D&D Lead Designer Jeremy Crawford, ‘Neverwinter' Creative Team on Designing the Dynamic Bard Class

Neverwinter: Jewel of the North Bard Class Art

In late July, Neverwinter: Jewel of the North, the latest chapter from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment’s officially licensed Dungeons & Dragons online role-playing game, launched on PC.

With it came a treasure trove of updates, including a revamped tutorial process, two new locations (which let players meet and train, to keep it simple) and a new leveling system that more closely mirrors the tabletop game, with advantages for both new and experienced players, to name a few. But Jewel of the North also debuts a new class of character from the popular tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game: the beloved Bard.

A jack of all trades, the character is the common fifth wheel in any party, desired specifically because of its well-rounded skillset and team player approach; there to equally harm and heal. Bards are also one of the game’s most distinctive classes in that they (literally) embody the art of battle, using artistic mediums like music — and instruments like the lute — to vanquish enemies and save fellow adventurers.

Designed to closely match its tabletop counterpart, Neverwinter players interested in taking on the Bard have access to a robust library of appearance options, a host of feats and two paragon pathways — Songblade and Minstrel — that allow you to choose whether you’re more of a swordplay-driven damage dealer or master musician who heals their party from afar. But the Bards’ signature visual design and combat style don’t only bring a new element of gameplay to the free-to-play MMORPG.

It expands it with the introduction of Perform Mode and Free Perform Mode, inspired by the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s ocarina mechanic. Perform mode allows adventurers to play songs that can enhance, heal, or hurt a target, while Free Perform grants Bards the ability to step away from the battle and freely play a variety of popular songs or themes (think: something as simple as the McDonald’s jingle to the more advanced “Toss A Coin to Your Witcher” or Stranger Things theme.)

Launched for consoles Tuesday, Aug. 24, and now available on Xbox One, Playstation 4, Steam, Epic Games Store and Arc Games, Neverwinter: Jewel of the North‘s introduction of the Bard is the first step in an expanded vision for the D&D MMORPG. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Neverwinter executive producer Matt Powers and leader designer Randy Mosiondz, as well as D&D’s Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford, about why this class is so popular and how it will inspire new Neverwinter gameplay possibilities while keeping to the spirit of the popular and long-running tabletop game.

I’ll start with the most obvious question, which is why did you decide to roll out the Bard class now and why specifically this class? 

Matt Powers: We’ve been wanting to do a new class for quite a while, and when we looked at all the opportunities of what we could add — from what Dungeons & Dragons already provides for us as an IP and what we do at Cryptic, where really we think we bring a high level of customization and player expression — there wasn’t a better class to really tap into in our mind than the Bard in terms of capitalizing on player expression. Whether it’s choice because it really is a jack of all trades or even just self-expression in terms of our added free performance mode, we thought that that was an important aspect to build on for our game.

Randy Mosiondz: We were looking at a bunch of the potential new classes that we could add to the game. We were looking at Bard, we were looking at Druid, we were looking at Monk. I really think a clincher for us was the amount of creativity that the Bard brings to the game. And it was popular amongst our player base that were asking for a new class and even just talking with [game studio and publisher] Wizards of the Coast. They said Bard was one of the popular classes in the last few years.

Powers: Admittedly, I’m a total fashion diva. So this game was like we can completely dump all kinds of new outfits and other stuff for the Bard. Then we’ve also been playing with this very kind of swashbuckler-like fighting style with rapiers. It just seemed to fit in nicely with what we’re doing here.

I’m a big fan of characters like the Bard. I’m not really interested in being the best at something in team play. I prefer creativity or visual distinctiveness, and to be good at a lot of things versus great at one. I’m also really big on supporting my team, all of which I think the Bard does. In a way, Bards’ diversity embodies the whole spirit of D&D. But Jeremy, from your perspective, why is this character class so desired among players?

Jeremy Crawford: The Bard going all the way back to first edition D&D has been the jack of all trades. In first edition D&D, the Bard was this unique class that was such a jack of all trades that it couldn’t even start off as a single class. You actually had to first be a Fighter than a Thief, then you trained under a Druid before you could actually become a Bard. That really spoke to the Celtic origin of the Bard class and D&D, because both the Druid class and the Bard class were heavily drawn especially from Irish mythology. That’s why there was that connection between the Bard and the Druid, which then gave the Bard this mix of nature powers, some healing magic, but then combined with the skillfulness of the thief and also the fighting prowess of the fighter. Fast forward to fifth edition, and you can still see some of that original DNA in the class where we still have the skillfulness of the Thief, which we now call the Rogue, and we also have this mix of the offensive magic that a Druid had but also the healing magic. All of those things combined to create this character who is eminently customizable and is specifically about using this vast array of tools to inspire the people around them.

This is really important because, first, there’s a type of player that really wants to heavily customize their character. They want a little bit of everything rather than being a hyper specialist, like a Wizard, or a Rogue, or a Cleric or a Fighter. But I also think the Bard is really important as an archetype in D&D because it is specifically a character who can harm, heal, inspire and buff, and it does it all through the arts. This is very different aesthetically from the magical scientist that is the Wizard or the person of faith who is the Cleric. It’s also a powerful archetype in storytelling and it harkens all the way back to Irish mythology which was something we were very mindful of, actually, when we created the fifth edition Bard. The Song of Rest ability in the fifth edition Bard is based specifically on things I read in Irish myth, where Bards played a song while soldiers were resting and their wounds actually sealed up because of listening to this music or listening to a poem. Which again, tells a very different story from the Cleric walking up praying to a god and because of their faith, you feel better. Instead, this is the healing and empowering energy of art.

I think in fantasy gaming, there’s nothing else quite like the Bard. It’s this person who shows up and is like, “I’m going to damage you with poetry. I am going to heal you with music.” I think it resonates with many of us because it speaks to the power of art in our real lives.

Neverwinter is an adaptation of the tabletop game and its rendering of the Bard is inspired by the fifth edition class. Matt and Randy, can you talk generally about how you approach moving things from the tabletop to the online game and more specifically about what your approach was for the Bard class? 

Powers: Because it’s not a one-to-one translation, we’re always having to make sure that what’s most important carries over. So we start out with a very high-level doc of capturing what’s most critical about what we’re going after, and then we usually share it with our partners at Wizards of the Coast. So we’re in weekly meetings with them to talk about, “Hey, this is the direction this is what we think is important,” and they validate that or give us direction, like “Hey, this, you may want to think about this.” And then we drill down deeper.

Mosiondz:Neverwinter is more of an action-focused game, so it’s all about quickly moving around, adapting to situations that come up out of combat and building class powers that are about that. You’re not going to have the same type of translation of all of the tabletop powers into an action game. But we wanted to get a lot of the essence of it — essentially, to take inspiration from what the Bard is like and translate that into action gameplay. So we went with a lot of the thematic elements. Like for one of the spells that the Bards’ cast, there is a Bardic Inspiration power that comes into play. We dove into a lot of what the Bards do in the tabletop game and then translated it to the action environment. That was really just focusing on what our version of the Bard looks like, rather than trying to be a one-to-one translation with tabletop.

Powers: The core characteristics that we started with are things like flourish. We know that instruments are an important part of the equipment that they use, and they’re also very versatile, so we needed to execute on that. When we looked at the ability sets and everything, we wanted things to harken back to the spells that you’re going to get or the abilities that you’re going to have access to. We wanted them to line back up to these high-level principles that we think are important for how we’re depicting the class.

Mosiondz: In tabletop, there were things like the Bardic Colleges but we didn’t really have an equivalency to in Neverwinter when you choose your paragon path after you get to a certain level. So we wanted to really kind of focus on what are core elements of the Bard do we want to portray? And that’s where we have the song blade, which is more of the Swashbuckler aspects of the Bard. Then we have the Minstrel that is focused on more of the songs and the lore and buffing and enhancing the rest of your party in different ways. Those are the paths that you have in the game, which encompass a good portion of what the bard is about.

That’s so great. I was thinking about how the Bard really exemplifies something that I love about D&D, which is that battle is an art. I think physically and visually that really comes out in Neverwinter: Jewel of the North. How did you work to put forth that message of artistry in the physicality and visuals of the character? 

Mosiondz: We wanted to go with the fluid movements of someone who embraces the artistry of their class.

Powers: It’s almost like a dance.

Mosiondz: Exactly. There’s a lot of big sweeping motions, a lot of fluid movements and a lot of energy when they grab their lute and start playing. Their whole body goes into it. It basically communicates a lot of the passion that we’re trying to get across, from what the Bard’s essence is, which is an artist. The effects and the audio, they all blend together, so when you play the Bard, it’s fun. There’s a big flash of the arcane energy they summon while the Bard is doing a dance and while playing on the lute. It’s just a very high-spirited class to play.

The Bard is a fashion-forward character, with adventurers able to take on a variety of looks, mounts, companions and more goodies, including a few special items in the Bard’s Entourage Pack. How did you approach designing the class’ entire look in the game? 

Powers: We’re fortunate enough to get a lot of reference from Wizards of the Coast. We work with partners on that side that provide us art as an initial dump, we start working with our concept artists to do more, and that’s the core of where we begin. But I think with this character, there’s a lot of opportunity for us going forward. We’re launching the class, but that’s just the start for us. We are already talking about how we can build and build.

The player wants to own this experience. I mentioned flourish or flamboyance, but some but there are all kinds of bards out there. There’s gonna be some that want to run around in black leather. It’s our job to give them as many opportunities to customize and refine their depiction of their persona in that world. But I think we had to start first with what felt most iconic, and that’s where our initial looks came from for that pack and what we have at launch, but we’re already making more.

Mosiondz: We have a fairly robust appearance system in the game. Every aspect of the Bards’ clothing can be changed. There are lots of ways you can customize from your rapier to which lute that you choose and how big the feather is in your hat. And then even beyond appearance, there’s a lot of other aspects of customization for characters — you can choose what kind of companions accompany you, what kind of mounts you ride. There are all kinds of horses and fantastic creatures and vehicles.

Powers: Yeah, not just like helmets but big-brimmed hats, feathers, the whole thing. That was an important part of the appearance system that we had to build on. The instruments are also so important as well, and right now — I can’t promise — but we are looking at more. We know that we’ve got lutes in there, and that feels iconic, but we’d like to offer all kinds of instruments. And that just means that the jam band at the tavern is that much more fully represented and can do more as they perform.

Since the online game is drawing from the tabletop version when it comes to the Bard, Jeremy, can you talk to me about what inspired the Bard’s look that we’re seeing now both in Neverwinter and fifth edition D&D? 

Crawford: The druid influence on the Bard, I would say, is really slight. In the modern version of D&D, if you squint it’s there with some of the healing ability, as well as the emphasis on knowing lots and lots of lore because that was also the role of the Bard in Celtic culture — essentially being the lore keeper for a particular clan. You can see that in the DNA of the class. But over time, the Bard has also taken on elements of troubadours and other forms of medieval minstrels. They’ve taken on the qualities of different types of performers. Bards have often also had some wonderfully anachronistic musical instruments. If you look carefully at the musical instruments that often appear in art for Bards, they’re from the real world and from many different time periods.

But that’s so D&D, because D&D is this marvelous mash-up of things. We played with this a bit in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything when we made the College of Glamour. We were, on one hand, nodding toward sort of the classic glamour of the fey folk, and we wanted to bring a bit of that into the Bard. But we were also very specifically channeling glam rockers like Freddie Mercury or David Bowie when he made that subclass. Yet another inspiration for us was the power of oration and the way it was valorized in ancient Greece, and that fed into the College of Eloquence. If you look at the College of Creation, we were admittedly inspired by classic Disney cartoons of someone singing a song and all the dishes start dancing around and the musical instruments are playing themselves. The art is so powerful that even the objects in the room are filled with happiness and delight.

These not only show the huge aesthetic range of the Bard but also that there are things in it that are from the Modern Age, Classical Antiquity, from the Middle Ages. In many ways, that’s how everything in D&D is. I think that’s one of the reasons why D&D has such staying power. So I love Abbey that you talked about that, in a way, the Bard expresses the spirit of D&D itself. And I agree because so much of D&D is about the power of words. It’s a game where we talk to each other and we tell stories to each other. It’s almost like the Bard is D&D itself, there as a character.

Bards skills-wise are a really helpful, dynamic addition to a team, but I think can be, in terms of individual gameplay, somewhat hard because you’re doing so much. In the online and tabletop games, how were you approaching this class’ design so it’s an accessible challenge for players? 

Mosiondz: We wanted to make sure there were enough interesting elements in the Bard class to make it feel like a good new experience for players. At the same time, we didn’t want to make it that level of difficulty that someone … finds they are overwhelmed by too much happening all at once or having to try and memorize the songs and play them quickly. So we had to basically build different aspects into the class. A lot of it comes out of which feats you choose for the Bard. There’s a little bit of player agency involved there in how you build the Bard, and how easy it is to play. A lot of people like the Bard because of the conceptual nature of the creativity involved with it, but don’t necessarily want to have to remember all the key sequences in every case when playing songs. That’s where we struck a balance. We wanted the Bard to be a good utility character, but we didn’t want it to be overwhelming and I think that that’s even true in tabletop balance, right?

Crawford: Yeah, in the tabletop game, where we not only value raw output when it comes to the amount of damage you do or the amount of healing that you do, we also have an eye on what is your effectiveness at perpendicular problem-solving. So often problems are not solved by straightforward combat or how well did you keep someone alive. Instead, it’s what shenanigan did this group come up with that bypasses an entire encounter or causes the entire length of the dungeon to effectively be cut in half.

The Bard, in particular, is able to do this with their various enchantment effects. Bards can be extremely effective in making it so that those people who you thought hated you don’t hate you anymore, at least until the spell runs out. (Laughs.) Bards also in the tabletop game are — because of their Bardic Inspiration — a force multiplier. They make everyone else better. For some players, that’s not satisfying, but there are some of us who love that feeling of making everyone else better. There’s that sense of satisfaction of “I didn’t hit the monster, but my friend did because of the help I gave them.”

The complexity of the Bard in the tabletop game is undeniable because you’re juggling. And I think once a person wraps their head around all of these different things that they’re tracking, they suddenly realize that it’s precisely that mix of all of those things that give them a tremendous amount of power because they always have the right tool for the job. We often think when we think of a classic D&D party for the tabletop game of the four: Wizard, Cleric, Rogue, Fighter. We think of the Bard as every group’s favorite number five, and however you rejigger the core four, pretty much any group is going to be happy to have a Bard because of the ability to make everyone else better at their job.

With you all here and in light of the Dungeons & Dragons movie recently wrapping, I feel like I have to ask: What do you think is the key to any type of big or small screen adaptation of the game? 

Crawford: To be clear, I have seen none of the footage. I have not read the script. So I’m saying this just as a fan of D&D and a designer on the tabletop game. I think really D&D storytelling in any medium needs to strike this balance between sort of epic fantasy storytelling and a sense of danger, balanced with humor and whimsy. Anytime I think D&D storytelling feels false, it’s when it goes too far in one of those directions. D&D going all the way back to first edition has always actually been a blend of that. I also think it’s really key to convey the bonds of friendship among the party of adventurers. I think any D&D story that focuses too much on sort of a lone hero feels false for D&D because truly authentic D&D storytelling is about a group of people who have each other’s backs, and ideally, a group of people who are very different from each other.

A really fundamental part of D&D’s core archetypal story is that the best adventuring group is a diverse adventuring group because the classic D&D party is a group of people who are nothing like each other. It’s that diversity that makes them strong. So I think a D&D story needs to capture that. Again, a story that’s just about the one person who saves the world, that might be a great story, but I’m not sure that’s a great D&D story. Whereas that group of people who have each other’s back and who maybe sometimes drive each other up the wall, but when push comes to shove, they lay everything on the line for each other — that’s D&D.

Powers: I’m gonna go with his answer.

Mosiondz: Yeah, I think Jeremy summed that up pretty well. With the same caveat that I don’t know anything about the movie, really, I know what I like as a D&D player and a dungeon master and what I expect to see at any movie is what Jeremy said. If you try to do a Hollywood treatment of it and get too away from the core of what D&D is, you’re going to start losing the D&D fanbase.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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