6 Bard Tips
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #206
- How to Play a Better Bard
- Reader Tips Of The Week
How to Play a Better Bard
A guest article by Matthew Leach
Traditionally, bards are the storytellers of the fantasy genre. They are charismatic characters who enthral or inspire with a flourish of words and gestures. A truly good bard is able to capture the attention of entire crowds and sway the attitude of anyone to his favour. A good example of such a bard is ‘Chaucer’ from the movie, ‘A Knights Tale’.
Pick A Focus
In the role-playing sense, the word ‘bard’ is used rather loosely to describe true Bards, trouveres, troubadors, jongleurs, poets, playwrights, and actors–in short, anyone who entertains. Just in the same way a fighter could be a mercenary, knight, archer, footman or even an axe wielding savage, so too can a bard could be a musician, actor, storyteller, contortionist, a poet, and so on.
This can be a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it allows GMs a lot more freedom in the types of encounters they can create, as well as making bards easier and more generic for players to play. It’s a curse because such versatility is not always a good thing. Players could stretch their characters too thin, detracting from the realism of the setting or ‘stealing’ the spotlight from other PCs with shared skills.
It’s good to choose a character concept focus to hook a bard character on and form the nucleus for his skill and personality selection.
Here are some examples:
- The story-teller
- The author
- The actor
- The singer
- The musician
- The poet
- The court jester
- The contortionist
- The acrobat
You can also make bards more interesting by adding performance quirks or traits, giving the bard a specific style. For example, a melancholic bard would sing of tragic romances or longful ballads, whereas a sarcastic bard would sing songs that poke fun at people or generally entertain with witty comedy.
Here are some past issues which may help you with building your bard characters:
Develop The Backstory
I have found the best way of GMing bards is to develop the character’s backstory. This helps focus the character into a few specialised bardic fields, which in turn makes it easier to tailor specific encounters for the PC.Backstory also makes it easier for your player to know how to play his character, gives you some indication as to what to expect of the bard’s abilities, and lets you to add a bit of detail to your plot hooks to engage the bard.
For example, “The town is looking for bards to entertain at the local festival” could be spiced up by saying, “The town is holding a satirical poems competition at its local festival”, if satirical poems is one of your bard’s specialities.
Here are a few questions to help you develop your bard’s backstory:
- Where does the character’s talent come from?
- What did his family think of this talent?
- What kind of training has he had?
- What has been the bard’s greatest performance to date?
- What has been the worst?
- Performers often go through several instruments as they grow up, become more experienced, or break them. How many instruments has the bard had?
- What is the story behind each instrument? Gift, hand- crafted, self-crafted, stolen, etc.
- Why does the bard think the audience enjoys his performances?
- What does he think about during performances?
- Has he ever been heckled? If so, how did he handle it?
- Does the bard assume a different persona when performing? If so, what events led the bard to do so?
- Where does the bard get his material from?
- What garb or costume does the bard don for a performance? Why?
- How did the bard end up joining the party?
- Why did he choose to adventure with the party?
- Why did the party take a bard on their adventure?
- What dark secrets, if any, does the bard have that the party does not know about?
Some good references:
Create A Goal Then Mix It Up
As a GM, it’s your job to tailor encounters to fit the entire party. This can be an increasingly difficult task as you start to run out of ideas. Certain party configurations can also pose problems. If you have a bard in a party of fighters and barbarians, you will find it difficult to keep all the characters in the foreground. If you have a lot of political intrigue plots to appease the bard, then the fighters may become bored with the lack of action. The ideal way to solve this problem is to mix things up.Consider the following situation.
The party must find a way to gain audience with a noble who has gone into seclusion inside his manor. They want to get his backing for a young elf lord that the party is working for. Without this support, the young elf lord will not be crowned. If the party approaches the manor, the guards will turn them away, by force if necessary. This may be fun for the warriors, but will likely turn the noble hostile to their cause. The bard, however, could use his reputation or skills to get the party an audience with the noble.
If the bard succeeds at impressing the noble, he will give his support to the elf lord.On the surface, the plot looks simple. The bard performs and the noble is happy. This is where you get to mix it up. During the bard’s performance, the noble is assassinated, and the guards assume the party is responsible. The party would have to escape the manor with their lives, giving the warriors a chance to fight their way out, the thieves a chance to sneak their way out and so on. In the end, the bard is happy because he helped the party get in, and the warriors are happy because they got to fight their way out.
Adventures don’t always take place where politics come into play though. Often adventures take place in the wilderness and the party finds themselves in a backwater town. Obviously, local taverns are always interested in hearing bard’s tales, but your bard player may get bored of that, so here is an idea for using the bard’s abilities in the wild.
In the forest surrounding a small town, a dire beast has been harassing the populace. No one has been seriously injured by it, but this information serves to at least make the characters wary of it. The dire beast is rumoured to guard some type of treasure, something that the party will want or need to get their hands on.
A local patron of the bar tells the party that he has seen the beast lying by a small pool in a glade in the forest, subdued by the lulls of a water nymph. The water nymph could only be drawn out by song before she would converse with the party, or the bard could ‘distract’ the beast while the party entered its lair.
Crafting encounters for bards is no more difficult than crafting encounters for any other character class, it just takes a bit of thought about how a bard’s skills could be used in certain situations.
In the examples above, there are several ways for the party to overcome the encounters and as a GM you cannot control the actions of your party. If you try to force characters into a certain action, or limit their choices on how to go about doing things, it is likely that you will end up with disgruntled or bored players.
There is only so much that you can do to set the scene, but in the end it is up to your bard player to find a way to use his unique skills to further the party’s success. It is also up to the entire party as a whole to communicate and work together to use all of their combined skills to help each other.
If you’re unsure about where to start, try looking at the backstory of your bard. Find out why he/she joined the party in the first place and this should give you an indication of the kinds of encounters to throw at the bard. You could also think of being a bard as a profession, or job. What does the character do in his free time? Where does he go and what does he do to unwind? Essentially, what other facets of the character are there to appeal to?
Here are a few ideas to get you started on how a bard could use his abilities to help a party:
- Influencing people
- Adjusting attitudes
- Getting an audience with a powerful noble or merchant
- Interacting with fey-like or musical creatures
- Appeasing angry mobs
- Rallying followers to a cause
- Bolstering morale
- Winning entertainment contests
- Spy or underworld contact
- Political campaigner–for someone else
- Political campaigner–for himself
- Champion social issues and causes
- Calm savage beasts
- Scout and secret signaler
The bard is, in my opinion, the hardest 3E D&D class to play without a huge amount of role-playing. I recall the first bard we had in our group. The player was finding it extremely hard not to fall into the background. Consequently, he jumped into a river to bathe and was washed over a three hundred foot waterfall in the raging current not ten minutes after meeting the party. :)A lot of the time encounters are crafted for the players as well as the characters.
If you have an inexperienced player in the bardic role, you will need to coach them to improve and think about how to use their skills more and role-play a bit more. For example, and for a bit of fun, have your bard hum a tune when using his bardic abilities or entertaining a tavern.A good way to encourage role-playing is to take the lead as a GM and roleplay encounters rather than rely on the dice. If the bard attempts to use his abilities, have him act it out rather than roll the dice and judge the player’s success based on his performance.
Obviously, not all of us are great poets or singers, so don’t base your judgement on talent, but rather on the effort that goes into it. A player who sees that more effort means a better success will try harder and role-play more the next time around.Another way to increase the role-playing of your bards in the background is to have them work on their bard’s material once in a while based on their focus. Have them make the material pertinent to the party and/or campaign.
For instance, if you have a bard who is a storyteller or author, have them write a first person account of some of the encounters that the party faced. If the bard is a poet, have them write a few poems about the party members. If the bard is a jester, have them write a few jokes.
Once the bard has this material, you could set up an in-game encounter where the player could use some of his material to earn money or fame in the tavern. To keep the bard creating new material if he uses the same material for quite a while, have the patrons of an inn get disappointed and say things like, “Ahh, I heard this one last week! Only that Chaucer guy told it better!” This in itself could spur off a side- plot for the bard to hunt down the guy stealing his material!
There are already a whole host of previous issues dedicated to encouraging role-playing as well as a few that could help if used in the context of bards:
- Use “In-Character” Feedback To Encourage Roleplaying
- 6 Ideas To Encourage Roleplaying
- 5 Ways To Help Your Players Roleplay More
- Using Limericks To Spice Things Up
- The Game Master As Public Speaker
Get Everyone Involved
If your bard character is doing a good job of role-playing an encounter at a bar where the bard is entertaining a crowd, it may also prompt your other players to join in the role-playing and cheer for their comrade, bashing their flagons on the table.If everyone in the group participates in a role-playing encounter, it enhances the game for everyone and makes it more enjoyable. Not only that, it also builds a sense of comradery within your group and essentially in the character party as well.
Characters that play well together, work well together.This could make some extra work for you as a GM when your group starts to strategise and align their character’s goals in the same direction, but it is well worth the effort because it will also allow everyone in the group to feel a part of the whole, allowing you to create encounters at a party level rather than at a character level.
If you can get your group to co-operate with each other and think about how to solve encounters together, you can get to a point where your encounters can be designed to encompass the various talents of all of the characters, without having to worry if someone will be left out. At this point, your players will be calling on each other, encouraging one another, and constantly ‘pulling each other to the foreground’.
Here is a past issue related to PC co-operation:
Bardic Plot Hooks
- Bard is asked or paid to sing the praises of a politician during an election period.
- Bard is asked to sponsor or teach at a music school. School is a front for an evil plot.
- Bard is paid to sing and spread the word about the misdeeds of a city councilman. Are the accusations true?
- Bard is asked to judge a wine tasting competition. Bribes are offered to pick a certain winner.
- Bard is asked to judge a beauty contest. Bribes are offered to pick a certain winner.
- Bard is asked by a mysterious agent to report if certain visitors come to the inn he regularly plays at.
- Bard’s work gets stolen.
- Someone else takes credit for the bard’s creations.
- Bard attracts groupies. How does he handle the 24/7 personalities, stalkers, and attention? What if one of the groupies was a serial killer?
- A group of 1/2 orcs demand the bard explain what poetry is to them–or else.
- A half-orc bard is run out of town simply on the word of an elven bard who is a racist.
- A bard has lost his voice do to the ill-worded wish of a merchant elsewhere in town (he wished for a beautiful voice and the merchant received the bard’s voice).
- A young lady falls in love with a PC bard and her ex-fianc? comes looking for revenge.
- A master bard’s note book is discovered and being auctioned off in town.
- At a tournament, the Big Noble is having a barding contest, the prize being a golden nightingale.
- Somehow the PC party has evoked the ire of a bard. The bard now sings of the PCs in less than flattering terms, turning the populace against the party.
- A bard is hired to teach a nobleman’s son. While under his tutelage, the son disappears. The boy was either kidnapped or he just ran away.
- A doppelganger takes the bard’s identity and uses it to do all sorts of nasty things, leaving the bard holding the bag.
- The bard is charmed by a fey creature to play a song that has been outlawed by the local Duke (the story about how the Duke was tricked by three leprechauns).
- A group of humorless, colorless people kidnap a bard to teach them about art, music, and humor.
- A group of humorless people take offense at the bard’s light-hearted antics.
- An innkeeper hires a bard to entertain the common room of his inn. While the bard is singing, the innkeeper’s minions are robbing the patron’s rooms.
Reader Tips Of The Week
Updating Character Sheets
From Lord Damian
Another idea for protecting slow/quick change fields on paper character sheets is using scotch tape. The “magic” or “invisible” tape with a clouded finish, as opposed to the crystal clear tape, has enough of a “tooth” to it to take and hold graphite relatively well, erases fine, and keeps you from erasing a hole in your character sheet. It is prone to smudging though, but then, so are most of the other methods. But, it’s cheap, portable, and can be added on the fly.
And a related tip from Eric:
Great article on Player Character Sheets. Here’s a quick tip on how to make them easy to update. For those areas that change, needing periodic or frequent updating, cover them in “invisible” tape as this tape can be written on with a soft pencil. Being a Rolemaster fanatic, I always tape over my sheets, taking care to work from bottom to top, much like you would shingle a roof, to make writing easier. I have sheets that are over ten years old and can still erase and write on the tape. Roll them bones!
Analyzing Character Sheets
From Adam Cetnerowski
I always look at the character sheet first and it plays a major role in deciding if I want to play the game. The most important factor is *clarity*
- Layout and fonts
- Gaining a sense of mechanics from the sheet
- Understanding the actual text (low on game-specific jargon)
- Nothing too ‘cute’ (like hard to understand metaphors)
Character Portrait Software
From Eric Phillips
IQ Biometrix [ Face Ultimate Composite ] has a program called Faces 3.0 that I picked up off of eBay for $17 that is excellent for mug shots. Unfortunately Faces 4.0 is $499.
I’ve also found a few places online such as Ultimate Flash Face that are simpler versions of it.
Use A Word Processor For Easy Character Sheets
From Aaron Malek
Regarding tips for character sheets as a GM tool, after many years without a computer and depending on photocopied sheets of many types, I’ve found that, now that I have a computer, the best character sheet is a simple Word (or other word processor program) document.
This makes for what I like to call the “un-sheet”, because I can put in only the information that I want for a given character. If I have a warrior-type, I can put in parts that pertain to strength and combat, and leave off any mention to spells or other abilities this guy doesn’t have. The logic is the same as your (aptly phrased and very on- the-mark) 80/20 rule – the sheet only has the 20% of the information that gets used 80% of the time (and in this case none of the information that doesn’t apply at all.)
Each character gets saved as its own file and updates can be added to the character at will. To make a new character, I use an old one as a template, which makes up for much of the extra data-input a sheet like this requires initially. Furthermore, saving older versions of characters gives both a good personal history of the characters and supplies the GM with multiple starting points for creating NPCs.
For example, I created about eight characters for a game I was running at a convention three years ago, and I’ve must have made thirty or more different characters and NPCs from those original eight by using them as templates and changing a few details – a good way to knock out a thorough NPC in a matter of minutes.
The GM’s Dashboard
From Steve Kozak
One of the most important elements to roleplaying realism is an unwavering sense of consistency. It is important that the GM keeps extremely detailed notes on everything that happens in the game. If you have to randomly come up with the name of a gnome village south of the ocean, then make sure that when the PCs mention that place again you know what they’re talking about.
And if an NPC loses a leg in a combat, than that NPC should have a peg-leg the next time he’s encountered. Every detail must be remembered by the GM, as the players will not believe the campaign world is realistic if these things are ever-changing.
Another important factor that is easy to forget is of the everyday sort: the passage of time–the season, the weather, how long it’s been since the PCs ate or drank, and so on. I had a big problem keeping track of these things. In a realistic world, the PCs would be more worried about eating, drinking, and sleeping than finding a key or solving a puzzle.
What I’ve done is put together a little “GM’s dashboard” with small cardboard dials to keep track of the month, date, day, weather, time of day, and moon phase. This way, when the characters walk for five days, I am still on top of what time it is. This is also important for time-based spells and effects. I also included spaces to write the time and day of the PCs’ eating, drinking, and slumber, so that they don’t skip meals and go five weeks without thinking about water. It is just a good way to get organized and to maintain consistency.
Ye ‘Ol Paper Clip & Character Sheet Trick
Someone might have already suggested this, but here it goes just in case: for values that change many times during a game session (such as hit points and ammunition), a good solution would be the one that was designed for the Deadlands RPG. In Deadlands, numbers are written on the margin of the sheet and you just slide a paper clip up and down the scale to get the current value.
We have adopted similar solutions for armor values (like, armor that absorbs less damage as it gets riddled with bullets or bashed in combat, for example). It’s a good idea because it avoids all that rubbering-and-smudging of the character sheet.
Another hint – for those games based on experience levels (such as D&D or Lord of the Rings) a good idea is to print a new sheet every time the character goes up a level. This way, a player can track its character’s whole evolution in a personal file, and it also helps for those games full of undead who drain levels (after all, it’s not easy to remember the 7th level stats of the paladin who lost a couple of levels when he was at level 10).
Makes for sweet memories too 🙂