The Bard is a Dungeons & Dragons class widely regarded as one of the weirdest inclusions in the game (alongside the Monk). This is because the basic idea of the Bard is that it's a character who marches into battle with the rest of the party, singing and/or playing musical instruments whilst everyone else does all of the work. It's a rather odd concept, to say the least.
The existence of the bard class arguably stems in one part from D&D's roots as a wargame - it's a conversion of the "unit musician" troop model, which traditionally grants various boosts to its attached unit - and in another part in the bard's existence as a magical hero-figure in several European countries, where characters being able to perform music are capable of literally magical feats, stemming from the Finnish hero-god Väinämöinen or many Welsh mythological tales. It also draws from the medieval trouvères and minstrels; basically itinerant entertainers travelling from place to place and putting on a show wherever they went.
At its core, the Bard is a support class, focused on buffing players through their Bardic Music ability and rounding out their options as a Skill Monkey class. Unfortunately, it has a reputation for trying to do too many things and ultimately ending up not being able to do anything very well at all. As our frenemies on TVTropes would say, Bards attempt to be a Jack Of All Trades, but ends up being a Master Of None.
This has varied a lot over editions, but Bards are generally regarded as an underwhelming class that mostly chosen by people who want to be "wacky" and thus make themselves a nuisance.
The bard traditionally relies on Charisma as its most important ability score.
In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the Bard started out as a right mess of a class. You started the game as a Fighter and then, at any point between levels 5 and 8, you had to dual-class over to the Thief. Then, after reaching a minimum of 5th level as a Thief, and before they reached level 9, they had to dual-class again, this time to Druid - except this time, they didn't gain Druid abilities but gained Bard abilities, which was a kind of subclass of Druid. While a fighter/thief makes sense for a bard, the druid class is close to the exact opposite of a bard.
Needless to say, this was ridiculously complicated and was quickly changed; 2nd edition introduced the now-iconic definition of the Bard. This version of the Bard was considered a Rogue-school class (what later editions call the Rogue was, at the time, called the Thief), and gained most of the same abilities as a Thief, like picking pockets and finding/removing traps. What made it unique was its party-buffing Bardic Music ability, its slightly better combat skills, its inferior thieving skills, and its ability to cast a number of Mage spells.
Notably, the Dark Sun incarnation of the class focused more on intrigue and being masters of poison use than just throwing buffs around.
The idea of the Bard being the weakling class mostly started in 3rd edition. Here, it become more separate from the newly renamed Rogue, and it gained its own distinctive spell-list, which included some spells on both the Wizard and Cleric lists - Bards were the only non-Cleric non-Druid classes in the corebook to have access to Cure Wounds spells. But, individually, the class was pretty weak if taken entirely straight from the corebook; as 3e progressed, bards became more powerful because they could be customized better with feats and prestige classes. Bards were initially given the classification of tier 3, though later revision of the system revises this to only being tier 3 if they had open sourcebooks and drops them tier 4 if playing core only.
On the other hand, a lot of their abilities were just busted. Bardic Knowledge basically meant they never had to worry about failing any kind of knowledge check by even mid-levels, and with even modest optimization their Jack of All Trades skill could let them effectively replace almost any actual skill-person in the party. Plus, even a half-caster is still a caster, and this was a caster's world.
Pathfinder greatly improved the core Bard and it's definitely tier 3. All abilities scale faster: Bards can now cast 1st level spells at level 1 and their spells known have all been upgraded by a level, while Inspire Courage improves at 5 and every 6 after instead of 8 and every 6 after. They also gain a new ability called Versatile Performance that lets him use their perform skill in place of two other skills (Such as oratory replacing both diplomacy and sense motive or dance replacing acrobatics and fly), effectively getting 2 skills for the price of one, one which is more easily buffed to boot. This has the side effect of giving them effectively more skill points than the Rogue at level 10.
In splat they got even more awesome, though nothing strong enough to be tier 2. They have a wider variety of unique spells than they did in 3.5 splat, where they mostly got stuff wizards got levels ago. They also have a unique concept called a Masterpiece which were essentially a type of ritual magic: In exchange for a spell known they got additional performance options, which require speciffic types of perform (e.g., Wind Instruments) and have blatantly supernatural effects. Most of these mimic higher level spells than the bard can normally get at the cost of eating performance rounds, but many have entirely unique effects.
Bards were one of several classes, alongside the Barbarian, the Druid and the Sorcerer, that did not appear in the 1st Player's Handbook for 4th edition. WoTC explained that this was because they needed more time to tinker with them and make them work. Grognards raged at the delay... but when it came out, it was proven well worth the wait.
Released in the Player's Handbook 2, the 4e Bard is an Arcane Leader, a combination of Source and Role that it would share with the Artificer from the 4e Eberron Player's Guide. Its unique class features are Bardic Training (free Ritual Caster feat & ritual book, can cast a Bard ritual 1/day per tier without any components) and Skill Versatility (+1 to untrained skill checks), but also has a number of shout-out features.
Firstly, the bard's traditional ability as both a healer and the party's face is reflected in its two innate class powers; Majestic Word (2/encounter healing burst) and Words of Friendship (+5 to a Diplomacy check 1/encounter).
Secondly, the bard's long association with multiclassing is reflected in its Multiclass Versatility feature; it's the only class in 4th edition that can take multiclass feats from multiple classes.
Finally, Bardic Music is covered not just by the bard's attack & utility powers, which are various magical notes & melodies that have buffing or debuffing effects, but also by its Song of Rest feature. During short rests, bards can play music or sing in order to grant their audience the ability to spend healing surges, gaining bonus HP equal to the bard's Charisma modifier.
A Bard's subclass-feature is its Bardic Virtue, which basically reflects the kind of qualities who the bard prizes in their stories/poems/songs and which they consider the most important virtue to try and emulate themselves. The PHB2 features the Virtues of Cunning (slide allies that enemies miss) and Valor (grants THP to an ally who bloodies or kills an enemy), with Arcane Power adding the Virtue of Prescience (Intercept an enemy's attack against an ally by adding the bard's Wisdom modifier to that ally's defenses).
Essentials added a variant Bard in the form of the Skald, an Arcane/Martial hybrid bard that is more "fightery" and less "castery".
In 5th edition, the Bard Class has gone from a "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" to "Master of all trades, Grandmaster of a couple things". Seriously, someone on 5th Ed's development team really must love this class, because this bias is as transparent as Monte Cook's Wizard fetish. An important feature is Jack of All Trades - instead of allowing you to take untrained skill checks without penalty, the bard now gets to use half their proficiency bonus on skill checks that they don't have. In other words, it doesn't matter what situation the party gets thrown into, the Bard can always use the appropriate skill check to solve the problem directly. Need to organize a siege? The Bard can build siege weapons, manage logistics and draw up strategies. Need some more arrows? The Bard can fletch some more. Do you need to bake an elaborate and complicated cake for a King's birthday, AND construct a poison that kills slowly yet is indistinguishable from a heart attack? The Bard can do that too! This would be a broken enough ability if it were something you gained at something like level 10, or if it were exclusive to one Archetype. It's not. All Bards get this at level 2. The only limiting factor is the "Half Proficiency bonus" thing, but that's hardly an issue since for most of the game the gap's not too wide and the target number parameters of 5th edition are so low anyways. At least it catches up with you in the later levels since you don't have a means of providing a bonus to skill che- oh right, you're a Bard.
Bardic Inspiration works a little differently now. Instead of providing a constant bonus, they bestow a floating D6 upon whomever they inspire. The inspired can roll that D6 and add it to any roll save for damage (attack, ability check, saving throw) during or outside combat. As they level up, this expands to higher dice sizes, and eventually the bard can even anti-inspire his enemies, forcing them to take a penalty on any non-saving throw roll of his choosing.
Bards can get up to 9th level spells now (because apparently "dabbling in magic" means a better spell progression than the Warlock) as well as the awesomely broken "Magical Secrets" ability which lets them take a spell from any other class' spell list. This would be bad enough on its own, since you can cherry pick all the best spells from everyone else (Animate Dead shenanigans anyone?) but it's worth mentioning since the half casters tend to have some pretty potent spells at the 4th or 5th spell levels. The Bard, being a full caster, can take these for themselves as many as 7 levels earlier than when you're supposed to have them. The most infamous choice is the Ranger spell "Swift Quiver", a spell they added to try and help save that class from becoming completely useless but instead made the Bard into an even greater Munchkin's delight. They get 3 instruments, and they are capable of dealing more damage (in the form of better offensive spells and more weapon proficiencies).
The bard has two choices at 3rd level: the battle bard, which gives him medium armor, more weapons, and makes him able to inspire while stabbing, or the Knowledge bard, who gets more skills than the Rogue and access to the aforementioned broken-ass "Magical Secrets" four levels earlier than the base class. Also hilarious is the Bard-only cantrip Vicious Mockery, where the bard literally insults someone so hard they take psychic damage from it.
For a long time the most unloved class in 5e, (even the Monk got some new swag in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide) but the first Unearthed Arcana of 2016 finally gave it some more stuff.
Kilts Kits of Old, as its name suggests, converts a pair of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons kits into class options; the Jester (who's better at thieving and trolling NPCs) and the Blade (who's better at killing shit and dabbles in the Swashbuckler role).
Then they got the second of the November 2016 UAs dedicated to them, gaining two more new Colleges; Glamour and Whispers.
Glamour Bards are, basically, faerie-taught mentalists, with features based on super-charging their ability to use enchantments. Mantle of Inspiration lets you spend a Bardic Inspiration slot to give allies within 60 feet temporary hit points and a free move to rally towards you. Enthralling Performance basically lets you cast a Charm Person spell on everyone within 60 feet watching you perform after you spend at least 10 minutes doing a performance; furthermore, unlike the normal Charm Person spell, creatures who resist this effect aren't made aware that you tried to monkey with their minds, though you can only do this once per short rest. Mantle of Majesty lets you envelop yourself in a cloak of glamour for a minute, during which time you can throw out a free Command spell (which auto-hits on your charmed victims) each round as a bonus action. Finally, Unbreakable Majesty lets you cast a Sanctuary spell on yourself once per short rest that also gives you Advantage on Charisma checks and forces Disadvantage against your spells on any creatures that succumb to the sanctuary's effects.
Whisper Bards, meanwhile, are more creepy assassin-bards with some fairly spectacular illusion & enchantment tricks. Using Bardic Inspiration to conjure poison on your weapon for bonus damage via Venomous Blades not enough? How about Venomous Whispers, which lets you terrify someone AND send them scrambling to find their safest, most secret place just by spending 10 minutes talking to them? Or Mantle of Whispers, where you can capture the shadow of a creature of your size & type that dies within 5 feet and wear it, gaining free access to its appearance and its surface memories for an hour? And then there's Shadow Lore, where you can basically cast an 8-hour-long Charm Person spell on somebody once per long rest. Admitted inspiration from the Dark Sun incarnation of the class.
Pathfinder 2nd Edition
Meanwhile, in Pathfinder:
Bards have been promoted to full casters, with access to 9th (and 10th) level spells (admittedly, in their own rinky dink spell list, but hey, progress is progress), just like Wizards and Clerics. All the performances that give boosts to allies have been moved over into "Composition spells", which are either somewhat weak cantrips (i.e., +1 to combat rolls, or an extra move action for one round), or cost a "Focus Point" (which you can never have more then 3 of, and require 10 minutes of effort to recharge); other then a starter +1 to rolls in combat, they also cost a Feat. Bardic Lore is now a level 1 feat.
|Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Classes|
|Player's Handbook 1:||Cleric - Fighter - Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Warlock - Warlord - Wizard|
|Player's Handbook 2:||Avenger - Barbarian - Bard - Druid - Invoker - Shaman - Sorcerer - Warden|
|Player's Handbook 3:||Ardent - Battlemind - Monk - Psion - Runepriest - Seeker|
|Heroes of X:|| Blackguard - Binder - Cavalier - Elementalist - Hexblade - Hunter|
Mage - Knight - Protector - Scout - Sentinel - Skald - Slayer - Sha'ir - Thief
Vampire - Warpriest - Witch
|Settings Book:||Artificer - Bladesinger - Swordmage|
|Others:||Paragon Path - Epic Destiny|
|Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Classes|
| Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Warlock - Wizard
|Artificer - Mystic|
|The Classes of Pathfinder|
|Core Classes:|| Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
| Alchemist - Antipaladin - Cavalier |
Inquisitor - Oracle - Summoner - Witch
| Arcanist - Bloodrager - Brawler - Hunter - Investigator |
Shaman - Skald - Slayer - Swashbuckler - Warpriest
| Kineticist - Medium - Mesmerist |
Occultist - Psychic - Spiritualist
|Ultimate X:||Gunslinger - Magus - Ninja - Samurai - Shifter - Vigilante|
Bards: Sex Icons?
The "Bards are the Love Machine Class" meme owes itself predominantly to 3rd edition. /tg/ has always loved its monstergirls, but 3e is when Bards both became "The Face Class", with a high reliance on Charisma and proficiency in all Charisma-based skills, and gained a mandatory Chaotic alignment. Combined with how brokenly powerful diplomacy could be in 3e, and you had a character class type where not only was "I try to seduce the monster!" one of the less annoying character schemes you might hear, it actually had a pretty good chance of working! Plus, by the time 3e had rolled around, people wanted to push bards way from being perceived as twee Renaissance Faire minstrel types and instead began pushing them more as the fantasy equivalent of rockstars, so that certainly helped fuel the idea that bards get a lot of action.
The meme was really cemented in /tg/'s consciousness by the actions of an artist called Frederik Andersson. Possessing a penchant for tasteful sexuality, goodnatured humor, and interspecies erotica, he had already drawn a picture called "Dragonlayer", which depicted a smug female dragon presenting a Half-Dragon toddler to a gobsmacked knight as his king exasperatedly complained he had told him to slay the dragon. When he heard of D&D's bards, he created "The Bard's Tale", an ongoing series of pictures depicting a single-mindedly horny xenophile human bard with insanely high Charisma and his misadventures. Retconning "Dragonlayer" into being his first appearance, most of the Bard's pics revolved around him either seducing yet another beautiful non-human female or being presented with his halfbreed offspring from such a liaison.