Bards as a class can feel very homogenous, at least in terms of how most players choose to roleplay them. “All bards are lust-compelled deviants. Those are the rules I don’t make them” to quote JoCat. But, even more than that, it seems that all Bards are basically the D&D equivalent of rockstars. Cocky, hedonistic, charming musicians who ruin just as many marriages as they do evil tyrant’s plans. But this is limiting. Bards can and should be more. But how do we go about figuring out how to roleplay one without falling into tired cliches and stereotypes?
Most of the work of creating a compelling character is done for you. Subclasses are a godsend both in terms of making characters interesting mechanically and in a flavor and roleplay perspective. Each of the subclasses brings something new to the table that fills a niche and can help inspire you to make a Bard that breaks the tired romance-crazed musician archetype. Despite what people may say, there are types of performers other than musicians.
When making a bard and looking at their features, there are two questions you want to ask yourself: what drew your character to this field of study, and how do you inspire? Bards, like all other classes, come from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life. But, like Wizards, Bards choose their path, rather than it being chosen for them. So, what called you to this path? Was there something about the College of Lore that spoke to you more than something like the College of Valor? Understanding the answer to this question will give you a good starting point for your concept.
Secondly, when playing a bard, it’s important to think about how your inspiration manifests itself. That can be through a word of encouragement or a fun little song meant to cheer on your friends or really anything. Inspiration is core to any bard and knowing how that inspiration manifests itself helps display your character’s values and persona by making how they help support their friends (or disadvantage their enemies) a sensory experience. Whatever you decide though, try not to overplay it, lest your inspiration become more of an annoyance than a boon.
So let’s dive into the subclasses of Bard and see what inspiration (see what I did there?) we can take from their features. We’ll go over how to use features and descriptions to give ourselves some ideas and then I will provide a sample character backstory for each subclass that you can feel free to steal. And to challenge ourselves we are going to do it without making any of them a musician.
Table of Contents
- College of Creation
- College of Eloquence
- College of Glamour
- College of Lore
- College of Valor
College of Creation
Oh man we are starting off strong with a Bard subclass that just begs to break the usual mold. College of Creation has a lot of flavor that gives us a lot of potential for some really unique characters. When trying to come up with a character concept for a specific subclass, the first step should always be to look at the subclass’s description. This is a step I think a lot of us skip over because we just want to see how the mechanics work. There are so many good little bits of lore and flavor that can help inspire us: right off the bat, creation hits us with the concept of bards who appreciate the cosmos, the magic of creation and life itself. “Before the sun and the moon, there was the song and its music awoke the first dawn.” Already we have sort of an astrological feel to the subclass as well as the concept of reverence for the art of creation.
What Drew you to Creation?
Creation bards hold the power of the gods. The ability to create something from nothing. What made your bard hold the art of creation as seminal above all else? Maybe the simple answer is that all bards create, whether that be through a majestically composed song or an eloquently written speech. Perhaps our bard was interested in the nature of creation with regards to how it relates to what makes life. How do we decide when a creation achieves sentience, and are we even capable of understanding that? Maybe our bard wanted to understand the nature of their own existence and creation.
How do you Inspire?
Figuring out how to inspire as a creation bard can be challenging. Fortunately, the features help us gain some ideas. Their Mote of Creation feature describes their inspiration as a star or a ball of energy that floats around a person’s head. It is perhaps a mote of potential energy taken directly from the cosmos. For this subclass, though, I want to lean into this idea of cosmic creation and astrology and say that our inspiration manifests as our bard pulling tarot cards from a deck that aligns with the stars. We can then think of both inspiration and our mote of creation as a sort of divine potential or luck effect.
Also key to the college of creation is the ability to create objects or bring them to life at higher levels. This is where we can really let our creativity shine. Don’t limit your ideas to just a box or a ladder. Going back to our idea of a tarot deck, we can use the flavor that offers to say we create objects from our cards by throwing them down on the ground in an almost Yu-gi-oh-like fashion. So now the donjon becomes a cage or a star card becomes iridescent gems. Don’t feel like you need to be limited in what you can create by what’s in a typical tarot deck. Perhaps your magical deck can create any number of objects you could require.
Example Character Concept
Wander, Warforged Magician
Wander awoke to sentience one day in a dark and abandoned tower, unsure of how they were created or who created them. Not knowing their purpose, they traveled the world trying to find new places and peoples. Wander eventually discovered they had fine motor skills that allowed them to manipulate objects and perform sleight of hand movements in a way no human ever could. They eventually found a new approach to life: street magic. After being taken under the wing of a sympathetic fortune teller, Wander found themselves connected with the cosmos and the spark of creation and took pleasure in the delight they brought children with their card tricks and fortune telling.
As their talents grew, Wander began to imbue some of the magic gifted to them by their unknown creator into the cards, giving the pictures within them life. Life like Wander was first granted. Wander became fascinated with the process of creation and how to imbue objects with life. Though they could only create still objects from nothing using their cards, they sought to advance their knowledge of the arcane in order to better understand the nature of their own existence and how they were created. Was it truly possible for an automaton to breathe sentience into an inanimate object or was it only in the smiles of their audience that their creations gained life?
College of Eloquence
Eloquence is an interesting subclass because it presents an idea of a bard that I think is often overlooked. Not all bards need to be performers. At least not in a classically defined sense. Bards, at their core, are highly charismatic individuals that can tell you many things (some of which might even be true), and who take their magic from their sheer magnetism or some sort of nebulous magic of civilization writ large. In essence, bards are a cross between sorcerers and wizards. And since the source of their magic is so vaguely defined we can play with that. Eloquence brings to mind great speakers or politicians, people that can sway a populace to their side with a word. They use the power of their voice and nothing but their charms to defeat their enemies. If an eloquence bard has done their job right, they will have cut off the need for a fight at all.
What Drew you to Eloquence?
An Eloquence Bard’s features focus less on overall power on the battlefield and more on dominating social situations. They have the ability to inspire their friends better than the average bard or inspire a group of people to act with just a word. They are also expert diplomats and are better than anyone else at getting people to do what they want. So we have an eloquent speaker, able to captivate and motivate a room with just their sheer charming magnetism. While they excel at speaking, most of their power comes from their ability to manipulate people while also convincing them that following the bard’s advice is in their own best interest. Perhaps you are a charming bureaucrat who found people as easy to manipulate as strings on a lute. Perhaps you are an ambassador, using your education and gift for speaking to negotiate the end of wars and bring peace to the realm. Or maybe you are a self help guru, helping others improve their lives by teaching them something about themselves.
How do you Inspire?
Inspiration for Eloquence seems to manifest in inspiring speeches and words of encouragement. Their inspiration, more than most bards, allows you to use it offensively. While some bards are able to help their friends by allowing them that extra push to land the blow, eloquence bards see the value in the long play. They reduce a person’s fortitude or will in preparation for a big spell or a beguiling word. As an eloquence bard you need to be more confident in your speech and tongue than any other bard. Words you say have purpose and while many a fighter can disarm a foe with a sword, you have no need for such primitive instruments to leave your target helpless.
Example Character Concept
Falton Embereye, Halfling Self-Help Guru
Falton was always an ambitious man. Even from a young age he knew he was going to make it big and break out of the poor working class position his family suffered through when he was a child. The youngest of seven children, Falton’s parents never had much time for him and, as a result, Falton began to rely on others for validation, becoming somewhat of a narcissist.
After leaving home at 16, Falton went out in the world to make his fortune. He learned quickly how harsh the world can be when a charlatan swindled him out of his money. Falton realized that you could only ever rely on yourself and no one makes it to the top without exploiting anyone and everyone they can. Falton eventually made it big in a local merchants’ guild, climbing to the top of the ladder to grow the business from a small conglomerate into a multi-city spanning network cooperative.
Things were going well for Falton until it was discovered that he had been embezzling funds from the guild and he was kicked out and arrested. Undeterred, Falton wrote an autobiography called “The Golden Ladder: My Steps to the Top” which immediately became a bestseller. After being released from prison, Falton found himself surrounded by dedicated fans, eager for more. It was then he realized his true calling: writing self help books and holding seminars to educate the masses on his key steps to success. Now Falton seeks to write a new book: “Dungeons and Dragons: Embereye’s Guide to Profitable Adventuring,” and to this end, he needs to do some hands-on research on what it takes to succeed as an adventurer.
College of Glamour
Glamour bards, more than any other bard, are obsessed with themselves. But that doesn’t mean we have to lean into the cocky hedonistic bard. A lot of narcissistic, self-obsessed people are actually deeply self-loathing and thrive off others’ praise. According to their description, Glamour bards learn their power from Fey creatures, which makes sense.The subclass is geared around making yourself an irresistible force either in terms of making people obsessed with you or afraid of you.
What Drew you to Glamour?
As said before, Glamour bards love the spotlight. Your performance can enthrall a group of people and spread your fame through the masses in the time it takes to have a light lunch. Maybe you made a pact with an Archfey but didn’t want to become a warlock. Perhaps you are a renowned actor, living for that moment when the curtain rises.
For me this subclass screams Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada. So we’re going to make our Glamour bard a famous fashion designer. And what better performance to spread word of our greatness and expertise than a good old fashioned catwalk? Such events are exclusive, full of pageantry, and serve to expand the mystique of the fashion designer.
How do you Inspire?
A great enough Glamour bard can inspire reverence and awe in people and make them want to carry out any command you give them without question. Take control of these worthless plebs and make sure they know you are a person not to be crossed or questioned. Glamour bards, based on their own description, make their allies stronger by merely making themselves gorgeous. I don’t know why that’s hilarious to me, but I love it. It could be a blue steel look, or a fabulous portrait you painted to inspire others with your natural eye for beauty and chic. The culmination of our artistic endeavors is creating a commanding presence or mystique so intense that even lowly bandits would be too afraid to tarnish the immaculate perfection we have crafted for ourselves. Let them try. Our Glamour bard will make their allies feel inspired by exuding her fey-like appearance and ostentatious fashion sense. Give these dirty adventurers something to aspire to.
Example Character Concept
Syndreth Kael, Elven Fashion Designer
Syndreth Kael was taken at a young age by an erstwhile fey, who was enamored with her artistic talent for the spinning wheel. This Fey, Alanon, taught her to spin the threads of the arcane itself into ever more wondrous garments. But despite her obvious talent and hard work, Alanon became more and more demanding of ever more impossible garments for his many galas and feasts he hosted. And when she inevitably fell short of his unrealistic expectations, she found herself the object of scorn by her host.
He would berate her, call her ugly and talentless and undeserving of love or affection. Finally, Syndreth, fed up with her horrendous treatment, fled her captor’s mansion. She managed to escape with the help of a satyr guard to the prime material plane where she began to quickly make a name for herself as one of the preeminent fashion designers of the mortal world.
What was once reviled and ridiculed by her cruel master was celebrated and revered by mortals who believed her to hold a spark of the divine. Anyone who was anyone would make sure that whatever they were wearing to fancy dinner parties was a Kael. But despite this, her fame waned somewhat as she got older and rivals began to appear to challenge her position. And in her heart, Syndreth was never truly satisfied. One day, she decided she would take on a new endeavor and try to journey the world in search of rare magics and materials to make her new magnum opus. An outfit so luxurious and opulent that it would forever cement her legacy. Perhaps then she would finally feel fulfilled.
College of Lore
Ah, Lore bards. The classic bard. The one everyone gravitates to, especially when making their first bard. And with good reason. The subclass is very strong mechanically and allows a lot of flexibility in how you want to craft your character concept. Lore bards are the forever students, constantly learning and forever questioning.
What Drew you to Lore?
It’s easy to take many different paths with a lore bard. You could be a wandering philosopher, questioning the nature of reality or critiquing social institutions like the great thinkers of the enlightenment era. You could be a comedian speaking truth to power and criticizing oppressive societal structures. Or you could be a great novelist like the early pioneers of Voltaire and Mary Shelly. At their heart, Lore bards are scholars, academics, and teachers. They do not hoard their knowledge in dusty tomes in a forgotten tower like a pompous wizard. They believe in the democratization of learning.
For our purposes I think it would be interesting to make our Lore bard a Lawyer. Firstly because I think it’s funny (a lore-yer anyone?) but also because we don’t ever really talk about or see how law and order would work in a magic society. Oftentimes it seems people are just thrown into dungeons for an arbitrary length of time. I think we can explore those ideas in more depth.
How do you Inspire?
Lore bards encourage their friends with information they do not yet have. Perhaps it is a secret weakness of the creature they are facing or perhaps it is a story of heroes who overcame such obstacles. When making a lore bard, there is also something of equal importance you must consider: How does your cutting words manifest? This feature allows you to distract, harangue, or otherwise taunt a creature into failing a course of action. Do you lob insults at them? Do you analyze a weakness in their defense?
This is an iconic feature and one I think well suited to a lawyer. We could channel our inner Phoenix Wright and use our cutting words as an objection to an action or spell. Like Phoenix Wright, this objection need not always be legally sound. Law can be a sort of performance anyway.
We’re going to make our bard an expert in magical law. They study to enforce and adjudicate crimes against magic. Perhaps we can use our cutting words to object to certain spells being cast. You can have a lot of fun with this. Maybe the necromancer is casting Chill Touch, a forbidden dark magic spell, and you can object to its casting “Objection! Under Section 342 of the laws of magic and mystery, paragraph 12, it clearly states that ‘no mage shall cast necromantic spells with the intent to harm or kill another creature!’ Do you have the proper permit for that?” It doesn’t have to make sense, it just needs to trip up your target enough that the spell fails.
Example Character Concept
Prestige, Tiefling Lawyer
Prestige was born for the courtroom. Her father was a well respected magistrate who did a lot of good for the people of her small town. Unfortunately, after her father lost a case involving a crime boss who was also a renegade sorcerer, the criminal took revenge by killing her mother through unidentified magic.The authorities never found the body, but her father knew the cause. He never forgave himself and retired from the profession, choosing to avoid law and politics entirely.
But Prestige never gave up on her idealism and she was determined to help enforce magical law so that what happened to her would never happen to anyone again. In her time she has both prosecuted and defended many mages and won a number of high-profile cases. She even helped negotiate contracts between devils and mortals, usually in such a way that was far more favorable to the mortal.
Despite her successes, she never got any closer to tracking down her mother’s killer. But, ever the optimist, she has never let that drag her down. She will find him eventually, and when she does, she will bring him to justice like her father never could. In a court of law, of course, because everyone deserves a fair trial.
College of Valor
The battle bards. The skalds of legend and glory, singing songs of great wars and heroic leaders. Perhaps the biggest complaint people have about the Valor bard, aside from its somewhat underwhelming features, is how pigeon-holed the subclass feels. You’re a warrior or something related to battle. How can we have more interesting concepts for the Valor bard when it has such a hyper-specific niche? Well, I think we can play around with it a bit more than might be readily apparent. While combat and feats of strength are central to the subclass, there are ways we can play into that idea without resorting to just a regular battle bard or soldier.
What Drew you to Valor?
Valor bards are warriors and leaders of men. Perhaps you were a veteran of a fabled war and have sought to pass your skills down to those less experienced. What distinguishes a Valor bard from your run of the mill fighter or paladin is a difference in leadership style. Fighters and Paladins lead by example, wading into the thick of things. Valor bards lead through speech and strategy, coordinating their allies and moving men to act through their words. Valor bards don’t necessarily lead men to victory: they show their allies how to improve their own capabilities, either through example or carefully worded guidance.
For our bard, I’m going to go with the classic Rocky archetype of Mickey Goldmill: the personal trainer.
How do you Inspire?
Inspiration for Valor bards can take many forms. Either through the singing of battle dirges to add an epic soundtrack for combat, or through telling stories of past deeds of greatness. Our inspiration allows people to deal more damage or defend themselves. But what does this look like? Is it the songs of valor and glory that inspire people to do better in combat? Well, maybe, but other bards’ inspiration doesn’t work this way so what makes valor bard different? Perhaps that’s because our Valor bard is so well trained in the combat arts that they are able to call out instructions to their peers in battle. Maybe you tell your friends how to exploit a weakness, or point out flaws in their defense. Sort of like a general, but more like…a trainer.
Example Character Concept
Gravus Blackburn, Dragonborn Personal Trainer
Gravus was tired of war. When he was a young man, he found himself fighting for a cause he didn’t believe in. He committed many atrocities in his time as a soldier for the Cult of the Dragon Queen before he finally had enough. His commanding officer had ordered him to set off a weapon that would destroy an entire town of innocents. Gravus learned quickly where unquestioned discipline and fealty can lead a man.
Despite defecting to the opposing armies and helping liberate the towns he had once helped subjugate, he was only met with suspicion by his fellow soldiers. As a result, he was frequently passed over for promotion. After the war, Gravus was let loose into the world with no direction, no assistance, and no purpose other than battle.
For a time, Gravus attempted to support himself through gladiatorial matches, but eventually his age and past injuries caught up with him. Seeing that the lessons of unquestioned discipline and fealty were lost on the newest generation, Gravus took it upon himself to help guide young adventurers towards the right path so as to learn the lessons that ultimately shaped him.
Bards are an extremely fun and versatile class with a lot of flexibility. But while people love them for their party utility and ability to fill any role, it seems just as much people hate how one note they can seem. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Bards are just as varied in their backgrounds and interests as any of the other base classes. In any society there will be those who love art and the process of making it. Sometimes that art manifests in a gift for words, the magic of fashion, or the beauty of combat.
Not all bards need to be musicians but all bards have one thing that unites them: a love of art. As art is extremely subjective, so too should your bard be. I hope if nothing else, this article has given you the inspiration to make more interesting and dynamic bards. I will never apologize for the puns.