After last week’s post on barbarians, the time has now come for the second class in the Player’s Handbook – the Rogue, But With a Guitar.
(All bards, please take 4d4 psychic damage from Vicious Mockery; you have disadvantage on your inevitable next attack against me.)
In any case, it’s time to talk bards!
Feel free to read on below / for more knowledge you must know!
On the Origins of Poetry and Song
We could be here for a long time. Poetry (and, by extension, song) is one of the oldest forms of communication and lore that the human race has known. For centuries, societies kept no written records and instead remembered the past solely through lyrical constructs of past knowledge.
But lets narrow our focus – the bard is a later invention. Based on a cursory look at Wikipedia, the first bards came from Ireland and were responsible for keeping oral histories of nobles and warriors. This evolved over the years, until we get to the person who might be the most famous bard of all time – William Shakespeare.
These bards were largely about poetry, though many translated their poetry into song for better memorization. There’s also a perception of bards as itinerant, or traveling, story-tellers – which itself comes from the original use of “bard” as an insult to such traveling musicians.
What about the Dungeons and Dragons bard, then? Originally an odd sort of proto-prestige-class, the bard eventually became a rogue class, and then finally a full class of its own. From the very start, though, the bard has always been a “jack-of-all-trades” character, with magic, weaponry, and special bardic music to top it all off.
A Bard’s Features
Next, lets run down the basic features of the bard. The table below breaks down the base class features and the levels you earn them at – we’ll look at subclasses in a moment.
|1st||Spellcasting, Bardic Inspiration||11th||–|
|2nd||Jack of All Trades, Song of Rest||12th||ABSI|
|3rd||Bard College #1, Expertise||13th||Song of Rest ++|
|4th||Ability Score Increase (ABSI)||14th||Bard College #3, Magical Secrets #2|
|5th||Bardic Inspiration +, Font of Inspiration||15th||Bardic Inspiration +++|
|6th||Bard College #2, Countercharm||16th||ABSI|
|7th||–||17th||Song of Rest +++|
|8th||ABSI||18th||Magical Secrets #3|
|9th||Song of Rest +||19th||ABSI|
|10th||Bardic Inspiration ++, Expertise #2, Magical Secrets||20th||Superior Inspiration|
Now, what does any of this mean?
The bard in 5th Edition is a support class through and through, primarily because of their two main features – Bardic Inspiration and spellcasting.
The former is the classic bard feature. A bard is a music-playing adventurer whose songs empower and encourage his or her allies. This also forms the basis for the bard’s subclasses, each of which make unique use of the Bardic Inspiration feature. Furthermore, both Song of Rest and Countercharm can be seen as extensions of this ability – they’re both musically based powers that support your comrades.
Secondly is spellcasting, which is the other core of the bard class. Bards originally had more divine magic than arcane, then switched to arcane (wizard, to be specific) spells. Now they have an amalgam of both, tilted towards support. With healing and control, bards make for fantastic party support.
However, bards aren’t completely limited by their spell list. With the Magical Secrets feature, a bard can have any damn spell they want, dammit. So while the bard’s base spell list is supportive, the bard can truly be whatever he or she chooses to be… jack-of-all-trades indeed.
But wait, there’s more! Bards also have excellent skill proficiencies, and can perform as the party skill-monkey better than any other class (except for rogue, of course *wink*). Expertise is the main cause of this, since it allows for truly ridiculous skill check rolls, but the other part is Jack of All Trades, yet again. Being able to add half your proficiency bonus to any skill check that you aren’t proficient in is just absurd, and it really does let you become the namesake of the feature.
So if we have this amazing, jack-of-all-trades character… why bother having other classes?
Master of None
And here’s where the second half of the bard fantasy comes in. While they can excel at nearly anything, they can’t truly master anything at all.
Their healing isn’t on-par with clerics, druids, or even paladins. Their spellcasting may be broad, but they just don’t match up to the other full spellcasters. And bards are only really, truly fantastic with Charisma or Dexterity skills – rangers, clerics, and druids beat them on Wisdom, fighters and barbarians win on Strength, and wizards… well, no one else even uses Intelligence, so of course they come out ahead on those skills.
But bards are the only ones who can have such a wide spread of skills, right? Eh… rogues can too. And they also have Expertise. A stronger version of Expertise. Not to mention Reliable Talent. And proficiency in thieves’ tools. And… and… and…
The list goes on and on. Bards simply aren’t the masters of anything, unless you can consider them the masters of being good at nearly everything but not great at anything. Ultimately, though, you really should consider them like that. Bards are the absolute best at what they do – being good at everything and great at nothing.
Bard Colleges and You
Now, unlike last week, we actually have more than one subclass to look at! Thank god, that makes this so much easier.
So, this time, instead of looking at specific features we’re going to examine trends – what do the different bards have in common? We’ll start with a little table to get things rolling.
|3rd||Subclass-specific proficiencies||Bonus Proficiencies (x2)|
|3rd||Subclass-specific Bardic Inspiration||Cutting Words Combat Inspiration|
|6th||Expansion of subclass core||Additional Magical Secrets Extra Attack|
|14th||Capstone (expansion of subclass core)||Peerless Skill Battle Magic|
Now, lets take a look, shall we?
3rd Level Subclass Proficiencies. One of the two starting features of a Bard College is composed of proficiencies. The magic-and-skill based College of Lore grants three skills straight up – have fun with those! Meanwhile, the more martially inclined College of Valor grants the armor and weapon proficiencies needed to be a good frontline warrior.
3rd Level Subclass Bardic Inspiration. The second starting feature focuses on the bard’s core feature – Bardic Inspiration. The College of Lore gets a simple expansion, as it just allows you to use your Bardic Inspiration to the detriment of your foes in the same way you could already use it to help your allies. The College of Valor gets a slightly more significant change, as it changes your Bardic Inspiration to be much more directly combat-oriented.
6th Level Concept Expansion. The colleges’ 6th level features both expand on a core concept of the subclass. The College of Lore gains Additional Magical Secrets, which allows them to vary their spell list even more but also expands their number of spells known. Meanwhile, the College of Valor gets the simple expansion with Extra Attack, a must-have for most frontline warriors.
14th Level Capstone. Finally, the two subclasses get the culmination of their core concepts. The College of Lore gets to use their Bardic Inspiration on themselves, which is fairly major given that no other bard feature allows Bardic Inspiration to directly benefit yourself. The College of Valor, meanwhile, gets encouragement to mix in a bit of magic with their attacks, getting to attack once whenever they cast a spell.
In all, the bard subclasses follow a fairly predictable pattern. At 3rd level, they get features that establish their core identity – both through proficiencies and a twist on their Bardic Inspiration feature. Next they get something else that solidifies that fantasy, making them better at what they’re supposed to be good at. And finally they get a cool ability that other characters can’t readily get.
But neither of these subclasses really change what the bard is. It offers a slight bit of specialization, but both fail to let the bard drop its “master of none” feeling. In the end, they both end up somehow lesser than comparable other characters, save for their ability to expand outside their normal “comfort zone” so to speak.
A College of Valor bard isn’t as strong with martial combat as a fighter or barbarian. But said bard can do many things that a fighter or barbarian can’t – they can heal themselves with spells (and still get an attack off), and weaken their opponents with them too. A valor bard in the party also greatly benefits any fighters, barbarians, or other martial combatants in the party.
Likewise, a College of Lore bard isn’t as strong a spellcaster as a wizard or cleric. They also aren’t as good at skills as a rogue, since they don’t get any extra Expertise (or Reliable Talent). However, unlike other spellcasters the bard can do martial combat if needed, and has more skills. And unlike rogues, the bard gets a full spellcasting progression, with all the strengths that come with that.
Denouement and Resolution
So, what is a bard?
Historically speaking, they were a class of poets and musicians that served as the living history of peoples that had yet to begin written historical traditions. Over time, they evolved to be traveling storytellers, or playwrights, normal musicians, and, even still, poets.
In Dungeons and Dragons, the bard started life as a weird amalgam of classes and abilities, and ultimately ended up as a much more coherent amalgam of features and abilities. They’re the quintessential “jack of all trades, master of none” – able to perform well in almost any area of the game, yet never quite as good at any one thing as some other character.
Their subclasses don’t change this. Each one pushes the bard further towards one end of the bardic spectrum, but they’re still the same. A jack of all trades, master of none. But unique, because no other class can do all the things they can do at the same time, and no character can achieve such a wide range of abilities without a cumbersome and weakening amount of multiclassing.
Whereas I joked about how the barbarian was a slap in the face to everything I love about the game – being a Lawful Good Rogue and all – bard is a totally different story. In fact, if I could play a musical instrument and didn’t have a tone-deafness you normally only find in species of worm which are literally deaf… well, you might be reading this on a totally different website.
Of course, lawfulgoodbard.com just… just doesn’t sound as good to me. But I’m a rogue through and through, so maybe that’s what I’m feeling.
Check back next time for the class every party needs at least one of (two if your party-mates are particularly prone to standing in fire) – the Cleric!
Thanks for reading!
Click here for the rest of my homebrew how-to’s!