Typically, we think of bards as magical musicians, but that’s only a narrow wedge of what a bard can be. Bards are experts, performers, and craftsmen, worldly travelers who can win the day with a smile and a careful selection of words where bladed steel cannot. Mechanically, bards are extremely flexible as a class and can be worked into a variety of roles surrounding their “intended” role as a party buffer. Some of the most iconic characters that would probably be bards in D&D include Orpheus of greek mythology, Scott Pilgrim and practically every character in that story, Kubo (of the Two Strings), and Dandelion (who you may know as Jaskier) from the Witcher.
Before we get too far into the options and strategies that come with bards, let's go through each of the bard's core features and how they function.
Bards are full spellcasters that use their Charisma modifier as their spellcasting ability. This means your Charisma score dictates your spell attacks and your spell save DC. 5th edition kept the bardic spellcasting pretty simple and in line with the other spellcasting classes. You have a number of bard spells known and a spell progression of spell slots as you advance in bard level.
The one part of their spellcasting that deviates from the norm is your spell focus. Bards use an instrument instead of an arcane focus, spiritual focus, or component pouch. You can play your instrument as part of the somatic components for your spells, and while there's no technical difference between instruments you'll want to pick something that travels well (grand pianos don't fit in the dungeon).
Gained at level 1, bardic inspiration is the bard's signature feature that defines the class and you'll be using from your first game to your last. As a bonus action, you get to inspire a friendly creature and give them a "bardic inspiration die", a d6 that they can hold onto and then choose to add to a d20 roll (either an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw). The subclass options give you more uses for your bardic inspiration, but this core 1st level feature simply lets you hand out buffs whenever they're needed.
You get to do this a number of times equal to your Charisma modifier per long rest, and the bardic inspiration dice upgrade at 5th level (1d8), 10th level (1d10), and 15th level (1d12).
Jack of All Trades
At 2nd level, you get to add half your proficiency bonus to any skills you don't already have proficiency in. This won't help you maximize specific skills, but it gives you an edge no matter what skill check you attempt.
Song of Rest
Also a 2nd level feature, you essentially get to improve short rests for the entire party. Whenever you or your allies roll hit dice to recover hit points during a short rest, you get to improve that by 1d6 due to your relaxing musical talents. This extra d6 improves as you advance in bard level at 9th level (1d8), 13th level (1d10), and 17th level (1d12).
At 3rd level bards get to pick two skills to be really skilled in, doubling your proficiency bonus for those skills. Perception and Performance are common choices here, but you're free to really customize your bard here. Then again at 10th level you get to pick out two additional skills to give a double proficiency bonus.
Font of Inspiration
This 5th level feature turns your bardic inspiration from a long rest recharge into a short rest recharge. This means you'll go from using those bardic inspirations sparingly to using them basically every combat.
This 6th level feature gives you some combat utility in specific situations, granting advantage on saving throws against the charmed and frightened conditions to your allies as an action. If you're fighting something that relies on these conditions you get to counter with your own enthralling performance. It's a bit dubious of a feature though, as the combat game plan of just improving the chances of ending those conditions is often not as valuable as just casing a spell.
I genuinely think WotC just didn't know what to give bards in their later levels, so for your 10th level feature, 14th level feature, and 18th level feature, you just learn 2 spells from any spell list. It's not useless and accessing every spell list lets you pick and choose from the most powerful spells in the game.
Finally, at 20th level we get the bard capstone ability that is by far the most underwhelming of any capstone. If you roll initiative and are out of bardic inspirations you regain one use, yay.
Optional Bard Features
In Tasha's Cauldron of Everything every class got a set of optional features that act like a sort of upgrade patch to fix issues and improve things that needed improving. These features are technically optional, but assuming your DM allows them, make sure to include these class features with your new bard character:
Using the optional features, the following spells have been added to the bard spell list:
Mass healing word
Rary's telepathic bond
Dream of the blue veil
As a pretty major change players can now spend the bardic inspiration die to add to the points of damage dealt or healed by a spell. This makes granting bardic inspiration to spellcasters a much more viable option. It also seems to apply (as far as we can tell) to multi-target spells, so adding in that bardic inspiration to a fireball applies that extra damage to each target, not too shabby. You'll probably find that saving bardic inspiration for saving throws and attacks will still be the best option but charging up a fireball or a mass cure wounds is a nice added utility.
Like the other “versatility” features that many classes got boosted with, this new feature lets you reselect your expertise skill and a cantrip every time you gain an ability score improvement. This isn't so much a buff as it is a smoothing down of the messy mechanics of retraining skills. If you've found a selection you made in the early levels isn't cutting it anymore, simply swap it out at an ASI level.
Building a Better Bard
Bards can really be built into anything you want them to be, sneaking, tanking, healing, buffing, damage, it all depends on what you want to do with your character. To start with though, you’ll need to address your ability scores.
Bard Ability Scores
Charisma is your spell casting ability score for bards, and no matter what build (there’s probably some obscure build to prove me wrong here) you’ll want your Charisma to be high, if not your highest ability score. Next, you’ll need Dexterity, both for raising your AC to stay alive, but also for utilizing the ranged or finesse weapons that are typically a bard’s go-to.
Finally, you’ll want to choose between Constitution, and the remaining mental ability scores of Intelligence and Wisdom. As a bard, you’ll be gaining some major bonuses to your skill checks and having a higher Intelligence or Wisdom can push some of those key skills further. However, Constitution is useful for not dying.
If you’re going down a more combat oriented path with your bard, consider making your 3rd highest ability score Constitution. If you’re going down a more skill and utility-oriented path, consider making Intelligence or Wisdom your 3rd highest ability score.
Strength is the only ability score that usually isn’t useful for a bard, and it should typically be your dump stat.
You can choose any race but as a bard you’ll want particularly high Charisma and Dexterity scores and should consider races that gain bonuses to those scores. The following races are optimal choices for a bard character:
Changelings get +2 Cha and +1 to any stat, which you can put into Dex. If your DM allows them (they should only technically be an option in Eberron), changelings are one of the strongest options for utility/sneaky bards who want to get up to no good. Imitate guards and use your bardic persuasion powers to pull off the impersonation.
Elves get +2 Dex and selecting the Drow subrace snags us a +1 Cha bonus. Their Superior Darkvision and racial spell set are helpful but come with the potentially disastrous downside of Sunlight Sensitivity. Thankfully though, sunlight sensitivity is only an issue if you’re making attack rolls. Drow is an excellent racial option if you plan on playing your bard as a strictly party buffer or healer or rely on spells that utilize saving throws instead of attacks.
Base elves get +2 Dex and Eladrin gain a +1 to Cha. Where drow are ideal for “utility” bards, I consider Eladrin strong contenders for “combat” bards. The eladrin Fey Step ability acts like an improved free dimension door, which can be just the thing for getting yourself out of trouble if you find yourself outflanked.
Half-Elves have an innate +2 Cha bonus and two points you can place elsewhere, like Dex and whatever other 3rd ability score you’re working towards. Half-Elves also gain two free skills proficiencies of their choice, making them extremely flexible when building a utility bard.
Base halflings get +2 Dex and lightfeet pick up +1 Cha. The halfling Lucky ability is strong enough to justify the race selection on its own, but combined with the Naturally Stealthy ability of the lightfoot, they are strong contenders for the best option for “stealthy bards”.
Human (Base or Variant)
Base humans get +1 to each ability while variant humans get +1 to two ability scores and a feat. Bards can be built up into practically anything and the flexibility of humans insures that they’re the first step for a whole slew of specialist builds. Base human is probably the best option if you build for the “jack of all trades” option, giving you a better baseline for all your skills. While variant humans are often the first choice for many combat builds, as that feat is often the key component for a lot of unique combat builds.
Satyrs get +2 Cha and +1 Dex. Lore-wise they seem tailor made for bards, and that’s reinforced by their bonus to speed, and free proficiency in Persuasion and Performance. Somewhat region locked into Theros, but your DM may allow them in other settings.
Tabaxi get +2 Dex and +1 Cha. I really love these cats for combat bards due to their Feline Agility ability. You can duke it out on the front line and then get out of danger quick if you start getting focused down.
While the base tiefling gains a +2 Cha bonus and a +1 Int bonus, several of the tiefling variants swap out that Int bonus for Dex. Though, since the “anchor” is the Cha bonus, you can really tailor your tiefling to fit your build. Each variant also swaps in and out a different spell set. They’d all work, but I recommend the Galaysa version, as it picks up the Dex bonus, and gets invisibility, disguise self, and minor illusion as racial spells.
These aren't ivy league, the kings college, or some secondary school. Bard subclasses are called bardic colleges and these Bard subclasses kick in at 3rd level. Each 3rd-level college option is a major choice that determines a lot of the fluff, flavor, combat style, and primary abilities your bard will have. Let's go through each bard subclass one by one:
College of Creation
This bardic college turns your bardic inspirations into literal floating musical notes with additional effects that make them better than regular inspiration. And the 3rd level Performance of creation feature straight up lets you create non-magical items. At 6th level Animated Performance lets you turn an inanimate object into a dancing minion. The object does similar damage to a buffed up spiritual weapon, but as it's an actual “creature” and a tough one to kill at that, it's potential for board control is huge. Play a creation bard if you want to be wacky or grant your allied rogues sneak attack with a dancing barrel.
College of Eloquence
The college of eloquence bard can use a well-reasoned, well-spoken argument as inspiration, literally inspiring confidence with logical arguments. Mechanically this blend of logic and theatrical wordplay is mainly represented in the silver tongue class feature you gain at 3rd level that gives you a minimum die result of 10 for all your Persuasion and Deception checks. That and the other 3rd level subclass feature that lets you use your bardic inspiration to lower a creature's saving throw with particularly persuasive arguments. You also get unfailing inspiration at 6th level that essentially lets players keep the inspiration die if their roll still fails. Universal speech makes communication even with bizarre creatures a breeze. And its subclass capstone infectious inspiration is a neat way to "gain" extra inspiration, and overall as a bard college eloquence is a solid buff and debuff option. Consider this bard college if you want to really cement your role as the face of the party.
College of Glamour
The college of glamour is for the is the true diva bard. Charm, beguile, and otherwise strut your stuff to victory. You gain a bunch of charm and command effects all based around your beauty alongside a really nice party buff using your bardic inspiration. Glamour is an extremely good choice for a “face” bard or a manipulative femme fatale.
College of Lore
With a TON of free skill proficiencies, and a couple free spells from any class, the college of lore is the go-to option for utility bards. Your 3rd level feature Cutting Words can turn potentially devastating hits into misses, making your whole party far more survivable if used well. The lore bard makes for a solid buffer character and skill monkey character.
College of Spirits
Basically, the bard of telling scary stories, you get a random “story” ability by spending bardic inspirations. These story abilities are very strong, but many are situational, so you trade the power for the unpredictability. You also gain a d6 whenever you deal damage with a spell or heal with a spell, making it possibly the most promising subclass option for a healing bard.
College of Swords
Battle bard, pure and simple. Rather than waste your bardic inspirations on those other chumps, you can use them to directly do extra damage your enemies with showy sword flourishes. You also get medium armor proficiency and shield proficiency, which can be a big upgrade over your standard leather armor. Pick this one up if you want a healthy dose of fighter in your bard.
College of Valor
This college is the OG battle bard option, but it’s sadly a lot less viable after “college of swords” came around. You can make a few arguments in its favor, but generally the college of swords does everything that valor tries to do, only better. I can’t recommend this college, take a stroll over to the college of swords if you want to get into melee as a bard.
College of Whispers
Rogue by way of bard with a little bit of psionics sprinkled on top (yes really). Use your bardic powers to stab your enemies with psychic damage, drive them insane, then magically transform and impersonate your marks. A good pick for any bard that wants to get up to some dark mischief.
Bards are incredibly flexible, and you can shape them into whatever you need them to be. However, they usually fall into 3 general categories: Party Buff, Combat, or Utility.
Party Buff Bards
These tips focus on how you can use your friends to protect you and make them beefier. Bards lead from the rear, but lead, nonetheless. Not a tank, like your fighter or Paladin, maybe, but the bard can certainly boost the group HP and help keep the whole party alive and fighting longer. Take the Inspiring Leader feat (given you’ve met the Charisma prerequisite) and buff the whole party’s hit points, including your own. Headed into that ominous room that you’re sure is a boss fight, or perhaps a particularly difficult horde of undead?
Take 10 minutes to offer encouragement (and HP) to the whole group before bashing baddies. Hold Person or Hold Monster work great to incapacitate a foe to keep them out of the fight a while. Help keep the party in control of the fight and keep your enemies at bay by removing one from combat completely. If an enemy would otherwise approach and decimate one of your teammates, a well-timed hold could completely change the course of the battle.
If you want to dive into combat, select the college of swords and prioritize combat spells for your spell selection. The college of swords lets you utilize your bardic performances to substantially increase your damage output and defensive capabilities. You’ll be primed for hit and run tactics, always taking chunks out of the enemy without getting hit yourself. In reality you’ll function quite a bit like a “battle master” fighter, taking control of the combat with your mobility and combat prowess.
Speaking of combat prowess, Magical Secrets (open at 10th level) broadens the bard’s available spell options beyond the simple buffs and debuffs you may be used to up to this point. The bard’s strengths won’t be in some of the heavy-hitting damage spells like a Wizard might use. But a spell-like Heroism offers an extra combat boost for your tank or primary DPS ally to keep them in the fight longer (and hopefully keep the attention off of you).
A bard’s best powers are proxies, controlling enemies and uplifting allies. If your party comes across a fight they’d rather avoid altogether, however, or if you’d rather come back later to deal with a combat scenario - use Sleep or Calm Emotions. Even in situations where not all creatures would be affected by Sleep, this spell can still take one or two creatures out of the fight and make combat more manageable. Calm Emotions can open the party up to dialogue or other non-combat scenario options - provided someone can communicate with your would-be attackers.
The bard personally shines in many non-combat situations with their charisma persuasion. If you're using a College of Lore build, remember to offer to do skill checks in as many situations as possible for the party. Skill checks offer the DM chances to flesh out stories and the world-building aspects of the campaign. They also give your party additional insights into your quest or at least the immediate area and NPCs.
Don't forget that your Jack of All Trades passive applies to Dispel Magic, Counterspell, Initiative, and Telekinesis ability checks - so use these skills as needed to undo harmful effects on party members or to attempt to pull that lever from across the room. Invisibility, Jump, or Knock are all situationally useful utility spells to broaden any bard's abilities - by broadening those of the whole party. Make your healer or glass cannon invisible to give them a chance to get into position before a fight.
Give your rogue jump and allow them to easily traverse rough or impassable terrain and find a way to help the party across. No thieves' tools handy? Use knock to open a simple door or chest in the dungeon and keep the action moving. And don't forget that your already high charisma checks can be enhanced further with spells like Eagle's Splendor.