Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

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How to Create Bard Variety

Leaving aside the highly specific nature of Bards as a concept (being either really out of place in many settings, or exaggerated interpretations of existing concepts), the place bards tend to occupy is rather limited.

Let me guess, they carry an instrument with them everywhere (whether it be stringed, percussion, woodwind, voice, or something hilariously exotic like an accordion or theremin), launch into song the moment a fight starts, and have a generally confident (some might say lusty) attitude?

Now, clearly not all Bards do this (just most of them ha ha), but it wouldn’t be a stereotype of character class if it hadn’t started somewhere. At this point, I’ve interacted with a lot of players just dipping into the hobby who just assume Bards are played along those stereotypical lines.

And while it can be perfectly fine, if uninspired, to play them that way, I like to encourage varied thinking and creativity. If we all wanted to play the same character, we would just play games with set protagonists all the time.

So how to spice up the Bard? Well, let’s tackle the main traits and think of a few ways to “spice things up.”

  • Personality: Lusty, confident, tends to use elaborate flourishes of speech… not a care in the world, eh? It goes without saying that a less cloyingly optimistic character would seem more well-rounded, but that’s just the first thought. It is possible to still be like that, but the juxtaposition between a dangerous, often violent, world and an eternally upbeat attitude may be a good source of character growth. Perhaps their attitude comes from a sheltered life. Perhaps a life of hardship has led them to seek joy wherever they might find it. Either way, there is an opening left for interesting character exploration. Artists, especially those who engaged in wild magic-on-sword combat, should certainly have opinions on the matter.
  • The “I seduce the dragon” stereotype comes primarily from the D&D-codified trope of Bards having high charisma scores which are necessary for high-level functionality in D&D and D&D-aligned systems. The problem with tying stat requirements to class traits is a larger problem which extends beyond just Bards, but since charisma rolls are among the most loosely defined interactions in RPGs, it becomes endemic. This can be mitigated by ruling out a direct charisma roll as the only solution to a social interaction, and by ruling that some things, no matter how good the roll, cannot be perfectly solved. Additionally, many musicians and performers have terrible personalities, so being “charming” or sociable is hardly a requirement for Bards. Tying performance skill to another stat could easily sidestep the charisma-focus issue, and make room for Bards who are really quite bad at social interaction, but are happy with who they are regardless.
  • Instrument choice is a hard one. On the one hand, a travelling musician would want something portable and easy to play a variety of tunes on, such as lutes, harps, guitars, mandolins, and horns. On the other hand, many musicians, by the nature of their skill set, can play a variety of musical instruments, many of which are not portable. What does a bard do if they know best how to play Grand Pianos or Harpsichords? They are limited to situations which have one present, and even then it’s not as though they can dodge attacks easily while sitting at a bench. And this is fine! Who said that Bards had to use their music in combat, or even that they join in combat? Like a Skald, the role inhabited by bards is likely to serve a non-combat role, focusing more on storytelling and immunity from some dangers simply because they are viewed as a non-combatant.
  • Joke instruments can be fun, but even the greatest joke ever written still ceased to be funny once it’s been said a hundred times. Such is the case with Accordion Bards, Cowbell Bards, Theremin Bards, and Vuvuzela Bards. Certainly not when they are played the same as every other bard (i.e. leaping into combat without a second thought, while also using charisma to attempt impossible personality changes, and all around seeming to exist in another world entirely). But creating unique aesthetics and interpretations? That’s more than welcome, so long as the interpretation creates a truly unique character who pushes beyond what a bard is assumed to be.

Bards don’t have to be combat-oriented. They don’t have to be spell-casters, really. They can be misanthropes who are simply good at their art. Or they can be enthusiastic, but terrible at what they do, and this does not invalidate them as characters. Success can come from more than performing the role ascribed to you by your class. Bards might only perform in crowded venues (you’d hardly expect a piano virtuoso to carry a folding keyboard around), or they might not perform at all!

And once bards are explored in this way, then the next step for “de-classification” (ha ha!) can be… ALL OF THEM.

Or just do away with classes altogether. Have a level-free system based on gathered skills or careers. Then you can make it more about the character, and not the class expectations at all.

“Now for my next piece, I will… get a high charisma roll! You’ve never seen that before!”

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

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