Bards. They're performers and spies, battle drummers, healers, storytellers, and commanders. The class's powers are so various, and so flexible, that bards are one of the most fluid base classes. Whether a party is delving into a dungeon that's been sealed for a thousand years, hunting assassins in the king's court, or on the front lines of a major war, you should always bring a bard with you.
If you're having trouble stepping out of the stereotypical bard box, though, don't worry. This guide will give you a short list of questions you should ask about your bard that can help shape them into a concept that is anything but expected. In fact, for a little extra fun, don't let anyone other than the DM see your character sheet. See how long it takes the rest of the table to figure out what your character class is, based on the way you act.
As a final note, this guide is designed primarily for the Pathfinder roleplaying game, but similar systems may find these suggestions applicable. Also, if you like this guide, I've covered the other core classes as well! Go check them out at 5 Tips For Playing Better Core Classes (The Complete List).
Tip #1: How Do You Perform?
A large part of a bard's abilities are based off their ability to perform. With that said, though, you have a lot of options beyond your usual song and dance.
An example mentioned above is a battle drummer. Drums were used to communicate on the battlefield, along with flags, allowing large troop movements to be coordinated without the delay of sending runners. A bard who comes from a military background, whether they were part of an organized army or a rag-tag group of raiders, might know the rhythms to heat his allies' blood to boiling, giving them courage in the fight. Alternatively, a bard might have been a commander, or a drill sergeant in charge of bellowing orders and bolstering morale. A high skill rank in Oratory, combined with an equally high rating in Intimidate, might represent a captain who was more frightening than any enemy his troops might face, and who goaded them on through terrified adrenaline.
Of course, there is something to be said for more traditional tunes as well. A rousing song might allow allies to better coordinate, fighting to the rhythm of the bard's tune. A simple tune plucked on a mandolin could relax the trapsmith, allowing him to make better progress on the job than if he was working in silence. A dancer's fluid grace might spin out, infecting her allies, drawing them along in the wake of the magic.
The way you perform is central to who a bard is. So ask yourself what their performance looks like when you're spending rounds.
Tip #2: Where Did You Develop Your Skills?
Bards cast spells spontaneously, and their magic develops without the study and careful planning of wizards, or the prayers of clerics. Cousins to sorcerers, bards will magic into being through in-born power, and natural aptitude.
With all that said, it's a good idea to ask who, if anyone, helped your bard put an edge on the talent they were born with.
For example, did your bard attend a university where more experienced magic users could help them find a way to get a grip on their talents? Was your bard apprenticed to someone who worked with them, finding the right performances, the right forms, and the proper exercises to help them make their talents shine? Or are they self-taught, working out the specifics in jerks and starts until they understood their own talent, and how to make it manifest?
All of these are options, but it's important to ask how your bard became a bard. How young did they start, and who, if anyone, helped them grow?
Tip #3: How Do You Bill Yourself?
As gamers, we tend to fall into the trap of referring to our characters by their classes. What we forget when we do this is that a class is just a meta-concept; a name for a certain package of abilities. No one goes around calling themselves a fighter, for instance. No more than you show up to a job and say you deserve the gig because you're a barbarian, or a rogue. The problem is that some classes do, in fact, have the names of professions in the world. A wizard is a wizard, no matter how you slice it. Bards tend to occupy that middle zone; that could be the profession they claim, or it could just be a lazy use of class as a placeholder.
So ask yourself how the character will respond to, "So, what do you do?"
Are you a singer? A poet? Do you play drums in a band? Are you a storyteller, or an actor? Or, if you've gone in a different direction, are you an explorer? Perhaps a chronicler of great deeds, or a student of history? Are you a professor? Or are you a crier, reading out the latest proclamations in a voice that cannot be ignored?
The sheer number of professions you could have is pretty staggering. For example, in The Chaplain (A Badass Bard You Might Mistake For A Cleric), you see the versatility of roles a bard could fulfill. A bard could give a sermon that really moves those listening, heal wounds suffered on the battlefield, and rouse warriors with battle cries. They might also be a priest, using their natural talents to further the cause of their god.
Nowhere is it written that you have to be a traveling musician. You can be, but there are all sorts of other uses you can bend your talents toward.
Tip #4: Why Are You On An Adventure?
One of the biggest tropes that affects this class is an age-old explanation for bardic knowledge. Bards, as we all know, can make untrained knowledge checks. Why can they do this? Well, the assumption is because bards travel around, and spend time in all sorts of places. From taverns and gambling halls, to palaces and courts, bards hear things. So they know a bit of everything.
So you need to ask two questions here. Do you travel? And if you do, why do you travel?
For example, if you're a talented enough performer, why can't you make a living in a city? Bars, night spots, street corners, and parties all need entertainers. Libraries need keepers, colleges need teachers, and armies need recruiters. There are all kinds of jobs you could do without ever having to leave the city limits.
Alternatively, you could be a traveling bard. Perhaps you're part of the circus, or you play summer festivals, if you're a traditional sort of bard. If you're not a traditionalist then you might be a sailor, a traveling merchant (because snake oil isn't going to sell itself), an announcer for tournaments and games, or even a professional athlete who boosts his team to victory. Whatever your job is, you need to stay on the move to do it.
The next question you need to ask is, "Why am I on this adventure?"
A bard, just like anyone else, has a job. They have commitments, ties, goals, and needs. So ask yourself why your bard took up this particular call. Especially if it requires them to travel (if they don't), or to stop traveling (if they do).
The reason can be as simple or complicated as you want. Maybe the librarian wants to get out into the field to experience ancient ruins first-hand. Perhaps your commander ordered you to go with a team to see what is happening, and to report back on what you find. You might be a detective whose pursuit of a criminal has snowballed into something bigger. Or it might be that your friend is going treasure hunting, and you want to watch their back. And if there's actually treasure, hey, bonus!
Tip #5: How Do You Practice?
Not everyone reads the Core Rulebook cover to cover, and they can easily miss the text on page 220 which states both bards and sorcerers need to focus for about 15 minutes after 8 hours of rest in order to cast their spells for the day. Bards, however, must expressly perform in some way to warm up their magic.
So what do you do to warm up for the day?
This could be as small and personal, or as intricate, as you need it to be. Do you make some mint julip tea and go through your full range to wake up your voice? Do you check your instrument and play a song or two, adjusting as necessary? Do you stretch and go through a dance routine, or work on your comedic timing for your routine? Additionally, do you do it by yourself, or do you include other people in your warm-up as the straight man, your dance partner, or even your target to make sure you're in top performing shape?