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How to Play a Bard Well: Creative Uses for NPC Bards

"Personae" by Kanthesis on

As I was reading the Bible the other day, I was struck by something that had previously escaped my notice, which is how frequently songs were composed and sung after major events.

  • Moses sang a song in Exodus 15 after the Red Sea swallowed the pursuing Egyptian army.
  • Deborah and Barak sang a song in Judges 5 after Jael killed Sisera with a tent peg (leading, then, to the defeat of the Canaanite king Jabin).
  • Luke records a song of Mary’s (The Magnificat) during her visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55).

And these are just the tip of the iceberg as they don’t even touch Psalms.

It got me to thinking about the utilities of a song.  Not just in the Bible, mind you; but in any medium and during any era.  But since we’re a nerdy website, how’s about we focus on the utilities of a good song  or story in your favorite roleplaying setting?

Specifically…why not make bards great again?!

How to Play a Bard Well: As Narrative Vehicles

Our adventure guides are chock full of all kinds of setting and narrative information that help flesh out NPCs and enemies, build mythos, and otherwise bolster the story.  But it can be kinda clunky to deliver that information as table talk.

Why not have a bard NPC deliver it in a custom song?  Your PCs enter the local tavern and find the bard:

  • In mid-song near the hearth singing of local history.

    bard song
    Credit: Paizo
  • Spinning exaggerated children’s stories containing warnings of local superstitions or rumored terrors. Maybe drop a useful hint, tip, or trick in these superficially silly children’s tales that quick PCs will think to use to their advantage in actual encounters.
  • Debuting a new song about the last group of adventurers who had failed miserably and horribly at the very task the party is now set to attempt.

Not all of us can get away with so direct and shameless a narrative vehicle as Tom Exposition of Glass Cannon fame (and I do love me some Tom Exposition), but a bard’s tale or song would feel like an organic way of adding color and flavor to a setting or situation.

Build some suspense, add some humor, lay the foundation of a mystery…there are a lot of options here. The best part is that when it comes to bards as narrative vehicles in a published adventure setting, you really only have to translate what’s already there from informative paragraphs into equally informative lyrics, lines of poetry, or fables.

How to Play a Bard Well: Custom Flavor and Flair

Your PCs come upon a group of travelers in the woods and there, sitting by herself at the campfire, is a lone lyrist: Lyre in one hand, pencil in the other. She scribbles a few words, returns to plucking or strumming the lyre, and then once again takes to scribbling on the paper.

As the group draws near, they overhear her working on an original composition…the first song chronicling a success or failure of your party!

campfire bard
Credit: Blake Alexander Downing Fantasy Illustrations

There are a lot of cool opportunities here:

  • She’s got some of the facts all wrong and your PCs have the opportunity to help her compose the song correctly.
  • Her lyrics over-exaggerate and turn a good deed or a successful battle into a feat of legend.  Already your PCs’ reputation proceeds them!
  • She laughs aloud as she spins a lyrical yarn about one of the party’s biggest blunders: A costly mistake, a hilariously failed feat, or even an improbably successful one!
  • The lyrics ooze with prophecy; maybe some they’ve fulfilled, maybe some describing things yet to come, maybe both.

Word travels fast ’round the realms! Sometimes it is shared accurately. Other times its more like a bad game of telephone where the information is all wrong (but sometimes to hilarious effect). In the latter case, maybe she swears she’s got the right information and proves extremely difficult to persuade to correct the misinformation (DC 20 or maybe even 25; she’s convinced, y’all!). That bad info gets around and pretty soon the party is the butt of a realm-wide joke.

Or maybe the bard can be bought off for a ludicrous amount of gold. After all, she makes her living by her stories and songs, and this is a good one! Most bards go their whole lives without authoring such a song or tale. She stands to make a lot of coin in taverns and courts alike, so it won’t go away on the cheap.

This is a great way to make each of the PCs a part of the world. They’re not simply moving through it, they are affecting it. Songs and tales will cement them firmly into the very fabric of the world!  And there is a lot of opportunity for some fun to be had here.

How to Play a Bard Well: Songs And Tales Can Be PC-Generated

This work isn’t necessarily that of a DM. Players can take initiative and work up a song, poem, or story and share it with the DM.  We’ve all got memorable moments in our campaigns that we talk about often away from the game, so why not make them a part of the game?

  • A touching elegy for a dead PC.
  • A love song or poem written to an NPC in the hopes of wooing her (don’t forget that performance check, but maybe give the guy advantage or bonuses if it is particularly amazing!).
  • A factual or exaggerated account of some memorable success or failure to be used in any of the ways listed above at the DM’s discretion.

You’d be giving your DM some free flavor.  Trust me, he or she will appreciate it!

So much fun to be had with the clever use of NPC bards. Some to the benefit of your party, some at their expense, and some to their detriment. Stories and songs are massive vehicles for information in the real world, so why not make them a big part of our fictional worlds, as well?

Have any more creatives uses for the bard as an NPC?  Have any of these actually taken place in a campaign of yours?  Drop in to our Character Sheets Facebook group and share your ideas or stories!

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