Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of what you can do, it’s all about class. Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, a character’s class picks up where their backstory leaves off, giving them the skills and abilities they’ll use on their life of adventure.
Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in this “Playing D&D with class” is the usual musings that accompany any topic and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in D&D 5E.
As a longtime player and DM, i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization, and when it comes to making characters i’m a purist – multi-class characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what.
We are the music makers
The dreamers of dreams. A jack of all trades, but master of none (and oftentimes better than master of one). Minstrels, poets, virtuosos, storytellers and loremasters.
The D&D bard is all of these things and more, tracing their origins way back to a 1976 edition of The Strategic Review.
In 1st edition AD&D, bards were sequestered away in the back of the Player’s Handbook. There, the bard was a hybrid multi-class/prestige class of sorts. A character had to gain levels as a fighter, then thief, and then a druid – but at that point the character is a bard under druidic tutelage. As a bard they gained bonuses to charm things, legendary lore knowledge, defenses against musical magical effects and abilities to inspire their comrades.
Refined in 2nd edition AD&D, the bard was a subclass of rogue, retaining the same inspirational, influential and musical abilities with the addition of some thief skills and wizard spells.
The bard didn’t change much since then, settling into its position as a multi-faceted class mixing skills, magic and fighting with unique performance-based powers. Often regarded as the ultimate fifth member of a classic party of fighter, wizard, cleric and thief, the bard can fill in or support any of those four roles, as well as bring a few of its own tricks to the party.
Better with age
Bards have been a favorite class of mine and a frequent go-to since 3rd edition. Prior to then i never much enjoyed magic and almost always played thieves or rangers. In 1st edition i wouldn’t have strayed from fighter and thief to pick up druid and a chance at a few specialty abilities, and since my days playing 2nd edition i’m almost always the DM.
But then came 3rd edition, and a rather large gaming group i joined with about ten players – the perfect situation to add a bard. These folks were all pretty power-gamey min-maxers so the idea of a character whose strength lay in helping others achieve success was anathema to them. They were more than happy to take their inspiration bonuses, and for my part i considered a significant (maybe even majority) amount of the damage being dealt out stemming from my otherwise weak and clumsy bard.
Because the group was so large, i was free to focus all the character’s advancement on his performance skill and utility spells. He didn’t even carry any weapons because a) he couldn’t carry very much at all thanks to Strength as a dump stat and b) he was terrible in combat. It was probably the most fun character i ever played. IIRC the campaign ended with a battle against a lich. The bard was the last man standing, and with his dirge singer prestige class was able to defeat the powerful undead with a haunting violin song.
5E bards are the pinnacle of a class that’s only gotten better with each edition. To be fair, all the classes in 5E are presented well. With their signature inspire ability functioning as a bonus action, bards of today can boost their allies AND do their own thing, giving players a lot more opportunity to feel bard-like without being just a mobile stereo system. Countercharming magic, bonuses to all skills and expertise in couple of them are built into the core chassis.
The pen or the sword
When it comes time to choose a bard’s archetype at 3rd level, the choices in the PHB offer one path focusing more on combat and the other further diversifying the bard with more interactions with skill bonuses and magical knowledge, plus the power to inspire yourself and a reaction to unspire (negatively inspire) other creatures when they attack an ally.
Represented by Colleges that the bard presumably studied at, the colleges of lore and valor stay true to the bard’s origins as a daring loremaster, while offering distinct methods to go about that task.
Unearthed Arcana adds two additional colleges: glamour and whispers. The former increases the bard’s performances to greater heights with illusory and captivating effects, while the latter offers a dark twist to the bard’s repertoire that makes them deceptive assassins who capture and use the shadows of others to mask their activities.
Looking for inspiration
Although it’s difficult to separate the idea a bard’s performance being musical, that’s one place to start thinking about a bard character.
A bard’s specialty could be stand-up comedy, oration or rhetoric. Their performance might be juggling or whip mastery. A more martial-minded bard’s kata, shadowboxing or acrobatics routine perhaps inspires allies and intimidates enemies. An amazing performance and display of skill is moving regardless of the medium. Ballet, performance art, visual effects shows – these and more all have the potential to enthrall audiences and evoke emotional responses.
Keep in mind, too, that D&D takes place in a world where magic is real. Not only does a bard hone their skill with diligence, their mastery imbues their actions with mystical qualities the same as wizards tap into arcane forces or even a highly skilled warrior can make multiple devastating attacks with unnatural celerity.
Classically, characters like the Pied Piper, minstrels, Norse skalds and the Kingkiller Chronicle’s Kvothe are excellent examples of audio-inclined loremaster types. Likewise, any musician can provide some inspirado for a bard’s adventures. Freddie Mercury, a high-level bard, sold out stadiums and inspired millions. Tenacious D literally went on an adventure to acquire an artifact and wound up battling the devil in a musical rock-off.
Without getting into a rules and mechanics discussion, the Performance skill in 5E is used for any sort of entertainment. This can certainly include such things as acrobatic demonstrations and magical light shows, for a different take on bardic (or any) performance. The skill check is determining how entertained audiences are, not necessarily how technically sound the performance is. A low-Dexterity character can absolutely attempt to entertain a crowd with juggling or tumbling, and if it were an Acrobatics check they’d more than likely fail miserably. Who’s to say their routine isn’t a comic spectacle that ensnares onlookers through sheer peculiarity?
It’s not hard to imagine Willy Wonka as a bard. He’s charismatic, sings, does a bit of tumbling, creates magical concoctions and has gathered strange lore from all over the world.
The public persona a bard affects might be a mask they wear while pursuing another agenda, too. Good bards are welcome most places, and a traveling entertainer is a perfect cover for a spy or other sort of clandestine operator to go about without arousing suspicion.
A bard at the core is an adventuresome sort with a smattering of skills, abilities and traits from several disciplines. Look at your bard’s ability scores, background and skills and imagine what performances they might enrapture audiences with. You can get a lot of roleplaying mileage out of what your bard’s talent expertise stems from.
Roles not rolls
As with any class in D&D, the best advice i can offer is to set mechanical concerns aside and instead focus on creating memorable characters. Unusual race, class and background combinations are just as viable as character built to take advantage of every stat and ability. What you’re giving up from category A only means you’ll be stronger at something in category B or C.
D&D gives players a chance to create the kind of game they want to play, using as many or as few of the rules as those gathered at the table wish. At the core, it is a group-centered game and your characters come to life as individuals working with others to achieve their goals, so what works in one group might not be optimal in another, and that’s something number crunchers might overlook.
More than anything else, bards rely on high Charisma for their primary abilities. Inspiration and spellcasting are both dependent on a bard’s force of personality that Charisma represents and even if all the other stats are low, a bard can still do pretty well with a high Charisma. Vicious Mockery as a cantrip never gets old; despite low damage, which is of the psychic variety and does scale with level, it doles out the ever-important disadvantage for the target’s next attack. The Performance skill is Charisma-based, as is the pool of Bardic Inspiriation dice.
If you imagine your bard as a daring warrior in addition to their charismatic persona, by all means the bard can hang in there with other warriors, or likewise providing cover fire from range. A bard more interested in lore and NOT getting into life-and-death battles can tap into more magical secrets or rely on skills more as an adventurer.
The bard is a great class that leverages complete mastery of a single pursuit for decent aptitude in several. With so many options, a bard can evolve in many different ways and come up with solutions to problems that surprise the bard player themselves as much as their companions and fellow players.
The next time you’re creating a character for your game, consider giving the bard a chance to perform. At their core, bards are charming, personable, confident, entertaining and inspiring. Their big personalities are as diverse as the focus of their skills and abilities. No matter what methods the bard employs, bards are going to be influential performers whose allies count themselves lucky to have them along.
Think about what role your bard will play in their group. Will they shy away from bloodshed, preferring to aid more aggressive companions to overcome perilous monsters? Will they use their talents to cover the party’s activities from enemy eyes? Perhaps your bard has little taste for dangerous journeys and adventures, instead building a career and reputation as a performer who has fell in with more adventuresome folk as protection from the threats the world poses.