The 5 Bothersome Bards You Meet in Your Gaming Career
Discordant Divas and Monotonous Minstrels
All of us have personal horror stories about games we've been at, or players we've had to deal with. And while paladins might take the gold for sucking the fun out of the room, nobody beats bards when it comes to the sheer variety of ways they can make a game less enjoyable. From those who are here for a very different kind of roleplaying (suggestive tone of voice optional), to those who do their very best to steal the show, I thought I'd break down some of the most troublesome tropes you're likely to run into involving this particular character class.
This is the third installment in this ongoing series, and I've already covered 5 Awful Paladins and 5 Eye-Rolling Rogues. To stay on top of this series, check out the 5 Tips Master List on Improved Initiative, and for more content like this take a look at my full Vocal archive as well.
For those looking for ways to avoid making the wrong sort of impression with their characters, check out 5 Tips For Playing Better Bards!
#1: The Pickup Artist
The trope of the bard who seduces everything they come across has gone past parody to the point of absurdity. After all, it's a joke these days. A meme. No one in their right mind would actually show up with a character who tries to distract a rampaging troll with a striptease, or to seduce the queen in the throne room during the intro text. That's something The Gamers made fun of over a decade ago.
Sadly, there's more than a few people who don't think this archetype is a joke. And while there's a long history of beautiful characters using flirtation and charisma as a tool (to distract a guard, to gain access to certain locations, or just as a cover identity while on a mission), the Pickup Artist takes it that one, extra step where things get uncomfortable for the rest of the table.
Because for these characters seduction is not a means to an end. It is not a tool they use to achieve their goals like we see in spy movies and edgy thrillers. Rather, the seduction is often the point of the character. Not only that, but this kind of bard usually attempts the same tactics on fellow party members as they would on NPCs, which can add a whole new level of discomfort for everyone.
If you've never shared a table with a Pickup Artist, count your blessings.
#2: The Spotlight Hog
Bards are one of the most versatile classes in the game, hands down. They get magic, they can wear armor, they can fight, they get a lot of different skills, and their unique ability to inspire others means they can also boost the entire party in their time of need. The best bards are phenomenal helpers, always singing back-up to help the rest of the table really shine.
Then there's the bards who always have to be the center of attention. The ones who try to always take the lead, attempting to step in front of other party members who might be better suited to a particular situation. The ones who, generally speaking, suffer from a major case of main character syndrome where they think they're the lead singer while everyone else at the table are the less-important members of the band.
As most of us know, RPGs are both a group activity and a team sport. Everyone's got their niche, and ideally the spotlight is going to be passed around a couple of times every session so that each player can feel like they had a moment, and got to shine a little bit. The Spotlight Hog, though, simply can't step back and yield the floor to anyone else... which gets pretty tedious after a while.
#3: The Live Act
Charisma-forward classes take a certain amount of personality to really roleplay in a memorable way. However, there are some people who take being a bard a little too far. You know, the sort of people who always pick long songs on karaoke night, and who will shush an entire conversation when one of "their" songs comes on the radio so they can belt it out for all their friends to listen to.
While the ability to stand up in front of a gathering and give a live rendition of a folk tune is something that can make for an interesting interlude from time to time (and which can make a killer character for a LARP), what makes the Live Act so frustrating is that they're often more concerned with their out-of-character performing than the in-character events. If the rest of the table is trying to plot out a heist, or fight against an encroaching army of ghouls, the Live Act will keep their song going to the point of distraction. Because it's never enough to say, "I'm playing Freebird in the corner of the tavern," with this individual; they have to pull up the tune on their phone and provide accompaniment, which can make it hard for the rest of the table to get any roleplaying in.
In short, the Live Act has the same problem as the Spotlight Hog, but taken to a whole different level.
#4: The Burden
In pop fiction the bard tends to fall into the role of the comic relief. They're often seen as squeamish, cowardly, selfish, and ineffective, usually to play the opposite of very brave, determined, and physical heroes. The problem is that when you act that way as a player, your character actively becomes a boat anchor that the rest of the party is dragging around.
While any character class can become The Burden, it is most common with this idea of the comedy relief bard. Because in a movie or a novel it's funny when a character can't take care of themselves, comes ill-prepared for an adventure, doesn't actually possess viable skills, or runs away blubbering in terror any time there's a conflict. Like when the court bard shows up for a wilderness trek in their silks, carrying only their instrument and a ceremonial sword, rather than girding themselves for a true adventure. In an RPG, which expects every member of the group to pull their weight in order to defeat the threat, all they're doing is driving up the CR of every encounter without actually helping their allies.
What's even worse, though, is that the same player who actively runs away from a monster and hides while the rest of the party deals with it is the same person who will then demand a choice cut of the loot because they're still part of the party.
#5: The Non-Social Bard
This might be something of a controversial pick, as the bard chassis can be used for a variety of different character builds and archetypes. Not only that, but playing against type with a bard that's shy, unassuming, or quiet is a perfectly valid choice to make as a player.
However, the Non-Social Bard is a unique train wreck that usually comes when peer pressure runs face first into player anxiety. Because this kind of bard always results from a player being pushed out of their comfort zone, and into a character that's usually expected to be more social and outgoing. But when a player isn't comfortable in the role, it leads to a lot of hesitating, wooden speaking, and freezing up which often means that neither the player nor the rest of the table is having a good time.
Of all the bothersome bards on this list, this is the archetype that deserves sympathy. Not only that, but they're often the players that can most easily be rehabilitated. Because if what you want is to become a better roleplayer, you can do that with any character, of any class... you don't have to be a bard. So if you see someone constantly getting a deer-in-the-headlights look, and stage fright because now they're expected to play a performer, talk to them. Make sure they actually want to be a bard, and they wouldn't rather slip into something a little more comfortable.
Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.