D&D Design diary: Blue Magic

With my first foray into creating content for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeon Masters Guild, i offered my own take on a popular concept: the blue mage from Final Fantasy lore.

The Dungeon Masters Guild is a new program that allows you to create content (adventures and locations; new monsters; character classes, archetypes, and backgrounds; etc.) using Wizards of the Coast intellectual property (IP) and to make some money while you’re at it. – from the DM’s Guild website

blue_mage__by_endling

A Blue Mage from Final Fantasy reflects on the creatures whose abilities he’s acquired.

In the Final Fantasy games, blue mages are mystical warriors with the ability to acquire unusual powers from the monsters they face and add them to their repertoire. There are many homebrew versions of this character option for D&D across several editions. After reading a bunch of them and giving it some thought, i decided to take a shot at my own version. The outcome is something i’m really happy with and excited about, and i hope other D&D gamers give it a try in their campaigns.

What i thought i’d do here is give gamers a look into how i developed this idea, and generate feedback into ways to improve and refine the concept. Before getting started, i encourage heading over to the DM’s Guild and downloading the PDF version of this class option for yourself.

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Initially, i began working on the blue mage as a Sorcerous Origin option. After writing about the sorcerer in the Playing D&D with Class series, my imagination was really taken away with these arcane spellcasters, generally considered rather suboptimal from a mechanical standpoint. Longtime Long Shot readers and those who know me know that game mechanics are far less important to me than cool character concepts and storytelling potential.

In this version of the blue mage, these sorcerers could learn new spells that directly affected them. Only spells with a single specific target were eligible, with a higher level ability including those that a character was affected by, which included area of effect spells. I went through every spell in the Player’s Handbook and made a list of all of the eligible spells.

The list was quite long! The potential to acquire any spell specifically targeting the sorcerer would greatly expand the breadth and depth of their spell list. The opportunity to add healing magic was there, as well as numerous other spells from every other spell list. There were a lot of spells that wouldn’t be eligible at first, in particular area of effect spells (fireballs, e.g.) and spells with a range of Self. One idea, mentioned above, was to expand the eligible spells as a higher level ability, to make any spell that affects the sorcerer eligible to learn.

Tinkering around with this for a while, i came to an impasse for a couple of reasons. From a mechanical perspective, this felt way too overpowered to me. The niche of a sorcerer is having a small pool of spells overall but with the benefit of being able to manipulate those spells in various ways through metamagic. By giving a sorcerer the potential to acquire basically any spell that affects them, it threw the class off balance.

Another drawback was that sorcerers are squishy. With d6 hit die, they aren’t known for having a lot of hit points. Sorcerers also don’t generally wear any armor, and despite the option for magical defenses loading up your limited spell pool with protection spells would kind of make the character a wash. So the idea of a character that wants to be struck and affected with lots of spells, while at the same time being relatively fragile and unprotected, did not sound like a very good idea at all. A blue mage needed to rely on their body’s fortitude to pursue their path to power, and the sorcerer just wasn’t going to cut it.

blue-tattoos

And then an idea came to mind. What class is known for being tough? The barbarian! With Constitution as a primary ability for these warriors, they had the natural toughness needed to withstand punishment. They’re reckless, and what’s more reckless than willingly going out of your way, nay, seeking out opportunities to get struck with all manner of strange effects? Additionally, the barbarian doesn’t have any other spellcasting to interfere or unbalance the blue magic abilities.

On the contrary, building this as a barbarian primal path option would open up new options for these characters, leveraging their focus on melee combat to give them interesting options for ranged attacks and utility abilities. The existing primal paths in both the Player’s Handbook and Unearthed Arcana focus almost exclusively on melee combat. There’s a smattering of noncombat utility here and there. My reasoning was that blue magic would offer an alternative path. A barbarian’s core class abilities would still allow them to be competent melee warriors, and blue magic had the potential to bolster this facet depending on what abilities were acquired while at the same time opening up different avenues and options for playing your barbarian character.

Using the spell list i’d made for the sorcerer idea, i struck all the spells that required concentration from the list. My thinking was that the primal path would allow them to cast spells, but only while raging. However, that was a deviation enough from rage’s limitations so i felt like allowing concentration spells on top of that was too much.

The spell list that was left was not very exciting, frankly. Most of them were damaging spells, which would be kind of cool since a large number of them are ranged – a common issue for barbarians as they rise in level is being stuck as a one-trick melee combat specialists when enemies start flying, teleporting and so forth. Outside of these, there’s some interesting stuff but really, how many times do you think you’ll cast Rary’s telepathic bond while raging? Tongues, water breathing, message and the like all fall under this perspective. On the other hand, there’s nifty stuff like the power word spells and healing that would be nice options to have for a barbarian. Taking it all into consideration, it felt plainly lackluster. The real nail in the coffin was asking myself “would i choose this primal path, over the ones in the Player’s Handbook or from Unearthed Arcana?” The answer was no.

More than that, it deviated too much from what makes blue magic so cool in the Final Fantasy games – the ability to collect and use monster powers as a player character!

Thus began my pouring through the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, seeking some formula to convert creatures’ Challenge Rating into something equivalent to character and/or spell levels. Without getting too involved in describing my amateur mathematical equations, suffice it to say these efforts were fruitless.

barbarian-beholder

Only a barbarian would recklessly go toe-to-toe with a beholder…but the possibility of being able to use those eye rays…!

The solution i came up with after nearly abandoning the idea altogether, though, i feel is an elegant one: categorize creatures according to their placement in the Tiers of Play. Since characters would more or less face creatures whose CR matched the tier they were in, it felt natural to group them that way. So CR 0-4, 5-10, 11-15 and 16-20 creatures were translated into a table based on the Eldritch Knight Spellcasting table, minus the cantrips. That felt about the right balance of uses for the strange abilities the blue mage barbarian would acquire.

In keeping with the naming conventions of other barbarian primal paths, my blue magic creation was dubbed The Path of the Azure.

To a barbarian following the Path of the Azure, the dangerous monsters they face
become their strength. As reckless or moreso than others of their kind, these barbarians willingly put themselves in harm’s way against terrible aberrations, magical creatures and extraplanar threats. When their foes affect them with strange powers, barbarians of the Path of the Azure harness their fury to turn these creatures’ attacks back on them by unlocking those abilities within their raging souls. As varied as the foes they’ve faced, these barbarians build unusual repertoires of additional powers they are able to unleash while in the throes of their rage.

The first draft edition of this that i shared on the DM’s Guild was offered with the caveat of fully understanding it needed more work and refining, and an encouragement to discuss, share feedback and offer suggestions and criticisms in the comments. Additionally, i posted in several D&D-centric forums seeking that same engagement.

Based on feedback from those sources, i did some revising that clarified some of the language on the mechanics of how blue magic works. As it was originally written, a Path of the Azure barbarian could acquire things like a goblin’s scimitar attack, various creatures’ multiattack ability or a giants’ rock-throwing attacks. It wasn’t difficult to circumvent this by clarifying that creature Actions listed as melee weapon attack, melee spell attack, ranged weapon attack or ranged spell attack are not eligible.

Also, someone pointed out that the 6th level ability granted by the Path of the Azure was very similar to a College of Valor bard’s Battle Magic, which wasn’t gained until 14th level, making it overpowered. To address this, the 10th level ability to Consume a creature and thereby acquire an ability that doesn’t target a creature moved from 10th level into the 6th level slot.

While working on the the first revision, i went through each entry in the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and the Tome of Beasts from Kobold Press and made a spreadsheet of every potential ability a Path of the Azure barbarian could acquire. It is huge! There are 381 creatures for a total of 542 possible abilities. Of these, 89 are only available through the Consume ability.

Because of the huge variety, and noting that several would be useful out of combat and particularly not useful at all during combat, the 10th level ability allowed for expending one use of the barbarian’s rage to activate an ability.

There are some other details i still plan to refine. The capstone Reflection ability needs some work, and i also want to take another pass at the Blue Magic table. But overall, this concept keeps me excited to continue tinkering with it. My hope is that gamers will give the Path of the Azure barbarian a try at their own gaming tables and have fun doing so. With any luck, they’ll head back to the DM’s Guild and leave some comments that will help further refine the archetype.

bluemagicbarb

Seething with blue magic, this Path of the Azure barbarian is ready to rock.

In the meantime, i’ve got a great idea for introducing a Path of the Azure barbarian in my own campaign, and i’m looking forward to seeing how that goes. More than that, i am really impressed with the whole experience sharing content on the DM’s Guild and working on some other projects to submit there. If you have any cool ideas for custom D&D content, give it a shot and see what happens.

If you give the Path of the Azure a spin at your gaming table, please share your thoughts, opinions, suggestions and feedback below or at the DM’s Guild and let me know how it went!

Playing D&D with class: Sorcerer

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.

The power chooses you

D&D had been around quite some time and evolved through several editions before the mighty sorcerer was introduced as a character class.

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Prior to 3rd edition, wizards/magic-users and the various permutations of specialists like illusionists, abjurers and the like, were the undisputed masters of arcane magic. There were some other classes with limited access, like bards in 2nd edition, but by and large when it came to arcane magic it was wholly the purview of wizards.

Unlike wizards that learn the ability to manipulate arcane magical forces through intense study and discipline, sorcerers have an innate link to these forces that surround them, penetrate them and bind the universe together.

Compared to other primary casters, including divine magic users like clerics and druids, a sorcerer has a much more limited selection of spells to wield. But because their magic is so personal and particular to them, sorcerers have an incredible amount of control over and manipulation of their magic.

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For a sorcerer, magic is in their blood and suffuses every fiber of their being. Sorcerer characters don’t choose to wield magic. Instead they are conduits of arcane forces that manifest and grow within them. In this way, they’re reminiscent of comic book characters like Marvel’s mutant X-Men.

Intrinsic origins

A sorcerers’ power stems from a mystical connection to strange events or events in their own past or in the recesses of ancient history. Unlike a warlock, whose magic is granted directly through a bargain with a powerful being, sorcerers owe allegiance to no such patron.

The meat and potatoes of sorcerous magic in 5E is represented by sorcery points. With this pool of resources, a sorcerer can manipulate their magic in a variety of ways – not the least of which is by gaining additional spell slots! Conversely, spell slots can be converted into sorcery points that fuel the core sorcerer mechanic: metamagic.

Metamagic abilities allow sorcerers to exert control over the spells they cast. They can extend the duration or range of spells, make their spells harder to resist, increase the damage, cast them faster, protect allies caught in area effect spells and even twin a spell and cast it two times simultaneously!

twinsorcerer

The Player’s Handbook presents two different sorcerous origins for characters to draw power from: a draconic bloodline or wild magic, with the Sword Coast Adventurers’ Guide adding a third with storm sorcerer. If those aren’t enough, there’s two offerings from Unearthed Arcana playtest materials: the shadow origin and the favored soul.

That’s quite a bit of variety to inspire your imagination when creating a sorcerer character. Arcanists who rely on force of will alone to harness magical powers come in several flavors but all share the common trait that they don’t use magic – they are magic.

Because of this, it’s easy to imagine a sorcerer coming from any sort of background. Anyone from a noble to an urchin has the potential to manifest a sorcerous origin that turns their world upside down. Draconic blood in the character’s ancestry could have lain dormant for millennia. A fluke of nature, random chaotic surges of wild energy, genetic disposition, the touch of planar energy or the whims of the gods are just a few of the possibilities of where sorcerers gain their powers.

Looking for inspiration

Fictional characters who have unexplained powers are vast and varied. Marvel Comics’ mutant characters are a good place to start for drawing inspiration. The manifestations of mutant powers, triggered by a significant event like trauma or puberty, are a terrific parallel for the emergence of sorcerous magic. This could provide a wealth of roleplaying and story opportunities as well. It’s just as likely that people who possess unexplained magical powers could be just as “hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason” as those comics characters with an X-gene.

glmk1

Force-users from the Star Wars universe share a lot of similarities to sorcerers, too. Arcane magic, like the Force, exists all around the world and for whatever reason (except the reason of midi-chlorians, which is stupid) some people have a sensitivity and affinity for it that allows them to channel and manipulate the energy.

force-lightning

For less specific examples, literature, film, TV, comics, video games and other media have countless examples of characters around whom strange things occur. Leaning more towards the wild magic aspect of sorcery, perhaps a sorcerer character is themselves largely unaware of their own power or ability to manipulate it. It’s not too difficult to imagine and roleplay your sorcerer not as a competent wielder of raw magical might, but instead as an instinctual caster. From a game perspective, sure, the desired effects are the the spells you as a player choose to cast. But in terms of your character’s existence in the world, it could be interpreted as dumb luck. (Also, there’s always the chance of wild magic surges…)

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.

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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.

Sorcerers rely on their Charisma in every regard for any class features that reference an ability score. This alone can inform your character in a variety of ways. Is your charismatic sorcerer charming? Manipulative? Domineering? Maybe they’re reluctant to tap into their strange magical powers and instead try to use their personality to navigate encounters as best they can.

A sorcerer with higher Strength might wield a great sword and focus on buff spells like false life and mirror image (yes, there are nonconcentration buff spells out there!). Maybe your sorcerers’ magic manifests itself as personal enhancements like this. They could even be somewhat unaware of what is truly happening when their magic works.

Crowd control isn’t a bad choice for sorcerers either, using their metamagic to make resisting things like web, hold person or stinking cloud more difficult. Perhaps your sorcerer is appalled by the violence of the adventuring life they were thrust into as a result of their strange magical powers.

hipsorc

Sorcerers are one of those classes that are really only dependent on a single ability score (Charisma) so the direction you take with your character is as wide open as anything else about this class.

The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, consider the sorcerer. At their core, sorcerers are possessed of strong will to harness innate magical powers. The limited selection of spells you choose for your sorcerer will determine what specialty they’ll bring to the party, with their metamagic providing flexibility to use those spells in different ways than any other spellcasting class.

Sorcerous origins give characters an avenue to think about where their powers derive from, whether the character is aware of them or not. But no matter how you envision your sorcerer character, they are if nothing else a truly magical character.

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Consider the role your sorcerer will play, how their origin, background and spells combine to make them a unique individual in the game world. Will they be hated and feared by those who don’t understand, or fear themselves and what they’re capable of? Will they seek to understand and gain more control over the torrent of magical power in their veins, or give in to the whims of fate and ride along like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream? Like any character, your sorcerer comes to the table with a story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be written.

Quick and easy D&D adventures

Whether you’ve convinced a group of people to play Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, or a group of grognards gathers at the table for a new campaign with fresh characters, there’s one thing all D&D players need – an adventure.

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The Player’s Handbook does a good job of explaining the dynamic of a D&D game, with DMs presenting the world and various scenarios to players, who then choose what their characters do in that world. The dice and the DM are there to arbitrate those choices and determine the characters’ successes and failures.

At its most basic, an adventure is a story seed that gives players a point of entry into the game world. Many adventures strung together over time evolve into a campaign, which is essentially the story that the players and their characters create together.

For an experienced DM, it can sometimes seem more challenging to create adventures than it is for a novice. Brand new players tend to approach D&D in a more lighthearted way, taking to heart its nature first and foremost as a game. Whereas longtime players might consider things like the tone of the longer campaign, the themes woven into intricate plots and how their character’s place in the world may evolve, there’s something to be said for keeping it simple. People new to the hobby generally view D&D as a game where characters fight monsters and win treasure.

Most DMs and players at some point begin to look beyond the current adventure and consider lengthier and loftier goals for their players. It’s inevitably that some sort of story will emerge, if only through the antics of the players. Nevertheless, in order to reach those heights a series of adventures is still in order.

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Making memorable adventures can be tricky business, but it doesn’t have to be. Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide does a terrific job of walking DMs through the steps of creating great adventures, including structure, villains, encounters and complications. Depending on how much time and effort a DM wishes to invest, adventures can be designed to be mathematically sound in terms of balancing the three pillars of play (combat, exploration and social encounters), monster ratings vs. party power and complications like side quests and twists that make things less straightforward.

My DM style is very loosey-goosey, an approach that i apply to both small-scale adventures and campaigns as a whole. D&D is very fluid, and i omit a lot of details in adventures to account for what players do.

To start an adventure, the first thing i do is choose a primary antagonist. There’s so many cool monsters in books like the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the Tome of Beasts and more that spark the imagination. When i set out to DM for my current group, we had no idea if we’d play more than one session – a pretty common pitfall i’ve encountered as i’ve gotten older and people have increased responsibilities like children, erratic work schedules and so forth.

The sahuagin caught my eye while flipping through the Monster Manual. They’re different from the usual goblins, orcs and bandits that tend to populate low-level adventures, and lent themselves to challenging environments that i thought would make fun challenges for the players.

sahuagin

With interesting aquatic enemies in mind, i thought about what they might be up to. With the oft-recommended idea of starting small in new campaign in mind, a sahuagin plot to take control of an island village formulated. Starting the adventurers off on an small island was a practical way to keep the characters in a contained setting. Like many DMs before me, i plundered the work of others and drew ideas from the classic module Against the Cult of the Reptile God, as well as my experience with the Dungeons & Dragons Online MMO. The sahuagin, under the direction of the naga Explictica Defilus, fostered a cult devoted to a dark deity and isolated the island from the rest of the world with a curse that plunged the tropical fishing village into an unnatural winter. There was opportunity to introduce underwater adventuring as well – complete with sharks to fight!

Armed with a plot by a naga, with sahuagin and human cultist minions, to dominate a remote island, the next step was to give the players a few quests to do. To avoid railroading and to reinforce player agency, i came up with a three shorter quest locations they could tackle in the village, with two longer dungeons in the island’s interior. The plan was that the players could follow branching paths within the village that would prove their mettle, and afterwards the loyal guard captain would allow them out into the wilderness (it was gated to keep the village safe from dangers). Of course, the players almost immediately went off in a different direction than i anticipated, something DMs should always keep in mind – no matter what you think the players will do, they’ll do something different.

But for the matter at hand, i designed the in-village adventures to be relatively short and include elements of combat, exploration and social interaction in varying degrees.

One quest involved investigating the town’s temple. The goodly clerics had been converted to cultists and shut the villagers out, severely dampening their spirit. The map for the temple was relatively simple: a 20′ wide hallway that formed a big square. At three of the corners, doors led to side chambers were sahuagin necromancers were animating zombies of deceased prominent villagers to further demoralize them. The fourth corner had a secret door, beyond which the temple’s wealth was kept in a chest made safe by a trap that sprayed acid at anyone who opened it. In the center of the temple was a small vestibule where they party could take a short rest. Across from there, in the main chamber, a sahuagin priestess was conducting a complex ritual with several cultists, sahuagin and zombies, the chamber protected by a magical barrier puzzle. This quest was mainly combat-oriented, with a bit of exploration. Party ingenuity turned one of the combat encounters into a social encounter as well, which was a nice development.

For another quest the party learned that the village mage had traveled to the island wilderness some time ago to find a way to stop the cult activity. So naturally, the party broke into his house to find clues. Because this quest relied mostly on puzzles and skill challenges, i opted to describe the party’s surroundings instead of mapping out their explorations. The goal here was for the party to discover the mage’s notes and a map leading them to some ruins out on the island. In addition, they uncovered a hidden alchemy lab and an even more hidden puzzle that guarded a magical crystal. Unfortunately for the party, a group of sahuagin had been secretly watching them and, unable to bypass the puzzle themselves, attacked as soon as the puzzle was overcome. This quest was focused on exploration, with a combat encounter thrown in for liven things up.

Finally, there was a social encounter for the party with a crazy old retired adventurer. Admittedly, social encounters are not my strong suit as a DM. i often have a hard time coming up with NPC responses to player questions, which is something i need to work on. Exploring this topic is worthy of a future post all it’s own, but for the time being my best advice is make sure you know what an NPC’s motivations are at the very least. On a related note, this is one of my criticisms of many published adventures, that don’t effectively explain why NPCs do what they do. This quest was totally social. There was a possibility of combat, dependent on some behind-the-screen criteria like the time of day they visited and what they’d already done. Since it was the first branch the party followed, they hadn’t aroused the interest of the cult yet so they weren’t being watched or followed.

Designing adventures for your group is not terribly difficult. Many people cleave to the notion that DMing is an incredible amount of often thankless and complicated work. To that i say, rubbish! Like anything else, the more a person DMs, the better they’ll get at it but even novices can put together adventures pretty easily by keeping just a few points in mind, including the notion that it is the players who will develop the story.

And always remember – the players don’t know what you have planned and prepared, so if your adventure needs the characters to go to Point A to proceed, and they go to Point B instead, then just make Point B into Point A – they’ll never know!

TL;DR

Need to come up with an adventure for you D&D group? Here’s a few points to keep in mind that will help you come up with quests quickly and simply.

  • Pick a monster you think is cool
  • Consider what the monster might be up to
    • What’s their goal?
    • What is directing the monster’s actions?
    • What sort of environment does the monster live in?
  • Pick a handful of allies for the monster
    • Do they have a more powerful boss?
    • Do they have bestial minions?
    • Do they have any allies to help accomplish their goals?
  • Develop three short quests based on the pillars of play
    • One focused primarily on combat
    • One focused primarily on exploration
    • One focused primarily on social interaction
      • Sprinkle elements of the other two pillars in each quest
  • Keep the monster’s goals in mind, but let the players guide the story
    • After a session, think about how the players’ actions affected the monsters goals
    • Give the players options, even if limited
      • Avoid railroading
      • Point B can become Point A – players will never know!

Playing D&D with class: Bard

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.

wonka-bard

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.

bard_lute

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.

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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.

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Comedic bard

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.

shen-yun

Dancing bards

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.

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Object-manipulating bard

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.

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Epic-level bard

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.

Letting D&D players tell the story

i spend a great deal of time on my D&D hobby, that includes reading through various rules and source books, organizing campaign notes, updating a narrative account of my players’ adventures and maintaining our group’s Facebook page.

Outside of that, i watch a helluva lot of YouTubers and listen to podcasts related to D&D both for enjoyment and to glean whatever tidbits of tips, tricks and advice a DM might find useful.

The scope of variety in the kinds of games people play is endlessly fascinating. Whether a group plays together on a virtual tabletop like Fantasy Grounds; gathers at a customized gaming table with built-in computer screens; deploys intricate maps and minis; or shares a single PHB, set of dice and runs the entire game in their imaginations, the goals and results all share the commonality of enjoyment by weaving a fantastic tale together.

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As a DM, it’s very easy to get carried away with story ideas between sessions, regardless of your group’s playstyle or the sorts of adventures you’re running. Part of the fun for DMs is expanding your ideas outward. Just remember to give those ideas time and space to contract, too.

With published campaigns, for example “Tyranny of Dragons,” “Curse of Strahd” or “Out of the Abyss,” it’s exciting to think ahead to when your players will confront Tiamat, Strahd or Demogorgon.

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In a similar way, a classic dungeon-delving group hopefully survives long enough to leave Keep on the Borderlands and Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan behind and tackle the Temple of the Frog or Descent into the Depths of the Earth.

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And then there’s homebrew adventures, with the additional level of anticipation for the players to uncover the themes, plots and stories DMs devise (or “borrow” from our favorite media).

The important thing for any DM to keep in mind though is that the story that emerges from your group is never yours alone. In fact, it is entirely the story of the players. In many ways, the DM is essentially opening a toychest and letting the players decide which ones look fun. What’s inside the toychest is up to the DM, and includes lots of dangerous things that players might get a peek of and want to try out.

A DM can certainly let players pull out the hazardous stuff as they wish, but as the referee and guide to the action, an important function is conveying safety warnings ahead of time. For example, a setting like the popular Underdark is alluring to many players, and DMs alike look forward to confronting their players with mind flayers, aboleth and other nasty denizens of the dark. The Underdark may in fact play a huge role in the campaign, whether something like Night Below or a powerful threat of the DM’s design.

If a group of low-level PCs is hellbent on exploring the Underdark, its the DMs duty to relay a sense of foreboding about the place. Accomplished adventurers or survivors of drow slavepits could offer dire warnings for instance. But if the players agree amongst themselves and insist on braving the dangers despite the DMs fair warning, it’s perfectly all right to let the group’s story play out in that direction. More than likely, an unprepared group of adventurers will meet an early end this way.

But that’s okay.

D&D is a storytelling game, and certainly, innumerable would-be heroes live short, unfulfilling lives. Their individual stories may not have become epic legends, and it can be upsetting when character die. But after about 30 minutes, players come up with exciting ideas for new characters, and the story continues. These new PCs might even be related somehow to their previous ones, and incorporate the story of their short-lived adventures into the new characters’ backgrounds.

All this is a wordy, roundabout way of saying it’s a good practice for DMs to get into letting go of your anticipations and allowing the players to steer the ship. Away from the gaming table is the time for a DM to let their imagination soar. Reflecting on what the players showed interest in and their adventuring style provides a context for developing what comes next.

This is why so many sources advise DMs to start small. There’s no telling what the PCs will do, and more often than not they’ll do things the DM never considered – no matter how many possibilities the DM plans for! This isn’t to say it’s fruitless to outline the big picture of your campaign. But keep aware that the path you envision to reach the end will without a doubt take many detours as the players follow their own interests along the path.

In my experience, the best approach to a campaign is to keep distill your big ideas into a few major plot points. On the road to reaching them, the players will do their part to fill in the details. That way you’re preserving their agency in the game by maintaining the sense that they’re in control of their destinies. Through their actions and words, players let DMs know what they find interesting and those engagement spark the DM’s imagination in a continuous cycle of feedback and implementation in the game.

For an example from the 5E Spelljammer-esque game i’m currently running, there is an overarching story taking place in the spheres that the PCs have been exposed to in small tidbits here and there. For various reasons, both through the characters’ and players’ perspectives, they’re not overly interesting in engaging with that story. Instead, they’re having a blast with the logistics of running a ship, maintaining a crew, making a living taking on various jobs and building their reputation. The major plot points continue to progress regardless if they are involved. Since they never set out to be heroes in the first place, it’s not hard to imagine they wouldn’t selflessly pursue a traditional heroic journey, and we’re all perfectly fine with that. Along the way, they’re moving in whatever directions appeal to them as a group. In turn, they’re challenging and fueling my imagination and together we’re developing our own story and fleshing out a lot more of the setting than i’d thought of on my own.

One of the best D&D YouTubers out there, Matt Colville touched on some of these concepts in his most recent video. The focus of his discussion is the idea of “Fantasy vs. Fiction” and he explores two approaches to D&D storytelling – the world as a manifestation of the characters’ internal story vs. the characters are the products of the world. Intriguing stuff to think about.

Of course, there are lots of things to keep in mind for your game like railroading vs. truly open-world adventuring, the value of improvisation vs. preplanning and keeping in mind the veil of separation between what the DM knows vs. what the players and their characters know. Those and many more are all topics worthy of being explored on their own here later on.

TL;DR

For D&D DMs (or any TTRPG GMs) it’s important to keep in mind that whatever story emerges at the table is a result of players’ choices and actions. DMs present scenarios, NPCs, locations and plot threads that can be woven into a much larger picture…but it’s up to the players to decide what their story will be. They may be adventuring in your world, but the tale they tell is theirs to shape.

There are lots of tips, tricks and tools DMs can use to point the needle in different directions. Just as vital, though, is allowing the players enough agency to be able to move the needle as well.

Start small, and keep your big picture in mind while PCs adventure in your game, but give them the freedom to take the story in their own direction. Don’t stick to a rigid structure of where you as the DM think the game ought to go. Instead, leave the trail of breadcrumbs but feel free to get lost right alongside the players. Remember – you can always alter where the breadcrumbs lead to anyway!