, if I do say so myself.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________Questions for a Bard Character

If you are building a bard character, or if you're a GM with a player rolling a fighter, you may want to consider these questions:

  • For GMs, how does bardic magic work, exactly? Could a musical instrument be a focus for a spell without it being played, the way a cleric focuses on their holy symbol? Or do they have to be physically play a song from the instrument in order to channel the magic?
  • Also for GMs, what arts are appropriate for bardic magic? Most musical instruments are expected, but can a bard dance or sing as their art? Could they use a non-musical art such as poetry? How does this affect the previous question, related to the bard using their instrument as a focus? Could a written poem be a focus? Or a held object for a dancer or singer? What about ornaments, such as an anklet or bracelet? This is not necessary, and could be considered homebrew, but a GM may choose to allow such arts to qualify as a bard's profession.
  • Bards can, of course, perform their art without casting spells. Is there a difference for your bard when they cast a spell and when they don't? Do they feel a hum of energy as they play? Does the music reverberate slightly on their ears when magic is a part of the notes? Do the strings of their instrument feel differently? Do they feel an energy in their voice? In their bodies?
  • What kind of performance does your bard give? Do they play an instrument? Do they dance or sing? Do their tools of this craft bear markings or embellishments to give them personality?
  • Where did your bard learn to perform? Were they trained in a bardic college? Were they taken in by a troupe of traveling performers? Did they learn by playing on the streets?
  • Bards often don't schedule their performances, and many have ways to gain attention when they begin their show. How does your bard attract a crowd? Do they have a particular shout or holler that they use? Do they get others to attract the attention of passersby? Do they use special effects such as fire, noise-makers, or smoke?
  • Bards are often flashy by their nature, and many dress and carry themselves in ways that stand out in a crowd. Describe your character's personal style. Do they wear bright colors? Do they always speak loudly, as if addressing a crowd? Do they speak in third-person, as a way of dropping their name to strangers?
  • Many bards dabble in mockery, sharing lighthearted banter directed at people or institutions in power. Does your character every do this? Has it ever garnered the wrong kind of attention?
  • Who is your bard's target audience? Do they try to attract the attention of the wealthy? Do they play for the common folk? How do they view both of these groups?
  • Some bards gain the patronage of a particular wealthy individual, paid to perform for them and to compose pieces that sing their patron's praises. Would you bard want such a life, if it were offered to them?
  • What is the most memorable performance your bard has given? How was it received by the crowd? On the other hand, what was your bard's greatest flop of a performance, and how did the crowd react?
  • What is your bard's masterpiece, the performance which would display the peak of their art? How close does your character feel to completing this work?
  • Many bards struggle with the issue of handling both a weapon and an instrument. Does your bard prefer one to the other? Do they have an approach in mind to putting one of these items away quickly and pulling out the other? Do they plan to only use one item in a fight, but are prepared to use the other if the situation demands it?
  • Bards are known for having a breadth of knowledge and skills, gained from their travels and experiences. Does you bard have a story of one of these experiences, which they love to tell to strangers? Do they have a story that is deeply personal, which they'd only tell to their closest friends?
  • Bards know how to motivate others to perform at their best. What tactics does your bard use when they use Bardic Inspiration? Do they give a stirring speech about what a character is fighting for? Do they mock and challenge a character to do better? Do they belittle the character's opponent or obstacle, to make it seem less threatening?
  • Bards, arguably more than anyone, understand the power of legacy. They tell stories of great heroes, and of the downfall of monsters and tyrants. Does your bard have a legacy they hope to leave when they retire? How do they imagine themselves, when they picture another bard writing a story about them?
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