Dragonmarks: The Bard

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything came out recently. I want to share my thoughts on how to incorporate its new options into Eberron and at the gaming table in general… but as I started working on this, I realized that instead of just talking about the new Xanathar’s subclasses, I want to take a broader look at the classes of Fifth Edition in general and how I’d use them. So without further ado… let’s talk about BARDS.

As presented in 5E, the bard is “an inspiring magician whose power echoes the song of creation.” The PHB entry describes the bard as “a master of song, speech, and all the magic they contain.” There’s many ways to develop the idea of the performer whose work inspires listeners…

  • House Phiarlan’s Five Demesnes are the most formal bardic order in Khorvaire, and fit the structure of colleges quite well. The Demesne of Memory teaches the techniques of the College of Lore. The Demesne of Song is tied to the College of Glamour. The Demesne of Motion can be tied to the College of Swords. And the Demesne of Shadow can be tied to the College of Whispers. Note that members of any race can study with Phiarlan – though they have to have exceptional talent to earn a place in one of the Demesnes.
  • The Dirge Singers of Dhakaan primarily fall under Lore, though battlefield bards might follow Valor. I could see a particular Kech that follows Whispers, but the Duur’kala are primarily leaders; those who whisper instead of sing would be a rare few.
  • The Greensinger druids blend fey bardic traditions with their druidic magic. Glamour is an easy choice for a Greensinger bard, but I could also see Swords as the teachings of Thelanian knights.
  • Tairnadal society revolves around the heroes of the past, and the bards who tell their tales play a vital role among the Valenar. Most take to the battlefield and follow the path of Valor or Swords, inspiring through deed as well as word. It’s possible that a Tairnadal bard bridges the gap between arcane and divine; the spells and Inspiration of a Valenar bard could involve directly channeling the favor or a patron ancestor. For a PC, a critical question is why such a bard would leave their warband… but perhaps the ancestors have laid a strange path before you.

All of these are examples of inspiring entertainers. But a bard doesn’t have to be a BARD. A class is a set of mechanics, allowing a character to do certain things. These mechanics are the bones, but I’ve always believed that the flavor that’s attached to them can and should be adjusted to fit the story of a particular character.

So let’s look at the bare bones of the bard. Mechanically, what defines a bard?

  • Proficiency with light armor, simple weapons, and a few others… the hand crossbow, rapier and longsword. More of a duelist or swashbuckler than a soldier.
  • Excellent skill selection, along with Jack of All Trades and Expertise. A bard can be good at ANYTHING; they don’t have to use their Expertise on skills related to performance.
  • “Bardic Inspiration” – The ability to enhance the rolls of others.
  • Spellcasting – Flexible arcane spellcasting with a focus on enchantment, divination and illusion… along with a touch of healing.

Generally, both inspiration and bardic magic are presented as performance. The PHB says that Bardic Inspiration inspires others “through stirring words or music.” But the critical effect is that the bard can use it on one creature within 60 feet that can hear the bard – and that the benefit must be used in the next ten minutes. As long as those conditions are met, does it matter if cosmetically this benefit involves a song or speech? Or could it be that the character just gives really good advice? Does the magic have to be a performance, or can it just represent training in a particular set of arcane skills? Consider a few different ways to present a bard.


Background: Charlatan

Skills: Deception (B), Insight, Investigation, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand (B)

Important Spells: Friends, Message, Charm Person, Disguise Self, Detect Thoughts

Rogues are often seen as the go-to path for spies, but in a world where arcane magic is a recognized tools, spells can be far more useful than a sneak attack. If you need your spy to stab someone in the back or to dodge a fireball you want a rogue – but if you’re looking for a charming envoy who can pluck secrets from someone’s thoughts and share that information with a whispered message, a bard may be what you’re looking for. This is an excellent path for a PC who’s trained with the Trust or the Royal Eyes of Aundair… and even in the Thorn of Breland novels, we have a Dark Lantern who makes good use of Disguise Self. In these cases, as a DM I might allow the player to exchange the three musical instrument proficiencies that come with being a bard for a single proficiency with Thieves’ Tools (or they could take the Criminal background instead of the Charlatan). On the other hand, a Phiarlan or Thuranni spy USES those performance abilities as part of a cover for their spying. Either the Criminal or Charlatan background has other useful features for a spy – the false identity of the charlatan is a well established cover, while criminal contacts can easily be shifted to reflect contacts with your agency.

For a spy, Bardic Inspiration can reflect secrets – something useful you’ve noticed about a target. The spy/bard provides the beneficiary with a useful piece of information, and within the next ten minutes the target can make use of that secret to gain an advantage. Personally, I wouldn’t specify the secret until it is used… and I’d have the person benefiting from it explain what it was and how it helped. In other words, the spy says “I’m using inspiration on Bob.” Three rounds later Bob is attacking a guard and wants to add the inspiration die to his attack roll. At that point he says “Keith told me about this guy! He’s got a war wound and can’t block properly with his left arm.” Again, not knowing WHAT you’ll use the inspiration for, I can’t define the secret right away – but we establish that I’ve told you SOMETHING useful.

Looking to Colleges, there’s a few options. The College of Lore is an easy choice; a spy can use more skills (say, Stealth, Perception, and a knowledge skill of some sort); Cutting Words reflects your own ability to benefit from the secrets you’ve observed; and the ability to choose a few spells from any class list definitely provides useful options. On the other hand, the College of Whispers is good for a spy with a touch of darker magic… and is something I could definitely use for a disturbing Trust agent or a Thuranni assassin.


Background: Criminal

Skills: Acrobatics, Deception (B), Perception, Sleight of Hand, Stealth (B)

Important Spells: Friends, Charm Person, Disguise Self

The Wandslinger is a scoundrel – a gambler and duelist, a literally charming troublemaker. Were I making this character, I’d make them a human from Aundair and use the variant human rules to take the Magic Initiate feat, selecting a pair of offensive cantrips to use in battle… thus justifying the name, as I’d have a few fine wands as arcane foci. A high elf could also do this with their racial cantrip. But the basic point of the character is to be a scoundrel in a society where magic is on the table – someone who can get out of trouble with a smile and a cast of Friends… even if they’ve got an angry mob coming after them when the spell wears off. You could get some of the same mileage with an Arcane Trickster rogue, but you’d have to wait a few levels to get there… and the rogue is defined by that sneak attack. This Wandslinger is about charm and charisma, preferring to talk their way throw a situation and only drawing wands  and unleashing firebolts if there’s no other option. Any College could work, but I do like the flare of the College of Swords for this character. When they use Bardic Inspiration on others, it would be along the lines of general encouragement and charisma; the optimism and confidence of the Wandslinger is infectious, together you can find a way to beat the odds.


Background: Entertainer

Skills: Acrobatics (B), Deception, Insight, Performance (B), Persuasion

Important Spells: Prestidigitation, Illusion, Enthrall

In Khorvaire, magic is a tool used for warfare, healing… and entertainment. Phiarlan and Thuranni are well known for weaving illusion into their performances, but you don’t have to be an elf to get in on this act. If you follow this path, you aren’t simply a wandering minstrel; you’re an entertainer who’s built up a reputation for your amazing performances. You may know Dancing Lights, Minor Illusion, Silent Image, Faerie Fire, and Prestidigitation – because you use these spells as part of your performances. You CAN use Faerie Fire to outline an enemy in battle – but you use it to light up yourself during a performance. You might use Disguise Self for quick changes during a show, or Charm Person to deal with troublesome fans. Acrobatics may reflects actual tumbling or a remarkable talent for dance. When it comes to College, you’re all about Xanathar’s College of Glamour. It’s not that you are calling on fey powers… it’s that you are literally that good.

With the Superstar, the question is going to be why are you an adventurer? You could make a decent living on stage, and likely you already have. Do you have a literal quest to pursue – a mystical instrument you’re trying to find, or a family mystery you’re trying to unravel? Is your adventuring career a publicity stunt? Have you tired of the spotlight and you’re trying to do something meaningful with your life? Whatever the answer, you should definitely establish your previous life, as people will definitely recognize you and want you to perform!


Background: Urchin

Skills: Acrobatics, Deception, Perception, Sleight of Hand (B), Stealth (B)

Important Spells: Blade Ward, Heroism, Hideous Laughter, True Strike, Vicious Mockery

In the original proposal for Eberron I explored the idea of a class called “the Journeyman.” The idea for this was the character who has no place being an adventurer… who somehow survives dangerous situations through sheer luck. There’s many ways you could go with this. You could take the Guild Artisan background and be a chronicler for the Sharn Inquisitive who wants to report the stories of REAL adventurers. You could go with Folk Hero and be everybody’s favorite bartender who got swept along with the adventurers after your bar burnt down. Or you could go the route I’m suggesting here: A character who is mechanically a halfling bard (small, fearless and lucky), but who for flavor purposes I’m describing as a human child who just has more luck than anyone deserves. They grew up on the streets of Sharn and they know their way around a big city… but they’ve still got no business being an adventurer.

Like the Revenant Blade, this is a case where I’m bending things quite a bit. First of all, while this character’s spells can BE magical effects – which is to say, they won’t work in an antimagic zone, they can be counterspelled, etc – the idea is that the character doesn’t actually KNOW magic. Rather, they are just favored by the Prophecy or similarly touched by a benign force and things just go their way… and they can share this luck with others. When they use an effect like Bardic Inspiration, True Strike or Heroism, they aren’t consciously casting a spell; they’re literally just saying something like “You can do this, Jo! I believe in you!” and it works. When they use Vicious Mockery or Hideous Laughter, they are literally just viciously mocking the target… but that insult really stings! If I was playing this character, I wouldn’t even carry a weapon; I’d rely entirely on cantrips and magic in combat, unleashing stinging insults, being surprisingly charming, and helping my friends with my ridiculous luck.

Meddling Kid or Journeyman, this isn’t a sort of character that works in every campaign. You have to have a group of players willing to bend logic a little, to accept that idea that when Little Billy casts as spell, he isn’t actually casting a spell. You have to figure out why a party of adventurers would let this character tag along. For all these reasons this sort of character often works best in a one-shot. On the other hand, if you do run with this, you have the interesting opportunity for the character to literally grow as the campaign progresses… to start off being represented as a “halfling” bard and then to evolve into a human of another class, losing their crazy luck as they grow into their actual skills.

You get the idea. The mastermind whose “inspiration” is about executing an excellent plan. The Medani detective who uses a little magic to help in their investigations (and Khoravar bards get a lot of skills to work with!), whose inspiration comes from Sherlock-style deductions about an attack or target. The chronicler who adventures to report on the greatest stories in Khorvaire… and whose inspiration comes from things they’ve seen on their journeys or facts they’ve learned. “Trust me, if he tries to charm you, just start humming!”

I could go on, but hopefully this gets the point across while also suggesting ways to use the new colleges from Xanathar’s Guide. Stretch the idea of the class, and think about the story you want it to have.

What have you done with bards in your campaign? Share your thoughts and questions below!

How would you set up an all-bard one shot adventure in Eberron?

It’s easier to do than with most classes because the bard is an inherently flexible class. You can have five bards with different skills sets and specialties – a Swords bard focused on melee combat, a Lore bard who’s got Medicine and healing magic, a Glamour bard who specializes in enchantment and manipulation. Part of the question is how you justify the team, and whether they consider themselves to be “bards” – or if they are spies, meddling kids (Really Stranger Things), or what have you. If I was making a one shot, I’d make the characters an elite Phiarlan team trained in the different demesnes. That way you could combine their artistic talents with the actual mission. They’re performing at an Aundairian diplomatic reception, but the REAL job is to rob Queen Aurala!

15 thoughts on “Dragonmarks: The Bard

  1. For the Journeyman bard, wouldn’t it make sense to also change the bard’s spell type to divine rather than arcane? Arcane magic is meant to be “scientific” or at least reproducible. Both a wizard’s knowledge and a sorcerer’s bloodline are reliable as sources of arcane magic. A standard bard is meant to be a blend of the two, innate talent honed by years of study and experience.

    So a character who can create magical effects, but without having any knowledge of it being magic and attributing it purely to luck, sounds a lot more like an unlettered divine caster (in Pathfinder rules, this would be an Oracle) than any kind of arcane magician. After all, the magic isn’t technically their own abilities, it’s the effect of the character unknowingly channeling power from a deity or spirit of luck.

    • It’s certainly an option. The main question is how you want to justify the abilities. The original version of the Journeyman for 3.5 Eberron didn’t use magic at all, but rather an expanded version of Action Points; some of these ideas were printed in the 3.5 Unearthed Arcana sourcebook.

      Essentially, you need to consider it as some sort of magic or the character has a mechanical advantage (if their effects can’t be blocked or countered); but the question is if you WANT the character to be secretly blessed by the Traveler, if you want to say they’re touched by the Prophecy, or if you want to say that they’re just very lucky… and don’t owe that to anyone. As I said, it’s something that requires a willingness to bend things a bit.

      • The latter part reminds me of a character in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series. Luck in that universe is a definable trait that is genetically inheritable, and the character in question was literally bred by an alien species to be incredibly lucky.

        I can definitely see dragons or daelkyr pulling off experiments like this!

    • I believe that Satine Phoenix is already doing something similar with her “Sirens of the Realms” podcast, though not in Eberron. The main question to me is if the characters share a common background and theme. In Eberron, a simple approach would be to say that they’re an elite Phiarlan team. Each one can be trained by a different demesne/from a different college, so you have a diverse range of abilities. Phiarlan can give them missions, a la Mission Impossible, which gives the underlying story… even if they are also traveling around and performing at the same time. “This week you’re performing for Queen Aurala in Fairhaven, but your REAL mission is…”

    • I also want to suggest a bardventure with all-Superstar or Journeyman characters, and not even touch on political intrigue or special training. I personally see Eberron as a world where the entertainment world has its own cutthroat intrigues quite apart from Phiarlan’s business – and of course there’s always the problem of finding a gig. The PCs could simply be a regular troupe of performers who need to find out why their patron was murdered so they can keep playing at the bar, or whose rival band acquired a magic item that gives them worryingly consistent good reviews, or who just saw something they shouldn’t have loading up late one night.
      (I realize I’m taking a tack away from “bards” to “entertainment” if you really want to go out there, how about one PC plays a hard-bitten humanoid private investigator, and the rest play living major image spells with a surprising weakness to turpentine, acetone, and benzene?)

  2. I just have to say, Bards are one of my least-favorite classes because they feel so strictly tied to their musical flavor. Using them for a spy or scoundrel is a really fun angle I feel more than a little silly for not seeing before. Thanks!

  3. I have a wild mage sorcerer with the “Lucky” feat. His background story is that he’s from a noble family and was off at magical college when complex family politics resulted in his complete disinheritance. Cue a late-night trip to the restricted section of the school’s library, a hasty and ill-considered magical ritual, and a new career as a wild mage and (not very effective) charlatan. Splashing bard at first level was a really good match for the “half-educated noble” part of his background. I reskinned the bardic inspiration ability as “sharing luck.”

  4. In 3.5 i played a one shot with a dwarven bard that had such a strong, intimidating personality that everybody prefers to be his “friend”. Basically he was a politician, not a performer.

    Now one of my player wants to play an evil karrn bard/cleric of blood of vol that persuade people to donate blood for vampires and cooperate with undeads. And wants me to create the character since I know the setting, so i will appreciate suggestions

  5. Finally! Thanks Keith. I’ve felt forever that bards can easily be presented perfectly well as non musical, non entertainer, rogue-sorcerer types. It’s so nice to see such a great presentation along those lines.

    I’m currently playing a noble born, half plate & shield wearing, spell slinging Aundairan half elf “Knight Arcane” who is mechanically a valor bard (with a dash of warlock but that’s another story) but seems more like a fighter sorcerer. He struggled with the traditional side of his arcane training, developing more instinctive spell casting and “casts” inspiration like a variant bless spell.

    So far, great fun.

    Re Arcane being scientific – this ignores wild magic sorcerers at the very least. Arcane *can* be scientific (e.g. wizards) but it could also be tapping into an internal, natural born talent rather than the external divine or primal forces clerics and druids tap into… if that’s what works at your table.

    At the end of the day I think what matters is: is it mechanically balanced (for best long term campaign prospects) and does it add fun to the experience at your table.

  6. I’ve always treated bardic training as pretty much mandatory for Aundairan officers with the knack. The oratorical skills and battle elocution, combined with the ability to inspire, magic to help your orders be heard on the battlefield, the ability to pick up skills related to whatever unit you are assigned to, seems like a no-brainer if you don’t have the option of going to Rekkenmark.

  7. The Meddling Kid entry here reminds me of how much of a shame it is that the appeal and distinction of the Warlord didn’t click with the 5e team and thus it seems like we’re never, ever getting an official 5e Warlord. For at least some of that subcategory of character, THAT is what I’d rather reskin — something whose abilities don’t follow the magic rules at all in the first place, nor interact with things that interact with magic. (On the other hand, I could totally see some reporters just so happening to be proper bards, magic and all!)

    Between the general range of effects available to the bard and their particular mixed rationale, the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting description of the bard as echoing the draconic songs of creation, and the existence of the Divine Bard variant in Unearthed Arcana, one idea that I’ve liked for a while but haven’t yet done much with is that of bardic magic being the closest thing to “pure” magic there is in mortal hands — as close as possible to the divide between arcane, divine, and (if you count it separately and figure in the Savage Bard) primal magic. As something of a fan of high concepts, I think that’d be a fun one to explore given some like-minded players.

    • I concur about the idea of a character like the warlord, which is essentially where I was going with the Meddling Kid/Journeyman. At the same time, I wasn’t the person who made that “song of creation” comparison in 3.5 and it doesn’t really work for me. While I like the CONCEPT of a primordial magic that is beyond arcane or divine, I don’t really see the bard as written as being a good representative of that pure force. To me, the whole idea of a “song of creation” is that it’s about CREATION. It should manipulate elemental power, alter reality, shape or create matter. Bardic magic doesn’t generally do any of these things. It’s about deception and manipulation – illusion, enchantment, a touch of divination. To me, the Song of Creation would be more like Naming in The Kingkiller books. But while a bard can create an illusion of a flame, they can’t conjure or control flame itself… and that seems out of place for someone dealing with the true magics of creation.

      With that said, I agree entirely that a chronicler could simply be a fully-trained bard; “Detective” and “Chronicler” were two archetypes I considered adding, but at the end of the day they weren’t that different from “Spy”. But yes, the idea that a Korranberg Chronicler would be trained in some actual magic makes sense.

      • The “Adventurer’s Guide to the Monsters of Eberron and her Planes” that I’m periodically posting on the Eberron Enthusiasts Facebook group takes that angle with the main chronicler. He’s a Bard (Glamour), who uses his skills and magic to calm down otherwise hostile people and creatures long enough to learn from them. If that doesn’t work, he has a bodyguard whose technique relies on distraction and misdirection (a Swashbuckler Rogue), a gnoll who’s trying to learn “civilised” fighting (berserker barbarian), and a warforged toymaker, late of Thrane (Forge Cleric).

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